Unitarian Universalism and Diversity of Belief

The Unitarian Universalist church is not united by a statement of faith, but rather by a set of progressive social values. Because of that, UUs are all over the map when it comes to beliefs about God. There are pagan UUs, Catholic UUs, atheist UUs, agnostic UUs, Hindu UUs, deist UUs, and even Muslim UUs. The result is that any given UU church brings together people from a variety of religious traditions and with a variety of current beliefs regarding religion, uniting them on the basis of shared values like equality, social justice, and care for the environment.

The official website for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations describes Unitarian Universalism as “a religion that celebrates diversity of belief and is guided by seven principles.” What are these seven principles? Let’s look:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

As I’ve spent time attending my local UU church and learning about Unitarian Universalism, I have come to understand the problem many atheists have with it, and it’s not just that some dislike ritual or congregational gathering or having someone called a “minister.” It’s that being a UU means you have to accept UUs who are Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, and encourage them to follow their own paths rather than criticizing their beliefs as delusions and hoping that they will deconvert. To be a UU, you have to be okay with a diversity of belief, or even see it as a good thing. You also have to be okay with certain religious language, such as “the spark of the sacred,” and with being in a group that defines itself as a “liberal religious community” or speaks of the “Unitarian Universalist faith.” And many atheists are not okay with that.

At this point some of my atheist readers may be shaking your heads and wondering why an atheist would ever attend a Unitarian Universalist church. But you know what? Nearly half of UU members don’t believe in God. Forty-six percent of UUs define themselves as “capital H” Humanists (aka the kind of humanist that doesn’t believe in the supernatural). Yes, you read that right, 46%. Here is a breakdown:

Please check the one of the following which best describes your theological perspective:

  • Humanist: 46.1%
  • Earth/Nature centered: 19.0%
  • Theist: 13.0%
  • Christian: 9.5%
  • Mystic: 6.2%
  • Buddhist: 3.6%
  • Jewish: 1.3%
  • Hindu: 0.4%
  • Moslem: 0.1%
  • Other: 13.3%

In other words, there are a lot of atheists (and agnostics) who are members of UU churches. In fact, there are more atheists (and agnostics) than there are individuals of any one other group. Clearly, there are a lot of atheists who like what the Unitarian Universalist church has to offer. There are a lot of atheists who are content to respect others’ beliefs and journeys and be united by shared progressive social values like equality and social justice with individuals with a variety of approaches to religion.

As an atheist UU, you don’t have to pretend you believe in god. No one blinks when you say you don’t. No one sees that as abnormal or weird, and no one tries to convert you. But the trade off for an atheist UU is that you must in turn not blink when Christian or pagan UUs say they *do* believe in a god (or gods), not see them as abnormal or weird, and not try to convert them. And not all atheists are okay with that.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    Most of my friends believe in one kind of another of supernatural existence and that’s completely fine with me and my boyfriend. We take our foreign friends to visit churches because they are culturally important or to the Holy Week festivities even if we don’t believe and find them personally boring. But me and my religious friends for that matter, don’t find anything in church attendance so that’s why I had a bit of trouble understanding why being preached once a week is a great activity although I’ve since understood that’s where some people find community in the US . That doesn’t make me disavow religious people or cause me difficulty with my religious friends. Yesterday I had coffee with one close friend who is an evangelical (they are incredibly hard to find in Spain, he is the only one I know who’s not an USian) but you’d never know it because he doesn’t try to convert me the same way we never try to de-convert anyone else. The only thing that make me go “I’m an atheist” it’s when I read about the situation of atheists in other countries (including the US but not most places in Europe) and when I hear another one of the messed up things the Catholic Church Hierarchy has done (although the Catholics here criticise it much more harshly than whatever I might think). I suppose you are just talking generally but it’s a blanket statement and I think that saying that I personally find to go weekly to be preached to be boring (because I’ve had to go to Mass when I was with my grandmother) and a complete waste of time, doesn’t mean I’m saying all atheists have to think like me. I also find cars boring as heck and my boyfriend and my friend Cristina don’t get annoyed with me when I tune out on their car conversations. You stroke a nerve XP

  • http://mymusingcorner.wordpress.com Lana

    Unrelated to this post. Libby have you seen the Objectify Chicks blog? http://objectifygirls.blogspot.co.uk/ Someone actually referred me to it today and called me uneducated for not knowing the real damage of feminism (which dared me to write about it). Its a blog only worth looking it because as rude as the guy is, growing up, we believed almost exactly that, we just said it nicer. ;p

    • Dorfl

      Gack! Pthoo!

      Now I need a shower.

    • http://abasketcase.blogspot.com Amelia

      holy.shit.
      I just cant.
      Leave some hot water for me Dorfl!

