21 December 2008

Humanist Parents Recreating Religious Community

I saw a link to this Washington Post news story on Hemant Mehta's "Friendly Atheist" blog -- "Humanist Parents Seek Communion Outside Church."

It reminds me of the Time magazine article about "Atheist Sunday Schools" that I blogged on back in November 2007.

Here's the introductory part of the recent Washington Post story:
They are not religious, so they don't go to church. But they are searching for values and rituals with which to raise their children, as well as a community of like-minded people to offer support.

Dozens of parents came together on a recent Saturday to participate in a seminar on humanist parenting and to meet others interested in organizing a kind of nonreligious congregation, complete with regular family activities and ceremonies for births and deaths.
The news story gives the following background on humanism:
Humanism is both a formal movement and an informal identification of people who promote values of reason, compassion and human dignity. Although most humanists are atheists, atheism is defined by what is absent -- belief in God -- and humanists emphasize a positive philosophy of ethical living for the human good.
And here's the rationale behind this conference:
The seminar's organizers wanted to reach out to people like the Proctors -- first-time parents scrambling for guidance as they improvise how to raise their daughter without the religion of their childhood.

"I'm often told that when people have kids, they go back to religion," said John Figdor, a humanist master's of divinity student who helped organize the seminar. "Are we really not tending our own people?"
Regarding the idea of re-creating a church environment (community, values, ritual) without traditional religion, the interesting thing on Hemant's blog was that two readers recommended Unitarian Universalism instead of "reinventing the wheel" for humanist parents (blog comments found here and here).

In fact, one reader described Unitarian Universalism as "community without the religiousness."

The news story describes this conference happening in Boston at Harvard University. Boston is the home of the Unitarian Universalist Association and Harvard University has ties to Unitarian Universalism.

I wonder if these humanist families don't know about our congregations (as unlikely as that would be in New England) or if our congregations are not meeting their family needs.

Even if these families do not want to join Unitarian Universalist congregations, I wonder if we can find ways to collaborate with humanist groups with programs like the Our Whole Lives lifespan sexuality education programs and other family support ministries that could be used by these families.

33 comments:

fausto said...

"Although most humanists are atheists, atheism is defined by what is absent -- belief in God -- and humanists emphasize a positive philosophy of ethical living for the human good."

That's a superb distinction.

Rieux said...

I wonder if these humanist families don't know about our congregations (as unlikely as that would be in New England) or if our congregations are not meeting their family needs.

Given your cogent point about New England, it would seem the safe money is on the latter, no?

I can well imagine that, given the ways UU congregations and the UUA present themselves, atheist, humanist, and other kinds of nonbelieving parents would not be comfortable sending their children there.

This post implicitly shows one reason why: both Mr. Figdor and the Friendly Atheist reader you quote express interest in community opportunities that are without religion. But you've based the title of this very post, Steve, on a directly contrary notion: the common UU idea that the community those folks are seeking is, by (your!) definition, "Religious." In your own terms, you're failing to offer them the irreligious community they explicitly say they're looking for.

If, for example, our only choice in the UU world is to subject our children to religious education and/or faith development (when we regard both religion and faith as things to avoid), we are likely to go elsewhere.

A UU minister in Berkeley ran into this same problem in a slightly different context:

Several years ago, when I served the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont (California) as Director of Religious Education, I had an illuminating (as-it-were) conversation with the father of a first grade student. The father was Jewish by upbringing and culture, and an atheist by conviction. He had been reading about the curriculum his son was using in his Sunday school class, and he was alarmed that we were indoctrinating his son — teaching him to believe in God!

“Oh no,” I said, and I talked about the curriculum, a course called Stories About God. Using stories and activities to embody the stories, it introduces young children to vocabulary and concepts to help them understand that human beings over a wide range of cultural and religious traditions have conceptualized God in a variety of ways: God is like darkness, light, compassion, mystery, mother, father. It offers both an affirmation that this concept of God is elusive, and a framework for the child to begin shaping their own understanding — without in any way indoctrinating or directing the child’s own beliefs.

“Not true,” the father objected. The curriculum was based entirely on the assumption that there was a God, and that the only question was what kind of a God that might be. The child might be encouraged to choose from among all these many God-concepts, but where was the possibility that there might be no God at all? Where was there room, in this curriculum or even in this church, for an atheist? What we were doing was surely indoctrination, and he did not want his son to be taught, in church, that he had to believe in any kind of God at all.

The family gave it a good try, but they began coming less and less frequently. The father would lead the service during the Jewish High Holy days, and preach a time or two during the summer. But he did not feel included, and his relationship with the church was that of advocate and adversary.

This encounter sensitized me to my use of “God-language.” In an attempt to be inclusive, I tend toward poetry and metaphor. You will hear me use words like “spirit,” “mystery,” “power,” even “connection,” hoping to tap into a common sense of that “something larger” to which I believe we are connected. I have no need to call it God. Indeed, the discipline of naming the attributes or qualities I am really talking about, rather than wrapping them in a word as imprecise as “God” is in itself a spiritual discipline of great value. It keeps me honest. It can function as a bridge between myself and others when unspoken or unexamined assumptions about the meaning of a word like “God” could divide us. It can hold the door open to a conversation about deepest values with many, many people for whom the word “God” itself is a metaphor for that something larger than ourselves which I hold to be at the heart of religion.

But the issue for that father in Fremont was much more than an issue of language. As an atheist, for whom the concept of God is just not helpful, no theological metaphor, however poetic, reaches out to include him.


