What is an Ethical Society? Some common questions about Ethical Culture

© American Ethical Union 1994. All rights reserved. Author: Algernon Black.

What is the Ethical Society and the Ethical Movement?

The Ethical Society is a fellowship of people who seek clarification of the values of life and a faith to live by. They cherish freedom of the mind and freedom of conscience. Their affirmation is the worth and dignity and possibilities of every person. The common ground is the concern with the relation of human beings to one another.

Is the Ethical Society a religious society and is the Ethical Movement a religion?

Religion is interpreted as a sense of values to which human beings are committed and in terms of which they find a faith to live by. In terms of this faith they marry and bring their children into the world, raise their families and strive to achieve a better life for themselves, their neighbors and the human community as a whole. For those who hold this point of view Ethical Culture performs the functions and meets the needs of a religious life.

The great religious institutions originated in human history before the age of modern science and before the concept of democracy had taken effect in the world and before the development of the interdependent global relations of a world community. The Ethical Movement is an effort to help people achieve a reconstruction of their viewpoint, their values and faith consistent with the contributions which the knowledge and powers of science make available, which the democratic spirit and method and promise have brought to all people, and which the interdependent world community now makes necessary and possible.

How do Ethical Societies differ from churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions?

The Ethical Societies have no creed of theology or metaphysics, no set doctrines concerning the unknown mysteries of life. There is no claim to a belief in a supernatural universe or Supreme Being, or to a belief in any one scripture as the source of absolute truth or belief in an afterlife or another world. Nor is there any set ritual or form of worship.

The basic viewpoint is one of freedom for the individual to work out one’s own personal formulation of one’s attitude toward the unknown and the mysteries of life, such questions as the nature of ultimate reality and death.

What is the relationship of the Ethical Movement to the traditional religions?

The Ethical Movement is part of the long history of the effort of human beings to find meaning and purpose in life. It is part of a continuity with the past. Just as the great world religions grew out of the beliefs and practices of early tribal life and primitive cultures; just as Judaism grew out of the religions that came before it in Egypt and Babylonia and Assyria; and just as Christianity developed out of Judaism, and Protestantism out of Catholicism; and the Muslim faith out of both Judaism and Christianity; so the concept of an Ethical Faith developed from these forerunners in effort to transcend the dogmas of supernaturalism and the limitations of sectarianism.

The Ethical Movement shares the ethical heritage and ethical concern for people with the great ethical religions. It respects the fact that for many human beings an ethical faith without theology may be inadequate. But the members and Leaders of the Ethical Movement find a common ground for cooperative action on ethical problems with members of all faiths.

Is Ethical Culture considered a religion by all its members?

Some members of the Ethical Movement to whom the word “religion” is association with creeds, rituals, supernaturalism and sectarianism prefer not to use the word “religious” as descriptive of the Movement. They think of it as a fellowship based upon a philosophy of life, emphasizing education and growth, social service and social reconstruction with the purpose of helping people live better lives and thus fulfill the aims of democratic society and of peace between the nations. Since increasing numbers of women and men are no longer affiliated with religious institutions and since increasing numbers no longer believe and worship in traditional ways, the Ethical Movement performs an important function in offering a free platform and a free fellowship for the unchurched.

What is the attitude of the Ethical Movement toward religious freedom?

Religious freedom is humanity’s most precious freedom. Members of the Ethical Movement treasure religious freedom for all, and above all freedom of individual conscience. Religious freedom requires religious tolerance. The Ethical Movement believes that everyone has the right to worship according to conscience and the right not to worship at all. By refusing to formulate or require acceptance of a fixed and final doctrine, the Ethical Movement strives to keep open-ended the quest for truth. Human beings will always differ in their interpretations of life and their need for intellectual and aesthetic formulations and ceremonial expressions of the meaning of life. It is doubtful whether all people will ever agree on one world religion. It would mean an end to religious freedom. It would rob humankind of one of its most valuable assets, the pluralism of the many religions and philosophies which contribute to the interplay of human differences and of human development.

Does the Ethical Society accept the idea of God?

The Ethical Society neither affirms nor denies a belief in God. Members are not committed to any theology or set metaphysics. The Ethical Society is nontheistic, neutral and humanist in emphasis. The affirmation or denial of theistic definition and faith is for each individual to make for himself or herself.

Is it possible for human beings to live a good life without belief in God?

A respect for the dignity and worth of every human being and a capacity to enter into decent and just and loving relations with other human beings is not dependent upon a faith in God. There is no reliable evidence or scientific study which reveals that those who hold to supernaturalism necessarily lead better lives than those who would call themselves agnostics or atheists. Goodness is not dependent upon theology. Crime and delinquency, dishonesty and cruelty in human relations, destructive behavior in the family and the community are found among human beings in all groups. So also justice and compassion and love are found among the traditional believers and nonbelievers, the religious and the nonreligious. The essential element which may make the difference in the life and relations of an individual may be a faith in the human rather than a faith in God.

Some people may accept moral teachings only if they come with a belief that they are God’s law and that there is a Supreme Being who gave the moral law, who watches over human beings and gives reward and punishment according to their obedience to that God. But more and more people recognize that moral teachings originate in the experience of life as people learn how to live together. Thus, for those who hold to an ethical humanist philosophy, the authority and the motivation for a good life is within themselves.