Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

"A Theology" of Exclusion and Arrogance

A partial response to
"Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century," by Rev. Forrest Church

Earlier this month, a friend of mine from my church recommended that I read a semi-recent (late 2001) UU World article by Rev. Forrest Church called "Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century." My friend told me that she "admire[s]" the article, and that she'd "love to know [my] thoughts!"

I had in fact read Church's article, though it was some years ago. And, as regular readers of this LiveJournal are aware, I am well acquainted with Forrest Church. In addition to several discussions I have participated in on various Internet forums, this LiveJournal contains my all-too-lengthy responses to two Church works: his 2003 General Assembly sermon, "Born Again Unitarian Universalism," and the best-selling "classic introduction to Unitarian Universalism" he co-authored with former UUA President John A. Buehrens, A Chosen Faith. (I mentioned those same responses, twice quoting Church directly, in the sermon I delivered in my church in July 2006).

I've read plenty more of Church's material, and I'd like to find time to respond to more of it. For one, I think this more recent UU World article (in which Church both (a) savages the controversial 2005 Danish caricatures of Muhammad as "hate speech" that was properly silenced and (b) declares anyone who "dismiss[es] the world's scriptures" to be "as much of the world's problem as they are its solution") deserves a thorough rebuttal. But time is not always on my side. In any case, the point is that I know Rev. Church's work all too well.

In that light, I regret that I have to tell my friend that the 2001 article in question, "Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century," is unfortunately just more of the same from Church. As usual, Church makes worthwhile points here and there--but, for me at least, they are entirely drowned out by the stunning number of nasty attacks, personal insults, and outright lies about nonbelievers that suffuse Church's article. Any notion I might entertain that Church's "theology for the 21st century" is amenable to me is buried under the overwhelming tone in his piece (as in so much of his work) of deep antipathy toward me and anyone who sees the world the way I do.

If this is what Unitarian Universalism becomes in the twenty-first century, it will no longer be a place that I (or, it seems to me, any ordinary nonbeliever who isn't willing to put up with Church-style abuse) can call home. Nor, I think, will that UUism have any business claiming to affirm and promote (1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person or (4) the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I contend, and not for the first time, that Church has spent much of his career violating those (and other) Principles with impunity when it comes to nonbelievers.

Severe comments like those demand explanation, of course--so I need to continue.

Much as I did in my review of A Chosen Faith, I've selected several passages that exemplify the concerns I have with Church's article. These concerns are divisible into two broad categories: first, the mantras that Church inserts, and insists upon as basic ground rules of discussion, in effectively all of his work dealing with these issues; and second, the direct abuse that he dishes out at anyone who fails to meet his standard of piety.

1. Church's Cliches

Like other artists, writers all too easily lapse into narrow personal styles; we all have various statements of our ideas that we lapse into when we're at a loss for words, or for clarity. I imagine (though I can't say I have a lot of data on the question) that clergy might be more prone to falling into these kinds of ruts than other professionals are, in light of the fact that clergy are so frequently forced to spell out their ideas in persuasive, or at least aesthetically pleasing, forms.

It sure seems to me, though, that Forrest Church is in a class of his own in this respect. I suspect that anyone who has read any significant number of Church works finds herself consistently feeling a sense of deja vu at the points the minister makes--indeed, at the particular words with which he chooses to make them. As noted, this tendency is not necessarily a horrible thing; indeed, to some extent it's probably unavoidable. It's just that the level of self-plagiarism that Church engages in is so high.

As I note below, several passages--long ones--in "Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century" are copied, nearly word-for-word, from Church's chapters of A Chosen Faith, a book initially published in 1989. A few cursory Google searches (like this one) through the Church sermons posted online are sufficient to show that he continues to reuse the same texts, nearly verbatim, to this day.

Cynical and petty though it is, I'm tempted to conclude that Church has a pretty sweet gig: he's been writing up the same nine or ten ideas for going on twenty years, at least--but Beacon Press, UU World, and a New York church keep paying him to supply the same old wine in... the same old bottles.

