A Glimpse into the Philadelphia Ethical Society

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photograph of the entrance to the Philadelphia Ethical Society taken on 2017-06-03 is used as an image for articles in this blog about the Philadelphia Ethical Society - or the Ethical Culture movement in general.
An interview with the Leader of the Philadelphia Ethical Society sheds light into a movement that some interpret as an alternative religion, and which others interpret as an alternative to religion altogether.
Hugh Taft-Morales taught ethics for twenty years in High School and for five years in Junior High School before that. During his time teaching in High School, he began to see Ethical Culture as his calling in life. As he explains it, “By speaking about it, I felt like I was giving value added to people’s lives.”

This led him to a change in career. Today, he is the Leader of the Baltimore Ethical Society – as well as the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia, also known as the Philadelphia Ethical Society. That is to say, he is more-or-less the community’s equivalent of a Pastor in more religiously oriented communities.

I sat and talked to him last Sunday afternoon. My initial goal for the interview was to examine the similarities between Stoicism and the philosophy behind the Ethical Culture movement – as well as the differences between the two philosophies.

Some interresting paralels were indeed found. For example, the way that Ethical Humanists seek meaning in life, as described in the Philadelphia Ethical Society’s pamphlet, very much resembles practice of the Stoic virtue of Justice and the theory of Cosmopolitanism that guides that virtue.

However, I also learned that attempting to make too many generalizations about Ethical Culturists can be very misleading. Different members of the Ethical Society have different views in a number of areas. As a group, however, they are defined by the things they come together over. As Hugh explains: “I’m a sports fan. Has nothing to do with me being in Ethical Culture, and that’s fine. If I was to say, okay, I want us all to watch sports every Sunday, that would violate why we get together.”

So the Philadelphia Ethical Society is not by any means a sports-fan club – but neither is it an anti-sports organization. Fans of the Philadelphia Eagles will be welcome, provided they respect that that’s not what they come there for – as would be fans of any rival team (I forgot to ask Hugh which team he supports) – as well as people who are vehemently indifferent to sports altogether.

More centrally, however, the Ethical Society takes the same position on the God question. “We don’t entertain the question,” Hugh explains. “Most members who come here are atheist, but we don’t preach atheism.” Rather, a label that he would see as fitting the community is non-theist.

Ethical Culturists are also divided on whether or not the label of religion is fitting to their movement. However, many of them come to the Ethical Society do so in order to get a sense of ritual and community and other benefits of religion without having to take with it all the baggage that comes with traditional religion. As Hugh explains – Felix Adler, the founder of the Ethical Culture movement, expressed that it could be approached as a religion by those who were so-inclined, as well as a purely ethical system by those who had no such religious inclination.

Legally, of course, Ethical Culture is regarded as a religion – as the Philadelphia Ethical Soicety’s pamphlet explains. The basis for this, however, makes Hugh somewhat uneasy. “The right wing,” he explains, “because of a quote from the Supreme Court that was actually mis-spoken which labeled Secular Humanism as a religion, which for many secularists is precisley what they don’t want.” He goes on to explain, “[T]he reason why the right wing began to use that phrase is that they could equate their religion with secularism – then both would have to be given equal time – in the public forum. And that’s dangerous – because, I think, the right way to talk about secularists is somebody who believes that when you deal with civic, public, secular matters, you don’t bring in theism. There’s a secular world. It’s a world where we don’t bring in revalation – things that can not be verified by – by experimental data and evidence.”

As a matter of fact, Hugh does not feel that Secular Humanism is the best-fitting label for the philosophy behind Ethical Culture – but prefers the term Ethical Humanism. He is concerned that the term secular is too slippery. As he explains: “I learned late in life that secular was a term that the Catholic choose Church used to designate priests who worked in the world as opposed to in the monastery. So actually came from within a theistic, religious culture.” He explains that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the term secular acquired it’s present meaning.

However – hair-splitting aside about whether or not Ethical Culture should be defined as a religion – the Philadelphia Ethical Society does provide a number of services that many people associate with churches. It performs weddings – as well as baby namings, commitment services, and many other ceremonies that mark those milestones in life. And this makes perfect sense. People in Ethical Culture want rites to mark these stages of people’s lives – just like everyone else. They simply want these acknowledgements without the baggage of a religion imposed with it.

On my first attempt to get this interview (the day before I actually succeeded) I saw this for myself. It was the first time I set foot inside the Philadelphia Ethical Society building at the historic Rittenhouse Square. On this attempt, I didn’t find someone to interview. Instead, I stopped mere feet away from accidentally walking in on someone’s memorial service – where people had gathered to mark the very last of these milestones in a loved-one’s life.

I asked Hugh how Ethical Humanists face the end of life. He explains that a lot of the writings that Ethical Culture has accumulated on the subject of memorial services in its 140 years to-date focus on the importance of our relationships with our loved ones. Regarding what happens to these relationships when a loved-one dies, Hugh expalins: “That relationship doesn’t die. I don’t pretend that I have any spiritual connection to them – I’m not speaking to them – but my understanding of them evolves and changes.” Through this process, he feels that, in a sense, his deceased loved-ones remain with him.

As for Hugh, personally, he is an Existentialist – and his mortality has a central place in his life philosophy. As he explains: “Because I’m mortal – because I don’t believe in an afterlife – I’ve got to try to make the most out of every moment.”

Edit 2017-06-13 – “Ethical Culture” was capitalized in the few places where previously it hadn’t. Being the name of a specific movement, it needed to be capitalized so as to distinguish it from just any culture that happens to be ethical.

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