The Humanist Way: An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion
The Humanist Way:
An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion
Edward L. Ericson
Our shared task is to live decently, compassionately, and caringly in the world we inhabit.
(Chapter One of "The Humanist Way--An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion" by Edward L. Ericson. A Frederick Ungar book, The Continuum Publishing Company. Copyright Edward L. Ericson. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the author and publisher. Copies of the book are available from the AEU Office.
"The great use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it,"
wrote Bertrand Russell. Wise and thoughtful men and women in all ages have agreed that the
greatest lives are those given to the well-being of others. In promoting human
understanding and happiness, we discover our own deepest and most enduring values.
Many who belong to no church or sect--along with many who do--when asked to identify
their creed, will reply simply: " My religion is the golden rule." Or they will
answer: "Formal church doctrines and theologies are not important to me. The way in
which I relate to others and to myself is all that finally matters." Without perhaps
having a label for their faith, such people--to the degree that they live by these
convictions--are practicing the essence of the Humanist religion.
The religious philosophy known as Ethical Humanism (also called Ethical Culture) is a
moral faith based on respect for the dignity and worth of human life. It is a practical,
working religion devoted to ethical living, without imposing ritual obligations or
prescribing beliefs about the supernatural. Thus it is purely a religion "of this
Yet this life-centered faith is not secular in the commonplace usage of being
antireligious, nor is it to be understood as indifferent to religious values. On the
contrary, for the Ethical Humanist, life itself is inherently religious in quality; to
make this affirmation is simply to believe that human existence in this world is
intrinsically worthy of reverence, that the world of ordinary experience is capable of
inspiring profound feelings of spiritual devotion.
Commitment to the supreme worth (or sanctity) of human life is the core of the Ethical
Humanist faith. This recognition of a spiritual obligation to treat human life as sacred
persuades Humanists that their belief can, with justification, be considered a religious
In this connection we note that the words "sacred" and "sanctity"
are derived from the same root as "sanctuary," meaning that which is set aside
and sheltered as inviolable or holy. In other words, to treat a spiritual object as sacred
is to regard it as "off limits," as not to suffer violation. The scope of
religious history shows that the sacred object may be variously conceived. The sanctified
subject may take the form of a god or divine personage, or find embodiment in a taboo or
sacrament, or be revered as a mysterious power within a holy artifact. In more advanced
stages of human thought, the object of faith may come to be conceived purely as an ideal
value or a transcending moral or spiritual principle. Religious Humanism falls into this
last category in terms of its object of reverence. To define the permissible range of
religious veneration more narrowly would be unjustifiably restrictive and arbitrary.
Ethical Humanists contend that the dignity and moral worth of human personality should
always be respected as the supreme end in view, the summum bonum, the supreme good
to be observed. This affirmation of human worth is the starting point of Humanist
Many Humanists, as religious naturalists, would go even further to assert in principle
the sanctity of all life, even though the circumstances of existence may make it
impossible for us to live without violating in some measure the existence of other
creatures. But such violations should always be recognized as intrinsically evil. Like the
Native American hunter who begs forgiveness of the quarry he kills for necessary food and
clothing, we ought always to be humbled by the thought that life is infinitely precious
and to be sheltered from avoidable harm.
Critics who accuse Humanists of being "man-centered" and of disregarding the
larger world of nature speak in ignorance of the comprehensive philosophy that buttresses
our moral and religious faith, a school of thought known in academic circles as
Naturalistic Humanism. The restrictive and sometimes divisive label, "secular
humanism," (which suggests that Humanists exclude religious values and ignore nature)
only recently came into vogue as the special bogey of Humanism's fundamentalist critics.
An artificially inflamed religious hysteria has been fanned by the less scrupulous
Fundamentalist evangelists, who deliberately falsify Humanism's humanitarian ethics and
social philosophy to portray the bogey of "a godless, Satanic religion" of
lawless hedonism and self-indulgence.
But prior to the Fundamentalists' discovery of Humanism as a convenient bugbear for
their attacks on secular science and culture, the term "secular humanism" was
only rarely used in Humanist circles, as a review of the literature of the period will
show. (The situation in Europe may have been different, where an organized Secularist
movement has had a long and distinguished history.) In American thought, the time-honored
and also preferred philosophical label that has enjoyed acceptance by both religious and
nonreligious Humanists is the designation introduced above--"Naturalistic
Humanism"--a terminology that denotes a conception of the natural universe free from
As Naturalistic Humanists, we accept our place as children of an inconceivably vast and
ever-creative universe. Whether individual Humanists, or particular groups of Humanists,
prefer to consider Humanism as religious (the position taken here), or as solely
philosophical, Humanists generally are in agreement that human life is the outcome of an
incalculably dynamic natural universe in its ongoing evolutionary progression. In this
conception of reality, there is no need to assume a supernatural intelligence presiding
over the origin and destiny of life or the cosmos.