    • Carys Birch

      Wow I can’t believe I looked at that.

    • PetraLorre

      That was gross. Also, I wonder why the sidebar featured scantily clad women? Couldn’t he decide on his blog’s content? “Porn or anti-feminism…porn or antifeminism…aww shucks, why choose?”

  • http://madphotog.blogspot.com gustovcarl

    Do they have good music?
    That’s the only reason I’d go to church. ;)

    • http://complicatedfeelingsabout.wordpress.com Katherine

      It really depends on the congregation. All UU churches are “self governed” which means that the direction of the church, including the hiring and firing of ministers (and music directors) is up to the congregation, according to its specific bylaws. Decisions are usually made either by popular vote or by a governing board of members (which has been elected by popular vote). So music programs can vary wildly. That said, most UUs seem to pride themselves on their music programs, it seem to be a theme that people who cannot (and/or don’t want to) agree on what they believe CAN agree that listening to/performing music together feels good.

    • http://Patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      At my local one, yes. Last week the choir sang Bohemian Rhapsody. It was AMAZING. Then they did a reprise and passed out the words. Loved it!

  • http://complicatedfeelingsabout.wordpress.com Katherine

    A few years ago, myself (theist) and my best friend (atheist) started attending a UU church together. At first I could not wrap my head around what she could possibly be getting out of it. Eventually I decided to ask her about it, and did such a bad job of it that the conversation ended with her saying “how dare you! I DO believe in something! I believe in the periodic table of the elements!”
    As we started to attend more, what I came to find out was that the church was really dominated by Atheists and capital H Humanists. It made for a much different church atmosphere than I was expecting, folks who DID believe in some kind of god would really only bring it up in one-on-one conversations, sometimes in hushed tones. I appreciated that though, as it felt like it was really turning the religious discourse on its head. Our congregation also skewed older, and I never really got tired of nice looking, little old ladies, ranting about social justice and sheepishly admitting “well I guess I still believe in Jesus in a kind of way”

  • Craig McGillivary

    In my experience it is ok for atheists at UU congregations to explain to theists why they are wrong. Its a little rebellious, but if you are nice about it you can get away with it.

  • conrad

    i would call myself a religious humanist without any belief in any god. the uu societies have it right about religion. they use principles not dogma to guide the conversation that is available.obviously i am a big fan of the uu movement and wish that those who are turned off by conventional religion would realize that we have an intellectual bite that is quite satisfying if you can think and question.

  • Watry

    As long as “progressive social values” includes real social justice* and not rejecting science out of hand, the problems I have with religion are pretty much gone, and I suspect that’s how a large amount of that 46% feel as well. I’ve considered attending the UU church closest to me a few times, but I can’t justify an hour’s drive when I could be doing homework.

    *Real social justice in this case meaning actually trying to eliminate discriminatory religious teachings and such from services, instead of the sort of “women need to be protected”=feminism thing we sometimes see.

  • Sam

    Although I have some experience with Unitarian Universalist congregation, I don’t really buy into the whole “spirituality” endemic. I believe in psychological needs, but as far as searching for a spiritual path, eh, I’ll just join a book club.

    • Isaac

      I half-agree with you here, but you’re missing something important. Being dismissive about what people choose to call “spirituality” or whatever the new buzzword happens to be this week is a dangerous game that doesn’t help us at all in the long run.

      I’m an atheist and I have no belief in anything supernatural nor in any of the new-agey philosophy which has called itself “spiritual”. But I do recognize the psychological need for something that people tend to call “spiritual”*, and it doesn’t come from a book club.

      What most people call “spiritual”, and assume comes from some special and supernatural place, is actually fairly natural and explainable. But it is distinct from most psychological needs and most normal pleasures, and it’s understandable, at least to me, why someone would attribute such wonderful feelings to something outside of nature (especially if they lack scientific knowledge).

      Christopher Hitchens described it as the “transcendent”, and while I can’t remember his concise description of the subject, it refers to something akin to an intense sense of peace, joy/ecstasy, love, and so forth that exceeds normal limits and certainly feels special when you experience it. These feelings are by their nature highly variable and come from varying sources, although common origins include love, community, landscape, music, a sense of purpose, aesthetic beauty, psychological “flow” states, etc, and many combinations of them all. You could call it the highest form of hedonism- nearly everyone wants these feelings in some way, because they’re the best experiences we as mere animals can have.

      Once again, this is just a state of being which is perfectly explainable by evolutionary biology and neurology, even if we haven’t zeroed in on all the details. But the way to make people understand the natural origins and existence of these feelings is decidedly not by mocking them, or otherwise being oronic, witty or dismissive about them. These kinds of feelings define people’s lives, and it’s much better to show them a non-supernatural explanation than it is to just ignore their existence.

