Daring to Define What We Believe in an Age of Disbelief; Judy Toth, Leader

A year ago, I made a major life decision to leave the Washington D.C. area — my family and friends — and move to the Midwest. At the time I made this decision, my life was very satisfying and complete. I had raised my family well, had a good marriage and had achieved success in my career.

What motivated me to become Leader here at the Ethical Society of St. Louis was my deep commitment to building and nurturing ethical community. For I believe community, as Einstein said, “will be our salvation.” It is the answer to the growing trend of isolation and individualism that is now part of our society.

Its philosophy can guide us through life’s ups and downs and its people can give us the encouragement and support we need as we meet the challenges of living in a world that is often uncertain, stressful and frightening.

Felix Adler said it well: “Our mission is to give birth to personalities who have attained for themselves an abiding ethical faith and are inflamed with it.” Adler’s zealousness moves me and inspires me in this age of cynicism and disbelief. The challenge of his words are lived out in ethical community. For in ethical community, we meet, connect, share, disagree, learn and grow together; laugh, cry, argue, share deep experiences with one another, and build relationships that will endure when undergirded with a foundation of respect, truth and love. Hand in hand with these actions is a faith as understood by Adler, that he called “the religion of the future.”

All of this occurs, I believe, when we mutually understand and share what our philosophy of living is — our faith in an ethical community. Now faith according to the dictionary, means — and is used by me in this context, as “something that is believed with strong conviction,” rooted in the Latin meaning fidere — “to trust.” It is the opposite of faithless, which means “not to be relied on, untrue, unreliable.”

In the past, my own personal faith journey had left me disillusioned, disappointed, and faithless. The traditional religion of my childhood had made me leery and weary of the demands it made on my self esteem and its distortions of basic realities, that I deemed unreliable and untrue. But I missed the worldview — people as good; having a purpose — and life map that my former faith provided. I missed the community life that it provided for me and the opportunity to serve those in need.

Freed from the struggle to believe what I found unbelievable, as a college student I began to explore major world religions; but like a child once burned, I was determined not to fall into some belief system that couldn’t be validated in my experience. I wanted an intellectually responsible belief system, not blind faith. If I were to find this new faith, I wanted to commit myself to it with both my heart and mind, and ideally this faith would encourage me to embrace the search for truth within a loving community of free thinkers. This vision of mine was a tall order, I thought at the time.

Therefore, through college, I wrestled with the question of how worldviews and religious systems can be tested for validity. Interestingly enough I was quite taken with the writing of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant (who also inspired the thoughts of Felix Adler, our founder) who said there were three great questions in life: What can we know? What ought we to do? and, For what might we hope? These questions, to my way of thinking, were basic to any faith and any religious community. A community that explored these questions seemed right to me rather than residing in a creed-bound community faith that had all the answers.

I discovered in my “faith journey” that all worldviews of a faith nature are simply perceptual screens — “mind maps” if you will — through which we filter our experience of life. Kant called this the reality providing function of the mind. It differentiates us from the other creatures on the planet. For example, picture a football stadium and field in your mind. You can create that reality. A worldview then gives us the handles that allow us to grasp the baffling complexity of the world. They enable us to embrace the mysteries of life, and they provide the answers to questions that human beings feel an urgency to understand, given the mysteriousness of the universe. At their best, they give us an overarching purpose beyond ourselves, for all of them are viewed through each of our own perceptual screens. Let me give you an example of how different realities approach the same subject.

Imagine that three people are standing in a beautiful forest of tall, green pines, quite old, and the sunlight is filtering down through them to fall on the golden floor of the forest. The air is tangy with the scent of pines. The wind gently blows through the pines and they sway from side to side. The first person is a lumber contractor who views the pines in terms of board feet, jobs and how much profit can be made from them. The second person is a biologist with a scientific orientation who views the pines in terms of the history of the interaction of the pines with its environment and admires the intricate ecosystem of the forest. The third person views the pines with a religious or spiritual view. This person experiences the pines in a different way, feels awestruck by their beauty, feels a sense of gratitude for their calm, powerful presence and restorative powers to calm and nurture their soul. This person feels uplifted from daily cares by their presence. All three views have a different “take on life” — a distinct worldview. All three are within you and me, the business person, the rational thinker, the spiritual person that yearns for beauty within and without, who appreciates nature, uniqueness, and the spiritual elements of life.

