Society v. Society; Andy Heck, member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis Youth Group

“So Andy, what’s your religion?”
“Well, I’m an Ethical Humanist.”
“An ethical what?

The setting is a hotel porch in Kansas City at about 11:30 at night, and I’m on a school band trip with my friends. Now, I have a theory that at a certain time in the night the teenage brain somehow switches from the typical day-to-day machine to an intellectual, philosophical machine. When it does this, then it creates the best discussion questions in the world. It has just reached this time for myself and my friends.

An example of these conversation starters is, “Is the entire universe really finite or infinite?” The one put forth tonight was not very intellectual or deep for most, but for me it usually becomes a full hour discussion.

Around the porch, we learned that out of the four of us, we had two Christians, one Jewish person, and one Ethical “what?” Since I got this response that I receive more times than I care to count. I began to go into my usual Ethical Humanism 101 for my friends. Even after an in-depth explanation of my belief in the goodness of man, and the Ethical Society’s statement of purpose, I still got looks of disbelief and questioning. I decided to give up on my quest of explanation. A couple of minutes later, the conversation ended and we went on to things like calling other rooms and getting into stupid arguments, ya’know, important teenage stuff like that. This particular conversation has probably become a phantom of memory to my friends, but to me it became another in a long line of misunderstood religious conversations.

I am here today to tell you about what it is like to belong to youth society and the Ethical Society. First of all, I want to reassure you that I’m not here to tell you a tale about religious misrepresentation, but to share some of my experiences and to give my perspective of the responsibility of young Ethical members.

First, my experiences: the following encounters have occurred over the past two years. Ironically enough, this was about the same time that I was becoming more aware of my religious standpoints and views. I think that the same thing was happening with my peers, hence that heated response I received every time I tried to explain the entire notion of my religion. I believe they viewed it as a threat to their thinking, when in fact it was not. So, my example. I’m in seventh grade. Today my Unified Studies class has some high school visitors and is doing a reach-out program with the middle school. In this program we were asked to write down some people who we admired; included in my list was Felix Adler. After being asked who he was, I explained as much as I knew about him and a little about Ethical Humanism.

At the time I didn’t know much beyond the fact that he was the founder of the Ethical movement, and therefore admired him. The rest of that day came very uneventful. But the next came action-packed. Towards the end of Unified Studies, we were given some free time to work on our homework. In this time, the kid sitting behind me, who we will call Thomas, pulled out a bible and started reading me a passage. After about a minute of Corinthians, I asked him what he was doing and he calmly responded with, “Trying to convert you.” I then said “No thanks, but thanks for the gesture.” He continued to read. At this point, he and I both knew that he was past trying to convert me and moved on to trying to anger me. I continued to work quietly while he continued to read. About five minutes later, the bell rang, and I left. From this experience, I took away two things. One, the understanding that along with belonging to a religion like Ethical Humanism sometimes comes explaining and misunderstanding, the second thing that I took away from this experience was my finished homework. Side note–Thomas came to class the next day without his homework. After that year, I never saw Thomas again, and thankfully so.

My other experience was not as drawn out, but managed to hold more power than my first. It took place at a school dance. I was having a great night with my friends, and one person managed to ruin it, for about five minutes. It was right after the end of a song, and a girl came up to me with another one of her friends. The girl asked me, “Is that him?” The other girl, who happened to be in my Unified Class the previous year, responded with “Yep”. The first girl then called me an atheist, and told me to get out. Since I was having too good of a time I didn’t even honor her with a response, I simply turned around and I left her to believe whatever she wanted to believe. This further supports the idea of my peers feeling threatened by me. Luckily, that was in the past, and I have not had an encounter like that since. I have found that most of my friends have decided on their religious beliefs, and have matured, these both contributing to a more calmed and respected response to my religion. I now have more valued and in-depth discussions with my friends instead of negative ones. I have also found that the weekly discussions that I have with the Youth Group help me better understand my Ethical friends and their viewpoints.

Next, I want to tell you about my thoughts on faith. It may seem like I’m downplaying other religions. But I really feel that religion or faith is one of the most important things in life. It gives one hope and emotional strength. In his book, William J. Bennett considered faith to be one of his top ten virtues, and I agree. Another thing that I felt was important was to give you my idea of responsibility that I and others should have. I have spoken to people who do not reveal their affiliation with the Ethical Society because they feel that whomever they reveal that to would not understand and therefore treat them differently. I have also spoken with one of my other friends who is an agnostic. He feels afraid to reveal his beliefs to certain teachers who have different religious beliefs, because of what they will think of him later. I feel that it is mine and hopefully other’s responsibility to make life so that people can openly associate themselves with certain religious beliefs and not have to fear the effects of it. This is my hope and wish.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate my feeling that faith is phenomenal and every human needs it, whether they find it in a rabbit’s toe or God. I also send the message to the young Ethical Humanists in the crowd, to be proud of what you belong to, for it is more special than you will ever know. And I end with a quote from Immanuel Kant:

Two things fill my mind with ever increasing wonder and awe . . . the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.