Fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A finds itself on the front lines of the nation’s culture wars after its president, Dan Cathy, recently took a hard stance on gay marriage. (AP Photo)

“Love your food and your family values!!!” gushed a commenter on Chick-fil-A’s Facebook page last week. When CEO Dan Cathy proudly told the Biblical Recorder that he was “guilty as charged” of supporting traditional family values, he started a food fight, with battles ranging from a “same-sex kiss-in at your local Chick-fil-A” to Mike Huckabee’s brainchild, “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.” Boston’s own Mayor Thomas M. Menino has declared that a company that “discriminates against a population” does not belong in our city, and that he will block attempts to open Chick-fil-A franchises here, including a planned Freedom Trail location.

People everywhere are rushing to take a stand on the “family values” that Dan Cathy espouses: either for or against them. Yet Cathy barely even identified what those values are, saying only, “We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit….We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families.” Of course, this “biblical definition” is far from clear, as Huffington Post blogger Domenick Scudera pointed out when he wrote, “I am not sure which of my families I should bring [to Chick-fil-A]. My multiple wives or my concubines?”

The fact is, Cathy didn’t need to articulate his “family values” because the term is so closely associated with the conservative political narrative that we automatically infer specific values: patriarchal family structure, copious offspring, chastity until (heterosexual) marriage, and certainly Christian faith.

Yet how many among us have thought, “Those are not my family’s values”? Plenty of American families do not line up very well with the cookie-cutter model of one breadwinning father, one homemaking mother, and two and a half children, all wrapped up in a white picket fence. What about single parents, working mothers, stay-at-home dads, and same-sex couples? What about families that aren’t Christian, or aren’t religious at all? Might these families have values too?

Despite the prevalence of such “nontraditional” families, we have yet to free the idea of a values-based family from its conservative context. By failing to articulate our own family values, liberals have long allowed conservatives to maintain an unjustified monopoly over the concept. But Cathy’s comments create an opportunity to change the whole conversation on families and values. Yes, we must still critique “values” we find discriminatory, but this discussion won’t truly progress until we can promote positive alternatives to replace them.

Of course, just articulating what liberal family values might look like, while a crucial first step, is not sufficient. We must also have a system for instilling our values in our children. Let’s give credit where it’s due: Conservatives are great at this.They’ve realized young people benefit from being raised within a cohesive community, whose structures consistently reinforce moral lessons. They’ve developed a well-oiled child-rearing machine involving close ties between home, school and church.

So far, liberal parents have adopted this pattern, swapping progressive congregations for conservative ones. Such programs have helped raise many a socially conscious child, and have often been ahead of the game in articulating and teaching liberal values. But are churches or temples really necessary for everyone? The home/school/church model is unsatisfactory for the tens of millions of Americans who make up the growing “nonbeliever nation,” and adhering exclusively to this model privileges the conservative viewpoint. We are confident that values-driven, community-based child-rearing can be done just as well without any religion at all.

That’s why we at the Humanist Community at Harvard are starting a secular Sunday school, which we hope will be a safe space for children and adolescents to ask big questions and explore what it means to live a good, moral life, without dogma attached.

This fall, children from non-religious families around the Boston area will attend weekly classes at our Humanist Learning Lab, where they will explore ethics and core humanistic values, study the history of doubt and humanistic thought, learn about diverse religions and belief systems, and question everything. Drawing on our own experimental program here at Harvard, we plan to develop a curriculum that can be adapted by anybody else who wants to raise their children within a progressive, values-based community.

Progressives, moderates and humanists want strong families just as much as Cathy and our conservative friends do. We too are passionate about bringing our children up according to our core principles. When we bring our children with us to volunteer at local food banks and educate them about the lives and needs of our less fortunate neighbors, we are teaching them compassion. When we teach them to question everything they are told and look to evidence to guide their beliefs, we do it because we value critical thinking and independence. If we tell them this life is probably the only one they have and that they might not get another chance to treat people right, we’re trying to foster intellectual and emotional courage. These are our values. And we’re proud to pass them on.

