Four or five years ago I decided I needed to do something to broaden what we might call my social circle — my contacts with other humans. I had had some losses during the five years before that (Owen, Kelly, Larry, Rip, and of course my mother and then my sister). Not to put too elevated a tone on it, I felt I was running out of people. I’m an introvert, pretty much — I like to call myself an outgoing, gregarious recluse — but too much reclusiveness is not healthy.
So I joined the local Unitarian-Universalist church. And it worked! I met people. I got involved. I made a point of showing up every Sunday, and polished up my sight-singing. (The UU hymnal has quite a lot of songs with nice secular lyrics.) Over the course of three years I played cello in at least a dozen services. I was on the music committee. I gave a couple of lay sermons on weeks when the minister was off. I didn’t always appreciate the more woo-woo stuff in the minister’s sermons, but sitting through it was, I felt, not too great a price to pay.
On a higher level, I have also become rather active in the dissident freethinker faction in Unitarian-Universalism. There’s a lurking schism in the denomination; no need to go into that at the moment. The point is, I feel that I’m part of a community.
Or am I?
Yesterday’s email included a notice about this Sunday’s service. As I read it, I found myself getting upset. The service topic is not just irrelevant to me as a freethinker; it actively pushes me away. It enshrines a vision of Unitarian-Universalism that is the opposite of everything I value.
Here’s the text of the email:
You are invited to a Special Worship and Workshop on the future of Religious Education at UUCiL.
As we have been talking about this year, religious education is for everyone regardless of age or family make-up. From the very young leaders to our more experienced elders, we all have the need and opportunity to develop our spirituality, theological grounding and religious identity.
As we start to consider what reopening our church and society could look like, we invite you to join us to think creatively about how to adapt to the new world we are finding ourselves in. Come to think about new possibilities, what we wish to save and what we can offer to the world. Our worship will be followed by a fun, participatory hour-long workshop.
The prospect of “a fun, participatory hour-long workshop” frankly makes my skin crawl. I guess extroverts enjoy such activities, but to me they’re pointless and creepy. The way to think creatively is to sit quietly and THINK. Running around and scribbling words and phrases on pieces of paper pinned to the wall (which is what they did at the last UU “fun, participatory workshop” I attended) is fine for kindergarten, but it’s not for adults.
But that’s a side issue. The real issue is “our spirituality, theological grounding[,] and religious identity.” Oh, and we’re alleged all to have a need for same. This way of couching the business (“we all have the need”) is a blatant slap in the face of the freethinkers in the congregation.
I don’t know what spirituality is. The word means nothing to me, and I don’t much care what it means to anybody else. I don’t trust people who wave it around as if it were a flag.
Richard Dawkins once remarked that he thought Oxford really ought not to offer a degree in theology, because there’s nothing to study. That’s precisely correct. Theology (the word means the study of “God”) is an empty field of inquiry. Theology is pure hokum. Alex (the earnest young man who will apparently be leading the service) feels we all need to be grounded in hokum. In malarkey. In, not to mince words, bullshit.
I have no religious identity, and I want none. I joined the church for the people, not for the religion. I’m quite aware that both historically and in the present day, religion is a nasty, nasty business. It hurts people. It kills people. In my view, anyone who aspires to a religious identity is mentally defective. A lot of religious people are very nice people — but you can be very nice and also be mentally defective. The two are not mutually exclusive.
The upshot of this email is fairly simple: My local UU church is actively pushing me away. Pushing me out of the congregation. This email makes it very clear that freethinkers are not welcome in the congregation. We may remain if we like, but we will be expected to sit in the rear pews and to remain politely silent. If we speak out, we will be considered disruptive. Our input, no matter how heartfelt or respectfully phrased, will be ignored.
It’s a sad state of affairs. I will miss my friends, damn it!
I drafted an email response, which I’m not going to send. In it, I advised Alex to just stop. Just stop. Become rational. Rationality has rewards! Among the rewards, you will no longer feel quite so confident in making assertions about what other people need.
Unitarianism used to be about the right of the individual to believe whatever he or she found persuasive, and to cast aside whatever ideas he or she found unconvincing. But in the new UUism, that is no longer the case. In the new UUism, we are all expected to embrace spirituality, theological grounding, and religious identity.
Oh, well. At least I’ll save a couple of thousand bucks by not tithing.