I’m the product of an Irish Protestant mother and a Scottish Catholic father. On the rare occasion my parents went to church, it was to a Protestant one, usually Baptist. As their marriage deteriorated, which church my brother and I went to became just another aspect of an on-going argument. So, for a period in my pre-teens, one Sunday meant the Baptist church and the next Sunday the Catholic one.
When I was 13 I decided to become a Catholic. I realize now it was mainly to piss off my mother.
I was a practicing Catholic through my teens and 20’s, and my idea of “good” Catholics were the Berrigan brothers, priests who were anti-war activists in the 70’s. I also liked nuns who stood up to the church about wearing habits and serving communion. But more and more I found they were the exception not the rule.
As my feminism matured, I realized I couldn’t listen to an allegedly celibate man tell me my sole role in life was to be a wife and mother. I was also pro-choice and as aspects of the Catholic church became more ardently “pro-life,” I decided I couldn’t be a practicing Catholic any longer. I still considered myself a Catholic, but I went to Mass only on the holiest days—Christmas and Easter. Between those visits, I missed the community and ritual and had no sense of purpose.
Losing my religion
Throughout my life I’ve been a questioner, never accepting anything on faith—hard to reconcile with being a Christian. When I was still going to both the Baptist and Catholic churches in my home town, my parents got calls in the same week from the minister and the priest complaining I asked too many questions. My questioning eventually progressed from what I found wrong with the Catholic Church to whether or not I really believed in God.
In my mid 40’s, after the sudden death of a friend, I came to the conclusion there is no God, no supernatural entity creator who sits backs and watches as we do terrible things to each other. I lost all that Catholic guilt and fear of Baptist hellfire in a single moment of revelation. That was my equivalent of having the scales lifted from my eyes.
And yet, I was sad. No community, no ritual, no purpose, no singing in the choir.
Then came the dabbling—Buddhism, paganism, goddess worship, native American shamanism, Druidism, Wicca. Nothing fit.
I wanted something that would bring me the calm and reflection I felt at Mass without the debasement of women, threat of eternal damnation, and slavish adoration of a mythical figure. For as long as I searched, I found nothing that met my needs. For 10 years I wandered in the wilderness, trying to make spiritual connections with nature, with sunrises and sunsets. But I still felt empty.
The ethics of religion
Then, I found humanist religion. Well, let’s parse that a bit.
Humanism: the doctrine that people’s duty is to promote human welfare; the doctrine emphasizing a person’s capacity for self-realization through reason; rejects religion and the supernatural.
Religion: a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control destiny; institution to express belief in a divine power.
“Humanist religion,” then, seems the perfect oxymoron.
So, being me, I have to question: Is there such a hybrid as a humanist religion? There is. It’s called Ethical Culture. It’s founder was philosopher and educator Felix Adler, who was a prominent figure in social justice activism in the 19th Century in New York City. (Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on Ethical Culture is quite often hacked by traditional religionists, who try to make us sound equivalent to baby-eating, devil worshipers without understanding we don’t worship anything.)
In its more than 150 years of history, Ethical Culture helped found the NAACP and ACLU, lobbied for the enacting of child labor and worker protection laws, founded covenant houses for immigrants, started an Ethical Culture school, and established the first visiting nurse organization. And in recent years, Ethical Societies and Ethical Culture’s parent organization, the American Ethical Union, have promoted climate change and other environmental issues nationally and in local communities.
Faith in the here and now
Even among people who identify as Ethical Culturists, there’s often a debate about whether it is or isn’t a religion, humanist or otherwise. Some will not accept even the utterance of the R-word. Others insist it’s a philosophy that masquerades as a religion. (Ethical Culture is recognized by the IRS as a religion, and we hold the distinction of being the smallest organized religion in America with only 3,000 adherents.) Looking at the definitions above, my personal belief is that in Ethical Culture the “supernatural power or powers that control destiny” is the “duty to promote human welfare.”
Ethical Culture has no creed or core, central beliefs adherents are required to accept on faith. Whether you believe in a supernatural being or not is entirely up to you. We don’t require it, nor do we insist that you don’t. We accept that our focus is here on earth and not striving for an afterlife at the expense of others. We acknowledge that every human being has dignity and worth (and, boy, is that hard) and that by bringing out the best in others, we bring out the best in ourselves. Ethical Culture is flexible and adaptable, and it has been on the proper side of many social justice issues—race relations, women’s rights, the environment, gay marriage, to name but a few, including transition from an oil-based culture.
Ethical Culture is an aspirational movement dedicated to cultivating an ethical life. Rather than 10 commandments, we have eight commitments. Unlike the “shalls” and “shall nots” of the better known commandments, for me the Eight Commitments of Ethical Culture are a demanding blueprint for living my life, but one I can easily follow—without the threat of purgatory hanging over me. Here they are:
- Ethics is central. The most central human issue in our lives involves creating a more humane world.
- Ethics begins with choice. Creating a more humane world begins by affirming the need to make significant choices in our lives.
- We choose to treat each other as ends, not merely means. To enable us to be whole in a fragmented world, we choose to treat each other as unique individuals having intrinsic worth.
- We seek to act with integrity. Treating one another as ends requires that we learn to act with integrity. This includes keeping commitments and being more open, honest, caring, and responsive.
- We are committed to educate ourselves. Personal progress is possible, both in wisdom and social life. Learning how to build ethical relationships and cultivate a humane world is a life-long endeavor.
- Self-reflection and our social nature require us to shape a more humane world. As human beings, our social nature requires that we reach beyond ourselves to decrease suffering and increase creativity in the world.
- Democratic process is essential to our task. The democratic process is essential to a humane social order because respect for the worth of persons requires a process which elicits and allows a greater expression of human capacities.
- Life itself inspires “religious” response. Although awareness of impending death intensifies the human quest for meaning, the mystery of life itself, and the need to belong, are the primary factors motivating human “religious” response.
In the Ethical Society I joined—the Northern Virginia Ethical Society—I found that caring community I had lost when I stopped being a Catholic. Our platforms and rituals (such as they are) help me experience a deeply meaningful life and aid me in making ethical choices. Most important, I’m part of a group that cares. We face life’s joys and sorrows together. When my only sibling died in 2003 at the age of 44, my Ethical Society surrounded and comforted me, and the Leader (think, “Minister” here) provided the perfect memorial service for him—a celebration of his life so powerful no one there lamented not hearing anything about meeting him again in heaven.
Still, for someone who spent most of her life as a Christian, I’ve never truly given up Jesus. He was a remarkable teacher, whose teachings of love, especially loving your enemy as yourself, are reflected in Ethical Culture. Any Christian religion would insist that if I believe in his teachings, I have to believe he’s divine. In Ethical Culture I can “believe” in Christ’s lessons, but I can regard him as a man only and never have a word spoken against me.
The journey was a long one, but in the humanistic religion that is Ethical Culture I managed to find my own promised land.
–Phyllis A. “Maggie” Duncan