Why I’ve Been Talking about Unitarian Universalism

I want to be very clear about something. When I write about starting to attend my local Unitarian Universalist congregation, I am not saying that everyone ought to be a Unitarian Universalist. Far from it. This is my blog, and here on my blog I share my journey. That’s all this is. Your journey is yours. Some of you like to listen along and read what I have to say, but I’m not trying to lay out any prescription everyone needs to follow.

Unitarian Universalism is not for everybody. It’s funny that I have to state that, because it seems beyond obvious, but when we live in a country where nearly every religious group (or at least every one of the most vocal ones) has as its goal converting everyone else, I suppose it needs to be stated. Unitarian Universalism is not for those who are not comfortable forming a community with those who hold a variety of beliefs, and it’s not for those who don’t like the idea of a congregational community in the first place. I would never suggest anyone suggest a church or church-like congregation if they have no desire to do so. I grew up in a family with mandatory church attendance, a family where not wanting to go to church was seen as a sign of spiritual disease, and I am so over that.

And to be honest, I’m not even 100% sure Unitarian Universalism is for me. I’ve said before that I don’t see my life as a destination where I stop and stay forever. My life is a journey. All I know is that right now, where I am today, I’m enjoying this little experiment of attending the local UU congregation. I’m not a member at this point (I’ve only been attending since August) and I’m not sure whether or not I’ll stay long term, but for the moment, I like it.

It bears mentioning that every UU congregation is different, and that UUs have many of the normal problems that go along with any congregation, or, really, with any gathering of people together in a group. People have disagreements, there are schisms, there is interpersonal drama. UUs try to make these things less likely by embracing things like acceptance and listening, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect.

Now I don’t simply write about dabbling in Unitarian Universalism because it’s part of my journey. I also think Unitarian Universalism has something to offer atheists and secularists, both through its existence and through its example. There are a lot of interesting questions surrounding the role religious organizations play in people’s lives and whether and with what that role needs to be replaced when people leave religion behind. Some people have pointed to the ways that an array of civic institutions and personal connections can be marshaled to provide individuals with community, belonging, and meaning. On the other hand, some atheists are working to find ways to come together, whether it be in atheist groups that meet at the local pub or by proposing the formation of humanist gatherings.

Do we need to replace religion with something? Does religion fill some sort of universal human need? If so, can we possibly find a way to fill that need better than religion does in the present? I don’t have the answer to these questions, and to be honest, I think the answer will differ from person to person. My point is simply that these are questions worth asking, and questions that will come up more and more as the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation grows (it’s currently at 20%). And for that reason alone I think it’s worth looking at Unitarian Universalism, asking what it’s gotten right and what it’s gotten wrong and what we can learn from it.

So there you have it.

Unitarian Universalism and Diversity of Belief
My Local Atheist Group Didn’t Meet My Needs
Five Things I Love about My Local UU Church
The Lesbian Duplex 12: An Open Thread
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.

  • Gordon

    I don’t get it, but then I don’t have to. It’s not for me.

  • conrad

    The benefits of uu are subtle and personal growth to better understanding of humanity is what i like. I was turned off at a young age by christianity and would not go near a church if i could help it until i was introduced to uu with reluctance. the people are great and i have made some lifelong friends there. You can learn public speaking and how a democracy can work. I agree it is not for everyone but you need to attend at least for several months in order to get the full flavor of the group.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I don’t think anyone has a problem with you writing about UU churches. It’s not only that this is your blog period, it’s that if you are enjoying them, it’s natural you want to share the positive aspects they offer. The thing that rubbed me the wrong way personally was that your last post seemed to say that the main reason atheists don’t like it, it’s because they can’t stand being around people of different religion traditions which it’s pretty offensive to me. Granted there are atheists who won’t like that, but to imply that most/many atheists are like that sounds false and a bit bad.

    The US may be different but in my country between religious people my generation they don’t like to go be preached at church either and prefer other types of socialization and communities be it going hiking on weekends or meeting all Fridays to have dinner together in a bocata place. In fact, apart form the more obvious and important reasons that they might not agree with the ideological and theological teachings of the church (esp. wrt marriage equality, …) they might be abandoning organised church because they are finding other ways to connect through the internet or other means.

    Well, I’m bad with words and a bag of nerves so I don’t know if I get my points across but I wanted to say this because the other post really made me think why I was reading this blog if I was going to feel indirectly badmouthed (not that a lurker like me would be missed XP) and this post at least has made me feel a bit better because you have at least not restricted the reasons atheists don’t like UU churches to “you are jerks who don’t like to tolerate being with people of other beliefs” although I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean it that way, it read that way a bit.

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

      Oh Paula, so sorry for the misunderstanding, that was not my intent at all! I mean, I recently wrote a post called “What Is Church?” talking about exactly what you describe! My intent was not to say that THE reason all atheists weren’t UU was because they don’t fell comfortable affirming the spiritual journeys of those who are religious, but rather to say that that was a reason I hadn’t realized before. This is why I started the bulk of that last post like this:

      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.”

      My intent was to say that I know there are plenty of reasons that people don’t go to UU churches, and this was one I hadn’t thought on and wanted to flesh out. Rereading that bit, I see that I did not do a very good job of communicating that. I should have been more clear, I am sorry.

      Also, I didn’t say it was about not wanting to be AROUND religious people, but rather that being a UU requires you to respect religious people’s different spiritual journeys, and I know plenty of atheists who are not comfortable doing that. And I never called these individuals “jerks,” either.

