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Leader’s Message – “Hail to the Nonbelievers!” – March 2009

By February 24, 2009No Comments

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”

President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009


“Believe or disbelieve as ye list – we shall at all times respect every honest conviction. But be one with us where there is nothing to divide – in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed! This is that practical religion from which none dissents.”

Dr. Felix Adler, Ethical Culture Founding Address, May 15, 1876


No, he didn’t.  Yes, he did!  President Barack Obama included us: He opened his arms wide on Inauguration Day and acknowledged us as fellow Americans.  Shall we tell him that we are believers?  That we believe in humanity, in the capacity of people for goodness, in a sacred web of human relationships?  Through some incredible process of nature, we are here: a conscious, reflective, meaning-making species with a reverence for life and all its possibilities. We are hard-wired to look for patterns and purpose in a random universe.  For some people that impulse finds expression in belief in a supernatural deity; for others, it is directed toward finding a better way of living within a diverse community.


I believe that Obama knows that.  He understands the subtlety and nuance of belief.  His mother, after all, was a humanist, and his grandfather encouraged him to attend a Unitarian church so he would “get five religions in one.”  But he also understands that too many Americans are not tolerant of differences. They judge others according to their belief in God – not in the God of many faces and no face or the God of many names and no name, but in their particular brand.  Several states still have provisions in their constitutions that forbid “nonbelievers” from holding public office.  For example, in Maryland there is “no religious test . . .  required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God.”   I want to know which God this is.


According to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith, an openness to a range of religious viewpoints reflecting the great diversity of religious affiliation in this country.  Six in ten adults believe in a “Personal God” with whom they can have a relationship, but one in four – including half of Jews and Hindus – perceive God as an “impersonal force.”  And while almost 70% of Americans say they are certain of God’s existence (whatever form it takes), more than 22% are far less certain.  The survey also found that 16.1 % of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion.  That’s a significant number.


So Obama, unlike past presidents, perhaps as far back as the Deists and humanists among our founding fathers, sees everyone and reaches out to everyone.  Like Felix Adler, he respects every honest conviction and seeks common ground with those who would work with him to create a better world for all.  We Ethical Culturists may not worship a supreme bring, but we do engage in what Felix Adler called “worthship,” an act of choosing to attribute worth to every person, of eliciting the distinctive excellence in others, thereby eliciting our own unique qualities.  It is through worthship that we create communities of caring and loving people.


After hearing President Obama’s welcoming words, I visited the White House web site and sent him a congratulatory email.  My postscript read: “How about for your next inauguration, inviting a humanist to give the benediction?”  Hail to the Chief!



President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address at


U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by Pew Forum at

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