A former leader of the New York Ethical Society, Jerome Nathanson, often said that in his view Ethical Culture is the most important idea in the world. I often think of that claim when I look at the current state of affairs.
Our political moment assaults us with realities that move in a direction opposite to the values that Ethical Culture teaches and holds most dear. Racism, bigotry, misogyny, nationalistic assaults on pluralism, anti-science, anti-intellectualism, even the denial of facts and evidence, scant regard for political freedom and democracy, the idolatrous adulation of power and wealth and the marginalization of values that cannot be calibrated by the market – these vulgarisms and much else receive validation from the highest authority in the land. I am not prepared to say that we are on the brink of civilizational collapse, the emergence of tyranny or a fascist order, but my sense of history and my skepticism of human nature does invoke thoughts of dread as to how thin the veneer of civilized life is and how quickly things can flip.
We are living within a political environment that at the highest echelons expresses an anti-humanism, which makes the reassertion of humanist values all the more necessary, all the more urgent.
But what are those values? For about the past century, humanism has coalesced around a cluster of principles. Organizations have formed around those principles to give them expression and in the past decade or so these organizations — humanist, rationalist, secularist, atheist — have multiplied in part to fill up the space created as people, mostly millennials, have fled the organized religions. Ethical Culture is the oldest of these groups, now going back 141 years.
Human welfare as a guiding value
For the most part, then and now, contemporary humanism has defined itself in opposition to religion and sees religion as its foil. Among the central principles of humanism so understood is that humankind is on its own and there is no warrant for a belief in a divine creator or custodian; that human welfare and human flourishing should be the guiding values that inspire and give life meaning and purpose; that reason and science are the best vehicles toward the acquisition of reliable knowledge; that democracy is the best form of government, and that upholding the dignity of human beings is of primary importance. Contrawise, humanism abjures ignorance and superstition, belief in supernatural entities, irrationality, political oppression, inequality and all things–political, economic and otherwise–that demean the human spirit.
All these are uplifting and necessary principles that in my view are necessary for sustaining a civilized society and ultimately a life that is most worth living. And again, our menacing times call forth the urgency of restoring these values to our public and, to a great extent, our private lives, as well.
I believe in these principles. But the point I make is that I have moved to a position wherein I do not feel that they are sufficient to round out the importance and meaning of humanism as I understand and appreciate it.
In my view humanism penetrates more deeply than articulated beliefs and principles to embrace a reality that is experiential and more subtle and nuanced than the principles just cited.
Humanism as character and behavior
It is my understanding that humanism is an orientation, a sensibility, a feeling toward life that is far more nuanced and comprehensive than concepts such as rationalism, secularism or atheism, which are mainstays of the humanist canon. Humanism, rather, involves a sensitivity for the distinctly human dimension as it is expressed in culture — art, music, literature — and in religion as well. But most of all, humanism so evinced is found in the deepest recesses of human character and behavior that flows from it.
Our times, again, cry out for humanism, but in the struggle to put our society back on course it is crucial to recall what, in the very final analysis, we are struggling for. I look forward to seeing you soon again as we come together in solidarity and with hope to begin our new season.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.