Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Church That Would Have You as a Member

Back in 2010, the New Humanism online magazine asked me if I’d write an article introducing Unitarian Universalism to Humanists. I sent them a text titled “Unitarian Universalism: A Church for Humanists?”, which they posted under the title “A Church that Would Have You as a Member”. 

So far so good. But recently it has been pointed out to me that the New Humanism web site no longer exists, and so links that used to point to my article now go to some page that’s trying to sell you something unrelated. I’ve googled lines out of my draft and haven’t gotten any hits, so I don’t think the article has moved somewhere else.

So I’m going to repost it here. I didn’t keep track of my agreement with New Humanism, so it’s possible I’m violating copyright by doing so. If so, and if that bothers whoever has a right to be bothered, they should just leave a comment. I’ll happily take this post down if you can point to somewhere else on the internet where the article can be found.

Bear in mind: What I have in my records is the article as I sent it to them, so it’s missing whatever edits they might have made, for better or worse. I fixed a mistake. (James Barrett died in 1994, not 2003.) Also, I’ve had to fix the links, which may not go to the original places anymore, but should go somewhere relevant. Anyway, here it is:

A Church That Would Have You as a Member

Unitarian Universalism has long had a unique relationship with Humanism. What other religious group would showcase an outspoken atheist at its national convention, as the UUs did when they invited Kurt Vonnegut to give prestigious annual Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of 1984? UU Humanists have their own national organization (HUUmanists) with their own journal (Religious Humanism). In a 1998 survey, nearly half of UUs identified themselves as Humanists. New Humanism's publisher Greg Epstein spoke at the 2008 General Assembly, and has been invited to speak again in 2010.

Unitarians were largely responsible for the first Humanist Manifesto, and in his 2002 book Making the Manifesto, former Unitarian Universalist Association President (and the AHA's Humanist of the Year for 2000) William Schulz claimed that there were more Humanists in UU churches than in the American Humanist Association. 

Few other religious organizations have so consistently stood with Humanists in those battles where traditional morality and human rights take opposite sides. The lead plaintiffs in the Massachusetts same-sex marriage case took their vows at the Boston headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association, with then-UUA President William Sinkford officiating. About a hundred UU ministers -- a significant fraction of the entire UU clergy -- marched with Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965, and the murder of one of them (James Reeb) provided the white martyr that President Johnson needed when he urged Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Another UU (James Barrett) was murdered in 1994 while trying to protect an abortionist from religious-right violence. Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel laureate who led an international groundswell of scientists pushing for a nuclear test-ban treaty (and co-founded the International League of Humanists) was a UU.

UU General Assemblies have passed more than a dozen resolutions supporting the separation of church and state. People for the American Way founder Norman Lear was another Ware lecturer in 1994, and a Unitarian Universalist (Pete Stark) was the first congressman to announce in public that he did not believe in God. 

Small wonder, then, that when Humanists go looking for a like-minded community -- a place to raise a child in humanistic values, look for social-action allies, solemnize a wedding or funeral, or perhaps just be reminded once a week that American consumer culture is not the only alternative to God -- the local Unitarian Universalist church is a prime option. There are about a thousand UU churches around the country (far more than Ethical Culture societies or other Humanist-friendly groups), and you can find at least one in every state of the union.

But is the humanist-community problem really that simple? Should we all just go join UU churches? As a Unitarian Universalist myself -- I am, in fact, more comfortable identifying myself as a UU than as a Humanist -- I wish I could make that sweeping recommendation in good conscience. But while many Humanists are happy as UUs, many others are not, and every year some number of UU-Humanists stomp out the door in disgust. 

So would you be a contented parishioner or a stomper-out-the-door?


Probably the best way to get a handle on UUism is to understand where it comes from. Believe it or not, the story (or at least the Unitarian branch of the UU family tree) starts with the Puritans. When they came to the New World in the 1600s, the Puritans weren't any kind of Humanists or even particularly liberal Christians. But Puritan churches lacked two features that anchor religious institutions against the progressive forces of evolution: They didn't have a creed and they didn't have a hierarchy. 

Each local congregation was supposed to read the Bible for itself, and no external authority could force a congregation to read it any particular way. Puritans believed that an external authority was unnecessary, because the Holy Spirit would keep pulling congregations back to Christian truth. What happened instead was that many of those congregations drifted towards liberalism. 

The drift was gradual, but over the centuries the small changes added up. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, people like William Ellery Channing started interpreting the Bible according to reason rather than tradition, and noticed that some of the more unreasonable Christian doctrines, like the Trinity, were also un-Biblical. So they affirmed the unity rather than the trinity of God and became known as Unitarians.

