Is UU Is or Is UU Ain’t?

No, this isn’t about that 1943 pop song. Nor is it about an early text adventure game called Unnkulian Underworld, which features a wise old man named Kuulest. It’s about religion. What it is and what it’s not. And in particular, what Unitarian Universalism is or isn’t.

I’ve been re-reading Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained. It’s a carefully written but very readable treatise on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. To try to explain the book in a sentence or two is … well, I’ll give it a try. In a nutshell, Boyer’s analysis of religion relies on the notion that throughout the world, in one human culture after another, religious observance and religious feeling are all about the relations between people and invisible agents — ghosts, demons, saints, and so on. These agents may differ from one another in many details depending on the culture, but they have a few salient features in common. They are aware of human activities, they have the power to affect humans, and you need to maintain right relations with them, because if you don’t, they may do bad things to you or allow bad things to happen to you that could have been prevented if you had recited the right prayer, sacrificed a pig, or whatever.

I’ve become a minor cog in the machinery of the North American Unitarian Association (NAUA), a new organization that aspires to undo the damage being inflicted on Unitarian-Universalism by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). I’m strongly in sympathy with the goals of the NAUA, that goes without saying, but as a free-range intellectual I find myself a bit out of sync with the repeated use by the NAUA leadership of the phrase “liberal religion.” The mission of the organization, as I understand it, is to safeguard liberal religion — that is, classic Unitarianism — from the illiberal zealotry of the UUA. The effort may or may not succeed, but by golly we’re giving it the old college try.

The first problem that occurs to me is this: Is Unitarian-Universalism a religion? By Pascal Boyer’s definition, clearly it’s not. To the extent that UU has a doctrine at all (and that’s a debate we can save for another time), the doctrine clearly has nothing to do with invisible agents. In a UU service you may hear phrases like “the Spirit of the Universe” (the capital letters being audible in the minister’s delivery). The Spirit of the Universe may even be addressed in prayer. But this alleged Spirit has no characteristics and can’t be relied on to do a darn thing. The idea that the Spirit of the Universe has any specific awareness of your behavior and your desires — that idea is just not found in UU.

A straightforward analysis can only suggest that UU is a social organization, a bit like the Shriners or the Odd Fellows. Yes, there’s hymn-singing and candle-lighting and basket-passing. The building is called a church, and the gatherings on Sunday mornings are called services. But that’s just party decorations. UU is not a religion. You can call it a religion if you like — most UUs undoubtedly do — but that’s like the old joke that’s attributed to Abe Lincoln: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling the tail a leg doesn’t make it one.”

I’ll go further. The reason Unitarian-Universalism is such a tiny, marginal denomination is precisely because it lacks the kind of doctrines that trigger the unconscious processes in people’s brains that give rise to religious belief. In the absence of a belief in one or more well-defined invisible beings, UU has difficulty attracting adherents. There’s nothing to adhere to. As Gertrude Stein put it, there’s no there there.

The deeper question is whether the phrase “liberal religion” even has any meaning. By definition, a religion is a set of beliefs that are shared by a group of people — and if you don’t share those beliefs, you’re not part of that religion. The Seven Principles of Unitarian-Universalism are not beliefs. We’re talking about beliefs in invisible entities. With something like Catholicism or Mormonism the requirement that you share the group’s beliefs is quite obvious, but really it’s much the same in non-Western cultures. If everybody else in the village believes that the ancestors must be propitiated in order for the crops to grow, but you laugh at your neighbors’ insistence on this idea or simply refuse to participate in the rites that everyone else feels are important, you’re not going to be very popular. You will be looked down on. And why? Because you’re not participating in the religion.

The word “liberal” as it’s used in UU doesn’t mean “freely distributing gifts.” That’s one way the word is used, but it’s not what is meant in this context. To a Unitarian-Universalist (or to what I suppose we must now call a traditional Unitarian-Universalist), “liberal” means “you can believe or not believe whatever you want with respect to spiritual matters.” There are atheists in UU. I’m one of them. The phrase “the Spirit of the Universe” makes me cringe. But I’m as good a UU as you and you. The word “liberal” is clearly used in UU circles to describe the freedom of individual conscience and individual belief.

But that’s not how religion works. Religion, by its very nature, requires and enforces specific beliefs. A religion cannot be liberal. But that may not matter, because Unitarian-Universalism isn’t a religion.

