Archive for the ‘Unitarians’ Category

Atheism and Unitarians 2: the positive


In my previous post, I highlighted a couple of rather unsavory aspects of Unitarian attitudes from the perspective of an atheist. In this post, I present the other side.

Here is a leaflet that is stuck to our fridge at home:

An atheist leaflet?

An atheist leaflet?

It’s a sentiment that humanists and atheists could easily get behind. This leaflet is from the Edinburgh Unitarian congregation that we were part for the last while we lived in Scotland.

Unitarians are justifiably proud of having shed much of the denominational dogma they once held as a branch of Christianity. The Unitarian principles do not imply belief (or disbelief) in any god. They do not require adherence – literal or otherwise – to any ancient (or modern) text. They do not declare salvation for right believers, or even take a position on the possibility of an afterlife. Individual Unitarians naturally do have beliefs one way or the other, but as a community all they share is a set of very secular values and a desire to build community and do good.

They are a delightfully mixed group – I know Unitarians who are Buddhists, others who are Wiccans, Christians of various stripes, and a good share of atheists and agnostics. For the most part, they manage to forge their common identity through shared values (I would say, shared secular values), and not let differences of belief get in the way. Here are some of the Unitarians we came to know while we lived in Edinburgh.

That's me holding our (then little) daughter, Kaia, up top in the middle.

That’s me holding our (then little) daughter, Kaia, up top in the middle.

Down in front, in the purple stole, is the minister, Maud Robinson. Her sermons sometimes have language suggesting god-belief, but never in a way that made us feel like outsiders for being different, or in any way unwelcome. Once, Deena and I even led a children’s service where we adapted a passage from Dawkins to concretely illustrate our familial connection to chimpanzees (such as the ones that live at the Edinburgh Zoo).

In that group, I felt I was able to engage people in meaningful discussion, challenging some ideas (gently), while mutually affirming others even across deep differences of metaphysical belief. It was a member of that community that introduced me to my good friend, Marc. It was among those Unitarians that we had a celebration of our children joining the human community.

They aren’t all sugar and roses. Sometimes, a Unitarian will let loose an invective. They denounce war and act for peace. They denounce poverty and support public and private welfare efforts. They denounce the ongoing marginalization of same-sex couples in otherwise enlightened countries, and ally with others to change things. There is a strong social justice theme among Unitarians which is quite impressive.

Indeed, despite my complaint in the last post that I feel unable to voice clear objections to some of the silly (and occasionally dangerous) ideas that are expressed, some of my most cherished friendships have grown out of visiting Unitarian churches. I don’t, currently, identify myself as a Unitarian – mainly because it has been over two years since I attended a Unitarian church, but also because of things like the anti-atheist invective that Adam Lee discovered in a book introducing Unitarianism. But for humanists and atheists who want a church-like setting without all the dogma, I suspect a Unitarian church is your best bet for matching values and for not having to hide or set aside your own beliefs.

The Unitarians (like any freethinking community of people) are a diverse lot, and every congregation has a different feel. If you’re in a place where there is lots of choice (we had four Unitarian churches within reasonable access when we lived in Boston, with more in the city if we’d had a car to get to them), then shop around. Otherwise, it still shouldn’t hurt to see what’s nearby.

You might get lucky, as we did in Edinburgh, and have someone like Maud as your minister. Here she is, addressing the Scottish Parliament in their “Time for Reflection”:

(I found this video serendipitously while finding the link to the Edinburgh congregation – and somehow she seems to speak to much of what I wanted to say in this post. Also, note that the Scottish politicians don’t call it “prayer time” or “invocation” – they call it “Time for Reflection”. Such an inclusive and worthwhile title. Good for them!)


Atheism and Unitarians 1: the negative


I am apparently not the only atheist who finds dabbling in Unitarian Universalism* to be a fraught, crazy-making endeavour. They are a good bunch, and generally sympathetic to humanist and atheist ideas and individuals. But sometimes … well, this post explores some of the less palatable elements of Unitarian community, from a humanist/atheist standpoint. A follow-up post will balance the coverage with the positive view of the humanist-Unitarian connection.

The difficulties I’ve had with Unitarians cover a broad range.

On the milder end, I have sometimes felt that the “welcome all comers” attitude of Unitarianism inhibits my capacity to critically discuss disagreements. This is a galling constraint to me. If you and I disagree about something, often it means one of us is wrong, and so I cherish the ability to discuss such differences robustly. That’s the best way for us to discover and correct any errors – whether they are in my stance, or yours, or both. I won’t be able to fully engage in a community – any community – if it isn’t open to self-critique and discussion of this sort.