All of us are looking for that third view — are looking for that transcendent experience that lifts us above our daily lives and gives fresh purpose and direction separate from our everyday thoughts, actions and experiences. That experience lifts us up and helps us endure life’s pain and uncertainty.

Bertrand Russell once said, “Life devoted only to living is incapable of preserving people from weariness and the feeling that all is vanity. Human life must serve some end outside human life. . . . Contact with this higher purpose brings a strength and a fundamental peace which cannot be wholly destroyed by the struggles and apparent failures of daily life.”

In terms of faith then, all of us who are self-responsible, and feel zealously about the pursuit of truth and reason, our perceptual screens of life must stake their claims about reality in a court of reason and yet honor this deeper, more spiritual dimension of human beings. Given there are no definite absolutes in our world map of life, what could be then, a faith that we could appreciate and live by that would hold sway within those boundaries, a faith that would give us the experience and opportunity to serve some end — some higher purpose?

Eighteen years ago, I came to the Ethical Society and was initially drawn to the bright, caring people within the community. I found myself hungering for more knowledge of what exactly does this community believe? What is the philosophical foundation for this movement and why does it seem to fit so perfectly into my own worldview? Could it provide a life faith for me?

I turned to the writings of the founder, Felix Adler, who had also left a traditional religion to build a new movement. Adler’s vision was clear: to build a “religion of the future,” that would unite believer and nonbeliever on “common ground” — that of ethical behavior, ethical living and exploration of truth. This Ethical Society would work toward the building of character values within a community setting. Uniting around ethical deeds, it would respect the worth of everyone, and leave what a person believes in terms of ultimate reality, private to them and be respected as their “filter” of reality.

As Adler said, “An Ethical Society cannot succeed by presenting lectures, doing rituals, establishing social action projects and good works, however indispensable these might be. The Ethical Society’s mission is to sustain an abiding ethical faith and be aflame with it.” How dramatic! An abiding ethical faith and be aflame with it.

He went on to say: “Those whom we love are not given to us merely for our joy and happiness. Their truest ministry consists in being to us the revealers of the divine. They quicken in us the seed of better thoughts; they help us estimate rightly the things that are worth trying for; they help us become more equal to the standard of our own best insight and grow into our truer selves.”

This vision was written over 100 years ago in the 1870’s. But how does this vision match the reality of faith today? How does it go over given the climate of society — a society where belief is out and disbelief is in? But then, isn’t one of the big problems of our times, that any time we take a stand for what we believe in, we are viewed with disdain and disfavor? Hasn’t religion as a center for character values and a haven for those who seek to understand life’s complex problems, taken a big hit in our society today?

U.S. church going has hit a ten-year low. Only 57% of Americans polled trust churches. Hasn’t it fallen into disfavor like so many other institutions within our society today? This basic cynicism and distrust, although often well deserved, carries a big cost. Because we’ve lost touch with what was important about having a religious community, this has resulted in all religions.

Ralph Reed, from the Christian Coalition, author of “Politically Incorrect,” a book about the importance of people of all faiths in being involved in our political process, says, “Gone is our understanding today of religion’s vibrant role in sustaining marriages, nurturing children and strengthening families. Gone is our appreciation for religion as a basis for individual self initiative and social quietude.” He calls for people of all religions to get involved in restoring a good sound moral foundation to our country. There are millions in our country today — unchurched — having fled their traditional religions and unconnected to any religious community. Burned like me, they stay away and pay the price of loss of the benefits of community.

Yes, it seems to me that within our culture today, being ethical is almost embarrassing, and being unethical is rapidly becoming a way of life. The decline of character values as a primary part of personality development has been one of the root causes of the social problems of our times. The media pounces on each piece of fresh evidence of this. No wonder cynicism and despair run rampant. Never has it become more urgent to become ethical agents in our society today. Belief in ethical values must replace disbelief in our culture. Ethical challenges confront us every day of our lives.

