Are We Religious?
Algernon D. BlackAlgernon D. Black (1900-1995) was a member of the Board of Leaders of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and Head of the Ethics Department in the Ethical Culture Schools. He gave distinguished service to many enterprises of social welfare and reform, including especially the problems of discrimination and inter-racial relations, and was one of the founders and Educational Director of the Encampment for Citizenship. He became Senior Leader of the New York Society in 1965, and concluded some seventy years of active service to Ethical Culture and social activism as Leader Emeritus.
From the very beginning, those who have joined the Ethical Movement have interpreted religion broadly and we who are members today interpret religion as a way of life--a way of life dedicated to ethical values--rather than the acceptance of a set doctrine.
In part our reluctance to teach the traditional doctrines to our children is due to the basic consideration that among all the forces which influence human thought, feeling and action, religion must be counted as a divisive force. For the religions of man differ most vigorously on theology--the idea of creation, God, immortality; which Bible is the final, eternal truth; which prophet is infallible; which savior is the true Savior. And in the name of these differences over the great mysteries of life there is prejudice, persecution and conflict.
If the test of religion is the belief in a Supreme Being--if the test of religion is the acceptance of a particular document as the final revelation--if the acceptance of a set ritual is necessary in the celebration of sacred values--then, we are not a religious fellowship.
Why not let men differ about their answers to the great mysteries of the Universe? Let each seek his own way to the highest, to his own sense of supreme loyalty in life, his ideal of life. Let each philosophy, each world-view bring forth its truth and beauty to a larger perspective, that men may grow in vision, stature and dedication.
The religions of man should be a unifying force, for all the great religions reveal a basic unity in ethics. Whether it be Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism or Confucianism, all grow out of a sense of the sacredness of human life. This moral sensitivity to the sacredness of human personality--the Commandments not to kill, not to hurt, not to put a stumbling block in the path of the blind, not to neglect the widow or the fatherless, not to exploit the servant or the worker--all this can be found in the Bibles of man, in all the sacred books. All teach in substance; "Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you." There is, then, a basic unity among the great religions in the matter of ethics. True, there are religious philosophies which turn men away from the world, from the here and now, concentrating life-purposes on salvation for one's self or a mystic union with some supernatural reality. But most of the great religions agree on mercy, justice, love--here on earth. And they agree that the great task is to move men from apathy, from an acceptance of the evils in life, to face the possibilities of the world, to make life sweet for one another instead of bitter. This is the unifying ethical task of all the religions--yes, of all the philosophies of mankind. There is no need to force our own theological points of view upon one another or to insist that the moral life grows out of final, absolute authority.
In its deeper meaning, we say that the Ethical Movement grows out of people's refusal to accept the evils in their own lives and in the world about them. The "ethical movement" began long before there were Ethical Societies, long before there were temples and mosques and churches. It began with the dawn of conscience, with man's awareness of the suffering of others, the hurts that men do to one another. It grew as men began to recognize good and evil, to see that there are ways of hate and destruction, of love and creativeness. Through the centuries the effort of the individual to control his destructive impulses, to atone for his wrongs, to live out love and justice in his personal relations and in the larger community is the history of man's moral development. It includes, too, the social struggle to free men from slavery and exploitation, from ignorance and poverty, the movement for the emancipation of women, for civil liberties, for equality, for universal suffrage, for democracy in all areas of human relations. It is these expressions of the human spirit which are a key to a meaningful existence. It is the destiny of man to seek for truth, to create beauty, and to strive for the achievement of relationships which treasure the good in people. Man's moral growth in the personal relations and in the creation of a more ethical society, constitutes the significant spiritual movement in the life of the human race. We need not derive our ethical faith from a theology; we need only agree that all men have the possibility of moral sensitivity and moral growth.
Some men insist that the moral struggle has meaning only in terms of some ultimate reality--a god of supernatural power, a final judgment, an after-life. They cry out for these assurances, but through the centuries there has been no answer from the universe, save what men make out of their own hearts and minds. Despite the lack of a guarantee of victory of good over evil, of love over hate, men can make the commitment and give themselves to this struggle for their own salvation. Men can and do make the sacrifices and live out the love that is in them without regard to fear of punishment in some hell or promise of reward in some heaven. Whether or not human judgment and human effort matter to the universe, men have a challenge to meet. Basically it is a matter of personal decision and personal integrity.
This does not mean that an ethical faith has no framework or viewpoint beyond man. Felix Adler in his earliest addresses, took the view "Deed Not Creed." But later he realized more and more that "Deed" implies an outlook on life--that "Deed" is part of a larger faith, whether we put that faith into words or not. The larger outlook and faith need not take for form of a dogmatic statement but the "Deed" indicates what the individual views as important in his life perspective.
For "Deed," or a life of action, to be part of a religious life, there must not only be a dedication to values but a feeling of reverence and the awareness that one's own life is part of the larger life of the community of mankind and indeed part of a larger life process in the universe. Although we do not know the ultimate or total truth about reality, although we do not know the beginning of the beginning or the end of the end or the ultimate nature of the cosmos, we realize that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, possibly having a meaning which is beyond our grasp. It is this larger awareness of man's relation to nature and life and to the cosmos which gives religious quality to the "Deed," to our "here-and-now" efforts to grow and to serve and to create and to love.
The purpose of the Ethical Societies, as an organized Ethical Movement, is not merely to offer a common ground of faith for all men without creed or sectarian division. That is one purpose. But on the positive side its purpose is to unite men in seeking the truth, in penetrating further into the great mysteries of the universe and of human destiny to which we have not yet found, and many never find, the final answer. Beyond this, the purpose is to unite men in the positive task of growing ethically, of being more mature morally, of having more insight, more vision, more wisdom of how men might live together in a more ethical world. For far as man has come in moral growth and fine as is the heritage of customs, laws and institutions which he has received from the generations past, human beings are not yet prepared for the responsibilities of freedom in an age of complex technology and interdependence. We have not yet created the education and laws and institutions which express, give support, and implement our best impulses and our spiritual needs and aspirations.
Our generation faces one of the most difficult moral crises in history. We must fulfill the democratic promise or fall before the anti-freedom movements which grow out of man's fears and hates and sadisms. We must fulfill the promise of peace, using the unity and interdependence of the world to make this planet safe for all men or be destroyed by bacteriological and atomic weapons. How can we convert our international relations into trust, into creative interplay, interchange of ideas, mutual-aid and sharing so that we enrich and liberate mankind? Is this not the overarching spiritual task of all human beings, regardless of theology?
The Ethical Societies are fellowships of people fostering moral growth and a clearer life orientation in terms of human values--stressing education, service, community action.
Here, then, is a life orientation based on every man's moral experience and insight and evaluation. Here is a faith in man's capacity to solve his problems, a faith in which every man is called upon to take responsibility. To strive that the world of men may be better is a command from within. In this consecration, each of us can find the power within himself to meet any personal crisis, to make his life decisions, to join together with others in a fellowship which offers meaning and direction and faith.
In this fellowship we bring up our families, live out our friendships, give ourselves to our work and take on the burden of citizenship for a freer and better world.
This document is part of a larger document,Understanding Ethical Religion, edited by Howard B. Radest.
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