Regaining Balance The Evolution of the UUA

Humanism within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has been on the decline for years. Indeed, the UUA has been on the decline itself after having been instrumental in the development of modern day humanism. What happened?

Humanism as an organized philosophy has its origin only about 100 years ago. Voltaire, Nicolas de Cordorcet, and the other philosophers in France were atheists but had no alternative story, no integrated worldview. That was until Charles Darwin discovered the foundation of our origins. In the late nineteenth century there certainly were lone nonbelievers like Robert G. Ingersoll, but the task of developing and articulating a naturalistic worldview in contrast to the theistic one fell on religious liberals. The Free Religious Association developed with members such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and other proto-humanists. In both Unitarianism and Ethical Culture a coalescence of ideas started to merge into a new modernist worldview. Within Unitarianism, a Midwest group called the Western Conference built on these ideas and pressed the Unitarian Association to remove its theistic set of principles and allow the growing number of nontheists freedom of conscience.

The Unitarian tradition has always honored religious freedom and freedom of belief. Less recognized is its focus on reason in religion. Intentionally a more elitist community, Unitarians gained the title of “God’s frozen people” due to their more cerebral style. The radicals in the Midwest pushed the boundaries further by embracing a scientific view of life undergirded by naturalism and evolution, but always seeking an evocative whole story of meaning and purpose—indeed, an ethical foundation of life without God. Today we humanists take our lifestance for granted, but we must remember that trying to assert such an outlook at that time was a radical and difficult task.

Freethinkers of the late nineteenth century sought to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, seeking to keep the functional aspects of religion that suited them—ethical teaching, community, evocative arts, celebrations, and so forth—but discarding the otherworldliness, prayer, God talk, meaningless ritual, and study of the Bible other than as literature. This version of humanism has been called religious humanism, with its greater emphasis on community, ethical living, and the evocative experiential aspects of our being. (In reality there’s no real difference in any of our “humanisms,” only degrees of emphasis and style. In fact, I’ve seen so-called religious humanists who were some of the most nonsocial rationalists and so-called hardnosed atheists who desperately sought community with others. That’s why I don’t use adjectives in front of the word humanism anymore.)

In the beginning of the twentieth century, one minister, John Dietrich, was living in then backwater Minneapolis and bringing in thousands to hear his clear, unapologetic message of what he called humanism. The modern terminology of nontheistic, naturalistic humanism stems from Dietrich’s original usage.

The 1933 Humanist Manifesto was written to set forth a clear summary of the humanist worldview at a time when it was thought that civilization was in peril. Written by philosopher Roy Wood Sellars along with Unitarian ministers Ray Bragg and Edwin H. Wilson, HM-1 was signed by fifteen Unitarians and one Universalist minister. John Dewey also signed it. By 1935 an organization that had been renamed the Humanist Press Association was publishing the Humanist Bulletin. They reorganized in 1941 as the American Humanist Association (AHA) and began printing the Humanist magazine under the editorship of Wilson.

The first five presidents of the AHA were Unitarian ministers, and the UUA became the primary promoter, proselytizer, and source of AHA members, at the same time attracting some of the best and brightest of the age to serve as ministers. In the 1950s and ’60s, these ministers were responsible for deepening humanist thought and practice, and for bringing many to humanism. A 1963 report titled “The Free Church in a Changing World” indeed suggested that because the identity of the UUA was so dominated by humanism, it should openly identify itself as such and build on identification with reason and science. In 1989, fully 73 percent of UUs identified as either humanists or atheists. In 1992 it was estimated to be 49 percent and in 1997 it was down to 46 percent. Today, less than 40 percent of UUs identify as humanists or atheists, and many have no idea what humanism is. Still, the vast majority are certainly humanistic (that is, people-centered vs. God-centered).

Why is it that today the UUA has moved toward a focus on indiscriminate pluralism and radical tolerance rather than reason in religion?

At the time of the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist associations in 1961, the Universalists had changed their message from one of universal salvation in heaven to one embracing all theologies universally and uncritically. A quiet debate developed over what path to take, reason in religion or radical pluralism. Radical pluralism won out.

Part of the retreat from reason was due to the many humanists who pushed an argumentative rationalism with little tolerance for theists. A stereotype developed of humanists as angry old white men with little appreciation for the values of kindness, compassion, forbearance, and community building. Of course this stereotype was led by a few misanthropes and didn’t represent the majority of more balanced humanists.

At the same time society saw the rise of a neo-romantic counterculture where the experiential was valued over the rational (as expressed in the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll”) and pseudoscience was valued over empirical evidence. Nonsensical beliefs such as astrology, faith healing, and spiritualism grew rapidly. Then with the advent of the Moral Majority and TV evangelism, fundamentalism became mainstream and moved society even further to the religious right.

Turning away from the Enlightenment project was in some ways part of an American tradition. As Richard Hofstadter observed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life: “Intellect in America is resented as a kind of excellence, as a claim to distinction, as a challenge to egalitarianism, as a quality which almost certainly deprives a man or woman of the common touch.”