- Rev. Sally B. White

Dale McGowan said...

Rieux, that was quite an enlightening comment. I'm glad to see the link to Sally White as well -- I think I'll be following up with her.

I think you are correct. The UU approach is not the right fit for many secular humanists, and vice versa. Recent UU history, especially since the Sinkford administration began, has included many slights and direct insults toward the secular humanist wing of the denomination. I admire the work of the UUs and find much to recommend it, but there's work to be done there.

Rieux said...

I'm honored that you valued my comment, Mr. McGowan. I might find myself buying your company's products one of these years, too. (And, once upon a time, I had high hopes of meeting you at a faculty event back at the College until both you and my spouse left the faculty. Darn.)

Recent UU history, especially since the Sinkford administration began, has included many slights and direct insults toward the secular humanist wing of the denomination.

I agree very strongly with that statement--but my point above was a little more limited. Steve Caldwell is, in my experience, one of the most atheist-friendly voices on the UU Internet; he certainly hasn't said or written the kinds of "direct insults" that you and I have noticed from other prominent UUs.

But even here, it's not difficult to see the problems that today's UUA has in outreach to the growing sector of American nonbelievers. This discussion shows that there are open semantic issues in play, such as: Is forming a nontheistic community in which we can bring up children "recreating religious community"? Is developing a worldview that happens to be secular and that emphasizes reason and skepticism still a variety of "faith development"?

Answers to questions like that turn, I think, on the meanings of particular words, such as "religion" and "faith." Given the text of the UU Principles, one would hope that those meanings would be open questions in the UU world--but in today's UUA, in practice, they're not. Even here, in a forum that is very atheist-friendly by UU standards, the governing semantic postulates are that the nonbelievers in question are seeking "religious community" and "faith development" whether we like it or not. (And many of us definitely do not.)

Those postulates aren't horrible or evil, but they unavoidably set up barriers that bar many nonbelievers from full (or sometimes any) membership in UU community. It seems to me that UUs ought to recognize that.

And then, yes--the abuse that all too many prominent UUs heap on infidels makes things far worse. But that's not Steve's fault.

Steve Caldwell said...

Rieux wrote:
-snip-
"Answers to questions like that turn, I think, on the meanings of particular words, such as 'religion' and 'faith.'"

If it helps, I'll offer up how I use the word "faith."

For me, "faith" isn't a blind and unquestioning trust.

One can place a provisional and skeptical trust or faith in an idea that has been successful in the past.

This is much different from the colloquial use of the word "faith."

For example, I have faith or trust in the idea that science and reason are useful tools for understanding the world because they have worked for us in the past. This is faith or trust based on experience - not a blind or unquestioning faith.

I also have faith or trust in the idea that people forming supportive cooperative communities can make a difference and transform the world in many ways large and small without relying on the supernatural for this transformation. This is also based on experience.

These cooperative communities may be Unitarian Universalist congregations, Ethical Culture societies, or the newer humanist communities described in the Washington Post article.

Some religious communities such as some Ethical Culture Societies and some Unitarian Universalist congregations can be noncreedal and supportive of a naturalistic worldview just like the non-religious humanist groups.

These UU and Ethical Culture groups do perform many of the same functions that the non-religious humanist groups perform for supporting families and individuals.

One of the few differences with these various groups is that some groups describe themselves as "religious" and other groups do not describe themselves as "religious."

Regardless of what these cooperative groups call themselves -- in light of the lack of shared historical roots, we may want to consider this a form of "convergent evolution" ("acquisition of the same trait in unrelated lineages" - sorry my college degree was in biology but the analogy seemed like a good fit).

Chalicechick said...

If people are looking for a fully-non-religious experience, I don't have a problem at all with them looking someplace else any more than I would have a problem with someone who regarded the bible as literal truth making the same decison.

Not everybody is suited for UUism. UUism isn't suited for everybody.

I don't necessarily agree with the specific example in the story Rieux tells in that I can recall that in my liberal Christian Sunday school when I was a kid, the teacher did a great job talking about how "the great flood" appeared in differing forms in myths and religious stories around the world and yet I never felt I had to literally believe in the flood.

Also, I think it's worth noting that the atheist in this account learned about the curriculem from reading it on paper--not because he saw how the lessons were taught or because his kid came home one day believing in God because the teacher said to.

That said, a large majority of things said about God don't work for my perception of God, but I find enough of value within the UU church that it's a rewarding experience anyway. I don't know that anyone finds that everything said in church speaks to them. I think most of us look past a few things and stick around for other things that we find rewarding. (And indeed, the thing I look past might be the thing you find rewarding.)

The problem isn't being an advocate and adversary ever. The problem is being only an advocate and adversary.

That said, I certainly don't begrudge the folks who end up at ethical culture or something because they are looking for a different set of rewards from the one we offer.

CC

Rieux said...

Hi again, Steve.

If it helps, I'll offer up how I use the word "faith."

Oh, I recognized that off the top. As I said, I don't think your understanding of faith is ridiculous or horrible. I'm not troubled by your "convergent evolution" hypothesis, either; of course there are noteworthy similarities present here. Though I wish UUs didn't have such a difficult time noticing the fundamental differences as well. (Many of us have reasons for maintaining adamantly that our communities are not religious, despite the UU party line to the contrary.)

I do think calling the standard, more broadly accepted definition "colloquial" is far from justified, though. There are plenty of us who care a lot about how these terms are defined, and we certainly do not simply rely on what's "colloquial." Our more traditional understanding (from sources like Hebrews 11:1 and Mark Twain) happens to be generally stigmatized in UU circles, but that doesn't make it wrong. (Nor does its broader acceptance outside of UUism make it right.)