Okay, that's uncharitable. I suspect Church's mantras wouldn't bother me nearly so much if said mantras weren't so dismissive--and in some cases horrendously defamatory--of nonbelievers and our ideals. I suppose repetition itself isn't so much the problem; much worse is the fact that the material he is repeating is so nasty and cruel. Apparently, through all of these iterations, it has never occurred to Rev. Church that there are counterpoints, responses, potential problems with his shibboleths (despite some folks' attempts to clue him in)--he's just gonna keep on saying 'em, and to hell with anyone who sees the world differently. That I won't apologize for finding offensive.

Of Church's many mantras, these two (found yet again in "21st Century") are probably the most common... and the least per se offensive:
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.

God is not even God's name. God is our name for a power that is greater than all and yet present in each: the life force, the Holy, Being itself.
(Here are the same two lines in A Chosen Faith. You can find both of them in Church's 2003 G.A. speech, too. And on and on.)

As I've (heh) written before, for the most part I don't find these contentions particularly problematic. There is no doubt that many Unitarian Universalists--possibly even a majority--understand "religion" and "God" in a manner similar to Church's descriptions here.

In my experience, though, there are crucial differences between the way in which an ordinary UU would express these ideas and the way Church consistently does: Church frequently fails (such as in A Chosen Faith, the bestselling "classic introduction to Unitarian Universalism") to mention that the above contentions are his individual notions about "religion" and "God," rather than obvious truths--or official UU doctrines.

And even when (as in the first line above, in "21st Century") Church does mention that one of the above is his individual point of view, he strongly obscures this by insisting on using the pronoun "our." "Our" response? "Our" name? Excuse me? I for one do not belong to either one of those "we"s, and neither does any non-UU atheist I am familiar with. (And here Church's practice of repetition is instructive, because said repetition makes it quite clear that he very much means to use that pronoun. He has done so over and over and over again.)

Moreover, in none of his repetitions of these two ideas I have seen has Church ever shown the slightest recognition that not every UU agrees that "religion" or "God" should be understood this way. Some of us believe that both of Church's semantic contentions are bad ideas--but quite clearly, he doesn't care.[1] He entirely refuses to discuss any potential problems with or objections to either conception; instead, he treats both points as inarguable basic premises to the entire discussion. That approach strikes me as insufferably arrogant, and (in ironic contrast to subsequent comments in the "21st Century" article) it strongly "other"s any of us who disagree with him. We dissenters are clearly not part of Forrest Church's "our"--which leaves us only a tiny step from the conclusion that we are not part of his "Theology for the 21st Century," or indeed of his UUism.

Though Church claims in this article that "ours" (damn that pronoun anyway!) "is a non-doctrinal faith," his works depict nothing of the kind. Unlike so much laudable UU discourse, Forrest Church's mantras about religious semantics admit of no pluralism, dissent, or even discussion within UUism on the subject. I find that very troubling.

And that's the less offensive material in this article.

2. Church, Burning

But things get worse. Quoting theologian Paul Tillich, Church writes:
"The first word of religion must be spoken against religion." This principle serves well in the necessary work of reforming corrupt religious institutions. Nonetheless, it is primarily negative, not affirmative.
This is not the first time that Church has quoted this passage from Tillich--and then immediately dishonored the very serious and worthwhile points that Tillich was making when he wrote it.

Neither Paul Tillich nor others of us who are quite interested in saying a word or two "against religion" deserve to be marginalized and belittled by the notions that (1) our criticisms only are relevant to "reforming corrupt religious institutions" or (2) said criticisms are "primarily negative" and as such unworthy of esteem or serious attention.

On the first point, Church's insistence that legitimate critique can only be directed against some "corrupt" subset of religious institutions is an unjust attempt to frame the question to protect his own unquestioned assumptions. To the contrary, many of us wish to question the entire institution of religion (though it should be noted that we secular critics do not generally define "religion" as broadly as Church and other UUs do). Church has no basis, nor right, to rule out critiques of religious institutions that he deems not "corrupt."

