A group of about 70 people will be gathered in fellowship on Sunday, September 11, in the Meetinghouse of The Ethical Culture Society. The group has come together to socialize, share thoughts on what they believe, and listen to a sermon of sorts on how to improve themselves and the world. In many ways, it is like countless other services happening in houses of worship around the country. But one thing sets it apart. It is not about God.
Religious people sometimes ask me, “Do you get together just to talk about what you don’t believe?” I say, “No, we get together to talk about the same things other religious people talk about. People who don’t believe need a safe place to talk about how they deal with death, how they deal with injustices, how they deal with children—all of our issues, but from a humanist perspective.” Some brands of atheism can be hostile to religion, but we are less excited about insulting organized religion and more excited about borrowing parts of it.
Like Other Religions
Having a routine can be either comforting or confining, but a ritual structure frees us from constant decision-making about small things. On our first Sunday of this season, then, we will begin with a warm welcome from the presider, share the joys and concerns of our members, hear a beautiful piece of piano music played by Noah Chen, and be enlightened by a talk from our leader, Dr. Joe Chuman. At the end, we will pass a collection basket and have coffee and cake. As in many other congregations, our children or grandchildren may be in Sunday School. Our spiritual leader offers pastoral counseling. He officiates at weddings and succors the ill and the grieving congregants. As members, we count on the continuity of gathering weekly. In so very many ways, we look just like other religions.
Yet we depart from them at the core. I recently attended a Catholic funeral and felt the comfort of those around me soothed by the familiar prayers, the afterlife imagery, the call and response. Everyone knew the words by heart. The pull of family and tribe can be very strong, and the consolation of ancient ritual even stronger. When everything around us seems to fall apart, the familiar, learned from birth, can bring solace.
In that respect, we do not mimic traditional religions. Our responses are not practiced. However, we do value commiseration and companionship. In the face of difficult times, we bear witness. When conflicts arise, we favor reason. We illuminate historic moments, honor the dignity of the individual and support modern science. For many of us, this is a perfect fit.
Although our summer Platforms this year were often rich and well-attended, it will be good to get back to our regular services. Our gatherings are a hybrid of what may be that old-time religious connective tissue and our progressive wish to act in just, truthful and humane ways. Why? Because we value deed over creed. As an Ethical Culture leader, James Croft, said, “We face so many challenges in the community, as a nation, as a species, which we simply cannot solve alone. We need to come together, and we need spaces where that can happen. We need places which call us to our higher selves.” How fortunate we are that we have Ethical Culture to come back to. Welcome!