I should acknowledge that the Unitarians have historically shown great courage in self-reflection and self-correction. Without ever breaking entirely from their religious origins, they have consciously set aside several orthodox Christian beliefs, including the odd doctrine of the trinity (that’s why they’re “Unitarians” – as opposed to “Trinitarians”) and the toxic idea of hell (giving the “Universalist” half of their name). My sense that disagreement isn’t always encouraged is likely as much part of my own perceptions as of the reality before me. Nevertheless, it has dampened my enthusiasm for self-identifying as a Unitarian.

Occasionally, an uglier sentiment arises. Some time ago now, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism described a diatribe being aimed at atheists.

While I understand that Unitarians call themselves “religious”, it is clear both from their principles and their promotional literature that non-belief is well within the circle of beliefs compatible with Unitarianism. Not only that, but on important social issues (such as the same-sex union kerfuffle in Scotland), atheists and Unitarians stand side-by-side against the reactionary forces of traditional religion. Lee, an outspoken atheist and a member of a Unitarian congregation, was incensed by passages in the book A Chosen Faith, promoted by Unitarian organizations as an excellent introduction to their community.

Among the passages Lee cites is this:

Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer “religion-free.” They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion.

It goes downhill from there, comparing modern, outspoken atheists to tyrants of the past century. These comparisons are factually tenuous at best, and far beneath the general tone you find when Unitarians discuss different beliefs. Lee contacts the author of the book to see if he is misreading the intent, but gets a reply that doubles down on the dissing, tarring himself as much of a kneejerk bigot as some of the worst fundamentalists.

Fortunately, I can report that I’ve never come across such repulsive attitudes myself among Unitarian groups.

Not all Unitarians are alike, and in my follow-up post I will point out some of the high points I have encountered in Unitarian/humanist contact.


* I generally abbreviate “Unitarian Universalist” to “Unitarian”. I know some Unitarian Universalists strongly prefer the full name as more descriptive, or abbreviate it “UU” instead. There are good historical reasons for the UUs having this double-barrelled name. But in Edinburgh, the name “Unitarian” was common, so that’s the variant I will stick with for convenience.



Here’s a post from the vaults. I wrote it almost a year ago, but never got around to finishing it and posting it.

We are a categorizing species. We like to divide the world up into distinct types of things: animals and plants, men and women, natural and artificial. This tendency is useful – perhaps even necessary – but it’s worth keeping in mind that many of these distinctions are artificial. They are products of our perception and our thinking, rather than inherent features of the world.

I’ve just listened to a conversation between atheist writer Christopher Hitchens and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell (audio link here), which has me thinking about another distinction that is prominent in many people’s minds: that between religion and atheism.

I encourage you to kick back and listen to it. Hitchens is in fine form as always, barbed and eloquent. Sewell is pleasant, and doesn’t let Hitchens’ thorns throw her off. Come back when you’re done.

Ready? Let’s carry on …

In the conversation, each of the speakers expresses some ideas and attitudes that I agree with, and some I disagree with. I am an atheist and a member of a Unitarian community (a state seems contradictory, or at least dissonant, to many atheists).

My own way out of this apparent problem is to see it from the perspective of my  primary “worldview affiliation” (for lack of a better term): humanism. This is a label that I think applies equally well to both Hitchens and Sewell (and generally to both atheists and Unitarians).

I agree with Hitchens (as did Sewell) when he says that there is no moral act that can be motivated by religion but not by an atheistic worldview. I accept this “atheist” claim that religious belief is unrelated, in general, to ethical behaviour.

Sewell asks, however, whether Hitchens can accept that some people are motivated by their religious beliefs to do good. It seems clear to me that some people find inspiration for doing good from their religious beliefs. Others, like Hitchens and me, find our inspiration for good behaviour from personal experience, or from science, or from philosophy. I suspect that many people draw on both religious and non-religious ideas to motivate their good acts.  Hitchens evades that question in the conversation. Rather than admitting that at least some people act better because of religious belief, he falls back to his customary reel of evil deeds motivated by religion.

I think he could acknowledge her point without conceding that religion is always a good thing, or even that, on balance, it produced more good than harm. But it does sort of weaken the punch of his book’s subtitle: How religion poisons everything. Everything, Christopher? No.