This piece was co-written by Chelsea Link, who is the campus organizing fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: What values matter to you and your family? How do you hope to share them with future generations? And what would you recommend we include in the curriculum of our secular Sunday school? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Tags: Family, Religion

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  • Jennifer Hancock

    Excellent – looking forward to having the curriculum to use with our Humanist Families group down in Florida.

  • cipher

    Excellent, Greg. Glad to hear about the Sunday school – much needed.

  • Rod

    My qualifiers (so necessary these days, it seems): 1) not gay, 2) divorced father of two (one of whom is a student at the Yale Divinity School), 3) former mormon, 4) attend the local Unitarian church in Salt Lake City, 5) still friends with my former wife, 6) liberal democrat. Etc. Here’s my pledge: No more Chick-fil-A for me!

    • Pepito El Lindo

      who cares

  • J__o__h__n

    The best part of being an atheist is getting to sleep late on Sundays and having the day free.
    If they build a Chick-Fil-A in Boston, I plan to eat there every Sunday.

    • SJBC

      Was this an attempt at sarcasm as they are closed on Sundays?

      • J__o__h__n

        That was the joke.

        • Pepito El Lindo


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  • denise

    Your mission for the humanistic community secular Sunday School sounds very similar to the Unitarian Universalist faith. The Unitarian Universalist Association and any of the many churches would be happy to help you along in your curriculum design. Thank you for providing a place and program for non-religious families to guide children toward compassionate choices.

  • Kathleen Sweeney

    While I think this is a good idea, once again it marginalizes folks who, by choice or by chance, are uncoupled and childless. Nowhere in the ‘family values’ discussion is there a place for individuals who are single and do not have children. It would be great if your core curriculum addressed the idea that, while families are of course the main social construct which we use to perpetuate our society as well as our species, there are many people who are alone and do not have children who also live according to a well-defined set of values.

  • TWJ (Westport, CT)

    Hi Greg, this is an excellent idea and long overdue in cities and towns across America! I wish I could be an active participant in this effort to create a humanist and non-theist community which embraces children as well as adults (indeed families and singles of all kinds). I would highly recommend that you look into finding a way to share this experience and community with those who do not live in the Boston area, perhaps filming the Sunday school sessions which could then be made available on the internet. I am a naturalist, humanist, and atheist who is married to a Christian, and we have two beautiful young children who we agreed would be educated equally in both of our belief systems until they are mature enough to decide on their own personal beliefs. Unfortunately, finding naturalist, humanist, atheist communities centered on our beliefs and our families are all too rare. I would like to be a part of creating these new institutions or communities, and in making them an integral and equal part of our society in America. Please take the time to seriously consider how this effort could be shared with a wider circle of participants. Thank you.

    • Pepito El Lindo


  • O Suzanna

    This is such wonderful news to read. I would like to suggest that you include, in your Ethics curriculum, a comprehensive exploration of the effects of factory farming on the planet’s resources and on the living conditions, slaughter, and suffering of the animals involved.

  • Jon Levine

    Congratulations and all the best! As you know, we have a Humanistic
    Sunday School with a Jewish orientation, and we’re happy to share resources and
    good fellowship with you.

    Mazel tov!

    Kahal B’raira, Greater Boston’s Congregation for Humanistic Judaism,

    Member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism,

  • LucidGal

    This does point out how liberals have allowed conservatives frame the arguments. Since when do they get to decide what “family values” are? We liberals have ceded the moral high ground and allow ourselves to be called godless and anti-American and socialists and in favor of big government, when some of us are none of those things. We insist on coming off as eggheads, policy wonks and wimps. That’s why we lose. Will somebody please go get Jim Carville?

  • humanjudy

    thanks!, long overdue. Well said.