But anyway, the original post here posed the question of why a bunch of humanists in Boston--a demographic that, once upon a time, constituted the very heart of Unitarianism--are apparently not interested in participating in UU community.

I think the obvious answer is: c'mon, look at the way UUism has decided to represent itself to the world. "Religion" and "faith" have become central to the packaging, including here. (The Principles and Purposes, dated 1984/1995, never use "religion," "religious," or "faith" to describe UUism--but the new P&P page on uua.org, circa 2008, does.) The Sinkford administration has engaged in unbelievable bungling with the word "God." And so on.

All of this tells nonbelievers who are looking for non-religious communities, in which we won't be expected to kowtow to faith and gods, that we need to look elsewhere. We've gotten the message: UUism has positioned itself in the marketplace as an entity that is solidly on the religious side of the religious/secular divide. It seems to me that atheists and humanists feeling obligated to look elsewhere--to institutions where our secularism will be honored, even if we have to create those institutions--is a simple, and entirely predictable, consequence of that decision.

Chalicechick said...

Question: Is it possible for religious faith and secularism to be honored in the same place?

What would that look like?

Thanks,

CC

fausto said...

UUism is a covenanted community in which people of differing theological orientations come together to support one another in revering what is holy to each. It is not a place, however, where we can expect others to conform their own expressions of reverence to our personal preferences.

For example, if a humanist affirms the supremacy of the human spirit and human achievement, it is reasonable to expect unconditional support from the other members of his or her congregation for that affirmation -- and indeed, even the most overtly Christian of UU churches, such as Kings Chapel or First Parish in Weston, do uphold that affirmation of human worth. If, however, on the one hand a Christian demands that nothing from outside the Christian tradition should be held up as sacred, or if on the other hand an atheist demands that nothing from any religious tradition should be held up as sacred, both of them would violate the duty of mutual support and encouragement that is expressed in one form or another in every UU congregational covenant. Rather than conforming their individuality to the communal covenant, they are seeking to conform the community to their individuality. Atheists who can only be happy among other atheists, just like Christians or Muslims or Wiccans who can only be happy among people who share their beliefs, simply won't be able to be happy among the diversity of other beliefs that characterize most UU chongegations.

That's not a fault of either UUism or of the individual, it's just the way things are.

fausto said...

congregations. oops.

fausto said...

Rieux says:

"UUism has positioned itself in the marketplace as an entity that is solidly on the religious side of the religious/secular divide."

It isn't a matter of positioning in the marketplace, as if we were a product competing for shelf space. Unitarians and Universalists have always been religious communities. They have never been otherwise. Even Humanist Manifesto I (which was not a Unitarian or Universalist document, although some of us signed it) was a declaration of Religious Humanism, not secular humanism -- which is why the guy at Harvard is called a "chaplain", rather than a "counselor" or something similar.

Rieux said...

Fausto:
Unitarians and Universalists have always been religious communities. They have never been otherwise.

Well, by your notion of what "religious" means, sure. On the other hand, there exist more broadly accepted conceptions of the word (as that Manifesto also noted, in impotent distress) that would yield more equivocal results. And one might also wonder why an indisputably religious organization didn't see fit to call itself "religion" or "religious" in its declaration of Principles and Purposes.


But never mind all that; your assertions just prove my point. Your utterly dogmatic insistence that UUism Is Religious And There Can Be No Dissent On That Issue is precisely the problem I've been pointing at throughout this thread.

Steve wants to know why Boston humanists aren't interested in UUism? Here you go, Steve: they (we) want non-religious community, but fausto and numerous other UUs, the most powerful figures in the UUA among them, have made it clear that UUism is, beyond debate, religious. The purported UU freedom of conscience--the Fourth Principle, "free faith," or whatever else you'd like to call it--does not extend to these fundamental semantic issues. UUism is religious, end of story; therefore there can be no place here for those of us who desire non-religious community.


I think my case is made. Modern UUism presents itself to the world as a religious and faith-based entity. Many atheists are looking for communities that are neither religious nor faith-based. Surely it shouldn't be surprising that they pass UUism by.

fausto said...

You have it backward, Rieux. There can be dissent. What there can't be, but you seem to insist upon, is hegemony. Those who insist upon "my way or the highway", be they atheists, Christians, Neo-pagans, or anything else, will eventually find themselves on the highway, exiled there by their own choice.

Rieux said...

Fausto:
There can be dissent. What there can't be, but you seem to insist upon, is hegemony.

Wow--project much?

Which is to say, what in the world are you talking about? I have made absolutely no claim to "hegemony." I think UUism ought to be open to multiple perspectives on what "religion" means (and, as a result, whether UUism is one). I think UUism ought to be open to multiple perspectives on what "faith" means (and, as a result, whether it's something UUs should seek, promote, or develop). That's the opposite of hegemony.

You, dear fausto, are the person pounding the table and demanding adherence to The One Correct Answer, to wit:

Unitarians and Universalists have always been religious communities. They have never been otherwise.

An assertion of hegemony is precisely what that is. Your perspective on the word "religious" (among others), and on those words' proper connection to UUism, has conquered mine. You and yours have seen fit to stick the following postscript onto the Principles and Purposes:

These principles and sources of faith are the backbone of our religious community.

Buddy, you are the hegemon.

