As I was enjoying my time back in my hometown of St. Louis over the winter break from my studies at Boston University, I was driving westbound down Clayton Road from Downtown when I noticed just past the Galleria a building that appeared like a futuristic chapel or church. It bore the standard marquee sign outside, but instead of bearing the name of a church, it read “The Ethical Society of St. Louis”
Instantly intrigued, I pulled over into the buildings parking lot and trudged across the snow over to the sign to get a closer look. The sign bore a phone number and website, so I decided to do some more research. I called the number listed on the sign, but the pre-recorded message told me that services and other events were postponed for the holiday break. So I then turned my efforts to the website.
On their website, the Ethical Society proudly boasts the slogan, “A Welcoming Home for Humanists”. Since I tend to count myself in that number, I read on, specifically focusing on the “Who We Are” section of the website. The contents stressed the history as well as the ethical focus (shocker, I know) of the society. The history was rather compelling. The Ethical Society of St. Louis has been around since 1886 and has affiliation with two groups I knew a bit about (the American Ethical Union and the Greater St. Louis Coalition of Reason). The website stressed that it was a place for atheists and agnostics, as well as members of religious communities, to come and talk and hear discussions about ethical issues that all of us face.
Reading on, I discovered that the Ethical Society offered what seemed to me like a church service every Sunday. This church service, which they called Platform, did not involve a faith-based liturgy, but instead focused around a speaker giving a talk about some ethical issue. The idea of having a churchlike service without god and religious dogmatism spread throughout had a very strong appeal.
As a born-and-raised member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and having been constantly exposed to Catholic and Jesuit tradition throughout my years in high school at De Smet Jesuit, I possess strong opinions of church services based on my experiences. I had always enjoyed church growing up, especially the social and musical aspects of it. As I grew through my teen years, I participated in some of the musical groups at Ascension Lutheran Church, where I was confirmed, and almost became a drummer for the church band at Messiah Lutheran in Weldon Springs, MO. Aside from music, I enjoyed seeing my friends at church and going to Mass with my friends at DeSmet, even if at that point I was not so gung-ho about singing the praises of the Judeo-Christian god. The one thing I missed being an agnostic throughout most of my high school years and now an atheist was the loss of community. So I decided to attend Platform at the Ethical Society.
After showing up a minute or two late due to time mismanagement, my girlfriend and I took our seats in the back of the elaborately done-up main room. A speaker had just begun her bit about how she had felt no connection with the god and spiritual aspect of her former religion but found the Ethical Society a place where she could get all the parts she liked about church without god and spirituality in the strict sense. She particularly encouraged the congregation to support a pseudo-confession program, wherein people could come in to the Ethical Society just to talk to a leader or counselor about whatever struggles were going on in their life. Having gone to Catholic confession myself, I had enjoyed relieving my burdens on someone else but did not quite connect with God judging my sins and then having me go say 10 prayers to the Virgin Mary. The idea of a non-religious confession, more like counseling, appealed greatly to me.
After the speaker left, an astute piano man played a lovely piece, and then the leader of the service and of the Ethical Society, Kate Lovelady, came and gave her Platform speech entitled “The Good of Guilt, The Bad of Shame” in which she argued that guilt can motivate us to do good, ethical things when it does not overbear on us, but shame, especially in a religious context, was highly detrimental to our well-being. While I took up some qualms with her definitions of guilt and shame, preferring Friedrich Nietzsche’s distinctions in On the Genealogy of Morals, my semantical difference was, all-in-all, just that. It was wholly refreshing to hear a philosophically-focused speech rather that the recanting of some biblical story with a message that required little to no thought, especially the 500th time I had heard it.
Following some more musical renditions, the one-hour service ended, and my girlfriend and I left before the coffee-hour post-service congregational meet-up in the basement. Leaving the building, two thoughts rang clear in my head. The Ethical Society was the perfect place for those disenchanted with religion to come to get the community aspect of church, something I found endearing. This seemed to make up a large part of the audience at the Platform I intended, where many of the members were elderly and seemed disenchanted from their religious backgrounds. The second was how something like this had escaped the admittedly small non-religious community of St. Louis, especially high school and college students. Often young atheists and freethinkers like myself struggle with isolation and a lack of a sense of community, and a place like the Ethical Society of St. Louis would provide a perfect place to seek community. And, lucky for us, god will not be pissed off at us for missing a Platform.
Ben Conover is a first-year philosophy, film, and classics major at Boston University.