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The original ‘atheist church’: Why don’t more atheists know about Et …

Ethical Culture Leader Anne Klaeysen. Photo by Glenn Newman, courtesy of Klaeysen.
Ethical Culture Leader Anne Klaeysen. Photo by Glenn Newman, courtesy of Klaeysen.
Ethical Culture Leader Anne Klaeysen at the 2014 People's Climate March. Photo by Beth Zucker, courtesy of Klaeysen.

Ethical Culture Leader Anne Klaeysen at the 2014 People’s Climate March. Photo by Beth Zucker, courtesy of Klaeysen.

Less than two weeks ago, more than 300 Humanists marched in the People’s Climate March. But some may not know that the American Ethical Union (AEU) was one of the principal organizers of the march’s coordinated Humanist participation—or even know what the AEU is.

In my experience, unfamiliarity with Ethical Culture—a nontheistic, Humanist religion—is more common among some atheists than it should be. As nonreligious communities like Sunday Assembly (frequently referred to as “atheist church”) expand, I’d like to see more people acknowledge and learn from the rich history of Ethical Culture.

To learn more I spoke with Anne Klaeysen, Leader of New York Society for Ethical Culture—the founding chapter of the AEU. Klaeysen also serves as Humanist Chaplain at New York University, Ethical Humanist Religious Life Adviser at Columbia University, and co-dean of the Humanist Institute.

Chris Stedman: Can you tell me about the origins of Ethical Culture?

Anne Klaeysen: I like to tell the story of a young man, born in Germany and raised in NYC in a Reform Judaism household, who was sent back to Germany to study theology, become a rabbi, and take over his father’s pulpit. However, Felix Adler returned home a philosopher. The board of trustees at his father’s synagogue agreed that his first—and last—sermon there was brilliant, but he was not offered a position; his religious ideas had become too radical.

[tweetable]On May 15, 1876, 25-year-old Felix gave a speech that became the founding address of Ethical Culture. I wish that more people would read it.[/tweetable] He writes that his “dearest object” is “to exalt the present moment above the strife of contending sects and parties, and at once to occupy that common ground where we may all meet, believers and unbelievers, for purposes in themselves lofty and unquestioned by any.” [tweetable]Human morality was placed at the center of this new venture; ethics is the common ground “where we may all grasp hands as brothers, united in mankind’s common cause.”[/tweetable]

That first generation answered Adler’s call for action by founding educational and social justice institutions that addressed the needs of children, new immigrants and minorities, the sick and the poor, and the incarcerated.

CS: What are some of the challenges facing Ethical Culture right now? What is its future?

AK: Our movement is small, with fewer than 10,000 members—although many more people attend our programs and use of our ceremonial services. The challenges are a mix of geography, demographics, public relations, and the word “religion.” The current demographic in several societies, like that in more traditional faiths, is aging and white. Efforts to reach out to younger and more diverse populations through social media and changing the format of Sunday gatherings from lectures to participatory experiences have been partially successful. [tweetable]To a younger generation that is “spiritual but not religious,” explaining how Humanism can be religious has been challenging.[/tweetable]

I see our future, once again, as holding the common ground of ethics. [tweetable]Humanists hold different beliefs and enjoy squabbling over them.[/tweetable] At the center, however, is an ethical commitment to making the world a better place by assuming responsibility for our actions, securing universal human rights, and protecting the environment.

CS: How do Ethical Culture and Humanism overlap and diverge?

AK: The terms Ethical Culture and Ethical Humanist are synonymous. In the 1960s, Ethical Culture Leaders formally acknowledged that philosophically Ethical Culture was part of the Humanist movement. We differ from secular Humanism in terms of our organization—congregational—and status as a religion. [tweetable]My favorite definition of religion is paraphrased from theologian Paul Tillich: It is one’s ultimate concern. Ours is ethics.[/tweetable]

CS: How do you see Ethical Culture speaking to and serving an increasingly nonreligious generation?

Ethical Culture Leader Anne Klaeysen. Photo by Glenn Newman, courtesy of Klaeysen.

