What Humanists Believe
By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Life does not stand still for long. All of life is a cycle of motion and rest. We grow, we push ahead, we exert ourselves, we rest, and then move forward again.
For humanists, such we are, the purpose of life is to live – to live fully, to live comprehensively, to live strenuously, to bathe ourselves in the riches of experience. But motion, which is unguided, is erratic, chaotic, unsatisfying, and sheer restlessness. It is a cliché that life is a journey. But as much as we are inspired by the wanderlust of life’s journey, at some point we need to return home again. We need to come home so that we reflect upon where we have been, renew our energies, and chart our future as much as it is in our power to do so. Life presses us onward toward the expansion of our energies and the assertion of our wills. But as much as we driven to roam through life, we also need fixed points, anchorages and safe harbors within which we can restore ourselves and take a moment to reflect and get our lives in order.
This brings me to the Ethical Culture Society, its philosophy and the role that it plays in our lives. I believe it is an important role.
We live in demanding and tension-producing times. We are experiencing a dangerous moment in American society and on the world scene. There is a sense of menace resonating through our lives. Seldom have we felt that large political and world events affect us so intimately, as if to get under our skin and upset us in our day-to-day activity. We our coming on the second anniversary of the terrorist assault just twelve miles from here, which in moments killed almost 3,000 of our neighbors, and has transformed the tenor of our lives every day. We live in the after shocks of terrorism, and we are continuously reminded of it, and of violence on a massive scale, be it “orange” alerts, extremist conspiracies, and two wars, which through their destabilizing effects, may serve as a matrix of more terror and more violence. War is convulsive, and once set in motion, it leads to consequences which are uncontainable and unforeseeable. We sense, perhaps correctly that the ill-conceived and ill -fated war in Iraq will render us less safe rather than more.
Never in my own lifetime has the future seemed so uncertain. Never has it seemed so anarchic. The menace of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, was in a sense greater. But at least the feeling of menace was contained. One feels now that the forces that confront us, and will inhabit our future, are more unpredictable, more diffuse, and threaten to metastasize beyond our effort to restrain or control them.
For those of us who are progressives, the domestic situation can hardly bring us comfort. The administration in Washington is bent on spreading its ideology over American society as it is committed to blanketing the globe with its military power. Unprecedented tax cuts, which are a gift to the rich and the super rich, and the gaping deficits that they have created, will ensure that social spending for those in need will grow scarcer and scarcer. Indeed it seems to be the intention of this administration to return American society to the 19th century, when government provided virtually no services at all, and those in need were left to survive on handouts from churches and other private agencies. Unemployment is higher than it has been in decades. So meager is the commitment to the common good, that even the president’s proclaimed “compassionate” conservatism has proven to be a campaign gimmick and a fraud. Every promise to support education, Americorp, drugs plans for seniors, fighting AIDS in Africa has been followed by a refusal to allocate funds to support those very promises.
And we who cherish our freedom, and are rightfully skeptical of the power of government, need to be very wary of this ultra-conservative administration that is far too eager to use the mask of security to severely compromise our civil liberties. Never since the McCarthy era have our Constitutional liberties been so threatened as they are now.
Working fist-in-glove with far right politics, and fuelling it, are dark religious forces of a vast evangelical and fundamentalist sub-culture in America. We are involved in a type of culture war, pitting the forces of authoritarian religion against the values of modernism, secularism, liberalism, rationalism, and if you will, humanism — what we would equate with the elements of the free and enlightened mind.
The recent standoff involving Justice Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, over the placement of his bolder size monument of the Ten Commandments in the court house, on one level seems silly. But on another, it’s representative of this very culture war in America, one side of which tires of the secular character of American government, and by extension the diverse society we have become. Judge Moore claims that the Ten Commandments is the basis of American law. Never mind that US Constitution is a totally godless document and never mentions the Deity nor the Ten Commandments. Never mind that the Founding Fathers of the Republic in their concept of law were far more influenced by the ancient pagans such as Cicero and Seneca than they were by the Bible. And never mind that of the Ten Commandments, only two the commandments prohibiting murder and theft, involve activities that have anything to do with law in this country. A point here is, that to certain crusading religious minds, facts, and history and reason matter very little. All such values, which we hold dear, are trumped by the righteousness of the cause of the faithful. In great measure this is what we are up against in the current moment.