      *I’m not referring to actual religious experiences, as in seeing the virgin Mary, etc, but rather to a generalized form of the intensely peaceful, pleasurable and distinctive experiences which most people attribute to a God or supernatural force rather than merely as part of being human.

      • Sam

        Sorry I didn’t mean to sound so dismissive! I meant “book club” as in literature (as in NOT 50 Shades of Grey). For example, my “spiritual” (again, I call it “psychological”, although as you point out, many people would call it spiritual) activity right now is reading and reflecting on poetry in a journal. I enjoy the connectedness this gives me with the human experience. This would be magnified if I got together with a group of friends to discuss said poetry.

        I like the idea of “transcendence,” and as a musician i appreciate the transcendence that comes from experiencing all forms of art, as well as the natural world.

        I call such experiences “psychological” because of the psychological need to connect with other human beings. I experience these moments of transcendence as a feeling of intense connection with my fellow men and women and the entire human experience. This is magnified in a group setting so I like to attend cultural events with friends (concerts, opera, plays, etc. because the emotional effect is much greater).

    • Isaac

      Exactly, that was what I was referring to. Psychological needs are typically restrictively defined in scientific literature (which I read sometimes) so I shouldn’t have questioned you for that quibble.

      Sorry I jumped on you there, Sam. I tend to be a little sensitive about this topic since my upbringing pretty much denied athiests these experiences, and they’re of particular importance to me.

      Also, it is interesting how these experiences manifest themselves too- I have what you’d call a sense or visual based mind, something like a mild version of Temple Grandin’s experience, and as a consequence I learned language later in life than most people. I became good at it quickly but I still tend to think in non-linguistic terms- ie pictures, music, touch, etc.

      The point of this boring lead-up being that I share your sense of transcendence when I experience visual or musical art, nature, and many elements of human and animal life, but I don’t really feel it through literature. I enjoy reading and have read a good amount of classics and modern fiction, but I never really have the ability to understand literature as an art in the same visceral way as music, visual arts, etc.

      An interesting question that’s tied to this discussion is to what extent our upbringing, our innate psychological differences, and other factors affect our desire for a kind of “group spirituality”; which seems to be the point of UU.

      • Sam

        Thanks for the response! I totally get that certain media are more evokative for some people than others! I’m kind of the opposite of you…Languages have always come easy to me both my native (English) and others. I started reading at a young age and I have very emotional reactions to literature (I cried for days after reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye). This was a time in my life when my home situation was difficult, so books became my escape. It is interesting how the factors you mentioned really do affect an individuals need for group spirituality.

        And no need to apologize for critiquing me! Although language comprehension comes easy to me, I am notorious for failing to express myself coherently, which leads to lots of misunderstandings!

      • Sam

        *evocative! Silly me, I started to write “evoke” and then changed my mind!

  • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

    My agnostic parents joined a UU “fellowship” (that’s what they called themselves) in retirement, and we went a few times when we happened to be in town. It was immensely helpful, a few years later when their health began to fail, to know there were people in that congregation looking out for them.

    For myself, I’d be one of those obnoxious atheists who couldn’t get along with the liberal Christians and vague theists and Pagans and what-have-you. The reason is that I have a strong personal priority — a passion, even — to know how the universe really works, which is to be determined via the rigorous sifting of evidence through the mesh of critical thinking. I’m more than happy to work on specific issues — social justice, environmental, etc, etc — with people who have different opinions re “spiritual” questions, or different driving priorities, but I don’t want to form intentional communities with them. A religious community to me has the sense of a bunch of people all progressing, and helping each other along, towards a common destination, and I just can’t see that as true of me + many UUs. We aren’t going the same way.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Well, um, you’re definitely right about one thing. You ARE one of those obnoxious atheists who couldn’t get along with the liberal Christians, the vague theists, the Pagans and what-have-you” (agnostics etc.) Because plenty of the people in that vast, vast expanse of philosophically diverse people you just dismissed out of hand also have a “passion to know how the universe really works” and are interested in “the rigorous sifting of evidence through the mesh of critical thinking” and if you were to presume otherwise based simply on the fact that they don’t share your exact flavor of non-belief or skepticism, most would probably rightly dismiss you as a tool.

      What a shame to write off so many potential allies in the quest for knowledge just because they don’t think exactly like you on everything…

      • Carys Birch

        There are also people who identify as nontheist Pagans. :)

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        ^ Hey now! Stop knocking down my neat little boxes!

      • Carys Birch

        http://humanisticpaganism.com/ I’m not 100% on board with everything this blogger writes, but I’ve found him *extremely* interesting.