And where's this "dissent" you now belatedly claim to support? When have you, or any prominent UU, ever said "Yeah, some UUs think UUism isn't religious, and that's cool, too"? Gimme a link. Show me where you've said that.


In contrast, neither Dale McGowan nor I nor the Boston humanists profiled in the article Steve cited have said a single word indicating that we seek hegemony over our communities of interest.

You're arguing against an atheist-stereotype bogeyman that only exists in your imagination. You might have better luck responding to the actual people in front of you.

fausto said...

Why all this righteous indignation that a religious denomination should call itself religious? Why on earth shouldn't it?

As to hegemony, it's diversity, not hegemony, to say that a historically religious body should embrace and encourage a diverse range of contrasting religious beliefs, including agnosticism and atheism. However, it is hegemony to say which beliefs should be supported and which suppressed, or to say that it shouldn't support any religious beliefs at all.

You would be welcome to stand up in any pulpit in our denomination and affirm the supremacy of human aspiration and deny supernaturalism. In even our most theistic congregation I suspect you would get no less than a large plurality of assent. In many congregations it would be an overwhelming majority. What you are proposing, though, goes well beyond that. You seem to be advocating that no one else should be welcome to stand up in the same pulpit to affirm any other system of belief, ethics or epistemology contradictory to yours. That proposition is irreconcilable with the obligation we place on all UUs collectively to support the right of each UU individually to discern truth and meaning freely and responsibly as he or she sees fit, even when we find truths in different ways and places.

In a diverse community like ours, encouraging and expressing views other than yours is not discriminatory or oppressive toward you. However, in a diverse community like ours, discouraging all views other than yours is discriminatory and oppressive toward everyone else. If you want to belong to an atheist-only community rather than a more diverse one, or if you don't want to hear anything other than atheism advocated, UUism is simply not the place to find that. It never has been. There's no reason to be resentful about it.

Rieux said...

Why all this righteous indignation that a religious denomination should call itself religious? Why on earth shouldn't it?

My goodness--you don't understand what's in dispute here, do you?

I have in fact explained repeatedly in this thread that it is an open question whether Unitarian Universalism is "a religious denomination" to begin with. Given your notion of what "religion" means, clearly UUism is religious. Given my notion of what "religion" means (a conception for which you clearly have not the slightest shred of respect), UUism is predominantly NON-religious.

This response of yours is particularly weird; it isn't entirely clear that you even understand that anyone sees this matter differently than you. Earth to fausto: not everyone understands the word "religion" in the manner that you do.

As an obvious case in point:
...a diverse range of contrasting religious beliefs, including agnosticism and atheism.

But the overwhelming consensus among atheists is that atheism is not a religious belief. Neither is agnosticism. Are you seriously not aware of that? Have you honestly never heard it before? Are you that unfamiliar with (or contemptuous of) atheists' self-definition?

However, it is hegemony to say which beliefs should be supported and which suppressed....

Indeed--and that's precisely what you're doing here. You're "suppressing" the reality that different people have different perspectives on the term "religion." Suppressing it so hard, in fact, that you seem incapable of getting the undeniable fact that different perspectives exist through your head.

Wake up! You and I--you and millions of forthrightly non-religious people--disagree about what "religion" means. That's what's at issue here: the imposition of your conception of "religion" on UUism entire.


You're simply making no effort whatever to understand where your opponent is actually coming from. This leaves you casting around to decide what it is that I'm actually saying--and you've ended up with several bizarre theories.

You accuse me of declaring that UUism "shouldn't support any religious beliefs at all," when I've said nothing of the kind. I've merely argued that the UUA should not define or present itself as a fundamentally religious entity, if (as Steve posits) it's interested in outreach to the irreligious.

You hazard a guess that I "seem to be advocating that no one else should be welcome to stand up in the same pulpit to affirm any other system of belief, ethics or epistemology contradictory to [mine]." That's an utterly ludicrous misrepresentation with no basis in anything I've said.

Finally, you accuse me of "discouraging all views other than" my own, of "want[ing] to belong to an atheist-only community rather than a more diverse one," and of "n[o]t want[ing] to hear anything other than atheism advocated"--all damnable lies with no connection to what I've written.

As I noted previously, you're not actually arguing with me, you're arguing with some sweaty nightmare of yours in which evil spectral atheists break into your house and steal your underwear. At this rate, by Wednesday evening you'll have decided that I'm demanding to drink the blood of Christian babies. (And then denying them the right to express their beliefs from the UU pulpit.)

I'm a real person. I have real positions. You've ignored them, preferring to chop up absurd strawman atheist caricatures.

The real issue here is what "religion" means, and whether it's (1) just or (2) advisable for you and yours to impose your conception of that word on the entire denomination. If at some point you're able to see past your own devotion to semantic dogma long enough to see that there's an actual live issue on the table, a fruitful discussion might be possible.

Chalicechick said...

OK, Rieux, I'll bite.

How do you define "religious?" How would you suggest our communities be less religious while still being inclusive of people who disagree with you?


CC

fausto said...

Rieux, I'm not arguing against a strawman. You said, for example:

"If, for example, our only choice in the UU world is to subject our children to religious education and/or faith development (when we regard both religion and faith as things to avoid), we are likely to go elsewhere."

Implicit in that statement is a supposition that the ideal UU community ought to avoid religion and faith, as you do. But asking them to do so is asking them to abandon over 400 years of continuous religious orientation since the gathering of our first member congregation by religious Separatists in 1606 during the English Reformation, and to silence a large proportion of our membership today, merely so that you and your children don't have to hear things you don't happen to agree with.

