By Dr. Joseph Chuman
I want to begin my presentation on the future of Ethical Culture by looking into the remote past. In the 1970s, studies were done by anthropologists that researched the relationship between campfires and the building of communities and the creation of social networks among people. The groups observed were Bushmen in Botswana and Namibia because it was thought that those tribal peoples who were hunters and gatherers provided clues to the evolutionary development of human community and culture.
An anthropologist, Polly Wiessner, found that three-quarters of the daytime conversation these people had centered on work-related talk or gossip. At night, however, more than 80 percent of conversations centered on singing, dancing, spirituality, or “enthralling stories, often about known people,” including tales about “the exploits of distant kin, adventures in towns, local politics, and stories that hold the community together.”
I think that these findings shouldn’t surprise us. Sitting by the fire inspires a specific kind of conversation and deepens a particular kind of relationship among people. Many modern homes are still built with fireplaces, which finds a central location in the living room. The fireplace is the hearth around which people gather, and sitting around the fire, whether in the home or in the campground, inspires a type of togetherness and bonding that stands in pleasant contrast to the functional relations we have in our workaday lives. There is something primordial about this archaic scenario—gathering around the fire to sing together, share conversations, and just be together. I think it is something built into our natures as anthropological beings and gathering around the fire evokes an experience that puts us in touch with a social and communal aspect of ourselves we routinely don’t experience.
I want to keep this image of communing around a central fire in mind as a metaphor for the guiding idea I want to develop this morning.
What I want to talk about is the endurance of Ethical Culture as we look to the future, because I do think that our continuity and our relevance are challenged by our modern times, indeed, by the dynamics of our contemporary society. But to look at our future, I first want to look at the past and the origins of Ethical Culture, when there was little doubt that Ethical Culture brought something new, distinctive, and relevant to American society, and its relevance has been validated by its continuing survival and its contributions to its members and the larger society. While Ethical Culture has always been small, I think it is noteworthy that it is the only so-called “religion of humanity” created in the 19th century—and there were several—that has survived into the 21st.
When Ethical Culture was founded in 1876, like all things, it was a creature of its times, yet it was also distinctive and unique, and much of its initial appeal was tagged to its novelty. When I note that Ethical Culture was a creature of its times, I think it best to understand it as being the child of two major phenomena, one philosophical and the second social and economic. On the philosophical and intellectual side, Ethical Culture was born out of conflict of science and religion. The 19th century was probably the century when warfare, so to speak, between science and religion reached its greatest pitch.
While modern science emerged in the 17th century with such luminaries as Galileo, Newton, and many others, it wasn’t until the 19th that it made broad and deep inroads in ways that changed the beliefs of the masses of human beings. The 19th century saw the development of modern geology, great advances in physics, astronomy, and medicine, the creation of the social sciences such as anthropology and sociology, and great strides in biology, the most revolutionary and consequential being the Darwinian theory of evolution. Indeed, it was in the 19th century that science established itself as a profession.
The scientific discoveries of the century, which carried great prestige and authority, created a dramatic and painful challenge to religion. As the compelling nature of scientific explanation grew, religious rationales for natural phenomena became less believable. Geology developed by Charles Lyell and others in the early 19th century was able to establish, by invoking the action of wind and water, that the Earth was at least millions of years old, and not merely 6,000 years old, as scripture has suggested. Pierre Laplace had hypothesized a nebular hypothesis for the creation of the solar system that was replacing the accounts found in Genesis. Increasingly, advances in physics and chemistry, validated by experiment and observation, confirmed that nature is governed by laws. In short, nature is lawful, which made divine intervention by miracles less and less credible to the educated mind. As science advanced, God and divine explanations for natural phenomena retreated to the corners of respectability. So what emerged for some theologians was a position known as “God of the gaps.” In other words, God would be invoked to explain natural phenomena that science could not, which when you think about it, is not a very dignified position for the author of reality and the Creator of the Universe to occupy.
Science applied to the Bible
The tools of science were also applied to the Bible itself through advances in archeology and meticulous historical and linguistic analyses of biblical texts. This approach, which flourished in the early 19th century, was known as the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible and originated in Germany. Our own Felix Adler was a legatee of this line of scholarship. And what the Higher Criticism found, among other things, was that the books of the Bible were not created in the order in which they appear in the canon. What this implied was that they were not authored by God Almighty, but by human beings at certain definite historical periods. One might argue that the authors of the scriptural texts were divinely inspired, but God himself did not write them and Moses did not climb to the mountaintop to receive them.
