Posts Tagged ‘UU’

Atheism and Unitarians 2: the positive

2014/06/09

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

2014/06/07

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.

Footnote:

* 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.