05 March 2009

Shakers and Unitarian Universalists -- Can We Adapt to Change?

This post is based on a reply that I posted on Chalicechick's Chaliceblog about her explanation for her decision about who she would support in the 2009 UUA President Election.

In a reply to her original blog post, Chalicechick wrote the following in response to Rev. Peter Morales' use of the Shaker historical example as a cautionary tale for Unitarian Universalism.
"who actually thinks that 'no fucking' was a bigger problem for the shakers than lack of diversity. But again, my impression is that Morales isn't one for complexities."
And this is my expanded response based on my original comment.

The lack of biological reproduction wasn't a problem for the Shakers for many years.

Before state-run orphanages and adoption agencies were available, religious groups like Shaker communities were the "social safety net" for orphans and others who were destitute and needy.

As long as there were a ready supply of orphans and other needy persons, Shaker communities were able to survive.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett mentioned this during his TED ("Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk in 2002 -- the Shaker tradition was a religious meme that caused sterility in its human hosts but was able to survive for many years due to the ready supply of orphans, widows, and other new hosts for the Shaker meme in the environment:
Remember the Shakers? "Gift to Be Simple?" Simple furniture? And of course they're basically extinct now. And one of the reasons is that, among the creed of Shakerdom is that one should be celibate. Not just the priests -- everybody.

Well, it's not so surprising that they've gone extinct. But in fact that's not why they went extinct. They survived as long as they did at a time when the social safety nets weren't there and there were lots of widows and orphans, people like that, who needed a foster home. And so they had a ready supply of converts. And they could keep it going. And, in principle, it could've gone on forever. With perfect celibacy on the part of the hosts. The idea being passed on through proselytizing, instead of through the gene line.

So the ideas can live on in spite of the fact that they're not being passed on genetically. A meme can flourish in spite of having a negative impact on genetic fitness. After all, the meme for Shakerdom was essentially a sterilizing parasite.

There are other parasites which do this -- which render the host sterile. It's part of their plan. They don't have to have minds to have a plan.
Wikipedia has some information on why the Shaker movement died off:
Membership in the Shakers dwindled in the late 1800s for several reasons. People were attracted to cities and away from the farms. Shaker products could not compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost. Shakers could not have children, so adoption was a major source of new members. This continued until the states gained control of adoption homes.
I suspect the best parallel that one could draw from the Shakers is the need to be agile in response to changing demographic, economic, and cultural trends.

As Unitarian Universalists, our post-World War II trend has been one of using suburban congregations as a major focus of our growth strategy -- both Rev. Hallman's church (in the Park Cities suburbs of Dallas TX) and Rev. Morales' church (in the Denver suburb of Golden CO) fit the suburban church growth strategy. The failed "Pathways" experiment in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area also involved a suburban focus. Will this suburban growth strategy continue to work for us?

Unlike the Shakers, we do plenty of fucking but our reproductive fucking may not lead to growth. If our churches are good at attracting adult seekers but repel adult who were our former children, that could be one very big reason that we have growth concerns.

Finally, our current growth strategy has one similarity to the Shaker's "orphan" strategy. There is no guarantee that we will always have a ready supply of adult seekers looking for a religious community. Christianity as a demographic group is shrinking the US and most of our adult coverts come from a Christian background. The "atheist - agnostic - unchurched" demographic has doubled over the past decade so they are around 15% of the population. And this appears to be a demographic group that has very little interest for what Unitarian Universalism offers (in part because we're perceived as being "too religious" by some non-theists).

Our traditional recruiting pool for adult converts is shrinking.

We reproduce but drive off many of our offspring who were raised in our churches.

And we may be currently ineffective at attracting growing demographic groups.

Like the Shakers, we may be facing demographic, economic, and cultural changes.

Are we agile enough to adapt and change in response to these changes?