The UU Congregation: A Habitat for Humanism

How can Unitarian Universalists and Humanists work together to create community? Maria Greene, development and communications director of the UU Humanist Association, argues the need for UU congregations and local humanist groups to join forces.

When the topic of Humanist community comes up someone is bound to mention Unitarian Universalism. That is because UUs have what Humanists who want community are looking for. Unitarian Universalism also comes up because a significant number of UUs are Humanists and because organized Humanism was in large part an outgrowth of Unitarianism in its early days. Humanism and Unitarian Universalism go together, and I assert that the over 1,000 UU congregations are natural and practical homes for local Humanist communities.

The national secular movement is growing, and the growth is driven mostly by books, blogs and conventions. We are led by our authors, bloggers and speakers while the rest of us are mostly readers, commenters and attendees. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but we’re missing the opportunity to form real, as opposed to virtual, relationships with one other. Our face time is mostly at conventions, which are wonderful, but who can afford to attend more than one or two a year?

We have some local groups that provide opportunities to get together regularly but most local group meetings consist of lectures, book groups or discussion groups. In general (though with exceptions), they don’t offer much for families, socializing, volunteerism or social/political engagement and they tend to be few and far between. Scientific studies show the many benefits of social connectedness and most people realize that the staying power of religion has a lot to do with the draw of community. (Many speculate that there are a large number of non-believers in religious congregations who are there purely for the community.) I don’t just want a Humanist local group, I want a Humanist congregation that is fully engaged with my local community and concerned about making the world a better place. I want a place where I can find friendship, a village to help raise my kids, support during life’s challenges and all the other benefits that religious folks get (with often a dozen nearby choices) but without having to leave my brain at the door or pretend that I am something I am not.

Many Humanists have dismissed the potential of UU community because of the perception that the UU leadership (local ministers and the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), based mostly in Boston) have “gone over to the dark side” of theism, new-agey beliefs or other forms of woo woo. While that may be true to some extent, all UU congregations are different, all are democratic and there is a long history of Humanism that is still strong in the movement, particularly among the rank and file membership. Unitarian Universalism is non-creedal but there are seven principles that overlap nicely with the Humanist Manifesto. Though one principle does use the word “spiritual,” Humanists choose to interpret that as the André Comte-Sponville type of spirituality. The UU ethic is a Humanist ethic and there is no mention of supernaturalism in the seven principles. In my estimation, by their (mostly liberal) values and (mostly progressive) politics, there is 95% overlap between the average attitudes and behaviors of all UUA members and all American Humanist Association members. Most of the 5% difference lies in the UUs tolerance of, or sometimes adherence to, “faith” of some sort and in some of the more atheist-oriented AHA members’ rejection of tolerance.

The secular movement is just starting to experiment with many new types of atheist churches, Humanist chaplaincies at colleges, Sunday Assemblies and other congregational-style groups. The Humanist Community Project (based at Harvard) is encouraging and promoting all of these experiments with the explicit support of the American Humanist Association and the HUUmanists Association. They take to heart Socrates’ advice: “The secret to change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” While we’re trying lots of new things and some of them may catch on, I, like many of us, am looking for a local Humanist community now. I’m willing to help but, also like most, I don’t have the time, energy or money to start from scratch, nor am I close enough to an urban center to be where one of these new experiments is likely to be tried (or where there might be an Ethical Culture Society which would also meet my needs). I want it now and I want it local.

I’m going with the cliché, “Why throw the baby out with the bath water?” I’m proposing that we piggy-back some of our Humanist communities on UU congregations as a form of bootstrapping. We can “take the best and leave the rest” at the same time that we offer back something the UUA sorely needs: rationality and support for those in the UUA who are Humanists and atheists. In addition, UU congregations are often halfway houses for those leaving religion. Let’s give those people a Humanist place to go to. Let’s give the “seeker” portion of the non-religious “Nones” what they are looking for (hint: it’s not traditional UU services). And again, let’s give the UU Humanists a reason to stay.

Specifically, I believe that every UU congregation should have a UU Humanist/AHA Chapter that meets regularly, ideally weekly or at least monthly. Sunday afternoons seem like a fine time for meetings. My suggestion would be to start with the coffee hour of the last “official” service, so in my congregation that would be around 12:00. If people regularly bring a potluck of finger foods then those who went to the earlier service (perhaps because their children were attending classes) could just stay for the Humanist meeting. Humanists who cannot tolerate the “Protestant-light” flavor of the regular service (likely to have hymns and a sermon) can come for the food/socializing and the Humanist meeting. (Those who are anti-social or really like to sleep in on Sundays can just come for the meeting.) The full range of opportunities and services would be available to all: a building or campus at which to meet, education about religion for our kids, youth groups and the excellent Our Whole Lives (OWL) program about human sexuality for our teens, Social Justice Committees with their educational and service opportunities, potlucks and picnics, people to hike with or ask for advice about finding a plumber, and so on.