Ethical Culture Leader Anne Klaeysen. Photo by Glenn Newman, courtesy of Klaeysen.

AK: Religious language has changed over the decades. When the first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933, the majority of signers understood Humanism as a this-worldly religious expression. Today the word “religion” is used by the majority of people in the U.S. to mean the worship of a supreme and supernatural deity. Those who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” according to Pew, distrust religious institutions because they fail to walk the talk of their proclaimed values.

Ethical Culture has always been nontheistic—another misunderstood term. We espouse no belief in the supernatural or life beyond death; our emphasis is on ethical behavior. [tweetable]We ask, “How does one’s belief or unbelief inform one’s behavior?” That question is important for everyone to contemplate and answer.[/tweetable]

CS: What do you think emerging forms of community for nontheists, such as Sunday Assembly or Humanist communities and chaplaincies, can learn from Ethical Culture? What can the atheist movement learn?

AK: [tweetable]We can learn from one another and need not compete for members.[/tweetable] Humanist communities have existed within the Unitarian Universalist Association since the early twentieth century, and Harvard’s Humanist Chaplaincy was founded decades ago. I belong to the AHA and recently accepted an invitation to serve on the board of Sunday Assembly-NYC. These are different and meaningful expressions of Humanism.

The atheist movement might learn to develop better relationships and practice nonviolent communication. [tweetable]In my experience, their identity is too tightly, and often solely, defined by their unbelief.[/tweetable] We human beings are complex creatures, evolved from this natural earth with consciousness and imagination to reflect upon our existence and know our own deaths. What a miracle!


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  • One of my favorite aspects of Ethical Culture is the radical pluralism it pursues, encouraging the work of looking for common ground & learning how to act responsibly to others. Adler himself addressed the “word ‘religion'” challenge where he says: “Ethical Culture is religious to those who are religiously minded, and merely ethical to those who are not so minded.”

  • I suspect that most atheists think this is “me-too” mimickry of churches and synagogues. The exception are Jewish atheists, who are naturally community-centered and seek to recreate the same sense of community they enjoyed growing up. Most atheists are far more individualistic and prefer to join political or professional organizations than substitute religions.

  • Ethical Humanism is not a substitute religion. It differs from professional or political organizations in that members are part of a caring community, not solely focused on a cause or common purpose, but also focused on each other.

  • Here’s some basic information on Ethical Culture from notes for a book I am writing.

    On August 6, 2008, an illuminating volume surfaced in the “Used Religion” section of Barnes & Noble, on the Ethical Culture movement. The author’s exhaustive bibliography lists Lamont’s “Philosophy of Humanism,” but humanism as a competing system is not discussed in the text per se, except in passing, below. “Toward Common Ground” is a comprehensive history of the Ethical Culture movement. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century under the guidance of its founder and organizer, Felix Adler (1851-1933), Ethical Culture establish a network of local Ethical Societies with buildings, programs, etc. In the excerpts below, the italics are my own underlines. — JJT

    Howard B. Radest, Toward Common Ground: the Story of the Ethical Societies in the United States (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1969).

    Radest, Ch.XXII, pp.269-270:

    Ideologically, the [Ethical Culture] movement was at sea too. From the left new voices were heard in 1932 in a Humanist Manifesto, a rallying point for non-theistic, and often antireligious liberals. The [Ethical Culture] Leadership tried to give voice to the ethical idea but found itself unable to speak in unison. Opposing the utterly secular thrust of the humanists, the movement was troubled on the other side by demands for security and absolutism. Acknowledging its roots in the liberal tradition, the [Ethical Culture] Leadership recognized that liberalism seemed discredited by the economic crisis and its implications. Troubled by a reawakened religious orthodoxy, the movement was troubled too by its apparent inability to make affirmative, alternate statements.

