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Northern Virginia Ethical Society (NoVES)

Frequently Asked Questions

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What is the Ethical Society?

The Ethical Society is a humanist movement that meets in a congregational model.  We affirm human dignity, celebrate reason, and work together for social change. We are a place where people come together to explore the biggest questions of life without reference to scripture, religion, or deities. We are inspired by the supreme ideal of human life as working to create a more humane society. We believe in human reason and agency as means to create a better world. This commits us to value the dignity of every individual, recognize their right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their lives.  We welcome humanists, agnostics and atheists, as well as people from various religious backgrounds. We come together to celebrate our journey through life and affirm our ability to live ethical lives without traditional religious beliefs. 

The Northern Virginia Ethical Society seeks to help in our personal growth, strengthen our relationships to others, and  build a more humane world. We promote ethical learning, build and sustain community, implement ethical action within and beyond our community, and govern ourselves effectively and transparently to all our members.


Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without belief in a god, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

How did this Ethical Society get started?

The Northern Virginia Ethical Society was founded in the 1980s as an outgrowth of the Washington, D.C. 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?

We affirm the equal dignity and worth of all people. We therefore reject racism; sexism; classism; ableism; homo-, trans-, and queer-phobia; and any other system that demeans or denigrates any person. We promote compassion for all people, all the time. 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. We celebrate human reason and experience as the only reliable route to knowledge. We believe that if we are going to understand something, it will be through the collective efforts of the human species.

We reject revelation and tradition as a source of knowledgeWe believe that if we are going to understand something, it will be through the collective efforts of the human species. We reject revelation and tradition as a source of knowledge. 

We believe that positive change will only come about through human efforts.  We must take responsibility for ourselves. All the great challenges the human species faces—climate change, huge inequality, political dysfunction—are our own problems to solve and we can do it if we work together.

As a nontheistic congregation, we do not reference gods or traditional religious beliefs in our programs. Our members are free to believe what they like about the supernatural: we foster free religious thought and do not promote any dogma. Our goal is to help answer the ultimate questions, "How can we create meaningfulness in this life?" and "How should we treat each other?" We encourage members to question and develop their own individual beliefs as a foundation for ethical living.

What are some principles of an Ethical Society?

The Eight Commitments of Ethical Culture were written in collaboration with Leaders and members of the American Ethical Union, coordinated by Lois Kathleen Kellerman, Leader Emeritus of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture.

  1. Ethics is Central: The most central human issue in our lives is creating a more humane environment.
  2. Ethics Begins with Choice: Creating a more humane environment begins by affirming the need to make significant choices in our lives.
  3. We Choose to Treat Each Other as Ends, not Means: To enable us to be whole in a fragmented world, we choose to treat each other as unique individuals having intrinsic worth.
  4. We Seek to Act with Integrity: Treating one another as ends requires that we learn to act with integrity. This includes keeping commitments, and being honest, open, caring and responsive.
  5. We are Committed to Educate Ourselves: Personal progress is possible, both in wisdom and social life. Learning how to build ethical relationships and cultivate a humane community is a life-long endeavor.
  6. Self Reflection and Our Social Nature Require Us to Shape a More Humane World: Growth of the human spirit is rooted in self-reflection, but can only come to full flower in community. This is because people are social, needing both primary relationships and larger supportive groups to become fully human. Our social nature requires that we reach beyond ourselves to decrease suffering and increase creativity in the world.
  7. Democratic Process is Essential to Our Task: The democratic process is essential to a humane social order because respect for the worth of persons requires democratic process, which elicits and allows a greater expression of human capacities.
  8. Life Itself Inspires a Natural “Religious” Response: Although awareness of impending death intensifies the human quest, the mystery of life itself, and the need to belong, are the primary factors motivating human religious response.

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. 


The Ethical Society is a congregational fellowship, 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.


Many people think that a religion is a deity-centered belief system. We neither promote nor require dogma or doctrine, nor do we require agreement about theism. 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. Ethical Culture has been legally recognized as a religion in the United States.


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.


Ethical Leaders are our equivalent of clergy. Leaders present Sunday morning platform addresses and conduct adult enrichment programs such as ethical discussion and forums. Leaders also 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. Leaders provide guidance to the Society's Board and committees and helps set the "congregational tone" of the Society. In addition Leaders represent the Society in other forums in the larger community.


The Ethical Society is a cooperative community, supported by the volunteer effort and financial contributions of members. Members contribute as generously as they are able to support the Society. Members also contribute their time as volunteers serving on committees and helping out with programs and events. Members participate in the important policy and financial decisions of the Society through an Annual Membership Meeting and through occasionally-called special membership meetings.


We have no standard dues but distribute guidelines for membership pledges and leave it to the individual to determine what he or she ought to contribute. Most members pledge between 2% and 5% of their income. We do not charge for Sunday School because we believe that preparing our children for their future is the responsibility of all the members. 


Sunday platforms, Sunday school, and some adult enrichment programs are open to non-members. We will specify accordingly in our newsletter and announcements. Nonmembers can be married by Ethical Society leaders and can sometimes participate in other officiant ceremonies such as baby naming or memorial services. We encourage visitors to come and get to know us before considering becoming members.


Occasionally someone wants to have dual membership in the Society and in another religious organization, often for family reasons. 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.

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