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The Religious Character of Ethical Culture as a Humanist Movement

Guest Platform by Tony Hileman, Ethical Culture Leader
Original address to the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, October 12, 2008

Opening Words

My opening words are from a 1966 statement by the National Leaders Council of the American Ethical Union. Then called the National Fraternity of Leaders, its language is not gender sensitive.

"We believe that from the beginning, the founders, leaders, and innumerable workers of the Ethical Movement have been Humanists in their practical labors, social vision and reform, humane ideals, and stress upon human capacities and dignity. They have been Humanists in placing man's relationship to his fellow man and his community at the center of their moral and spiritual quest; and they have been Humanists in believing that man must assume responsibility for the direction of his life and destiny."

Platform Address

The title of my address this morning is The Religious Character of Ethical Culture as a Humanist Movement. Or, if that title is not long enough for you: How the Ethical Culture of the nineteenth century became the Ethical Humanism of the twenty-first without losing its religious flavor or identity -- which is exactly what I think happened.

The transition, as we will see, was somewhat slowed by the reticence of the founder of our movement, Dr. Felix Adler. I hope you don’t find that disrespectful for I have the highest regard for Dr. Adler as a person, his accomplishments, and the movement he founded. But the fact remains that we transformed our approach to Ethical Culture with surprising speed after his death.

Let me begin by establishing Ethical Culture’s Humanist credentials.

In 1952, the American Ethical Union was one of seven founding members of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the IHEU. In fact, our movement is the Ethical in the International Humanist and Ethical Union. We wanted to make the distinction that moral living means more than having a philosophically natural worldview and supporting science, rationality, and reason—all of which we of course do.

Even so, any identification with emerging understandings of Humanism or naturalism was more than Felix Adler could abide, even at his death in 1933. To say that Dr. Adler was a resolute man would be to understate the case considerably. Throughout his long and fruitful life, he steadfastly pursued his aim of social reformation with an iron will, and he did so while being true to himself and the tenets of the movement he founded.

The pragmatic and pugnacious philosopher Sidney Hooke, with whom Adler disagreed on a number of things, was a disciple of John Dewey and was himself a mentor to Paul Kurtz, the founder of the Center for Inquiry and numerous other Humanist organizations. Paul related to me that Hooke once said that "Felix Adler was a man of moral iron."

Even those who disagreed with Adler respected him, and we today can and should do the same. One of the standards he established in founding Ethical Culture was that it is a progressive religious enterprise, even if he couldn't always fully live up to that standard himself.

His tenacity caused him to cling to a mildly transcendental view that he saw as central to his formation of the Ethical Manifold—the concept of unlimited, he said infinite, interrelatedness and interdependence -- that he held to be the basis of ethics. In the words of one of my predecessors at the New York Society, Ed Ericson, Dr. Adler was stubborn and simply refused to see a philosophically natural basis for ethics. This caused him great consternation in his later years.

But that was not the case for his early twentieth century followers. They were as open to new thought as Felix had taught them to be. The pragmatism and humanism that took shape in the first part of the last century gained traction within our movement. That is evidenced in the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, the first succinct articulation of Humanism as we know it today. Drafted by Unitarian ministers, among its 34 signers were two from our movement -- Frank Swift, the Leader of the Boston Society, and V.J. Thayer, the educational director of the of the Ethical Culture schools.

When Ethical Culture Leader and educator Howard Radest entered the movement in 1951, Adler’s transcendental views had fallen completely by the wayside. Radest was, and here I quote, "struck by the fact that nearly all of those I met and worked with were more likely to be philosophic naturalists than Kantian or neo-Kantian idealists."

What happened to Adler's lingering transcendental thought was the same thing that happened to traditional religious beliefs when he founded this movement: They were set aside as unnecessary. Not as wrong but simply as unnecessary. Over a relatively short period of time we grew completely comfortable with a natural basis for ethics.

To make that clear, in 1966 the National Leaders Council, issued the statement my opening words were taken from. It was adopted by the Leaders at the AEU's assembly in Chicago, and destined for the IHEU's world congress later that year in Paris.