Perhaps if there were a concerted, courageous leadership in the opposition party, we could feel less isolated. Perhaps if the ultra-conservative ideology which rules Washington were confronted by an articulated, progressive ideology that carried an inspiring moral message, spoke to the needs of people on the grass roots, were truly democratic and had integrity and gravity to it, those who are alienated from the current administration would feel more hopeful. But such does not seem to be the case.
It is within this context, and amidst the tensions of our times, that the value of Ethical Culture becomes that much more important.. The questions I pose this morning are: What is its value? Whom are we for? What beliefs do we as humanists hold that bring us together? For our beliefs are assuredly distinctive, and becoming more so within the context of the present moment..
We should never underestimate the importance of our community. As human beings we are social beings. We need others in order to play out our lives and become who we are. A person alone withers and dies. It is in our active life with other human beings that we potentially flourish.
By coming together in a community we derive strength from each other. We break down the barriers of isolation, which instill insecurity and weakness. We fortify our values, recommit ourselves to our beliefs, and restore the sense of confidence we need to meet the challenges of life and the demands society places on us, including the extraordinary demands we confront at this political moment.
I think of the Ethical Society as a refuge for like-minded people; for people who share a common outlook, a common world-view, and a common appreciation for what matters most in life. We are an island of respite in a frenzied world. We are a home in which we can recharge our energies in order to move on to meet the challenges of life.
Members of this Society will sometimes say to me that being part of this community allows them to be honest with themselves and with others, and speak their minds truthfully in ways in which they cannot when they are in the workplace. Members will sometimes tell me that the Ethical Society provides them with an outlet to do social justice work, for some for the first time in their lives. Sometimes parents tell me of the importance of our Sunday School in supporting their efforts to raise moral children. Sometimes members tell me that the opinions and values they hold, which make them feel alien in most environments, find acceptance in this community, and thereby enable them to feel comfortable here as they seldom do elsewhere. Some talk of the connections they make with other people, the abiding friendships which, in some cases last a life-time. Some tell me that Ethical Culture is a place where they can reflect on, refine, and reconfirm their own philosophies of life, and find the inspiration to live better, more ethically sensitive lives – and of course, this is Ethical Culture’s highest calling.
This is no small thing. As social beings we need others to help us clarify our belief systems and sustain our convictions. We all need a sense of meaning in life. We cannot live without it. We need beliefs and something to believe in, which give us a sense of purpose, a sense of our place in the universe, and sustain us with hope as we relentlessly move into an unknown and risky future. If we wish, we can refer to these needs as relating to the spiritual side of our natures. It is the role of religious societies to provide this, as it is of Ethical Culture.
The pursuit of this spiritual quest, of the search for meaning, for a guiding and workable philosophy of life is a social activity also. No person works out his or her relationship to life and the universe totally alone. We borrow from the thought and experience of others. We learn from others. And, as mentioned, we need others to help us sustain our convictions and beliefs.
If a purpose of our Ethical Culture community is to help us reinforce our beliefs, what in fact are the beliefs that bring and bind us together? What is it that Ethical Culturists as humanists believe?
To begin, the belief system of Ethical Culturists is paradoxical. It is paradoxical in the sense that Ethical Culture affirms freedom of individual thought and conscience. We have no over-arching doctrines or dogmatic beliefs that one must hold in order to be an Ethical Culturist. Rather we encourage freedom of belief, and the diversity of belief which inevitably follows from encouraging that individual freedom.
But at the same time, in order to come together under the same roof, there needs to be a broad range of accepted beliefs that we hold in common or else we could not come together at all.
Ethical Culture, and humanism more broadly, is a particular, identifiable world-view, a life-stance and orientation; it is a particular slant on life and our place in the universe which is distinctive, and in many ways makes us different from others, even as we affirm our connection with the entire human family of which we are a part.
What are some of Ethical Culture’s and humanism’s beliefs, intuitions and assumptions?
First of all, humanists honor the importance of ideas. They appreciate the value of ideas in guiding life and molding our characters. Another way of saying this is that a central assumption around which we gather is that integrity, including intellectual integrity, counts for a great deal in life. We operate on the presumption that there is nothing virtuous, admirable or dignified in professing what we do not believe.
This central conviction, that I hear repeated in so many ways by people here, significantly sets us apart from many people these days.
