Sparking a Fire in the Humanist Heart

James Croft

In 1877 at the age of twenty-six, Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture Society, a humanistic congregational social movement dedicated to ethical practice. His founding address spoke of the need for communities dedicated to moral action and ethical improvement—congregations that, without reference to God, would work together to solve the social ills of the late nineteenth century. Adler knew how to get freethinking hearts pumping: he used to sell out Carnegie Hall with his lectures, and the press spilt ink liberally whenever he spoke. In a few decades he built a social movement that, although small, had an enormous impact in the service of humanistic goals. The Ethical Culture movement he launched founded the Visiting Nurse Association (which still provides home health and hospice services to people around the country), the Child Study Association, and the Encampment for Citizenship and played a role in establishing the Legal Aid Society, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ethical Culturists, although always few in number (it is estimated there were never more than a few thousand members), had a big social impact. Their humanism had a pulse, and the pulse beat strongly. How did they achieve this, and how might today’s humanists achieve similar feats today? In his 1905 book The Religion of Duty (he considered his form of organized humanism a religion), Adler wondered how we might motivate people to act absent the books and creeds of traditional religions and gave us a clue to the answer:

. . . How is it possible to induce [people] to make the effort [to be ethical], 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. We may not rely on books, we must rely on [ourselves]. [People] who are themselves aflame with the desire for the good can kindle in others the same desire. What a [woman] feels [she] can make others feel; what [she] sees [she] can make others see; when [she] supremely wills the right [she] can make others will it. Ethics is propagated just as art is. The artist is a man who loves the beautiful, and loves it so much that he can make others love it; who sees the beautiful and can open the eyes of others to see it. So morality is propagated. [Gendered language has been modernized by this essay’s author.]

Adler’s insight was a powerful one and is borne out by contemporary research. Sociologists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, in the enormous study of American religion detailed in their book American Grace (2010), discovered that religious people are indeed more socially engaged than nonreligious people: they vote more, give more money to charity, volunteer more of their time, and run more often for civic office.

However, this didn’t seem to be related to the intensity of a believer’s faith. Rather, higher levels of civic engagement were related to engagement with a religious community. Thus, they found, someone who isn’t so intensely religious will tend to show the same civic-mindedness if, for whatever reason, he or she is engaged in a religious community as much as someone who has greater religious conviction. Conversely, a deeply religious person who is not a member of a church community doesn’t display the same level of engagement. Therefore, Putnam and Campbell suggest, “close, morally intense, but nonreligious social networks could have a similarly powerful effect [on civic engagement].”

Adler would not have been surprised. He understood that putting people “in the midst of crowds” and surrounding them with others “aflame with the desire for the good” would work to reinforce and deepen their commitment to ethical action. He knew that for humanism to have a pulse, you first need to set a fire in the heart, and that begins with community. At the Humanist Community at Harvard—the humanist community that I am a member of—we take Adler’s insight (and Putnam and Campbell’s research) seriously and even created a Humanist Community Project to help build moral social networks.

I myself have felt the power of a strong moral community. For the past three years I’ve spent my spring break (a precious March week that serves as a respite from studying) on a service trip with other humanists, flying to New Orleans; Eagle Butte, South Dakota; and Los Angeles to put humanist principles into practice. I’ve filled potholes in Louisiana roads, thrown Frisbees with Lakota children, and handed out food packets to homeless kids on the L.A. beaches. Closer to home, I’ve exchanged old light bulbs for newer, more efficient ones in the suburbs of Boston (an initiative we called “Green Without God”) and cooked food for our local food bank. As I type, my feet are still throbbing from the twenty-mile Walk for Hunger, which saw a team of Harvard humanists dragging themselves around Boston to raise almost two thousand dollars for Project Bread. I like to think of myself as a good person, but I certainly would not have done all this—and I definitely wouldn’t have done it all so cheerfully—without the encouragement and organization my moral community provides.

I’ve also grown as a person. Adler, an educator as well as an orator and activist (he founded a school and was influential in the school-reform debates of his time) hoped that Ethical Culture communities would serve to develop individuals in their understanding of, and appreciation for, the ethical life. He hoped that the spark humanist communities would light in the hearts of their members would grow into a raging roar. And it has in me. The humanist community at Harvard has been central to my development as a humanist and as a person. I understand more about my own beliefs and commitments as a humanist (you could say I’ve “grown in non-faith”), but I have also been affected more personally: it was in the loving embrace of my humanist community that I was able to come out of the closet and accept myself as a gay man.

This community has given me much. And, as a result, I am more committed to it—I want to give something back. It’s no stretch to say that my activism on behalf of humanism (I now travel all over the country talking about building humanist communities) is a direct result of the growth I have experienced at my Harvard humanist home. I am aflame with desire for the good.

To me, this is what humanism with a pulse means: it means a vital humanism, a lifelong commitment to a set of noble principles that you endorse in theory and express through your deeds. It means getting up every morning and thinking, “How can I be a better person, a better humanist, and what can I do to help others?” It means making the high words of the Humanist Manifestos a reality in your everyday life. It means that humanism runs through everything you do, that it pulses through the veins of your life.

Sometimes when I’m asked what a humanist is, I give the American Humanist Association’s fifty-word definition. I say it is being “good without God” or refer the questioner to the third Humanist Manifesto—I refer them to our “creed.” Adler had a different idea. The motto of Ethical Culture is “Deed before Creed,” placing the emphasis on ethical action rather than beliefs. So here’s a challenge: next time someone asks you what a humanist is, tell them to spend some time with you as you live your life. If your humanism truly has a pulse, he or she won’t need to read a manifesto—your deeds will describe the fire in your heart.

James Croft

James Croft is the Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Community at Harvard and has worked on the Humanist Community Project since its inception. He is a Cambridge and Harvard graduate and is currently studying for his doctorate in the philosophy of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan, and Star Trek and is a proud, gay humanist.


In 1877 at the age of twenty-six, Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture Society, a humanistic congregational social movement dedicated to ethical practice. His founding address spoke of the need for communities dedicated to moral action and ethical improvement—congregations that, without reference to God, would work together to solve the social ills of the late …

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