06 July 2007

I really don't understand the aversion to polyamory in Unitarian Universalist circles

I'm really puzzled by some of my coreligionists.

Recently on the Unitarian Universalist Minister Rev. Tom Schade's blog (The Lively Tradition), there has been some discussion on the lack of transparency surrounding the recent decision by the Unitarian Universalist Association's Board to reduce the number of Unitarian Universalist Independent Affiliates.

There's a lot of excellent commentary on the lack of openness and transparency -- you can read the most of this blog discussions using the following links:
I'm not blogging about the lack of transparency ... my concern is the aversion to polyamory that I'm witnessing.

Part of this discussion has been speculation on the potential role of polyamory and Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness in the recent decision to reduce the number of affiliates.

We really don't know the UUA Board's thinking here and I don't want to speculate any further than I already have online.

In the most recent blog post on Tom's blog, the blog conversation explored polyamory and asked what stand our religious movement should take on polyamory.

Fausto of The Socinian blog replied with the following about polyamory:
"As to the narrower question of polyamory, is there or is there not room at the table for a good-faith argument that polyamory is morally and spiritually dangerous, both to its practitioners and to their children, and that it therefore should not be presumptively entitled to the same societal or religious acceptance and blessing that we freely extend to monogamous unions?"
We can evaluate danger when it comes to mental health, physical health, and other empirical measures. Polyamory can be evaluated for its impact on mental and physical health. This is a social sciences question that can (in theory) be asked and answered. I'm not aware of any research on poly families.

However, "morally and spiritually dangerous" concern is something that we probably can't find common agreement on beyond agreeing that we should minimize the possiblity of harm to others and self.

However, some individuals may look at factors other than harm to others and self. This aspect of sexual morality is covered by Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Faye Flam in her column "What fuels the hatred of homosexuality?" Here's an excerpt from this column:
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt wants to help liberal types like me understand why some people condemn homosexual relationships as immoral.

As an exercise, he says, imagine that a neighbor has installed a sign in her front yard reading Cable television will destroy society. You ask her to explain, and she responds: "Cables are an affront to the god thoth. They radiate theta waves, which make people sterile."

Now imagine another neighbor, with another sign. This one announces Gay marriage will destroy society, and she justifies the statement by saying that homosexuality is an abomination to God and will undermine marriage.

If you're a liberal, you may view both neighbors as equally out of touch with reality (though the woman with the theta-wave theory is more original). That's the way most academics would traditionally see it, too.

But Haidt, who works at the University of Virginia and specializes in issues of morality, says the conservative viewpoint isn't just theta waves - it's based on a moral compass that points in dimensions liberals simply don't perceive.

"There's been this enormous change in how scientists are thinking about morality," he says. He outlined the new view recently in the journal Science.

In Western societies, secular and liberal-minded people base their moral beliefs on fairness and the avoidance of harm. That explains why, in previous columns, I wrote that I saw nothing immoral about premarital sex, homosexuality or sex toys - except, perhaps, for nonrecyclable batteries.

Dozens of horrified readers quickly blasted me as disgusting.

Which Haidt says is exactly the point. Most people set their moral compasses based on their sense of disgust. This is an additional moral dimension, which he calls purity/sanctity.
I suppose one can speculate on health, relationship stability, and other "danger" aspects surrounding polyamory. The problem here is we've got a lot of speculation and very little information to base our decisions. When that happens, the potential for basing one's moral decisions on disgust instead of reason becomes very likely.

Fausto later wrote the following on this blog thread:
"When I talk about moral objections, I'm thinking instead about the often unappreciated but nevertheless very real potential for deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage that can so easily occur in polyamorous situations despite all precautions. Not only to the consenting adults (if indeed they are giving their fully informed and free consent, which is another significant question), but especially also to their children or prospective children, who need to grow up in a stable and secure environment."
The issue that I have with this line of thought is we really don't have any data to answer any of the concerns raised. Are poly relationships more dangerous? If so, are they so dangerous that we should strongly discourage them? Are poly relationships so unstable that we should discourage them in order to prevent harm to children?

To the best of my knowledge, we don't know the answers to any of these concerns. All we have with respect to poly questions are anecdotal evidence. And the plural of "anecdote" is not "data." And the collection of anecdotal evidence often is distorted by a "confirmation bias" (a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions and avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs).

