Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Problem with Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalism is about the least objectionable religion imaginable. They don't go door to door trying to convert people. They don't try to prevent gays from marrying. They don't try to get creationism taught in schools. They don't say that if you don't believe as they do then you'll burn in hell.

But there's one major problem with UU that I find objectionable. They're too open and accepting.

The thing is, the existence of god and other religious questions are objective facts. Either god exists, or god doesn't exist. God can't exist for you, and not exist for me. If one person believes in god, and another doesn't then one of them is wrong and ought to change their mind, because truth is important.

Now, I don't think that someone with wrong beliefs should be censored or converted at swordpoint or anything like that. The only way to separate the true beliefs from the false is to constantly examine and challenge all beliefs.

But if a congregation is truly interested in getting at the truth, they shouldn't be content with "Well, some of us believe in god X and some of us believe in god Y and some of us don't believe in god at all.". They should instead examine the evidence and try to determine which, if any, beliefs are true and believe in those. Eventually, as they share information and arguments, they should start to agree on major points.

UUists tend to like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. They use it as an example of how different people can experience the same reality differently. But the parable shouldn't end with one man feeling a rope, and one man feeling a wall and one man feeling a pillar. Rather the blind men should examine the elephant further, switch places and find parts they hadn't before, and hopefully find a unified elephant.


  1. Hi Alex,

    There's a lot to tease apart in this post. Unitarian Universalism is an association of congregations, meaning that each congregation is a religious community with local control over both mundane matters (location, building operations, board and member relations and so on) and religious matters (form of service, type of worship, and so on--including the ability to determine for itself the validity--truth value--of things like assertions about god).

    Some congregations are Christian, many are not. Some congregations stress the Unitarian side of our history, while others stress the Universalist side. Many stress our humanist heritage. Many others would be hard pressed to position themselves on a Christianity spectrum, and many (not just humanist ones) would actively resist such an exercise.

    This is because, religiously, Unitarian Universalism is covenantal, and non-creedal. Our religion is not focused on an individual's theistic beliefs (or lack of). That's the non-creedal part.

    The covenantal part is where Unitarian Universalism's reputation for being open and accepting gets its start. Only one of our principles is theological, and it is about acceptance. The best place to begin to get a handle on this part is here: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/6798.shtml.

    But the short of it is this: as a religion, the religious questions UUism addresses are more likely to be horizontal--directed to improving human existence, human society, human systems--than to be vertical--directed at figuring out the truth about god.

    This is because, while we often use the blind men and elephant parable, we also--and maybe more often--use the image of the cathedral of the world.


    In brief, “Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines.”

    In the US, many find UU congregations feeling betrayed by other major religions, and we can spend a lot of time, as congregations, finding ways to talk about religious matters in ways that don't offend or push buttons. This, too often, seems to keep congregations from doing our religious work in the world in a way that says, "this is a UU religious duty." But, at our best, as we live our principles in the world we quietly ground ourselves in our deepening faith that the world can be made better, and that it is a religious duty to do that work, regardless of how we get motivated, be it this conception of god, or that conception of god, or no conception of god.

  2. You have misunderstood the central values of UU's. We do not feel it is ok to blindly accept any idea. No person's experiences/ideas/beliefs are wholly true or wholly false. Therefore, we must come together with compassion and love to share ideas. Only by combining all view points we can grow to get a better understanding of what is true. I think UU's like the parable because it describes how we feel about the world religions. Each touching on a different part of truth. I would say we feel exactly as you do. If the blind three in the parable came together, shared their experiences, and questioned each other in order to find truth and a greater understanding they would be much closer to Truth.

  3. Magpie, maybe you're right about UUs supporting that, but if they do, they don't emphasize it. Everything I've heard from UUs is always about acceptance, never questioning. Also, I disagree with this: "Only by combining all view points we can grow to get a better understanding of what is true.". Sometimes a belief is simply wrong and the way to get a better understanding of what is true is to discard that belief.

    Shannon McMaster, you say, " the religious questions UUism addresses are more likely to be horizontal--directed to improving human existence, human society, human systems--than to be vertical--directed at figuring out the truth about god.". Well, that's kind of my objection. I don't think UUism spend enough time on that.

    Also, how is the cathedral analogy, at least the windows part of it, significantly different from the elephant one? It seems to me they both make the same point. That is, different people with limited viewpoints observing only part of a greater thing.

  4. There is an essential difference between the elephant metaphor and the windows metaphor.

    As you say, in the elephant metaphor, there is a possibility of comparing observations, experiencing the different viewpoints, and then thinking they've found a unified elephant. Of course, odds are they'll get the color wrong, or misapprehend the concept of the color, or have it never even occur to them that there might be a color. Not to mention what an elephant eats. After all, they're blind, and this is their first encounter with an elephant.

    The window metaphor holds as central that no matter how many windows we look through, we'll never really be able to say what it all is we're looking at. The cathedral is just a part of it all, and we exist only within the cathedral. We're limited from the fullness of reality by the world we live in, and we're limited by the bodies we occupy.

