By James A. Haught
America’s largest assemblage of agnostic-atheist-skeptic-freethinker-godless-doubter-disbelievers may be within the Unitarian Universalist Association.
UU is a tiny fringe with only 150,000 adult members, but they stand tall in science and intellectual circles. As a guess, I estimate that perhaps 140,000 of them doubt invisible gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons and other magical entities alleged by standard churches.
In one member poll, almost a third of UUs called the word God “an irrelevant concept.” In a 1997 survey, members were asked to state “your theological perspective.” By far the largest segment (46 percent) chose “humanist.” All others trailed in the dust: “earth/nature-centered,” 19 percent; “theist,” 13 percent; “Christian,” 9.5 percent; “mystic,” 6.2 percent; “Buddhist,” 3.6 percent; “Jewish,” 1.3 percent; “Hindu,” 0.4 percent; “Muslim,” 0.1 percent; “other,” 13.3 percent.
The humanist cohort of doubters evidently was drawn to UU because of its historic tradition as a sanctuary for thinkers who cannot swallow supernaturalism – a heritage encompassing many of the best minds throughout history. In the past, Unitarians led efforts to create humanist organizations and write humanist manifestos.
Today, UU skeptics like me sometimes feel frustrated because our organization seems hesitant to fully acknowledge its disbelievers. It dances around timidly, mostly avoiding “the elephant in the room.”
When I joined in the 1950s, UU consisted chiefly of scientists, professors and social workers holding philosophical discussions. During my long tenure, the denomination turned more “churchy.” Discussion circles gave way to “worship services” (although I don’t know what we’re worshiping). Some leaders began invoking God – while agnostic members who attempted to question the trend were ignored.
For example, former UU President John Buehrens lauded “a God… who is hurt or given joy by what we do or leave undone.” Then President William Sinkford said “there is a loving God who will hold out her hands to hold us… and be there to catch us as we fall.” Sinkford sought more “language of reverence” in the UUA.
I wrote skeptic magazine pieces against the UU god talk. I proposed that the denomination adopt a declaration saying: “The Unitarian Universalist Association takes no position on the existence, or nonexistence, of God. All members are free to reach their own conclusions about this profound question.” That’s simply a truthful statement about the reality that exists. But nobody seconded the motion. Dr. Sinkford came to my town of Charleston, West Virginia, and he and I staged an awkward 2003 debate, to little avail.
Since then, god-talk seems to have diminished in UU ranks. But it’s still rare for any official Unitarian voice to say bluntly that gods are imaginary. Mostly, there’s only cautious avoidance.
America’s established atheist organizations don’t hesitate to make strong declarations. Their boldness makes UU seem timid and evasive.
The UUA has a humanist sub-group and e-mail chat line for doubters. Some denominational statements say atheists and agnostics are welcome as members. But they apparently aren’t welcome to write skeptic treatises in UU World magazine.
Once I sent the journal an essay spelling out that logic proves clearly that an all-powerful, all-loving, Father-Creator god cannot exist. In philosophy, this proof is called “the problem of evil” – first formulated 2,300 years ago by Epicurus in Ancient Greece. It goes like this:
Suppose a child is dying of leukemia. The anguished parents and relatives pray fervently for a cure. As often occurs, the child dies anyway. If a deity could have answered the prayers, but coldly did nothing, He is heartless. But if the deity cannot save the child, He isn’t omnipotent.
Worse, only a fiend would devise leukemia in the first place, while creating everything in the universe. Ditto for the creation of breast cancer, AIDS, pneumonia, leprosy, smallpox, cholera, ravaging parasites and other diseases that drag people to painful death.
Similarly, why does the supposed God allow twisters, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods and the like to kill multitudes? Only a monster would invent hideous disasters while concocting the world – and do nothing to prevent them – and refuse to save their perishing victims.
At a different level of cruelty, only a fiend would create foxes to rip rabbits apart, and sharks to kill porpoises, and cobras to swallow mice, and spiders to trap flies, and hawks to pierce squirrels, and pythons to crush pigs, and cheetahs to disembowel antelopes, and alligators to swallow ducks, etc. Much of nature – supposedly the handiwork of God – is a system of slaughter “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson said.
No human would be cruel enough to invent such heinous things. Yet billions of people pray to the supposed Creator of the universe as an all-merciful, all-powerful Father. It’s irrational.
Obviously, logic leads to an inescapable conclusion that such a Creator cannot exist. Reason doesn’t rule out a vicious, hateful God, but it precludes a kindly one.
Well, UU World wouldn’t print my diatribe. An editor told me that educated people today no longer think of God as a supernatural Father-Creator. My reaction was: Baloney – every standard church proclaims God in exactly that manner. A rare few theologians call the deity “the ground of our being” or the “essence of life,” but they’re just playing evasive word-games.
UU congregations contain many of the most intelligent, educated, affluent, scientific-minded Americans. UU children outscore youths of all other religious groups in SAT tests, according to a 2002 report in the Wall Street Journal. Thus, a significant portion of UUs can see that supernatural spirits are imaginary, arising from human psychology.
UU is full of doubters. Why isn’t the denomination honest enough to say so? Ancient Greek thinkers taught: Know thyself. Our movement should bravely acknowledge its strongest current.
(Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. This article previously appeared in Freethought Today,, June-July 2004, and has been revised for publication on Daylight Atheism.)