By Bart Worden
Last week the country mourned as we remembered the 49 who were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Two days earlier, we witnessed more lives lost at Virginia Beach. Politicians once again offered thoughts and prayers but, as has become increasingly clear, prayers are not putting an end to senseless violence. We need to put more time and resources into making positive connections between people and building trust in, and appreciation for, one another. We need to build a more ethical culture.
Americans from across the country will converge in Tampa this week for the American Ethical Union’s (AEU) 104th annual assembly. Our members follow ethical humanism, a non-theistic religion of ethics founded in 1876. Today, 23 Ethical Culture Societies exist across the country, including the beginnings of one here in Tampa. The people gravitating toward ethical humanism reflect a growing national trend of Americans losing faith in legacy religions in the face of seemingly intractable issues such as the plague of gun violence.
Florida is part of this trend. While 70 percent of Floridians identify as Christians, the second highest percentage belongs to “unaffiliated” (24 percent), according to the Pew Forum. Nationally, there has been a sharp decline in church attendance over the past 20 years and a 2004 poll found that on any given weekend, only about 14 percent of Floridians attended church. A key factor in that decline, according to Gallup, is an increasing number of Americans with no religion at all.
To be sure, faith is still tremendously important to Americans. Pew found that the majority of Floridians have some sort of belief in God. And I’ve been heartened to see faith leaders support advocacy for gun reform. But as more Americans search for ways to do their part to affect positive change in the country, they are seeking ways to combine their faith with activism.
Members of the ethical culture movement focus on how to live an ethical life rather than worship a particular god or gods. We aim to build communities in which each person’s unique worth is appreciated, communities who work to build an ethical culture that fair and compassionate. We recognize that faith can divide people rather than bring them together so we focus on ethical understanding and action rather than on belief or disbelief in deity.
People seek out ethical culture because they want communities that value action over words. That’s why our motto is “deed before creed.” It’s also why we put so much emphasis on positive action and why we are putting more energy into establishing more groups in more places — including the Tampa Bay Area.
We know there are like-hearted people in Florida who strive to make a more ethical culture. One of our oldest members, Dunedin resident Ed Ericson, was raised as a Southern Baptist but found ethical humanism inspired him toward ethical action. A leader of both the New York Society for Ethical Culture and the Washington Ethical Society, Ed led desegregation efforts, founded the Center for Moral Democracy, and lobbied Congress and the Selective Service System to eliminate built-in discrimination against non-theists. He was later told it was his testimony that convinced senators to make this change.
Prioritizing ethics and social action over belief may be the best way to prevent tragedies like Parkland and Pulse and, ultimately, get our country back on track. Christian leaders like Shane Claiborne are advocating for gun control and distancing themselves from extreme interpretations of religion. He and others like him stand on the same side of youth activists like the brave students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. Their activism was a driving force behind then-Gov. Rick Scott signing a bill to ban bump stocks. We will honor two teachers from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas — Kimberly Krawczyk and Dr. Jacob Anderson — at our assembly in Tampa this weekend for their school’s remarkable activism.
The continued mass shootings since Pulse and Parkland show that our prayers are not being answered. People of all faiths must move beyond prayer to demand action from our elected officials to protect our citizens from the violence and terror of guns. There are ethical people all over. Let’s find each other, build communities, and work together to build a more caring — and less violent — society.
Bart Worden is the executive director of the American Ethical Union, and clergy leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester in New York.
This column originally appeared in the Tampa Bay Times.