Why Ethical Culture?

This past Sunday Friday ( too busy – don’t even know what day it is!), after a long selection process (and a more than 2-hour interview!), I was accepted into training as a leader in the Ethical Culture movement. Most atheists and Humanists will probably have no idea what Ethical Culture is. Those who do have an idea might consider this a really weird decision. I already work with the Humanist Community at Harvard, so why do I want to join an even more “religious” Humanist organization? Have I gone off the deep end?

I hope not. Here’s what I’m doing, what I’m not doing, and why.

Why Ethical Culture?

The short answer is because I am inspired by the vision and writing of its founder Felix Adler. Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about building moral communities for non-religious and non-theistic people, and the person who articulates a vision of such communities most close to mine, and who fires me with greater passion for the project of building them, is Adler. He was an amazing writer and speaker: reading his speeches literally fills me with chills and tingles. And, most important, he actually did it. He went about the task of seeding moral communities without a God in the center, planting them across America and helping them grow.

His little movement had a big impact in the politics of the time: his broadly Humanist lectures were reprinted in national newspapers and were amazingly well-attended. Despite the racism, sexism, and homophobia which can be found in his writing, he was ahead of his time on many social issues and galvanized a community to make a difference on the issues he cared about. He was a successful activist as well as a generative philosopher, and I find that appealing.

Nowadays, Ethical Culture is a bit on the fringes of the mainstream Humanist movement: not particularly well-known and not at all well-understood. It seems too “religious” for many who disbelieve in God. Its congregational model strikes many as old-fashioned. I am joining Ethical Culture because I want to change that. I truly believe that ethical congregations are extremely important to society, and that non-religious and non-theistic people could benefit from them. I want to make that case, and it make sense to me to make it from within the institution which, historically, has best embodied that ideal.

After I graduate, in addition to teaching (which I love), I want to try to engage in the public discussion of ethics and values. I think there are too few moral storytellers on the progressive side of politics in America, and I want to do some of that from within the Ethical Culture movement. This opportunity to train as a leader in that movement allows me to combine the philosophical and activist sides of myself, and to think more deeply and speak more loudly about the task of creating a more Ethical Culture.

What is an Ethical Culture Leader?

Basically, Leaders are professional community organizers, responsible for the development and health of their Society. If you visit an Ethical Culture Society for their weekly “Platform”, you find something similar to many community groups: an opening welcome, some music, perhaps a song, and an address on an ethical topic. The Leader is responsible for putting this together and, often, for giving the address or inviting a speaker to do so. They don’t wear silly hats or robes, don’t swing censers or consecrate wine: it’s all very free of traditional religious trappings.

The idea of professional leaders may seem disturbing to some atheists, who might be concerned that these people are trying to assert their personal authority over other members of the community, or that the salary of a leader might be better spent elsewhere. I recognize the fear. At the same time I think it is essential that local communities, where possible, have leaders who can dedicate their time to the health of that community – and professional leadership enables that to happen. Most Humanist and Atheist organizations, after all, rely on professional leadership: the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, and the Center for Inquiry all have professional staff who make their organization run, and I see no reason why local Humanist communities should be different.

I have joined a “religious” movement, but I am still not religious

Ethical Culture is a non-theistic congregational movement which is, in law, a religion. In a technical sense I am now training to become clergy in that religion (!). It is, however, a unique “religion” in which individual members do not need to consider it to be one. Founder Felix Adler, who saw the movement as a religion himself, thought that ethical action was much more important than metaphysical beliefs: his motto was “Deed Before Creed”. Therefore, you can share the ethical values of Ethical Culture – and be a full member – without holding to the same metaphysics as its founder.

Adler held that “Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded.” This is a fascinating statement for someone who saw themselves as a religious leader to make: which other religion suggests you need not be religious – at all – to be a member? The complexities of this situation are delightfully represented in the fact that there are two Facebook pages for Ethical Culture: one describes it as a “Religion”, the other as an “Interest”. For me, Ethical Culture is a passionate and deepening philosophical and social interest.

Adler was, in part, redefining the term “religion”. He felt that institutions where people come together to explore existential and ethical questions are essential to a healthy society, and that people need spaces which are dedicated to ethical improvement. I agree. I do not think such spaces need to be religious, or to be considered part of a religion, to play an important social role. I do not currently consider myself “religious” (whatever my friends will tell you!). I am still as much of an atheist and Humanist as ever.

I’m not leaving Harvard

This one to reassure my parents: I am still finishing my doctorate and I am still working with the Humanist Community at Harvard. I have started a process of training for Ethical Culture Leadership which might take as long as three years. The training happens mostly at a distance, with infrequent seminars and retreats (like the one I’m on now!) providing in-person development. With this step I am looking to my future after Harvard, which is fast approaching.

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