Jone Johnson Lewis,
Leader of the Northern Virginia Ethical Society

While we don’t require every member of an Ethical Society to consider Ethical Culture their religion, the Ethical movement as a whole and the national and local institutions within that movement have defined themselves as both religious and educational. The question isn’t whether we are a religion, but in what way we are a religion, how we are a religious movement.

In Ethical Culture, we affirm that the supreme end of human life is to live in such a way that we acknowledge the worth, dignity, and uniqueness of every human person, and work towards both personal relationships and broader social reform to encourage and enable all to develop their full human capacities. We take no position as a movement on the existence or non-existence of supreme beings or a supernatural reality, but instead affirm this Supreme Ideal.

Arthur Dobrin, Leader Emeritus of the Long Island Ethical Humanist Society and an instructor at Hofstra University, has provided this general definition of religion, based on current understandings of various religions around the world, many of which do not require belief in a supernatural being or a supernatural reality:

– DEFINITION: Religion is that set of beliefs and/or institutions, behaviors and emotions which binds human beings to something beyond their individual selves and fosters in its adherents a sense of humility and gratitude that, in turn, sets the tone of one’s world-view and requires certain behavioral dispositions relative to that which transcends personal interests. In other words, religion connects a person with a larger world and creates a loyalty that extends to the past, the present and the future. This loyalty not only makes demands upon the person but — and this is the part that makes it distinctively spiritual — it creates a sense of humility. So religion provides a story about one’s place in the larger scheme of things, creates a sense of connection and it makes one feel grateful.

The 2003 ethical identity statement, which is currently undergoing final revision and which has been created under the leadership of Richard Kiniry (Leader, Philadelphia Ethical Society) and Curt Collier (Leader, Riverdale/Yonkers Ethical Society), states this about our religious identity:

– It is a chief belief of Ethical religion that if we relate to others in a way that brings out their best, we will at the same time elicit the best in ourselves. By the “best” in each person, we refer to his or her unique talents and abilities that affirm and nurture life. We use the term “spirit” to refer to a person’s unique personality and to the love, hope, and empathy that exists in human beings. When we act to elicit the best in others, we encourage the growing edge of their ethical development, their perhaps as-yet untapped but inexhaustible worth.

Barbara Meyerson, Leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Essex County, describes our religious identity in these words:

We (Ethical Culture) are a religious community committed to consecrating our lives to acting in ways that honor our primary commitment to respect the worth and dignity of each person and to create human institutions which enable societies (whether congregations or national governments) to do so as well. In our daily decision making, we strive to give priority to this ideal.

John Hoad, Leader Emeritus of the St. Louis Ethical Society, defines Ethical Culture specifically as religious in this sense:

Ethical Culture is a religion of humanity, committed to the supreme value that all humans, whatever their race, religion, gender, or political persuasion, are to be treated fairly and compassionately as fellow humans in one human family.

The Eight Commitments of Ethical Culture, a project initiated by Lois Kellerman (Leader Emeritus of the Brooklyn Ethical Society) and which had widespread participation in the final formulation, states the position on religion this way:

8. Life itself inspires a religious response. Although awareness of impending death intensifies the human quest for meaning and lends perspective to all our achievements, the mystery of life itself, the need to belong, to feel connected to the universe, and the desire for celebration and joy are primary factors motivating human “religious” response.

In 1895, the founding leader of the Ethical movement, Felix Adler, described our status as a religion, and a statement by the movement’s Leaders of the time reaffirmed that stance as documented in the more recent Concept Map of Ethical Culture. The Concept Map reaffirmed our commitment as a religious movement in these words:

We assert our affirmation of the term religion when it refers to:

  • The reverence, wonder, and thankfulness with which we take our place in the universe,
  • The sense of a larger whole of which we are a part,
  • The organization of communities that generate values and meaning and seek fellowship in pursuit of ideals,
  • The passionate devotion to the cause of serving the good of humanity and the world,
  • A way of life that integrates our values and gives ethical direction and resources for ethical living, and
  • Access to the “ethical energy” that resides in the human mind and heart and in the inspiration of human companionship and collaboration.

An unattributed statement representing the Washington Ethical Society says this about our movement’s religious commitment:

Ethical Society members look beyond the differences between religions to embrace the common core of ethics at the heart of all worldwide faiths. This common ground exists because ethics are more than social conventions, manners, or customs. The ethical teachings of the world’s great religions, discovered through centuries of pain and progress, define the conditions necessary for human beings to thrive individually and collectively. For a good life, love must prevail, truth must be respected, honesty esteemed, freedom protected, and justice secured…

Ethical Society members are religious in the deepest, most profound sense because they place at the heart of Ethical Culture the ethical values which the God-concepts from different religions ideally represent. They believe that all persons, members and non-members alike, whatever their personal beliefs, heritage, circumstances, or religious affiliation, are fully and equally entitled to ethical treatment.

In that statement, a quote from the founding leader of the movement, Felix Adler, explains the rationale for a nontheistic religious movement. Nontheistic as we use the term means that we take no position on the existence or non-existence of a God or gods. He explained, “There is a higher standard for religious truth than kneeling before a Man-God as if that image were an idol. If God and good, and good and God be one, there is no God save what dawns upon us in the experience of doing good.”

The late Algernon Black, Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture for many years, also attempted to answer this question in his essay, “Are We Religious?”

Our Sunday Platform meetings, our Sunday schools for children, our religious education programs for children and adult, all are meant as instruments to affirm these values and to move us towards ever more growth as individuals and groups towards our ideals.

In several jurisdictions, the legal status of the Ethical Culture movement and several Ethical Societies as religious organizations or “churches” has been upheld by court decisions. (Under some state laws, even such groups as synagogues or Hindu religious communities are classified as “churches.”) Yet our status as a religion does ultimately not depend on legal recognition of such — it depends on the commitment to “supreme concern” which our values and ideals support.