Happy Birthday Felix Adler, Father of Ethical Humanism

Yesterday would have been the 170th birthday of Felix Adler, the founder of the first Ethical Society and the father of the Ethical Humanist movement. Unlike many congregational traditions, we don’t worship our founder as a prophet or messiah: we see him as he saw himself, just one human being among many, with no unique connection to any divine power. We recognize our founder as an imperfect, flawed person, who held some views which were radical, exciting, and progressive, and others that today we would see as retrograde, embarrassing, or even wrong.

There is something healthy about our movement’s refusal to venerate to our founder. It reminds us that even the most thoughtful thinkers of one age will be seen as deficient by the next, given moral and social progress. Adler’s views on the appropriate relationship between men and women, for instance, we today recognize as deeply sexist, and became unfashionable in the Ethical Movement even during his lifetime. It is good to be able to reject and improve the views of your founder: otherwise, a movement ossifies and stagnates.

It’s a reminder, too, that no individual is inherently worth more than any other: even people who achieve great things are not existentially exalted. Felix Adler was just a man, for all we are indebted to him. Hero-worship is one of the worst traits of humankind, establishing as it does a hierarchy of human beings, focusing our attention on the few rather than the many, leading countless religious traditions to ruin. Adler himself repeatedly emphasized that the Leaders of the Ethical Movement were fallible human beings, to be questioned and tested by our members. While I sometimes wish the members of the Ethical Society of St. Louis would believe everything I tell them, ultimately I understand it is better that they challenge me – better for me and for our community.

At the same time, it makes sense sometimes to think on what our founder achieved. He was a religious radical who discarded the idea of a personal god at a time when that was much more heretical than it is today. He had the courage of his intellectual convictions to follow where they led, even when that meant away from the Judaism in which he grew up. He proclaimed a new vision for religion: communities which would be welcoming to all people, regardless of their beliefs about God or the afterlife, and which would focus on ethical behavior in this life over any attempt to secure a place in the afterlife.

This new vision led the Ethical Movement, despite its tiny size, to exert major influence on the progressive politics of his day. Adler was a prominent public intellectual during his own lifetime, and his social and political views shaped the public conversation, almost always for the good. The model of a philosopher-activist, he was a tireless campaigner for the rights and dignity of children, immigrants, the poor, and workers. He was a friend to the labor movement and a staunch promoter of international cooperation and peace. He was, in short, a religious visionary with a strong social conscience: a legacy which Ethical Societies should think on as we consider what our communities should be like today.

Sociologically, too, Adler was ahead of his time. He appreciated that the power of congregations is not in the beliefs they promote but in the community they foster: people encourage other people to become good. He once wrote, in response to critics who argued that a non-scriptural tradition could not foster goodness in people:

“It will be objected, how is it possible to induce [people] to make the effort [to be good], there being no authority of book or creed to lean upon. The answer to that is that the method we must pursue is to put [people] in the midst of crowds…[People] who are themselves aflame with the desire for the good can kindle in others the same desire.”

This insight has been multiply confirmed by numerous strands of social science research in the 170 years since Adler’s birth. Studies have repeatedly shown that the power of the congregation is the community, and that what drives members of congregations to contribute more to society is exactly their membership of a community that encourages them to do so. Adler appreciated this instinctively, decades before research showed him to be right.

Finally, we appreciate Felix Adler because his work laid much of the institutional foundation for today’s Humanist movement. There is irony in this, because during his lifetime he rejected the label “Humanist”, which he associated with a strong naturalism which he himself rejected (he preferred his own weird, Kantian collectivism – a philosophical view which never was popular and essentially died with him). Nonetheless, he was a passionate builder of institutions, and understood that no worldview can flourish without institutions to promote it. Some of today’s most prominent national and international Humanist organizations, including Humanists UK and Humanists International, to some degree owe their existence to Adler, and had we continued to follow his institution-building example, the movement might well be larger and more successful now than it is.

So, a belated Happy Birthday to Felix Adler: philosopher, theologian, scholar, activist, institution-builder, and possessor of an unnaturally-large forehead! You built something good, and the world is better for it.