Adler’s Vision: Reimagining Values-Based Community for Godless People

“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.”

- Felix Adler

So, I’ve introduced myself and the first major interest of this blog: learning how to speak in Ingersoll’s Voice. The second part of my project here is to revive Felix Adler’s Vision. This phrase points to my interest in the development and recreation of religious practice in a more nonreligious age. I believe that there is much of value (as well as much to reject) in many practices traditionally associated with religious communities, and see no reason why nonreligious people need relinquish those practices when they abandon their religion. This insight – that there is a core of valuable social practices central to religions which can exist in institutions which do not espouse a belief in god – was the central realization of Felix Adler, 19th Century philosopher, activist, social reformer and proto-Humanist (thanks to Wikipedia for some great details on Adler’s life).

Felix Adler was the son of Samuel Adler, the influential Rabbi of New York’s Temple Emanu-El (a congregation which still exists), and was expected to take on his father’s mantle and become Rabbi after him. However, while studying at Columbia and Heidelburg Universities, Felix was heavily influenced by Neo-Kantian philosophy, and came to believe that morality can exist independent of any god, and that it was not possible, in any case, to prove that gods exist. When, at 23, he was invited to give a sermon at Temple Emanu-El, he astonished the congregation not only with his rousing oratorical abilities (he would go on to fill Carnegie Hall each week with his addresses) but also because he did not mention God once. Rather, he envisaged a “new religion” centered on ethics which focused on good deeds and right-relations between people, and which was non-theistic. Needless to say, given that he had abandoned the idea of God, Adler never became Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El. Rather, he founded a new institution dedicated to uniting all people in ethical action: The Ethical Culture Society.

This makes Adler almost unique among those with Humanist beliefs: he was an effective institution-builder. He believed that religious congregations were essential to the development of ethical character in people and to the furtherance of civic aims, and he founded a network of Ethical Culture Societies to further that end. In his lifetime the Ethical Culture movement spread to numerous countries around the world, providing a space for people with broadly Humanist beliefs to come together to deepen their commitment to those values and to act together, as a community, to improve the world. His success at providing community for non-theists is something I believe could be replicated and surpassed today in an increasingly nonreligious America.

Particularly, I’m convinced that religious congregations often play an important role in civic life. Adler once suggested that “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”, and I agree with him. I think the secular world would be improved were there non-theistic congregational spaces, centered on shared ethical values where they could find fellowship, discuss ideas, and work together to bring them to life in the world – and, as I hope to show in my writing, social science research gives credence to this position.

I want, in this sense, to revive Adler’s vision, building community centers for non-theistic people founded on Humanist ethical values. Indeed, I am so committed to this idea that, yesterday, I was interviewed for and gained admission to the training program to become an Ethical Culture Leader – the professionally-trained individuals who help Ethical Culture Societies grow and their members flourish, and who are the public face of the movement in the world. I look forward to sharing my progress on that front in future posts.

Many question remain. What will these spaces look like? How will they operate? Who will found and manage them? How can Humanists extract elements of value from religious traditions while remaining true to our anti-authoritarian, anti-dogmatic, skeptical principles? How can we build communities for ourselves which learn from the missteps of religion while stealing and reenvisioning the aspects we value? Wrestling with the tensions and contradictions inherent in such an endeavor are part of my project here.

Emerson once imagined the coming of a new form of communal expression, founded on science, yet developing an aesthetic of its own:

“There will be a new church founded on moral science; at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law, the church of men to come, without shams, or psaltery, or sackbut; but it will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters; science for symbol and illustration; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture, poetry.”

This blog is a place to explore and discuss what this “new church” – this temple of the future – might and should look like. It’s a place to share passions and questions. A place to find community with people who share your ethics even if they don’t share your religion. And a place to appreciate beauty, compose poetry, and sing.

Related Posts

Getting Acquainted – An Introduction to Me!

Ingersoll’s Voice, Adler’s Vision: What’s This blog About?

Ingersoll’s Voice: A Persuasive ‘Evangelical’ Humanism

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Laurence

    I’m just not sold that congregations are necessary and important for society. But maybe I’m held up too much by terminology. I just don’t really want to see a whole bunch of non-religious temples because I fear that they would become just like the things that I dislike now. I prefer groups with leaders who plan things, but not where someone gets up on the pulpit and “preaches” down to his congregation.

    • Ian

      The community we are continuing to grow here in Vancouver falls very close, I think, to Adler’s vision yet lacks the authoritarian nature of most congregations. We meet weekly, have social and coffee time, then we watch a video or hear a lecturer on a different topic, and perhaps most importantly, we open the floor to discuss each topic. It’s more like a philosophers cafe than traditional church, and I think it works well for Humanism.

      Terminology and semanitics will be our downfall if we obsess over words like congregation, ritual, or even religion. Dogma and false authority is what we need to avoid.

      • Laurence

        I think choosing words carefully is important, and I think James would agree with me. If you want to encourage atheists who are disillusioned with religion but still want a community, then it makes sense (at least to me) to use words without religious connotations.

      • James Croft

        I agree with both of you actually. My feeling is that the potential audience for non-theistic communities encompasses for more people than simply those who are committed to the atheist label. Indeed all the studies show that only a small fraction of the non-religious accept the label “atheist” or even “agnostic”. Most believe in God. So to many broadly non-religious people I don’t think the language is going to be a barrier.

        On the other hand, when speaking to people who have rejected religion and have had bad experiences with it, I certainly think it is wise to avoid language which is almost exclusively religious. Sometimes it becomes difficult to even begin a conversation because people hear what they consider to be “religious” language and, understandably, turn off.

        For my part, I want to write authentically and express my honest views in language which is comfortable to me. I’m certainly conscious of how my language will be seen by some of the atheist community, but I am not going to allow that concern to lead me into inauthentic ways of expressing myself. I find the poetic language of people like Adler, Ingersoll, and Emerson to be powerfully rousing, and so I want to use it mindful of its complexities and drawbacks.