As for the second point, I can quote my intellectual forebears, too: in the words of Robert G. Ingersoll, "The destroyer of weeds, thistles and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not." A major step toward achieving justice is identifying and calling out injustice, and that practice does not deserve to be denigrated as pejoratively "negative." All sorts of movements for justice--independence, abolitionism, Gandhian non-violence, anti-apartheid, and countless others--are logically "negative" in precisely the same way as religious dissent is. Nevertheless, no liberal would dream of denigrating those movements as problematically negative, thereby refusing to pay any attention to the very real positive principles underlying all of said movements. But Church does precisely this to the "skeptics" and other nonbelievers he attacks while sliming us as "fundamentalists of the left."

In Unitarian circles, the Protestant principle ..., periodically prompts calls for a retrenchment in 18th-century deism or early 20th-century humanism. Yet, in almost every instance, regardless of expression or form, Unitarian implementation of the Protestant principle comes wrapped in the guise of rationalism.
This is an underhanded attempt to tar UU-nonbeliever critiques of religion as old-fashioned "early 20th-century humanism," leading into Church's subsequent jeremiad against rationalism. "Retrenchment" paints us nonbelievers as doddering First World War veterans insisting that we must continue battling the Kaiser. It's ridiculous, not to mention blithely ignorant of what vast numbers of modern atheists and (non-"spiritual") humanists believe.

As a UU who considers himself a humanist for reasons very similar to the "early 20th-century" figures who founded the movement, I don't much appreciate the snideness with which Church continually treats my ideals. I happen to find the critiques of humanism presented by Church and his fellow anti-humanists severely lacking; when I'm presented with a actual reason that "20th-century" humanism is a bad idea, I'll reconsider my commitment to it. Sneering implications that my ideals are foolish, dusty, and old are not a productive step in that direction.

Life is a miracle that can't be explained without explaining it away. Our most profound encounters lead inexorably from the rational to the transrational realm.
This is a frontal attack (the first of many in the article) on the way I see the world. I do not regard life, or any other real thing I know of, as a "miracle," and I am horrified at the idea that anything in the universe "can't be explained without explaining"--what, its value?--"away." I think that's a virulently anti-intellectual and anti-science notion, one that, if taken seriously, would result in the death of serious inquiry into the nature of the world around us. I much prefer this minister's perspective on the matter:
I would suggest to you that we know—you and I and the vast majority of people with whom we share our worlds—that we are not motivated by a simple calculation of pain and pleasure, however ‘reasonable’, on one level, that might be. Instead, I submit, we are often impatient of those preliminary motivations, because in fact the tools that we have evolved to help us meet those primal needs successfully and efficiently, while they DO that, also take on lives of their own within our lives. Something enables us to sublimate those biological tools into more complex and demanding and lasting satisfactions that are valued not as instruments, but for their own sakes. The pragmata of the senses—listening for indications of danger, looking about for things to eat, or a safe place to sleep; moving quietly or boldly—these become reified into music, art, dance. The sexual impulse and the advantage of parents who nurse and protect the young become translated into the human enterprises of romance and family, taking the biological imperative to a whole different level of meaning and reward. What we value for its own sake—all play, all reverence—is the product of this process, whereby what were ‘mere tools’ open the doors of human consciousness to what become its nobler satisfactions. I want to suggest that the same thing is true of reason; in fact, perhaps in no case is it more true than of reason. What was an evolutionary gamble—simply a way of pursuing basic motivations efficiently, given our oversized brains and our elaborate social identities and relationships—is discovered to make possible a set of previously inconceivable pleasures; the satisfactions of the life of the mind. From crossword puzzles to mathematics and symbolic logic, to history and linguistics, to every other field of knowledge, the capacity for reason opens the door to a whole new way of understanding and experiencing the fullness of human living. Reason, far from being a ‘mere tool’, is a noble tool, enlarging the universe of our experience from within by offering satisfactions that could never have existed without it.

