From Ethics as a Religion by David S. Muzzey

One of the questions inevitably asked of a member of an Ethical Society is, Do you believe in God? At first sight this seems like a simple question which can be answered by Yes or No. But in reality it is a very complex question. Everybody except the avowed atheists (and they are comparatively few) believes in some kind of God. Even the devils, we are told, “believe and tremble.” And no tribe of men has ever been found that did not have its gods. The proper question to ask, therefore, is not the futile one, Do you believe in God? but rather, What kind of God do you believe in? Leaving to the anthropologists the study of the kinds of gods that enlisted the beliefs to primitive peoples, let us, by way of clarification, distinguish the different kinds of God believed in by our contemporaries.


First, there are the theists, who believe in a personal God; that is, in a God with whom they can communicate in praise and prayer and who communicates to them his will and purposes in revelation. He cares for them as a father cares for his children. His providence guides them through all the way that they must travel. They say with Newman, “Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

All Christians are theists; but not all theists are Christians. No man ever had a more vivid sense of God’s guidance than Mahatma Gandhi; yet Gandhi did not abandon his Hindu religion for Christianity. Abraham Lincoln gave ample evidence of his belief in God’s providence; but he never made profession of the Christian religion. Countless other examples of ancient and modern believers in a God who presides over the destinies of men should warn us against the bigotry of Calvin’s assertion that Christianity was the one true religion and all the others “a vast welter of error.” The name “theist” is derived from the Greek (theos) word for God. The latin for God (deus) furnishes us with another type of believer–the deists.


For the deists God was no less real than for the theists. But he was not a personal God. He was the creator of heaven and earth, and, having seen that his work was “good,” he left it to pursue its appointed course. Man was not an object of his continual care. Nature furnished sufficient evidence of his benevolence, and the “natural religion” of the deists meant living in accord with the harmony of nature. Though ancient philosophers like Plato and Stoics taught the doctrine of man as an aspirant for the perfection of God and a spark of the divine, it was in the eighteenth century that deism developed into an important type of religion. Most of the fathers of our republic were deists: Jefferson, Madison, the Adamses, Paine, among others. They did not believe in the inspiration of the Bible or in miracles or in the orthodox plan of salvation. For them Jesus was not the second person of the Trinity, but a revered teacher of the good life on earth. They regarded a man’s theological opinions as a matter of private interest, not to be forced on others by church or state. Thomas Jefferson was the most articulate of this group of men. He was accused by his orthodox critics of being a “French atheist”; but in fact his attitude toward religion was deeply reverent. He made a synopsis of the Gospels. In his magnificent Statute of Virginia for Religious Liberty (for which he asked to be remembered, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia) he wrote: “Well aware that the opinions and beliefs of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain, by ftlinemaking it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacities tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness . . . that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical: that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than on our opinions in physics or geometry . . . and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to itself, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them: We, the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened in his body or goods, or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs; but that all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” In his later life he showed considerable interest in the Unitarian movement, which was growing in New England, and three years before his death he wrote to a friend: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which Jesus wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others; ascribing to him every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”


The professed atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of God. The term has always been one of reproach, implying moral corruption. But this is manifestly unfair and invidious. An atheist may be a man of exemplary character. He is simply one to whom the evidence for the existence of God presented to his mind is unconvincing.


The agnostic, often confused with the atheist, neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. He dismisses the question as one beyond the scope of the human mind and regards all attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God as a waste of effort which should be spent in the study and the improvement of man himself. “How can I understand God,” said Confucius, “when I do not know men?” I pass by other conceptions of God or gods, such as pantheism, polytheism and dualism, as of little or no significance for modern Man.

My Ethical Concept of God

Having thus noted some of the current conceptions of God, we may proceed to the subject of the chapter: an ethical concept of God. And I say an, not the, for the latter article would imply that the Ethical Societies had an “official” doctrine of God. This is not so. Each leader and member of such a Society is left perfectly free to entertain whatever opinion of God appeals to his mind or his emotions. I am therefore presenting my own ethical concept of God, without knowing whether or to what extent my colleagues and associates would agree with me; and I am submitting it to the reader for whatever judgment he or she thinks it merits.

