by Dr. Joseph Chuman
In this vibrant and exciting election year, religion, once again, is playing asignificant role. While no one has as yet exploited Jesus as his favorite“political philosopher, “ Mike Huckabee has told us that he is “the Christian candidate,” and front-runner, John McCain has joined him in declaring theUnited States a “Christian nation,” while Mitt Romney has struggled to convince sectors of a skeptical public that he is as Christian as they are.
The Democrats, for their part, have refreshingly not played the religion card up front, but when relevant, Hillarywill let voters know that she is a faithful Methodist, and Obama has beenforced to confirm his Protestant identity to ward off hostile accusations thathe is a covert Muslim, which, of course, is a coded term for “terrorist.”
To the extent that Democrats don’tmake a meretricious show of their religion, and don’t exploit religion forovertly political purposes, I think they will come across as sincere, whichwill be to their advantage, and in my opinion, to the advantage of the healthof the Republic.
That religion should stay out of politics, I believe, is in accord with the intent of the founders, the spiritof the Constitution, and with what a secular government and a vibrant democracyrequire. But it is equally true that while our Constitution requires thatgovernment be secular and church and state kept separate, American societyseems to be incorrigibly religious, in a way that sets our nation apart fromother modern, industrialized countries. With significant and sizableexceptions, the United States is a religious country, and religion has alwaysbeen a far and deep reaching dynamic in American society.
It is the religiosity of Americansociety that politicians exploit and distort into the fabrication that ournation is built upon Christian principles, the founding fathers were devoutlyChristian, and we are, in some quasi-official way, a “Christian nation.”
Religion in American life, has fromthe time of the Puritans, been a powerful current shaping American values. Thisis true. But it has not been the onlycurrent. While the religious stream has been strong, coursing through it andalong side of it, and often in opposition with it, has been the stream ofsecularism, and free thought, agnosticism and humanism.
Ethical Culture, is, of course, an expression of that secondstream, a stream which has borrowed from the religious spirit, while it has inmany ways stood against religion. When Ethical Culture was created by Dr. FelixAdler in 1876, it proclaimed itself a radical religion, and was denounced assuch by those who felt threatened by it. Indeed, there was something veryradical about Ethical Culture in its time. Here was a religious movement ofsome sort, which didn’t look very religious to many insiders and outsidersalike. It was radical in that there was no worship of a God, nor explicitworship of any kind. There was no employment or reliance on scripture, no holydays nor sacred dogmas, no distinctly religious ritual. –just a reverence for ennobling,invisible Ethical Ideals.
But however radical Ethical Culturewas, it was not quite as novel, nor original as people may have thought, orperhaps, we have been led to believe today. Indeed, Ethical Culture was one ofseveral so-called “religions of humanity” which came into being in thenineteenth century. A distinction of Ethical Culture is that it is the only oneto have survived beyond the nineteenth century to find itself on the scene morethan 130 years after its creation.
I thought it would be interestingthis morning to take a brief look at these other religions of humanity, whichwere precursors to the emergence of our Ethical Movement in 1876. While my talkis explicitly historical, I have seldom found history dry or irrelevant. Bygaining a better grasp of where we come from — our historical context androots — we can gain a clearer sense ofour identity now. In regard to the investigation at hand, by knowing thatEthical Culture was not alone as a religious experiment, and more importantly, was part of strong progressive currents thatgave birth to these so-called “religions of humanity,” we can undercut a senseof isolation and feel less marginal and more confident, though,. I should say thatbeing on the margins is often, politically, an important place to be.
Though the three groups I will talkabout were small and transient experiments, as implied, they were on the faredge of powerful social and progressive currents in American life, which were,and continue to be identified with the spirit of American democracy.
The groups that I will discuss allemerged in the nineteenth century, which is really not surprising. We can lookat the United States as a kind of religion making machine, and the nineteenthcentury as perhaps the century of America’s most fertile religiousproductivity. Think of the religions that were born in that century, which arestill around: Seventh Day Adventists, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, ChristianScience, Ethical Culture to name a few. Not mentioned are numerous religiously- tinged Utopian experiments, and communes, spiritualist movements, and whoknows how many upstart sects that have been lost to mainline history.
The first “religion of humanity” I will examine was an effort toestablished “deistical societies in the first decade of the nineteenth centuryabout 70 years before Ethical Culture. Again, these institutions were not important in and of themselves,but the philosophy out of which they emerged could not have been moreconsequential for the founding of the new American nation.