Entitled Ethical Culture as a Humanist Movement, it began with the simple, declarative statement: "Ethical Culture is a Humanist movement." It went on to say that, "Even before the designation Humanist gained currency as one of our common descriptive terms or names, Ethical Culture was a Humanist Movement in its essential purposes and values."

And that's when the historical identification of Ethical Culture became interchangeable with the modern description of Ethical Humanism.

So, why is this still a topic of discussion over four decades later? Because, I believe, there is confusion in our movement as to where we stand on a few things. Chief among them, religion and naturalism and how the two are uniquely blended in the Ethical Movement -- how we are at once both religious and naturalist.

I hold that ours is a religion, a religion of ethical relationships, whose values and principles rest on a natural interpretation of human experience. That our identification as Ethical Culturists says that we are dedicated to moral striving toward social reform, and that our identification as Ethical Humanists says that we do so in a natural and humane way.

Now that's a lot so say, and I'll be coming back to it. But my focus this morning is on the religious character of our Humanism, which resides in the unique ethical expression that is our heritage and our inheritance.

To see where these two, the religious and the ethical, intersect, let's take a look at the formational background of the former, as religion as we know it today has a long and varied history. Much of it is likely familiar to you, but some of it may not be.


Generally, historical religious belief progressed from dynamism to animism to polytheism to pantheism to henotheism to bitheism to monotheism. There have been many detours along the way, and a couple of different paths since. Watch as we go through them because what began as an explanation of existence and the reasons for natural phenomena progressed to detailed rules governing human behavior and the source of good itself.

  • Dynamism is the view that natural objects or locations have power. Not the power of any entity, a power that is just there. This is seen in the New Age affection for crystals and power centers.
  • Animism says that the power associated with dynamism -- things and spots -- are inhabited by spirits that we can relate to and try to keep happy or suffer because of it. Like in the eruption of volcanoes, the destruction of lighting bolts, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
  • In polytheism the spirits of animism are elevated to god status, gods that inhabit another world and visit this world from time to time or interact with it and/or its inhabitants -- us. Here one can clearly see the formation of myth designed to explain some of the things that are going on in the world—not just the physical world itself but the activities that are go on in it.
  • In pantheism the power of the universe -- of things, places, spirits, gods -- is uniformly distributed throughout everything that is. This is reflected today in the Gaia hypothesis that holds that the earth itself has consciousness.
  • Henotheism is the belief that every tribe or culture has its own special divinity. During the period when henotheism was popular it was not uncommon for a conquered tribe to convert to the god of the victorious tribe as it was clearly the superior god -- my god can beat up your god. While the concept of henotheism has evaporated the attitude remains, much to the detriment of humanity. It is seen today in the claim that "God’s on our side."
  • Bitheism narrows the concept down to two competing, opposing forces -- good and evil -- interminably locked in conflict. This is where it begins to get interesting as here we begin to see human characteristics attributed to supernatural agents. This is a very humanizing view that reflects the conflicting pulls that affect our daily decisions. No longer were things or beings powers that were simply there, they were now the source of good and of evil.
  • Deism posits a creator god but a disinterested one -- the source from which the universe arose but a source that is no longer actively involved in it or in our lives. This is not inconsistent with some scientific findings, particularly the Big Bang which does not explain where that dense ball of matter that exploded into the universe some 13.7 billion years ago came from. This was the stance of most of the founding fathers of this country -- at least publicly -- and it was certainly the socially acceptable language of the day that resonated with theist and non-theist alike.

For many deism is the last stop on the way to philosophic naturalism. It has kind of fallen out of favor except as a comfortable half-way house for those not yet ready to let go of supernatural belief. But for most it simply doesn't answer the question it pretends to -- the origin of the universe -- and can become a burden. In times of personal pain or crisis when there's seemingly no place to turn, there's a tendency to become interested in that disinterested creator god. Once you admit a supernatural belief it's pretty hard to confine it on the other side of the Big Bang.