Tom Schade then replied on this thread:
"Poly panels, which I have seen, are a exercise in propaganda. They are arguments from 'best-case anecdotes.' The persons who are participated in the panel are currently happy in their relationships and will willingly testify to the joy of their lives."
I'll agree that guest panels are often the "best-case anecdotes" ... We do the same thing with sexual orientation guest panels that are used in the Our Whole Lives and Welcoming Congregation programs. I've never heard of a sexual orientation guest panel including an "ex-gay" person who has undergone "reparative therapy."

Is that one-sided propaganda or just a reasonable limitation on the information that we wish to present in our congregations and other religious settings?

Tom Schade then replied further on this thread:
"And, by restricting the 'moral' argument to these best case examples, they discount all negative experiences elsewhere. The stories about 13 year coerced brides in Utah are not relevant in those discussions, because that is bad patriarchy and we are only talking about good polyamory."
Tom ... these stories are not relevant because we're talking about consenting adults and coerced adolescents are not consenting adults. This is a "red herring" fallacy.

Tom Schade then replied further on this thread:
Regarding OWL: the guidelines you quote refer to specific sexual relationships -- not social policy and the witness of a religious movement in the cultural circumstance in which it finds itself.
Actually, the values in the curriculum go beyond the interpersonal. We need to avoid double standards in providing ministry to families. We need to promote justice and inclusivity.

Tom Schade replied again on this thread:
BTW, many of the poly panels at which I have been supposedly trained, include the testimony of someone who argued that they had numerous problems with adultery until they "came out" as a poly, realizing that they were just incapable of being faithful to one person.
Would it be better for a person to have this self-knowledge before attempting to live monogamously? One possibility with this self-knowledge is this person would know that any monogamous relationship that he or she enters will be a challenge. Another possibility would be this person would use this self-knowledge to attempt to live non-monogamously and ethically.

The danger here is assuming that everyone has the same needs and the same relationship type can meet the needs of every individual.


Robin Edgar said...

Oh dear. Did you just "out" Rev. Tom Schade as LT aka The Lively Tradition Steve?

Thanks for saving me the trouble. . . ;-)

Chalicechick said...

Ummm... No, he didn't.

Before you accuse Steve of that, Robin, why don't you Google "Tom Schade Lively Tradition" and see how open Tom has been about his identity from the start?


fausto said...

Steve, in response to the doubts I raise, you respond,

The issue that I have with this line of thought is we really don't have any data to answer any of the concerns raised.

I disagree. The overwhelming witness of human experience across all boundaries of culture and time -- whether through history, novels, poetry, or helping high school or college friends through all-night crying jags -- is that multipartnering in the field of romance is and has always been an emotional grenade field, and that the consequences of failure can be catastrophic.

It's not that there are no data; it's that, not unlike those who deny that human activity contributes to global warming, advocates of polyamory simply deny the validity of evidence that challenges their position.

I'll also observe that the debate is in fact more nuanced than the way you present it. It is not about the ethics of polyamory per se, or whether in some cases some individuals have been able to maintain successful, stable, emotionally healthy polyamorous relationships. It is about whether a religious denomination ought broadly to endorse, support, or encourage polyamory, or consecrate polyamorous relationships, when the emotional and spiritual dangers are self-evident and the argument in favor is so far from persuasive.

Steve Caldwell said...

Robin Edgar asked:
"Did you just "out" Rev. Tom Schade as LT aka The Lively Tradition Steve?"

Uh ... no.

Tom mentiones that he's the blogger formerly known as "Prophet Motive" on his current blog.

The history of the name change from "Prophet Motive" to "Lively Tradition" is documented on Philocrites guide to UU blogs.

Finally, the congregation where Tom is a minister mentions the blog on the church web site:


Robin Edgar said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for clearing that up but. . .

:Tom mentiones that he's the blogger formerly known as "Prophet Motive" on his current blog.

True but there is not much material online linking "Prophet Motive" to any particular U*U minister.

:The history of the name change from "Prophet Motive" to "Lively Tradition" is documented on Philocrites guide to UU blogs.

