The weekend I had the pleasure of addressing the members of the Baltimore Ethical Society, one of a network of godless congregations around the country dedicated to individual and social ethical improvement (collectively called the American Ethical Union). I’ve been visiting Ethical Societies rather frequently recently as part of my training to become an Ethical Culture Leader (sort of a professional community organizer for these godless congregations), and it’s been a delight to see their different characters and approaches to the task of building strong, vibrant, values-based communities for people who don’t believe in god.
The Baltimore Ethical Society – ingeniously branded bmorethical – is a warm and thriving community and I felt truly welcomed. I was met at the airport by Society President Emil Volcheck and immediately whisked to Red Emma’s, a bookstore and coffeehouse dedicated to the spirit of radical feminist, anarchist, and atheist Emma Goldman (a frequently unsung luminary of America’s freethought history – you can read some of her great stuff in Red Emma Speaks). From there we skipped across to a sushi restaurant where I lunched with Emil and Rev. David Carl Olsen, Unitarian Universalist Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (and an atheist himself), before heading back to Emil’s home to work on my talk for a while.
Then, to a pot luck dinner organized by Ethical Society members, where I got to meet a broad cross-section of the Society’s membership and talk with them about their passion for the Society and share their obvious excitement over their community’s work to improve the world (I was particularly impressed by the passion of young LGBTQ activist Lucas Mccahil). The delicious vegetarian food (including gluten-free Oreo cupcakes!) was followed by a spirited game of Dominion: a complex card game which saw me comprehensively defeated by a precocious (and charming) 11-year-old. For a former competitive player of Magic: The Gathering (the nerd runs deep in this one…) this was a significant humiliation (look here for a rundown of my talk from the perspective of author Andrea Brockaw, the boy’s mother!).
From the pot luck I was whisked to the beautiful house of my gracious host, Stephen Meskin, where I rested-up before heading out to talk the following morning. The Platform (that’s what Ethical Scoieties call their equivalent of a Sunday service) was delightful: it began with the lighting of a little Ethical Culture candle, then with the reading of a children’s story for the kids (there were many!) before they were sent off to the Sunday School (I was super-excited to see the young Dominion champ come in and join the Sunday School kids!). Then I gave my talk - Building the Temple of the Future: Fulfilling the Promise of Humanism (you can view a version of the talk here – yes, I love overblown titles!) – then answered intelligent questions for a while before retiring to a local Chinese restaurant for more spirited discussion.
In all it was an excellent trip: fun, friendly, and thought-provoking. It gave me great confidence that godless congregations can thrive within an urban environment, and that they offer something of extraordinary value to their members and to society at large. The commitment of Baltimore Ethical Society members to personal and social improvement was truly inspiring, and it makes me more convinced than ever that, in the 21st Century, more people will seek out congregational organizations which allow them to think better, care more deeply, and bring hope to the world. Anyone in Baltimore looking for new friends, a sense of community, and an activist spirit – all without God or dogma - need look no further than the Baltimore Ethical Society: join up, and bmorethical!