On the other hand, Hitchens and I (and many other humanists, I think) are frustrated with the Unitarians’ definition of themselves as religious. Sewell uses the Bible as inspiring literature.

I consider myself a Christian.  I believe in the Jesus story as story, as narrative, and Jesus as a person whose life is exemplary and that I want to follow.  But I do not believe in all that stuff [referring to the crucifixion as redemption for sin] … (around the 10:15 mark in the audio)

She doesn’t think it’s literally true, but the stories embody common human themes and metaphors. She prefers Biblical stories to other stories perhaps – so I (a science-fiction enthusiast) would call her a “bible enthusiast”. But religious? Not in any normal sense of the word. (Perhaps I’ll cover that in a future “definition” post.) With apologies to my Unitarian friends, I have to agree that it’s odd and often misleading to call themselves religious.

So, where does that leave us? Like I said above, I think I basically agree with both of them about the important stuff.  I share Hitchens’ dislike for the Christian story – either as literal history or as an inspiring fictional tale.  I agree with Sewell that religion does inspire some good, and that it works for some people where the non-religious alternatives might not work for them.

I still haven’t completely resolved, for myself, the odd identity thing with Unitarians – are they “religious” (in which case I’ll need to accept a very eccentric definition of the word “religious”) or not?  I think it is around this question that my own reluctance to call myself a Unitarian revolves.

Hmm … that gives me an idea. Stay tuned …

(Thanks to Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, for pointing out the exchange between Hitchens and Sewell.)

While you wait …


My last job ended recently, and after a long search I have found another one.  As this is academia, this one will also be temporary – I am slowly working my way through post-docs until I can achieve that great dream, the Permanent Position (also known as tenure-track).

But I’m not complaining.  This new post will let me work on a very interesting project.  And, while it will take me and my family away from Edinburgh, a fabulous city with wonderful people, it will be taking us to Boston.  Boston is also, reputedly, a fabulous city.  And it also houses many amazing folks.

One of my soon-to-be-fellow-Bostonians, Doug Muder, recently posted some thoughts on humanist spirituality that I thought you might enjoy.  That’s from his blog “Free and Responsible Search”, where he explores the philosophy and theology of Unitarian Universalism.

In this post, he attempts to answer the question “Does spirituality mean anything?” from a humanist standpoint.

I hope to share more thoughts with you after the move, once we are settled in Boston.

DIY spirituality


I think I’ve mentioned once or twice about humanist spirituality. And I know I’ve talked about Unitarians a few times. Well, I just read an interesting article, The DIY Spiritual Practice, by Doug Muder, in the UU World magazine. In it, he describes a spiritual practice that he and his wife have evolved over the years. (It was linked from his blog here, so go there to drop him a comment if you like – or dislike – what he says.)

It’s not that I don’t have a discipline. I do, but it’s like so much of what Unitarian Universalists do—my wife Deb and I have cobbled it together for ourselves over a couple of decades. 

For those hard-nosed skeptics among you who think that “spiritual practice” is simply a euphemism for rituals reinforcing supernatural beliefs, with no real effect on anything, I strongly recommend you give his article a read. You may not decide to try out his solution, but at least you’ll get an idea of a very humanist approach to spirituality and spiritual practice.

So what is this do-it-yourself discipline my wife and I have been practicing for 21 years? The heart of it is very mundane: We talk to each other. 

I don’t know if Doug and his wife are “religious” (in the sense of believing in some supernatural reality). But the practice that he describes sounds to me like a well-grounded, practical, and enjoyable way to deal with the emotional (and other) issues that arise in daily life, and to appreciate life’s events as they come.

What do you think?

Atheists and Unitarians


I am an atheist.

I am also a member of a Unitarian congregation.*

So when this news item showed up in my blog reader (courtesy of Friendly Atheist), I immediately felt torn in two directions.

Briefly, the denominational magazine of the international Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), Unitarian Universalist World, ran an ad for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The ad was meant to encourage UUA members – many of whom are atheists and most of whom would likely support the FFRF’s main purpose of separation of church and state – to join FFRF and support its work.

However, the content of the ad (reproduced at left courtesy of Daylight Atheism or here in PDF) contained several quotes hostile to religion from famous atheists.

Some UUA members complained that this was an inappropriate ad to run in a publication for people who overwhelmingly consider themselves to be religious. The editor issued an apology, saying that he probably should have run an ad more tailored to this particular audience. (Note, however, as Hemant pointed out in a follow-up post here, that there were in fact only 8 complaints from UUA members, and several comments of support. Also, the FFRF has gained some supporters through the ad.)

