Last time we talked about Unitarian Universalism, I was explaining how — in my experience — UUs tend to refrain from criticizing the beliefs of others, no matter how implausible or even disproven they are, in the name of respecting each person’s search for truth. The reason usually offered for this attitude (and the occasionally-explicit instruction in this attitude) is the importance of “tolerance,” “celebrating diversity,” or “being accepting of differences.”
Certainly, one of the big selling points of liberal religion in general is that it is tolerant, or even accepting, of differences. I want to be clear that I agree this is an important, positive value. But while I am as eager to celebrate diversity as the next privileged white person with a guilty conscience, I think there is a point at which accepting differences should take a backseat to attempting to figure out what is actually true.
It’s good to respect people of all different religions. But respecting people and respecting ideas are not the same thing. Some unfounded or mistaken beliefs may indeed lose out once we discuss all alternatives openly and exercise our “free thought,” but thoughtful dialogue is not disrespectful to the people involved. Sometimes, the best way to show that you respect someone is to help them understand why one of their beliefs is incorrect and damaging to themselves and others. Friends don’t let friends waste their lives worshipping imaginary deities.
It’s strange — but this misguided understanding of “respect” and “tolerance” is something that UUs share with groups at the opposite orthodoxy extreme. Consider the fundamentalist Christian parents who feel they are not respected because creationism is not taught as science in public schools. Consider the Muslims who feel they are not respected because a non-Muslim decided to draw the prophet Muhammad in an editorial cartoon. I’m sure you can think of many more examples; those are just two off the top of my head. These people do not feel they are being respected unless you agree with them.
UUs try to have it all ways — as the image at the top of this post so wonderfully illustrates. That’s a sticker for sale in the Unitarian Universalist section of a store called Northern Sun. (I laughed to see that the UU and the Pagan sections are cross-linked with each other.) What I was actually looking for as an illustration was a flag that we had hanging in the church I attended growing up, with a chalice in the center and other religious emblems surrounding it. I couldn’t find that flag, but I did find a photo of this stained-glass window now in (at least) two UU churches. The caption offers this description (emphasis mine):
The REHNBERG MEMORIAL WINDOW created in 1974 in Rockford, Illinois by artist, Frank Houtkamp. The interlocking of the six circular representations of the six major religions of the world indicated that they all share in the same quest for meaning. The central symbol of the Flaming Chalice represents Unitarian Universalism’s willingness to accept whatever insight each of the major traditions may offer – as well as a determination to explore all new claims to truth and understanding.
What it seems like UUs are trying to say is, “Yes, we respect you! And you! And you! You’re all correct, okay? Let’s all get along.” While I sympathize with the sentiment, I think this is a very incoherent approach. These different belief systems are mutually exclusive with each other. They make different factual statements about the nature of reality. Many of them teach that people who believe in others of them are evil or at least deeply and horribly wrong; some advocate punishing these evil people as soon as possible, and others teach that these people will be punished in an afterlife or a subsequent life. Anyone with a basic understanding of logic can see that they cannot all be correct here.
I understand that many UUs, when they talk about “truth” or “whatever insight each of the major traditions may offer,” are thinking about the sort of way we can learn about “human truths” from fictional literature — but I still think this is counterproductive. We don’t need to study world religions to come up with the idea that compassion is important, yet citing religious belief as the source of this understanding just gives cover to religion’s many atrocities. And we must remember that even this watered-down understanding of “truth” is not universally shared by UUs. Many find it appropriate to celebrate the holidays of other religions, recite the prayers of other religions, or make other religious observances according to different traditions. I have attended multiple Passover seders held in UU church multipurpose rooms. We could have learned about the insights Judaism has to offer without pretending to be Jewish.
Their hearts are undoubtedly in the right place. But when UUs practice religious tolerance by deeming all religions equally true, they’re missing the point of being a freethinker.