Some of my NAUA friends may not find this line of thought congenial. All I can say is, read Pascal Boyer. Anyway, there’s no shame in being a liberal social organization. It might even be a source of pride. And you can light candles if you like. Nothing wrong with candles.

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12 Responses to Is UU Is or Is UU Ain’t?

  1. mfidelman says:

    For what it’s worth… there’s a long-standing theory, in cognitive psychology, called “bicameralism” – which loosely translates to: At one point the two hemispheres of our brains were more tightly connected, and people literally heard the voice of “god” (the right hemisphere) in their heads. Lots of religions talk about the “still small voice” – the Quakers taking that to the ultimate – sit, pay attention, allow the inner voice to speak when it is so moved, listen to it when it comes out of others.

    Basically, religion is an altered state of consciousness, a way of thinking/being, … – embodied in various practices that are conducted “religiously.”

    Philosophies, Natural Philosophies (i.e., Scientific disciplines), can be considered religions (or at least religious in nature) – if practiced diligently. As might “a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship.” (Lest we forget – the original First Principle of the UUA.) As might being in covenant – with a specific congregation – “to live together in peace, seek knowledge in freedom, serve humankind in fellowship” – seems pretty “religious” to me.

  2. midiguru says:

    I’ve read Julian Jaynes, so I know about the bicameral mind theory. The thing is, though, when you say, “Basically, religion is…”, you’re redefining the term in a way that suits your preferred view. I’m not doing any redefinition; I’m going strictly by Pascal Boyer’s description of what religion is and how it works, everywhere, in every human culture. You’re entitled to cling to your own view, however distorted it may be in a scientific sense, but you do need to understand that Boyer is a scientist. If you’d like to dispute the views in his book, you’re going to have to work a lot harder at it. Religion is NOT just “a way of thinking [or] being.” It’s the belief in invisible agents that are conscious, are aware of human activities, have opinions about desirable and undesirable human activities, and have the power to affect humans’ fate. That’s what religion is. Trying to dodge around that in order to preserve the idea that UU is a religion is just wishful thinking.

  3. But I would argue that Boyer doesn’t get to define what religion is and isn’t.

    Yes, religion CAN, if one wants, be defined by human relations with transcendent agents.

    But that leaves out some things that have traditionally been called religions, such as various forms of Buddhism.

    It also leaves out the possibility of philosophy as a way of life, in which a particular philosophy becomes a guide to how to live, including various spiritual exercises. For example, this is true of Stoicism, both ancient and modern, even though Stoicism does not necessarily imply a belief in a particular human relationship with transcendent agents.

    And it might not apply to liberalism as well, if liberalism can be a way of life. That is not how liberalism has traditionally been viewed. But it can be viewed that way. You might find some of the work of Alexandre Lefebvre, a Canadian-Australian philosopher, of interest. He has a forthcoming book from Princeton press, called “Liberalism as a Way of Life”, which outlines various spiritual practices or exercises that can support a liberal way of life. He also has an interesting article entitled “The Spiritual Exercises of John Rawls”, which is exactly as described.

    If a social group has various rituals that bond it together, and various mental/philosophical/spiritual exercies that help bind it together, it may by your definition of religion be just a “social organization”. But that is not your regular social organization.

    • midiguru says:

      I’m not an expert on Buddhism, but my impression is that in many parts of Asia Buddhism includes bodhisattvas (to whom one can pray) and even demons. In the absence of such features, I’d suggest that Buddhism is better viewed as a philosophy or even as psychotherapy, not as a religion.

      I’m not sure what a “regular” social organization would be. There is surely a wide variety of types!

      Also, I’m not sure what a “spiritual practice” would be if it doesn’t involve praying to invisible entities. To be honest, I don’t know what the word “spiritual” means. It seems to have no cognizable meaning at all.

      I don’t think Boyer tries to define what religion is or isn’t. I arrived at a working definition based on his descriptions. He does, I think, rely on the basic definition that most of us would intuitively understand. A bowling league or a duplicate bridge club is not a religion, no matter what sort of rituals may be involved. To qualify as a religion, the beliefs and rituals of a social group need to have some sort of grounding in a belief in the supernatural. If there’s no such grounding, then the term “religion” is being extended as a metaphor; for instance, by saying, “Football is his religion.” A football fanatic may indeed have rituals and may organize his life around a belief in the importance of football, but it’s very, very unlikely that he’ll be praying to the ghost of Joe Namath or some other famous quarterback. If he does engage in such prayer, then yes, football has become a religion for him. If not, the word “religion” is being extended metaphorically to describe his relation to football.

