Unitarian Universalism: A Matter of Definition

Both Greta and Hemant have commented on the full-page ad run by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the latest issue of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Since I have a copy of that issue, I thought I’d say some things about it as well.

The FFRF ad that ran in the fall 2009 UU World. Click to enlarge.

No one, of course, is denying that UU World would have been completely within its rights to reject the FFRF ad if they had chosen to. But that isn’t what they did. Instead, they accepted and ran the ad, which means that editorial staff at a fairly high level must not have seen any problem with it initially. Only after the magazine was published, and after some readers complained, did they apologize and state that it shouldn’t have been run.

I think it’s obvious why UU World‘s staff didn’t see a problem with the ad: a significant percentage of UU members are atheists. By many definitions, I’d be one of them – I occasionally attend a UU church with my fiancee, and I’m not the only atheist in the congregation by any means. In fact, I’m fairly certain that atheists are a plurality there. This seems like a perfectly logical place for the FFRF to advertise, because the ad does speak to a large and important part of UU membership.

Granted, the FFRF ad contains some quotes criticizing religion in general – particularly the one from Butterfly McQueen, which equates religion with slavery. Since Unitarian Universalism describes itself as a religion, I can understand why some UU members were offended.

However, I don’t think the fault lies with the FFRF. If anything, I think Unitarian Universalism is to blame for all the fuss. Long ago, they made a choice that’s led to much confusion: they brought in traditional religious terminology to describe themselves, but the way in which they use those terms in practice is very different from how they’ve historically been defined.

The fact that they call themselves a “religion” is example #1. UU has no sacred text, no statements of dogma, and no formal creed. It doesn’t even require a belief in God, and it proclaims that atheists and agnostics are welcome in its congregations. The only thing that connects UU members is a set of seven principles for moral behavior, which you can justify to yourself in any way you like.

Needless to say, this is not how the vast majority of people would understand the term “religion”. The historical meaning of that word has always included some supernatural component and some set of shared beliefs, and UU has neither. But nevertheless, it’s chosen to call itself a religion. Doubtless, this was a marketing decision: it expresses the point of this activity in a way that outsiders can easily understand, makes it seem more familiar and appealing, and not coincidentally, allows UU to make a play for its share of the automatic respect and deference that always seems to accrue to anything calling itself a religion.

But a consequence of this is that UU members will naturally perceive themselves to be among the targets of any attack on “religion”, even if the people who uttered those statements were clearly thinking of a completely different kind of belief system. As I said, it was this unfortunate choice of wording that’s led to so much confusion. I strongly doubt that the Freedom from Religion Foundation has any complaint against Unitarian Universalism – in fact, there’s undoubtedly a substantial overlap in their membership! – and as long as they continue to welcome atheists and support the separation of church and state, Unitarian Universalism has no reason to fear any goal the FFRF might seek to accomplish.

This is a situation where Unitarian Universalism has put itself in the line of fire, so to speak, when it didn’t need to. UU isn’t truly a religion in the sense of the word that the FFRF and other atheists criticize; it’s more like a secular humanist philosophy, one that just happens to dress in trappings of religious language. What this story really shows is yet another example of the negative effects that follow from society automatically assuming any religion to be worthy of respect and deference.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • keddaw

    UU is the Unseen University, please stop sullying our good educational reputation by comparing us to a church…

    Mustrum Ridcully

  • Entomologista

    They probably also wanted the tax-exempt status that comes with being a religion.

  • bbk

    On the other side of the coin, as this post demonstrates fairly clearly, one could look at UU as a religion that wants to pretend that they’re not a religion. To say that it’s not a religion is akin to claims made about the “In God We Trust” motto, the higher power in AA meetings, or the ID movement.

    The bane of ultra-liberal religions is that they loose so much of their adherents to atheism and that the religious members who they do have might very well have a positive influence from other atheists in their lives. They just don’t have a choice except to define themselves as loosely as possible and try to draw in the atheist crowd, for better or worse. UU specifically has had a great historical precedent that ties their tradition to atheism and it would be clearly hypocritical if they were to renege against this. But I have no doubts that there are just as many “Jesus for President” Christian types in attendance at UU as there are at a conservative church. The only difference is that no one makes fun of them for also believing in new age alternative medicine, reincarnation, psychic readings, or that eating meat is a sin. So it’s a better fit for some. But of course, many atheists are drawn to this.

