Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

Is Unitarian Universalism a Religion?

[Warning; Long!]

[Cross-posted to chalice_circle]

Most people who have spent any significant amount of time in Unitarian Universalist circles know that semantic discussions are high-stakes affairs in our ranks. What exactly it is that words like "faith," "prayer," "church" and (perhaps most commonly, and most heatedly) "God" mean is a matter of severe struggles in many UU congregations and other communities, such as this LiveJournal.

There's at least one semantic issue,* though, that impacts the the basic definition of what we are: Is Unitarian Universalism, on the most fundamental level, a religion?

Answering this question, I think, requires discussing the meaning(s) of "religion" and how those meanings play into UU discourse. If that sounds interesting, read on....

First, it's impossible to miss the fact that a large number of Unitarian Universalists hold very broad understandings of what "religion" means. One prominent example is UU minister and writer Forrest Church, who in his published works has repeatedly stated his belief that:
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.
That's a very broad definition, and in my experience it is similar to the kinds of broad conceptions that many UUs hold. Under those conceptions, it seems clear to me that UUism--a label which fits onto a certain cluster of "human response[s]" to the realities of our lives--is a religion.

As an ordinary pollster's point, I don't think there can be any denying that a large proportion of UUs see "religion" in a light similar to the one Church describes above. In my experience, anyway, UUs are invariably familiar with perspectives like Church's.

But--and here's the point that I think deserves emphasis--that doesn't mean we all agree on this issue. Many UUs, though we are all too well aware of broad, Church-ish conceptions of "religion," do not hold such a broad conception of what "religion" means. I am a person who considers himself a non-religious Unitarian Universalist, and I know many other UUs who are in the same boat.

Religious dissenters come in millions of varieties, so obviously I can't speak for everyone who considers herself non-religious. However, in my experience, those of us who (1) are familiar with broad conceptions of "religion" and (2) have concluded that we cannot accept those conceptions as our own do tend to cite some justifications more than others.

One major justification that comes up frequently is the broader English-speaking world's understanding of "religion." (Actually, I think the same point applies to pretty much every language that's closely related to English--certainly German, Norwegian, Spanish, Czech, etc., though perhaps not Chinese or Tagalog--but that's a different discussion.) As a simple search of English dictionaries establishes, the primary (i.e., most widespread) definition of "religion" in pretty much every dictionary available online is very different than Rev. Church's:
1 beliefs and worship: people's beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature, and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life

1 a: the state of a religious b (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

1 the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship:
the Christian religion

1. A system of beliefs, including belief in the existence of at least one of the following: a human soul or spirit, a deity or higher being, or self after the death of one’s body.

1. a set of beliefs concerned with explaining the origins and purposes of the universe, usu. involving belief in a supernatural creator and offering guidance in ethics and morals.

By those definitions (in contrast to Church's perspective), very little of what Unitarian Universalists do, or even believe, constitutes religion. For many individual UUs (myself included), zero percent of our beliefs, practices, and voluntary associations fit in the category that the above definitions describe.**

I think I should add at this point that I am not advocating--nor do I accept--the infamous Proof By Dictionary argument. The fact that a dictionary defines a term in manner X, and not in manner Y, does not prove that X is right and Y is wrong as an understanding of that term. However, dictionaries, by their very nature, function as informal public opinion polls--gathering and publishing data as to what speakers of a given language understand various words to mean. Societal consensus can be wrong (which is why argumentum ad populum is a fallacy), and as a result dictionaries can be wrong, too. Even when that's the case, though, societal consensus is important, and anyone wishing to make himself understood in broader society can't afford to ignore it.

So that's one reason many of us can't call ourselves "religious"--we think it misleads nearly everyone around us as to who we are, what we believe and how we live.*** Many of us feel that knowingly fostering that kind of misconception violates our integrity.

Second, many of us think that there are undesirable consequences that flow, all too logically, from defining "religion" as broadly as many UUs do. As one of the most beloved documents concerning a topic of real importance to me puts it, in a slightly different context:
[T]he answer to the question "Isn't atheism a religious belief?" depends crucially upon what is meant by "religious." "Religion" is generally characterized by belief in a superhuman controlling power--especially in some sort of God--and by faith and worship.

(It's worth pointing out in passing that some varieties of Buddhism are not "religion" according to such a definition.)

