Richard Kiniry

What is the role of Music in an Ethical Society? What optimally should it be?

The quickest way of creating a divisive argument within an Ethical Society is to propose singing, or to be even more controversial, suggest standing while singing. If you suggest the use of candles or other religious practices, you might have a stampede toward the doors. As a movement, Ethical Culture has never definitively settled the question of how we can have one foot in the atheist/agnostic world that tends to avoid emotions and another foot in the alternative, liberal religious world that is appreciative of emotional displays. Since so much of Ethical Culture’s focus is on social justice, some nonreligious progressives who find a home within our walls are not interested in too much communal ritualistic activity.

And yet many members, including the progressives, yearn for aesthetic, emotional experiences that support and reinforce their values. Most human beings like to sing, and choirs and communal singing are ways to satisfy that desire. Some form of music is part of every Ethical Society from classical music to 60s folk songs and reworked traditional hymns. My question becomes, what fits the Ethical Humanist approach to life?

Music that celebrates nature and the seasons, music that touches on our moral values such as We Shall Overcome, This Land is Our Land, and Imagine seem to satisfy everyone. But, it seems to me, not just the music but the entire event that we call “Platform” ought to offer an experience that feeds both mind and heart and most importantly the event ought to express the Ethical Humanist understanding of life and what that means as a guide to living. As a relatively novel approach to religion, Ethical Culture needs to offer both its difference and similarities to traditional religion. The forms may be similar but the content very different.

Every religious institution wants its members and potential members to identify with the group’s point of view, to think of the meeting place and its services as the place where they connect with the deeper meaning of their lives. Members should want to come to Sunday meetings regularly, or when possible, with the expectation that they join like-minded people to search for a better life for themselves and the world. Entering an Ethical Society does not mean you enter a refuge from the world; no, you bring the world with you. It is where you center your life around attitudes, feelings, and values in the only reality we believe is real.

So, music, poetry, readings, and ceremony only add to the experience. Music at Ethical Society meetings does not have to sound like hymns. It should present the diversity of life–music that touches differences in age, ethnicity, taste, style (but no heavy metal) so as to bring the whole world into the room. Beside old favorites, we need music that speaks to our ethical humanist values–worth before value, belief in science, respect, equality and relationships. We need songwriters to create Ethical Culture songs, chants and responsive readings that address both the joys and pains of this world. Ethical Culture is very good at thinking and talking; a large dose of feelings can only enhance the experience.


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