Monday, January 05, 2009

How theists and atheists can share UU

This began as "UUdom is a microcosm of society part 2," but the fast pace of discussions sparked by the holidays- see The Humanist's Godless Campaign at Pfarrer Streccius; "When Did Expressing Doubt About God Become a "Negative" Attack Message?", "Part II -- When Did Expressing Doubt About God Become a "Negative" Attack Message?", "Supporting Atheists As Anti-Oppression Work", and "Humanist Parents Recreating Religious Community" at Liberal Faith Development , my own Give the gift of death for Christmas , Can you talk about God in your church? at The Journey, and where spirituality is not welcome at Discontinuous Permafrost- (and my delays in writing it) rendered the original obsolete. Instead, I'm taking up the obligation Steve Caldwell quite rightly laid on me when I popped off about it in comments to offer a solution to the rift; I'll lay it out in bullet points as Greta Christina did in her post "How Can Atheists Be Good Allies?"

1. Realize that this is not your church. I have witnessed a strong proprietary mindset by atheist/secular humanists within UU. I'm told that this is strongest in the Midwest, but it seems common throughout the UUA, and was expressed well by goodwolve in the comments to Can you talk about God in your church? : "You don't do it because of people like me - sorry. I just can't stand the infiltration. I know that sounds like a rough word, but I was raised Humanist and it feels so unauthentic to talk about god - it makes me feel like my experience isn't valued and that my church has been taken over by latent Catholics and Baptists." On the other hand, Fausto pointed out in comments in Liberal Faith Development that both Us were founded by Christians. (I'm told this is stronger in the East)

If UUism is to mean anything at all, it cannot belong to a single philosophy. Whatever either constituent "U" was originally, or what you might think "UU" was when they merged, UUism must belong to whoever will covenant to behave in a manner consistent with the Principles and Purposes, regardless of their beliefs. A member's beliefs must be treated with respect. Not agreed with- respected.

2. Don't fall for the fundamentalist binary paradigm. This is a problem for theists and atheists alike. Intellectually we know that there are hundreds of religions, and many shades of atheist- but all too often discussions seem to fall into "either you're a Bible-thumper or trying to outlaw God". "Believer" and "Christian" are not synonyms. Neither are "godless" and "communist". If someone disagrees with you, don't presume to know what he believes- ask him!

3. Remember who you're talking to. We are UUs; this implies certain mindsets. Atheists, don't talk about theocracies and millions killed in crusades. Theists, don't talk about Stalinist purges and outlawing God. UUs, regardless of belief (or the lack thereof) aren't going there. People who would go there would be happier in other churches or organizations. People go to UU churches to fellowship in safety and freedom; save the extremist rhetoric for the extremists.

4. Religion has nothing to do with intelligence. By the numbers this is more of an atheist failing as far as I can see, but now and then believers will also try to make claims linking intelligence to whether one believes or not. Fact is, there are both geniuses and morons on both sides of the discussion, and any trends you think you may see are always less than the difference between individuals. "Bell Curve" type comments (including use of the word "irrational") are as insulting and counterproductive in religious debates as they are in race relations.

5. Even if it's a joke, don't say anything that requires an "Except for you, of course; you're different," if a friend is listening. Three reasons- first, it doesn't make your friend feel better to know that while he may be accepted, his friends, family, and heroes are not. Second, you may not know where everyone within earshot stands, and your "joke" might come just when someone is trying to decide whether your congregation is right for him or not. Third, everyone knows that there's many a true word spoken in jest, and many may begin to wonder about you; some rhetoric is dangerous because it is exaggerated, over the top... and some, because it is exactly what you really meant.

6. Remember why people become UU in the first place. While there are those who were raised UU, they are in the minority; most come to UU as adults, and they came because they didn't feel welcome anywhere else. Some felt outcast because they were believers, but heretics within their previous churches, and some because they aren't believers at all, and for many of them, UU is the church of last resort. They simply have nowhere else to go. Driving such people out of your congregation because of their beliefs may be the only true UU sin.



P.S. All of the above applies to political positions, too.

P.P.S. Happy New Year, everyone! (Yes, I know it's two months late for some of you :) )

27 comments:

ms. kitty said...

Great advice, Joel, thanks!

Jeff Wilson said...

I think this may be the most remarkably sane and practical UU blog post I have read in a long time.

Chalicechick said...

Great post, one of my favorite you've ever done.

CC
really enthused by the introspective tone that the blogosphere has had in the last month or so.

Ms. Theologian said...

This is really helpful.