      Anyway, sorry for the misunderstanding!

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you actually said we were jerks and thanks for taking the time to clarify it with one more post although PP and srmrnda are right that given your normal stances on things, you were obviously not going to imply what I felt it implied (and I kinda said that in my comment).

        I’m not even an USian and only know about it by what I read online but I had the impression that most atheists were okay with working in interfaith projects if they weren’t proselytizing? Perhaps I’m too much in the SJ space of the atheist online community XP In the Secular Women members’ private page, one of the most popular people is a South American Christian man and he is well liked and nobody has a problem with him being either male or religious but it’s true that not all atheists are progressive (we have conservative libertarians!), tolerant or good people of course. And there’s also the people who’ve really been burnt off by religion who can’t see a cross without wanting to run away, puke or try to destroy it to consider. I’m rambling again, sorry.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Many atheists ARE “like that.” Many atheists are also not “like that.” Some, but not all, members of the latter group might enjoy being part of a UU congregation. On the other hand, likely no members of the former group will and some of them will express objections that reveal where they stand. That’s all I got out of her earlier post. I don’t know how anyone got anything else, honestly.

      • Sara

        Petticoat Philosopher,

        Then please read the posts of those who did get something else out of the last post. Do not speculate why we don’t agree with you, find out instead. Paula G wrote well what I was thinking, too. It did feel like Libby’s last post sort of implied that we don’t like the UU because we can’t stand religious people. The structure “Not all [insert group] are like that BUT…” is problematic like that. Her new post clarifies a lot, so thanks.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I DID read those posts . Still thinking that they jumped to some major, unfounded conclusions. That’s just my interpretation, which is no more or less valid than yours.

  • DerekConstaga

    In other words, you want to be a universalist because it “feels good”…

    • Noelle

      I’d reread the original post before arriving at that conclusion, because that’s not the impression I got.

      While UU is not for me either, I am interested in hearing Libby Anne’s take on it. I’ve never heard much about UU-er’s before, and who doesn’t like learning something new?

      Sleeping in on Sunday and having time to myself is a precious luxury to me. I am not willing to give it up. But I don’t begrudge those who would do otherwise. I do find the community aspect, especially for families with young children, quite intriguing. It’s very hard to find non-religious stuff like that where I live.

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

    Do Athiest’s really cringe at the idea of spirituality because it can’t necessarily be touched? I think each person has that void in their soul that they seek to fill with ‘something’ whether it is some hobby that consumes their time, socializing with others, doing ‘good’ deeds, etc. Religion is a symptom of that and when a person is sick a symptom is just the outer part of the root cause. Everybody has their own journey in finding what that void is and how to fill it. I believe that void is the God Vacuum because the void cannot be satisfied with anything done by human hands or human socialization. It has to go deeper and that deeper is something spiritual to which science really cannot touch. Cannot be examined in a lab and yet it is there.

    • Kevin Alexander

      It’s not the emotion of spirituality that we cringe at, we all have it and most of us deeply enjoy and try to cultivate it. It’s the idea that this emotion has an actual external source that we find unnecessary and I think that you are short changing yourself by not acknowledging something beautiful that your mind has created.

    • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

      As one of the curmudgeonly variety of atheist, I cringe at the term “spirituality” because in actual use in the more liberal circles it seems to be only vaguely defined — and a conversation in which one of the key terms is left undefined is, quite simply, a conversation about nothing. (As it happens, I did eventually come up with a definition of the word that I think encompasses its use in most contexts, though I still don’t find the word itself particularly apropos w.r.t. myself).

      And I must also register my disagreement that we each have a Pascalian “God Vacuum” that is “untouchable by science”. We have psychological needs, which may or may not be filled by social relations, or a vocation or hobby, or by involving oneself in a worthy cause, or by seeking and attaining knowledge, or whatever. But wrapping it in God-talk, I maintain, obfuscates rather than explicates our understanding of it. And I speak as an ex-Christian who spent many years trying to do exactly that.

    • Rosie

      JW, it seems to me that many atheists cringe at the idea of spirituality or religion because we have suffered harm at the hands of particular religious teachings. Some people take that to mean that all religions and all religious teachings are always harmful to everyone. I happen to disagree there, but I can see why people would come to that conclusion.

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

        I understand what you are saying. There was a point in my life in which I nearly became an Atheist as well as a result of disillusionment.

    • Mogg

      I’d say I cringe at the term “spirituality” because it is used to cover a wide collection of fuzzy thinking and claptrap. Certainly, we all have needs. I’d strongly dispute that those needs are anything so amorphous as a “god-shaped void”, and I’d suggest that in fact science is making inroads into describing them quite well.

  • Kevin Alexander

    I read Antonio Damasio’s latest book ‘Self Comes to Mind’ where he has an interesting idea. He makes a distinction between the words emotion and feeling. He uses the word emotion to describe the inherited neurochemical actions of our brain. Different mixes of hormones are released in different situations. A stimulus, either external or internal triggers the release of hormones like self generated mind altering drugs.
    What he calls feelings are what the brain does, what thoughts it has under the influence of those drugs.

    Everyone wants the pleasant peaceful emotion. We want to avoid pain and bathe in joy. Most people feel that it comes from god. Some feel that it comes from playing with kittens. Some have no feelings in the Damasio sense, they just have the emotion. I’m thinking of certain Buddhists or of Karen Armstrong apophatic types.

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