- UU Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, “Within Reason
Unlike Church, Rev. Gibbons is capable of paying adequate heed to the wonder that exists in human life without baselessly denigrating reason and rationalism, and without inventing a new vague God-substitute entity, "the transrational," in order to protect ideas that he realizes can't be reasonably defended. (Also, as I have noted elsewhere, at the same time Church is demanding that rationalists keep their hands off ideas of his that he declares "transrational," he refuses to extend conservative religious believers any such courtesy. No, he asserts that he is allowed to assault their cherished irrationalisms with hard-headed reason to his heart's content.)

Church's attack continues:
Many leading scientists are far ahead of us in this regard. Some recent discoveries in physics and cosmology make no apparent sense according to known canons of rationality. Probing the mysteries of the universe and the mind, researchers on the cutting edge of knowledge find themselves moving freely between the rational and transrational realms. Where does that leave the poor camp followers, who believe in science but don't embrace mystery? Having traded God for truth, they are left with neither.
This is a condensed, but otherwise verbatim, copy of a Church diatribe from pages 163-4 of A Chosen Faith.

Well, two can play at the copy-and-paste game. Here's a similarly condensed version of my response:
I’m unaware of what “teachings of ... reason and science” point toward the existence of a “transrational realm.” Again, reason and science have limitations, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense to invent a signifier for “stuff that reason and science don’t cover” and think that that answers anything. It’s really just giving a new name to “I don’t know”--and I don’t see why that’s profound. Indeed, it’s the very oldest problem with the traditional “God” concept.

The entire “Many leading scientists ... transrational realms” passage is very hard to swallow. I am extremely skeptical that “recent discoveries” in math, biology or physics in fact contradict reason: such discoveries may seem counterintuitive to Forrest Church (or to plenty of other people with zero formal training in the subjects in question), but a UU minister’s personal intuition is actually not the same thing as reason and the scientific method.

To make matters worse, the connection Church attempts to draw between “great” scientists and the “transrational” disregards the fact that scientists are by far the most atheistic and rationalistic occupation in the world. An actual study performed on the question Church addresses in fact found that, "among the top natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever — almost total. .... Our survey found near universal rejection of the transcendent by [National Academy of Sciences] natural scientists."

In summary, this section is dreadfully dishonest.

The worst part of the paragraph above, though, might be the last two sentences: first, Church rhetorically wonders about the fate of people who “don’t embrace” his profligate claims about "mystery." Then he brings out his dagger again for those disgusting atheist people: “Having traded God for truth, they are left with neither.” This is really hateful trash.

And Church's attitude continues.
Reason and rationality are entirely different things. Drawing from experience, reason dares us to imagine beyond what mere rationality excludes. Rationality excludes only the irrational. There is gain in this exclusion, for much religion today continues to be irrational. That is to say, it bases its rational claims on the evidence of a privileged revelation.
As a proud rationalist, I can say with some authority that Forrest Church wouldn't know rationalism or reason--as those terms have been loudly and clearly defined by people Church has no interest whatever in paying attention to--if they bit him in the nose.

As an example, the notion that reliance on "privileged revelation" is the only thing about religion that responsible critics contend is irrational is far from the mark. Once again, Church is totally refusing to engage with perspectives that differ from his own. Instead, he smears them.

The danger of excluding the transrational from our field of contemplation is that, by sophisticating our minds against the mystery of powers so beyond our control and understanding as to be unimaginable, we lose our sense of humility and awe. We take the creation for granted, rather than receiving it with fitting gratitude as an undeserved, unfathomable gift. When rationalism supplants mystery, our imagination and sense of wonder are as likely to die as the gods we pride ourselves for having killed.
This is another abridged copy of an attack from A Chosen Faith (pp. 190-91). Once again, I'll fight parrots with parrots:
This passage makes clear that Church has a seriously emaciated view of what “reason” is, not to mention an extremely pessimistic view of humans’ ability to “fathom” (and even “imagine”!) things. To me, UUism more than any other tradition has historically been able to recognize and celebrate our species’ wonderful capacity to explore and understand the universe around us, so Church’s badmouthing is hard to take—especially, again, in the context of an introduction to [or a new basic theology for] UUism.

