Unitarian growth and Pagan (dis)organization

Unitarian growth and Pagan (dis)organization October 7, 2012

Over at The Wild Hunt, Jason Pitzl-Waters has posted about the growth of the UU over the last 10 years, a growth of 15%.  This is notable in the face of the general decline of other liberal denominations.  When you factor in about 10% population growth, that’s still real, albeit modest, growth.  “Apuleius Platonicus” points out in the comments that, in spite of this recent growth, the UU still has not returned to the numbers it had at its height in 1967.  While the population has grown from about 200 million in 1967 to over 300 million today, UU membership has gone down from 280,000 in 1967 to 210,000 today.

Fritz Muntean gave a great thumbnail sketch of the history of Unitarianism in the US in the comments section:

“In the mid-19th century, being liberal Christians as well as fierce defenders of Enlightenment thinking, Unitarians declared reason to be the infallible test of belief. Faced (no surprise) with differing opinions about the reasonableness of particular elements of traditional doctrine, they responded by embracing individual freedom of belief and the acceptance of differing views. In 1894, Unitarianism issued its declaration against creed, and rational Christianity became no longer our unifying doctrine, but one options among many. From that time, and through the 1920s and 30s, Unitarianism flourished.

“A quarter century later, in 1966, the Unitarian Universalist Association undertook an analysis of its combined membership.

“At that time, 53 percent of the respondents identified themselves as humanists; 44 percent defined God as a ‘natural process within the universe, such as love or creative evolution;’ while 30 percent deemed a concept of God either ‘irrelevant’ or ‘harmful’. Only 3 percent professed belief in God as a ‘supernatural being’.

“That’s the good news. The bad news was that coincident with publication of this study, Unitarian membership in N[orth] America began a precipitous decline, falling from a high of 281,000 in 1967 to a low of 171,000 in 1982. Though the liberal Protestant denominations suffered severe membership losses over the same period (averaging 20 percent), Unitarians’ staggering 40 percent decrease appeared to threaten extinction.

“But — good news again — Unitarian membership subsequently bounced back, growing to 204,000 by 1993. It still continues to increase at a modest rate, during a period when liberal Protestant church populations in N[orth] America continue to decline.

“This recovery was due in large part to a growth strategy, adopted by UU leaders in the 1980s, targeting the ‘60s generation and their children, and opening Unitarianism to the countercultural values of this generation. These include ‘direct experience and intuition’ over ‘abstract reasoning’, awareness of the ‘true inner self’, and ‘the assumption that all life is united and all existence is one’. These values find expression in a wide range of New Religious Movements that share a mystical theology of spiritual interdependence and divine immanence.”

These are changes that made the UU a place where I felt comfortable with my own mix of humanistic paganism.

The comments then turned to the place of Paganism in the UU.  Some Pagans had felt shunned by humanist UUs, while others found the UU to be welcoming to Pagans.  It very much depends on the congregation.

Rory compared the UU and Pagan organizations in terms of organization:

“I am a member of UUA and affiliated with the local UU because I found pretty much every Pagan organization I’ve tried to be part of over the past 25+ years to be flaky beyond functionality. Although I consider myself Pagan first and foremost, I am simply tired of bullshit and want to ally myself with someone, pretty much anyone, who does not hate me and can keep it together long enough to buy a building and run a freaking Sunday school. How tough can this be, people? Too tough for Pagans, apparently, at least in my experience.

“UU denominations are structured enough to be worth paying for, and open enough to accept sane Pagans. Insane Pagans and flakes will show up a time or five, as they always do, but not be coddled. I encourage more Pagans to consider attending their local UU and perhaps helping to found or strengthen a CUUPS chapter. It is more like standard American religion than I ever wanted, but also more like a real, sustainable polity than anything I have personally seen in almost 30 years of Paganism. It’s actually kind of embarrassing.

I feel very much the same way.  You know your religion has organizational problems when you look up to the UU as an example.  Consider the joke John Stewart made on The Daily Show in 2004.  .  When responding to an open letter by the Bob Jones University president referring to “the agenda of paganism”, he said, “Dude, pagans don’t have an agenda. They’re pagans. Organizational skills, not their strong suit.”  The fact that Stewart thought the joke would connect with a mainstream audience says a lot.

Fritz Muntean tried to explain Paganism’s lack of organization by drawing a distinction between “civic religion” and “mystery religion”.  However, this shows his Wicca-centric bias.  The characterization of Paganism as a “mystery religion” cannot be said to be generally accurate.  However, I found the idea that a single religion should not be expected to fulfill both functions.  Fritz pointed out that in China “Everyone is, simultaneously, a Buddhist (for meditative practice), and Confucian (for societal order), and a Taoist (for magic and martial arts). [Now add Christianity (for weddings).”  (So perhaps my family’s Humanistic-Pagan-Unitarian-Mormon mishmash is not so strange after all.)

I’ve been tough on the UU lately in other posts, here and here and here, for its lack of spirituality.  And I’ve been tough on Paganism also, for its lack of organization here.  But maybe Fritz Muntean is on to something.  Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for both things in the same place.  Is it possible, or even desirable, to find exoteric and esoteric religion in the same place?

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