While millions of people in the United States, and millions more around the world,
subscribe to the concepts and attitudes expressed above as purely personal philosophy or
faith, Ethical Humanism also exists as an organized religious and ethical movement.
Founded more than a century ago in New York City as the Society for Ethical Culture, the
movement has grown into a national federation of local societies known as the American Ethical Union. A European Ethical movement, headquartered
in Switzerland, was organized soon after the American development. [Editor's note: the
European Ethical movement's headquarters are as of late 1996 based in Utrecht in the
Netherlands and are expected to move to London].
Individual societies may be known as Ethical societies, Ethical Culture societies, or
Ethical Humanist societies, according to local preference. But regardless of variations in
name, all member groups of the American Ethical Union share the same essential moral and
spiritual faith that has come to be known as Ethical Humanism.
Today Ethical Humanism is part of the global Humanist movement. In 1952 the American
Ethical Union collaborated with the American Humanist
Association and other Humanist and Ethical bodies in Britain, Western Europe, and
India to organize a worldwide alliance of Ethical Culture and Humanist groups named the International Humanist and Ethical Union
(IHEU). Although each member association retains its independence and historic identity,
all are linked in a worldwide community for the promotion of Ethical Humanist principles
and ideals. Some IHEU organizations, like the American Ethical Union, are structured as
religious bodies in the inclusive meaning of religion described above. Others, reflecting
quite different histories and interests, are purely secular (in the nonreligious
application of that term). But all share the common denominator of loyalty to human
values, respect for the scientific method and intellectual liberty, and commitment to a
free democratic society. All vigorously resist both secular and religious
The Second Humanist Manifesto of 1973, a
consensus statement signed by many leading Humanists, struck a balance between those
holding religious and nonreligious conceptions of Humanism by acknowledging ethical
religion as consistent with the Humanist philosophy, while rejecting autocratic and
dogmatic religious foundations. In the opening paragraphs of the section entitled
"Religion," the Manifesto declared:
In the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideals. The
cultivation of moral devotion and creative imagination is an expression of genuine
"spiritual" experience and aspiration.
We believe, however, that traditional dogmatic or authoritarian religions that place
revelation, God, ritual, or creed above human needs and experience do a disservice to the
human species...As nontheists, we begin with humans, not God, nature not deity.
As the signers of the 1973 consensus viewed the matter, the valid and permanently
valuable aspect of religion is expressed in creative idealism and humanistic ethics, not
in unverifiable claims to possess secret keys to supernatural knowledge, or of assumed
"revelations" that subordinate human learning and wisdom to twice-told tales of
divine saviors and their pretended emissaries on earth. We must begin our quest for
spiritual understanding on the basis of sharable human experience--the foundation of all
genuine knowledge of the world--clearly observing the characteristics and limits of that
experience. Only then can we even begin to address intelligently the conundrum of the
existence and nature of God or "ultimate reality."
No matter how far our observations and discoveries extend from the presently understood
cosmos into the unknown, our knowledge must remain always within the bounds of
"nature"--that seemingly trackless cosmos of events, relationships, and
processes in which we exist. This is what the relativity of knowledge consists of--the
relational composition of all perceiving and knowing. The means by which we comprehend the
world, organized within the logical structures of thinking and knowing, necessarily shapes
our knowledge and sets limits to its reach.
Thus we can never penetrate "pure being" or know ultimate reality "under
the aspect of eternity, " to borrow Spinoza's telling phrase. An attitude akin to
agnosticism is therefore fitting for those who face the human situation realistically and
humbly in an ultimately unfathomable reality. But even within the limits of incomplete and
fallible human understanding, we can live compassionate, meaningful lives of love and
caring. The conviction that such a life is possible, with the determination to achieve it,
is the cornerstone of the Ethical Humanist faith.