God and religion held on in the face of the onslaught of science, even as many theologians conceded the power of science to explain much about the world over which religion previously had held sway. Many religious authorities were willing to accept that scientifically derived natural laws were valid and could be embraced by religious believers as long as people were willing to concede that at the beginning of the natural process there was a divine agency or divine spark that set the mechanism of nature into motion. Indeed, the authority of science was so great that many of theologians were willing to hitch their wagons to scientific explanations. In other words, science powerfully demonstrated that nature was elegantly ordered and designed, and that order and design revealed a supreme intelligence behind it. And that intelligence was God, who created it all. Nature, in other words, is God’s handiwork. In this sense, theologians made their peace with science. But it was peace that did not last long.
That strategy of appropriating science in the service of validating the existence and mastery of God worked for a while, but it in the end proved fatal to religion. And the coup de grace for religion was the publication in 1859 of “The Origin of Species” by the British biologist Charles Darwin. Darwin’s theory just went too far, so far that religious folks could no longer employ science to validate their religious beliefs and doctrines.
Until that time, the prevailing religious belief concerning living things was that God had created each species in a manner that was unchanging. God is perfect, and the notion that species could evolve one into another was an assault on God’s perfection. While some scientifically oriented theologians did accept a notion of micro-evolution, that is, that there were small variations within species, the idea that species could change from one to another, again, was an attack on God’s perfection. God created each species according to its own kind and that was the end of the story.
What Darwin had done was to provide an extraordinarily powerful and elegant explanation of how the pressures of nature alone, through the process of natural selection, could and, in fact, did, over long periods of time cause new species to descend from prior species. Natural mutations caused changes in species and some changes enabled new forms to adapt to their environmental niches, while others failed to adapt and fell into extinction.
No need for the supernatural
And, of course, the grand payoff was that that the human species itself adapted from previous forms of life through a totally natural process. In other words, there was no need of supernatural agency coming from outside of nature to create species, including our own.
The implications of Darwinism were radically upsetting to the religious mind, and still are. For the implication is that man is not created in the divine image, but out of the slime of the ocean, so to speak, We are not a special kingdom within a kingdom, but merely a part of the kingdom of nature, with a status ultimately no different than the monkey, snail, cockroach, or the virus. In other words, man is not created in the image of God, does not possess a soul, and there is nothing special or holy about us. Evolution was a major assault on the existence of God altogether and it is no accident that the term “agnosticism” was created in 1869 by one of Darwin’s chief disciples.
The period of the late 19th century gave birth to many agnostics in America and Victorian England, and it was out of this environment, spawned by the conflict between science and religion, that made the soil ripe for the emergence of Ethical Culture.
Beyond these intellectual currents, there were social and economic realities as well. The late 19th century was the high-water mark of the Industrial Revolution in America. It was the era of the robber barons and, like our own, vast disparities of wealth and poverty. Yet the poor were being crushed in factories without government protections, children labored in factories, urban slums were overflowing and disease-ridden, education was substandard if at all, and corruption was rampant. On the social side, Ethical Culture, which has always been an urban movement, was born out of the inequities and oppressions of the Industrial Revolution.
As noted, Ethical Culture was a creature of its times, but it proclaimed itself as something new, distinctive, and unique. Felix Adler, our founder, came from a religious background and there is no doubt that he saw himself doing something religious in creating Ethical Culture. But he was also a modern who fully accepted the deliverances of science, which insured that he rejected the notion of a supernatural miracle-working God.
Religion’s finest and essential contribution
And so he envisioned Ethical Culture as a new religious movement that would pare religion down to what he believed was religion’s finest and essential contribution, which stood at its heart, namely ethics. So Ethical Culture is religion stripped down to its bare essentials, absent any of the accoutrements of the historical religions: No God, no scripture, no dogma, no binding creeds, no doctrine, no myths, no holy figures, no rituals, no distinctive dress, and no distinctive religious practices. Just the glory of Ethical ideals to inspire and uplift the human heart and inspire people to ethical action both in their personal lives and in committing themselves to social reform and the improvement of the lives of those crushed under the boot heel of social, political, and economic injustice.
