What ceremonies do you have? What holidays do you observe?
Our celebrate the joys of life with weddings and with welcoming ceremonies for babies. At times of loss, we share consolation and support with funeral or memorial services. We also celebrate, though not necessarily in a formal way, moments in peoples’ lives that leave a lasting impression on our community.
We do not have any special holidays. Instead, we note the special days that Nature provides us: the Solstices, when nature changes from the darkness and slumber of winter into the rejuvenation and life of Spring, for example. And in a way befitting our philosophy, we do this celebrating with sharing and commitment to each other.
How is Ethical Culture a religion?
According to the American College Dictionary of 1947, “Religion is the quest for ideal life involving three parts: the ideal itself; the practices required to get to that ideal, and philosophy or theology relating that ideal to the environing universe.” So the word religion doesn’t necessitate theology.
Indeed, the word religion itself comes from the Latin, the root word as in ligaments, ligare meaning binding together. Then religion, or binding back, implies that what binds a community together; what holds a community together may be considered as its religion. Felix Adler dealt with this question very briefly in a statement when he was dealing with the question, “can you have religion without a required creed?” What he said was this: “we simply reply that we are a religious society , that we bury the dead, that we consecrate the marriage bond, that we support a Sunday school, etc, and we have done all this to the greater or less satisfaction of a considerable body of people, for more than 28 years.” That would be 1904, when he made that statement.
What is Humanism?
Humanism is an attitude toward life. Not a creed, not an ideology. Humanism is a concern with this life and this world, with human experience, with the problems and promise of being human beings. It is possible, a Humanist would say, to seek a worthwhile and satisfying life here and now without reference to concepts of afterlives or supernaturals or other unverifiable notions. Humanism is rational and naturalistic. It seeks answers without recourse to magical, mystical, irrational or supernatural notions. It’s not that we dismiss the other religions of the world, but we regard them as expressions of being human.
They are sources of legends, myths, ideas and maybe even wisdom, but not necessarily truth. Humanism is cosmopolitan, Humanists say we should look at and learn from all of humanity all over the world, and not just stick in our own garden, but look at the flowers that blossom elsewhere.
Humanism says we need to study, we need to ask, we need to question, to explore, to hypothesize, to test, in order to understand, and then to act to improve the conditions of humanity around the world. Because we say we always need to study, we are always tentative, Humanism doesn’t come up with final answers. Some religious traditions say that knowledge is clear, at least in certain dimensions, and will not change. We say that knowledge is always an approximation. A humanist says all we need is understanding, all we need are tools to live by, workable hypotheses to get us going, and then the vision and the integrity to refine our hypotheses as experience teaches us.
What do we believe in?
A story once told by Gerome Nathenson when he was a leader at the NY Society: Two 6-year-olds were talking, and one says, “When my mother dies, she’ll go to Heaven, and when I die, I’ll go to Heaven and I’ll see her there.” The other boy says, “Do you really think that?” And the first boy says, “I don’t think it, but I believe it.”
We don’t do that. We don’t ask you to think something different than what you believe. We don’t have a creed, we don’t have a requirement of belief, especially about the unascertainable. We do share, however, a number of positions or postures or affirmations. And those we can articulate when we say what Ethical Culture is.
The paramount goal, the highest aim of human life is to create a more ethical culture. To cultivate ethics on earth, that’s the job. We affirm what we call human worth, based upon the notion that every being is unique, irreplaceable, induplicable, and that all people be treated as, in Kant’s terms, as an individual, always as an end, and never as a means.
Some people are asked, how do you ground the idea of human worth? How do you discover it? The answer is we don’t ground it, we don’t discover it, we attribute it. We assume it. The postulate of human worth is a testable hypothesis. As John Elliot said, “Treat human beings as if they had worth, and see what happens”.
Adler says, “After all, there is a certain definite view of life, underlying the ethical movement. As every religion has taught a fundamental conception of life, and has gained strength by so doing, and so too, we are teaching a fundamental conception, the conception that namely progress in right living is the paramount aim and end of life. Right believing is important only as they lead to right living and the thinking and believing must approve themselves to be right by their fruit in conduct.”
We have a commitment to democratic values in Ethical Culture, especially freedom of thought and conscience, the rights of individuals and the encouragement of conditions allowing human possibility to blossom. And so, Ethical Culture calls for action. We speak of democracy as something that is part of a religious or philosophical tradition relating us to the the environing universe. Adler talks of democracy as “that arrangement of society in which human beings, especially those who under the old systems were suppressed, shall have the freest and fullest opportunity to make their life meaningful, to sound a note of their own in the universal song, to be a gem, however minute, in the crown of humanity.” “The end itself,” continues Adler, “which glorifies democracy, is that in it, every human being may be under such influences as shall cause the gift in him to become manifest. The way to that end is in the rule that applies to all ethical relations, that is, seek to elicit the best in others, and so endeavoring, you will evoke the best that is within yourself. You will become a meaningful person yourself, in the degree you try to bring out the meaning there is in other people, their gift, their fineness.”