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I can pinpoint the exact moment I realized Ethical Culture was dead.

I had just struggled through yet another virtual board meeting, the discussion dominated by an issue that had riven our tiny federation of humanist congregations for months. Once again, institutional dysfunction was getting in the way of progress. We had a clear opportunity to demonstrate integrity and commitment to our values, a chance to show leadership and reaffirm the central commitments of our humanist worldview, yet we were frozen, unable to act. The discussion went round in endless circles, as if a swirling void was sucking in all our energy and good intentions, a black hole of enervation.

I reflected on the meeting afterward, nursing my second cocktail of the evening: something I realized was becoming a habit, a way to cope with the anger and frustration which stuck to me like spectral shadows.

Suddenly, something broke within me. A little snap—a snap of resignation or realization—and I knew I had given up. I would not save this movement. It could not be saved, by me or anybody else. My movement could not be saved because it was already dead.

Ethical Culture, a congregational humanist movement

Ethical Culture is an oddity: an American-born religious movement that promotes ethical behavior as the highest good, without reference to God or the supernatural. Today, we are a network of around two dozen humanist congregations which provide the benefits of a traditional religious congregation without dogmatism or supernaturalism. Ethical Societies are godless congregations, and today I lead the largest remaining one of them, the Ethical Society of St. Louis.

I was young when I joined Ethical Culture, ten years ago this year. Twenty-eight, bright-eyed and floppy-haired, I was endlessly enthusiastic about the existence of a movement that combined the benefits of congregational organization with a humanistic outlook. I had long been searching for what to do with my life. I’d tried high school teaching and grad school: both had challenged me, and I found some pleasure in them, but I knew I hadn’t quite found my calling. I wanted to be of service to people, to help people connect with the most important questions in life. I wanted to build communities of love and justice, places where people could joyfully explore this wonderful, confusing, painful, magically mundane life of ours. I wanted to create experiences that would encourage us to be our better selves.

But despite my involvement with all sorts of humanist groups, I hadn’t yet found one with the sense of deep community I desired—and certainly not one which could support a career in humanist community-building.

This changed when I visited the New York Society for Ethical Culture (NYSEC), a Humanist congregation in Manhattan and the birthplace of Ethical Culture. In Ethical Culture I found what I had been looking for—an energetic, activist, morally intense form of humanism dedicated to social action within the framework of a moral community. More practically, I found a way to make a career out of my passion: as an Ethical Culture Leader I could work full-time creating community for Humanists (“Leader” is our rather pompous term for professional clergy, equivalent to “Reverend” or “Rabbi”).

This realization struck me with the force of a thunderbolt. I remember seeing NYSEC for the first time, a massive, city-block-sized building on Central Park West fronted with an impressive stone edifice. On the side facing Central Park, in imposing block capitals, the building proclaims its purpose: “DEDICATED TO THE EVER INCREASING KNOWLEDGE AND PRACTICE AND LOVE OF THE RIGHT.” We were taken on a tour of the inside, first the administrative offices and community spaces upstairs, and then down to the main meeting hall. We were led out onto the stage. I stepped into this vast auditorium, dark wood walls and plush purple seats, space for hundreds of people. And I felt it, something I’d been waiting for all my life: a summons, a calling. I knew my role in life was to fill this space with people.

Ethical Culture and me

I didn’t end up serving as clergy for NYSEC. Instead, I headed west to St. Louis and became one of two Leaders of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, the largest Ethical Society in America, and one of the largest humanist congregations in the world.

I love my work with EthicalSTL: we are a healthy, thriving community that has an outsized impact in our city and our state. As one of the most progressive congregations in the region, with a substantial membership, a glorious building, and a 140-year history, we punch well above our weight. I am immensely proud of our members, who across the decades have fought to desegregate lunch counters, protect abortion rights, secure marriage equality, and end police brutality. I love my congregation and feel lucky to serve them. Mine is a position of privilege I am honored to hold—but I no longer feel hopeful about the future of Ethical Culture as a whole.

The movement was founded in New York in the late 1800s by a religious radical named Felix Adler, and in our early years, we were a prominent voice in religious and political discussions. Adler was an intense young man (only 27 when he founded the first Ethical Society) 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. A compelling orator and innovative thinker, he drew large crowds to his lectures and saw his “sermons” printed in the New York Times. He traveled the US and internationally, and everywhere he went, it seems, Ethical Societies sprang up. We were the new religious hotness of the Gilded Age, preaching the importance of social justice and welfare for all at a time of extreme inequality and excess.