People are returning to the churches and the synagogues in large numbers. I have no doubt that many are led by sincere beliefs in what the traditional religions profess. But I know that many are not. They are willing to recite prayer, espouse doctrines and engage in rituals in which they do not believe. They either bracket the contradiction, or in the privacy of their minds struggle to give the God-language a metaphorical meaning it was never meant to have. Such folks are flocking and flocking back to the traditional houses of worship for reasons of nostalgia, to seek out a warm sense of community with others in an alienating world, or because religion and spirituality has attained a certain cache and attractiveness, and they are following the crowd. There is nothing terrible about these socially driven motivations, and they may even be good. My point is that many (again, not all) such folks are willing to subordinate intellectual consistency, intellectual integrity for the sake of these experiences. People who come to Ethical Culture are not.
Perhaps they would agree with me, that religion speaks to what Paul Tillich called one’s “ultimate concerns”. And when it comes to what one considers one’s ultimate concerns and ultimate truths, intellectual integrity should count here more than anywhere else in life. If one has to fudge what one considers one’s religious truths, then I would argue that one’s religious convictions, are contradicted and a sham. If one cannot be honest in one’s religious views, where should one be honest?
This is not to say that Ethical Culturists are across the board more honest than others. As mortal creatures we are all self-deluding to varying degrees. All I am saying is that when it comes to this important component in the realm of beliefs, we are not willing to profess what we do not believe. Perhaps, in the face of the blandishments, benefits and comforts of the traditional religions, most people are willing to pay the price of subordinating intellectual consistency. They see it as no big deal. For whatever reasons, perhaps reasons of temperament most all, we do. This fact both distinguishes us from many others in society as a whole, and may account in great measure for our small size.
Second, Ethical Culturists are committed to ethical ideals, and living out their ethical values, as life’s highest aspiration. Ethical Culture exists “to create ethical personality” said Felix Adler, who founded our movement 127 years ago. We live to make of ourselves morally better people. When it comes to the ends and purposes of life, nothing is more important than this. While we seek to survive and be materially comfortable, while we seek success in our work and strive to acquire competence, and perhaps secure a reputation for ourselves among our peers and in the world, all these things are subordinate to the claim that life makes on us to be better, more ethically refined and involved human beings
What does this mean in more specific ways?
Ethical Culture sketches a path and an approach. It says that action, experience and engagement is the way. One does not become more ethical by thinking or dreaming about it. “If you wish to become courageous, says Aristotle, you must do courageous things.” We would agree. Likewise if you wish to become more compassionate, kind and loving, you must do more compassionate, kinder, loving things. “Engagement” is the word.
What kind of engagement? It was the spiritual premise of Dr. Adler, in a way that proceeded, what we would call today, “system theory” that all human beings are organically related to one another. While we are all distinctive and different, we are, at the same time, all connected in a vast family, in a vast systemic organism, so that what I do to others, affects them, and reciprocally changes me in the process.
Ethical Culture is primarily outer-directed. It says, “If I wish to grow, the best way is to enable others to grow.” “”If I wish to be a beloved person, I need to strive to be a person who extends love to others.” “If I wish to realize my own sense of worthiness, I need to treat others with worth”. I cannot passively wait for these values to come to me, I need to put them into action myself in order to realize them for myself.
What distinguishes this humanist life stance is that one does not behave ethically because one will receive a reward in this life, or next, that is bestowed after the fact by a God in heaven. It recognizes that that our field of engagement is with other human beings. It sublimely recognizes, as Buddhists do, that blessedness is not deferred to a life after death, but blessedness can be now, and can be experienced in this moment by how we relate ourselves to others, when we truly help them, when we recognize the precious, irreplaceable core of their humanity, and strive to elicit what is best in them. The ethical moment reveals itself to us, As Adler put, “when we enter into the life of others and enable them to think well of themselves.” The humanist sensibility is to see our own face mirrored in the face of the other. It is to be moved to a feeling of empathy when we realize that we, members of the human family, spring from a common ancestry and are bound to one another by a common destiny.
