What is Humanism’s Most Powerful Force for Making an Impact on Society?

What is Humanism’s Most Powerful Force for Making an Impact on Society?

On the first “Socrates Café on Sunday” of 2005 there were eighteen individuals, many of whom had no prior exposure to our discussion group, yet most agreed on one topic out of the thirteen suggestions: How can we focus on powerful sources of change within humanism to make positive change in society? The topic’s author was moved by his experience in Utah where so many Mormon’s are engaged in missionary work and other forms of activism.
Numbers:
With an official count of 4000 Ethical Culturists in the US, many felt that it was clear we needed to join with other secular and religious humanistic groups if we are going to make a difference.
What other Religions have which Ethical Culture lacks:
Other religions often mobilize their congregants with fear (of Evil, Hell and the loss of social order). Ethical Culture, on the other hand, instills alarm about the growing political influence and power of those with illiberal and non-scientific world views who nonetheless have great political influence and may represent threats to our society.
Ethical Culture lacks a powerful myth about the world’s creation (being inspired by the scientific description of the Big Bang, evolution and Nature’s diversity). Ethical Culture has no roadmap to salvation in the next life but encourages its adherents to find gratification and deep meaning in this life. Ethical Culture lacks an unimpeachable scripture to guide correct thoughts and conduct. It has no rituals filled with pageantry and isn’t identified with magnificent temples of worship. Nonetheless, it appeals to those disillusioned by the rigidity of orthodoxy, group-think, and esthetic superficialities which can distract adherents from a focus on continual ethical self-improvement and from engaging in the world with others to address injustice, inequity and needless suffering in the world.
The lack of a supernatural or transcendent spiritual force may make Ethical appear unlike a religion to many, yet this very element appeals to the skeptics, rationalists, agnostics and atheists who seek a community with humanistic values and like-minded individuals.
Finally, someone noted that Ethical Culture lacks a superstar adherent, a movie star or other public luminary with name recognition who can serve as an icon of what we stand for. But even if this would be nice, few seemed to feel they would trade Scientology’s John Travolta for Joe Chuman.
Ethical Culture’s Strengths:
Most felt its Leaders were among Ethical Culture’s most important assets, yet there was concern they were not sufficiently “groomed” to address the marketing of Ethical Culture in the public marketplace. It is not that efforts haven’t been made and made again, but the track record speaks for itself. Some suggested that we follow the organizational success of evangelicals to infiltrate boards of education and influential political organizations so that humanistic ideas could have broader influence. Others felt Ethical Culture’s lack of creed was a strength and yet also a liability. The difficulty Ethical Culturists have in clearly and simply articulating what they share with others in the religion may make it less attractive. While evangelicals can say they stand for Life (fetus, embryo), oppose the “Culture of Death” (abortion, euthanasia), we do not use sound bites to convey what we mean by humanism. While we may say “Deep before Creed,” this should not mean no creed at all or no shared values which can be simply communicated with an individual who asks.
The large number of disaffected individuals from all traditional religions and inter-religious families are a significant target for outreach. This heterogeneous group of millions of individuals might be attracted to Ethical by appealing to their struggle for meaning without the need to believe the unbelievable or to suspend their critical powers of thinking or accept religious precepts with blind faith.
Ethical Culture has a proud history of social change: Hudson Guild, Settlement House, the founding of the NAACP and Visiting Nursing Association, etc. But such visible and widely recognized contributions have not been part of Ethical Culture’s recent public profile. While we have done important work on immigration rights and gay rights, these have been local efforts and have not lead to broad recognition, nor much new membership.
The Challenge:
Someone noted that Ethical Culture seems to be an organization largely composed of non-joiners who often believe they are “ethical” in some sense and don’t really need an organized religion or community. If this truly characterizes many members, there is a need to address this organization-defeating attitude. Clearly the morning’s discussion stimulated those present with interesting ideas and, in some cases, for rising to the challenge in other forums.
Socrates Café will be meeting once in June, on the first Monday (June 6th), and then the second Sunday in July (10th) and August (14th) before starting its regular season on Monday September (19th).

Richard Bernstein

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