Well yes and no. It is true that Philocrites says- Sadly, Tom Schades' Prophet Motive appears to have died with the expiration of UUChristian.net.

and later says -

More new blogs: The Lively Tradition ("The story of those who have been called to the spiritual liberation and empowerment of all," by LT, the minister-blogger formerly known as Prophet Motive, Blogger: current);

so putting two and two together allows one to identify The Lively Tradition blogger as Rev. Tom Schade but this requires a certain amount of online detective work. Indeed the latter post by Philocrites seems to be an effort to provide some anonymity to Rev. Tom schade. Why didn't Philocrites just openly state that Rev. Tom Schade is now blogging on The Lively Tradition blog?

I know of at least one other situation where a U*U seminarian tried to start blogging anonymously after initially blogging with his own name associated with his blog title. Believe it or not he did so by deleting all reference to his name on his blog and then emailed everyone who knew his identity asking them not to publicly link him to his now pseudonymous/anonymous blog. He later started another "professional" blog under his real name.

:Finally, the congregation where Tom is a minister mentions the blog on the church web site:


Sure enough but the chances of anyone finding that are rather slim when Rev. Schade does not provide his real name on his Lively Tradition blog. Some online detective work is still required to find that illusive reference. Admittedly a Google search of "The Lively Tradition" does turn up Peacebang's blog post that identifies Rev. Tom Schade as The Lively Tradition but it is clear that Rev. Tom Schade seems to want to preserve a considerable degree of anonymity in that he does not openly identify himself anywhere on his Lively Tradition blog and provides a rather coy photo that could easily be mistaken for Rev. Ray Drennan or any number of other spectacle wearing U*U ministers.

CC -

I did not "accuse" Steve of "outing" Rev. Tom Schade as you are "accusing" me. . . I just asked Steve if he had "outed" Rev. Tom. In fact, the very reason that I asked Steve if he had "outed" The Lively Tradition as Rev. Tom chade is because a Google search on - "Rev. Tom Schade" "Lively Tradition" - brought up only two results, one being Steve's post here and the other being some Sunflower Chalice blog posts that did not seem to specifically identify Rev. Tom Schade as The Lively Tradition blogger. Silly me I should have left off the Rev. honorific I guess.

Interestingly enough the Google search that you suggested does turn up some other blog posts that identify Rev. Tom Schade as The Lively Tradition blogger but neither come from Rev. Tom Schade himself. One blog post from Peacebang aka Rev. Victoria Weinstein dated Thursday, July 13, 2006 does say, "my darling Tom Schade's new blog, The Lively Tradition" and a Philocrites blog post of Thursday, June 7, 2007 also makes it clear that Rev. Tom Schade is indeed The Lively Tradition blogger. The fact remains however that Tom himself is a somewhat shady character and has not been very open about his identity on his pseudonymous Lively Tradition blog where he identifies himself as "Just another UU minister from Massachusetts" and provides a photo that reveals about as much of his identity as if he was wearing a hijab. . . I certainly got the impression that Rev. Tom Schade was not particularly forthcoming with his personal identity and I did not know which "UU minister from Massachusetts" he was.

Anyway, thanks for clearing things up CC. Steve Caldwell quite evidently did not "out" the rather shady Lively Tradition blogger as Rev. Tom Schade. Apparently Peacebang revealed his identity in a single blog post over a year ago now but I see no evidence that Rev. Tom Schade has publicly revealed his identity as The Lively Tradition on his LT blog or anywhere else on the internet.

Mark said...

Because apparently I can't help myself...

fausto writes:

"The overwhelming witness of human experience across all boundaries of culture and time"

There's a phrase that never fails to sent chills down my spine...

"whether through history"

Get to that in a moment...

"novels, poetry"

Both well-known sources of accurate and rigorously collected sociological and psychological data...

"or helping high school or college friends through all-night crying jags"

Because young adults are so known for their skill at romantic relationships, usually...

"is that multipartnering in the field of romance is and has always been an emotional grenade field"

While monogamous marriages have historically and universally been safe havens of sweetness and light.

"and that the consequences of failure can be catastrophic"

Well, hell yeah. The consequences of failure whenever anything of great value are at stake can be catastrophic. I mean, what, are we really going to say that consequences of failure in a monogamous marriage are just "kinda unpleasant"?