In the mid-1900s we experienced another period of success, as a new generation of Leaders placed Ethical Societies at the forefront of the fight for civil rights and against war. Once upon a time, Sunday presentations from the New York Society were broadcast on the radio, and our Leaders took influential roles in public institutions. We could count among our members and supporters such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Our institutional influence was enormous: Ethical Culture was part of the founding of many civil society organizations which still exist today, including the ACLU and the NAACP. Our congregations and national bodies paved the way for humanist organizations such as Humanists UK and Humanists International, meaning we literally helped found modern humanism. We were always small, with never more than a handful of congregations in any country, but we were mighty.

In recent years we have declined dramatically. Like almost every congregational movement, our numbers have dwindled, and now we have less than 30 Societies and fewer than 3000 members. More worryingly, our cultural and political impact is almost nil: no one knows we exist, to the extent that new entrants to the godless congregation marketplace like Sunday Assembly and the Oasis Network had never heard of us at all. If we track the trajectory of our movement since the 50s, it’s a depressing downward line in every area: fewer congregations, fewer people, less money, less influence.

I knew this when I signed on. I knew the movement was dying. I titled my earliest “sermons” as a trainee “The End of Ethical Culture” (we call our sermons “Platform Addresses”—the use of unusual, overly-formal, and off-putting terminology to describe what we do is perhaps one reason for our decline). In that talk, I argued that we needed to move fast to right the Ethical Culture ship or we would sink. In what I should probably have seen as an ominous portent of how well that message would be received, one Society I visited asked if I would change the title of my talk because it was “too depressing”. Well, I find decades of failure and decline depressing, and I was committed to being honest about it, and so despite some resistance, I spoke openly about my fears for the movement.

The failure of my movement’s institutions and structures is not our peoples’ failure. They have been failed by our leadership and organizational structures, not the other way round.

There was, to be fair, some support for my perspective. Some members welcomed my directness and could feel my passion, such that I soon developed a reputation as a young Ethical Culture firebrand. While 28 might not sound so young, I was decades younger than many of my colleagues when I first joined the movement, and in temperament and generational outlook, I just felt different. I am a good speaker—I know how to inspire people, how to project a clear vision— and soon some people were starting to say I would rejuvenate the movement. We had been founded by one prematurely-balding man in his late 20s, so why shouldn’t we be saved by another? Felix Adler come again! That’s the vibe I used to get from some people. I was the hope for the movement’s future success, and increasingly people said it to my face.

Part of me enjoyed this. I can be egotistical, and I like it when my talents are recognized. I am by nature iconoclastic and skeptical. I like to shake things up. Being the new young talent suited how I wanted to see myself. it was flattering and affirming. But it was also scary because I felt even then the weight of responsibility that was placed upon me. If I was the hope for Ethical Culture’s future, then I better measure up! I realize now that I came to see the movement’s health as my personal responsibility, as if I could take decades of institutional malfunction and push through it with enough energy and charisma.

But that doesn’t work. Dysfunctional institutions can hardly ever be fixed by one person, and they certainly need more skills than pretty speechifying if they are to be brought back to health. Back then I didn’t have those skills, I didn’t appreciate the need for them, I didn’t understand how long institutional transformation would take, and I didn’t get how important it is to build a coalition for change. So I kept throwing myself at walls. I would try, simply through persuasion and force of personality, to force the movement to change—and when it didn’t, I got first frustrated, then angry, then despairing. The movement was failing, the movement was my responsibility, so I was failing. Hence, too many cocktails after board meetings. Hence, my Come to Felix moment when I finally gave up.

I believe in telling the truth, even when the truth is difficult. Especially then. And the truth is that the Ethical Culture movement Felix Adler founded is not dying—it is dead, and it has been dead since before I joined it. A shrinking collection of 3-5 medium-sized congregations and 20 tiny ones, with little connectedness to each other and without a sense of common purpose, is not a “movement.” We lack philosophical clarity, theological rigor, organizational health, and a clear sense of our role in 21st-century society. We don’t know how to seed new congregations, and we cannot support existing ones. We have no clear answer to the question of why we exist. We are not moving anywhere, so we are not a “movement” at all. And nothing is going to turn this around. I didn’t join a dying movement—I joined a dead one.