        - (one of) your friendly neighborhood Pagans ;)

      • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

        (Argh, WordPress ate my first iteration of this long comment — “Posting too fast”, WTF?)

        I apologize for the harsh tone, but I think you’ve missed my point. Sure, everyone should seek knowledge anyway they can, and I’ll listen to anyone who has a good argument, or can educate me on some bit of science or philosophy. My question is: Is *church* as such the right place to pursue that? Because I’ve been there and done that and I don’t think it is.

        I was a Christian, of both conservative and liberal varieties, for many years, until the vacuity of any answer that depends on the term “God” became plain to me, and I’ve closed that door behind me, and anyone who wants me to even take the idea seriously again will have to provide me a good reason to do so. And if anyone uses the word “spirituality”, I’ll have to insist that they define it as precisely as they can before the conversation can proceed. And I’ve watched a “Diversity Panel” where everyone shared their faith tradition, but it would have been a grave faux pas to say “That’s nice, but you know, it’s not actually *true*” (granted, that wasn’t a UU event, but it seems to be SOP in the liberal religious milieu). Yes, I’m aware that UU congregations vary, but what I’ve seen of the local ones (and the statement of principles Libby Anne posted) doesn’t encourage me (which is in no way to be taken as criticism of UUs as people, or as advocates for social values that I enthusiastically share — there was a UU woman who showed up to our CFI protest at the Ugandan High Commission the other morning, and we’re glad to have her there).

        So for me, the liberal religious conversation tends to either bore and irritate me, or force me to open my mouth to demand some clarity, thereby becoming the skunk at the picnic. Which is what I seem to have done here. In short: both sides are probably better off if I’m just hanging in the pub with the hard-ass skeptics.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I think you’d find that many of the people you are talking about would not object to a request for clarity, if that request is framed in a way that genuinely expresses curiosity and interest in that person’s thoughts and ideas and not in a way that makes it seem like you’ve already decided that they’re a flake and are just waiting to pounce on the dumb things that are going to come out of their mouth. Which is why I used my own word “request,” and not your, “demand.”

        Speaking for myself, I enjoy a good serious philosophical discussion and am happy to explain to people what I think and believe, to the best of my ability (since I’m not sure about many things myself). What I don’t enjoy is being constantly put on the defensive and condescended to by someone who presumes to know my beliefs before I explain them (because they heard something somewhere about what Jews believe and we are, of course, a hive mind…) and clearly believes that, because I do not identify as a hardcore atheist, I lack their intellectual sophistication.

        Of course, I can’t guarantee satisfaction. The truth is, I don’t know exactly what the most appropriate label is for me re:belief vs. non-belief. I strongly identify as Jewish which is conveniently as much an ethnic and cultural label as it is a religious one. I do not follow most of the tenets of Jewish law and the ones I do follow, I follow for non-theistic reasons–because I personally find value in them (I observe Yom Kippur because the idea of spending a day in self-reflection on how to be a better person through deprivation of certain things makes sense to me and is a profound experience for me) or because they are ways for me to participate in a heritage I value (same is true of the holidays I observe). The question of “God” is adjacent to Jewish practice for me, as it is to many Jews. For what it’s worth, I think the entire concept of a “supernatural” does not make sense because if something occurs, it must by definition be part of nature. However, I do entertain the possibility of certain things that many would describe as “supernatural.” I just don’t think that, if these things exist, they some how exist outside of nature because, again that doesn’t make sense. There is some kind of underlying mechanism for everything, even if we don’t understand it, or are perhaps even cognitively incapable of understanding it as human beings. I guess that sets me apart from many hardcore atheists I know, who seem to believe that all things are potentially knowable by us. That view is just too anthropocentric for me. The universe is a big place and we’re just a speck.

        So where does that put me? What label do I assume (besides Jewish)? I don’t know, except that I do not feel like I can identify as an atheist (although I did for a time when I was younger). And that causes a lot of people to immediately write me off, which is quite silly and unfair.

        So, yes, I am happy to offer all the clarity that I can about what I believe, don’t believe, or might believe. In fact, I often appreciate when people ask. People tend to think they know a lot more about Jews and what they believe (which is a LOT of different things) than they actually do and so I am pleased when somebody actually tries out the radical act of ASKING a Jew what they believe (although they should understand that another Jew may well tell them something different). I suspect a lot of people who are neither hard-ass atheists or high-profile conservative Christians also feel this way. They would like an opportunity to actually be heard and listened to. It’s just they need to actually feel listened to, and not like they’re written off before they even open their mouths. Because then, what’s the point of talking?