What humanists see as their commitments in the world of inter-personal relations, they extend outward to the broader sphere of social and political realities. To be a humanist is to long for a more ethical world; a world founded the ideals of justice, equality, dignity and respect for all. The humanist is therefore dedicated not only to human beings, but to humankind. To be a humanist is to be, in one aspect of one’s being, critical of the status quo, of the way things are in the service of the way things might be. It is to see oneself as a shaper of one’s community and one’s world. To be a humanist is to believe that the destiny of humankind is not preordained. It is rather to believe that the future of humanity is an open future, and not a closed future. If one is a traditional religionist, and certainly a fundamentalist, one believes in a closed future. The future is foretold in the scriptures and will assuredly come to pass by act of divine will. If one is a humanist, one believes in an open future, which t human agency, intelligence and good will can increasingly bend in the direction of justice and goodness.
Humanism is often criticized as being too rationalistic, sterile and sort of crusty and humorless. I have never seen it this way, for the field of humanism is as wide and deep as human experience.
While Ethical Culturists put ethical experience at the center, humanism more broadly advocates the good life for all. It says that the best life is the life that enables human flourishing, the unfolding and development of our talents, abilities and potentials to their highest degree. The humanist is dedicated to developing not only our ethics, but our minds, our imaginations, our bodies, are emotions, our capacity for pleasure, for sociality, for sex, for laughter, for art, for music, for whatever makes an enriched, cultured life that partakes of the greatest creations of men and women. The fulfilled life is an essential aspiration of the humanist ideal and world-view.
But humanism also recognizes that within the envelope of human experience is our falling short of the ideal. A more sober and sophisticated humanism recognizes that there is tragedy that courses though the human experience. It recognizes that much of the greatness of life is not found in the manifest victories that we win, but in our capacities to cope and find a sense of renewal when adversity, loss, and tragedy threaten to overwhelm us.
And finally, humanism is sometimes criticized for being too humano-centric, of concentrating too much on the human world to the neglect of the nature and the wider universe.
Though humanism focuses on human concerns, ethical relations and human flourishing, I don’t think it need end there, nor should it. We know, of course, that we are natural beings, children of nature, and we are dependent at every moment on the viability of the natural world. This undeniable realization should lead us to be stewards of the earth and to feel a kinship with living things. It should lead us to feel a sense of piety and humility before the grander universe, which by an accident of nature, has given us birth and has endowed with consciousness to reflect on its grandeur.
Humanism has sometimes been accused of arrogance for placing humankind too much at the center of things, in contrast to the theistic religions, which humble humankind before the majesty of their Creator.
This accusation, I believe, is misplaced. Rather than lead to arrogance, a reflective humanism is deeply appreciative of human limitations. It recognizes that we are finite before an infinite universe. It recognizes that the cumulative knowledge of humankind is like a pebble on a beach, before which their extends a vast ocean of our ignorance. It recognizes that nature is infinitely powerful, and with regard to our ultimate fate, will have the last word.
It is this fact of our finitude before an infinite universe that can give rise to feeling of wonder, of awe, of our sense of connectedness and participation in the fabric of nature and being. It can be a source of our most sublime reflections and spiritual intuitions. It comprises the apprehensions that can lift us beyond the petty preoccupation of daily life, and endow us with moments of heightened awareness and appreciation for the gift of life.
All these elements — the importance of ideas and intellectual integrity, the appreciation for the worthiness of ourselves and others and the pursuit of ethical ideals, the struggle for a just world, the striving to maximize our potentials, an appreciation of our dependence on and integrality with nature and our sense of spiritual uplift in the contemplation of our finitude before an infinite universe – all these are elements of the humanist world view, which is a distinctive world-view.
Humanism is not for everyone. The attraction of myth and ritual, the need for cosmic guarantees, the desire to worship a transcendental being beyond nature, and the yearning for future rewards seem to grip the allegiance of masses of mankind. For most of humanity these allegiances trump the critical faculties of reason, the findings of science, the sublime satisfactions of doing what is right and good for the sake of rights and good alone. The power of these attractors is great. But, I believe, so is the power of skepticism, and history has yet to throw the last stone.
We who are humanists and Ethical Culturists are dedicated to a great and noble cause. We stand for those values identified with the modern and enlightened outlook. We are committed to those values necessary the civilized survival and flourishing of humankind. And these values are severely challenged in our times by the forces of authoritarianism, unreason, religious fundamentalism and extremism.
So much more important, therefore, is our community of like-minded souls. For it is here that we can rededicate ourselves to our ideals, borrow strength from one another, reconfirm our beliefs, and within these walls find a home where we can bring to light what is best in others, and thereby nurture it in ourselves.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
7 September 2003