Humanist leader James Croft leads a thriving godless congregation in an otherwise declining network of Ethical Societies. Christian Paul VanderKlay hosts a growing internet religious discussion group while pastoring a small Christian church in Sacramento. These two men met on Unbelievable? to discuss the similarities and differences between godless and God-believing communities and the challenges they both face with diminishing participation in their respective movements.
For those not familiar with the Ethical Society movement, it was founded in the late 1800’s by Felix Adler, a young Jewish man who was expected to follow in the footsteps of his rabbi father but instead established a universal religion based purely on ethics and right relationships with no reference to a personal god. Croft describes him as “an intense young man…preaching a universal nontheistic ‘religion’ that could unite all people in the pursuit of moral goodness, regardless of their beliefs about God or the afterlife.” The movement experienced a great deal of early success and was responsible for the founding of organizations such as the ACLU and NAACP as well as paving the way for humanist organizations in both England and the U.S.
Putting Church to the Test
Croft was drawn to the movement because he saw a vibrant community sharing life, offering emotional and physical support, and working to make the world a better place. It dawned on him that his experience was very similar to that found in religious communities inspiring him establish “something like a church or a temple for people who were not traditionally religious but wanted a community based around shared values.”
Croft explained how his Ethical Society meetings are very similar to a modern church service.
“The actual gatherings of Ethical Societies will tend to look very similar to those of many liberal protestant Christian congregations. We’ve got music, we’ve got a main talk from a podium…we have opening words from a member about why they are a member of the community.”
While it may seem odd to envision a religious gathering without God, Croft’s Ethical Societies challenge Christians to reevaluate what it means to be a house of worship. If an Ethical Society can establish an institution similar to the church, with comparable practices and goals, and yet do it without God, we need to ask ourselves if the modern church has lost its Gospel distinctiveness. Has the Christian church become an organization that promotes good behavior or a congregation that acknowledges it cannot do it without a Savior?
Standing Ovation or Bending a Knee?
Croft has great admiration for the way the modern evangelical church conducts a worship service and longs to create the same experience in his ethical communities.
“I go to these mega churches in my area…and its fantastic! I love it! The music is amazing, and the lighting is sumptuous…they give these wonderful sermons and the music swells behind them and it matches the emotion of what they are saying and I’m like – why can’t I have this?”
Interestingly, he also recognizes that the churches that do the best job are often the most conservative.
“There are so few liberal religious communities that are as creative and careful about the aesthetics of their experience as conservative churches are and I always think – why do the worst ideas, in my view obviously, have the best branding. That’s not fair!”
I’m flattered that Croft admires our modern evangelical craft but disturbed that he doesn’t see any practical difference between Ethical Societies and the church. If a modern church service looks like a pep rally motivating the home team to play harder, then we are nothing but an Ethical Society on spiritual steroids. Christians shouldn’t be known as a club giving itself a standing ovation but as broken and contrite people bowing a knee. Jesus is what makes us distinct so let’s avoid making Him the poster boy for a protestant work ethic and instead focus on His work on the cross. We can’t just encourage people to ask themselves WWJD (What would Jesus do?) when He has already done it.
Churches and Ethical Societies exist because everyone agrees that humans are morally deficient and in need of repair. The vast majority of us seek a spiritual solution to this problem as either Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or Christians. Humanists, on the other hand, hold out hope that it can be done without divine help. As Croft explains:
“I still believe in the principles Ethical Culture was founded to promote: that ethics is prior to metaphysics, that people without belief in God can and should work for a better world, and that congregations are a vital civic institution that make people better.”
Despite its materialist foundation, it appears that humanisms “ethical ideal” is really just a placeholder for God since it occupies a transcendent space hovering over the human race judging right and wrong. While humanists try to convince us that ethics arose through mutation and selection, reproductive success, and competition, most of us have a hard time believing that our obsession with morality is merely chemical policing. This raises an important question – can a god-less church fix a problem that most people believe is spiritual? Are we in need of synaptic reordering or a renewing of the mind?
Person or Purpose
High minded ethical behavior is too ethereal to firmly grasp and without a specific center is likely to slip through our fingers. Christianity, however, has a focal point, goodness incarnate, that makes everything else understandable. Ethics for a humanist is the highest ideal but for the Christian is subordinate to a divine Person. Since morality only exists in relationships it would seem that the source of a code of conduct should be relational. Is it possible to be held accountable for bad behavior by nature red in tooth and claw or do we need a judge who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, who was tempted like us in every respect but who was without sin? As VanderKlay pointed out:
“The gripping thing for people in my experience as a pastor is Jesus becoming a focal point in which many of these issues can cohere.”
Myth or Matter
Croft and VanderKlay both acknowledged that the success of any movement depends on a compelling metanarrative or mythos that embodies its principles in narrative form. Christianity has the Bible while humanism has a biology text book. Croft admits that he struggles to construct an engaging humanist mythos.
“Part of me wants to say the community is the thing were centered around, the actual relationships between the people is the central thing but that doesn’t quite satisfy me because there are lots of different ways to organizing a community and I do have to lead them somewhere…whether I express that in sufficiently engaging narrative form, I don’t know.”
Interestingly, Croft acknowledged that the founder of his movement, Felix Adler, spoke with a prophetic tone and “had a mythic story to tell,” which has since been lost as the movement adopted a more pragmatic philosophy. Croft counts himself a pragmatist because it is a “a very good way to get at truth” but recognizes that it “doesn’t really stir the heart…and that’s kind of what you need to sustain religious energy.”