        It’s all in your approach. Wanting to know how people who think differently from you see things does not have to make you a skunk at the picnic.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Oh, and btw, Patheos seems really buggy and I also often get the “posting too fast” thing or other problems. At this point, I’ve just started copying every comment before I click post so, if it gets eaten, I can just paste it and try again. My suggestion. :-P

      • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

        @Petticoat: Fair enough. Only that there is a difference between having a discussion with someone — even just to find out what they think, without making it a point of contention (srlsy, I’m not an tool *all* the time, only most of it ;-)) — and being part of a community (which my church experience makes me see it as) that in theory has a common purpose (and I don’t just mean the social-action stuff). I mean: on Sunday morning you’ve got to sing some songs and say some words that are supposed to embrace what you’re collectively all about, and I’m pretty sure some of that is *not* gonna be what I’m about. Sometimes, respecting differences requires keeping a little distance.

  • http://kindminusgoodleft.blogspot.com// Janice

    I’ve been to a variety of congregations up and down the east coast and it does vary tremendously. The UU in Towson MD had an incredible music program, classical in nature. Some other churches have ethnic inspired music…. it does depend on the talents of the congregation and who is willing to offer what. Libby-Anne, I do agree with your post. Part of my youth group were established Atheists…..and you rarely find that in a ‘church based’ young peoples’ community. In bigger groups there are often Pagan oriented side excursions or many other varieties of interests. I’ve seen bible reading groups, Hebrew lessons and sweat lodge gatherings. I encourage all of your readers who wish for a religious/humanist community to not make assumptions about any UU church and give one or two a try, or add/change aspects about there own church or start your own. There is room for that in UU which is what I love about it.

  • smrnda

    Thought the UUs do espouse some nice values, I’ve never been moved to even visit a UU church even though I’ve been an unbeliever for a long time. I’m committed to social justice, fairness and equality, but I’ve found lots of other organizations that push for the same things, and what I like about those organizations is that they’re exclusively results-oriented rather than community. If I was really hard up for community membership, my feelings might be a bit different.

    Another issue for me is that I find the whole spirituality thing a bit silly. I recall occasionally doing religious ceremonies when I was young and I realized that they didn’t affect me as much as great art or great cinema.

  • Gary

    My wife attended a UU church for awhile. We also have a neighbor that is very active in it. I attended sometimes. So a few misc comments from my observations:
    Music – good.
    Acceptance….great. I have never seen anyplace else introduce/accept new members with such open arms (I’m am thinking specifically LGBT….especialy “T”. Not going to happen in any “Christian” church I have seen.
    “Free Thinkers Group”, rather wild group, discussing everything, were atheists abound.
    Social causes paramount. Anti-war, and vegans and vegetarians have a comfortable home.
    Wicans….I was put off on this at first. They are accepted with open arms. But after hearing them, they seem to predominate with nature, not witches, which I had a pre-conceived notion of. So OK.
    Summary…with such diversity, I think the UU church is a catch-all for all the people that would not feel “comfortable” anywhere else. Some Christian churches say they are open to diversity, but there is still an underlying non-acceptance of this level of diversity. Personally, I think many UU’s go to their church for the social aspect of church, because they would feel uncomfortable in any other church. I’d say from your title:
    “Unitarian Universalism and Diversity of Belief”
    is more like:
    “Unitarian Universalism and Belief in Diversity”
    All the UU’s really believe diversity is OK, even with atheists.

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    For what it’s worth

    • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

      Sorry. Please ignore the incomplete comment above.

      • http://www.nature.com Agnikan

        That’s the most astute comment on this thread, and you want us to ignore it.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    This is interesting- I previously didn’t know anything about UU’s. Thanks for posting. :)

  • Emma

    My aunt, uncle, and cousins started attending a UU church several years ago despite being extremely secular, and they love it. Heck my uncle (a self-described atheist) was even interested in becoming a UU minister, noting that their seminaries have no problem accepting non-believing students.

  • Glia

    Would anyone who has attended a UU church be willing to describe what a service is like? I’m an atheist who left an evangelical background, and I’m having a hard time picturing what a service that isn’t based around a shared sacred text might look like. Apparently I have very little imagination regarding such things. :)

    • http://omorka.blogspot.com/ Omorka

      The church I attended’s typical order of service was:

      – Music from either the organist or the choir, depending on whether it was an even or odd week
      – Opening Hymn (from the UU Hymnal; usually about justice, sometimes seasonal)
      – The lighting of the chalice (the UUs use a chalice with a flame as their symbol instead of a cross)
      – A short welcoming speech from one of the ministers, and any announcements
      – A story for the children, usually from world mythology, before they went off to their RE classes (UU Sunday School)
      – The congregation singing the children on their way (same song every time) and then greeting each other and any new people in the pews
      – A reading from, well, pretty much anything the ministers found inspiring that week
      – A sermon, usually on the same topic as the reading but sometimes only loosely connected
      – More music from the organist or choir; occasionally a post-sermon hymn, but that was unusual
      – A moment of silence, during which those who meditated or prayed were invited to do so silently
      – Thanks from the minister to those who helped out with the service, including the musicians, and any other announcements that needed to be made
      – Putting out the chalice flame
      – A closing hymn

      So, pretty much like any mainline Protestant church, except with a chalice lighting and extinguishing added, no prayers, and sources other than the Bible for the children’s and main readings.