What are we to think, those of us who see no conflict at all between rationalism and (worthwhile) mystery? Who find very alarming the claim that “[w]henever knowledge supplants mystery, our imagination and sense of wonder are just as likely to die as” supernaturalism is? (Those two are the most rabidly anti-science sentences I’ve ever read from a UU.) Should a nonbelieving reader draw the conclusion that UUs are required to be opposed to science? She will!

The fact that Church thinks that rationalist answers kill off one’s “imagination and sense of wonder” is, I think, a sad commentary on Church, not a real flaw in reason. The sun doesn’t go around the earth just because Church’s representative in the matter (Pope Urban VIII, the guy who imprisoned Galileo for the heresy of geocentrism) really, really wanted or needed that to be the case: no, the Pope’s “transrational” preference failed to change the actual objective state of the universe.

What does it really mean to “exclude the transrational realm from our field of contemplation”? To refuse to accept a belief about the objective world that comes entirely from somebody’s dream? I’m sorry, but I think swallowing every claim that every human being has ever (quite literally) dreamed up is totally impossible, not to mention enormously ill-advised. And “I find X inspiring” or “I find Y moving” or “Z really matters to me” are not, in fact, statements that violate reason, so a rationalist need not “exclude” those. (Indeed, I wonder how any human being could live without this kind of idea; real-life rationalists certainly don’t lack them.)

Once again, what’s most important here is that this passage serves as a big middle finger extended at people who value reason over the “transrational.” To anyone who dares to take that position (and there are many thousands of us, both within and without UUism, who do so), Church here declares that we are “pride” and “control” freaks, we have lost our “humility,” our “imagination and sense of wonder” and that we have “pride”-fully "killed" gods. This is seriously offensive.

More nastiness directed at skeptics:
I confess to having participated in this slaughter myself. At the outset of my ministry, I found greater confirmation for my own beliefs in Thomas Jefferson's rational Unitarianism than in Ralph Waldo Emerson's mystical Unitarianism. I believed most avidly in that which I could parse and thereby comprehend. For instance, the ethics of Jesus moved me; the Oversoul did not. I approached creation as a taxidermist, not a worshiper. Even the most fragile and beautiful manifestations of creation I examined as a blindered lepidopterist might a butterfly. I netted, chloroformed, and mounted them for observation. After long study of my favorite specimens, I could only conclude that butterflies don't fly.
This is a ridiculous, personal attack on people for merely dealing with the world differently than Church does. To denigrate rationalists--indeed, anyone who limits their "belie[fs]" to things that can be (horrors!) "comprehend[ed]"--as people who "chloroform" beauty and wonder is a disgusting attack on innocent people.

To practice and proclaim a 21st-century Universalism, we need not believe in the old Universalist God — or even employ the word God — but we must have an equally affectionate relationship with the ground of our being. Otherwise, we will succumb to the temptation to divide it between our own and others' feet.
Church's notice, here, that there are atheists within UUism is eye-opening, but in context it's pretty clearly meaningless lip service. I'm stunned that Church is actually demanding that UUs "have an equally [to theism (!)] affectionate relationship with the ground of our being." How dare a UU minister demand that? Or forecast dire consequences--apparently we who disagree with him are warlords in the making!--if we do not?

The above passage is, in nearly so many words, a demand that all UUs become theists--with the halfhearted caveat that perhaps a few of us will decide to be a kind of theists who just happen to eschew the word "God." It's an unbelievable trespass onto the values and beliefs of members of an association that purports to guarantee "the free and responsible search for truth and meaning"--including, one presumes, the freedom to decide that "the ground of our being" does not deserve "affection" or reverence. Church's authoritarianism is shocking.