I find it interesting that while myths provide a foundational back story, the most successful ones invoke spirit. Even today we have team spirit, spirit of the age and spirited performance all of which suggest that success is measured in immaterial terms. It appears that you need a spiritual license to practice a religion, even a godless one. Mutations and natural selection seem an inadequate narrative arc for an ethical life because dancing to the music of our DNA is nothing but Chemical karaoke. However, if we are characters in the greatest story ever told then our lives have literary significance.
Both Croft and VanderKlay bemoan the decline of their respective movements in the West, however, it appears that it is only Christianity that is growing in the third world. Could it be that the Western fascination with modernism has caused humanists to disavow spirit and Christians to marginalize Genesis leaving us as either atheists or practical deists? Interestingly, in the third world, spirit is palpably real making a foundational mythos absolutely necessary. Sadly, as we exported a compelling myth to third world countries we forgot to continue mining Biblical truth in our own and now we are the ones who are spiritually impoverished.
Life or Death
Brierley suggested that the reason conservative churches do such a good job of evangelization is because they believe that Jesus is a life and death matter, better to heat up an auditorium than add more fuel to the fires of hell. The salvation of souls is not on the line at an Ethical Society meeting, an altar call is unnecessary if you can just try harder the next day. Croft, while struggling to find a metaphysical mandate, does believe that an ethical life is monumentally important and makes a compelling humanist case for urgent action.
“I understand why people who are traditionally religious think it’s a life or death matter if you accept Jesus and are saved in a service, but for me I just think, well, this is the one life we have, this is the only time were going to experience this very moment together. Literally what is at stake is the entire rest of your existence. How you choose to live will determine all the time that you have on this earth and then it will be done, and you will get nothing else and that really matters and so the experience we put in front of people really matters. So, I’ve been trying for a long time to get my movement to take that more seriously and I don’t want to suggest that my colleagues don’t take it seriously, because they do…but I don’t always see that care translated into the craft which we use to share our message and I don’t understand that.”
He admirably points out just how important this life truly is and doesn’t want to lose that urgency with the promise of a blissful afterlife. He, however, misses the fact that Jesus calls for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and that with every new follower of Christ the Kingdom of God grows in our midst.
Folly in the Foyer
Ethical Societies, as well as churches, are experiencing a decline in membership, which seems to be a part of a general trend away from groups, parties, and movements. Young people are leaving organized religion but interestingly they aren’t filling Ethical Societies either. As Croft stated in his article.
“It is only fair after all to acknowledge, after all, that our failure occurs against a background of declining participation in every area of civic life. There is hardly a single progressive religious movement that is not struggling as we are.”
Why is this happening? I believe it is because both Christianity and Humanism emphasize behavior and not belief. They see unethical behavior all around them and admirably make it their mission to change it but then use politics as their weapon of choice. Christians confess their sins and admit their powerlessness to fix them without Jesus but then step out of the sanctuary and try to grab the reins of cultural power. Humanists praise tolerance and then work to legally eliminate God from the public square. Both groups may briefly worship their higher ideals or their God in their sanctuary but then step into the foyer and take political sides. Politicians consistently rank low on the respectability scale so when you make them into messiahs for cultural salvation most people just roll their eyes.
Social media has reduced movement participation to digital rants and viral memes. Interestingly, protests seem to be on the rise bringing people together in physical proximity, but these gatherings seem to be less about effecting change and more about corporate virtue signaling. A chance to take a selfie at a rally and post it in on social media rather than taking the time to work for reconciliation. It’s easier to fulfill our humanitarian duty by liking a tweet than having a difficult face-to-face discussion with someone you disagree with.
Croft has discovered what American churches have known for decades that 10% of the congregation does 100% of the work. The truly motivated movers and shakers are a minority while the rest are free loaders, a problem which has become more acute in the age of Zoom services where it is much easier to partake than participate. Salvation with the click of a mouse.
Preparing the Soil
While Croft’s god-less church seems odd, it does challenge us as Christians to ask whether we truly look any different. Have we effectively caged the Lion of Judah with a lock on the outside only letting Him out when we need Him to stand next to us at the podium as we unveil our human plans? It is well known that Christianity is drifting into what sociologists Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton have described as moral therapeutic deism. A mindset that tips its hat to God but is more interested in how to make people good and happy, which sounds a lot like an Ethical Society.
VanderKlay and Croft recognize that both their organizations are in trouble but are hopeful that that they will look very different in the future. Both men recognize that community will continue to be an important part of this restoration but that past traditions of entertaining and lecturing will need to be replaced with a sacred space for dialogue.
Church planting is great, but if we just build another entertainment venue then we are doomed to fail. Maybe we need to focus more on enriching the soil before we start planting. Instead of coming into town to whack weeds or trash tares maybe we should spend more time tilling the ground. Tilling disturbs the soil, but it is necessary preparation for planting. Maybe tilling is accomplished in dialogue between believers and unbelievers where hard questions are asked and rocks of controversy are removed as we dig deeper. I think Unbelievable? gives us a framework for this type of evangelistic tilling with Brierley as an exemplary model of the diligent farmer preparing the soil. VanderKlay shares this sentiment and offers his vison for the future of the church.
“I want the church to be a place where people can go for a meaningful conversation, not just a good show, not just a good sermon, not just some teaching, but much more interaction.”
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.
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