So, on the one side, we have some affronted UUA members. I sympathise. After all, despite what some thin-skinned atheists (including, to my surprise, Hemant himself) are claiming, the ads do attack religious belief. Here are a couple of the quotes:

As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion. (Butterfly McQueen)

Faith is believing what you know ain’t so. (Mark Twain)

So, religion is equated to slavery, and faith to willing self-deception. Whether you think it’s true or not, that’s insulting to religious people. It is not simply an assertion of the positive value of atheism.

On the other side, though, organized atheists often have a hard time getting their voice into the public sphere. Public ad campaigns on billboards and buses have often been rejected for being too controversial, even when carrying a very simple statement of non-belief. (“Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.“) Despite the success of recent books promoting atheism, it can still be an uphill battle to get people to even listen to us.

In the end, though, I have to side with Greta Christina. In this thoughtful and calm article dissenting from the kneejerk atheist position, she points out that no private organization is under a legal or moral obligation to give voice to opinions that they object to.

Don’t forget: in his apology, the editor did not say “We should never have considered an ad from an organisation like the FFRF.” He said (emphasis mine):

I have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to run this particular ad. While the stated mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is entirely consistent with UU values, this ad seems hostile to all religion. To be more specific, I believe that I failed to help the advertiser match their message to our readers. An ad spotlighting FFRF’s purpose of “working for the separation of state and church” would have been more appropriate than one that for many appears to be condemning religion in general.

There seems to be a tendency among some atheists to equate “You should express your dissent from religion in a less antagonistic manner” with “You should shut up and leave religion alone.” Sure, there are some people who think we should shut up. But the Unitarians are certainly not among them, and this incident does nothing to suggest they are. (Remember: they did run the ad!)

On a different tack, Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism (who also has a Unitarian connection) discusses the problems that arise from the use of the term “religion” to describe Unitarians. They do not share either dogma or supernatural beliefs – two features that are pretty much universal among religions as we’re used to thinking of them. So when FFRF and others make a comment about “religion”, it’s fairly likely that it isn’t meant to apply to folks like the Unitarians.

I disagree with Ebonmuse’s speculation that this was a “marketing decision”. Unitarianism has developed from a clearly, specifically Christian denomination into what it is today without a clear break in the continuity of the community. There is no obvious time in their history where it makes sense to say, “before this, Unitarians were religious; ever since, they have been non-religious”. In other words, it is a historical accident that an essentially non-religious community describes itself as “religious”. Nevertheless, as Ebonmuse says, Unitarians stand out as exceptional among religious communities (alongside liberal Quakers, some western Buddhists, and secular Jews) in that they share few of the qualities that tend to identify a group as religious.

Having said that, it would be sensible for anyone advertising in a church publication to know something about how church members see themselves, and to adjust their ad accordingly, regardless of how unusual their definitions are. The purpose of an ad should be to attract interest, and offense rarely manifests as a willingness to support the offender.

I’ll close by sharing Greta Christina’s words. “We have to not be reflexive cheerleaders for people who are on our side. We have to judge these questions, not by choosing sides between atheists and non-atheists, but on the basis of the ethical principles involved. … [T]he atheists aren’t always going to be right.”



* I will use “Unitarian” because that is how our congregation identifies itself. I know that many people who fall under the UUA umbrella prefer “Unitarian Universalist”, but unless I’m talking specifically about such an individual I’ll default to the shorter term.

Me and U


Three interesting things happened to me today.

  1. The summer solstice happened early this morning. At this northern latitude, that’s a big deal. I’m actually looking forward to a bit more night. (I think the early dawn and late sunset may be why Kaia seems to sleep so little. I ask the more experienced parents out there not to disillusion me.)
  2. It was my second Father’s Day as a father. I got a delightful little card with a cute little red hand print on it from Kaia. I’ll spare you my cheesy gushing. For now.
  3. Deena and I officially became members of the Edinburgh Unitarian Church.

We have been attending for some months now. (Excessively-attentive readers may have noticed Unitarianism popping up occasionally – here, here, here, and here). What began (for me) as a little research into community-building – research I hope to apply to the humanist community – turned into an enriching experience of being part of a supportive community.

It is late, and I don’t want to wax on at too great a length. Let me just say a couple of things to make sure my readers don’t misunderstand.