Atheism is certainly not a belief in any sort of superhuman power, nor is it categorized by worship in any meaningful sense. Widening the definition of "religious" to encompass atheism tends to result in many other aspects of human behavior suddenly becoming classed as "religious" as well--such as science, politics, and watching TV.
Rev. Church's conception of "religion" seems to have the same pitfall: even flippant activities like vegging out in front of the TV or (hell) playing Beer Pong are, I think obviously, examples of "human response[s] to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." Following Church's logic, do we really want to declare that all of those things (indeed, probably every action every human being ever consciously takes) are "religion"?

Well, anyway, many of us don't. For a lot of us, belief and cultural systems like Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, etc., play a role in human lives that is badly in need of analysis and critique--and a word like "religion" is indispensable in the effort to talk about that set of systems. If every statement like "One problem with religion is X" is met by an objection along the lines of "The religion of Monopoly - The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition doesn't include X, so you're wrong," then that broad conception has made substantive dialogue on religion much, much harder.

The upshot of all this is just that many of us--millions outside of UUism, as well as (I suspect) many thousands inside it--do not understand "religion" in a manner that allows us to consider ourselves religious. While we can understand and respect liberal academics and folks in liberal-wing religions who see "religion" in a broader light, we simply disagree on this semantic point.

Meanwhile, as we all know, Unitarian Universalism is a creedless tradition, and one that covenants to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It seems to me unavoidable that one free and responsible search that is protected by that Principle is the search each one of us deserves to mount for what conception of "religion" is most useful for us. For many of us, that leads to the conclusion that "religion" means by and large what all of those dictionaries say it means in their Definition #1--and that therefore, from our perspective, Unitarian Universalism isn't fundamentally a religious organization. Just as Forrest Church deserves to be taken seriously and treated respectfully regarding his ideas about "religion," so do those of us who disagree with him.

So I'll close with my concern: too often, I see UUs who are immersed in Church-ish notions of what "religion" means and how it relates to UUism treat those of us who see matters differently with ugly amounts of haughtiness, scorn, and derision. Rather than respecting our conceptions as possible outcomes of free and responsible searches for truth and meaning, these UUs dismiss us as worthless ignorants who have been bamboozled by fundamentalists (and fundamentalists' perspectives, implicitly, are also unworthy of consideration by worthwhile people). "Religion" is broad; UUism is a religion; all else is nonsense; anyone advocating such nonsense may be demeaned at will.

I submit that that response runs afoul of our principles. The UUism I know and love has plenty of room for people with all kinds of perspectives on "God," "faith," "church," "prayer," "spirit," and a hundred other terms--"religion" prominent among them. Denigrating a UU for accepting, or eschewing, any of those terms strikes me as severely, and objectionably, un-UU.

What do you think?


Starred footnotes:

* Actually, I'm sure we could think of more issues that meet this criterion. For example, are we a "faith community"? An "association of spiritual seekers"? I have no doubt that both of those titles, and many more, would provoke significant disagreement within UU ranks. But while it may not be the only term that fits in this "fundamental label for UUism that could start a big fight" category, I suspect "religion" is at least the simplest one.

** Readers may notice that the second, third, and further definitions of "religion" in some of the dictionaries you can find at the links above are occasionally more compatible with broad conceptions somewhat similar to Church's. Again, this is a recognition of an undeniable demographic fact: there exist English speakers who understand "religion" in manners that are different from the "god"- and supernatural-centered ways that are continually listed as Definition #1. But by the same token, the relegation of those broader definitions to lower positions carries information as well: those are minority, niche understandings of "religion." For better or for worse, those are not the consensus notions of what the word "religious" means. (I also haven't seen any dictionary definition that's quite as wide open as Church's. It's clear, I think, that conceptions like his are radical ones, ones that are at the extreme end of a spectrum--which certainly does not mean he's wrong.)

*** A few years ago, Unitarian Universalist Association President Bill Sinkford got himself into trouble when (according to Sinkford) a newspaper reporter misinterpreted some comments Sinkford had made in a sermon about UUism, God, and the Seven Principles. Sinkford's response to the reporter's article read, in part:
I have learned from these events that I need to exercise greater care in addressing the broader world, including reporters, about Unitarian Universalist language and beliefs. I mistakenly assumed that the reporter would understand my remarks with the same level of nuance and clarity that I had intended them. That did not happen, and on reflection I see that it was unlikely ever to happen. I should have better anticipated how someone not steeped in our tradition might easily draw the erroneous conclusions he drew.
That's the concern I'm trying to get at here.
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