Ethical Culture Is Not Atheism, But What Is It?

Ethical Culture Is Not Atheism, But What Is It?

 By Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader, Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County

        What I want to do for my first address of the new season is what I have always done, and that is speak of Ethical Culture directly. It is my opinion, and I believe a well-grounded one, that Ethical Culture strives to shape a world-view, that is a broad and far reaching perspective on life and reality.  In that sense, Ethical Culture is not politics, but presents values and beliefs that underlie our politics, and all else that gives our lives direction and purpose.

 Rather than talk about Ethical Culture in a vacuum, I thought it would be constructive to look at it in comparison with another perspective that has gotten a lot of publicity recently, namely atheism. It is my contention that Ethical Culture as a world view has some important things in common with atheism, but they are not the same thing and shouldn’t be identified with each other.

 Atheism has come into its own in American life in the last several years. Perhaps in light of the extremism of the Christian Right, and its intolerant politics that has become very powerful, as well as terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam, atheism has asserted itself in reaction to religion. The past decade has witnessed a spate of books promoting atheism by such writers as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others. These books, as well as dynamic social forces, have played a role in increasing tremendously the number of American who now claims to have “no religion.” This cohort of the population now exceeds 16 percent, which is larger than the African-American minority, or, if looked at religiously, is by far larger than the number of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists put together. A major sector of this cohort are younger people, the so-called “millennial generation,” who, when they look at religion, especially fundamentalist Christianity and its obsessions with abortion, homosexuality and its contempt for those who don’t share its beliefs, conclude that if this what religion is, they don’t want to have any part of it.

 A certain legitimacy: But it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that those people professing “no religion” are themselves atheists. They are primarily people who are turned off to organized religion as promoted in churches. But such “nones,” as they are called, may cultivate their own sense of spirituality and a rapport with what they construe to be divine. Studies have shown that the total number of atheists and agnostics in America does not exceed five percent of the population. Nevertheless, atheism has gained a certain legitimacy that it previous has not had, and this to my way of thinking, being an atheist myself, is a very good thing. Atheism, if not thoroughly despised, has certainly been historically marginalized in American life. Atheism in a certain sense has come out of the closet, and in a moment of enthusiasm has spawned a growing number of atheist and secular organizations.  The media thrive on contention and combat. And because by its nature it sees itself in a combative relationship with religion, atheism and atheist groups have been able to attract a lot of press by tweaking religion and its sanctimonious respectability, much of it which it does not deserve.

 As an important aside, let me say that this current excitement about atheism might encourage us in Ethical Culture to unreflectively jump on board and see ourselves as part of this atheist and secular movement. I do indeed think that Ethical Culture should join in coalition with some of these secular groups, who in their political mission share interests which overlap with our own — as we should consider joining in coalition with any group with whom we have common cause. But my fear, as someone who has loved and been devoted to Ethical Culture for 44 years, is that we should become identified with such atheist and secular groups, and that we set ourselves up to be swallowed by them. We should not allow this, because as my thesis this morning puts forward, Ethical Culture is not atheism, and an assumption that it is, by either its members or in the public eye, is to give up what is distinctive about Ethical Culture at its core. It is to abandon its raison d’etre and lose something that is distinctively precious.

 Back to atheism for a moment. From time immemorial, to be an atheist has been an object of contempt. In the Biblical book of psalms it is written, “Only the fool says in his heart ‘there is no God’.” Socrates was put to death for the crime of atheism. And John Locke, the great English philosopher who wrote a letter on religious toleration, and helped inspired our founders to separate church from state, nevertheless had no place in his commonwealth for atheists.

 A nuisance and even a threat: It is an interesting question as to why atheism and atheists have been the target of so much vituperation and contempt throughout the ages. There have been many reasons, one perhaps being that in a world in which almost everyone was a believer, to be an atheist was to be an outlier, someone who was perversely different from others, and because he or she was different, a nuisance and even a threat.

 But the more compelling explanation has to do with morality. Since ancient times, and even still, I would assume a majority of the population believes that the capacity to be moral is predicated on a belief in God. In the most brute version of this belief, it was assumed by the aristocracy that if the peasants, who were uneducated, impulse-driven and not quite civilized, were to be held in check, that is, be decent, moral and well behaved, an effective mechanism for keeping them that way was to get them to believe that their good behavior would be rewarded by heaven and their immoral behavior would condemn them to eternal damnation. God and fear of God was required to keep people on the straight and narrow. Religion was employed for the purpose of social control.