  • http://omorka.blogspot.com/ Omorka

    I attended a UU church for a period of about four years. The first two years were pretty good, and I made some wonderful connections with other progressives, most of whom would have identified as either agnostic, nontheistic Buddhist, or “seekers.” Unfortunately, the Humanist majority in the congregation was deeply unhappy with our ministerial team – the recently-promoted senior minister was making a big effort to make the services child-friendly and family-friendly, and they felt that this was “watering down” the sermons. The previous senior minister had been an older white male, and another nontheistic Buddhist. The newer senior minister, previously the junior minister, was a younger white woman with two small children of her own, and while she never explicitly claimed to be a theist, she exhibited a strong interest in mythology of all cultures. The new junior minister was male, Hispanic, and an enthusiastic agnostic with a preaching style vaguely reminiscent of a traditional black church minister, which was an interesting mix but seemed to put off some of the older members.

    The end result was that the Humanist contingent attempted a coup at a congregational meeting, and both ministers eventually chose to leave rather than have their presence be divisive within the congregation. I left at the same time; if they couldn’t be genuinely tolerant of a maybe-just-a-little-bit-polytheist-in-a-Jungian-sort-of-way and an agnostic, what chance did a Pagan like me have? I really miss the church music and the experience of singing with a large group, but I’m realizing that holding on to those old experiences is maybe not so good for me, anyway.

    I’m glad your UU church is more willing to be tolerant of its non-atheists. For everyone’s sake, I hope it stays that way.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      This really is a problem all churches seem to have, this issue of splitting or different directions and such, but it’s not just churches that have it. It happens any time you get a large group of people together. Heck, the group doesn’t even have to be THAT large. I say this because I have personally experienced it in groups that are not religious, but come together for other reasons. And I HATE that it happens. I just don’t know how to fix it.

      I went to an orientation class thing at our local UU church, and during introductions one woman said she believes in Jesus, and was being all apologetic about it. The two individuals facilitating the discussion stopped her, and told her that she doesn’t have to feel like she has to apologize. They said this isn’t the sort of church where everyone has to believe in one creed or even in God, but it’s not a place where those who DO believe in a God, or gods, should feel apologetic either. Anyway, this anecdote seemed to fit here, somehow.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot.com JW

    I don’t know a great deal about the UU but when it comes to God they ascribe to the fallacy at all roads somehow lead to God? That isn’t necesarily the case and so they use the social aspect to unit people. While it makes for a great meeting place when it comes to spiritual matters it is really a lost cause. It is just as if one were to compare religious beliefs most of them have the same concept and way of salvation which becomes a works based thing. Christianity doesn’t ascribe to that althought some in the church want to say otherwise.

    I wonder how well Oprah Winfrey would fit in with the UU. She seems more as a New Age guru though.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      It is just as if one were to compare religious beliefs most of them have the same concept and way of salvation which becomes a works based thing. Christianity doesn’t ascribe to that althought some in the church want to say otherwise.

      Actually, the Catholic Church has traditionally held that works are necessary, and Christianity itself has never held one unified position on how salvation is to be obtained (besides, of course, that it is ultimately and in some sense through Christ).

      I mean, there’s this verse, for instance:

      James 2:24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

      My point is simply that, theologically and historically, it’s not as clear cut as you might think.

      As for what you say about all roads leading to God, yes, many UUs would say something exactly like that. But you have to realize that UUs approach salvation completely differently than you do. For instance, I would guess that it’s a rare UU who actually believes in hell. Even theistic UUs are humanist in their outlook, meaning that they focus more on self actualization and improving the world than on sin or fear of judgment. I think, though, that it can be hard to understand UUs when coming from a conservative Christian perspective, given that UUs don’t fit into a simple box or black and white binary view.