Along the same lines that you write, I think that one experience that would help many UUs would be to attend more than one UU church (and perhaps in a different part of the country or world, for that matter) within their lifetimes. So much of what people seem to determine as UUism seems entirely based on one pretty limited experience, imho.

Chalicechick said...

(((So much of what people seem to determine as UUism seems entirely based on one pretty limited experience, imho.)))

It took me many years to realize that a great many of the angry ex-UUs get their knowledge of UUism from one or two tiny churches in the middle of nowhere.

Not all of them, but quite a few.


CC

Robin Edgar said...

That's because many if not most of the "churches" of the "tiny, declining, fringe religion" known as Unitarian*Universalism aka U*Uism *are* "tiny churches in the middle of nowhere" CC. You still don't get it do you? Your large metropolitan U*U church in Washington D.C. is simply not representative of the majority of U*U "churches" even if it does serve almost 1% of all U*Us in the U.S.A.

The following comment was very Transient and far from Permanent after being successfully submitted to Jeff Wilson's Transient and Permanent blog post inspired by this one. . .

Truth be told, even people connected with overtly liberal religious denominations can be mighty "liberal" as in *generous* in their mistreatment of others, even others in their own churches. I had a recent epiphany to the effect that Unitarian*Universalism is not so much a "liberal religion" these days but a "religion" for political "liberals", as per your noting the convergence of liberal politics and liberal religion. They don’t call U*Uism "the religious arm of the Democratic Party", or even "the Church of the Far Left" for nothing. U*Uism has quite regrettably earned those epithets if not actively striven to achieve them. I know Anglicans and Roman Catholics and Jews who make much better religious liberals than a lot of the illiberal U*Us I know.

I was not impressed with some of the Republican bashing that some "less than excellent" U*U ministers engaged in during the 2008 election campaign and I am seriously considering filing a formal complaint against one or two Republican bashing U*U ministers.

Chalicechick said...

(((large metropolitan U*U church in Washington D.C. is simply not representative of the majority of U*U "churches" even if it does serve almost 1% of all U*Us in the U.S.A.)))

No large church anywhere is representative of the majority of the churches in the denomination.
The giant Baptist churches in Charlotte, North Carolina don't have much in common with the tiny Baptist churches in small southern towns either. And there are a lot more tiny Baptist churches in small southern towns than there are Baptist megachurches.

Heck, the temple my Jewish friends drove 50 miles to get to in North Carolina didn't have much in common with the giant synangogue less than a mile from my house in the town where we live now.

That said, a majority of UUs are served by large churches in major metropolitan areas. Yes, it sucks when a 50-member church someplace mistreats theists or atheists. But 15 50-member churches like that aren't having the impact that even one large church has, though those who treat their specific 50-member church as the bellweather to the entire religion would rather we forgot that.

How many times have you heard "I don't care how vital the Christian organization is or how hugely popular the Christian theologian was as a ware lecturer or how the huge majority of UU churches have Christmas pageants and teach about Christianity in RE, my tiny church has a few people who are rude to Christians, so UUs must hate Christians"

or "Yes, theoretically atheists are accepted. Lots of UUs are still atheists and most churches have religious resources for us and at the Portland GA a humanist speaker proved so popular that only maybe half the people who came to hear him could be squeezed into the room. But in my tiny church, everyone treats atheists like dirt and everybody's always trying to get us to redefine 'God' into something we can accept so we will shut up about this small-minded atheist stuff. So clearly, the UUA isn't a welcoming place for atheists anymore."

For years, my habit on beliefnet was when someone showed up talking about how you "couldn't even say God" in their tiny church or how unaccepting their tiny church was of their humanism or whatever was to figure out what church they went to and look that church up on the web.

Most of the people who say that no one ever said "God" in their church came from churches that did sermons about God and had Christmas eve services, etc. When pressed on the issue, they would backtrack and say "Well, yeah, people do preach about that, but it doesn't happen as often as I want them to or in exactly the way I want them to. Theism doesn't count unless it's done my way"

Recently, I've decided that even the people who AREN'T straight up lying about how much respect their preferred belief gets are less important in the grand scheme of things when they go to tiny churches in the middle of nowhere.

If nothing else, tiny church problems tend to be fundamentally about personalities. One jerk can make a 50-member church suck for the group he doesn't like, but that's not in itself an institutional issue. Perhaps you think the UUA should swoop in and make that guy leave, but that's not the way our polity works.

The problems large churches have effect a heck of a lot more UUs are are more commonly the sorts of things worth addressing. (E.g. "How do we, on a denomination-wide level, balance RE that educates our youth about UU history, ethics, world religions and developing their own faith or lack thereof?")

Also, the institutional issues are more interesting and more fun to talk about.