Though something like Ethical Culture, as I am trying to say, was in the air, until Felix Adler created it at the age of 25, there was nothing quite like it and in its formative decades it proved very attractive to a core of mostly urban, educated folks and many elites. From 1876 until the New York Society constructed its meetinghouse on Central Park West in 1910, Ethical Culture met in rented halls, including Carnegie Hall. And when Adler spoke, thousands came out to hear him, attracted by his brilliance and the novelty of his message.
Because of his prestige, he was able to attract the luminaries of the day, from Lilian Wald to W. E B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Jane Addams, Walt Whitman, Jacob Riis, Franz Boaz, Woodrow Wilson, and numerous people of wealth, including John D. Rockefeller, industrial magnates, bankers, department store owners such as Bamberger and Filene, champions of labor such as Samuel Gompers, and numerous others. The period from 1876 to after World War I marked Ethical Culture’s Golden Age, in which Adler envisioned numerous projects of social reform that he was able to persuade people of wealth to subsidize. Back then, most of these projects took the form of enduring institutions, which continue to do their progressive work to this very day. The list is long, from the Visiting Nurse Service, to model tenements, to the schools for the working poor, which morphed into the Ethical Culture Schools, to settlement houses, to the Child Study Association, to the Legal Aid Society, in part the ACLU and the NAACP, to the Blythedale Hospital for disabled children, now in Westchester, to a multitude of other projects, whose origins in Ethical Culture have long been forgotten.
This was the era before government became involved in providing social entitlement programs for those in need. In that sense it was easier for Ethical Culture to make its distinctive mark and establish its relevance. To be sure, it was not the only such organization, but it was a significant player in several major cities in America’s progressive era.
But with the coming of the New Deal, the relevance of Ethical Culture in the arena of social reform became more difficult to sustain. Moreover, with waves of immigrants coming from Eastern and Southern Europe between 1881 and 1924, the class character of Ethical Culture began to change. No longer did it attract people of great wealth as Ethical Culture became characterized increasingly as a middle-class organization comprised of middle-class professionals.
Through the 1940s and 50s, Ethical Culture remained committed to its social justice work, and luminaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt worked very closely with it, and Ethical Culture retained notice and respectability in segments of the academic community. But its reputation and profile was not what it was in its earlier decades.
Algernon Black marked end of an era
The last Ethical leader of public renown was Algernon Black of the New York Society. Al was a grandiloquent orator, a tireless activist, and true charismatic who worked for housing justice and racial justice in Harlem and pioneered with Eleanor Roosevelt the Encampment for Citizenship in the 1940s, which brought white, African-American, and foreign students to live together for a summer to learn the skills of left-wing community organizing. It was so radical in its day that it had the honor of Joe McCarthy lambasting it as a communist front organization.
But much of Al Black’s work was done outside the Ethical Society and since he retired in 1980, we haven’t had a figure quite like him. But even so, another factor that works against our distinctiveness is that since the 1960s there has been a proliferation of non-profit organizations on the American landscape dedicated to the full range of social justice and social service activities, from peace work to civil rights, to anti-poverty work, to women’s and gay rights, to health issues, to sustainable economic development, to the imperative work to save the environment. In my own human rights field, in which I have been active, it is estimated that there are alone close to 20,000 non-profit, or non-governmental organizations. Whereas Ethical Culture could claim its relevance and novelty in the 19th century, today it is hard not to get lost in the crowd.
So bringing the question at hand up to the moment, where is our distinctiveness and relevance to be found? On the activist side, I have tried to summarize the challenges we confront. But on the philosophical and intellectual side our distinctiveness is also being challenged, perhaps more so now than even a few decades ago.
It’s my assessment that Ethical Culture, which has always been very small, grew to its greatest extent in the 1950s, when people were moving from the cities to the suburbs. Our own Society was founded in 1953 and quickly grew to over 250 members and we enrolled over 200 kids in our Sunday school. But it was also a conservative era when going to church was the respectable thing to do. It was Dwight Eisenhower who said, “I think all American’s should have a religious faith, and I personally don’t care which one it is.” I suspect Ethical Culture counted in that regard.
