The Ethical Dilemma: Unwanted Religious Mail

Joan Reisman-Brill answers your questions this week on raising humanist children and how to deal with unwanted religious booklets coming through the mail.  

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?

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Teach Your Children Well: My husband and I were both raised without religion. While we are in complete agreement about raising our future children as humanists like us, we disagree about what exactly that entails. He wants to just ignore the entire subject of religion as a waste of time. I think we should teach our children about religion so they understand where other people are coming from and what we do as well as don’t believe in, accentuating the positive (e.g., science, reason, kindness). I’m not sure precisely how to go about doing that. Any advice?

—Informed Dissent

Dear Informed,

 I’m with you. Humanists are all about education and information, and you can’t be a fully developed citizen of this world (and what other world is there?) if you are ignorant of the beliefs that undergird so much of what goes on in it. How can anyone understand history, politics, art, or what their neighbors are up to if they don’t know anything about religions? I have a big problem with anyone who forms opinions and make judgments–whether it’s that their religion is the one true or that other beliefs are false–without knowing anything about them. Non-believers tend to know more about religions than believers do (which may be why they are non-believers).

Many humanist and atheist organizations have resources to find materials and groups to help atheist parents raise well-informed, thoughtful children. The American Humanist Association’s Kids Without God is geared toward kids of all ages and provides resources on ethical learning. Just as every child should learn about Aesop’s fables and Greek and Roman mythology, they should also be familiar with the major world religions and their respective bibles, the faiths of people in their community, and how to respond to playmates when the topic is Santa, god, or other imaginary friends and enemies. Better to arm them with knowledge and self-confidence than have them come home feeling threatened, inferior or jealous of kids who go to church and wonder why they don’t. It’s also a bonus to find some non-believer peers for them to associate with, not only as they learn about religions, but also for the myriad benefits of friendships with like-minded companions.

Postal Propaganda: Today I opened my USPS mailbox (which requires a key that only my letter carrier and I have) and found a book, The Great Controversy, with no postage, envelope, or indication of who sent it. The book is a 378-page religious tract. I heard that everyone in my building got it. I suspect it’s illegal for the letter carrier to put it in our mail boxes without postage or a return address, but I don’t want to get him in trouble. Any idea what I could do about this abuse of the postal service? I feel like the sanctity of my mailbox has been violated.

—PO’d About My PO Box

Dear PO,

 At least it’s only an offensive book, not a poisoned letter or bomb. These days it’s particularly alarming that some anonymous individual or organization has used the USPS to place an object without any identifiable origin into your locked mailbox. A Google search suggests that you were on the receiving end of a massive program to get this book out to everyone—akin to the Gideons and their bibles, only more disturbing because it came direct to your home rather than just your home-away-from-home.

Legally, mailboxes can’t be used for unstamped items.  Although there is an exception for “door slots and nonlockable bins or troughs used with apartment house mailboxes,” your keyed mailbox doesn’t qualify for that exception.

But a mailer can choose to blanket every address in a given zip code without having to separately address each piece of mail. This is how unaddressed advertising circulars find their way to you. Even so, usually there is some kind of “indicia” or imprint indicating the item was sent according to USPS rules.

This situation could be a violation not only of postal regulations, but also of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. You could write a letter of complaint to the USPS, or enlist an organization such as the Appignani Humanist Legal Center of the AHA to act on your behalf—but either way you would have to provide your address, which would identify your carrier. Similarly, you could go to your local post office and complain that you believe an unposted item showed up in your locked mail box, but this too could lead to problems for your carrier.

I suggest you attempt to speak privately to your letter carrier. Tell him you are concerned that he delivered an item that appears not to have gone through the proper channels. Not only do you object to the sender using the USPS without paying postage and identifying her or himself, but you are also concerned that your carrier could be in trouble if anyone were to complain, which is quite possible since the book was delivered not only to you but also to everyone else in your building. It will be interesting to find out if your carrier was just following orders (in which case he might want to lodge a complaint against the person who assigned him the task), or if he did it on his own initiative (in which case he might be jeopardizing his job on behalf of a “higher authority”).

Or you can just deposit the unwelcome book in the paper recycling bin.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.