  • Claudia Pearce

    Yikes – please don’t label anti-gay marriage as a Christian view – it’s a religious right view – millions of progressive Christians are convinced Jesus blesses gay unions

  • Kittee

    As a self-described Christian (in the love-thy-neighbor sort of way), I often find myself sickened by what I hear from pulpits in a variety of religious sects, and have been dismayed with the regurgitated bigotry and damnation my 8 yr old nephew has learned from Church. For some time, I have considered starting a nonreligious prayer circle (since I am skeptic of organized religion), but perhaps this Humanist Sunday School is a viable option. Thank you for sharing.

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  • Betsy Y.

    Chelsea/Greg/Sarah/et al,

    Thank you so much for doing this and for all the work the Harvard Humanists have done to create a community for non-believers. I must say, between your secular Sunday school and Camp Quest and all the other strides we’ve made, I feel it is my duty and obligation to go have a couple of kids now! brb.

  • Judith Guidotti-Sheridan

    Is not this a very biased attitude towards those who believe in traditional family values? I am one of those and have never, along with many of my like thinking friends, attacked gays, tried to prevent them from running businesses or from freely expressing their preferences. Somehow “liberals” of which I consider myself one, are now being attacked for holding certain values which may not be in line with the far left. Is this really democratic?

  • gardenia

    My advice is BOYCOTT CHICK-FIL-A!. Put this narrow minded shmuck out of business. There are better, more tolerant places to eat.

    • Antigone

      UH…that didn’t work so well I guess.

  • Grateful Ray

    Excellent point regarding the hijacking of “family values” by the religous right and conservative elements of our political spectrum. This is a travesty similar to that of accusations that liberals are somehow not as patriotic as conservatives.
    My father was a decorated World War II veteran (including the Bronze Star) and was awarded membership in the French Legion of Honor for his service in liberating France. He served in four campaigns in Europe, one of which included the Battle of the Bulge and lost his closest friend in the war. He loved this country and was extremely proud of his service to it and the world.
    In our very close family patriotism, love, integrity, compassion, spirituality, strength of character and a generally liberal political perspective were all pillars of our family values. I find it arrogant and offensive when “the right” claims it as their sacred territory. Discrimination wasn’t a practice that our family values encouraged or condoned.

  • yingyangyou

    Mr. Epstein-Ms. Link’s letter covers the basic issue of narrow-mindedness in the whole family-values debate. The basic assumption that the family, any family, is the sustaining unit of civilization in these times is flawed. Human society has to evolve beyond family obsession, hereditary privilege and tribalism to survive. Not much is happening on this front at all. The Chinese are in the vanguard. They are demonized for attempts to call attention to the need for social responsibility over reproductive whims. Women’s rights advocates stubbornly defend those who insist on having children they cannot afford to raise or children who are unnecessarily born with life-limiting and costly defects. LGBTQ politicos advocate child-bearing as a method of mainstreaming to achieve social equity. After all, children are used as social currency in all levels of society. How much attention is being paid to the world these children will inherit? Not much. There is no global agreement and project to deal with climate degradation, for example.
    Perhaps it is time for secular folks to take the debate to the scientifically obvious level of looking skeptically at the current family obsession in the light of human overpopulation. Humanism tends to present itself currently as Liberal Religion. Liberalism is just becoming Conservatism-Lite due to the domination of egocentric wealth over government (Koch brothers being a prime example). True secularists don’t need a Sunday school. They need a science lab for Monday through Sunday.

  • Antigone

    Conservatives and Christians don’t decide what ‘family values’ are except for themselves and those that agree with them. You can pick whatever you like in a free country as is evidenced by your ability to start your own Sunday school at a well known academic institution. Instead of reacting so strongly to people that you don’t agree with or who don’t agree with you…be tolerant. Ours is a pluralistic nation and different religious views are part of our great diversity. Bashing Christians and ‘believers’ in general is unnecessary. Other than that, good luck with your endeavor and when you teach the children, teach them to love others and to be tolerate of people of faith and different faiths.