Although the American Ethical Union and its member societies
have a distinguished history of social service and intellectual achievement (as any reader
can confirm by consulting standard encyclopedias), their comparatively small numbers make
it inevitable that many people will never encounter an Ethical society or any other
organized group of Humanists. The typical prospective member usually works out alone a
personal religious philosophy and only then chances to discover that a spiritual
fellowship serving these purposes already exists. I can illustrate this best perhaps by
relating my personal quest that led me to Ethical Humanism and eventually to a vocation of
professional leadership in Ethical Culture. As a youth reared in a small Southern town of
a typically conservative Protestant family, during adolescence I came to question the
religious doctrines of my childhood training. What I had been taught to accept as
infallibly revealed truth became untenable in the light of my growing awareness of modern
scientific and philosophical thought. When I sought an explanation for these
discrepancies, none was forthcoming. I was only admonished to "have faith."
In my effort to find satisfactory answers to my questions, I explored widely the field
of religious history and philosophy. There was much that appealed to me in the life and
faith of the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers, especially in the spiritual
freedom and universalism of their historically liberal "Hicksite" branch. But
even the most progressive expressions of Quakerism still retained more of the traditional
"religious" vocabulary and doctrine than I could wholeheartedly accept.
I discovered that the Unitarians and Universalists
came even closer to my spiritual ideal with their rejection of orthodox Christian doctrine
and their emphasis on a religion of character, reason, and practical philanthropy--beliefs
that prefigured Humanism. But I knew that I was not unitarian (note the lower case) in the
historic dictionary definition: one who rejects the doctrine of the trinity and the deity
of Christ, but who retains belief in a unitary (one) God. In truth I no longer believed in
any kind of supernatural, personal deity, whether defined as the Christian trinity or
simply as "God the Creator." But my interest in the Unitarians revived when my
dictionary--even then a well-worn copy as old as I was--gave me the surprising information
that "the [Unitarian] denomination now includes in its ministry and membership a
number of non-theistic humanists. See HUMANISM." I pursued the reference to Humanism
and learned that, among other meanings, it was defined as a religion "that
substitutes faith in man for faith in God," (a definition that, despite its scholarly
source I recognized as oversimplified.) Still, I was assured that I was not alone in
supposing it possible to have a religion without belief in a deity. The thought passed
through my mind that some day I might become a Humanist minister.
Many questions still required answers. What would a religion without a doctrine of God
teach? The answer necessarily pointed to ethics. So, with no available library books on
the subject, I turned back to my large dictionary and carefully studied every entry on
ethics. My attention quickened when I came upon the following:
"ethical culture. A religious movement that asserts the "supreme important of
the ethical factor in all relations of life," and avoids formal creeds or ritual. See
AMERICAN ETHICAL UNION; SOCIETY FOR ETHICAL CULTURE."--Webster's New International
Dictionary, Second Edition.
In college I pursued these leads and by researching the library discovered a magazine
called The Humanist, edited by a Unitarian minister, Edwin H. Wilson, who also served as
the director of the American Humanist Association.
I corresponded with Dr. Wilson and later followed his footsteps into the Unitarian
ministry, where I spent eight years in preparation and service. At about the same time
that I encountered The Humanist, I chanced upon a copy of The Standard, then the official
journal, now unfortunately discontinued, of the Ethical Culture movement. An inquiry to
the headquarters of the American Ethical Union in New York brought me information and
introductory books. In Ethical Culture I found my religious ideals most fully and
satisfyingly expressed. Even after I had encountered the ministry as a Humanist Unitarian,
I continued to look toward Ethical Culture as the flagship of religious Humanism. When the
unexpected invitation came, I entered the professional leadership in 1959 as a leader of
the Ethical Society in Washington, D.C.
For the following twenty-five years, Ethical leadership was my full-time vocation. That
quarter-century was divided almost equally between my original post in Washington and a
subsequent period of leadership at the New York Society for Ethical Culture--the society
where the movement had begun a hundred years earlier. Indeed, in 1976, as Senior Leader in
New York, I presided over the national centennial celebrations that inaugurated the
Ethical Humanist movement's second century. During the course of my leadership, I was also
privileged to serve a term as president of the national federation, the American Ethical
Union. My friendships and associations extended to the international community as well,
including involvement in world congresses (in both Europe and the US) of the International
Humanist and Ethical Union. During a trip around the world, I enjoyed the hospitality of
Humanists in India.
Thus, this story of the Ethical Humanist movement--its faith, work, and philosophy--is
a personal account told from the perspective of one who has known at first hand the life
and heartbeat of this unique global community and faith.