    Radest, Ch.XXII, pp.270-271:

    Elliot, Nathanson, and Black [three most prominent Ethical Culture figures in 1930s, succeeding Felix Adler] had hold of an idea which might have transformed Adler’s religion of duty and transcendental idealism into a relevent response to a changing scene. A religion of social justice, prophetic criticism, democratic relationship, and naturalistic confidence would have been both meaningful and valuable in a world of power, anonymity, and degradation. But the overwhelming demands for pragmatic activity and the shadow of Adler prevented the development of the necessary new synthesis. Reform continued without a life-giving philosophy, while over everything loomed the fearful horror of total war.

    In the final chapter of “Toward Common Ground,” Radest claims an imprtant innovation for the Ethical Culture movement, the use of the courts to shape society through targetted lawsuits.

    Radest, Ch.XXIII, pp.301:

    The experience of the McCullum Case [1948, curbing religious instruction in public education] opened a new avenue for Ethical Culture, a program of legal intervention where cases seemed to have a particular relevance to the movement’s philosophy and program. [followed by a list of well-known and significant cases through the mid 1960s.]

    Radest, Ch.XXIII, pp.302-4:

    The myriad institutional activities, the numerous issues, the elusive problem of consensus—all this and more posed the question of Ethical Culture’s viability. Hints of regressive trends appeared as Philadelphia reported a ceremonial use of meditation and silence both in its adult meeting and its children’s assembly. In Chicago several members requested a “spoken meditation,” and this was prepared from a text by Robert Louis Stevenson. New York and Brooklyn continued to mark Easter Sunday as the ceremony of greeting new lives. As the fifties dawned there was a genuine possibility that the movement might enter too comfortably into the religious cults of the period, participation in the so-called religious revival.

    Inevitably, this led to questions about the nature of Ethical Culture and its validity in a new world. Repeatedly the question of the distinctive role and place of Ethical Culture was asked. From the right the religious revival seemed to threaten the success of Ethical Culture; from the left organized humanism was challenging it on deeper philosophic grounds. Proposals came from Los Angeles and from a newly formed group in Long Beach, Long Island, to name themselves “ethical humanist” societies; within the movement a significant number was prepared to yield Adler’s metaphysical neutrality for an unequivocal naturalism and humanism. At the American Ethical Union Assembly in Chicago (1950) a discussion of the Ethical movement’s relationship to the American Humanist Association concluded that “neither Humanism nor any other philosophy can be made the creed of the Ethical Movement.”

    But the issue would not and could not rest there. From Europe and England came word that a nascent Humanist Movement was rising out of the ashes of war. … As discussions of a new International [Ethical Union] proceeded it became clear that the American Ethical Movement stood nearly alone in its focus on the autonomy and centrality of ethics. …

    Ethical Culture faced the choice of going it alone with distinctive voice but in isolation from kindred spirits around the world or seeking a common position which, while not entirely its own, would be continuous with its prior history. …the American Ethical Union agreed to participate in this first International [Humanist] Congress [1952] on condition that the ethical interest would be given recognition along with that of humanism.

    By the seventy-fifth anniversary of the movement another step had been taken in the evolution of moral religion, the consequences of which were unforseeable. What came to be called a “crisis of meaning” afflicted Ethical Culture, too; it was seen most clearly in the fruitful pragmatic successes joined with a lack of coherent overall policy and philosophy.

  • A footnote to my comment above: to allay confusion, the short paragraph just before “Radest, Ch.XXIII, pp.301:” is mine, and should have been in brackets, as shown here.

    [In the final chapter … targetted lawsuits.]

    — JJT

  • Many thanks to Chris Stedman for interviewing me and sharing information about Ethical Culture and religious humanism. When I discovered the Brooklyn Society, I finally found a place where I could go through the doors bringing my whole self. My husband and I raised our children there, and I’m delighted that, as adults, they identify as Humanists. Parenting is challenging, and we need more humanist communities that can support and nurture families. The intergenerational aspect is especially healthy for everyone.

  • I don’t view Ethical Humanism as radical. It was alive and well with many of the ancient Philosophers of their day. I have seen many individuals over the years applying themselves in this, but not as a community or group (or, religion if you prefer). But I do appreciate the community awareness of this campaign. It is good to come together and discuss the pressing concerns, such as climate-environment and …
    I see how this can be a very powerful venue for the youth.