One of the most disastrous developments was the emergence of postmodernism with its premise that all we know is a social construct, and that both the Enlightenment and the Romantic projects were merely tools used to rationalize power and control over others. As an extreme form of subjectivism and skepticism, postmodernism took over academia, the UU ministry, and, more subtly, the general culture. Without even knowing of its ideological basis, many ministers and lay people still adhere to its bias toward relativism and anti-intellectualism with sentiments like “One belief is as good as another,” “Who am I to judge?” and “It’s all relative.”

Many second-wave academic feminists likewise embraced postmodernism and saw reason as a tool of male domination (which it certainly can be). There were a few women who stood up to this disparagement of reason and science; social critic Camille Paglia called postmodernism “pretentious nonsense” and Kendyl Gibbons, a long-time UU minister, cautioned, “the first chapter of the Enlightenment may be closed, but reason and objective truth, like Pauline of the Perils, has a way of making a comeback out of seemingly dire situations.” She was right. Third-wave feminists are very science-oriented and feminism is evolving out of the past excesses.

Looking back, a significant revolution within U.S. theological schools began with Paul Tillich’s book, The Courage to Be, written in 1952. In it, he suggested we could redefine the word God in secular terms as “that which is our ultimate concern.” (Of course, interpreting this in the extreme one could say that God is golf just as easily as God is love.)

Many saw the revival and use of metaphorical religious language as crucial to the UUA.  Some saw it as a way to revitalize theism or at least to make theists feel welcome. Some ministers argued that fundamentalists shouldn’t have all the good words, or alternatively that humanists need not be afraid of words, and they implemented a concerted effort to reintroduce religious language. The result of this is that many humanists felt uncomfortable and consequently many left UU congregations rather than compromise their intellectual and religious integrity with what they saw as a regressive, conservative direction. Those who didn’t conform were labeled as unsophisticated about religion, intolerant, angry at God, or “fundamentalist” humanists. While the argument was and still is that the UUA is merely trying to evoke a poetic language open to all, the reality is that traditional religious language fosters the conservative theistic directions that have marginalized humanists, and that naturalistic and supernatural language remain largely incommensurable.

One is reminded of a scene from Alice in Wonderland:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

There is an ethics of words. It requires us to be honest with our language and to bear the responsibility for our communication not to be misunderstood. It requires that we know when and where to use metaphor and when to use specific descriptive language and to responsibly ensure that the listener understands what we really mean. “God” is a perfectly good word for belief in a personal supernatural being and is what most people normally use. God can be a great metaphor as well, but not in the flippant manner it is used in many UUA pulpits today.

As George Orwell said, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Orwell also wrote that, “distortive language was not to express meanings as to destroy them.” Yes, we need metaphor, but the purposeful distortion in clear communication has degraded our personal, interpersonal, and intellectual growth. We would do better to have more courage and clarity in our communication. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

The UUA’s reorientation to radical pluralism was supposed to bring in new members, but that hasn’t happened. At its peak in 1968, the UUA had 177,431 members in the United States; by 2012 the membership had diminished to 161,502. More importantly, while the population of the United States grew 54 percent during this time, the UUA lost not just membership, but a percentage of market share of the population, from 0.88 percent to just 0.51 percent.

Studies by sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke clearly show that people want their religious communities narrowly focused, different, and demanding. When the UUA was focused on reason in religion and heretical humanism it grew greatly. By widening the spectrum of beliefs and becoming more theistic (a statistical regression to the mean) it lost its vibrant appeal and brand image. It became one more in a family of liberal, syncretistic, fuzzy theistic communities that exhibit great tolerance but are without foundations. This change reflects the growing trend in the United States of religion becoming a religion of the self—what I like to call the church of the greater solipsism.

Many UU congregations, especially large suburban ones, are still thriving and humanism is still thriving therein so it’s hard for those congregations to see these trends. I’d also note that the UUA, if not supporting naturalistic humanism, is still a glowing example of how to build caring communities dedicated to social change. However, in many ways the UUA has given up on the big, overarching questions of our existence, questions like, “Where did we come from?” and “What is truth?” And so on.

Just at a time when secularism is sweeping the country and very specifically the Millennial Generation (33 percent of whom describe themselves as having no religious affiliation), the UUA has moved demographically to the theological right. Just when young secular voices are crying out for a new worldview that maintains their intellectual integrity while embracing an evocative ethical lifestance, the UUA tries to be a universal religion. Just when people are looking for intelligent scientific answers to how we got here, where we’re going, how best to live our lives, and how to find meaning and purpose in life—all the things humanism can offer—the UUA has become the home of indiscriminate pluralism. Trying to be all things to all people has become a value much higher than truth and reason. Our values, always in conflict, are shorn down simplistically to only one: tolerance. And a natural balance has been lost.

Can humanism in the UUA be revived? I think so, but it must be led by a ministry that sees the need for the humanist lifestance to be unapologetically embraced as it once was. It will require courage and open minds to balance tolerance and reason, heart and mind. This form of humanism won’t appeal to everyone, but a return to humanism offers the UUA a chance to revive itself for the twenty-first century’s secular revolution.