More than any others, probably three eighteenth- and nineteenth-century religious figures are responsible for the distinctive identity of UUism today. John Murray was an anti-Calvinist evangelical who thought Jesus' atonement on the cross would redeem all of fallen humanity, including even unbelievers and unrepentant sinners -- not just a select few. William Ellery Channing was an anti-Calvinist liberal Puritan who affirmed the unity of God (and its corollary, the humanity of Jesus) and denied human moral incapacity. Ralph Waldo Emerson was an even more liberal Puritan who denied supernaturalism, found divine transcendence in all of natural existence, and found many apprehensions of Hinduism to be complementary to his Christian clerical training. These three are responsible for the broadmindedness and inclusivity that has characterized Unitarianism and Universalism ever since, and that (perhaps most importantly to the question at hand) laid the foundation for the subsequent inclusion of Humanism in the 20th century. Your assertion that "UUism is predominantly NON-religious" simply cannot be supported, at least not without your idiosyncratic personal redefinition of the word "religious".

If I'm arguing against a strawman, then a congregation led by a minister who preaches the same things today that they did then ought to be one that you could endorse. But by your own words above, you say that you would be "likely to go elsewhere". You would be equally unable to tolerate Murray's Christocentrism, Channing's view of absolute theistic sovereignty, or the syncretic blend of Christianity, naturalistic pantheism and Hinduism that Emerson and his associates dubbed Transcendentalism.

That's fine, nobody is saying you should force yourself to remain in a situation that makes you are uncomfortable. You're entitled to associate with people who agree rather than disagree with you. What you're not entitled to do, though, is blame UUism for being what it has always been -- a liberal and inclusive religious community -- rather than remaking itself in your own image according to your own semantics.

The only strawman in this argument is yours, and it is your vision of an ideal UUism that is only "secular", not "religious", an ideal that bears little relation to UUism as actually practiced. You resent the UUism that exists in reality for that shortcoming, but your ideal is only a phantom, an illusion. It has never existed, and to create it would be to destroy the genuine UUism that does exist.

And that is what you do not understand.

Rieux said...

OK, Rieux, I'll bite.

How do you define "religious?"


Oh, please. You don't need me to explain the way that the entire English-speaking world outside of the small confines of UUism (and a handful of related places) understands that word.

You're perfectly capable of picking up a dictionary and looking up "religious" and "religion." (But fine, I'll do the work for you. Here are twenty-two dictionaries' definitions of "religious" and twenty-nine of them for "religion".)

In every single case, the primary definition centers on supernaturalism and/or its gods. (For example, American Heritage's primary definition of "religious" is "Having or showing belief in and reverence for God or a deity.") So by unanimous decision of the authorities measuring public sentiment, the number one, most popular, most broadly understood, most frequently utilized conception of "religion" is all about supernaturalist (and usually theistic) belief. If it's not a supernaturalist belief system, by the understanding adopted by the overwhelming majority of the English-speaking world, it's not a religion.

Then, most of the linked dictionaries throw in a tertiary or quarternary (i.e., not actually used very widely or frequently) definition describing a broader, vaguer notion that resembles the majoritarian conceptions within UUism. (E.g., Wiktionary definition number *four*: "Any system or institution which one engages with in order to foster a sense of meaning or relevance in relation to something greater than oneself.")*

Again, I am not the dogmatist fausto is: I do not claim that UU-style (also heavily academic) conceptions of "religion" are wrong, or that people who accept them are stupid or unworthy of attention. I do in fact think defining "religion" so broadly is a bad idea for largely political reasons--but I have no expectation that UU communities will or should reflect my view on that score.

I have no problem with plenty of UUs understanding "religion" in broad terms, or even with such people advocating those conceptions as good linguistic policy--even if they do so from the pulpit.

On the other hand, I have a serious problem with the UUA's adoption of those conceptions as unquestioned (and effectively unquestionable) dogma. I submit that anyone honestly devoted to "the free and responsible search for truth and meaning" should be distressed by the lack of space modern UUism allows to people who see "religion" (and "faith," "sacred," etc.) in ways that dissent from the denominational party line.

Finally, and most relevantly to Steve's post here, I don't think there can be any doubt that the UUA's full-throated adoption of this niche conception of "religion" has profoundly damaged its ability to communicate on terms of mutual respect and understanding with atheist and non-religious communities.

As is quite clear from this thread, some people are so buried in liberal-religious dogma, so thoroughly insulated from the English speaking world's overwhelming understanding of "religion," that they don't even realize they're living in a tiny linguistic niche. Unfortunately, UUA outreach presumes that the whole English-speaking world is in that niche--and that can lead to disaster when, shockingly, the world refuses to be what UUs would like to think it is.

--

* One has to enjoy Wikipedia's "Usage notes" for "religion":

Generally speaking, certain systems of belief that do not involve the existence of one or more deities, such as Buddhism, can be considered a religion, though some people prefer a stricter definition that excludes the possibility of a non-theistic religion. Others are in favor of a very general definition of religion: that any belief, or lack thereof, such as atheism, or system of beliefs, such as science, is a kind of religion or part of a religion. In language, such uses are generally considered humorous (highly dependent on context.)

Get that? Because it's often non-theistic, Buddhism needs a special exemption to be considered a "religion"... but then the broad, UU-style understanding of "religion" is "generally considered" a joke! I guess it's tough to be a linguistic minority.

Rieux said...

I wrote:
If, for example, our only choice in the UU world is to subject our children to religious education and/or faith development (when we regard both religion and faith as things to avoid), we are likely to go elsewhere.