Deism, which was a rationalreligious outlook, originated in England in the late seventeenth century, movedto France where it, in more radical forms, was to under gird the FrenchRevolution, and its guiding document the “Declaration of the Rights of Man andCitizen.” Deism became the regnant religious view of American intellectualsfrom the middle of the eighteenth century until the end of the first decade ofthe nineteenth century. That period of only about 60 years, was, historicallyspeaking, a very narrow window, but it was extremely consequential, because itwas the deist outlook which inspired the founding fathers, and which providedthe philosophical foundation for the creation of the Declaration ofIndependence, the Constitution and the roster of civil liberties that areenshrined in our Bill of Right.
What was deism? With the exceptionof the effort to establish independent “deistical societies ” deism was not afree standing religion, but the prevailingorientation within the major Protestant sects in America, especially amongintellectuals. Almost all the Founding Fathers, including Washington, BenFranklin, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and religiously the mostrevolutionary them all, Tom Paine, were all deists. A few founding fathers,including Samuel Adams and John Jay, were orthodox Christians, but they wereclearly a minority among America’s founding elites.
To be clear, deism was not atheism.Deists professed their belief in God, and human immortality of some sort. EvenTom Paine, who was generally too hot to handle, and was reviled by his enemiesas a “French, infidel, and atheist” and other slanders, maintained a belief inGod.
What the deists thought they weredoing was not anti-religion, or even anti-Christian, for the most part. Indeed,what they thought they were doing, with exceptions, was purifying Christianityof what they believed were its superstitious excesses and beliefs that did notcomport with the outlook of forward-thinking, modern people. And the tools theyused to strip religion of superstition were that of reason and natural law.
What is natural law, and what wasits role in the thinking of the founders of the American Republic? This was themarvelous period in European history known as the Enlightenment, and theinspiration for the Enlightenment, and the infatuation that Enlightenmentthinkers had with Reason and natural law, was the British scientific genius,Isaac Newton.
It was Newton, who discovered thephysical laws which describe in intellectually compelling, and seeminglyirrefutable ways, how nature operates,and it was the disciplined use of Reason, scientifically employed, which werehis tools. Nature, whether one believed in God, or not, was governed by lawsand these laws flow through human beings and through society, s well as thephysical world. .
The Enlightenment became obsessedwith Nature and natural. In the human realm, it was assumed by political thinkers,such the Englishman John Locke, and the Americans Franklin, Jefferson andMadison, that natural laws distilled, what they called, “natural rights” whichall human beings possess. These rights,they argued, because they are given to us by nature, ought not to be violated.In Locke’s political philosophy the primary, if not sole purpose government, isto protect these natural rights, which he identified “Life, Liberty andProperty.” So according to Locke the power of government comes from the peopleand that power is only provisional and conditional, as is the government whichexists solely to protect the natural rights of its citizens. If government violates and abuses theserights, it has denied its very purpose and should be replaced.
It is this notion if natural lawand natural rights that informed the creation the American experiment, as it was carried over the Atlantic, andemployed by Jefferson, Madison and the others.
But just as natural law, whichreveals itself to the human mind though Reason, informed political theory, at the same time it became the mainstayof a new enlightened way to look at religion. This new religious outlook wasdeism.
Deism was sometimes referred to as“rational religion” or “natural religion” for it was believed that just as weuse our reason to gain knowledge of the laws of the physical world, so naturewill also divvy up for us the right way to be religious.
Deism was both a rational critiqueof the negative excesses of religion, as well as an outlook based on positivedoctrine. In other words, deists attempted to create a religious outlook anddoctrines that would conform to what reason and the laws of nature demand.
What did this new religious view,stripped of “superstition” hold? What were the beliefs of deists?
The deists believed in one, allpowerful creator God, who expressed his will through the immutable and rationalNatural laws. In a radical departurefrom orthodox Christianity, the deists’ rationalism and commitment to sciencemeant that they denied the existence of miracles. Miracles defied theexceptionless laws of nature, they argued. Thedesists concluded that if God were the perfect creator, his performance ofmiracles would be an indication that he had botched his original creation and,therefore, he was not perfect to begin with
But the deists’ critique oforthodox Christianity went even further. For them any rational inconsistenciesand contradictions found in the bible threw into question its divineauthorship. They denied, in other words, the bible as God’s revelation. God’srevelation was nature, and one got to know God’s mind and God’s will throughthe rational and scientific uncovering of nature’s laws and attempting to livein accordance with them. The idea ofthe trinity, that is, that God is three persons, but at the same time, one, thedeists found totally irrational and superstitious This, led, as one wouldconclude, to the denial of the divinityof Jesus, his incarnation and resurrection, all of which the deists concludedwere unscientific, and not worthy of belief. Many of the deists, especially,Franklin and Jefferson, though they denied Jesus’ divinity, considered him theparagon of moral teachers. Jefferson, as is well known, did a cut and paste jobon the Bible, editing out everything that was supernatural and irrational,while maintaining the moral sayings of Jesus, which he felt exemplified themost exalted ethics.