Back then, Ethical Culture could claim some distinctiveness as a congregation for atheists and non-believers and, if truth be told, its character was more explicitly, even militantly, anti-religious then than it is today. Religion was more readily derided as benighted and a refuge for superstition and little else. I don’t think that was necessarily a good thing, but it did more clearly differentiate us from others.
Demands on time are greater today
But today, in the second decade of the 21st century, we live in a very different social environment and we confront new challenges. In short, people live lives that seem far more stressed and the demands made on people’s time appear far greater. While people possess far more material possessions now, it is a statistical fact that Americans work harder and longer than they did in the decades following the Second World War. In fact, Americans work harder and longer than their counterparts in the industrialized world. Decades ago, a single income could support a family, today that seems like a rarity. Despite the fact that she had a college degree, my mom never worked outside the home when I was a child. With today’s divorce rate exceeding 52%, there are far more single-parent families, which diminishes discretionary time and increases the stress, most often, needless to say, on working mothers. Moreover, despite all the talk about the health of the economy, the loyalty that bound workers and employers together has frayed and everyone who works for a living is increasingly on her or his own, and that, it seems to me, increases economic and ultimately status anxiety when employees lose their jobs or are demoted.
But what is frenetically obvious is that there are far more distractions that pull people away from communities like ours or from engagement with community-based organizations in general. The profusion—I want to say, bombardment—of technological and electronic devices from television, with endless cable and streaming services, to iphones, computers, and, of course, the internet, are gargantuan attention-grabbers that aggressively compete for attention and time with an organization such as ours. It is far easier and quicker to click away on one’s electronic device to be entertained or engaged in a virtual chat than it is to get into one’s car and come to the Ethical Society. Moreover, however informative our platform addresses may be, if one is seeking commensurate information, one can probably find it on the internet with a minimum of effort and at no cost. In this regard, it is hard to compete. In Adler’s day, going to a talk at the Ethical Society may have been a way to stay informed. Today, it is more difficult to make that claim.
On the ideological side, whatever distinctiveness we may have claimed in times past is challenged by a small explosion of humanist, atheist, and secular organizations that have sprung up in the past two decades. As is well known, people are increasingly becoming unaffiliated with churches and religious denominations. Close to 25% of Americans now claim no religious affiliation and the number of millennials claiming no affiliation is as high as 36%, and these numbers are rising. This does not mean that they are atheists or agnostics, though many are. Most claim some spiritual beliefs but not traditional ones found in the denominations. In other words, their commitment to religion is freelance. To fill up the space caused by this disaffection a good number of humanist and secular groups have emerged promoting beliefs that many would find close to our own. None of them, to the best of my knowledge, however, is congregationally organized as we are, which begins to touch upon my argument for our continuing relevance that I will get to in a few moments.
One other relevant point that feeds into my discussion: In 2000, the sociologist Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone,” which became a classic, in which he documented the retreat of Americans for face-to-face civic associations, volunteer groups, and clubs of all sorts. Whereas people used to bowl in leagues, Putnam found that it had become more common for people to do so in pairs at best, and not in groups. And so it is today; Americans volunteer for causes and projects, but only rarely as ongoing members. They send checks to service and advocacy groups run by professionals, often funded by foundations or professional fundraisers, but relatively rarely become active in groups. Commensurate with this are studies that have shown that in the past 10 years American society is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, and much publicized is the tragic increase in “deaths of despair” from suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses in huge numbers, including among young people.
More human disconnection today
I think that we can conclude that people generally feel and are more disconnected from one other. Whether we blame the breakup of families, people moving around from job to job, the distrust of authority and their institutions, and many other causes, I think social alienation is a real problem in American life. Many people are alone and lonely.
And so, finally, I come to where I believe the enduring relevance of our Ethical Culture movement and its societies is to be found. In my view, we need to stand for the values and ideals to which have been dedicated for 143 years, namely respect for the indwelling dignity and inestimable worth of the human person, and to a progressive commitment to social justice in order to help realize that dignity for those who have been excluded and oppressed.
But here, I believe, is where our greatest value lies, a value greater than I think we often appreciate. As I see it, we live in a society in which people, as noted, live lives too often disconnected from others, where they are left unsupported by the nurturing warmth of the human bond. Indeed, we here live in suburban communities, but are the suburbs truly communities? I argue that they function more as overlapping networks of people who go their own ways in the morning to live their individual lives, wherein relations with their neighbors are minimal or formal at best.