 A more sophisticated position that grounds morality in God-belief is to assert that morality needs to issue from a source that is outside of human interests. Morality needs to be something that human beings have neither made, nor which they can unmake. For if morality is merely a human creation, who is to say that what is assumed to be moral doesn’t merely reflect the interests of those who hold power in society? Hence morality needs to be inscribed in an unchanging cosmic order lest it rest on the shifting sands of human whim and changing power configurations.  We need a moral standard that transcends human interests, is absolute, does not change and is eternal. In other words, that source is God, and those who cannot accept God, therefore cannot be moral. John Locke, whom I mentioned a while back, who advocated for religious tolerance and could not countenance atheists as citizens, did so on the grounds that atheists could not take oaths, and therefore could not be trusted as loyal members of  society.

 A long-held prejudice: This equation of God-belief and morality is a testament to the pervasiveness of religion and its hold over the human mind. I say this because the assumption that one needs to believe in God in order to be moral is simply false to the facts. There is no empirical evidence that people who believe in God are any more ethical than people who do not. And they never have been. And so, we can conclude that this assumption falls into the category of a prejudice, a prejudice that is thousands of years long and as deep as the ocean, but a prejudice, nevertheless.

 I am an atheist because I am one of those people who is committed to the notion that one’s beliefs should be based on evidence as much as possible, and I simply see no evidence of a divine custodian. I see no evidence of divine agency in the natural world and I see no evidence of it in the realm of morality either.  Why a God who is both absolutely good and totally powerful would permit a young child to die painfully and slowly from a dreaded disease is something that the theologians have never been able to compellingly answer, in all my study of religion, in my humble opinion.

 That belief in God can bring good effects, I have no doubt. The lives and careers of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King are testaments to the power of religious belief. And it is because of religion’s capacity to foster good and noble deeds, that I retain a qualified respect for it, especially in its prophetic role.  But to my mind, the great and admirable accomplishments of a Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day and countless others, says more about the power of belief than it does about the real existence of a being who putatively stands behind that belief. They are not the same thing.

 But let me return to my main topic. Atheism has also played a positive role in human history, but in my view it is a negative philosophy without any content of its own. When I speak of atheism’s positive role, I am thinking of the role it played during the Enlightenment, for example. The Enlightenment thinkers, especially in France, were keen to an unholy alliance between the corrupt aristocracy, the nobility and the church. The church and religion played powerful roles in enabling and justifying the oppression of the masses, and their priests benefited from this oppression. The attack on religion in the name of rationalism, science, and at times, atheism, was used as an instrument by which to unmask the deceptive and corrupt and oppressive role of the church in the service of bringing about liberty and eventually democratic forms of government.

 Often a conservative force: Throughout history and to its disgrace, religion has all too often been a conservative force that has favored the status quo and has entered into alliances with the powers of state that have served the interests of oppression rather than freedom. This is true whether we are talking about the Vatican through much of its history, the Orthodox Church in czarist Russia, the Church in Franco’s Spain or in support of Argentinean generals in the late 1970s, and numerous other examples.  By contrast, atheism has aligned itself often, but not always — Stalinism being a major counter-example — with the forces that have also been on the side of freedom, political and intellectual freedom. In its critical role, atheism has often been a powerful and productive idea.

 But my concern is that once atheism has played that role of bringing down the negative and excessive aspects of religion, what are we left with? What are we left with as a life philosophy?  I would argue we are left with a void, in that atheism is essentially negative and not positive.

 Elements of authoritarianism: Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, was also sensitive to the insufficiency of atheism. It is an interesting fact that when Felix Adler founded Ethical Culture he did so out of a critical stance toward the historical religions. He felt that Christianity and Judaism, even liberally interpreted, still retained elements of authoritarianism as well as   beliefs that were unsuited to the modern, scientific age. And yet, at the same time, he declared “I never was an atheist.” And he also stated that his intellectual struggles were to find “a way out of agnosticism,” as he put it.

 In fact, by starting Ethical Culture, Adler undoubtedly believed he was doing something religious. But for him, and for me, Ethical Culture does not start with the issue of whether there is a God or no God.  Nor is that its primary preoccupation. Its frame of reference is different.

 Ethical Culture starts with and is built upon what I like to refer to as an abiding intuition, an intuition as to what human beings and human relations are about at their deepest and most important level. When I say that Ethical Culture starts with an intuition, I am implying that it rests more upon a primal emotion and insight than it does upon an idea or a principle.

