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Ethics and Religion Talk: Should the Audubon Society Change its Name?

Is it ethically wrong for the Audubon organization to keep their name?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

“Audubon” is a household name associated with protecting birds. The moniker is synonymous with the avian conservation movement, and yet some local chapters had urged for a name change, saying the association with Audubon is making it harder to hire high-quality staffers and, ultimately, protect birds. See “Carrying John James Audubon’s name does not serve us well ethically.” Is it ethically wrong for this organization to keep their name?

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

The Sierra Club has distanced themselves from their founder John Muir because of his racist beliefs. Planned Parenthood has done the same with regards to their founder Margaret Sanger because of her racist beliefs. The Audubon Society is acknowledging John James Audubon as a racist, but they would like to keep the name. 

To keep the name Audubon would be an ethical misstep. John Audubon was a racist, and if the organization wishes to correct its past it would be best to remove his name completely. Many companies have been able to successfully change their names without hardship. FedEX, UPS, KFC, Nissan to name a few have all done it. 

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

What is interesting is that John James is that his birth name was Rabin, the name of his mother who bore him out of wedlock. His father’s name was Audubon. At some point in his youth, he was “legitimized” by his father, and received his surname. 

While I certainly understand the challenge here of having an organization continuing to further the legacy of a slaveholder, the vast majority of people have no clue who he was. Honestly, until a few years ago I thought “Audubon” was some sort of ornithological  term, not a name. 

Another option: I recently discovered that New York State resident Mr. Joseph Walter Audubon passed away in 2020. From what I have learned about him is that he was kind and gentle man. Why not rename the org after him?

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

It is wrong to bow down to every whim of our society. Maybe in this case a better option would be to educate people about how the name came to be picked. Highlighting the  good reasons for choosing that name would allow people to make the choice to separate the bad things this man did in relation to slavery from the good things he did to promote good. The point being that at times good people make bad choices. And since we all at times make bad choices too, we must learn to separate the name from the bad choices this made about slavery and learn about the reasons they chose to give this organization his name. I can't help but think of what Jesus did when the crowd asked him about stoning a woman caught in adultery. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7).  

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

It is always unjust and unwise to judge people of the past by standards of the present. No perfect men or women can be found in the world today, and none existed in the past. “There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The Audubon Society exists at least in part to preserve the great art created by their namesake; his apparently casual acceptance of the practice of slavery only tells us that he was a man of his time. Erasing such names only puts more distance between us and of our nation’s history, making it easier to forget that history and fail to learn its lessons. Slavery is still practiced in the world at large, it still impacts American life today, and we need to revisit its history in America often and in depth. Discovering that men of ability and achievement were slaveholders, or lived comfortably with this vile practice, is itself a very instructive fact. 

My response:

In general, it is not fair to judge past generations by contemporary ethical standards. So I do not automatically disqualify every person in history who promoted antisemitic stereotypes (e.g., Shakespeare), held slaves (Washington, Jefferson), or discriminated against equality for women, gays, or lesbians. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that society changes over time and recognizes the equality and humanity of people in ways that past generations did not. For this reason, there may come a time when a name that once stood for honorable causes no longer serves that purpose. For more than a century, the Audubon name stood for bird conservation. But the time has come when the positive benefits of continuing to use the name have been outweighed by the negative associations of the name. I am not in favor of erasing the memory of John James Audubon from existence. Better to preserve the history and the legacy of what he did right, but lay out what he did wrong alongside an explanation of the new name that will carry the mission of the organization forward for the next century.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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