And fausto responded:
Implicit in that statement is a supposition that the ideal UU community ought to avoid religion and faith, as you do.

Nope. Your inability to see these terms through anyone's eyes but your own is preventing you from gaining basic comprehension of that statement.

In point of fact, nearly all UU communities (including explicitly Christian and Pagan ones) do "avoid religion and faith," as most of the English-speaking world--including me, and including the overwhelming majority of people who declare themselves atheists and/or non-religious--understands those words. There's no "ought" necessary.

However, those same UU communities, though they are predominantly non-religious and faithless as most of the world understands those terms, still fling the words "religion" and "faith" around with abandon. As I've pointed out repeatedly, UUism has installed those two words as central descriptors of what UUism is and what UUs do.

Non-religious people see those statements (e.g., the UUA's declarations that the Principles and Purposes are "principles and sources of faith [that] are the backbone of our religious community") and interpret them to mean that UUism is fundamentally religious and faith-based--even though, on our understandings of those terms, it isn't.

Plenty of non-religious people wouldn't be troubled by "religious community" as you understand that term. But we want no part of "religious community" as we understand that term. And thus the UUA's messaging strategy, blithely ignorant of and/or uninterested in the perspectives of nonbelievers, chases us away.

Your absolute inability to understand that others' perspectives are different than yours--and therefore to recognize the alienating message you are sending--is characteristic of the UUA writ large. And it is clearly a major factor in the humanists' decisions Steve noticed in the original post here.

I'm not asking UU communities to avoid religion and faith; as those terms are understood by ordinary English speakers, your communities already generally do. I'm just suggesting that the UUA could do far better with outreach to nonbelievers if it didn't flog the words "religion" and "faith" so constantly in its public presentations--with total disregard of the consequences of that approach.

But asking [UU communities] to [avoid religion and faith] is asking them to abandon over 400 years of continuous religious orientation....

Given the ordinary understanding of "religious," that's laughable. During their histories, Unitarianism and UUism have discarded first the deity of Jesus, then the centrality of God, and then any necessary reliance on supernaturalism. That's not "400 years of continuous religious orientation"; again on the ordinary understanding of the word, that's the slow abandonment of religion.

Of course, you understand "religion" differently. But Steve's post, funnily enough, isn't about you. It's about people who see that word differently than you do. Someday, perhaps, you'll care about that.

Your assertion that "UUism is predominantly NON-religious" simply cannot be supported, at least not without your idiosyncratic personal redefinition of the word "religious".

That's pretty funny. The understanding of "religion" shared by the vast majority of English speakers in the world, and registered (for good reason) as the primary definition in every dictionary imaginable, is "my idiosyncratic personal redefinition"?

You project like a pro. It is you, sir, who are speaking from "idiosyncratic" semantic conceptions. Your notion of "religion" does not exist outside of the academic/left-wing "religious" ivory tower. People who have no familiarity with said ivory tower--which is the bulk of humanity--have no idea that anyone understands "religion" in such a broad manner that a guy who "denied supernaturalism" and its gods can somehow be declared thoroughly religious. You (and the theologians you're adamantly defending against attacks I haven't launched) have radically redefined "religion," which is fine--except that you've also utterly forgotten that your conception is a radical redefinition.

But never mind all that: minority semantic conceptions and radical redefinitions are not necessarily false. (It's just funny when advocates of those conceptions claim that there are no other conceptions. What a joke!) I haven't proven your understanding of "religion" wrong, nor can I. I'm just trying to wake you up to the reality that, because most of the world understands words like "religion" and "faith" differently than you (and most other UUs) do, constant UU use of those words has consequences that you may not expect.

If I'm arguing against a strawman, then a congregation led by a minister who preaches the same things today that they did then ought to be one that you could endorse.

("Endorse"? I've heard plenty of things from UU pulpits that I wouldn't "endorse"--I disagreed with them strongly--but that I also thought were perfectly appropriate material for UU sermons. I'll pretend you used a more relevant term, like "allow.")

That doesn't follow, actually; your logic is poor. The chances seem rather good that, within the past 400 years, a Unitarian minister has preached something that fails to fall within the acceptable bounds of a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning." I don't think it's a risky bet that damnably racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas (not to mention atheophobic ones, which--you know well--I've documented at length) have been preached from U and U and UU pulpits on occasion since circa 1608. No, I wouldn't, and don't, consider those hateful messages acceptable.

But that digression was merely to show the hole in your logic. You are indeed attacking a strawman: there is no U or U or UU sermon from the past 400 years that I would argue should not be preached from a UU pulpit on the grounds that it is too religious. So yes, your target is still 100% straw.

You would be equally unable to tolerate Murray's Christocentrism, Channing's view of absolute theistic sovereignty, or the syncretic blend of Christianity, naturalistic pantheism and Hinduism that Emerson and his associates dubbed Transcendentalism.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Again I ask you to wake up: I am not the phantom who's breaking into your house and stealing your underwear. I have never come close to demanding that theistic (or Christocentric, pantheistic, transcendentalist, what-have-you) ideas or sermons be kept out of UUism. That's your ignorant stereotypes of atheists talking, not me.

The only strawman in this argument is yours, and it is your vision of an ideal UUism that is only "secular", not "religious"....

What in the world? Where have I ever advocated "an ideal UUism that is only 'secular'"? I've never said anything of the kind. Do you even care whether you're characterizing your opponent's perspective accurately?