With this extended association spanning three continents, imagine my astonishment to
read in the press from time to time that Humanist religion does not exist. It is said to
be merely a "myth" invented by extremists of the Fundamentalist right! Some of
those who subscribe to this "explanation" grudgingly concede that a few attempts
to organize Humanist congregations have been undertaken, with the implication that such
efforts have been unsuccessful or short-lived.
Yet if one counts the total number of Ethical Culture societies and fellowships and
then adds the Unitarian Universalist churches and societies that are explicitly or
predominantly Humanist in orientation and practice, plus the various congregations of the
Society for Humanistic Judaism--all existing examples of Humanist religious organization
in the United States and Canada--the sum of such congregations would be in the hundreds.
To that number must be added the members-at-large of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists
and the considerable body of religious Humanists within the American Humanist Association,
an "umbrella" organization that includes both the religious and the
nonreligious. (In the case of the Unitarian Universalist churches and fellowships an exact
estimate of numbers is not possible, since there exists a gradation from societies that
are explicitly Humanist in orientation to those in which more traditional theistic views
prevail.) So while the religion of Humanism in North America is small when compared to
other religious movements, it can hardly be dismissed as a myth created by its enemies!
Felix Adler, the founder of the first Society for Ethical Culture and organizer of the
American Ethical Union, believed that the nucleus of the spiritual life is to be found in
the ethical relatedness of each person to others. It is because of our involvement in the
lives of others that we are enabled to grow into moral and spiritual beings.
Adler expressed his insight in a deceptively simple maxim: "Act so as to encourage
the best in others, and by so doing you will develop the best in yourself." This
thought is what the term "ethical culture" was coined to suggest--the
cultivation of ethical relationships on such a basis that the moral and spiritual
potential of every member of the human community will be most fully activated. This
conception of the moral life represents an ideal that we can and should strive to realize,
but which, of course, we recognize can be only imperfectly achieved.
The flickering idea of the supremacy of ethics began to burst into flame for me from
the moment of my search through the dictionary, seeking a name for a religion of pure
moral idealism. What I discovered is far more than a name!
In Ethical Culture I found a Humanist movement consisting of local societies that serve
in much the same way as other religious congregations--as humanly supportive spiritual
communities--with the important difference that the "gospel" in an Ethical
society is belief in the spiritual sufficiency of ethical living. Societies generally hold
regular Sunday morning meetings--or assemble at such other times as they find suitable.
They conduct Ethical Sunday Schools for children, sponsor worthy projects in their
communities, organize adult education classes and forums, struggle for human rights and
freedom of conscience, and unite with other faiths to promote world peace--in short, do
everything possible that one would expect of a group dedicated to humanistic values.
The societies also provide pastoral services, conduct weddings, funerals, or memorial
services, do personal counseling, and organize social and cultural events for adults and
young people. Their professionally trained leaders serve a role fully comparable to that
of rabbis and ministers and are authorized under federal and state statutes to function as
ministers of religion--a right that has been duly sustained in the courts. In every sense
of the word an Ethical Culture leader is a minister of Humanist religion.
Humanists believe that religion has its foundation in human needs and sympathy and that
religious knowledge is not different from any other kind of human knowledge. It is
distinct only in the quality of the experience and the unique value that we attribute to
the moral life. In brief, religion is a creation of human living, not a revelation from
gods on high. As a result of their human origin and character, religious concepts are
always variable and unfinished, requiring continuous correction and revision, if they are
not to become obsolete and oppressive.
It is the sufficiency of ethics-being-lived as the foundation of an enriching moral and
spiritual development that leads Ethical Humanists to stress its religious quality and
potential. When the charter of the New York Society for Ethical Culture was amended in
1910, thirty-four years after its founding, Felix Adler urged that the statement of
purpose clarify the religious purpose of the Society. The charter, thus amplified, states
definitively Ethical Culture's specific concept of religion:
"Interpreting the word 'religion' to mean fervent devotion to the highest moral
ends, our Society is distinctly a religious body. But toward religion as a confession of
faith in things superhuman the attitude of the Society is neutral. Neither acceptance or
rejection of any theological doctrine disqualifies for membership."
The story of how this distinctive religious and educational movement came to be and how
its philosophy was foreshadowed in the evolution of both Jewish and Christian ethics will
be sketched in the next two chapters. But first it may be helpful to consider briefly two
basic matters that may require further clarification: how ethical creativity becomes
transformative in living and what exactly "nontheistic" religion means.