  • The stance we're most acquainted with today is monotheism: The belief in one and only one omnipotent and omniscient personal god -- the all-powerful and all-knowing creator and controller of all that is.

What I want to focus on is the development of monotheism that latched on to the concepts found in bitheism. It is often overlooked yet is the one that really seals the deal and maintains the faith: The holding that the one and only god is not only all-knowing and all-powerful, but also the source of all good and, indeed, is itself all good, without moral flaw -- pure goodness.

The thinking goes like this: If there exists an all-knowing being, then all knowledge must emanate from that being. If there exists an all-powerful being, then all power must come from that being. And if there exists an all-good being, then all good must come from that being. Yes, I know, there are all sorts of holes in that "reasoning." I'm not here to defend it just to explain it to the extent that it can be explained.

Anyway, an interesting take on this is advanced by Professor James Hall of the University of Richmond in Virginia. It is not unique but his insight into its import may be. In recognizing that the Abrahamic monotheistic religions attribute the source of good to god Hall puts forward the concept of ethical monotheism.

And that is where we come in. The source of good, the source of ethics, is the intersection of historical religious dogma and liberal religious thought. It is against this aspect, as well as the fixed attitudes of mature religious thought, that progressive minds rebelled and in doing so gave birth to liberal religions, Ethical Culture slash Ethical Humanism among them.

Ethical monotheism posits that good is derived from an external source. Felix Adler founded Ethical Culture on a concept of good, of ethics that is not external, at least not entirely so. Adler eschewed the supernatural yet his worldview was not quite natural, either. He saw a supersensible realm -- an unknown and unknowable realm that is real but beyond our senses. A realm in which we are all, past, present, and future, infinitely interconnected in the web of existence -- the Ethical Manifold.

Abstractly that is an inspiring concept, just as the concept of mind, body, and spirit is expressive of, and helps us understand, the different ways in which we experience life. So while it is emotionally appealing, it isn't intellectually satisfying. Further, it doesn't work philosophically and, try as he might, Felix Adler could never quite make it work -- he could line up the dots but he couldn't connect them.

The sad thing about that is he didn't have to; it wasn't, it isn't, necessary. Ethical Humanism posits that our sense of ethics is derived from human want and need as tested by experience -- it is something that arises between us, that it is a product of the reciprocal aspect of our relationships. Ethical Humanism projects the abstract concept of the Ethical Manifold in a natural way.

That's the background and a peek into how Ethical Humanism has retained the essentially religious character of Ethical Culture, just as Ethical Culture retained the religious character of the theological thought it transformed.

But there's another aspect to religion we need to look at, that of worship or reverence.


There is a tendency for religious people, though not all religious people, to believe that there is something more to reality than that which meets the senses and reason -- something supernatural, something that transcends nature, that is grander, finer, better, nobler, and certainly more powerful than anything nature has to offer -- something supreme in every respect. Something called god.

God is a title for something that goes by many names. In broad strokes, a belief in a god or gods is a belief in a being or entity or force or power beyond oneself, some other that is the likely source of all that is, something against which all of one’s practices and beliefs and values and intentions and hopes must be measured.

But by whatever name it is something powerful that must be obeyed, something that listens to and responds to our prayers of petition and intercession, something reliable in an uncertain world, something deserving of supplication, of gratitude -- of worship.

There is a clear and meaningful difference between worship and reverence. While the god concept evokes a supreme being or a supreme something worthy of worship, the modern world looks with reverence toward the ideal of a supreme way of being. The Ethical Culturist stands in awe of the human capacity to move toward that ideal. Not to achieve it but to successively approximate it. The ideal of perfected living is a potential that we revere, not a reality that we worship.


Let's take a look at this from yet a different angle. It has been said that religions consist of beliefs, practices, and institutions. In order to perpetuate themselves, religions tend to generate institutions which can, and most often do, become hierarchical. Frequently, again most often, they become more about the institution than the religion the institution was founded upon. While the beliefs remain most important to the followers, self-perpetuation is the aim of the institution and authority the aim of the hierarchy. We in the Ethical Movement have avoided that to a fault.

