Ethical Culture: An Overview


I.  Introduction/Disclaimer (Bridget)

            A. Who we are/background

            B.  What we will discuss today

                        1. Basic ideas of EC

                        2. History of movement

                        3. Modern EC Societies on the local level

                        4. How EC can be defined as a religion

                        4. Further explanation of theory

                        5. Question & answer

            C.  Keep a question list for Tom Hoeppner (Ethical Humanist Society of Greater Chicago)

II. Overview of Ethical Culture/AEU

A.  Nontheistic, nondogmatic, humanistic religion designed to create harmony in society by encouraging people from all faiths to continually work toward philosophical consensus.

B.  Ultimate aim of human life is to work to create a more humane society

C.  Historically religions have had failure in marrying theory & practice

                        1. Lose focus on behavior because of:

                                    a. Conflicts about creed

                                    b. Orthodoxies of ritual

                                    c. Questions of true identity/faith

            2. Action gets lost in discussion of ideas

            D. Similarities to Humanism/UU

1. Celebration of arts/creativity/science

2. Emphasis on social responsibility

3. Fellowship – relationships make us better people

III. History of Ethical Culture (Thomas)

A.    Felix Adler (1851-1933)

1.      Born in Germany to a Rabbi, Graduated Columbia University with top honors

2.      Grad. w/Doctorate Summa Cum Laude from rabbinate in Berlin 1873

3.      Abandoned rabbinical post upon return to US to join and eventually take over the Free Religious Association

4.      Founded NY Society for Ethical Culture in 1876

5.      Founded several Ethical schools in NY including first free kindergarten in NY

6.      Served as distinguished lecturer for Columbia, Oxford

B.     Beginning of Ethical Culture Movement

1.      Modern incarnation born of Felix Adler in 1876 in NY

2.      Additional societies, based on the NY model, opened in Chicago, Washington DC, and St Louis in the late 1800’s

3.      Each society quickly adopted projects of social change and activism including opening free schools for working families’ children, creating a visiting nurse program, formal schooling for crippled children, signing a petition to create the NAACP, and providing learning opportunities for inner-city slum children.

4.      Today, AEU is governing organization for EC Societies

5.      Member of IHEU (Int’l Humanist/Ethical Union)

6.      Member of Council of Ethics-Based Orgs. at U.N.

IV.       Facts about Local Societies (Bridget)

1. Fellowships of people who seek a clarification of the values of life and a faith to live by.

            2. 20+ Societies in America today, 1 in London

            3. Democratic process - each society has an elected Board

            4. Choose own name; not required to include word “humanist”

5.  Societies have Leaders/Adjunct Leaders (certification)

C.     Functions of an Ethical Culture Society (societies choose their own)

1.      Meetings

2.      Ethical Action (volunteering, letter-writing)

3.      Ceremonies (baby naming, weddings, memorial, Coming-of-Age)

4.      Ethical Education

a.     Adults’ Activities (book/writer’s groups, discussion, film, dinner)

b.     Children’s Activities (Sunday School, YES)

5.      Festivals (spring, winter, etc.)

6.      Individual assistance/guidance (Leader or Committee)

V. EC as a religion (Thomas)

A.    AEU legally recognized as religion in U.S.

1.      Religious validity has been challenged and upheld by US Supreme Court (Torcaso v. Watkins, 1964). It was noted that a non-theistic religion is for legal purposes as valid as a theistic religion.

2.      Each society must still make individual case for recognition in their state. (e.g. Chicago society’s case)

B.     Defining Religion:

1.  Connection between humanity & “Universal Being” (doesn’t apply)

            a. Indifference/apathy toward God/afterlife

            b. Focus on the here & now

2.  Passionate devotion to a supreme cause (does apply)

C.     Admissible dissent

1.      Treat all members respectfully, regardless of opinion

2.      Members/Leaders free to hold theistic/atheistic/philosophical beliefs, but they must not characterize the Movement (private beliefs)

3.      AEU has stated its position on topics but members/leaders not required to share the same opinion.

4.       “Serious interest in the moral end” sufficient for membership – newer members may not be able to see the supreme moral end.

5.      Goal is philosophical consensus, not dogmatic homogeneity

VI.  Philosophy of Ethical Culture (Bridget)

A.  Adler: “We have found a new bond of fellowship, a new common ground upon which agnostics and theists and good men of all shades of belief and opinion can stand together; it is the common pursuit of righteousness, the supreme desire to see righteousness flourish on earth.”

B.  Supreme Ethical Rule: To elicit the best in oneself and others by drawing out the unique difference that constitutes each self.

1. Reinforced by Ethical Manifold:  Diversity held together in unity

a. Look beyond the differences between religions & embrace common core of ethics shared worldwide

b. Attribute a unique worth/respect to each person, whether evidenced or not

            C. Defining Ethics

                        1. Purposeful lack of 1-sentence absolute definition

                                    a. Flexibility - Knowledge of “rightness” constantly evolving

                                    b. The Golden Rule – Adler/Russell, “moral egocentrism”

2. Adler also felt that despite innumerable creedal differences, most religions share a common moral vein – starting place

                        3. What criteria do we use to define ethics?

                                    a. Drawn from world philosophy & religion, science

                                    b. Supernatural sanctions for morality are unnecessary

c. Humans have infinite value & mustn’t be degraded/abused

d. Love of goodness, others are true motives for right conduct

                                    e. Self-reliance & cooperation are the true sources of help

f. Individual considers the convictions of others but finds final authority in his/her conscientious and reasoned judgment

g. Work towards philosophical consensus

            D. Praxis

                        1. Adler, “had enough of a religion which operates only on Sundays”

2. EC committed to ethics-based “deed before creed” philosophy

                                    a. Thought must become choice

b. Eliciting the best from others

                                    b. Doing the best you can with the raw material you have

c. Find truth through action (action contributes to intellectual growth)

d. Caveat: Unthinking action may do harm!

                        3. Challenge to live ethically in your day-to-day life

            E. 8 Commitments of Ethical Culture (handout)



Q & A period