Our sense of right and wrong emerges out of the process of living together as social
beings. Humanity's social nature is the product of a long evolutionary development having
its roots in the gregarious behavior of the species from which human beings descended. Yet
in human beings the development of language and symbolic thought has given a whole new
dimension of meaning to social feeling.
We do not, for example, merely grieve for our lost companions or offspring. Even other
species exhibit feelings of pain and distress on losing their offspring or mates. But as
human beings, we are capable of transforming our pain into sentiments that provide solace
and healing and that bring deeper insights into the meaning of life. Thus grief can take
on qualitative meanings that have the capacity to heal and transform the character of
In the creative mind of a Sophocles or a Shakespeare, benumbing suffering can be
transformed into the rich colors of tragedy. The death of a Lincoln can recall a great
democracy to its moral purpose. The martyrdom of a Martin Luther King may bring the shock
of recognition necessary to arouse the moral consciousness of a nation and validate the
dignity of all people. It may awaken in us, whether we are black or white, an awareness of
our vulnerability as frail members of the human family subject to injury and suffering,
exclusion and injustice. It may make us better people, better able to come to terms with
our own mortality and enable us to live our brief lives with strengthened resolution,
compassion, and appreciation.
We thus learn to accept our lives with serenity. Inner peace is the distilled essence
of reflection on our profoundest experiences, separated from the illusion and superstition
that unfortunately are so often associated with ideas of the spiritual. We come to
recognize that the seed of the spiritual life is contained in moral passion. Spirit is
born of flesh and nurtured in human love. We need not look to the occult and the
other-worldly for the secret places of the inner life. It is the most delicate flower of
human caring and love.
These reflections should suffice to illustrate the point that there nothing of
"mere mortality" is the moral life as it is lived by sensitive and spiritually
inspired human beings. Ethical religion is a transforming moral faith when it becomes
vital--when it represents the harvest of first-hand living. The Ethical Axiom In founding
the Ethical Culture movement, Felix Adler (in his time a widely influential philosopher
and educator) worked out an approach to ethical living that he believed to be universally
valid. He recognized that moral customs and ideas of right and wrong vary widely from
person to person and from culture to culture. Nevertheless, he was convinced that a moral
constant runs throughout the history of ethical religion and philosophy. That unvarying
principle asserts that the individual human being is of infinite value and must not be
degraded or abused. The most perceptive sages and teachers of all ages have accepted this
rule, whatever might be the differences in their theological arguments. In its usual form
this "nonviolation ethic" is essentially negative. While it represents an
advance over previous methods of regarding human beings, Adler considered it to be
inadequate. He was dissatisfied with an ethical principle that fails to move from passive
nonviolation to constructive moral engagement. He also considered the Golden Rule to be an
inadequate guide to desirable conduct. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto
you," leaves room for the temptation to remake others in our own image, to impose
what we think is best for them. As Bertrand Russell would later quip, do not do unto
others what you would have them do unto you, because their tastes may be different! Adler
believed we can avoid the problem of projecting our personal moral egocentricity upon
others--compelling them to conform to our expectation--by recognizing the unique personal
difference of each and so conduct ourselves as to encourage the fullest development of the
special gifts and distinctive positive attributes of others. By living in this creative
relationship, he believed, we would also actualize our own highest moral potential. He
summarized this concept in the maxim we have already cited and which is familiar to every
member of the Ethical Culture movement: "So act as to bring out the best in others,
and thereby in yourself."
Of course, ethics did not begin with the founding of the Ethical movement. What Felix
Adler and his early associates provided was the insight that the nurturing of ethics is
primary in human development. As such it is a sufficient foundation for a life-giving
Thus while the germ of ethical religion is at least as old as civilization--if we count
the various religious traditions that have a strong ethical component--it nevertheless
remained for the founders of Ethical Culture to make explicit the idea of ethics as the
supreme principle and to build a movement on that sole foundation. But also many other men
and women, including members of orthodox churches and synagogues, have valued their faiths
primarily for their ethical and humanistic content.
Ethical Humanism stands in a tradition of cultural evolution that accepts all of
history and moral experience as part of its unfolding story. Unlike the established creeds
that proclaim a completed gospel of salvation "once delivered to the saints," as
the New Testament author of the Epistle of Jude has phrased it, Ethical religion embodies
the ongoing living and learning of the human spirit through the ages. In his history of
the Ethical movement Toward Common Ground, Howard B. Radest observes:
Some [religions] find their meaning in a unique event, an intrusion into history from
outside sources. Other see themselves as set apart from their time in a sacred enclave.