Being part of the Humanist local group that is associated with a UU congregation does not mean you have to be a UU (you don’t have to “sign the book” as the UUs put it) because your philosophy may not align well enough with UU philosophy. You may have such a strong philosophical objection to the word “religion” that you cannot bring yourself to associate with those who use the term, even if they emphasize that it can be a non-theistic religion (like Ethical Culture or Humanistic Judaism). It is true that we might have to put up with or influence the congregation to stop using “God talk” (calling the building a “church”, the Sunday services “worship” and so on) but I am willing to accept that trade-off. I recognize that Unitarian Universalism evolved from liberal Christianity (though it is no longer Christian) and I can live with a few family resemblances while encouraging my congregation to intentionally become more inclusive. Making use of the benefits of a UU congregation does mean at least some of the Humanists must be willing to support the congregation financially and by volunteering (what UUs refer to as “time, talent and treasure”). That is the price of any community and the reality of how that price is shared by a larger group.

So what does Unitarian Universalism offer Humanists who are looking for community? A number of things:

1. Roots: Did you know that the authors and half of the signers of the original Humanist Manifesto were Unitarians or Universalists? That the AHA’s primary founders were UU ministers and that the HUUmanists Association (then called the Fellowship for Religious Humanism) was founded by the same man (Edwin H. Wilson) who was the executive director, and sole employee, of the AHA for over 20 years?

2. People: The UUA has around 160,000 members (roughly half of whom identify as Humanist) and over 1,000 congregations. It has many more members if you count those who consider themselves UUs but do not belong to a congregation. The AHA has approximately 23,000 people and 179 local groups. There is tremendous growth potential for organized Humanism if we can reach the UU Humanists.

3. Infrastructure: Almost all UU congregations have buildings with meeting space, classrooms, kitchens, halls, libraries, parking, insurance and maintenance staff. They often have paid staff (usually helped by volunteer committees) for children’s education, youth programs, music, counseling and crisis support, outreach and office administration.

4. Programs: To name just a few: The existing “Religious Education” curriculum for kids needs some beefing up for Humanism/science/critical thinking but it is not indoctrinational and teaches about world religions in the way public schools should but don’t. (This often includes a Neighboring Faiths program where the kids visit, maybe attend services and talk to leaders at local churches, synagogues and mosques.) The OWL human sexuality program for teens mentioned earlier is fantastic and secular. The Coming of Age program (like confirmation, for kids entering high school) and Bridging (kids graduating from high school) are both excellent and could use Humanist mentors/influence. The local and national/international programs for social action are superb (dealing in the last few years with issues like LGBT rights, immigration rights, justice for low-wage workers, racial discrimination in the judicial system, and so on.) Humanists who are interested in becoming chaplains or ministers are welcomed at UU seminaries.

5. Culture: There are some beautiful UU traditions that Humanist communities could embrace. Flower Communion, for instance, is a gorgeous practice where everyone brings a flower (purchased or, more commonly, cut from a garden or responsibly plucked from a field) and they are all gathered into big baskets that are brought up to the front by children. At the end of the service, everyone brings a different flower home. Our congregation has a May pole every spring. We have choirs that sing more traditional tunes, but we also have a jazz band, drumming circle and even a ukulele choir! The kids and youth groups put on a lot of skits and ours even do a sword dance every year as part of the winter holiday play. On Art Sunday everyone is invited to bring something they’ve created in the last year to share and inspire. We have old fashioned country fairs, make and sell apple pies together, sponsor folk musicians in a coffeehouse performance series, host classical concerts, etc.

The fact remains that you, a Humanist, will sometimes be doing these things with non-Humanists if you choose to join the community. Compared to participating in interfaith work, participating in a UU congregation takes very little tolerance because these are progressive people like us. (Read Doug Muder’s excellent New Humanism article, “A Church that Would Have You As a Member“, to get an idea of whether you would be “a contented parishioner or a stomper-out-the-door.”) Like interfaith work, it has all the benefits of spreading the news (to some) that Humanists are ethical too. But it does require some tolerance on both sides, and ideally, acceptance. A lot of UUs, especially UU ministers, are scared of the strawman, “angry atheist” Humanist who is completely rational, hyper-critical and not open to any emotional experience. They worry that welcoming Humanists will spark the old “theist-Humanist controversies” that threatened to, and did, divide some congregations in the past. We need to come to an agreement (a covenant, in UU-speak) to make our shared time together comfortable for all and to encourage each other to form groups or otherwise make a space for expressing and exploring our differing personal philosophies. Diversity is a strength only if it is sincere appreciation for and interest in diverse opinions and not just ignoring our differences to emphasize our solidarity.

And it’s not just the Humanist local groups that would benefit from making UU congregations their homes. The UUA needs Humanists or it will completely lose its character as the home of freethinkers and become yet another shrinking, liberal religious denomination. The UU congregation benefits not only with new people and their resources but also with more varied programming since Humanist meetings and concerns tend to be about things all UUs care about: science, philosophy, history, politics, environmentalism, separation of church and state and so on.

We need existing Humanist local groups to ally themselves with UU congregations and UU Humanists to either reach out to the existing local groups or to step up and start new ones if there are none. We need to join forces to amplify the voice of reason and compassion in the world. Every UU congregation should be welcoming to Humanists and ideally should have a group that nurtures and encourages them. It is not difficult to launch a group that starts on such a firm foundation and there is a lot of support available from the American Humanist Association and the HUUmanists Association. The benefits are enormous. The UUA is and always has been a home for Humanists and it can be a wonderful place to find or make a “Habitat for Humanism.”