Humanism at The Chautauqua Institution

The iconic Miller Bell Tower in Chautauqua, NY. Photo by Craig Lyndall on Unsplash

The Chautauqua Assembly was established in 1874 by two Methodists as a teaching camp for Sunday school teachers. Other Protestant denominations joined in (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Baptist) and, in 1878, formed the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle to advance learning in rural America and for those for whom learning was either unaffordable or unattainable (e.g. women) through at-home reading circles that lead to certificates of learning. It inspired an educational movement of traveling tent assemblies showcasing literary, scientific, and artistic learning around the country. In 1915, almost 12,000 communities hosted “chautauquas.”

Eventually, the traveling assemblies disappeared. However, the enclave of the Chautauqua Institution remained and eventually grew into what it is today: a unique residential community and educational center that feels like a utopian arts and higher-learning, nine-week, summer sleep-away camp for adults. No cars are allowed on the 750-acre residential campus on Chautauqua Lake. In addition to its programs for personal growth, there are numerous recreational facilities. Presidents, leading academics, scientists, artists, musicians, intellectuals, writers, religious leaders, entrepreneurs, and philosophers have been invited guest speakers to the outdoor Chautauqua Assembly Amphitheatre and its numerous other venues. People come from all over the United States to reside on campus in rooming houses, inns, family residences, condos, and hotels. There is no place quite like it.

The Chautauqua Institution’s mission is “the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life through a program that explores the important religious, social, and political issues of our times; stimulates provocative, thoughtful involvement of individuals and families in creative response to such issues; and promotes excellence and creativity in the appreciation, performance, and teaching of the arts.”

Robert Ingersoll, known as The Great Agnostic, and the most popular national orator of late 19th-Century America did not speak at Chautauqua Institution, John Schmitz, the official archivist told me this summer. He would not have been welcome at the time, he said. Nor were Catholics or Jews for that matter, though a few prominent rabbis were invited to speak. Today, the Catholic House is the largest denominational house and three Jewish organizations also have houses on the grounds. Since 1970, the Institution has welcomed prominent humanist speakers, Schmitz said. American Humanist Association’s (AHA) former Executive Director Roy Speckhardt, prominent humanist Chris Stedman, and former AHA Board member Anthony Pinn were recent speakers. In almost 150 years, things have changed and this summer saw two humanist leaders offering introductory lessons into humanism.

AHA board member and Chautauqua Institution summer resident John Hooper gave a weekly introductory lecture on humanism at the Unitarian Universalist Center on the Chautauqua Institution premises. “About 150 attended over the nine weeks of summer programming,” Hooper said. Hooper gave a brief history of humanism and introduced how our understanding of the mind-body connection was opening up a new way of thinking of ourselves as part of an embodied humanism.

I taught a Special Studies course during August 22-25 entitled, The Humanist Choice: Celebrate Without God. The objective of the workshop was to build common ground between faith and non-faith communities through the subject of celebration. The human species has been commemorating significant lifecycle events—unions, birth, coming of age, death—since time immemorial with rituals and celebrations. By focusing on how we humanists mark these days of significance and then also examining the shared humanist values with the many other significant days celebrated as secular events by cultures and faith traditions, we arrived at a newfound understanding of collaboration and shared experience.

Ten people signed up for the four-day course offered during Week 9 of the 2022 Chautauqua season. The ten participants included six committed Christian believers, two Unitarian Universalists, and two atheists. They were interested in learning about the history of modern humanism, humanist values, and how humanists function in the world. We covered the Humanist Manifesto III, the 2022 Humanist International Declaration of Modern Humanism, and some of the ethical quandaries both faith and secular humanists are confronted with in their private lives and the public square. There was an active discussion on how religious belief systems are presented to young people in schools. On the question of separation of church and state, participants debated the two different approaches taken by the Yale Humanists and the Satanic Temple to highlight that these debates begin in town councils before they reach the courts. We considered how sentient life was evolving with science’s newfound understanding of other species and developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI), concluding that humanism’s progressive philosophy of life anticipates changes as knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe advances.

On our last day, I challenged the group to come up with new values-based celebrations or new expressions of existing celebrations. (This was a continuation of a conversation I started at the 2019 AHA Annual Conference when I suggested that the humanist community designate days to celebrate our humanist values. You can find the presentation on the AHA’s YouTube channel.) Only one person had heard about International Darwin Day, a celebration of science’s contribution to the advancement of human knowledge. One group suggested reframing New Year’s Day as a time to commit to learning new things about oneself or the world. Another idea was to encourage the reading of Atomic Habits by James Clear, a book outlining evidence-based methods for breaking learned behaviors. Another proposal included an exchange of journals to record these educational journeys over the year and opportunities for discussions and conversations on the power of journaling to open inner reflections. In this re-imagined New Year’s celebration, the focus would be on how journals can and have provided insights into the thinking of inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, writers, and so on.

At Chautauqua 2023, Week 4 will be dedicated to The State of Believing, exploring “what science, religion, public opinion, and politics can teach us about the nature of what we believe and why we believe it.” We humanists need to be present.

I urge you to come to the Chautauqua Institution as present-day emissaries of the Great Agnostic, Robert J. Ingersoll and be a part of the conversations. Let’s go and ensure our voices are not simply included but heard and seen. We cannot influence perspectives unless we engage. The future depends upon our finding common ground.

As stated in Humanist International’s 2022 Declaration of Modern Humanism, of which AHA is a signatory and contributor, “We seek neither to avoid scrutiny nor to impose our view on all humanity. On the contrary, we are committed to the unfettered expression and exchange of ideas, and seek to cooperate with people of different beliefs who share our values, all in the cause of building a better world.”