What I like about Unitarianism

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

Before I get too far into explaining some of my criticisms of Unitarian Universalism, I thought it would be helpful to lay out a handful of the things I really did enjoy and appreciate. After all, there are a lot of things I approved of, and still approve of. I stopped identifying as UU only because I disagree on an intellectual level with what Unitarianism is about, not because I didn’t have a good enough time in my church growing up or because I had some particular bad experience.

Unitarians have a long history of being on what I consider the right side of social justice issues. (I say “what I consider” because, although some of the issues from a century or two ago have reached popular consensus, a number of these are still very controversial.) They’re proud to claim as members abolitionists and suffragists like Theodore Parker and Susan B. Anthony, and many more. They’ve worked for prison reform (and still do).  Many UUs were involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, including ministers, and that legacy lives on. The Unitarian Universalist Association was the first denomination to allow openly gay and lesbian people to be ordained as ministers, and continues to advocate for LGBT rights. In Canada and the US, over 60% of UU congregations have taken the extra step of identifying themselves as Welcoming Congregations.

One issue that UUs feel strongly about, which I think deserves its own paragraph, is the importance of the separation of church and state. I remember a classmate of mine back in high school sitting down next to me in homeroom and explaining how stunned he was, when at my church for some kind of community concert event being held there, to see a big part of the bulletin board in the lobby sectioned off for postings about church-state separation. (My friend was very active in his own Presbyterian church and had aspirations of becoming a youth minister. Thankfully, he was stunned in a good way, pleased by it.) I was stunned myself to find that it was so rare for a religious group to care about such things. Church-state separation protects the church just as much as it does the state. Anyway, UUs are advocating for religious freedom in the legal sense and in the social tolerance sense, and you’ll never hear a UU arguing that evolution shouldn’t be taught in public schools.

Unitarians are also a force for good in the more day-to-day sense, volunteering their time, energy, and money for worthy causes. Money collected through offerings is used to help congregants in need, as well as to support charitable programs in the community. In my congregation, I remember volunteer groups being assembled to go to underserved elementary schools and help teach young children to read, to serve meals to the hungry, to build playgrounds, to pick up litter on Earth Day and other days. Our youth group, when I was there, regularly sent volunteers to work at a local soup kitchen/homeless shelter. More good things got done, and faster, because UUs were volunteering to do it.

UU Sunday school was a great experience for me. One thing I would call out as a particularly good aspect of it, as far as I know completely unique to Unitarians, was that I had sex ed classes in church. Twice, actually. The broader curriculum was called Our Whole Lives, which exemplifies the … I don’t know, niceness of the overall approach. It wasn’t that weird mixture of sleazy and sterile that usually characterizes high school health class sex ed. Sex and sexual identity were explained as important facets of each of our lives, but were also at the same time no big deal — in the sense of nothing to giggle about, nothing to whisper about or be afraid of. I don’t really remember the fifth grade course too well, except that we learned the very basic biology of how babies are made and how the fetus develops. In eighth grade, there was more of an emphasis on STDs, contraception, and general responsible behavior. All throughout, though, was the idea that coming to terms with our own sexuality was natural, healthy, and important, and that differences between us deserve respect and understanding rather than condemnation.

The broader approach to religious education appeals to me too. I like the emphasis on figuring it out yourself, on deciding what you believe rather than being handed answers from authority and being ordered to believe or else. And it’s not only communicated to children; it’s also the message sent to adults, whether they’ve been UUs for years or they’re just joining up. I support this attitude for the same reason I support the “Don’t Label Me” billboard campaign — each of us is on our own search for identity, meaning, and purpose in life, and we each deserve the freedom to find the answers that we prefer. I think that attitude spills over into a general propensity for UUs to be welcoming, inclusive, kind people. By learning about the diversity of opinions in the world, and appreciating that each individual is on their own search for truth and meaning, UUs foster a spirit of understanding of others that I think is sorely lacking in most of our society.

There are a lot of other things I could mention, particularly little specific things that I really liked about the congregation I grew up in but which I don’t want to get into for anonymity reasons. The bottom line is, there are many good things one can say about Unitarianism and Unitarians. When I say later that I think atheists should be cautious about throwing their support behind Unitarians and considering them allies, or that I think this or that particular aspect of the Unitarian approach is flawed, please don’t forget that I do know about all these good things, and I appreciate them.

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  1. I must admit my ignorance about UU. I’ve been told by people that I should investigate it if looking for a “church community”, but I’m not aware of the feelings on atheism. Ultimately, I would have a problem because my wife is a cultural Catholic. She has no interest in leaving the Church even though she rarely has interest in it at all.

  2. They’re likely to be welcoming of atheists, as well as welcoming to Catholics (though whether their attitude of being welcoming of any old religious creed whatsoever is something that a Catholic can get into, I don’t know — cultural Catholic, perhaps). If taking communion is an important part of church for her, she won’t be satisfied. But I know quite a few couples who chose to do the UU thing because they felt it was a middle ground for them, letting each believe what they wanted to believe while still providing one religious community for both of them.

  3. Yeah – I’m not really searching for anything, although I do see the value of a church community. As I said, I really doubt my wife wants to ever claim to leave the Catholic Church… even if she never even actually went to church again.

  4. I consider myself a friend of Unitarianism and have been an atheist a lot longer now than I was a Catholic, though I went to 12 yrs. of Catholic school, got A’s in religion, lived with the nuns in HS (working my way through, our family was poor)..I started a religious study group when I was in my 20’s with my first husband and 2 catholic friends. After 2 years, they were still Catholic but very progressive, open-minded Catholics and I was a Unitarian. I found much to like about the church. Mainly, it practiced what it preached and the open-mindedness was an intellectual, psychological and emotional breath of fresh air after Catholicism. I’m still very fond of the church and whenever I visit Florida, a cultural wasteland with beautiful beaches, I always know I’ll find some kindred spirits at a UU Church. but hey, Florida went for Obama so things must be changing…although as mujch as I like the man and he’s head and shoulders over what the other side offers, he’s way to conservative (some say middle of the road) for me.

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