  • Paul

    Part of the reason UUs say they are a religion is that, in the past, they were a religion as Ebon defines religion. They merely rejected the Trinity, hence their name. Welcoming atheists was a natural extension of their earlier freethought. Their tradition is as a religion.

  • stillwaters

    Seems to me that the central disagreement with this ad is whether it is anti-religion or not. For some, they will think that it is very anti-religion and for others, not really.

    It appears that some people in the UU group found it offensive, while others not so.

    Once again, to me, it seems it’s the old tight-rope that atheists must always walk on, disagreeing with a very personal idea that we think is silly, without upsetting the person holding that idea, who think it is sacred.

  • Leum

    They probably also wanted the tax-exempt status that comes with being a religion.

    Can’t speak for UU as a whole, but the UU fellowship here insists on paying property tax on the grounds that they want to be good citizens.

  • http://jessicasideways.com Jessica Sideways

    I’m a UU and I found the ads to be very comforting. Of course, I’m also an atheist…

  • Alex, FCD

    They probably also wanted the tax-exempt status that comes with being a religion.

    I would be surprised if they didn’t qualify as a non-profit organization even if they didn’t describe themselves as a religion.

  • eric

    has the FFRF released information as the response to the ad in terms of donations? Perhaps that would be a better gauge of the sentiment of the UU community.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    One weekend morning a pair of fundamentalist Orthodox Unitarian Universalists came to my door and tried to proselytize me. They were quite confident and forceful in their beliefs, and talked about them with quite some zeal, although they weren’t sure what that constituted. Militant agnostics are the same way…

  • http://prinzler@calpoly.edu Paul

    When UUs want to terrorize a person, they erect a question mark and burn it in the person’s front yard.

  • http://prinzler@calpoly.edu Paul

    The UU prayer starts, “To Whom It May Concern. . . .”

  • http://prinzler@calpoly.edu Paul

    Why are UU congregations so disjoint at hymn singing?
    Because they are always reading a few lines ahead to see if they agree with the words.

  • Leum

    God rest ye, Unitarians.

    But, really, we shouldn’t let this thread devolve into a train of Unitarian jokes.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Yeah, Paul! Stay on topic! Sheesh.

  • CSN

    I’ve never considered UU a real possibility because I always assumed there would be a lot of new agey-ness and spiritual woo woo. I’m sure it varies a lot by the congregation in question but what has been the experience of the UU members among us?

  • http://panicon4july.blogspot.com/ Will E.

    I’ve been to several weddings and other functions at UU churches — my sister and brother-in-law attend one — and have never noticed anything close to New Age-iness or spiritual woo. I even read through their brochures and bulletin board postings. There weren’t even any prayers. I really don’t think my sister and her husband would continue going if they did embrace that kind of stuff. A couple years ago the local one (in Raleigh, NC) hosted a Christopher Hitchens debate during his book tour for ‘God is not Great’ and the place was *packed.* I couldn’t find parking within a six-block radius. I read the next day he went over wonderfully. UU seems to be a community-oriented thing as far as I can tell.

  • Paul

    Leum, that Xmas song was exceedingly well done. Thanks, I thought I’d heard them all.

    OK, *now* I’ll see if I can stay on topic.

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  • c4bl3fl4m3

    Hi! Stumbled across your blog. Great stuff. I’m a UU, Spiritual Humanist, and an Agnostic who leans Atheist (away from woo).

    With all due respect, I’d actually say that it’s the FFRF (or rather, freedom from religion type folks) that has it wrong, or might have it wrong. There’s actually a few issues here: the concept of UUism as a religion, the problem with folks being anti-religion (but ok with UUism), and the concept of not needing religion vs. being an Atheist or Agnostic (etc.).

    Instead of saying that UUism isn’t a religion at least not the way the FFRF is talking, I’m thinking maybe those who think that religion is a bad thing might want to rethink their thoughts on religion based off of what UUism shows what religion CAN be. UU IS a religion, just a very different type of religion, and it can be a thorn in the side of those who like to put religion into its traditional box. I think a LOT of those folks don’t have a problem with RELIGION, per se, but a problem with dogma, etc. They just don’t get that religion doesn’t have to equal dogma, etc. When you do get a religion that doesn’t have the negative trappings, then they don’t know what to do with it, and prefer to keep their ideas “pure” by stating that UU isn’t a religion, really.