    • smrnda

      Most religious belief systems seem to view actions as relevant to salvation (or whatever term they might use) and it is true that some schools of Christianity are the oddballs with the idea that it’s faith alone. However, you’re probably familiar with the term ‘anti-nomialist’ which was used to denounce the ‘faith only’ school of thought, since it basically means that you can do whatever and provided you make the correct profession of faith, you’re all good with god in the end. It is true that it’s the outlier, but I see no reason for that to make me think it’s true rather than false. I’ve always seen the ‘faith only approach’ as a way of justifying moral laziness, or disparaging people who actually work really hard at being good who just don’t happen to believe the same things. There’s support in the Bible (parable of sheep and goats in Matthew) that indicates that works do count. The Bible isn’t totally consistent on that one any more than the church.

      I do agree though that many religions, unless interpreted in an extremely liberal fashion are making mutually exclusive claims. You can unite around what you hold in common, but how well that happens probably depends on people’s priorities for what is important.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        I do agree though that many religions, unless interpreted in an extremely liberal fashion are making mutually exclusive claims. You can unite around what you hold in common, but how well that happens probably depends on people’s priorities for what is important.

        And that is why UU theists are religious liberals. Conservative interpretations of religion (i.e. Christianity, Islam, etc.) are definitely mutually exclusive, i.e., they can’t all be true at the same time.

      • Sara

        UU sounds a lot like Finland’s state church. A lot people apologising for believing in a god, many atheists, “let’s just agree to disagree” attitude, not that religious, even the humanist values. Also our state church nowadays is very bland and colourless, very diluted, I guess. They try to please everyone so much that they end up pissing off everybody. They simply try to embrace as many (read: too many) people as they can and in result have become unwilling to commit to any position whatsoever, whether it be gay rights in general or tenets of faith. Does UU face similar problems?

        Honestly, UU sounds like my version of hell. Inspiring sermons part especially gives me shivers and makes me want to run as fast as I can. I can already see myself cringing at “the spark of the sacred” phrases and stiffling yawns while others sing hymns. Going to church every week is so unfamiliar in itself. Not for me, UU, I think. :)

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Huh? I don’t know jack about the Church of Finland but the way you’re describing certainly does not make it sound like UU. I am not UU (I am some weird kind of Jew) but, for all the problems UU may have, a lack of willingness to commit to any position, in my observation. UU is, in fact, VERY committed to gay rights. The local UU congregation where I grew up was always out in full force in for pride parades and LGBT activism and this seems to be true of UU churches in general. Being open and inclusive does not mean being unwilling to take a stand on anything. Being open and inclusive IS taking a stand.

    • M

      I come from a Jewish background, and we don’t have salvation *at all*. It’s … just not a Jewish concept. Salvation as such is a very Christian dogma/tenet/thing (sorry, I’m not quite sure what the proper term would be). So while I have no experience with UU and thus can’t really comment on anything about them, I can say that you might want to take a look at the religious tenets of non-Christian faiths before ascribing anything to them.

      I’m pretty sure I’m not interested in going to a UU church. It sounds too church-y, and I’m just very uncomfortable with that in general. It probably comes from being preached at by my schoolmates trying to convert me (I grew up in Round Rock, Texas, which is a suburb of Austin. If people know about the white-flight phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s, Round Rock is where a lot of the conservative Whites fled to), and the automatic cringing says some bad things about me and my inability to get past the auto-defensiveness, but there it is.

  • Watry

    I’ve been thinking about this all day, so I might as well ask. A UU congregation could be a wonderful comparison population for an ethnomusicological study I’m doing next semester. I realize these things vary based on particular church, but are these messages largely Christian-based?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      According to the denomination’s website,:

      Unitarian Universalism (UU) draws from many sources:

      * Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
      * Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
      * Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
      * Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
      * Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
      * Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

      The tradition has Christian roots – 200 years ago, while still religiously heterodox for its time, it was a Christian denomination. So when it comes to music, many of the songs are Christian hymns. Except. I’ve been meaning to blog about this, but last Sunday we sang Joy to the World, and you know what? The hymnal had a strategic word changed here or there such that the song was no longer explicitly religious. I was floored. It was really truly almost the same, except a few words.

      I don’t know if all of that answers your questions or not.

      • Watry

        I’m not entirely sure whether it does or not, but thanks for trying! I’ll likely pay a visit to the one closest to me over the break, if that doesn’t turn out, maybe another. It’d definitely make my family happy to hear I was going to church!

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I personally think it is fair to say that UU is “Christian-based” in the sense that, as an American movement, the Christian tradition is the one it culturally defaults to. If there is anything that bugs me about UU (and there are many things I admire), it is the unwillingness of some UUs to acknowledge this, which shows a certain degree of ironic unexamined privilege and ignorance of other traditions and cultures. In structure, and in many other things, UU owes much more to Protestant Christianity than it does to any other religious tradition. This is not to necessarily say that UU is a Christian Church (it’s clearly not) but it is undoubtedly an off-shoot of Christianity. And that’s fine. I don’t see that as compromising its mission of inclusiveness and pluralism. It’s just something that people should understand.