Ethics and ethical behavior lay atthe center of deistic commitments. If the beliefs of the deists were guided byreason, and reason is a universal property of human beings, then the deistsconcluded that any religious sectarianism is petty and runs counter to anenlightened religious sentiment. They were especially keen in their attack onreligious differences that were used as pretexts for cruelty and war committedin the name of defending small-minded and exclusive religious beliefs. In addition, the deists denounced the powerof religious hierarchies and priests, whom they believed hoodwinked thepopulace with superstitions, in order to augment their own vestedinterests. When Jefferson declared “Ihave sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form oftyranny over the mind of man” – the words emblazoned on the Jefferson Memorial– those against whom he declared that hostility were religious ministers andpriests.
Despite Jefferson’s pique withreligious ministers, deism led to a spirit of tolerance, and perhaps explainswhy beyond the dominant Protestant establishment in America, the young countrybecome a haven for Quakers, Catholics, Jews, and all manner of religiousdissenters. Indeed, the inclusiveness and universalism issuing from deism’scommitment to reason is well summed in the creed of the arch-deist, ThomasPaine, when he declared “the world is my church and to do good is my religion.”
The ethical commitments of thedeists were expressed in their presumption that the highest expression ofworship of God was the effort to live a virtuous life. Washington continuousspoke of the importance of living the virtuous life. Franklin kept a journal inwhich he developed a list of thirteen virtues to live by, and then periodicallynoted how he stacked up by those standards.
One could conclude correctly thatdeism was progressive and reformist. Though it occupied a small historicalwindow, the philosophy of deism not only animated the Declaration ofIndependence and the Constitution, it also made a lasting contribution in termsimpressing upon American society the importance of such values as freedom ofconscience, the separation of church and state, and universal public education.
The founders of Republicrepresented what some historians have referred to as deism’s milder phase, inthe sense that notables such Franklin, Jefferson, Adams remained Christian, nodoubt because of the powerful residual influence of orthodox Christianity intheir lives. In other words, they did not represent a separate non-Christiansect, but rather found in deism a doctrine by which to greatly liberalize andreform their Christianity.
But there was also a more militantform of deism that emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that wascarried forward by far lesser luminaries. This form of deism wasanti-Christian, and saw itself as a distinctive sect. Among its purveyors wasEthan Allen of revolutionary war fame who wrote books and tracts attackingChristianity and extolling deism as a new faith. But the greatest crusader for deism is a figure who is all butlost to history. His name was Elihu Palmer, and his mission was to take deismto the masses. Palmer traveled up and down the East coast preaching deism fromany pulpit or platform that would welcome him. He wrote a major philosophicaltreatise, entitled the Principles of Nature, and he founded and editedtwo deistic newspapers, which enjoyed a wide circulation. But most relevant forour interests, Palmer founded deistical societies in New York City, Baltimore,Newburgh, Philadelphia and elsewhere. It was the aim of these societies topromote deism, reason, science, morality and progressive, as it attackedreligious supernaturalism and superstition. There were plans to turn these societies into “Temples of Reason”in which the God of Nature would be worshiped. These plans never materialized and the deistical societies were shortlived, but they were the only historical examples of the effort to make deisman independent sect.
Indeed these deistical societiescame to an abrupt end as did deism’s presence on the American stage shortlyafter 1810. What killed deism was the emergence of what historians have called“The Second Great Awakening.” TheSecond Great Awakening was the emergence of Evangelical Christianity, repletewith enthusiastic preaching, tent revival meetings, that swept across theAmerican religious landscape like a whirlwind and overpowered rationalreligion. Needless to say, in many quarters, it still does.
A second example of a “religion ofhumanity” was very much a foreign import, and left a far lighter footprint onAmerican history. It was the creation of a brilliant French thinker by the nameof Auguste Comte, who lived from 1798 to 1857. Comte, among other things, iscredited with being the father of sociology, but was also known for hiselaborate theory of historical progress. Comte believed that human history haspassed through three stages, which he referred to as the theological, orreligious stage; the metaphysical or philosophical stage, and the last, whichhe called the positivist, or scientific stage. In the first stage phenomena inthe world, are felt to be caused by spirits or gods. In the metaphysical stage,the world is interpreted according to abstract ideas that do not relate tofacts. In the last, scientific stage, humankind makes use of empirical factsdevoid of spiritual or purely abstract thinking. In other words, the world isunderstood in scientific terms.
