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Jennifer Saylor Ethical Culture Society 70 lines Asheville is home to many nontraditional religions, but the Ethical Culture Society is one of the few so nontraditional it eliminates god completely. "I don't know if there is a god or not. But more importantly, I don't think it matters. What matters is that we live ethical lives," Ethical Culture Society member Jackie Simms said. Not only does the group dispense with deity, it also dispenses with church as well, gathering once a month in a public meeting room near the UNC Asheville campus. And the purpose of its meetings is not to worship, but to listen, discuss and plan social action locally. Simms, one of the local chapter's founding members, grew up Methodist, considered converting to Catholicism and was married in the Methodist church. But as her young daughter entered preschool, Simms began shopping around for a religion that better suited her changing beliefs. "I could not pretend, especially with my daughter, that I believed the doctrines and creeds of the Christian denominations we visited. By the time my daughter was in first grade I determined that I needed a community for her that was based on values and ethics," Simms said. Ethical Culture, the community Simms decided to raise her child in, is an organized religion with 3000 members nationwide. And while the group is composed of people who share a desire to cultivate ethical behavior, Simms says that within that one commonality, members are varied. She describes them not only as atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, but as Catholics and even a Baptist Sunday school teacher as well. Simms believes the group appeals to people of many faiths with an interest in the sciences or a questioning mind. "Ethical Culture has a kinship with science in that it accepts what is observable and repeatable," she said. "Intellectual curiosity is encouraged." Simms challenges the assumption that all atheists are morally suspect. "There is no reliable evidence or scientific study which reveals that those who hold supernatural beliefs necessarily lead better lives than those who call themselves agnostics or atheists. Goodness is not dependent upon theology," she said. Despite a difference of belief, the Rev. James Martin, Roman Catholic priest and acting publisher of the Jesuit magazine America, welcomes the efforts of non-theist groups. "Though I approach social justice from a wholly Christian perspective, I have long worked with humanist groups that are not motivated by belief and who do extraordinary work in the public sphere," he said. "Anyone motivated to help the poor, care for the sick, alleviate injustice and confront the unjust structure that keeps people marginalized is of course doing the most critical work of our time, no matter what their belief or disbelief. And when it comes to doing good, sometimes the nonbelievers give the rest of us a run for our money." The society's ethical commitments locally have included sponsorship of the Peace on Earth, Peace with Earth celebration of the 101st anniversary of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance movement. It has also made donations toward the purchase of fans for elderly Buncombe county residents, and was involved in a campaign to make building improvements in a local community center. Katharine Archibald, Executive Director of the American Ethical Union (the national federation of Ethical Culture societies across the United States) points out that the group's history of social activism also extends to the national level. "We were instrumental in founding the ACLU, the Visiting Nurse Service and the NAACP," she said. The speaker at the next meeting of the Ethical Culture Society of Asheville is Howard Box, Minister Emeritus of Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Box will present a lecture entitled "The New Atheist and the American Ethical Crisis." The Ethical Culture Society of Asheville meets at 2 p.m. on the third Sunday of each month. Meetings are held in the Visitor Center meeting room of the Botanical Gardens at Asheville at 155 W T Weaver Blvd., near the corner of Broadway St. and WT Weaver Blvd. and adjacent to the UNC Asheville campus. For further information on Ethical Culture, local meetings or upcoming speakers, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call 828-687-7759 or the visit the AEU Web site at www.aeu.org.
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