There is a conflict between the intensely personal aspect, the privateness of religious belief and practice, and the institutional aspect of religion. Where you have institutions, you all too often get orthodoxy. When you have hierarchical leadership, you acquire the apparatus to enforce orthodoxy. Once you have orthodoxy and the apparatus to enforce it, you can get persecution. That certainly doesn't describe us.

On the other hand, without recognized keepers-of-the-flame, religious belief can wander off down the byways of expediency, and the various congregations or communities that begin in ideological sameness can diverge into unrecognizable and incongruent differences. We bear more that a passing resemblance to that.

The balance between orthodoxy and consistency is a delicate one. Put too much stress on one and you loose track of your beliefs, go the other way and you blur your identity. That's where I think we are today. We have not lost our religious character, but we do not have a uniform understanding and articulation of our beliefs. I am not suggesting dogma here, but rather a living creed always open to the future. In other words, without closing the cannon we have to make it clear we have one.

Deed before creed is not the same as deed without creed. But it does make our welcome broader than the bounds of our beliefs. Thus we are not dogmatic about it. We are a religion. We do have a set of beliefs. It is a living cannon, not a closed book. And you do not have to profess allegiance to it to join us. You only need want to work toward our common aims within its context.

That makes us unique among religions, but nonetheless a religion. That attitude of inclusiveness, that willingness to keep the cannon open, that welcome that says what we do is more important than what we think -- that is how Ethical Humanism retains the religious character of Ethical Culture.


There are today prominent religions based on one or the other of each of the historic manifestations of religion I recited earlier. There are remnants of some of them in others of them, as well as in a return to some of them through modern interpretation. It seems a lot of energy is being expended on simply moving the pieces around. What is needed is something new, something fresh. The world is long overdue, by at least a half a millennium, for a re-grounding of the meaning of life. Ethical Culture offers that.

At each transformative step along the progressive path of religious belief, there has been reluctance and resistance born of a feeling that the world as it was then known was coming to an end -- perhaps not today, perhaps not tomorrow, but inevitably. I see that same fear today when a new way of looking at the meaning of life is offered, one grounded in bettering this life rather than in the promise of a better life hereafter -- Ethical Humanism.

It is fair to say that religion asks and seeks to answer what is arguably the germinal question of the religious enterprise, What is the meaning of life, if it has one? The strictly secular view sees a world with no known purpose, origin, or destiny. A Humanist approach to religion exits within that framework but it is also involved in the germinal religious enterprise of meaning.

Indeed Ethical Culture is a religious perspective that seeks to transform humankind's understanding of the meaning of life. It is the consciously bold aim of Ethical Humanism to transform the way humanity looks at the meaning of life -- to change the way our culture thinks about life. It is our personal, our social, our cultural, and our religious mission.

The Leader emeritus of the Baltimore Ethical Society, Fritz Williams, summed it up this way: "I don't believe in God. I don't believe in souls. I don't believe in prayer. And I don't believe in life after death. But there are things I do believe in.

"I believe in connecting with our world and with life itself. I believe in participating in a caring and sharing community. And I believe in a life that is … driven … by a higher awareness of what a human life can be."

A higher awareness of what a human life can be. That gives meaning to life itself, a meaning grounded in our ethical expression of Humanism.

That's the religious character of Ethical Culture as a Humanist movement.

Closing Words

My closing words stress the central aspects of my talk this morning and are inspired by your long-time Leader, the loved and respected Dr. Matthew Ies Spetter, who said, "To be human means to have the capacity for transformation."

Ethical Culture is our heritage and our inheritance. Ethical Humanism is our message and our identity. Transforming the way humanity looks at the meaning of life is our mission and our tomorrow.

The reader is reminded that this is the written text of an oral address and remains in that style. While the speaker's presentation marks have been redacted, there has been no attempt to edit it into an essay.