Foundations of the Temple

In his speech “The Gods” (1872), the “Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll, a Humanist and the best-known orator of his time, said the following:

We are laying the foundations of the grand temple of the future–not the temple of all the gods, but of all the people–wherein, with appropriate rites, will be celebrated the religion of Humanity. We are doing what little we can to hasten the coming of the day when society shall cease producing millionaires and mendicants–gorged indolence and famished industry–truth in rags, and superstition robed and crowned. We are looking for the time when the useful shall be the honorable; and when REASON, throned upon the world’s brain, shall be the King of Kings, and God of Gods.

In 1873, echoing Ingersoll’s powerful oration, Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, called for the creation of what he called a new religion: the “Temple of the Future, [with] Justice its foundation, Peace and Goodwill its columns.” Like Ingersoll, Adler railed against the greed he saw in his time, a “fierce craving desire for gain [that] has taken possession of the commercial world”. And he spoke of the anomie and aimlessness that he felt afflicted many:

There is a great and crying evil in modern society. It is want of purpose. It is that narrowness of vision which shuts out the wider vistas of the soul. It is the absence of those sublime emotions which, wherever they arise, do not fail to exalt and consecrate existence.

Ingersoll and Adler’s vision of a more just world, governed by reason and compassion rather than superstition and greed – a vision shared by freethinkers across the ages – is the primary inspiration for this site.

I have three central aims:

First, to articulate and promote a radical, positive, activist Humanist vision which will inspire Humanists to organize and expand our efforts to build a better future for humankind.

Second, to provide Humanists with narratives, practices, artwork and rituals – symbolic resources – that can help us build community and enact our values in the world.

Third, to preserve and disseminate the proud tradition of freethinking to which all contemporary Humanists rightly belong.

Why an “activist” Humanist vision?

Because the world requires it. Private greed. Corruption. Public discourse that is neither civil nor insightful. The persistence of poverty in an age of plenty. Gaping public ignorance of science, history, and religion. Rampant disease. Bigoted discrimination. The potential destruction of this planet, the only home we have ever known.

Far too often, in the teeth of such ferocious challenges, the self-appointed guardians of public morality – priests, bishops, imams, churches, temples, mosques – are on the side of inhumanity.  Think of the Catholic Church pinning the blame for pedophile Priests on gays with one hand while, with the other, signing letters putting “the good of the universal church” above the welfare of abused children. Think of the assault on reason which has seen textbooks eviscerated and science education decimated in too many school districts. Think of the pernicious teachings of so many faiths which plunge adherents into foetid pools of self-hatred, making them ashamed of their intellect, ashamed of their initiative, ashamed of their desire. Ashamed to be human.

Too often religious communities have simply missed the moral boat, and are still fighting the ethical battles of yesteryear. Think of the bizarre and contentious debates about the role of women in faith communities – can women act as an imam, a bishop, or a priest? Think of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints mounting a truly epic campaign to remove marriage rights from gay Californians, supported by a motley crew of Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Christian evangelicals.

These are counterfeit issues. The moral case is closed.

Let me be clear: in many ways life in the developed world today is better than it has been at any time in all of human history. Progress is real, and has occurred in our lifetime – just think of the extraordinary benefits of mobile communication and the internet, the radical advances in medical technology which extend our lifespan, and the enormous level of material comfort many of us enjoy. Although improvements in standard of living may not directly translate into a swelling quality of life, it would be foolish to disregard the importance of the former while we strive in pursuit of the latter.

There are, too, many religious communities and denominations which are broadly humanistic: they champion equality, work for social justice, and are a positive force in the world. There is no reason why such communities cannot work alongside Humanists in pursuit of a better world.

But progress is happening too slow for too many. Too many people – too many human beings – are being left out. For some, life might have become worse in recent years. And we cannot escape the possibility that the relative luxury of the few in some way contributes to the abject misery of the many.

A Humanist vision – an activist humanist vision, which gets us off the armchair and into the streets – is desperately needed to fix the eyes of humanity of the real ethical issues, and to agitate for further progress. It is required to sketch a hopeful vision of a possible future – as Jewish scholar Maimonides wrote, “Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable.” And it is necessary to keep us honest and self-critical as we do this important work.

Why narrative, practices, artwork and ritual?

In American Grace, a recent study of religion in America ,Robert Putnam and David Campbell present compelling evidence that people who attend church more often are “better neighbors”. They tend to give more money to charity – both religious and secular charities – and volunteer more of their time to causes they consider worthwhile. They are more likely to be active in their community. They are more likely to vote. But all of these effects, the authors note, can be explained by involvement in religious social networks – it’s not down to religious belief. Therefore, they suggest, “close, morally intense, but nonreligious social networks could have a similarly powerful effect”.

Close, morally intense, nonreligious social networks, having a powerful effect on their members and on society. That’s my vision for Humanism. This is not a new vision. Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society is an example of close, morally intense Humanist community that still exists today. But few would deny they the Ethical Culture movement has lost some of its luster, and is no longer the force it once was. It could do with an injection of new ideas.

At Temple of the Future, I want to provide resources to help create and reinvigorate nonreligious social networks. I believe that Humanists have the potential to be just as “good neighbors” as religious people. But we are not yet living up to our full potential. Further, as Ethical Culture is in danger of reminding us, the history of freethinking communities is one of fleeting sparks in the darkness, flaring up only to die out soon after. I hope for something more enduring. Something that will weather time.

Art, ritual and narrative are crucial elements that religions use to bring their communities together, and for too long Humanists have shied away from these powerful mechanisms. We are a movement glutted with arguments yet wary of aesthetics. By providing symbolic resources to foster the development of close social networks akin to those available to religious people, I hope to help Humanist communities become more effective in enacting their values in the world.

Felix Adler once said “the custom of meeting together in public assembly for the consideration of the most serious, the most exalted topics of human interest is too vitally precious to be lost.” I agree. The arts, ritual and narrative are a way to ensure that this vitally precious custom is not lost, but lives on in secular form.

What is the proud tradition of freethinking?

Susan Jacoby, in her book Freethinkers, chronicles the legacy that free thinkers, skeptics, agnostics and doubters in American history have bequeathed to our generation. People like Robert Ingersoll, Ernestine Rose, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Thomas Paine were important forces in the development of modern America. They promoted the values of liberty and equality that are a source of much justified pride today. In my native England, figures like Bertrand Russell and Douglas Adams inspire my admiration, and all across the world there are similar icons of Humanism.

But these figures are often forgotten. Unlike religions, which have mechanisms to pass the stories of their great heroes to new generations, the memory of great Humanists tends to die out, or is suppressed. As Humanists, we should not forget our past. We can stand proud knowing that our forebears were some of the most radical thinkers and activists on the side of humanity that have ever walked the earth. It is time to tell their story.

In Freethinkers Jacoby writes “it is crucial for today’s secularists to find a way to convey the passions of humanism as Ingersoll once did, to move hearts as well as to change minds”. She laments that “There is no twenty-first century version of Ingersoll – indeed, there was no twentieth-century version of him”, and that “no champion arose in the twentieth century” to revive Ingersoll’s legacy as Ingersoll had revived Thomas Paine’s in the nineteenth.

I hope Temple of the Future will be Ingersoll’s champion and successor: moving hearts, changing minds, reviving and reimagining Humanism for the 21st Century.

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