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Welcoming Unitarian Universalists Home to Humanism

07/24/2013 03:27 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2013

Many Unitarian Universalist leaders and quite a few individual congregations have openly moved away from viewing a humanist approach, free from theistic declarations, as the appropriate neutral philosophical place for all UUs to convene. It hasn't gone unnoticed, but the issue rarely gets addressed directly and openly. It's time for that to change.

Former American Humanist Association President Michael Werner has a new book, Regaining Balance: The Evolution of the UUA, the first in a series being released by the publishing arm of the HUUmanists, that exposes what he feels is behind the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)'s growing anti-humanist sentiment in favor of what he calls radical tolerance. "The value of reason in religion has been discarded along with critical thinking, science, and progressive thought," Werner wrote, adding that a "narrow ideology has taken over the UUA."

Such a statement from Werner is all the more meaningful because, as HUUmanists president John Hooper says, "There is no one more dedicated to both Unitarian Universalism and Humanism than Mike Werner." Hooper explained to me that Werner's book is part of a larger project of creating a forum for Unitarian Universalists to consider the challenges facing the Humanist movement within Unitarian Universalism. He said, "In the spirit of Unitarian Universalism's Fourth Principle calling for 'a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,' the authors have been given the editorial latitude to 'tell it as they see it.' I'm looking forward to the vigorous dialogue that I'm certain Mike's monograph will generate."

What could Werner and Hooper possibly be talking about regarding challenges for humanists in the UUA? Unitarian Universalism is famously tolerant of differing points of view when it comes to religion, including a historical acceptance of atheists and agnostics after moving away from a Christian-based theology over a century ago. It isn't uncommon for many congregations to be made up of a majority of nontheists of various stripes.

For many, the naturalist point of view on which humanism centers itself is a wonderful fit with the "religious" framework of Unitarian Universalist churches, places where so many who don't adhere to any kind of supernaturalism find comfort and meaning. The need for such places is so obvious and clear that they aren't the only show in town for religious humanists. The Society for Humanistic Judaism and the American Ethical Union also have community groups across the country that explicitly endorse the humanist philosophy.

But what has been happening over the past 10-20 years to the UUA is a failure to maintain reason as a guiding principle. Instead, the often laudable effort to be "all-inclusive" has become so dominant that in some congregations Unitarian Universalist identity has become so vague as to be insubstantial. This is due somewhat to late 20th century postmodernism that Unitarian Universalists (and many others) found so attractive. But the Everyone-Creates-Their-Own-Truth idea that is the core of postmodernism has failed, and by hanging on to it many UUA leaders and congregations are failing too.

"I'll be blunt," Werner wrote. "Unitarian Universalism is dying." Werner may be overstating here, but it is in serious trouble. Werner, who is also a long-time and active Unitarian Universalist, doesn't really go that far either. What he means is that, given their current direction, the present form of Unitarian Universalism is dying. His book outlines several ideas on which the church can rebuild its falling numbers, including the abandonment of "radical egalitarianism and radical inclusiveness" in favor of "the responsible search for truth and meaning."

Unitarian Universalism needs to come home to humanism, and I think there is a better-than-average possibility that a large number of UUs agree with me. But they've not been asked. This anti-humanist sentiment is coming from UUA leaders, not the laity. And not being an organization that has a nationalistic view of itself, many individuals and local congregations may be largely unaware of the problem or think it's a minor or isolated issue.

I see evidence of this frequently. I'll speak to a UU humanist in Fort Collins, Colorado, or Sanibel, Florida, or Fredericksburg, Virginia, or a whole host of other locals and they'll tell me something like this: "It's probably just at my congregation, but a new minister was chosen last year and they use a lot of spiritual language that makes me uncomfortable, and it seems like the congregation is moving away from humanism."

For those who find value in community but don't mind leaving unanswered questions about the foundations of their convictions, the current direction of Unitarian Universalism is probably seen as just fine. And it's apparently fine for many in UU leadership to lose a third of their membership over time as increasing numbers of congregants become frustrated by the theistic emphasis that excludes them. But this is not a path of growth, numerically or philosophically. So my challenge to UUA members is to read (or re-read) Humanism and Its Aspirations. Then start a conversation with the members of your congregation and its leadership about the direction in which the UUA and your local congregation is heading. No matter what ends up being decided, just the act of talking about it -- something not generally being done right now -- will be beneficial.