Moreover, we live in a society in which moral values have been distorted and impoverished by the blandishments of an aggressive consumer culture. We live in a society in which wealth, power, and celebrity are held up as the highest goals worth striving for. If communities and the social bond were thicker, perhaps our moral values would be thicker and deeper as well. Americans have become hyper-individualists, too often disconnected from others—families, civic institutions, workplace loyalties, even friendships. And, I might mention that people alone and isolated are more vulnerable to the influence of demagogues and the forces of manipulation.
It is against this social environment that I think Ethical Culture has something critically important and something of enduring relevance to offer. And where does that relevance lie? It lies in the fact that we provide a place for those who share our progressive values to come together in real time to meet and engage in significant relations sustained by a community of meaning and values that supports those relations. While we say that we have no dogma in Ethical Culture, what approaches a dogma for me is that there is no substitute for direct face-to-face encounter with another person. This is foundational to my humanism. No indirect or online relationship can replace it. There are no substitutes. Encountering a person in real time, listening to her or his voice and inferring the humanity that lies behind it, experiencing her or his body language cannot be replaced by pixels on a screen.
Ethical Culture points to ore meaningful relations
There are, of course, human encounters at all levels. We can experience others casually, or we can relate to others as objects, as part of the landscape we live in to be engaged merely for their value to us. In short, we can objectify others. But, perhaps at times, human relations can reveal something far deeper and more meaningful. And I believe that Ethical Culture, which cherishes the indwelling worth of the person, points to such more meaningful relations.
Here I want to speak personally. We say that we cherish the indwelling humanity of human beings, that invisible quality that lies beneath the surface of a person’s outward manifestations. The older I become, the more I have come to value profoundly the special quality inherent in the human encounter, the ability to sit opposite another person and get to know him or her, not merely as an object, but to come into touch with their subjectivity and begin to gain a sense of their inner life and be able to engage them in dialogue at such a deeper level. Questions of the person’s social status or entering into judgments is not part of it. It is simply engagement with other in which his or her humanity comes to the surface. And to have such encounters and personal exchanges with another I think is a beautiful and precious thing. Frankly, at this stage of life it is those experiences of human encounter that I yearn for most. At this stage I don’t need another shirt, or the need to enrich myself, or even stand up before a group to give another speech. Life, in the final analysis, is an experience and not an exercise in collecting chits.
The human encounters I am trying to describe are precious moments that have become exceedingly valuable and in which I feel that my time is least wasted. I believe profoundly that we are social creatures and to sense the other person, not to be observed or exploited, but in relationship, I believe, is to come into touch with our social natures, which is a beautiful and precious thing.
Where I am leading is that the enduring relevance of Ethical Culture rests not in the fact that that we have a doctrine to preach or a philosophy to espouse but that in the best sense we provide opportunity for experiencing the human encounter. Our congregational structure points toward that and allows for it. And among humanist organizations, our social and congregational structure does render us unique.
The human encounter that I have outlined and that has become most important to me may not even occur within these walls, but I believe by coming together in community we set the stage for it. We affirm and most value the indwelling humanity of each person. The contribution of Ethical Culture for its members is to realize that value and put it into practice in our lives, with each other, with our friends, and with those people who populate our lives.
Invoking Dr. Adler again, he had written above the platform of the New York Society the motto that “The place where people gather to seek the highest is holy ground.” And what he meant by that, what he meant by the holy, is to recognize, elicit, reverence, and experience the indwelling humanity that we experience in the other and in ourselves, which can only be experienced when we engage in relationship, social beings that we are. If there is anything we, in our hurried, harried, and secular world can count as holy, it is the humanity of others and ourselves.
We, of course, are not the only place where such encounters can and do occur, but that does not diminish the importance of what we can do for each other in our own lives. Indeed, I think it is of inestimable importance, and given the need, to respect and cherish the humanity that resides in you and in me. It can never be irrelevant.
Returning to where I began, our Ethical Societies may not have fireplaces and we are not campfires, but I can imagine that our meeting space is a symbolic campfire that brings us together. And it is around that campfire that our most important and essentially human encounters can take place. And I believe that there is something wonderful and timeless in that.
Dr. Joseph Chuman, leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, delivered this platform address on Nov. 3, 2019.