      • That’s fine if you want to define religion as a belief in the supernatural. And you may be right that most people in the Jewisth/Christian/Islamic traditions define religion that way. But many people don’t, including many scholars.

        Look at the discussion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on “The Concept of Religion”:,Buddhism%2C%20Confucianism%2C%20and%20Daoism.

        Here, they discuss a number of definitions.

        “In the twentieth century, however, one sees the emergence of an importantly different approach: a definition that drops the substantive element and instead defines the concept religion in terms of a distinctive role that a form of life can play in one’s life—that is, a “functional” definition. One sees a functional approach in Emile Durkheim (1912), who defines religion as whatever system of practices unite a number of people into a single moral community (whether or not those practices involve belief in any unusual realities). Durkheim’s definition turns on the social function of creating solidarity. One also sees a functional approach in Paul Tillich (1957), who defines religion as whatever dominant concern serves to organize a person’s values (whether or not that concern involve belief in any unusual realities). Tillich’s definition turns on the axiological function of providing orientation for a person’s life.”

        Again, you can disagree with this, but many people use religion in this broader sense.

  4. midiguru says:

    Fair enough. Far be it from me to dispute Durkheim or Tillich. By Tillich’s definition, of course, Ayn Rand’s objectivism is a religion. Objectivism certainly “serves to organize a person’s values.” Nazism would also qualify as a religion. Which leaves open the uncomfortable question — do we really want to go there?

    • timbartik says:

      Ralph Waldo Emerson: ““A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

      So, I would say, better worship a liberal faith that believes in freedom of inquiry and democratic rights, and is skeptical that any one person knows “The Answer”, and accepts that our best answers may change as we learn more about this universe. Let our worship be, paradoxically, of “non-dogmatism”, an openness to new emprical truths, and an openness to listening to others and to being willing to share our views with others. This may sound like a peculiar, self-contradictory worship. But it really is in the spirit of Socrates, who held that the wisest person is the one who knows they are not wise — also at first glance a paradoxical statement.

      And why call this “worship” or “faith”? Because ultimately, I don’t think one can prove definitively that a committment to freedom, democracy, and openness to empirical facts is the best course of action. There is some evidence in its favor — look at the progress of science, for example — but I don’t think one can PROVE that the traditional liberal values are better than alternatives. To some degree, one has to rely on “faith”, hopefully a “reasonable faith”, but it does require some faith.

  5. M says:

    Has the North American Unitarian Association spoken out about the way Kimberly French got treated in 2019?

    • midiguru says:

      I don’t think the NAUA has spoken out about anything yet. We only have a provisional Board of Directors, not an elected Board, so we don’t have an official spokesperson. It’s not even clear that a service organization would have an official opinion about anything. You’ll have to remind me about Kimberly French. The name rings a bell, but a quick web search didn’t bring up anything about any UUA actions or whatever happened.

      • Matt Buckley says:

        Kimberly French is the journalist who wrote the article “After L, G, and B” for “UU World” magazine and was then publicly shamed, humiliated, scapegoated, and hung out to dry, and one person on Facebook said she would like to attack Kimberly French with an iron frying pan and a Thor-sized hammer.
        By the way, giving my name as “M” yesterday was accidental.

  6. midiguru says:

    I remember that whole episode now. I thought I had blogged about it, but perhaps I didn’t. One of the small coterie who are launching NAUA happens to be a trans woman (and a defrocked UU minister — long story). She told me that she approached the editor of UU World about writing an article in support of French and was told that that wouldn’t be a suitable topic. UU World has been referred to as the Pravda of the UUA. It’s nothing but a propaganda organ for a very specific agenda. That’s why they stopped publishing Letters to the Editor: They don’t want to give space to those who might criticize them.

    Rest assured, the NAUA magazine when it appears will have a Letters to the Editor column! At the moment the first issue is still in preparation, but I’m the editor, so I can assure you Letters will be included — including letters from UUA loyalists, if any should write to us (and if they can refrain from using abusive rhetoric).

    • Matt Buckley says:

      Yes you did blog about it a couple of times. I also wrote a lengthy two-part article about it. I interviewed Kimberly French for that two-part article, which is no longer online (but I still have the text of it on my computer).
      I suggest that that defrocked minister you mentioned write the article she wanted to write, and then publish it another publication (assuming it gets accepted) or as a blog post.

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