The Unitarian Quandary: Is Religious Humanism Running the Humanist Religion?

By Haught, James A. | Free Inquiry, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Unitarian Quandary: Is Religious Humanism Running the Humanist Religion?


Haught, James A., Free Inquiry


The largest identifiable body of agnostics in America is within the Unitarian Universalist Church, a traditional stronghold of freethinking. A 1987 survey found that only 3 percent of "UUs" believed in the standard supernatural God of conventional religion. Two-thirds acknowledged a "life force" or "spirit of love"--but 28 percent called the word God "an irrelevant concept."

More recently, in a 1997 survey of the denomination's 220,000 members, about half of respondents described themselves as humanists--by far the largest category Doubt was strongest among older members. They're a remnant of a postwar heyday when multitudes of skeptical scientists and professors joined Unitarian Universalism as a sort of new Enlightenment. In those days, the denomination's Beacon Press printed hard-hitting critiques of religion, such as the works of Paul Blanshard. Some churches displayed slogans like "To Question Is the Answer," or a Peter Ustinov remark: "Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them."

Today, thousands of these UU secular humanists feel voiceless, because their organization rarely questions the invisible spirits and magical heavens of major religions. Unitarian Universalism has grown so diverse--embracing Wicca priestesses, liberal Christians, Buddhist meditators, New Age mystics, Postmodern symbolists, and more--that any official rationalist assertion would hurt someone's feelings. Questioning the supernatural is taboo. A polite silence prevails. Beacon Press now prints "uplift" books.

Worse, many ministers talk of God and Jesus in ways that boggle the agnostic majority The denomination's new president, once an avowed atheist, now chatters about God. He told a Massachusetts congregation: "The task of the Unitarian side of our faith is to find our own relationship to the divine, to God. The task of our Universalist side is to view that God as a loving God." After the September 11 religious horror, he reassured America: "There is a loving God who will hold out her hands to hold us ... and be there to catch us as we fall."

We skeptics in the pews are mystified by such theism. In the past, Unitarian Universalism took no stand on the existence or nonexistence of God. Now our national leader and numerous ministers are proclaiming the former, and we who lean toward the latter are left out in the cold.

At my UU fellowship in West Virginia, one minister (a once Southern Baptist who had lost his faith) declared that God is the heart of the church. This caused turmoil, eventually followed by additional complications producing his ouster and a bitter rift in the congregation.

"Spirituality" is today's UU buzzword, and it appeals to great numbers of new Unitarians. Wicca priestesses in my congregation talk of "the goddess" and "spirits of the north, south, east and west." Being literal-minded, I ask what they mean--but I never understand the answers. The "women's spirituality" group in my church deals tarot cards (but ignores my suggestion of Ouija boards).

In 1997, the New York Times Magazine printed a special issue on religious diversity in America. Their UU example was a woman minister who heard a magical voice speak to her while she whirled in a spiral dance led by "Starhawk," the witch. I was embarrassed to have my church represented by auditory hallucinations.

Doubters among Unitarians tend to gravitate to the church's adult discussion circles, where they ponder physics, philosophy psycho1ogy, social issues, and the like. Some of them don't attend the main "worship" services, which replicate hymn-singing Protestant rituals. Or if they attend, it's done partly like a family obligation, to avoid ruffling feathers among fellow members.

Many of the skeptics join the UU humanist affiliate, or a small group called UU Infidels. Other sparks of the old freethinking remain. Recently one of my minister friends spoke on "Why I Am an Agnostic" and "Why I Am an Existentialist. …

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