Still others root themselves in revelation. By contrast, Ethical Culture claims no
revelation, no mysteriously touched central figure, no sacred mystery. It was not
discontinuity that marked its birth, but a natural evolution. A Different Way of Thinking
About Religion "Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Work out your own salvation,"
admonished the Buddha. Unlike the monotheistic prophets and reformers of Asia
Minor--Isaiah, Jesus, and Mohammed--the introspective sage who founded the "Middle
Way" that we know as Buddhism put no stock in gods and saviours. Like the ancient
Roman poet Lucretius, Gautama the Buddha believed that if the gods exist, they are of no
concern to us. If anything, speculations about the gods distract us from what we must do
to accomplish our primary psychological and spiritual task of self-mastery. The early
followers of Buddha, and even those today who are most faithful to his teachings, take
great pains to prevent the elevation of their Master to the status of a divine being. Even
the Buddha, superstitiously worshiped, would become a stumbling block to enlightenment.
"If you meet the Buddha on the highway, kill him," goes a somewhat startling
Buddhist proverb. But the harsh maxim drives home a vital truth: No holy prophet, messiah,
christ, avatar, or even a great god in heaven can do your spiritual or ethical task for
you. Free yourself. Be a lamp unto your own salvation!
Although the more conservative students of comparative religion still refuse to accept
early Buddhism as one of the world's religions (because of its lack of belief in a God),
from the standpoint of this book--and that of many other students of religious
philosophy--such an objection is unwarranted. To restrict religion solely to theism
(belief in God) is the tendency of those who have never seriously considered alternative
expressions of religions faith and experience. But religion is a term we choose to claim,
and to apply to Humanism's spiritual life, believing that the function that religion
serves in living remains as vital as ever.
It is natural, spontaneous, and inevitable to experience ethical commitment as
religious, because ethical feeling functions as religion has always functioned, guiding
and uplifting our hearts and minds as religion has always done. Ethical faith is unitive.
It gives wholeness to personality and to our vision of life. Religion provides human
beings with a sense of relatedness and rootage in the sources of our being, offering
focus, direction, and motivation to our moral struggles and aspirations, undergirding
social idealism, and highlighting the beauty and mystery of our universe.
Emerson was right in observing that we will worship "something," and we had
therefore beware what gods we adore, lest they engrave their likenesses on our faces. If
we serve unworthy masters, or make idols of false theories and ideologies, we hasten to
the destruction of our own designing. But if we desire to live and be free, we must plot
our course by freedom's star.
Since a nontheistic conception of religion is basic to Naturalistic Humanism, it may be
helpful to be as specific as possible in our usage of that term. At the outset, it is
essential to understand that "nontheistic" is not used as synonym or euphemism
for "atheistic." The atheist, like the theist, takes a definite position with
respect to the doctrine that God exists. The atheist denies or disbelieves it. The theist
affirms it. But while the individual member of the Ethical Humanist movement may be an
atheist, agnostic, theist, deist, or believe whatever else the individual regards to be
probable or true about the God question, the ethical philosophy takes no official position
with respect to such belief. As nontheistic religion is defined, the prefix
"non" should be understood to mean simply that the theistic reference does not
apply. Ours is a religion or belief of a totally different type in which the God question
is not of primary concern. As we have emphasized before, Ethical Humanism's starting point
is ethics, not speculative theology.
Ethical Humanism is commitment to a way of life, to a creative relationship to others
and thereby to ourselves, in which metaphysical and theological arguments are set aside.
Whether or not God exists may be an interesting question. But the answer to that
question--if answerable at all--should make no crucial difference in how we ought to live,
how we ought to treat our fellow beings. My ethical obligations and potentialities--and
yours--remain exactly the same, whether God exists or does not exist. Our shared task is
to live decently, compassionately, and caringly in the world we inhabit.
Albert Einstein said it best on behalf of all Ethical Humanists when he commended the
New York Society for Ethical Culture on the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary
year. He noted that the idea of Ethical Culture embodied his personal conception of what
is most valuable and enduring in religious idealism. Humanity requires such a belief to
survive, Einstein argued. "Without 'ethical culture' there is no salvation for
humanity," the great physicist and Humanist observed.
That thought, we are convinced, is the greatest idea in the world.
(Chapter One of "The Humanist Way--An Introduction to Ethical Humanist Religion" by Edward L. Ericson. A Frederick Ungar book, The Continuum Publishing Company. Copyright Edward L. Ericson. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the author and publisher. Copies of the book are available from the AEU Office.