The short explanation is that I have recently decided that I can no longer put up with (1) the offensive attacks and insults that a large number of powerful people (most of them clergy and administrators) within the Unitarian Universalist Association are prone to launching at atheists and other nonbelievers; and (2) the tacit acceptance of these attacks that is practiced by so much of the UU laity. I have been aware of these problems since before I became a UU, but recently (thanks in large part to incidents that have, to my dismay, brought both (1) and (2) to my home congregation) I've decided that it's just too much for me to accept. I need to leave.
Here's the (much) longer version. My most recent post on my personal LJ contained an essay that I composed with the intention of putting it up on my UU church’s online discussion forum. You’re welcome to read the whole thing if you have the time and the interest--but if not, the general idea is that I am alarmed at the popularity within UUism of the work of Methodist minister and Christian theologian Rev. James W. Fowler. Specifically, I'm concerned about his theory of faith development, which he first stated in his 1981 book, Stages of Faith. My concern arises because it’s very clear that Fowler has nothing but bile and condescension for nontheistic and irreligious ways of seeing the world--which, unfortunately, hasn’t prevented several UU ministers from deciding that his theory is terrific. (It’s not; it’s heavily bigoted, and its pretensions to verifiable social science are absurd.) Most troubling of all is that some of these UU ministers have picked up on Fowler’s insulting attacks on atheists and other kinds of nonbelievers and are using his theory as an excuse to repeat these same attacks. My essay communicates my alarm at this development.
Before posting the essay on the church discussion forum, though, I decided to circulate it to some friends of mine from my church. I got a reasonable number of responses, and most of them were sympathetic and positive.
On the other hand, one friend of mine (who also happens to be a member of the Ministerial Selection Committee that is currently searching for a new settled minister for our church) responded to my Fowler essay by writing me to recommend strongly that I not post it. In the message my friend confidently predicted that, if I published the piece, it would provoke “a big fight” on the online forum and perhaps off of it.
I have no doubt that this friend of mine meant entirely well. For one thing, he pretty clearly agreed with me about the problems with Fowler. And there’s a better-than-even chance that my friend's prediction was correct; if my fellow parishioners had figured out that one of the Fowler-loving UU ministers I quote repeatedly in the essay happens to be our current interim minister (in her October 2007 sermon that I’ve posted here), there could indeed have been trouble. Forum rules forbid criticism of our ministers--and even if they didn’t, I imagine that some of my neighbors think she’s worth defending. I tried to direct my ire at James Fowler, an outsider, rather than anyone that a casual reader would realize was much closer to home; but a few people probably would have seen through it.
Anyway, at my friend’s strenuous urging, I decided not to post my Fowler essay on the church forum. But the reason I demurred--the threatened “fight”--rankled. It still does.
The first year of the tenure of my church’s interim minister has alienated me fairly significantly from the church: since I heard the infamous sermon (which is not the only issue--“Rev. Smith” has reiterated her ugly notions about nonbelieving people and our ideals in various other forums, including a few choice potshots in other sermons), I have ended my five-year tenure in the church choir and decided that I could no longer attend her services.
These decisions were weeks old by the time I composed the post above and circulated it to friends in the congregation. But in that context, “It’ll cause a big fight” feels like the last straw. An interim minister is one thing--in 2009, Rev. Smith will move on to lecture some other church about the worthlessness of those of us who don’t share her beliefs--but the congregation is another matter. The same congregation that has raised nary a peep of protest about the minister’s shameful mistreatment of religious minorities but would (if my Search Committee friend is correct) fight me for protesting such mistreatment--that congregation will still be here when Smith is gone. I’m less than convinced that it’s going to be comfortable to be part of that congregation anytime soon. I thought, during the years that our clergy were kind and respectful UUs, that my congregation would stand up and protest if atheophobia ever started issuing from the pulpit--but it appears that I was wrong.
I've talked and exchanged e-mails with several prominent members of the congregation, including the president and members of the Board of Trustees and the aforementioned Ministerial Search Committee--to little avail. In all of these exchanges, my co-parishioners were attentive and generally sympathetic. They had trouble, though, understanding the problems I believe the interim minister's actions pose--and therefore the community response that I think is necessary. My inquiries weren't met with hostility; the general reaction, instead, was incomprehension.
So the direct approach failed. After that, my flailing attempts to do something--anything--constructive with my unhappiness at the way the church community has tacitly accepted our interim minister's attacks led me to put together the James Fowler essay, which led to the warning from my friend about the "fight" it would touch off--and one broken camel's back later, here we are.
