Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Can an Atheist Be a Unitarian Universalist? (Part 1)
As I've mentioned in the past, my wife and I have for several years been attending a Unitarian Universalist church in the New York area. Unitarian Universalism is officially a religion without faith or creed: its foundational seven principles are only about acting morally, and none of them specify belief in God as a requirement. By some estimates, as many as 46% of UUs are atheists, and the church as a whole supports marriage equality, secularism and other progressive causes, which makes it the perfect fit for someone like me - or so I thought.
My doubts were precipitated by a book called A Chosen Faith, which seeks to set out what it is that Unitarian Universalists believe. Beacon Press, the official publishing arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association, calls it "the classic introductory text on Unitarian Universalism". One of its two authors, Forrest Church, is now deceased, but was the minister of All Souls, a New York City-based church that's one of the largest and most influential UU congregations in America. The other author, John A. Buehrens, was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1993 to 2001 and is still an active minister in a UU congregation in Massachusetts.
I didn't read A Chosen Faith when I first started attending a UU church, which was an oversight on my part. But a few months ago, I got into a conversation in a thread on Butterflies & Wheels with a commenter who goes by Rieux (I bet some of you recognize that name!), who had some eye-opening comments about what was in it. Spurred by Rieux's comments, I set out to read the book for myself. It wasn't long before I saw exactly what he had been talking about.
Each chapter of A Chosen Faith is about one of the sources from which UUs have drawn ethical and spiritual inspiration. And when it comes to traditional, mainstream religions like Judaism and Christianity, or even New Age "earth-centered" belief systems, Church and Buehrens have nothing but praise and good things to say. But then there's the chapter on secular humanism. In it, the authors grudgingly recognize that atheism has a place in Unitarian Universalism, but they pound home a message about how dangerous it is, how we have to be sure not to rely on it too much, how we have to take extreme care to recognize its limitations. They call skepticism a "mercury pill": a useful medicine in small doses, a deadly poison if you take too much. (See Rieux's article for a much more detailed review of the anti-atheist language throughout the book.)
And then there's this:
Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer "religion-free." They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit. As C.S. Lewis said, the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything. Sweep the demon of religion out the door and, like the story in the Gospels, you may only succeed in making room for an evil spirit worse than the first — this one accompanied by seven friends (Luke 11:24-26; Matt. 12:43-45). Zealous atheism can perform this role of demonic pseudoreligion.
This language could have come straight out of a Christian gospel tract: saying that atheists are in the grip of self-delusion, that we're worse than the violent zealots we condemn, or that we're practicing a "demonic pseudoreligion". And, lest I overlook it, this passage clearly implies that it's necessary to believe in God to be a UU - or even just to be a good person. I expect this kind of hostile, sneering denunciation from Bible-thumping fundamentalists, but to hear it from the mouth of a Unitarian Universalist minister was an awful shock.
Granted, this book has no actual authority over me. There's no UU Pope decreeing dogma which every member must follow; every congregation is autonomous and run by its own members. In that sense, I'm free to reject these words as just another opinion, and an ignorant and prejudiced opinion at that. But I don't think it's that simple. This book was written by a past president of the UUA and the minister of one of its most influential congregations, and it's still being promoted as the definitive introduction to Unitarian Universalism by the UUA's publishing arm. If anyone can claim to be a spokesperson for Unitarian Universalism as a whole, it would be them.
There was one obvious step to take: I wrote to John Buehrens to see if he would defend his book when challenged. The e-mail I sent him is reproduced below, with minor edits to remove some personal details:
Dear Rev. Buehrens:
I'm writing to seek your thoughts on a subject that's been troubling me. My wife and I have been attending a UU congregation for several years. She's from a Roman Catholic background, while I'm an atheist, and when we found out about Unitarian Universalism, it seemed like the perfect fit for both of us - a way to meet in the middle, so to speak.
One of the things I like best about Unitarian Universalism is that it's a creedless religion, asking you only to live morally without requiring any specific beliefs, and welcoming all different kinds of people without prejudice. It was in that spirit that I recently picked up and read your book, A Chosen Faith. And, I'm sorry to say, I was shocked to find a great deal of ugly, spiteful anti-atheist rhetoric - in particular, this paragraph, in one of the chapters you contributed:
[omitting paragraph already cited]
Some of my good friends, my family members, many people I look up to and admire are atheists who see no need for religion, and I was incredulous to find them so harshly denigrated in the pages of this book. Really: "self-delusion"? A "demonic pseudoreligion"? That's the kind of language I would expect in a Christian fundamentalist gospel tract. I'm sorry to say this wasn't the only passage in A Chosen Faith that I found offensive, but it was one of the most egregious.
I was and am glad to be a Unitarian Universalist. I'm happy I've gotten to know my minister and the people in our congregation, and I'm thankful for the welcome and the fellowship I've enjoyed there. But I can say with confidence that, if reading your book had been my first encounter with Unitarian Universalism, I would never have joined. I would have dismissed it as no different than all the other religions that have nothing but intolerance and disdain for atheists.
It troubles me greatly that this book is being promoted to the world as an introduction to Unitarian Universalism. Do you stand behind these passages?
I sent this e-mail to John Buehrens a few days ago. I was honestly expecting no answer at all, or at most, a form letter. Instead, to my surprise, I got a personal response within a few hours. In an upcoming post, I'll reveal what it said.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.