This summer, Les and I spent a week at the beach. Two thirteen year old boys were with us — a son of some good friends of ours and his friend. Russell and Matt loved crabs and that night when dinner time rolled around they wanted to buy crabs. One night, Russell bought two crabs for five dollars. When we returned to the house to eat, he discovered he had three. He asked me and a group of people at the table what he should do about the extra crab. What ensued was a great debate among the adults. “You’ll get the employee in trouble — don’t call.” “Too bad, they screwed up, you win, they lose.” “It’s not a big deal, just eat the darn thing.” He asked me and I said, “Russ, it’s not your crab until they say so. Call them up and ask them what you should do.” He called, and they said, “Go ahead and eat it — but,” with a tone of disbelief, “what on earth made you decide to call?” See, they didn’t expect ethical behavior. In fact I believe like most of us today, we expect unethical behavior. So anyway, they said, “Why did you call?” Russ said, “My mother made me do it!”

He was embarrassed about being ethical! Not proud, not pleased — embarrassed. This has to change.

That’s why it is so important to define what we believe and be able to speak to it and act on it. Liberal religions are the most serious offenders in this category. Burned by previous religious faiths, we are so afraid to state what we believe, that we prefer to talk about what we don’t believe. We say, for example, we don’t have a creed or dogma that you must adhere to. We don’t hold a belief in a supreme being. We don’t have a book of revelations or ten commandments. We don’t require that you believe in original sin or see yourself as evil. All good things to know, but we need to step up, take a stand and dare to define what we do believe!

Not just because we do have a strong underlying philosophical foundation, but because there’s power in conviction and faith as long as it is held under the lens of truth and rational thinking. And that’s what Ethical Culture is about. Our philosophy rests on some basic beliefs.

We do believe in human worth. It is indeed my foundation belief here at the Ethical Society. Adler said, “Every human being is worthwhile of their own account. Their personality is to be safe from infringement. By that we mean that human beings should attribute worth to themselves and others. The dictionary says that “worth” is the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem with which it is held. It contrasts with a view of myself that holds I earn my self esteem through my value to others. That’s right, within each of us is a center of self worth that should not be violated, that would be held with high unconditional regard, that should be treated with kindness, fairness, honesty and joy. This belief gives us a vision of humanity that allows you and me to find the best in ourselves by seeking the best in others. When we do this, there are direct, positive results.

Therefore, we do believe here in bringing out and fostering the unique talents within us and others. We see human beings as creative, capable and able to shape their own destiny. Rusty Berkus, a writer summed this ideal up: “There comes that mysterious meeting in life when someone acknowledges who we are and what we can be, igniting the circuits of our highest potential.” So we Ethical Culturists strive to cultivate the good in people by learning to appreciate the differences among us. This is what we mean by ethics in action. The great, spiritual moments of our times as we go through life, occur when you and I experience those moments of deep connection to others.

Therefore, for those of us who are members of the Ethical Society, ethical behavior is more than a social convention. Here we actively work to elicit the best in the human spirit. We are optimists, because we believe that human beings have a great capacity for good and we actively seek to build a better world for ourselves, for our children and families, for our community, and for the greater world. All parts of an Ethical Society work to this end, whether it be life span education, social action, community activities or Sunday meetings. All of these activities radiate from a foundation belief in each of us having intrinsic worth and dignity. This allows us to serve a purpose outside ourselves — to find a way to impact on the world and address the cynicism and despair of our times — our age of disbelief.

I love to talk about our work together here at the Ethical Society. I say we do believe in self responsibility and as a group of free thinkers, we are often characterized as a community of non-joiners who do believe in and love the pursuit of knowledge. We do believe in the creative interplay of a caring community. We do believe in working to end social injustice. We focus on building ethical relationships with one another and we honor everyone’s right to disagree without being disagreeable.

I believe this is essential given the challenges of society today. You and I live in turbulent, exciting, dangerous times. Facing such strong social issues as soaring crime rates, poverty, materialism and consumerism, we’ve become ever more acutely aware of the issues our society faces today and the kind of uneasiness it causes within in us.

I believe most Americans don’t want our government to fight about taxes, welfare, or deficits. What we want goes far deeper than these social issues. We believe in our country and think it’s gone awry and want it to start moving on the right track again. And our deepest yearning and need is to have communities around us that work, where people can feel safe, where kids can play outside, where school kids and teachers respect one another and use non-violent ways, where values such as watching out for the neighbors and pitching in to help each other are treasured, and where words like character and ethics have meaning. If these needs were met, then the social issues of our times could be resolved and Americans could sleep easy. A disciplined, compassionate society, grounded in good character values and caring community, is what you and I yearn for, and finding the pathway to that vision is the next step for our culture today.

Our Ethical Societies are role models for the future and will lead the way when we dare — you and I — to act on what we believe.