Can Humanism Survive Individualism?

Dick Reichart

From the Princeton Ethical Humanist Fellowship Newsletter, May 1998

The 1980 Statement of Purpose of the American Ethical Union begins with the words "Ethical Culture is a humanistic religious and educational movement ..." Does this realistically describe Ethical Societies, and Princeton in particular?

"Educational?" Certainly. As the recent nation-wide survey of AEU members indicates, a very large part of societies' activity consists of Platform Meetings and other means for developing our knowledge and sensitivity to social issues, along with Sunday Schools.

"Humanistic?" Yes, in two senses. First, as an organization we in Princeton adhere to the non-theistic philosophical viewpoint which focuses on the centrality of ethics and simply avoids the subject of whether humanity's and the universe's origin and destination are governed by a supernatural force. Second, we concern ourselves with this world and this time and, in the words of the AEU Statement, "... the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is to create a more humane society."

"Religious?" That blade has two edges. As Felix Adler said, for some (including himself) Ethical Culture is a religion, while for others, it is a philosophy. It is definitely, however, a congregational movement, not primarily a humanist school of philosophy, nor even the humanitarian and social-welfare activities and organizations to which it inevitably gives rise. Ethical Societies are local institutions in a non-theistic style intended to have a mission and character like that of the traditional religions churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

Yet in its congregational character, in which (again the Statement) "Members join together in ethical societies to assist each other ..." Ethical Culture often presents a questionable record of achievement. Most of the local ethical culture organizations started since 1867 no longer exist. New members often find the philosophy engaging -- but not the experience. So, fine people, both Leaders trained as clergy or philosophers, and lay persons trying to do the societies' work, have not managed to gain for the ethical movement a growth comparable to that of other religions also begun in the 19th century.

Many reasons have been given for this experience. I believe that a major one is the idea expressed in the third paragraph of the AEU Statement of Purpose: "Our commitment is to the worth and dignity of the individual, and to treating each human being so as to bring out the best in him or her." Let me be clear. I absolutely and without cavil support this commitment. It joins the most valuable ethical principle from the traditional religions, with the supremely practical advice for supporting it through individual action, which Felix Adler derived from his philosophy of ethical idealism.

However, I believe the glorification of the individual has the effect of seriously inhibiting our ability to operate effective organizations. By encouraging each of us to establish our own personal set of values, individualism tends to diminish the significance we give to our membership in the congregation of which we are a part, and our contribution to it. Traditional religions value active participation in the congregation, even to the point of inventing actions, forms and rituals which are intrinsically group activities, not to be carried out alone.

Because such group activities tend to reinforce the power and authority of the communal structure independent of the individuals who make it up, they often appear "anti-individual" to the humanist. Commonly each of us will pick and choose which aspects of the congregation's existence we like and will take part in. As humanists, we value the individual and so individualism becomes the very badge of our membership. Our behavior shows it -- individuality is what we celebrate! For many of us, freedom in expressing "This Is What I Think" comes close to looking like a ritual observance!

Moreover, humanist religions, among them Ethical Culture, remain relatively weak in an era when even theistic religions justify their beliefs in humanistic terms (i.e., as leading to a more humane existence on this planet, at this time). Isn't a main reason that, to our members, belonging carries with it little obligation to the organization's continued success?

Humanists may see such obligations, also, as "subordinating our individuality" -- the reason many of us avoid other religions -- though members of traditional religious congregations often feel rewarded by them. Certainly there is reward from a common faith, and participation in joint ceremonies that demonstrate that faith. But much of it is the result of participating -- investing time, effort, and money in doing the congregation"s work.

So the challenge is this: How can a humanist group, valuing its members' individuality, provide us with an equally rewarding congregational experience? Can belonging to the Princeton Ethical Humanist Fellowship carry with it a welcome sense of obligation to support its congregational goals? I think each of us, as an individualist, must decide we will participate for the organization's success.

Thats my Ideal Humanist Way.

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