Introduction to Section I
Section I presents the fundamentals of Ethical Culture as a Humanist religion. We discuss our foundation as a deed-focused religion, why we deem it necessary and appropriate for us to function as a religion, and why the world needs our unique perspective.
Deed Before Creed
I start with deed before creed because I believe that the adage keeps us from being direct in presenting our world view. On arriving at our front doors people hear the deed before creed idea and too often assume that that is the limit of our philosophy. They assume that if they are kind and vote Democrat we will not challenge them with the subtlety of our perspective on life. They never get around to understanding nontheism, among other important ideas
While we are and should be open to people with varied conceptions of reality, varied ideas of god or gods, and varied ideas of ethics and meaning, it is important that people discover quickly that we have a point of view. Be as unusual as you want to be, but there is still a foundational perspective in this movement that is not going away. Ethical Culture has a world view and is a religious approach. While we don’t have a creed in the usual use of the term (there is to this day no Leaders’ Creed) we do have a historical understanding of life. Unlike non-creedal Unitarianism we have one approach; life is a relational experience and therefore an ethical experience. As someone has said deed is our creed. We are not dogmatic, but we are creedal. We have beliefs.
How one treats others, including the natural world, is more important than one’s supposed creed, but one’s conception of the nature of reality makes a difference in ethical decision-making. Believing that ethical values are written in the stars rather than developed in the relational experience makes a difference. Individuals following proscribed values miss the relational aspects of ethical choice, and although they may be doing good deeds, too often others are hurt for the sake of a proscribed value.
Another unfortunate understanding of the Deed before Creed adage legitimates avoidance of the fact that we occupy metaphysical territory. Yes, metaphysics seems to have seen its day and Ethical Culture attempts to be open to varied understandings of the metaphysical questions, but our understanding of the nature of human reality is situated in the ethical, relational realm, and we hold this is sufficient as a foundational stand. As Nel Noddings says, “Taking relation as ontologically basic simply means that we recognize human encounter and affective response as a basic fact of human existence.”
We are not dogmatic, and as with Eight Commitments of Ethical Culture we do not claim to have the absolute answers, but we do offer our best guesses, our assumptions about life. People join religious groups for help; they want guidance in living. To be a legitimate religious organization, it is absolutely essential to have a foundational creed that explains the group’s perspective on life and offers a rational guide on how to live life.
My next preliminary step is to address our role as a religion. I think it is necessary that we grab hold of our identity as a religion. We should celebrate, rather than avoid, the unique religious identity of Ethical Culture. While many members, especially the more rationalistic ones, have an understandably negative opinion of religion, we function as a religion, and it is important that some humanist group grabs full ownership of the Religious Humanism title.
Religion, art, and philosophy all arose from the human need to denote some things as special and significant; this is where the idea of the sacred emerged. Religion is a tool, a human invention; everything in human culture was invented by human beings to enhance human experience, and religion is no exception. Of course, each religion emphasizes some particular needs or aspects of human nature more so than others, but primarily, religion functions as the part of human culture where the big questions are addressed: the meaning of life, the nature of the soul, etc. While religion has been abused by the power systems of every culture, its legitimate purpose is to provide a conscious world view with an approach to living a good life. If done honestly, it is often in conflict with the standard cultural approach.
Religion institutionalizes the natural desire of human beings to find meaning in their lives. Religion claims there is a higher way of living, a conscious way, a more intense way. It tells us we can give life meaning and that we ought to.
Human beings inhabit a cultural reality and will come to think about life in response to the messages they are receiving from their cultural institutions. As one of those institutions – a religious institution – we have a responsibility to offer our best understanding of the path to meaningful living in contemporary experience. While there exist denominations performing this function well, none offers our unique nontheistic, humanistic, and ethical perspective on life.