"when the emotional and spiritual dangers are self-evident"

It's so great when things are self-evident! It saves one from having to actually defend or even fully understand one's own position, while casting those who disagree with one as either deluded or malicious.

"and the argument in favor is so far from persuasive"

Not to everyone, no. And that's okay. Life is messy, and if arguments for the right way to live were uniformly persuasive or nonpersuasive, the world would have been straightened out by now.

Tammy said...

Mark... that retort was brilliant! Thank you!

fausto said...

No, it was witty and snarky, but it used wit and snark to avoid rather than rebut the primary point, so if it was brilliant it was only a brilliant dodge.

The overwhelming social and moral presumption is against, not neutral or favorable toward, polyamory. It's backed by what a broad consensus of society accepts as strong and sufficient evidence. That's reality. That it's reality is my point. Mockery doesn't invalidate it.

The prevailing presumption may be mistaken and rebuttable, but if so, the burden of proof necessarily falls to the would-be rebutter. As Mark's comments exemplify, though, advocates of polyamory always seem to shirk the burden of proving their position. As long as they continue to deride and denounce the prevailing paradigm without rebutting it on the merits, they will continue to be perceived as marginal and inconsequential, rather than serious, by the majority whom they want to persuade.

If reality is that polyamory is widely considered socially unwise and/or morally suspect, where is the persuasive counter-argument that societal acceptance and/or religious endorsement of polyamory is a superior moral imperative? I haven't yet heard one. Is there not really a good one to be made?

Mark said...


I agree that the reality is a presumption against the acceptability of polyamory. I disagree that the mere prevalence or persistence of a presumption is any inherent sign of its validity. I respect empiricism too much to make that mistake.

As for giving specific arguments in favor of revising the presumption against polyamory, you're commenting over at Lively Tradition, so I know you're not unaware of people's specific arguments, including my own.

I would also point out that those arguments have not been constructively engaged. I'm sorry, but "that doesn't count!" without a reasonable explanation of why it doesn't count is not constructive. If you do not wish to have a constructive discussion of the issue, that is completely your right, but it is inaccurate to accuse proponents of multi-partner relationships of dodging the question.

Mark said...

Followup for fausto:

To have a logical discussion, the first thing that has to be sorted out is the premises on which the rules of logic shall operate. What you characterize as snark in my previous reply, is me saying "you need to check your premises." If your central premise is that the status quo is good enough for everybody, then you shouldn't be surprised when folks for whom the status quo isn't working question that premise. That is a necessary preliminary to having a logical discussion about the status quo.

fausto said...

Mark, my point, my "premise" if you will, is not that any particular justification of monogamy is adequate, but that in the real world, monogamy is already the prevailing paradigm. Supporters of monogamy, who are the overwhelming majority, consider it to be amply justified on moral and/or sociological grounds and take its validity for granted, for reasons like the ones I gave. You may not find those reasons persuasive, but if you don't, it makes no difference: the paradigm is still the paradigm, and the vast majority of society is satisfied with it.

That being the case, those who accept the paradigm don't have to prove anything. An accepted paradigm does not change simply because a few advocates of change prefer an alternative; such advocates have to effectively discredit the validity of the old paradigm and persuade a majority of the superior validity of their proposed new one.

The burden of proof, as Tom says over at The Lively Tradition, is thus on polyamorists to make a convincing moral and sociological (and, if they expect denominational support from the UUA, religious) case against monogamy and for polyamory. However, the thing about paradigms is, the playing field is not level. The issue is not properly framed as, "Which standard shall we agree to prefer, monogamy or polyamory"? The issue is -- as it was for racism and sexism and homophobia -- "Is the prevailing standard so morally reprehensible and destructive to the ideal of a just society that it demands to be overturned, cost what it may to the social order?" It's a daunting burden to meet, but I think this is the correct framing of the issue, and I haven't seen an argument for polyamory that I think comes anywhere close to being persuasive.

UUs like Tom and me may be skeptical that such a case can be made, but at least we're engaging in the discussion and paying attention. Unless and until such a case is made, though, other less engaged supporters of monogamy don't even have to pay attention, much less define their "premises" as you say. They will just keep on keepin' on, because they're the paradigm, and they haven't yet been effectively challenged.