    “The atheist movement might learn to develop better relationships and practice nonviolent communication.”

    I smile at this statement, but in truth, I have only ever engaged with a couple of Atheists like this.

    Best to Ethical Culture in this endeavor.


  • But that’s called friendship, Alison, and you don’t need an organization for that. I’m only trying to explain why the Ethical Culture Society is not bursting with membership. It’s not that there aren’t lots of people who agree with its message. Plenty do. It’s that most of them ask themselves, “what’s the point in joining?”

  • Jonathon, what is the book you are writing that would bring you to Toward Common Ground?

    Susan Rose, Dean,
    Leadership Training
    American Ethical Union

  • I am sure there is a lot of history on this issue, but I do not get how human morality and ethics is the highest good such that it would create unity and fix the ills of society at large. I see too much subjectivity in defining ethics/morality and no answer to the larger question of why humans don’t act ethically now. I get the desire for community and the obvious concern for the good of mankind and the environment, but making or calling this a religion seems nonsensical. If you want to use Tillich’s definition of a religion, then go for it. But just because he say’s so doesn’t make it so. My point with morality/ethics – who gets to decide? Where or what is the authority in this “religion”? How these questions are answered may give a better picture of why few people are a part of the movement. Just another religion with someone calling the shots and defining the terms and priorities for you.

  • Susan, thanks for your interest in my excessive comment, and forgive/accept this excess too. Well, my book is just an annotated bibliography of used books I have collected from Barnes & Noble, or garage sales, etc, over the last decade, dusties in history, philosophy, and religion.

    I hope Howard Radest weighs in. He is a signer of the original Humanist Manifesto. It should be said, “Toward Common Ground” is fully the story of Felix Adler as well as the Ethical Culture movement he both founded and led. The excerpts show the late state of the organization losing the effect of a charismatic leadership. Interesting sociology…

    In my days as a UU musician, I knew of Felix Adler as the author of the words to the well-known hymn “Hail the Glorious Golden City” (1878). The three verses demonstrate the evangelism of several compatible ideals rather than a diety, but this is OK for many Christian churches too (or synagogues) to perform because it is in sync with sentiment of the “city on the hill” remark of Jesus. Here is the text to verse one:

    Hail the glorious golden city,
    Pictured by the seers of old:
    Everlasting light shines o’r it,
    Wondrous things of it are told.
    Wise and righteous men and women
    Dwell within its gleaming wall;
    Wrong is banished from its borders,
    Justice reigns supreme o’er all.

    This anthem appears in two sources that span the interesting period across the creation of the Unitarian Universalist Association (1961), and suggest the idealistic kinship of all these groups at that point:

    Silliman, Vincent, Ed. & Lowens, Irving, Music Ed. We Sing of Life: Songs for Children, Young People, Adults. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955 (5th printing, 1960) Song 87, titled “The Golden City”, in C natural minor, in cut time. All text and music in pre-counter-culture-esque beutiful hand calligraphy. This was a joint effort of the Unitarians, the Universalists, and the Ethical Union; the American Ethical Union held (still holds, I presume) the copyright.

    Unitarian Universalist Association. Hymns for the Celebration of Life. Boston: UUA, 1964 (11th printing, 1977). Song 193, titled “Hail the Glorious Golden City”, in F major, in 3/4. This is the first UUA hymnal published after the Unitarians and Universalists combined in 1961. Silliman, above, was now on the UUA hymnal commission, chaired by Arthur Foote II.

    While the poetic rhythms of the two settings are similar, the songs themselves (melodies and harmonies) are quite completely different.

  • Philip – Actually, I fully share your skepticism, which can apply to Unitarian Universalism as well as Ethical Culture, and now Sunday Assembly too. I feel that all these various atheisms can be thought of as religions in only the most artificially constructed sense; some sociologists and pollsters of religion classify them in the “cult” category; but since the polls themselves discovered the 20% “nones,” atheist orgs have been in a mad rush falling all over each other to somehow enlist these sheep into the specifically atheist fold. Thus we even have Ethical Culture rediscovered and refurbished for the next new age.