By the middle of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was challenging the uniqueness of the Bible itself, which he saw as the record of one people's inspiration. People in other times and places (like us here and now) might hope for their own divine inspiration. And if that was the goal, why not look to Nature or Art rather than to scripture?

From there, each generation of Unitarians became a little more humanistic than the last, until by 1920 Unitarian minister Curtis Reese could announce to his colleagues (in public, no less) that God was "philosophically possible, scientifically unproved, and religiously unnecessary."

The fact that Cotton Mather was not rolling over in his grave was, in itself, powerful evidence against the Afterlife.

Reese-style Unitarian Humanism was controversial for about a generation, but by the time of the merger with the Universalists in 1961, it was the majority point of view in most UU churches. Since then things have drifted in a different direction, which we'll get to in a few paragraphs.


This unique history explains the otherwise bizarre combination of features you will find in a typical UU church. If you walk into a UU Sunday-morning service wearing earplugs, you might imagine you are in a Christian church. Families arrive together and children go to their classes. Adults stand up or sit down in unison. Sometimes they sing together or read something out of the hymnal together. There might be a choir and an organ. Candles might be lit. More often than not, a minister will stand up and give something that might be called a "talk" or an "address," but looks an awful lot like a sermon.

UUs might appear to be imitating the more popular Christian denominations, but they're not. Like the evolutionary product it is, UUism comes by all that stuff honestly through a common ancestor -- the same way that dolphins get their lungs.

No matter how naturally those Christian trappings arise, though, they provide the first test of whether you'll be happy as a UU: If they drive you crazy, independent of the the service's intellectual content, then your life as a UU will be difficult. Don't torture yourself.

But if you can tolerate the appearances -- I've grown to like them myself -- then take out your earplugs and listen. You'll hear a message that is not always capital-H Humanist, but is decidedly humanistic: People of goodwill need to look past their disagreements about metaphysics and start fixing the world -- where fixing means creating the conditions for human happiness and fulfillment here and now, not preparing our invisible souls for some higher happiness after death. The world's many scriptures are read for inspiration, not for authoritative pronouncements, so a UU discussion doesn't end when someone quotes the Bible. Prayer is a community meditation on human needs and desires, not a request for supernatural favors. Science's description of the physical world is accepted, and while UUs may at times be skeptical about whether technology is creating a Heaven or a Hell for us, they completely understand and sympathize with the scientist's desire to solve whatever earthly mysteries might be solvable. Unlike Bluebeard's castle, a UU universe has no locked rooms.


Before you say "sign me up," though, you need to consider the continuing drift of recent decades. There was a moment in the 1960s or 70s when Unitarian Universalism might have become an unofficial Church of Humanism. Humanism was clearly the dominant philosophy and all forms of traditional religion were in retreat. Many UUs felt that their centuries-long evolutionary journey was done now: They had shaken off the barnacles of orthodox Christianity and had arrived at Humanism.

Many still feel that way, but the community as a whole has gone in a different direction. Particularly among the ministry, there is a trend to view traditional religion not as an encrustation to be shaken off, but as a resource to be mined. The solid shore of Humanism is largely taken for granted, but from that shore many 21st-century UUs dive back into religion, to see what can be salvaged: community-building rituals, teaching stories, techniques of personal transformation, invocations of awe and wonder, and so on.

And so, religious words that once seemed to be on their way out -- worship, prayer, God, holy, sacred, salvation, divine, and many others -- are on the upswing again. If you tap on those words, if you ask what UUs are trying to get at by using them, chances are you'll hear an explanation largely compatible with an underlying Humanism. But if you view the words themselves as the carriers of a dangerous infection, you'll find today's UU churches to be unhygienic environments.  

Finally, UU congregations are tolerant to a fault. Literally anyone can show up at a UU church, believing any kind of craziness, and will not be told to go away. (In fact, if you take it on yourself to tell someone he or she doesn't belong, you are the one who is likely to be reprimanded.) If you mingle at the coffee hour after the Sunday service, you may run into astrologers, crystal gazers, faith healers, and new-agers of all varieties. They won't be anywhere close to the majority and most of them don't stay more than a few months. But if one such encounter ruins your whole week, you won't be a happy camper.

In short, if you are allergic to the appearances and words of traditional religion, Unitarian Universalism is not for you. If you are looking for a community of pure and unadulterated Humanism, you won't find it at a UU church.

But if you want to be accepted for the Humanist you are, without any fudging or hypocrisy, you can have that. If you want allies in the struggle to make the world a better place, you can find them. If you are stimulated by diverse points of view and enjoy engaging people who frame the world differently (but not too differently),  a UU church is a good place to meet them.

If you came to my church, you'd be welcome. You might be happy there, or you might not. Only you can judge.

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