I’m going to be doing a series of posts here about my experiences growing up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation as well as my thoughts (based on those experiences) regarding liberal religion and how it relates to atheism and atheists. This is the first post in that series, in which I intend to explain basically what my church was about. Many people have barely heard of UUism; almost everyone I’ve ever talked to about it requires some brief explanation. I’ll first explain what Unitarian Universalist means, and then I’ll talk about what our congregation was like.
Unitarian Universalism is the result of a mid-20th century merger between two essentially Protestant Christian groups: Unitarians, who believed that God was one being and not a trinity, and Universalists, who believed that everybody would go to heaven and that hell did not exist. Today, Unitarian Universalism (sometimes shortened to just “Unitarianism”) has no formal creed or dogma, and freely incorporates ideas, stories, and practices from other religious traditions. The Wikipedia article actually sums it up pretty well when it says:
Contemporary Unitarian Universalists do not necessarily subscribe to the historic beliefs of Unitarianism and Universalism, espousing a rather hands-off approach to religion: simply put, it is a church for atheists, believers, and points in between.
The explanation I used to give to people who would ask me about it in middle or high school was something along the lines of, “Unitarianism doesn’t say anything about what you should believe about god, gods, or lack thereof; it’s mostly just a set of shared principles about how to be a good person.” Principles like, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,” and “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”
But that was all very theoretical. What is it actually like to attend a UU church? Well, for one, it’s unclear whether you should be calling it a “church.” Many congregations have, especially recently, been growing uneasy with the practice of labeling themselves churches. After all, they’re so different from what most people imagine when they use the term. But they tend to already have their abbreviation all over the place — so some have started voting to change the “C” from “Church” to “Congregation” or “Community” or something like that. (I’ll be writing about this in a later post.)
It’s also important to remember that, because of the creedless nature of UUism, it’s hard to predict what a given congregation will actually be like. My description applies to the one I grew up in, but it’s not the same everywhere. My congregation had a distinct “secular humanist” feel to it, and I remember being very surprised when, while on vacation in another state, we decided to spend Sunday morning at a UU church there. They actually read Bible stories during the services! The minister mentioned God! Back home, people would get a bit huffy if there was too much talk of Jesus at the Christmas Eve service.
Anyway, the congregation I grew up in was an interesting mix of people. I often heard people say that you could be a Buddhist Unitarian or a Muslim Unitarian or whatever-Unitarian if that felt right to you, but I think my congregation was predominantly made up of people with a secular Jewish background plus people who ascribed to some sort of New Age religious practices, in roughly equal proportions. (More on this later, for sure.) Of course, a substantial number of people were “just Unitarian,” in that they were atheist humanists who wanted some sort of spiritual community to be a part of but weren’t attached to any truly “religious” beliefs or practices. Many of the families who attended my church did so because each parent had different personal religious beliefs and UUism was their compromise. They wanted their children to have the freedom to make up their own minds.
And make up our own minds we did! I often compared my Sunday School classes to a comparative religions course. We studied the key beliefs, symbols, and practices of many religions from around the world. We clumsily made our own versions of Native American dream catchers and Jewish prayer shawls. In a course called “Neighboring Faiths,” we visited a wide range of other local congregations in the area to find out how other people thought and acted in their faith. Our equivalent of confirmation happened through a program that used to be called “Religion in Life” but is now called “Coming of Age” — basically a series of discussions with the minister and each other, through which each child (by then a young teen) has an opportunity to develop and clarify their beliefs about life’s origins and purpose as well as ethical behavior. At the end, we were invited to write our own personal creed.
I think that this process of education contributed greatly to my becoming an atheist. I don’t remember ever believing in a god or gods, but I do remember proudly and openly calling myself an “atheist” for the first time upon completion of that confirmation-type class. An outside observer might expect that, after being presented with so many different supernatural belief systems to choose between, I would come to accept the validity of believing in the supernatural, and simply pick the set of ideas that most appealed to me. Certainly, this is how some of my friends went about it. But what it communicated most, for me, was the fact that there were all these mystical ideas that people out there had, and there was nothing all that special about any one of them. The existence of so many different religions, throughout history and around the world, weakened the case for religion in general.
But even in my congregation, I don’t think I was typical. Many of my Sunday School peers ended up with some form of deist beliefs — a respect for a “higher power” or the “life energy of the universe,” or even something they would actively want to worship and call “God.” This results in a very interesting mix of beliefs and perspectives in just one congregation. There’s obviously a ton more that could be said about all this, more than can fit in just this one post … so stay tuned for more later.