    UUism holds that each individual can find a facet of truth, and can find it in community, but that the meaning of that truth is variable. Not because the truth is variable, but because the individual is limited. To the degree that UUism is centrally concerned with extra-materialism, it is to help the individual discover that facet of the truth that is meaningful for that individual, rather than to tell the person what the truth is.

    Why do you think UUism should be trying to figure out god, rather than being the religion it is?

  5. Because I think such things are understandable and should be understood.

  6. I believe the truth about the origin of the Universe cannot be known. I also believe Religious Fundamentalism is dangerous. Further, I believe that atheists, like myself, will never rid the world of religion. Besides, extremism in humanists is as dangerous as in theists.

    Why not offer an alternative to fundamentalism where the central axiom can be agreed upon, "God is spelled with two oo's," or "We are good with or without God"? Mr. Strinka would do better to join a UU church than attack it, save his criticism for more extreme churches that are divisive as opposed to conciliatory.

    In addition, UUs do not sit around passively. Not only do we not try to ban gay marriages, as Strinka suggests, we actively work for legislation to promote civil rights for all. Not only do we not approve of the teaching of creationism in schools, we work to promote critical thinking skills. Not only are we a religion without creeds, but one of deeds—a great deal of social justice work. I wonder what social justice work Strinka is involved in; if he needs an opportunity to get involved, the UU church is a great venue to do so.

  7. Just because something is good doesn't mean it can't be better. And criticizing is the way flaws, even minor ones, are brought to light.

    As for "I believe the truth about the origin of the Universe cannot be known.", why? It used to be thought that science could never explain how life is different from non-life. In fact, the brilliant physicist Lord Kelvin once said "The influence of animal or vegetable life on matter is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry hitherto entered on.". Turned out, they were wrong. Everywhere science has turned it attention to has eventually turned out to be logical and understandable. Is there reason to think this time will be different?

  8. Hi, Alex,

    There actually is a difference of type at play. Religion isn't science, it's meaning. It's the social tool humans have developed/evolved(?), at any rate, it's the tool we have for making meaning of the profoundly subjective experience where the individual senses in a flash that there's a unity to reality, and that the self we experience in the mundane day-by-day life is simultaneously insignificant and profoundly crucial to that unity, and... well, it's the experience 'ineffable' was developed to name.

    Religions give us a social construct to make (or) express how that experience means in our lives, and a framework for action to translate that experience into our lives. Religions like orthodox Christianity, especially in some forms like Roman Catholicism, give individuals a fully-formed framework for translating that subjective experience into a meaningful life. Including the answers about God. And it works for some people. But much of the history of post-Jesus western religion is actually one of ever increasing divergence about what god is (though a lot of it can be found in proto-form in the debates of the early Church), and this is particularly true in the last 500 or so years--the scientific era, though I think this is not a causal relationship.

    In other religions, like Unitarian Universalism, we believe that the objective reality of the experience gives the individual the opportunity to find the meaning for herself. The framework we provide is to accept and encourage the individual to find that meaning. We also provide congregants a social framework for focusing other aspects of the religious impulse (births, weddings, deaths, to name a few of the classics).

    In your initial post you gave an accurate, but extremely trivialized, description of Unitarian Universalism, then provided a prescriptivist assessment of what you think our religion ought to be... something like, but different from, science. What you see as a flaw of our religion, the fact that we're not centered on "getting at the truth" by figuring out the prime mover (god x or god y in your initial post), and rather are centered on the here and now of the individual's experience of the religious/ineffable, is actually a top-tier feature.

  9. Oh, I'm all for giving individuals the opportunity to discover their own meanings. But surely, meaning should be influenced by the nature of reality. If someone thinks their life is given meaning by a god, surely the existence or non-existence of that god affects how valid that meaning is.

  10. Not necessarily.

    Firstly because I'd resist accepting the idea of a 'valid meaning' especially if it's in opposition to 'invalid meaning.'

    Secondly, if people think they have meaning in their lives, then they do. You or I might think that meaning is strange, or narrow, or frivolous, but that's their meaning, not yours or mine.

    We might even think their meaning is predicated on falsities, and want to change their minds. And if they want to engage that, then we should have at it. Also, we should stand and engage when meanings of other people actually impinge on us living out our own meanings. (Like the creationism in public schools example that's come up a couple of times in this discussion.)

    Finally, there are some other facets of the idea of relativism/subjectivity that are in the mix. Each person's experience affects how they can comprehend facts, and what meaning they experience as a result. Children, young adults, single people, parents, sick people, old people, to name just a few, can each face the same fact, but take different meaning from it; and the same person, as his experience changes over his life, can find different meaning in life while still facing essentially the same fact. Also, some Christians become atheists, and some atheists have become Christians. Whatever the actual facts are, their beliefs about them and--more crucially--their meanings from them have changed.

    And this happens all the time. Not because the facts change, but because each individual can make meaning only for herself. Here's the thing about beliefs--people don't actually get argued into changing their beliefs, they discover what they believe by serious and responsible reflection on what arguments have been made to them, and how it comports with their experience, and how it affects their meaning. Sometimes they find they actually believe different things than they thought they did. And sometimes, no matter how hard we argue, they persist in holding onto strange ideas.