Church then retreats from unbelievable ideological aggression to a more common custom of his--snide derision:
Today, when people boast to me that they don't believe in God, I ask them to tell me a little about the God they don't believe in. Almost surely, I don't believe in 'Him' either."
Boy, is that ever an old-hat sneer at atheists. As I responded the last time this cruel chestnut came out:
To preempt the UU theists who are partial (unfortunately, there are a slew of you) to the snide and pretentious “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in; chances are I don’t believe in ‘Him’ either” sneer, let me assure you that we UU atheists are well aware that “God” means something different to many liberally religious people than it does to the billions of mainstream monotheists (and the millions of ordinary atheists) in the world. We know you have a different conception of “God,” folks. The fact that we call ourselves “atheists,” even in present company, is a fairly good indication that we don’t believe in those gods either. We could do without the arrogant “tell me” patronization.

Somehow I think the right comeback for that particular line comes from Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando), in The Wild Ones:
Girl: What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?

Johnny: Whaddya got?

But soon, we're back to direct-personal-attack mode:
Yet, in my experience, only by positing the existence of a power beyond our comprehension can we begin to account for the miracle of being with an appropriate measure of humility and awe.
That's about as clear of a frontal assault on atheism as one can imagine. There it is, in black and white: to doubt "the existence of a power beyond our comprehension" is, necessarily, to lack "an appropriate measure of humility and awe." In terms, he has defamed me and everyone like me.

Well, he's wrong. And hateful.

I recognize that for many people the word God has shrunk from repeated use, but we can always stretch it again. If you can't manage to do this — the 'G word' fitting your mind more like a straightjacket than a divine garment — then simply substitute another. Spirit may work for you, or the sacred, or higher power. As long as the object of your reverence is large enough, it doesn't really matter, not at all.
I suppose I should take note that this is, far and away, the nicest thing that Forrest Church has ever written about nonbelief. ...Though I have to add that, in context, Church is leaning down from his throne to favor us poor maimed victims of "fundamentalism of the right" with his regal permission to use one of the approved replacement words for "God" that he, in his boundless munificence, has graciously provided for his subjects.

Underlying that message, however, is Church's continued demand that we revere things that are "large enough" to gain his approval. Again, how dares a Unitarian Universalist minister demand that everyone's reverence be of the same variety? (How does this man still have a job?)

I emphatically defy this pronouncement from on high. I do not revere anything that's "large." In my experience, such ideas are too frequently blatant excuses to prostrate oneself to figments of one's own dishonest, self-interested imagination. (That description doesn't generally apply to UUs' "large" ideas, but Forrest Church is a very possible exception to that exception.)

No, everything I care about in the world is small. Finite. Short-lived. Weak. All by comparison, that is, to "large" things like the universe. I revere the best lights, achievements, tendencies, and capacities of the miniscule, largely powerless, short-lived handful of primates called homo sapiens. I see no rational basis to believe that anything "larger" than humanity gives a rip about any of us, and (except insofar as the interests of said primate species are concerned) I return that apathetic favor. I have no interest in "higher powers," and it is utterly shameful for a UU minister, of all people, to order me to revere one.

All that said, I should repeat--even with all of its insufferable arrogance, this passage still is miles more pro-atheist than anything else I have ever seen from Forrest Church. Which is a very depressing thought.

In a country where more than 90 percent of the people claim to believe in God, it may prove easier to inculcate faith in a larger God than to displace familiar affections.
I can't agree with this counsel of surrender. I note that there is direct demographic evidence that Church is wrong here: as these researchers point out, "God" is in fact dying in every part of the world that enjoys high levels of both (a) education and (b) social security. And the concept isn't being replaced by "larger Gods," but by secular irreligion, the fastest-growing (ir)religious perspective on the planet. And, not incidentally, that perspective is consistently accompanied by (indeed, it appears to be directly caused by) the highest standards of living in the world.