If the outreach to nonbelievers that Steve invokes is actually something that the UUA is interested in (after seven years in UUism, it seems overwhelmingly clear to me that this is not the case), then the Association should not position itself as a fundamentally religious entity.

But, your silly black-and-white thinking notwithstanding, that doesn't imply that UUism should present itself as "secular," either--that would merely be the same marketing disaster in the opposite direction.

No, for the umpteenth time, the UUA's public message should be that the meaning of "religion" and the connection between that term and Unitarian Universalism are open questions. Some people (e.g., you) see UUism as religious. Others (e.g., me) see UUism as predominantly secular. "Both perspectives," a UUA that cared about freedom of conscience would declare, "are valuable and worthy of attention and understanding."

Instead, as I've explained repeatedly, the UUA comes down abjectly on the "we are religious" side of the issue--closing it off entirely. And Steve's humanists look elsewhere. And you yawn.

And then we return to our regularly scheduled mantra:
What you're not entitled to do, though, is blame UUism for being what it has always been -- a liberal and inclusive religious community....

No, I am the one here arguing for "inclusiveness." You are ruling others' conceptions of "religion" out by fiat.

And as I have pointed out so many times I've lost count, it is an open question whether UUism is a "religious community." You utterly refuse to even acknowledge the point of contention.

You, sir, are a dogmatist. And you're so incapable of seeing the world outside of your ivory tower that you don't even realize the existence of your own dogma.

Bizarre.

Steve Caldwell said...

Rieux and Fausto,

This conversation is getting too intense.

The odd place that we find ourselves today with Unitarian Universalism and the UUA is due in part to our embracing of non-creedalism and dencentralized authority through congregationalism coming historically from a Protestant Christian framework.

So -- today we find ourselves debating whether or not Unitarian Universalism is a "faith" or a "religion."

I guess it depends on one's perspective and what definition one uses. Keep in mind that cultural context is important -- in antiquity, the early Christians were viewed as atheists by some Romans because they rejected the pantheon of pagan gods.

When we can ask this question, the answer depends on the perspective of the person answering it.

From the US government's point of view, Unitarian Universalism is a religion. The IRS considers us to be a tax-exempt religious denomination.

Rieux is correct that many folks do use the words "religion" and "religious" so they require a belief in god or gods and the supernatural.

From this point of view, folks who hold this view would say we Unitarian Universalists are not a part of religion (regardless of what the IRS says).

Culturally, we have many of the trappings of a religion -- most UU congregations have worship services that resemble Protestant Christian worship in form if not in content.

So there is some very legitimate ambiguity surrounding the "is UUism a religion" question.

I know that Micheal Durrell and other church consultants say that ambiguity is bad for church growth.

But as a community that explores questions about religion (and that some would say is a religion), we have embraced ambiguity to a greater degree than most other groups who explore these questions.

The Colbert fan-generated "Wikiality" site says the following about Unitarian Universalism:

"Agnostics are atheists without balls. Unitarians are agnostics without balls."

Perhaps we are ambigious about our ambiguity?

Since Rieux and I are both blogging on Christmas day, we can now answer the question about what atheists do on Christmas.

I'm off to make breakfast (green chile quiche, bacon, biscuits, coffee, OJ). Atheists also eat breakfast on Christmas. But other folks do this too.

fausto said...

Rieux is correct that many folks do use the words "religion" and "religious" so they require a belief in god or gods and the supernatural.

From this point of view, folks who hold this view would say we Unitarian Universalists are not a part of religion (regardless of what the IRS says).


Religion does not necessarily require a belief in supernaturality (for example, Buddhism), but I don't think that's really the issue here. The real cause of the friction in this duscussion is that UUism does not necessarily deny belief in supernaturality. Ever since Emerson there have been some UUs who do and some who don't. It is a fault line that has run through the denomination ever since.

Supernaturalists and antisupernaturalists (for want of better terms) alike, who are unable to share fellowship and support each other, eventually tend to become unhappy in UUism and eventually leave. However, those who enjoy the diversity and the discussion, and who admire the integrity of the search for meaning in community, even when it leads them and their fellow seekers in contrary directions, find in UUism a home that exists almost nowhere else. And that is a different kind of home than one that would satisfy atheists who seek fellowship only with other atheists, or even for that matter Christians who only want to share fellowship only with other Christians.

Just so there is no confusion, what I am trying to defend in this discussion is the rightful co-existence of both views within the UU tent. I am not advocating my own beliefs as normative. Neither, by right or historical practice, is entitled to exclude the other. I am not advocating my own beliefs as normative. One of the things I like best about UUism is that it asks us to say neither "yes" nor "no", but rather to ask, "Oh, really? Why?"

Incidentally, on the question of sentient supernaturality I am a doubtful agnostic myself, although I do find something appealing in Spinozan/Emersonian monism, and I tend to see the Christian tradition as one particular (and often peculiar) expression of it. I like and often use the Christian worship vocabulary for its figurative meaning, and not for its literal truth propositions.

So here's a reverent agnostic blogging on Christmas Day right along with you two . It also happens to be, purely by coincidence and not the work of the Holy Spirit, my birthday, and no, I don't consider Jesus any more divine than I am. Where Jesus does surpass me, and it's worth honoring him today for this as theological Unitarians always have done, and as humanists of all descriptions shouldn't have much difficulty doing, is that he was so much exemplary than I am as a human being.

So, this agnostic wishes you two atheists Merry Christmas, and thank you for doing me the honor of engaging me in a challenging debate on my birthday. It is a wonderful gift. Much more satisfying than ties and socks.