 I live in a world of other human beings, some known to me, the vast majority unknown to me. The questions Ethical Culture asks are, “How am I to look upon my fellow human beings? What should my approach to them be? How should I value them?”

 The Industrial Age: When Adler founded Ethical Culture the world he lived in was one in which the rich were growing richer at the expense of the faceless masses. It was the Industrial Age. It was a world in which people were crammed into overflowing tenements that were disease-ridden, and men, women and children were crushed in the maw of faceless and dangerous factories, almost chained to their machines for endless hours of work to churn out profits for their industrial masters. The question back then was:  “How do we treat people as more than cogs and tools in a world in which their humanity is unrecognized and bled out of them?” And it is, friends, certainly a question we can ask today.

 The operative term here and for Ethical Culture is “humanity.”

 We can look at the world and the human beings in it in a two-fold way. When it comes to the world of things, whether it be the buildings we live and work in, our tools and appliances, and myriad other things around us, these things exist to satisfy our needs and wants — some very basic needs, others more sublime ones, such as our aesthetic needs. But in the end, we use and exploit them for the sake of our satisfaction. We are their masters.

 But human beings are different. We can look at them as we do the inanimate things around us — as instruments and tools to satisfy our own interests, needs and lusts. In the most basic sense we can treat people as mere objects, as things, that fit into our own needs and purposes.

 Someone might ask: Do we really do this? And my answer is: Of course we do. We do it all the time and in a multitude of different ways. And that is the problem. That is our great humanistic problem. It is has always been our problem, and with seven billion people walking the face of the earth, the problem is potentially greater now than it has ever been. And this is the problem that Ethical Culture at its very core resists, and it is its central mission to resolve.

 Wanton suppression of humanity: And what is that problem? It is the nullification, the obliteration, the annihilation and the wanton suppression of the humanity of human beings. When does this happen? It happens most graphically and I would argue, most inexplicably, when tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of men and women are slaughtered in a mass phenomenon that has come to be known as genocide, slaughtered  for the sake of the power of a few or sacrificed in the name of an ideology. It happens in warfare generally when human beings become nothing other than “collateral damage.” It happens when members of minority groups are the victims of bigotry and are degraded and humiliated.

 But it happens in other ways that are hidden from us, and I contend that their hiddenness enables them to flourish. It happens when uncountable workers in a globalized world labor in drudgery to bring favorable returns on a balance sheet. Each thing we enjoy, whether a pair of shoes or a bar of chocolate, contains hidden social and human processes behind it, processes that are out of sight and almost always out of mind. And it happens right here when 13 million Americans suffer from job loss and the indignities of chronic unemployment.

In a more general sense, human beings are robbed of their humanity whenever they are turned into statistics. Social science, or course, does this, and I admit that it is inevitable. Researchers have found that a person can only get to know distinctively and personally at one time no more than about 150 other people. Beyond that, human beings begin to shade into an impersonal mass, into an ethnic group, a race, a tribe, a nationality or a class. They become a stereotype, a generality and their individual humanity is lost in the process.

 But it is the purpose, again, of Ethical Culture to not allow this process, as inevitable as it is, to go down too easily.

At the center of Ethical Culture is what I would call “a feeling for humanity.” And this feeling for humanity, this feeling of the humanity of the other, starts with what I believe is the capacity for empathy. And it is the supreme purpose of Ethical Culture, which exists to cultivate ethics, to cultivate this capacity for empathy. People are born, I believe, with certain temperaments.  But our emotions, like our intellect, are not fixed, not incorrigible. Our emotions, I believe, can be widened and expanded, in other words, they can grow based on how we set our goals and by trying to become the kind of person we want to be. We can broaden and sensitize our emotions through practice.

 Our humanity overlaps: What is empathy? It is the ability, though the use of our projective imagination, to say to oneself, “What would it be like to be that other person?” “What would it be like to be like her, with her dreams and aspirations, insecurities and fears?” “What would the world feel like to be her and to see the world as she does — subjectively, from the inside out?”  What would it be like to take her standpoint?” Of course, we can never fully achieve this identification with another self. We are separate people. But I believe that we are not totally separate. As members of the same human species, our humanity, mine and hers, do overlap. And  even if I cannot totally identify with the other,  I would argue that the very effort to do so stretches our capacity for empathy, for putting us into contact with the humanity of the other, and in that process humanizing ourselves as well. This is Ethical Culture’s central task, its propelling mission, to rescue the human from the forces of dehumanization.