I am not going to start blogging as the Friendly Unitarian now (and not just because of the unfortunate acronym). I still consider myself a humanist. (There’s a sign on the outside of the Unitarian church that says something along the lines of “What do a Christian, an Agnostic, a Humanist, and a Buddhist have in common? They might all be Unitarians.”)

I still consider myself a part of the humanist community in Scotland, and at my university. And online, of course.

I will blog another time about the natural connections between Unitarians and humanists. But for now, I recommend you read this address by Dale McGowan to a Unitarian congregation in the States.

I put it to all those humanists out there who identify with Harry (read Dale’s full address to get the reference): we need to understand Sally better for humanism to grow into its full potential. Unitarians understand Sally very well indeed.

Marriage equality


There’s a Downing Street petition to get the British government to allow religious groups to perform civil partnerships (the closest Britain has to same-sex marriages) in religious buildings.

Currently civil partnerships are not permissible in religious buildings or buildings used primarily for religious purposes. Some faith groups are open to civil partnerships but are unable to perform legal partnership ceremonies under the current restrictions. This provides the churches the freedom to decide for themselves.

I find it deeply encouraging that religious organizations are calling for an expansion of same-sex marriage rights as a matter of religious freedom. (Read more in this article.)

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to allow faith groups to perform civil partnerships within their religious buildings.

If you are a British resident (religious or not), I encourage you to sign this petition.

As a side-note, I hadn’t realized until recently how many bizarre and arbitrary rules surround weddings in this country. For example, did you know that

If you are having a Civil Ceremony your choice of reading must be a non-religious one, whose use must be authorised by the Superintendent Registrar before your wedding day. (source)

I strongly suspect that rules like this (as well as the fact that we have “civil partnerships” rather than simply marriage for same-sex couples) are connected with the fact that Britain has an established church. It is a fact that continues to irk me, in this otherwise fairly enlightened nation – though some people think it’s fine and dandy. (Readers are invited to count the fallacies of reasoning in the article linked from the previous sentence.) But that’s a rant for another time.

[Correction: Cath has rightfully called me out on a point of fact in the preceding paragraph: although England has an established church, Scotland does not. I apologize for my lapse in fact-checking. I maintain that it is the strong history and tradition of Christian privilege in this country that makes daft rules like the one quoted above possible.]

I’d like to thank Maud, the minister at the local Unitarian church, for bringing this petition to my attention.

Thanks, Maud.

Unitarian Jihad


I just wanted to give you all a heads-up about an under-reported threat to the state of the world today. An acquaintance of mine just sent me a link to this declaration by a group calling itself Unitarian Jihad.

Here is a sample, to give you an idea of the sort of flagrant extremism we may be facing:

Greetings to the Imprisoned Citizens of the United States. We are Unitarian Jihad. There is only God, unless there is more than one God. The vote of our God subcommittee is 10-8 in favor of one God, with two abstentions. Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation noted the possibility of there being no God at all, and his objection was noted with love by the secretary.

Follow the link to the full article if you think you can stomach it. The article was written four years ago. I think we only need to look at the recent political upheaval in the small* North American country known as the “Union of American States” to see that these threats were not idle, but are already being carried out. Beware!

Also, although this group may appear to be a splinter from the larger and more (officially) peace-loving Unitarian Universalist Association, readers are reminded that the symbol of that wider group is a burning flame (image on the right) – clearly a symbol of extremist ideology in sync with the content of the Unitarian Jihad’s declaration.

* Geographically small, that is. Relative to its northern neighbour anyway.

Lucy Stone


Among the blogs I follow is one by a Unitarian: Free and Responsible Search. Last week, Doug posted a story that he related at the Valentine’s Day service in his church, that really nails why I love the UUs. Here’s a teaser:

When Lucy Stone was a little girl, she decided that she was never, ever, ever going to get married.

She had a pretty good reason for making that decision, because she was living back in the 1800s. And in those days, when a man and a woman got married, the man became the boss. It said so right in the law. So if a woman owned some property, well, when she got married it wasn’t her property any more; it was her husband’s property. And if she had a job and made a little money – it wasn’t her money, it was her husband’s money. Because he was the boss.

Lucy didn’t want to have a boss, so one day she announced to her mother that she was never, ever, ever going to get married. And her mother said something that parents say a lot. I know I heard it from my parents and maybe you’ve heard it from yours. Her mother said: “When you get older, you’ll change your mind.”

Read the rest to learn why I wouldn’t mind at all if Kaia were to grow up among this particular religious community.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 103 other followers