I decided, at age 17, that my disagreement with fundamental tenets meant that I could no longer be part of a Christian congregation. A few months ago I made the decision that I couldn’t take part in services led by a woman whose platform is, I believe, deeply violative of the First and Fourth Principles--the specific ideals that attracted me to UUism in the first place. These more recent events, though, have pushed me to reconsider my connection to Unitarian Universalism writ large. As I have noticed for my entire tenure as a UU, our Association is dotted by powerful ministers and administrators who regularly push outrageous and bigoted messages about atheists, agnostics, not-particularly-“spiritual” humanists, and anyone whose skepticism leads her to an outlook that is less pious than these figures would prefer. UU discourse about atheism and skepticism is riven with bigotry, disrespect, and ignorant stereotype--and the broader community’s reponse has been... for the most part utter silence.
All of that I’ve known for years. Indeed, my discomfort with (and anger and deep offense at) the anti-atheist bigotry that is openly trafficked in the UU world has been a noteworthy part of my experience of UUism since my first forays into that world a decade ago.
Now, though, the problem has found its way to my home congregation. My own minister has declared that I, and everyone who sees the world the way I do,
are often unaware of the sharp limits of their empathy and their abilities to construct and identify with the interior feelings and processes of others. Religiously, these persons are often drawn to the rigidities and seemingly unambiguous teachings of fundamentalism--and there are liberals and radical fundamentalist spirits. As spouses, parents and bosses, such persons are, at the best, insensitive, and at the worst, rigid, authoritarian, and emotionally abusive.Unitarian Universalists cannot get away with firing outrageous personal insults like those at nearly any kind of minority--sexual minorities, ethnic minorities, traditional-religious (and for that matter nontraditional-religious) minorities--but they can get away with firing them at me. And no one will call them on it; instead, it is complaints about such ill treatment that cause problems. We won’t “fight” about James Fowler’s attacks on innocent people being preached from our pulpit, but we’ll fight about complaints directed at those attacks.
For now, that’s just gotten to be too much to bear. If Unitarian Universalist communities are going to tolerate bigoted personal attacks on (ir)religious minorities, then they leave me--and, it appears to me, thousands of other UUs in good standing--behind. I can’t stay here, for the same reason I couldn’t stay in Christianity: I don’t think the community shares my ideals, despite the Principles they claim.
A few weeks ago, having come to this sad conclusion, I cancelled my recurring donation to my church. All that’s left is to notify the office that I’m resigning my membership.
I’m going to try out the atheist organization in my metro area. Though the group is fairly active by the standards of nonbelivers’ organizations, it can’t hold a candle to an ordinary UU church in terms of programming--especially when it comes to musical and meditative fare. On the bright side, no one is going to mock me for “imagining” that my secular ideals “are creative and important”; no one is going to declare my atheism a “demonic pseudoreligion” or tell the public that the group’s essential message is “One God, no one left behind.” Exclusionary and insulting messages like those, unfortunately, are the territory of powers-that-be within UUism.
I came to Unitarian Universalism all too well aware of the atheophobia it contained, concerned about the treatment that my nonbeliefs would receive here. For seven years I found a niche where I could be a UU without having to suffer the nastiness I had seen in A Chosen Faith and related bigotries. With the introduction of my church’s interim minister and the community’s tacit response to her assaults, though, that niche seems to have closed.
So, sadly, I’m afraid that this is farewell to Unitarian Universalism. It’s time for me to be just a plain old atheist again.
In light of a few comments I've received in response to this post, I wanted to add that I definitely don't think that "Rev. Smith" is representative of my whole congregation's views on nontheists. If she were, I would have left years ago--long before she ever arrived. My sense is that the vast majority of members of the congregation are not haters. And I'd bet that that's true for all, or almost all, of the congregations in the UUA. (Though as any liberal community recognizes, distaste for minorities--be it homophobia, racism, transphobia, atheophobia, or whatever other kind--exists in all of us in larger shares than we'd like to admit.)
My frustration with the congregation is that I haven't seen any critical reaction to Rev. Smith's nastiness. It seems to me that the minister's actions (it wasn't just that sermon, BTW, though that was the most concentrated ugliness she's thrown out there) deserve some public dissent. And--in seven months of behind-the-scenes agitation--I've tried, but there just didn't seem to be much interest from the rest of the congregation in any public response. I guess, given the potency of what Rev. Smith has preached, that I expect better.
It seems to me that communities of all kinds have a duty to respond overtly and critically to bigotry that surfaces within their midst. My congregation, like Unitarian Universalism writ large, has raised no protest to the virulent atheophobia that has repeatedly emanated from its pulpit. In the end, I just can't live with that.
(Crossposted at chalice_circle)
As a further update from several years later:
I checked in on my old congregation in 2009, about a year after I left, to see if the new permanent minister was any better than the interim had been. He was not. The minister, who identifies himself as an ex-atheist, smeared "fundamentalist humanism and atheism" in his application essay to the search committee. His entire sermon history contains repeated attacks on atheism. He cracked insulting jokes at nonbelievers' expense in his first sermon. My old congregation barely yawned.
I am far better off as an ex-UU.