It is sometimes said that Ethical Culture, in contrast to the historical religions, which have well-honed rituals elaborated over the centuries, lacks methods by which to but its values into practice. For the most part this is true. But let me suggest a very simple meditation, which I engage in from time to time, which helps me become a better Ethical Culturist. When at times I read a statistic, such as the number of Americans unemployed, it becomes useful to push ones mental content aside and to try to imagine what it must feel like for an individual person to lose his or her job. Ask “How would I feel if I were to lose my job?” “What would it do to my dignity and self-esteem?” “How would it affect my relations to my spouse and children?” “What would be my worst fear?” On the positive side, I might reflect on how being unemployed rallied my spirits to overcome adversity, or to expand an appreciation for the love and support that my family and friends have given to me. In other words, we can try to get beyond a world that dehumanizes human beings by brutally oppressing them or turning into statistics, through acts of empathy and through attempting to identify with the other.

Clearly, we can engage in these acts of empathy most easily with those with whom we actively share our lives, those with whom we are most intimate, our family members and a few chosen friends. But we can’t love everyone or actively extend our compassion and empathy to all humankind. But I think, nevertheless, it behooves us to take the emotions we experience in the intimate precincts of our lives and to use these emotions as examples of how we might value people who are strangers to us. If I love my daughter, it behooves me to imagine that there are other fathers, elsewhere, who also love their daughters, as I love mine, and through that act of identification of our shared humanity, expand my own orbit of empathy and caring.

 In a certain sense one might conclude that all this is a bit self-evident and too commonplace to harp on. Would that it were! If people did not find it so quick and easy to forget and not care about the humanity of others, as they care about their own, the great injustices that have marred the career of humankind would be greatly mitigated, I contend.

 Is it fair or unfair? This sensitivity to the humanity that lies within the other is the heart of Ethical Culture and gives rise to its guiding principles and its practice. Everything spins out from that center. It suggests how we should strive to relate to those who are part of our intimate lives, how we should strive to relate to strangers, and it lays down the values that should form our politics and how we direct our lives, both as an individual and socially. Everything emanates from and is directed toward this ideal of preserving the humanity of human beings. It is the lodestar, the criterion that needs to govern our choices, large and small.  When it comes to politics, we need to ask ourselves, “Does this policy or political position in its very ultimate purpose serve to enhance the dignity of human beings or does it oppress that dignity for the sake of the power, profit or aggrandizement of a few?”  “Does it lead down the line to the enhancement of the wellbeing and the dignity of human beings?”  “Does it promote justice or injustice?”  “Is it fair or unfair?” These must be the criteria toward which politics ultimately leads.

 To return to my contrast, Ethical Culture overlaps with atheism in that it proclaims that it does not need God in order to execute its program. Empathy can grow deeper with the reinforcement that it is part of a cosmic purpose, or without it, as I fervently believe it can. But, as I have tried to suggest, Ethical Culture does not start or end with atheism, nor has that ever been its center of gravity. If it were, why would those inspired by Ethical Culture throughout its history create settlement houses, and schools to educate the young, enable immigrants, workers, and refugees to improve their lives, battle the evil of child labor, and invest itself in a multitude of other humanitarian causes? These are our proudest achievements, and none of them has anything to do with atheism.

 In closing, let me say that beyond the practical effects of attempting to humanize an inhuman condition, the effort to do so can also serve for us individually as the basis for our own world views. To borrow from an unusual source, we are all better off, if we live “a purpose-driven life;” if we dedicate ourselves to something larger than ourselves that outlasts us. And so I would say, let us collectively in the Ethical Culture Society, and in our own hearts, minds,  and in what we do with our individual lives, allow ourselves to be inspired by the overarching aspiration to make this world a better, more decent and caring place.  Above all things, as we take our journey through life, let us dedicate ourselves to humanity.




  1. Very eloquent! We will study this speech here in Silicon Valley as a way of understanding Ethical Culture from a current perspective. We’ve studied Adler but Chuman brings EC into the present. Thanks for making this widely available.

    • Thanks, Paula! Yes, Joe’s talks are always terrific and we often post them, so check back here once in awhile. Better yet, come and visit NJ! Hope all is well with you and the Silicon Valley Society.
      (from the AEU Lay Leadership Summer School)

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