    If we take Anne Klaeysen‘s remarks, “Parenting is challenging, and we need more humanist communities that can support and nurture families,” and “The atheist movement might learn to develop better relationships and practice nonviolent communication” along with Opheliart‘s observation that “I have only ever engaged with a couple of Atheists like this,” we may get a clue why there are not and have never been (and probably will not be) generation after generation of robust openly-atheist culture: for all their vaunted reasoning and utopian vision, they don’t feed their sheep. (That is, they don’t feed their own sheep, as much as tell others how to feed theirs.) Since atheism provides nothing uniquely vital to a family experience, many sheep tend to wander off to find fodder in the world at large, as “Toward Common Ground” often reveals, and as the demographic decline of Unitarian Universalism also demonstrates. Whereas, (for example) believing Christian parents at least have the self-similarity of God the father’s love for them to take as a starting point in their parenting careers (e.g., Luke 11:11-13).

  • Good points, especially about not having anything to feed their sheep. I don’t see any real offering or higher purpose that can sustain and ignite a lifetime of commitment. I can laud the idea of ethics and stewardship of the environment, etc., but even those issues if not wrapped up in some higher purpose will eventually fall short. Thanks for the reply and good points.

  • Jonathan, I question — in light of the readings you cite, which I assume include Chris Stedman’s interview with Anne Klaeyson, a Leader at the New York Society of Ethical Culture (one of many in the United States) — whether you are fully understanding what the Ethical Culture Society is, and what the founding philosophy was.

    You appear to lump Ethical Culture among “all these various atheisms.” And that directly contradicts the essence of Ethical Culture.

    Anne clearly states in the interview, “When the first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933, the majority of signers understood Humanism as a this-worldly religious expression,” and expands upon that to say, “Ethical Culture has always been nontheistic.”

    It may seem a minor quibble to you, but there is a major difference between “atheist” and “nontheist.” The atheist is negating a belief in God. the non theist is one who does not center his beliefs upon a God. A “nontheist religion” — is what the Society for Ethical Culture is and always has been since its founding. Religion has many definitions.

    Wikipedia says “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” says religion is:
    2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects

    3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices

    In the case of the Society for Ethical Culture, Anne explains that not God, but “Human morality was placed at the center of this new venture; ethics is the common ground ‘where we may all grasp hands as brothers, united in mankind’s common cause.’”

    I hope it is apparent to you that Ethical Culture and Humanism do not discuss the existence or nonexistence of God, the belief or nonbelief in one. Both are centered on Man, and on our leading ethical lives.

    You seem to speak of these as gone, and gone because of the lack of a charismatic leader, like Felix Adler or Algernon Black. Charismatic leaders, while highly desirable, are not the be-all and end-all of communities, religious or secular. The civil rights movement did not die without Martin Luther King, Jr. America and many of the finest, inspiring beliefs of its founders did not die when “great” leaders such as Lincoln and F.D.R. were gone.

    Chris Stedman said, “That first generation [of members of Ethical Culture] answered Adler’s call for action by founding educational and social justice institutions that addressed the needs of children, new immigrants and minorities, the sick and the poor, and the incarcerated.” Those institutions continue to flourish today. and the “ethical actions” of Ethical Culture Societies across America continue to focus on these issues, and more.

  • AEU’s purpose has been supplanted in some areas by the SA. It’s good to know they are working together. In small cities and towns, the role of AEU and SA has always been fulfilled by the UU Church. The UU used to be a “beard” for closeted atheists and agnostics in small cities. Nowadays you can be open both in the UU and in some communities in the UU Church, as the UU is humanist, but more eclectic. It includes those who might believe in some supernatural force, “spiritual, but not religious” types.

  • The Abrahamic faiths are failing the animal life on the planet; the reasons to justify abuse and continual denial of rights to them are often justified by their holy book. Besides vegans/vegetarian, atheists are their next best hope.