October Editorial (2000)
By Charles Vail
Recently, during the course of lunching with a group of Mensans, I found the occasion to relate that I was a member of the Princeton Fellowship, which is part of Ethical Culture, a nontheistic religion. The fellow seated next to me disdainfully declared religion without God to be meaningless nonsense. In the end, I was not particularly put off by either his ignorance or his scorn, but his strong reaction got me to thinking.
According to my dictionary, the preferred definition of religion begins "Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power...." In contrast, the etymology of the word "religion" states "from the Latin 'religiõ,' perhaps from 'religãre,' to tie fast."
In his review of the book "American Religious Humanism," Michael Werner writes, "The primary value of American Religious Humanism, however, is the fact that it demonstrates how ... certain thinkers and activists developed a religion based on compassion, reason, and science-a religion where one could give up supernatural beliefs yet still keep the functional aspects: community, ethical education, and the celebration of rites of passage...."
So aside, perhaps, from the need for particular legal recognition, religion can usefully mean the sense of community, common beliefs, and celebrations that tie us fast or bind us together.
"Creed" is another word loaded with emotional content for some, particularly in the context of the statement that Ethical Culture is creedless. Consider the following excerpt from "Ethics as a Religion" by David Saville Muzzey (p. 2).
"First, Ethical Culture is a creedless religion. The bond of union among its members is a common devotion to the cultivation of moral excellence as the chief duty of man. Contrary to the widely accepted teaching that right conduct depends as a corollary on correct religious belief, we hold that it is the conscientious striving for righteousness in thought and action that has constantly refined and humanized the dogmas of the creeds: in a word, that it is not the church that makes good men, but good men that make the church."
Here Dr. Muzzey speaks out eloquently against dogma and authoritarianism. But is Ethical Culture really creedless? The definitions of creed are (i) a formal statement of religious belief and (ii) a system of beliefs, principles, and opinions. Creedless, therefore, must necessarily mean without either a statement or a system of beliefs.
There is abundant evidence that this simply is not the case for Ethical Culture. The preceding quote of Dr. Muzzey is the first of the five basic principles of Ethical Culture that he enumerates. And then there are the eight commitments of Ethical Culture. To my way of thinking, either may be considered a statement of beliefs.
True, there remain among us those who strongly identify creed with dogma and orthodoxy. But, without even a simple statement of beliefs, how do we discuss, let alone seek an understanding of, what we stand for? Emotional reactions against orthodoxy, however strongly felt, should not thwart the opportunity to seek mutual understanding, perhaps, perish the thought, even agreement.
My concern for the Fellowship is that we not encourage an anarchy of radical individualism, because, whatever else we are, we are a fellowship tied together by a sense of community, common beliefs, and celebration. To paraphrase the moral of James Thurber's story about the bear that drank too much, falling flat on one's face is, in the end, not much different from leaning over backwards too far.
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