There are no sacred symbols and the faithful who gather at the monumental Art Nouveau edifice off Central Park believe deeply that there is not necessarily a god. They're members of the Society for Ethical Culture, a humanist group with some 3,000 followers in New York. An AFPTV report.(AFPTV)
by Luis Torres de la Llosa
Fri May 23, 9:49 AM ET
NEW YORK (AFP) - It looks more like a theater than a church, there are no sacred symbols, and the faithful who gather at this monumental Art Nouveau edifice believe deeply that there is not necessarily a god.
Here, across from Manhattan's Central Park, the Society for Ethical Culture, whose motto is "Deed before Creed," along with other US non-theist, atheist, agnostic and independent groups, are gaining ground in the United States.
According to the Pew Forum, those who see their spiritual dimension as "unaffiliated" make up 16 percent of Americans, but they are the fastest-growing segment of the complicated patchwork of US spiritual life.
"It feeds my spiritual, ethical and social needs," said Judith Wallach, a member of the ethical society for years who acknowledged having a religion but not a strong belief in God.
God's popularity would appear to be somewhat under fire in the very religious-minded United States: books such as Christopher Hitchens's "God is not Great," Sam Harris's "The End of Faith" and Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion" have all become US best sellers in the past three years.
Some experts see the trend as a reaction to hard-line attitudes among Christans, Jews and Muslims in a world that is traumatized and skeptical after the September 11, 2001 terror strikes.
Others think it is part of a broader shift.
"More and more people are discovering that they can lead good, fulfilled, moral lives without religion," said Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who teaches at Tufts University in Massachusetts and author of essays such as "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life."
"God is not exploding -- which is what Nietzsche supposed -- God is slowly evaporating before our eyes," he said.
New York's Society for Ethical Culture was founded in 1876, with Darwin's ideas in full flower, by Felix Adler, a humanist son of a rabbi who immigrated from Germany. Today, it has 3,000 members.
The society admits atheists and people who maintain their religious affiliation. Its Sunday morning meetings are not masses, but rather "platforms."
They start with a brief concert and include conversations, song and a half-hour discussion of a particular topic. They wrap up with a collection of funds for a humanitarian cause.
This week, it was for victims of the massive earthquake in China. Next Sunday the society will debate the war in Iraq and the use of torture, to which it is opposed for "humanist" reasons.
"These services bear some similarities to traditional religious services in regard to the inclusion of music, community sharing, and a sense of aesthetics.
"They differ in their flexibility and openness to different perspectives and absence of worship to a supreme deity," explained Bart Worden, president of the National Leader's Council of the American Ethical Union.
Says Worden: "Families bring their children to learn how to live in a world of diversity, respecting differences and finding common ground with others, and making a contribution to the well-being of the world."
Jesai Jaymes is 55 and works in theater. He joined the society last week after finding it on a stroll through Central Park.
"I am meeting bright, intelligent people who want to do things and that is what attracted me to it," said Jaymes, who was raised Catholic and has a Jewish father.
It is "an organization in which it is possible to participate and be active, rather than contemplate things," added Jaymes, who was happy "finding an organization that supports social activism rather than belief and prayer: I can pray in the park, where I do my yoga and my meditation."
With a doctorate in art history, Ruth Cohen, a society member for years, has a special appreciation for the imposing building home to the society, built in 1910, called Viennese-secession Art Deco style.
Its decorative motifs are somber and abstract, there are human figures and no traditional symbols of major historic faiths. "The auditorium is built in such a manner that the speaker is even with his audience," she noted.