Building your own theology

I’m writing a bunch of posts on Unitarian Universalism. You can always find old ones using the unitarianism tag.

As I’ve said before, one of the aspects of Unitarian Universalism that I have a whole lot of respect for is the emphasis on figuring out one’s religious beliefs for oneself. There is no authority structure ready to kick you out if you have a slightly deviant opinion or a moment’s doubt. Given the havoc that such hierarchies have wreaked throughout history, I think it’s worth saying — good job, UUs. Building a community that allows free, independent thought is so important.

However, there is a dark side to this approach, at least in the UU version. In this case, sending each congregant out on “their own search for truth” doesn’t mean telling them to take a scientific approach to life’s questions, to make their own observations and do their own research before making a judgment. After all, science might be some people’s path, but not everyone’s. Everyone’s supposed to look deeply inside themselves and figure out the best way to find that truth, whether it’s evidence and logic, or transcendental meditation, or inspection of chicken entrails. All are equally good and deserve respect! And when someone else has found their own personal truth, it might not be true for you or anyone else, but we all have to respect that person’s right to determine their own beliefs. It’s like the opposite of excommunication — where nothing can ever be wrong, except the belief that someone else might be wrong.

I exaggerate somewhat, of course. In general I’ve found UUs to be generally willing to speak up against some of the most obviously implausible truth claims of the major religions. Even theistic Unitarians will admit that the evidence for an old Earth and and older universe is readily apparent. They also acknowledge the mountains of scientific evidence pointing towards evolution, and so, if they believe in a deity at all, will tend to believe in one who at most set evolution in motion 3 or 4 billion years ago. They’re also generally willing to speak up against moral teachings which go against the spirit of the UU principles — such as when religions teach that women are inferior to men, that gay people are inferior to straight people, and so on.

But the conversation basically stops there. There is a nearly infinite parameter space of beliefs you could confess to a UU and be sure they would not even raise an eyebrow. It’s only natural that with a process like this, where everyone searches for their own truth, you end up with all sorts of religious ideas people find and enjoy — for example, there are Wiccan Unitarians, Druidic Unitarians, and Unitarians who appropriate for themselves some blend of Native American religions and believe they have a coyote spirit guide. (No, UUs aren’t all split between deism and atheism/agnosticism.) In the name of respecting each person’s own search for truth and meaning, nobody is willing to tell these people that they are glorifying one of the periods of greatest ignorance in human history, times when we worshipped a rain god because we had no idea why it rained when it did. We’ve learned a bit about rain since then, to say the least. And no one is willing to tell the people who swear by acupuncture or chiropractic that those treatments are essentially hoaxes backed up by literally zero scientific basis. Magical thinking and superstitious beliefs enjoy a special status, virtually free from questioning, because each person is on their own personal quest for “truth” and that needs to be respected.

One of the main reasons I think this happens is that it was never actually about finding truth in the first place — or, not in the sense that you or I typically mean truth. I previously wrote about how some religious people I talk to seem to think about truth and belief in an entirely different way than I am used to, and this definitely applies in the context of UUs. Finding your own truth means finding what feels best to you, what gives you the best moral guidance, what inspires you — not what is, you know, most likely to be factually correct. When I was going through Sunday school classes and learning about various religions and religious traditions, I was thinking, “Does this one seem plausible? Nope. How about this one?” but it seems that most of my classmates were thinking, “Does this one make me happy? Well, maybe this little part of it; I’ll keep that. How about this one?”

The other main reason I would offer for this prevalence of magical thinking among UU congregations is that the quest for truth is presented right from the get-go as a quest for spiritual truth, as a process of determining your own religious beliefs — as opposed to simply truth or beliefs. This presumes that the right answer you find will have a strong spiritual component, and will be something rightly described as a religion. This understanding clicked into place for me when I first learned about the book series and accompanying adult religious education course called Building Your Own Theology, by Richard S. Gilbert. I should say that I haven’t read these books myself, so it’s conceivable to me that Gilbert’s lessons inside do technically allow for disbelief in God or gods. But if we say you’re “building your own theology”, then it’s clearly implied that you are building a theology right from the start. Unitarians are not asking, “Do you have any supernatural beliefs?” They are asking, “Which supernatural beliefs do you have?” Even if they will accept the answer, “None,” the premise of the question will shape the answers typically received.

As atheists, it’s very tempting to look for allies among the liberal religious. Allies are hard to come by. Unitarians should certainly be counted among them, to the extent that they are welcoming of atheists in their congregations and that they fight for the separation of church and state. But I’d caution atheist activists against slipping into the mindset that UUs are “on our side” in the larger sense and therefore doing things that promote Unitarianism with the ultimate aim of promoting atheism. UUs still identify as members of a religion, and rightfully so. They still encourage, and provide a safe haven for, supernatural and illogical thinking. As long as that’s the case, I can’t in good conscience support them.

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  1. Just some thoughts,

    Criticizing UUs (and other theists) for “supernatural and illogical thinking” is a bit hypocritical. Don’t atheists believe the beginning of the universe is illogical (breaking cause and effect)? Don’t you also believe that all natural laws and the cosmos have existed for all eternity (or at least had a starting point wherein something came from nothing)? Both of those theories violate the laws at work in the natural world, and are therefore supernatural. Atheists have supernatural and illogical thoughts too?

    Which brings up a better question, what is logical thought? Why are you using the term logic? Did logic spring up from atoms arranged in various ways by random interactions like the rest of the energy-matter existence? Why must a thought conform to logic? The universe does not, according to atheists. Can you define logic for me? Not meaning to be testy, just a few ideas I had while reading your post.

  2. @jpm – You are comparing apples to orangutans. Saying “atheists have their beliefs, too” is superficially clever but ultimately tepid. Yah, but…. Big but. Yes, we “believe in gravity.” And ‘they’ believe in a man/god that rose from the dead. Same diff, right? Wrong.
    NFQ – I am a fan. I look forward to your posts. Refreshingly smart.

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