Are you in a Unitarian Universalist church? There have been some ongoing changes in Unitarian Universalism (UU) over the past few years, and it appears likely that UU, as a whole, faces stark choices that will determine its future.
Many of us – as Pagans, as Naturalists, or as both – find a comfortable, welcoming home in Unitarian Universalism (UU). I’ve been an active UU for nearly 20 years, including having been president of my congregation, and helping in many different areas, from teaching children to leading services. For others, it’s not quite as good a fit. Local congregations can vary widely, with some vibrant and exciting, and others more sedate – with a range of spiritual directions as well. I know that not all of us here at HP are UUs, but I think the direction of UU is relevant for the futures of Paganism, Humanism, and naturalism in America, and perhaps the world, and I’ll be speaking as a UU for this post.
Our full UU history is too big a topic for a blog post, but some parts are especially relevant to Naturalistic Pagans. I’m written a condensed history* at the end of this blog post that I encourage you to read – it’s amazing to me to see how such a tiny religious movement could include so many people who made our world what it is today, such as Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Susan B Anthony, and many more. UU history includes idea after idea that was radical, scandalous, blasphemous, and crazy back then, but is accepted by practically everyone today. These include ideas like rights for women, children, African Americans, and LGBT people – and the ideas that nature itself is sacred, that reason is very important in determining truth, and that traditional doctrines can (and should!) be openly questioned.
Though our history is vibrant, purpose driven, and radical, UUs have been adrift in the last few decades, and have not been flourishing (see the graph at right). There could be many reasons for this, and I think that a significant part of this is our lack of a clear message. Common jokes about UU’s suggest that we “can believe anything”, also echoing the same concern- and UUs talk about how to explain what UU “is” to others. Despite our large societal impact, I suspect that most Americans today have never heard of Unitarians, Universalists, nor even UUs.
What do we believe? What do we stand for? Any group, if they are to continue to exist, needs common ground – ideas that hold the group together and are not universally accepted in the wider society. Is it clear what these are in UU today? It might depend on who you ask. Our Seven Principles help, but some of them are so widely accepted that they don’t provide unifying common ground. I think we do have common ground – common ground that can invigorate and empower us – and that a good chunk of that common ground is our acceptance of evidence and our commitment to make this world a better place.
Our reliance on evidence and reason is embodied in in our fourth principle, which encourages us to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. “Responsible” means that we can’t just believe anything – that reason, evidence, and the impact on society and real people are important considerations in deciding on any belief. At a time when fake news and open evidence denial have invaded our national leadership, this part of our message is desperately needed. We reject the idea that the literal word of any ancient text is sufficient to establish certainty. We UUs often have a wide range of beliefs in areas where there is not a clear scientific consensus, such as what the meaning or purpose of life may be, or reincarnation, life after death, some concept of goddesses or gods (such as pantheistic ideas or archetypes), etc. Evidence accepting Hindus, Christians, Agnostics, Jews, Pagans, Atheists, and more can find a home in UU (see the UU Six Sources).
This rich heritage of radical thinkers going back centuries has put us UU in a unrivalled position, as the only religion with historic roots that is able to fully embrace evidence, while welcoming people with many different spiritualities.
What will be the future of UU? I’ve been fortunate to be involved in that discussion with a wide range of dozens of UUs (including John Halstead), and our group has collectively realized that our UU principles, along with evidence itself, already hold the answer – and point us toward being the radical, reality-based religion of tomorrow. Though we don’t know if UU will, as a whole, continue our heritage and move in this direction, we’ve produced a summary pamphlet (Common Ground, click “read the pamphlet” at this link), and an online sign up. This common ground includes the four gifts of a compelling cosmology based on evidence, a saving message of our freedom from the empty threat of hell, an inspiring vision of a sustainable future, and powerful spiritual practices based on our world. We hope this will unite UU’s, invigorating both UUs and the CUUPS chapters that many of us are a part of, to welcome everyone and help us build the sustainable world of tomorrow! Please consider signing, at this link. Thank you.
*A Very Simplified UU History
UU history dates back to the reformation, when some Christians realized that the traditional Christian Trinity can’t be found in the various Bibles (Catholic, Protestant, etc.). Rejecting the trinity based on evidence resulted in some being burned as heretics (such as Michael Servetus, executed by John Calvin), and they were given the derisive name “Unitarians” (as opposed to the “correct” view of Trinitarianism). By rejecting the dominant Trinitarian view, they attracted thinking minds – at least those who were willing to risk it. Isaac Newton held secret Unitarian beliefs. Like several other Enlightenment thinkers, Joseph Preistley – the father of Chemistry, was an enthusiastic Unitarian, who (after escaping from an anti-Unitarian mob that destroyed his laboratory) was instrumental in establishing Unitarianism in the United States. Several of the first Presidents of the United States were Unitarian, as was Charles Darwin.
Unitarians were central in the Transcendentalist movement of the late 1800’s, such as Henry David Thoreau. The Transcendentalists showed us the sacredness of nature at a time that many only saw nature as a resource to be exploited. Through the 1800’s and 1900’s, thousands of Unitarians dedicated their lives to the monumental causes of abolition (Theodore Parker), African American Rights (Robert Shaw), women’s suffrage (Susan B Anthony), ending child labor (Clarence Darrow), the civil rights movement (James Reeb), marriage equality (Hillary Goodridge), and more. Universalism was also an important Christian movement over those same years, denying that a good god would punish anyone eternally in Hell.
By the early 1900’s both the Unitarian and Universalist churches has continued to be on the cutting edge of society, and both contained a large proportion of Humanists and Atheists. Recognizing their commonalities, they merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. After this, the denomination did not flourish, for reasons that are not completely understood. UU in the 60’s has been characterized as being too dry and boring (though I wasn’t alive then, and don’t know). By the 90’s, UU was looking to become “more spiritual”, with some UU churches (and especially some UU clergy) moving toward liberal Christianity, and other congregations becoming more welcoming of Pagans, etc. Membership has continued to stagnate through today, however. Many of us think that this could be partly due to the lack of a clear message, and not taking into account current changes in America’s religious landscape.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.