In the first chapter of Genesis we read: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him.” What can such a phrase as the “image of God” mean to us? Surely, man was not created with the attributes commonly ascribed to God of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. And what worthy image of God have men ever had except the projection into infinity of their own highest ideals: justice, mercy, love? It is these ideals that we worship. We may be awed by infinite power, but we cannot really worship it, because it is not a worshipful (worthful) ideal. Therefore, I believe, it would be truer history and better psychology to read the text: “Man created God in his own image, in the image of man created he him.” If this seems to some like a brush and impious assertion, the whole course of human history is there to prove that the idea of God has grown in worthiness pari passu with the growth of man in knowledge, integrity and charity. Many a religion has perished because its authorized guardians clung to a concept of God, or gods, whose character failed to measure up to the progress of man in ethical insight; for, as T. S. Eliot has said, “No religion can survive the judgment of history unless the best minds have collaborated in its construction.

My concept of God is based on the argument of the preceding paragraph. It is not concerned with the existence or nonexistence of God, for, as we have noted, that question is beyond determination. Near the close of the eighteenth century Immanuel Kant of Konigsberg published a book entitled A Critique of Pure Reason, which is acknowledged to be the keenest analysis of the powers of the human mind ever written. He demonstrated that, since the mind operates only within the limits of time and space, it can never grasp transcendent truths. But Kant, inheriting from his mother a strain of pietism, was not satisfied with the negative conclusion. Like Pascal, he believed that the heart has reasons which the mind knows not. Hence he wrote another work, A Critique of Practical Reason, in which he set forth three “postulates” (demands) which must be assumed in order to satisfy a man’s religious cravings: namely, the existence of God, immortality and a future state of reward and punishment. We would agree with Kant in his analysis of the limited power of “pure reason”; but not on the necessity of assuming his three postulates as a guarantee of a life of religious devotion. No one would deny that Buddha was a deeply religious man, and that Buddhism, before it was degraded into a system of priestly idolatry, was a noble religion. Yet Buddhism had no God. Nor is a belief in immortality a necessary postulate for a religious life. It would be impossible to say with how many people vague “intimations” of immortality crystallize into positive belief; but it is certain that unnumbered multitudes of religious people subscribe to the motto, “if there be no other life, pitch this one high.” And as for future rewards and punishments, the truly religious man needs no bribes or threats to keep him in the path of virtue. I am not arguing against Kant’s postulates. They may, for all we know, be true. But they are not indispensable for the religious life.

If, then, we are not satisfied with the theistic conception of a God who personally directs the life of every individual and has prepared an endless life of bliss or torture beyond the grave; or with the deistic conception of a God who, on the contrary, having created man, has no concern for his conduct or destiny; or with the atheistic denial of any kind of God at all; what can we offer as an ethical concept of God? Some of our members are opposed to the use of the word “God.” But we must have some term to denote the aim and fruition of our ethical aspirations; and it seems to me that there can be no objection to the use of the word “God,” if we bear in mind that it is the kind of God we mean.

Now, for a person for whom ethics is itself a religion, and not merely an adjunct to religion as in the current idea of the church, any concept of God must be a purely ethical one. Omniscience, omnipotence and all such incomprehensible attributes of God are excluded, not because they are disproved, but because they are not ethical. The picture of a great Being enthroned in heaven, surrounded by angels and saints “casting down their golden crowns” before him, is a childish one. I remember in my tender years thinking of God as a bookkeeper with pen in hand, setting down my youthful sins to confront me at the Day of Judgment. If in the minds of the more mature, similar concepts of God have lost their vividness, is it not true that for most people the idea of an enthroned God who directs all the vicissitudes of their lives is a vague and hazy one? The Westminster Shorter Catechism declares that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But neither of these phrases corresponds to the working life of men. Man can add no “glory” to a Being by hypothesis the sum of glory himself; and enjoying God forever is an idea which seems to have little relevance to the tasks that man has to grapple with on earth. The father image of God, which Jesus emphasized, is much more practical and comforting than the king image which finds so general an expression in the liturgy and hymns of the churches. But when we consider the persistent strife of men and nations, can we truthfully say that the conception that all men are brothers because they are sons of a common father has availed to inspire them with the sense of brotherhood? Another doubt as to the sufficiency of the theistic conception of God arises from the fact that it is difficult to see the intervention of Providence in the vicissitudes of life. The walls of a certain church in Paris are covered with plaques thanking God or a saint for the cure of a disease or deliverance from some danger or even for success in passing an examination. One is reminded of the story of the man who visited a Roman temple hung with such votive tablets and asked, “Where are the tablets of those who perished?”