Comte was always preoccupied withwhat he saw as the anarchic state of European society, and in the latter phaseof his life he saw himself as a type of redeemer of society’s disorder. A wayin which Comte tried to move society toward greater reason and appreciation forsecular and scientific values was to create what he called “The Religion ofHumanity.” In its full blown form, Comte took the rituals of the Catholicism ofhis younger years and grafted onto it new, rationally based liturgies andobjects of worship. He created a new, positivist calendar, comprised ofshortened thirteen months, each one named for a scientific or rational hero,such as Aristotle and Archimedes. He had his own priesthood, trained inmedicine and science. There were feast days and fast days, secular rites ofpassage, humanistic prayers, and worship was directed to the “Great Being,”which was Humanity itself. Although it was probably never practiced in its full-blown form, The Religion of Humanity” spread to such places, as England,Sweden, India and Brazil, where it virtually became a state religion.
It also spread to the UnitedStates. At least two “Churches of Humanity” were established in New York. Halfcult, half adult education groups, they attracted philosophically-minded,liberal reformers, who were influential in the Progressive movement of the latenineteenth century. Indeed, Positivist clubs attracted as speakers many of theprogressives of the day, including Jane Adams, Oliver Wendell Holmes and ourown Felix Adler. (Research at Columbia)
The last “religion of humanity”actually played a direct role in the emergence of Ethical Culture. In the years right after the Civil War, severalreligious radicals came together in Boston to create what became known as the“Free Religious Association.” Initially, they were left-wing Unitarians, whowere dissatisfied with the more conservative directions that Unitarian movementhad taken before the Civil War. In short order, the Free Religious Associationattracted liberal Quakers, such as the feminist Lucretia Mott, Isaac MayerWise, the founder of Reform Judaism in the United States, and received theactive support of the aging Transcendentalist luminary, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The purpose of the Free Religious Association was to form a new movement that would be dedicated to the promotionof the religious element in man, devoid of any creed, and in accordance withreason and the scientific spirit of the age. Since the Free ReligiousAssociation placed its primary emphasis on promoting individualism in thespirit of freedom, it could never quite define what it truly affirmed, and inshort order turned into a debating society. With never more than severalhundred members, primarily religious intellectuals, the Free ReligiousAssociation spread its word through an influential newspaper, the Index, which reached severalsubscribers.
Among the intellectuals who weredeeply involved in the Free Religious Association was Felix Adler. In fact,Adler served as the president of the Free Religious Association from 1878 untilhe resigned in 1882. The reasons for Adler’s resignation are significant to thehistory of Ethical Culture, which he founded in 1876. Although the members ofthe Free Religious Association were strongly committed to a humanitarian faithand to social reform, they talked a lot about it, but never got beyond thetalking phase. During his presidency, Adler introduced an elaborate plan foraction. He proposed that the Free Religious Association establish SundaySchools and vocational training programs for older students. Adler proposedprograms to confront poverty and problems resulting from industrialization. TheFree Religious Association simply was not equipped to pick up on Adler activistideas. Adler quit out of frustration,and took turned his energies toward building the fledgling Ethical Culture Movementas the place to put theses ideas intopractice. We can rightly conclude that if Adler had found fertile ground theFree Religious Association to implement his educational and social reformproject, then Ethical Culture might have died a very early death.
The Free Religious Associationlasted until the 1890’s. Because of the prestige of many of it its leaders andmembers, this “religion of humanity” played a significant role in liberalizingand reforming religion in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps most noticeablewas that its radical post-Christian values were factored back into theUnitarian Movement, and as such accounts for the fact that UnitarianismChristianity in the early twentieth century became more humanistic, and despitenoticeable backsliding, remains primarily humanistic to this day.
In closing, let me make the point,that the religious humanism of Ethical Culture, though it expresses adistinctive voice, is part of a larger liberalizing current in American religioushistory. It is a current which has borrowed from the secular influences ofreason and science. It is a current, which proclaims the insight that theultimate purpose of religion is not to worship God, but to promote what is bestand highest and most noble in the human being.
The precursors of Ethical Culture,those who created these earlier “religions of humanity” were confident thatreligion was evolving in their direction, that it was moving beyond narrowsectarianism toward a greater, more inclusive universalism. Certainly, from ourperspective today, wherein conservative and fiercely sectarian religion hasexperienced a powerful resurgence, it is hard to believe as confidently as ourforerunners of the nineteenth century did, that history is moving in ourdirection.
But on the other hand, we live in aworld grown much smaller, in which globalization has brought different peoplemuch closer together. If we are to survive in peace, we will need new globalphilosophies of shared values and tolerance, in which differences will have tomatter less, and the common elements of our humanity matter more. Perhaps, notright yet, but in the long range, history, in fact, maybe moving in ourdirection.
Dr. Joseph Chuman
3 February 2008