Northern Virginia Ethical Society

"Act so as to bring out the best in others, and thereby in yourself"
Home > About NoVES >
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Ethical Society?

The Ethical Society is a congregation of members who are joined together by a common commitment to improving human relations and a desire for a more meaningful and humane life, for themselves and for others. The Society is a religious and educational fellowship based on the premise that ethical concerns are the central religious issues. Our activities are oriented to education and service.

How did this Ethical Society get started?

The Northern Virginia Ethical Society was founded in the 1980s as an outgrowth of the Washington, DC, Ethical Society, which sponsored our development for several years. All Ethical Societies are descendants of the New York Society for Ethical Culture which was founded by Felix Adler and others in 1876. Adler envisioned that ethics was the common ground among all religions and among well-meaning people who did not think of themselves as religious. Ethical Culture meant to him, as it does to us today, the 'cultivation of ethics.' Ethical Societies communicate and support each other today through the American Ethical Union (AEU). The AEU is part of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (founded 1952).

What is your basic philosophy?

Without requiring adherence to any creed or doctrine, most members agree on a commitment to treating all human beings as persons of worth, regardless of their productivity, usefulness, or conformity. Some members focus on applying ethical ideals to family and personal life, others are more active in the community, others explore ethical history and philosophy.

Our members draw inspiration for ethical living from many sources: traditional religions, the lives of those women and men who have helped to make the world more humane, ethical idealism, progressive politics, philosophy, humanism, psychology, and liberal education. We encourage members to question and develop their own individual beliefs as a foundation for ethical living.

What do you teach in Sunday School?

The curriculum of the Sunday School offers lessons about developmental fairness and comparative religion to younger children, respect for differences and caring to middle-grade children, and ethical responsibility and decision making to older children. We use lesson plans from the American Ethical Union (a federation of Ethical Societies in the United States) and sometimes from other liberal religious groups.  We also engage our children in ethical action projects. 

How does the Ethical Society compare to a church or synagogue?

The Ethical Society is a religious congregation of members, in many ways like a church or a synagogue. Many of our purposes and activities are the same: to comfort and celebrate with each other the passages of life, to learn and understand a good way of life, to interpret our world and our experience in a meaningful way, to give succeeding generations whatever gifts of wisdom we have preserved and enriched. We do not, however, base our institutional life on a common history, a common nationality, or a commonly accepted creed or dogma.

Is Ethical Culture a religion?

Many people think that a religion is a deity-centered belief system. We don't promote or require dogma or doctrine, and we don't require agreement about theism.

Most members hold Ethical Culture to be their religion in another sense, one more commonly accepted today than in years past in legal, philsophical, and academic circles. Paul Tillich called religion "ultimate concern." In the Ethical Society we are ultimately concerned about ethical development, ethical behavior and the ethical fate of humankind. In the United States,

Ethical Culture has been legally recognized as a religion in the United States.

How is the Society organized?

The Society is a democratically governed organization. The Society's month to month business is conducted by an elected Board of Trustees. The Leader is chosen by the membership of the Society. The Society is funded through the pledges and contributions of members, and members approve the annual budget. Voluntary committees serve the Society members by organizing and implementing projects and the day-to-day activities of the Society.

What is an Ethical Culture Leader?

Ethical Leaders are our equivalent of clergy.

Leaders present Sunday morning platform addresses, adult education programs to inspire and challenge. Leaders perform pastoral duties including counseling, teaching, and officiating at life passage ceremonies including weddings, memorials, and baby namings. Weddings performed by Ethical Leaders have legal standing as religious ceremonies.

The Leaders provide guidance to the Society's Board and committees and helps set the "religious tone" of the Society.

The Leaders represent the Society in other forums in the larger community.

What are the responsibilities and rights of membership in the Society?

The Ethical Society is a cooperative community, supported by the volunteer effort and financial contributions of members. Members contribute generously as they are able to support the Society. Members also contribute their time and effort as they are able to the volunteer committees and projects of the Society.

Members participate in the important policy and financial decisions of the Society through an Annual Membership Meeting and through occasionally-called special membership meetings.

How much does it cost to join the Ethical Society?
We have no standard dues, but rather we distribute guidelines for membership pledges and leave it to the individual to determine what he or she ought to contribute. Most members are very generous, giving between 2 and 5% of their income. The Ethical Society also encourages members to financially support other organizations which express their values. A total of 10% giving to both the Ethical Society and other organizations is encouraged by the Leaders of Ethical Societies as a responsible ethical practice.  We do not charge for Sunday School because we believe that preparing our children for their future is the responsibility of all the members. 
Do you have to be a member of the Society to attend programs or classes?

Usually the programs of the Society are open to the public.  For example, our growth and learning and Sunday School programs are open to the public. 

Many nonmembers have been married by Ethical Society leaders, and occasionally a memorial service is held for a nonmember.

We welcome visitors and urge people who are thinking of membership to get to know us as well.

Can a person belong to the Ethical Society and to another religious organization also?

Occasionally someone wants to have dual membership in the Society and in another religious organization, sometimes to express solidarity with a commitment of parents or spouse, or for some other reason. Although usually people think of the Ethical Society as their primary spiritual home, we accept these dual arrangements.

Our fellowship is not based on the renunciation of other connections, but rather on the growth of ethical responsibility in all the complexity of our relationships.