Life beyond death: If Ethical Culture is dead, what’s next?

The realization that I had to give up on my movement was painful. I have spent my entire career trying to give life to a dead thing, mouth-to-mouth to a corpse. Some warmth is still upon the body, but the body is dead nonetheless. I am now convinced that by the time I’m the age of many of my Ethical Culture colleagues, the “Ethical Movement” will simply be a handful of Humanist congregations, loosely connected by bonds of shared history and shared values. Our national presence, with our distinct voice promoting a peculiar variety of congregational humanism, will be no more. I feel a sense of sorrow and regret at the death of such a noble tendency.

Giving up has been freeing too, though. Without the weight of expectation I had placed upon myself I can dedicate all my time to my own local congregation, and appreciate it all the more as a place that is bucking the trend. The success of the Ethical Society of St. Louis seems even more remarkable now I realize that it is one of the very few success stories the movement ever had, a beacon of humanism in a very conservative state, and a model for moral communities everywhere. The emotion I feel most palpably now is one of relief. I didn’t fail, but rather had placed upon myself an impossible burden. I am healthier and humbler for that recognition.

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. These are cornerstones of my convictions, part of who I am. I will continue to find ways to build a humanist community, both in St. Louis and beyond. The death of our movement needn’t mean the death of the ideals which birthed it.

Nor should the death of the Ethical Culture movement obscure a simple fact: Ethical Societies are fundamentally a good idea. Religious institutions often offer their members benefits that secular ones struggle to provide, and our track record (as well as tons of sociological research) shows that people benefit enormously from being a member of a congregation. Since all religion is developed to meet human needs, the idea of a “religion” that is divorced from false and harmful beliefs is a good one, a way of returning to the human roots of all religious faiths. If the current institutions of Ethical Culture cannot make good on the promise of the godless congregation, and if they are so broken as to be unreformable, then our task should be to build new institutions, not give up on the idea. It is only fair to acknowledge, after all, that our failure occurs against a backdrop of declining participation in every area of civic life. There is hardly a single progressive religious movement that is not struggling as we are.

I believe in the people still, too. Ethical Culture is filled with principled, brave, thoughtful, wonderful people. People who have shaped and mentored me. People I am proud to know. We have brilliant new Leaders and Emerging Leaders who I know will contribute their enormous talents to the communities they serve. I believe in them and am here to support them. They deserve a healthy movement that can support them as they pursue their calling, and right now they don’t have one. The failure of my movement’s institutions and structures is not our peoples’ failure. They have been failed by our leadership and organizational structures, not the other way round. That the energy and goodwill of so many people have been so thoroughly squandered is my greatest source of regret and frustration at our current situation. I write this column in part to stand with my people, to help them understand that they are pouring their love into a broken vessel. For their love to be received and respected, a new vessel must be shaped.

That’s the hopeful part of this story. Ethical Culture was built by idealistic people with a vision for a better world and a strategy to create it. Honestly acknowledging the death of our movement gives those people permission to think differently about the future. Once you recognize that a movement is dead, you can focus your energy on a different question: what new thing will be born?

I have part of an answer to that question, a shape, initially hazy, becoming clearer in my mind. What we need, more than a national body to serve Ethical Societies alone, is an organization dedicated to the development of non-religious congregations everywhere, a center providing resources, training, and assistance to anyone—of whatever tradition—who wants to build communities for people outside traditional faith. There are many people working on this project, they need help and support, and we could mobilize our history and expertise to help them build something amazing.

If Ethical Culture could realize that its time as an independent movement is over, it could transition its resources into the development of a nexus for all humanist community-builders. That would be something that would both benefit existing Ethical Societies and carry the legacy of the movement Felix Adler founded into a new era. But to do that would require the stark recognition of a painful truth: Ethical Culture is dead, but congregational humanism is just beginning.

This column reflects James Croft’s personal thoughts and feelings, and in no way should be read as the collective or institutional view of the Ethical Society of St. Louis.

James Croft is a philosopher, activist, and Humanist storyteller. As Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he is professional clergy for one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. A...