Rieux said...

My goodness, fausto. Which part of Steve's request for us to stop did you not understand?

The real cause of the friction in this duscussion is that UUism does not necessarily deny belief in supernaturality.

That is utterly false. For the umpteenth and last time on this thread, you have absolutely no idea where your opponents are coming from. Given your constant resort to baseless misrepresentations about "real cause"s, it appears you don't much care.

Steve nailed it in his post. He obviously wanted to end this thread. Let's honor that, huh?

fausto said...

For the umpteenth and last time on this thread, you have absolutely no idea where your opponents are coming from. ... it appears you don't much care.

It appears that makes two of us.

Steve Caldwell said...

Actually, I didn't write a reply about the ambiguity present in current-day Unitarian Universalism to shut down a discussion.

I should have answered this earlier but I was sick with stomach flu yesterday.

Chalicechick said...

Given that Steve is perfectly capable of turning off the comments if he wants to, and is clearly not afraid to do so since he did it in the previous thread...

My guess was that by commenting that things were "too intense" he intended to ask y'all to take the snottiness down a notch, which Fausto did.

It's interesting to me that we argue about a hell of a lot of stuff on the UU blogsphere, and do 90 percent of it sounding pretty reasonably all around, but debating the proper balance of theism and atheism never fails to bring out nastiness, often on both sides.

Honestly, I had noticed this before but always assumed that it was Robin Edgar's doing, since he likes to show up in these conversations and is not shy about being rude and calling names if he thinks that's the best way to make his point.

But he hasn't been here and things have still gotten rude. What gives?

Also, the very first definition for "religion" in the Random House Unabridged dictionary is:

"a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

This definition does not leave out the possibility of someone who doesn't believe in God being religious, so I'm not quite sure why other people do.

My impression is that much like Christians seems to delight in arguing out among themselves who is a "real Christian" and who isn't, people have different view on what makes a person religious so the dictionary definitions don't matter so much.

I don't know what qualifies as a reasonable balance between religious and secular activities, but I can tell you what we do. In my congregation, if a kid is in the "world religions" portion of RE, they are about eleven. In the next couple of years, they will take two years of RE on values and ethics, using lots of current events and practical examples to look at how to make the right decisions in a complex world. Then they have a year of OWL, which one could argue is a more specific look at the same essential topic. After that they are in four years of YRUU, where we have a big focus on community service and a lot more ethics discussions. I'm working on a curriculum about "Christianity in the culture" that will offer a review of some bible stories their previous RE classes didn't get to and examples of references to them and jokes about them (Family Guy has way more bible-story based jokes than you would think) so that when the youth encounter them again, they will know what they mean**.

We offer "coming of age" (which has a big focus on UU history), "Drug education" and "Senior High OWL" as optional classes as well.

Is this still too religious, or are we more or less on the right track?

CC

*Affectionately called "the Big Dog" in my house and the official dictionary we use for settling arguments about words.

**Literally the first case I read in preparation for my first day of law school contained an extended metaphor to the "tower of Babel" that I got easily enough, but I wondered how my youth would be on it.

Steve Caldwell said...

Fausto wrote:
-snip-
"Supernaturalists and antisupernaturalists (for want of better terms) ... "

Actually, the "Brights" movement is suggesting the following terms:

"bright" -- having a naturalistic worldview (that is a worldview free of supernatural and mystical elements), having ethics and actions based on a naturalistic worldview.

The antonym of "bright is "super."

super - a person whose worldview does incorporate supernatural or mystical element(s).

The Brights movement suggests that individuals are either brights or supers (they can't be both).

Of course, this doesn't preclude the possibility that an organization like a Unitarian Universalist congregation can have individual members who are bright or super (just no individuals who are simultaneously bright and super).

fausto said...

Actually, I didn't write a reply about the ambiguity present in current-day Unitarian Universalism to shut down a discussion.

Like CC, I didn't think so, since you did in fact shut down the previous thread. I thought you were trying to moderate the tone, and (as CC noticed: thanks, CC!) I tried to respond accordingly.

I should have answered this earlier but I was sick with stomach flu yesterday.

I hope you are feeling better now!

fausto said...

Re brights and supers:

To the extent that they are made-up words that are defined as mutually exclusive antonyms, they are necessarily mutually exclusive antonyms.

However, if that's so I don't think the given definitions are as useful as they could be. The positions they attempt to describe are not either-or, but fall within a varying range. There are "supers" who find truth primarily through empirical means, there are "brights" who do not deny the possible value to others of mystical experience even if they themselves have not found it helpful, there are "supers" who do deny the value of mysticism, there are naturalistic mystics who deny supernaturalism, and so on. Moreover, it sounds as though both "bright" and "super" as defined may allow only for literal understanding and exclude the validity of figurative expression.

Chalicechick said...

Yeah, I'm honestly unsure which one I am.

Which probably means I'm neither.

Yeah, Steve. I hope you're feeling better.

CC

Steve Caldwell said...

CC and Fausto,

I'm feeling better and I'm eating real food tonight (yippee). Thanks for your concerns.

My response the most-recent replies on this thread can be found in my latest blog post:

So what's so wrong with a "WYSIWYG" world?

Ken from NJ said...

Here's my favorite Ethical Culture Society, which teaches ethics and morals in a quasi-traditional Sunday school setting: Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County

Robin Edgar said...

Wow! How did I miss this U*U catfight?

Must have been enjoying Christmas and New Year's Day with friends and family or something. . . :-)

Cheshire Cat grin