  • Gwynnyd

    Libby says -”There are a lot of atheists who are content to respect others’ beliefs and journeys and be united by shared progressive social values like equality and social justice with individuals with a variety of approaches to religion.”

    Blink! Are you really saying that all atheists who “respect other’s beliefs and journeys” are already UU or really, really ought to be? Sheesh. Have you no respect for my beliefs and journey that does not include wanting to join there even though I also believe in respecting others’ beliefs and journeys and progressive social values like equality and social justice? Is the way I can show you that I am not one of those obnoxious atheist to join your, and only your, preferred organization? Really? I realize you probably didn’t mean it that way, but it sure reads like it to me. I see that you are very happy to have found the church-ish social atmosphere, which you so obviously missed, in a setting where you can also be a non-believer. I really am very happy for you and UU is a good place with good people, but please, other good people do make other journeys and other choices.

  • Linda

    I have been an active member of a UU church in Texas for many years. If you live in a ridiculously conservative state and community and are a liberal agnostic treehugger, a place like the UU is vital for sanity and joy. I started reading your blog a month ago, and felt the same kind of joy and acceptance I feel in my “beloved community.” We are often a refuge for those damaged by fundamentalism, evangelism, and those who have grown up bullied for being gay, or atheist, or who think global warming is real, and that somehow the Old Testament is not a satisfactory explanation for the Cosmos.
    Your blog, as I say, did the same thing for me. I should have figured out sooner that you are UU too :) I grew up in a church that, during my teen years, transformed into a ravening Fundamentalist monster about the time I was filled with teenage angst, anger, and doubt, so I have deep and abiding sympathy for people who have had to live their infancy and childhood in such scary, desolate places as you did.
    I, at least, was old enough to be able to rage against the Fundamentalism that took over my widowed mother and made home Hell at about the same time I started raging against our country for doing awful things to Vietnam. Raging is probably a lot more fun than growing up scared and guilty, but it gets hard to live with. I found UU about the time I was a young and bewildered adult with 2 little kids, and I found ways to communicate my rage and friends to help me laugh and cry and live through it.
    When my wonderful husband died, it was my church and my best friends there who got me through. A Unitarian Universalist memorial service for the dead is one of the best beginnings for the healing of the living that I know of. It is filled with tears, yes, but also laughter and love, and celebrates the life of the departed with deep love and caring. That’s one of many reasons I can only smile at those who regard my religion as foolish. Try it, you might like it. And if not, that’s OK too.

  • Mogg

    I can’t say the idea of UU church appeals to me. The best thing for me about leaving Christianity alltogether was the feeling of freedom from having to spend part or all of my Sunday at church and at least one evening a week with church people. The only thing I miss is singing in a choir, but there are community choirs I can participate in. I never felt at home in a church congregation, even though I was five years old when my mother first started taking me and spent over ten years of my adult life in a sectarian church which tried to be the entire social and community life of all of its members. I was expecting to be desperately lonely when I left, but a more liberal congregation didn’t work for me either – not for lack of effort and contribution on my part, I might add – and I have no desire to continue to look for a replacement. I can actually rest on Sundays now if I eant! Or catch up with friends in ways that suit me better. Or whatever.

    All that said, I’m very glad that there is something out there for those who miss or need a community like a church but without the dogma. I can imagine that for some it would be incredibly helpful and positive. I had a vague idea that the UU church was more, well, Christian than described in the post and comments.

  • http://ramblingsofsheldon.blogspot.com Sheldon

    I’ve wondered about the UU church, and whether atheist/agnostics are as welcome there as people say they are. Apparently from your experience, they are what they are advertised to be, which is a good thing.

    I wouldn’t personally have a problem being surrounded by people of different faiths, in fact I think I would enjoy it. I am agnostic, but my problem isn’t with religion itself, but fundamentalists.

    I’ve had very pleasant encounters both online and in person with people of different beliefs, especially liberal Christians and Wiccans. I’ve found that Wiccans/neo-pagans are some of the most open minded that I have ever encountered.

  • http://belljaimie@ymail.com Jaimie

    The UU sounds pretty interesting, and if I were to go to church, it would probably be my choice. At this time however, after a lifetime of rituals and sermons, I can’t bear the thought of going to ANY church. In this part of my journey, I’m just not a joiner.

  • Johnson

    I grew up in a UU-analogue church and had the opposite problem as someone with a Christian upbringing. It drove me up the wall that so many of the congregants didn’t believe in God. I wished they would go away and organize their protests somewhere else, because you go to church for worship, not just make self-righteous leftist commentaries.


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