    But by stating that UUism isn’t a religion, or “we didn’t mean UUism when we said those things about religion”, well, it is kinda a cop out and kinda insulting. UUism IS a religion, a faith, a free and non creedal faith. I do believe in the Seven Principles. I use them to guide my life the way that a person of traditional religion might use their faith to guide their lives. (of course, others may not choose to use the words “believe” when it comes to the Seven Principles.) When those people say bad things about religion, they are, indeed, also saying them about UUs. It’s kinda like insulting black people and looking at your black friends and going “oh, well, I didn’t mean YOU, of course”. It’s not UUism that put itself in the line of fire when they didn’t need to… it was FFRF that’s creating problems where it doesn’t need to. Saying “oh the UUs shouldn’t be offended by an anti-religion ad because they’re not really a faith” is insulting when UUs do, indeed, consider themselves a religion and are trying to prove to the world that being a religion doesn’t have to mean all of those negative things. It’s part of who we are. We are NOT secular. We are, indeed, religious. (I’ve been to a secular humanist society that’s a member of the UUA. Their services were quite different even thought they followed a very similar format to UU services, and, frankly, it didn’t serve my needs as a UU because it was, indeed, too secular. This really drove home to me the point that UUism really is a religion/faith.)

    Now, I fully respect there are folks that need to have nothing to do with the concept of organized religion. Some people aren’t interested in that kind of community. I respect that completely. And for those folks, I support the concept of a Freedom From Religion organization. I sincerely believe some folks are wired to want organized faith (or non-faith) based community, and other folks don’t need that kind of community. I support the right of people to associate or not associate with faith communities as they see fit. Not everyone needs to belong to a religion, nor should they. I, personally, am a firm believe of freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. However, while there’s crossover (and possibly quite a bit) between Atheists & Agnostics et. al. and folks who don’t want/need spiritual/faith based community (I’ll call them Freedom From Religion Folks), they actually are separate concepts. Hell, as you being an Atheist and someone who attends (and I’m guessing finds value in) a UU church understands, they really are separate concepts. You are non-theist but found value in a religious service. But FFRF (and many other Atheist, Agnostic, Secular Humanist, Skeptic & Freethinker (as if only non-theists have the corner on skepticism and freedom of thought… it’s quite rude to insinuate that) organizations) mix the concept of religion, the concept of faith, the concept of spirituality, the concept of non-theism, and the concept of the separation of church and state all together.

    This is why this ad is so troublesome. It mixes a few concepts together, some of which UUs stand for, some of which are directly against UUism. I am a UU that is an Agnostic. I lean Atheist. I lean away from woo being an thing. I lean away from “spiritual energy” work of any sort. I believe in the separation of church and state quite wholeheartedly. (When Michael Newdow testified before the Supreme Court about removing the words “under God” from the Pledge, I was with the Atheists. At the time I did not identify as an Atheist and they were confused as to why I was there.) But I am a spiritual person. I believe my spiritual feelings come from within my brain and not from some outside source. I am a religious person. I am a Unitarian Universalist. UUs do, indeed, believe in religion. We understand that it can do good. I believe that religion can do good. I also know that many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion throughout the years and are still committed in its name now. I believe those atrocities are not inherent in religion. I know that dogma does NOT have to be inherent in religion.

    I stand with the FFRF in that I am an Agnostic who supports the separation of Church and State. I believe wholeheartedly in Freedom From Religion for those people who choose to not have anything to do with religion or have no need to. But I refuse to state that all religion is bad or that my religion is bad (or “not a religion” so that it can be good). I like the Dawkins quote, feel ambivalent over the Darrow quote, and disagree with the McQueen quote. I laugh at the wittiness of the Twain quote (and have used it myself in the past), enjoy the wisdom of the Dickinson quote, and am glad the Hepburn quote talks about the amazing things that Atheists (and Agnostics and Humanists) DO believe in, as, really, most people don’t get that about non-theists. But to blatantly be anti-religious, place the ad in a religious magazine (despite the fact that many of the people of that religion believe in the tenants of the organization), and then say “oh, you shouldn’t be insulted because you’re ‘not really a religion” is shockingly shortsighted and naïve at best and an insult & affront at worst.