To me, this is by far the best news available on the international scene these days--secularism is growing on the planet, and it's doing so in tandem with human happiness. However, I very much doubt that Church cares.

3. I Give Up

Okay. I'm not even halfway through the article, but at this point my stamina is gone. There's all sorts of offensive and/or dishonest material remaining--such as Church's bizarre pseudoscientific treatment of the Gaia Hypothesis ("might not everything that lives be said to create a larger organism marked with the DNA of God?" Why, no), or his umpteenth reincarnation of the Cathedral of the World allegory, complete with its daring lie that "skeptics ... conclude there is no light" in the cathedral. I haven't directly treated Church's hateful attacks on "fundamentalists" or the vastly disproportionate attention he devotes to the "left" (secular) variety, as opposed to the "right" (traditional religion). There can be no doubt that Rev. Church has an astoundingly big chip on his shoulder when it comes to skeptical worldviews.

But this is already the longest post I've ever written, and Church's avalanche of nastiness has snowed me under. Perhaps at some point in the future I will re-edit this material (along with responses to the many more passages from the article that deserve rebuttals) into a series of posts, but for now I need to stop.

As a conclusion, I should reiterate that the Unitarian Universalism that Forrest Church has repeatedly defined and described is a doctrinaire sect standing in bitter and aggressive opposition to ordinary atheists, rationalists, and humanists everywhere. In stark contrast to the respectful, courteous pluralism that defines the UU world I know, Church's "21st Century" program fundamentally consists of demands that every person define their terminology, arrive at their beliefs, and direct their reverence in the precise manner he decrees to be acceptable. ("21st Century," moreover, is itself a misnomer; Church has been attacking nonbelievers and our ideas in these same dehumanizing terms since at least the 1980s.)

I contend that this is the exact opposite of what Unitarian Universalism stands for. Any attempt to limit UU free faith to ideas one self-anointed authority approves of--and to brutally dehumanize anyone who sees the world differently--must stop. If such efforts continue to gain traction and power, the Unitarian Universalism I know and love is not long for this world.


[1] One objection to Church's contentions about religious semantics is that, in notable instances, it's not clear that he actually believes them. For example, from the "21st Century" article:
Three weeks before he died, my father chose the words for his tombstone . . . .:
I never knew [anyone] who felt self-important in the morning
      after spending the night in the open on an Idaho mountainside
      under a star-studded summer sky.
Don't forget to spend some time in nature,
      where you can bear witness to the wonder of God.
I never thought of my father as a religious man. He quit the Catholic Church when he was fourteen.
(Underline added.) But wait: if "religion," for Church, means "our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die," then there can be no doubt that Frank Church was a deeply religious man. This passage, along with other things Forrest Church has written about his father (here's one), makes it entirely clear that the elder Church had a broad, vigorous, and deeply felt "response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." But here we're suddenly told that the fact that Frank Church dissented from Catholicism somehow implies that he was not "religious." Where did that idea come from?

Church makes that same slip again when he claims that "God is on the label of every bottle of religious snake oil I have ever tasted." It is? But what about "fundamentalism of the left," the epithet Church uses for belief systems that are too skeptical for his tastes? That variety of (he contends) "snake oil" certainly does not have "God on the label"; its forthright rejection of god-concepts is exactly why Church cruelly maligns such skeptical worldviews. But "fundamentalism of the left" does fit Church's broad definition of "religion." So he seems to be abandoning that definition here, too.

In fact, as I have documented elsewhere, Rev. Church is entirely inconsistent in his treatment of "religion"--he uses the broad "human response" bit when he wants to strike a broad and welcoming pose, but he's perfectly willing to return to traditional, narrower conceptions of "religion" when he wants to exclude certain undesirables from his in-group.

That's a major problem with ambiguous notions of "religion," "God" and similar terminology: mendacious people can capitalize on the ambiguity to bait-and-switch their enemies.
  • Post a new comment


    default userpic