Acknowledging the vast superiority of the Theistic concept of God over the deistic or the pantheistic, I would still reverently maintain that there is an ethical concept in better agreement both with human experience and with human aspirations. In stead of positing a personal God, whose existence one can neither prove nor disprove, the ethical concept is founded on human experience. It is anthropocentric, not theocentric. Religion, for all the various definitions that have been given of it, must surely mean the devotion of men and women to the highest ideal that they can conceive. And that ideal is a community of spirits in which the latent moral potentialities of people shall have been elicited by their reciprocal endeavors to cultivate the best in their fellow men and women. What ultimate reality is we do not know; but we have the faith that it expresses itself in the human world as the power which inspires in people a moral purpose. We have not yet begun to exploit people’s ethical potentialities. Too much occupied with what is called their relations with God, we have neglected the more fruitful study of their relations with one another. I like the reply of Thoreau when someone asked him in his closing hours if he had made his peace with God: “I am not aware that I ever quarreled with him.” The concept of God (or, better, Godhead) which posits as ultimate reality a spiritual society is not, as some of our reverent critics have charged, a subtle form of egotheism. We claim to be members of such a society not because we have attained spiritual stature, but because we are intent on attaining it. Our concept of the spiritual society as the pattern to which human society should conform is the ever urgent impetus which bids us to persist in our efforts to purge the baser elements out of our lives and realize our birthright as members of the Corpus Spirituale. “The true Shekinah, the glory of God, is man,” wrote St. Chrysostom.

Religion has been almost exclusively concerned in the past with the problem of Man’s relation to God. The more practical problem of Man’s relation to his fellow Man has been slighted. But more and more we are realizing that the individualistic conception of salvation which was the chief concern of our grandfathers is no guarantee of a spiritual society. “The trouble with this town,” remarked a friend of mine of a community in which there was a good deal of religious smugness along with social bickerings and backbitings, is that most of the people have been “saved.” In the final volume of his remarkable Lanny Budd series, O Shephered, Speak!, Upton Sinclair writes: “Emphasize, enrich and build up by discovery the side of man concerned with his spiritual powers, his potentialities that still remain to be fully explored, and we get into things that command respect and interest, sympathy and fraternal feelings. Why not then put everything we have behind the search for these transcendent powers of the mind, these spiritual relationships which man is capable of having with other men, transcending distance and language and color and national boundaries?” This is genuine ethical religion. It is worthy of our utmost devotion. It is being increasingly endorsed by philosophers (see John Dewey’s Our Common Faith) and psychologists, who discover what marvelous potentialities for spiritual vision and growth there are in man. And it is faith in these potentialities, however feebly we see them exemplified in our current society, that warrants us in attributing indefeasible worth to every human being. As no two faces are exactly alike among the millions we see, so no two souls are alike. Each is induplicable, distinctive, indispensable in the ethical concept of a Godhead of ultimate moral power.

I know that a great majority of people would deny the name “religion” to the concept of God which has been offered in these pages. They feel the need of a personalized symbol–a father or savior or pope or saint–whom they can adore. “I cannot give up my faith,” was the reply of a woman to my attempt to state the position of the Ethical Societies, as if devotion to ideals and the building of a community of interrelated seekers for spiritual perfection were not worthy to be called a “faith,” but no more than a hobby, like golf or the collection of stamps! We do not need, in pursuing the envisioned goal of ethical religion, to carry with us our old gods, like Aeneas leaving Troy for the new lands “promised by fate.” In the beatitudes of Jesus there is no mention of dogma or ceremony. The blessings are for the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness–all ethical qualities.

We agree completely with the accumulating pleas of clergy and laymen for a revival of religion as the only remedy for the unspeakable moral degradation of this hate-filled, war-shattered age. Monday morning’s newspaper devotes several columns to the report of sermons delivered the day before; and the burden of the sermons is a conventional exhortation to honor and obey God. What do such expressions as “loving God” or “obeying God” actually mean in our dally life? One cannot love infinite power and majesty. One can love only the qualities of goodness which one finds in one’s fellow men, and one can obey only the dictates of one’s own conscience. All else is the product not of love but of fear. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar,” wrote the author of the first Epistle of John; “for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God, whom he hath not seen?” Thus the “God” that we love is not the figure on the great white throne, but the perfect pattern envisioned by faith, of humanity as it should be, purged of the evil elements which retard its progress toward “the knowledge, love and practice of the right.”

Is this ethical concept of a God (or Godhead) less real, less inspiring, less reasonable than the orthodox concept of an absolute creator and ruler of the universe? Is it not even more consistent with man’s actual experience than the theistic concept of a God who determines all the vicissitudes of one’s life and numbers the hairs of one’s head? Does it not offer to the large number of men arid women for whom the Jewish and Christian articles of belief and forms of worship no longer have significance, a faith to satisfy their intellect, enlist their enthusiasm, and beget in them a renewed sense of their dignify and responsibility as contributors to the building of the “golden city” of light?