CC

Joel Monka said...

"One jerk can make a 50-member church suck for the group he doesn't like, but that's not in itself an institutional issue."

Exactly so- which is why I addressed the post to individual UUs, rather than the UUA as an organization. Like many other social problems, the only solution is for the individual UU to resolve to not be part of the problem, to apply the same sensitivity shown in racial and sexual matters to all other aspects of life as well.

There is another aspect to the difference between large and small churches besides the fact that one or two jerks are a larger percentage of the congregation- towns capable of supporting large UU churches almost always support multiple UU churches as well. Depending upon how one defines "metropolitan area", there are a half dozen UU churches around Indianapolis. This gives one choice. I, for example, am about equidistant between All Souls and UUI- we attend All Souls because Ginger grew up there, and she/we have friends there. But in many ways, UUI is a better fit for me; if I became dissatisfied with All Souls, I'd just turn left instead of right at the intersection.

For someone living where there is a single congregation, however, the choice becomes accept the abuse or give up church life altogether, because there's nowhere else to go. This may be why people who experience problems at a single small congregation believe that all of UU is that way... because in any realistic sense, for them, it is!

Chalicechick said...

I get that, but at the same time, all religions have jerks and indeed, my impression is that jerks LIKE tiny churches where they can boss people around and gravitate toward them.

I tend to think jerks will always be with us, much as they will always be a part of any other faith.

I don't know what to do about the jerks. I doubt we can change people's jerkiness. Maybe we can make some individual jerks change churches and become the UCC or ethical culture's problem. But probably not.

My suggest would be to focus on growth and thus dilute the jerks' power.

I just know that I have begun to view any form of the "What's true of my tiny church must be true of UUism in general" argument as an invitation to ignore the person making it as I'm much more likely to listen to the concerns of someone who hasn't demonstrated that they have no perspective.

So many churches are so scared of growth that they seem to actively chase off any new members who would make the place feel less like "home" or make the five old people in charge less powerful. I'm sick of the stupid theism/atheism fights that people in the large churches are pretty much completely past.

I'm annoyed that "If you're a jerk to people who are a jerk to you, you're just putting more jerkiness in the world and you're teaching them that jerkiness is the way to behave" is not obvious.

It all reminds me of the Presbyterian church of my youth and it's all annoying.

Or maybe I'm just having a bad week.

CC
the cranky

Bill Baar said...
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Bill Baar said...

I don't have a scientific poll, but I'm guessing there are very few people in Chicago area UU Churches who would identify as Christians.

Most would call themselves humanists of some sort and many atheists.

I would fall into the humanist camp if pressed, but I don't feel an atheist.

Anyways, I sense little conflict, but again...I have no science for this.

I want to visit many of the UU Churches in the area (of course some are societies, not churches) and write some blog posts about it. They're all different, but I don't think an atheists v christians split would describe much about them.

This may be the legacy of the Western Unitarian Conference.....

Chalicechick said...

When I google "Chicago Unitarian Church" the first church I get is Second Unitarian Church of Chicago, the first two sermons in its archive are called "God is life" and "God is love," so my guess is theists are OK there.

Christians tend to be loudest on the point. On beliefnet, we had a lady who threw a big fuss when she wanted to hold a Christmas pageant and the worship committee voted against it.

She was convinced it was because the church couldn't handle her theism.

Her church threw a Christmas pageant the year after she left, which suggested to me that it wasn't at all about theism. My guess was that it was about the fact that she personally was a big pain in the ass and the church didn't want her to be the one to do it as they were concerned she wouldn't do a good job, but they were perfectly happy when someone with a more pageant-friendly skill set stepped up the following year.

Needless to say, when I've run into her on the net since and pointed her to the theistic sermons on her old church's website and the announcements on the calendar of Christmas pageant practice, she has gone right on talking about how terribly anti-theistic the place is, irregardless of the evidence to the contrary.

Ah well. Such is life.

CC

Chalicechick said...

I don't deny that sometimes people are jerks, I didn't ignore it, heck, I even wrote about it.

Minimization is so fully subjective that I don't find it a particularly useful term. That said, I think when I said that the jerks "make the church suck" I was viewing their behavior as having a huge impact on the church.

That said, most of us deal with jerks as a fairly regular thing. There are a lot of them in the world, and unless we develop the church equivilent of an ASBO, there probably always will be.

And if we do develop the church equivilent of an ASBO, I'm leaving because I'm pretty sure that various people I like and respect would no longer be welcome.

After all, if you tell what you percieve as the truth, there will always be people who decide you're a jerk.

CC

Robin Edgar said...
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serenityhome said...

Excellent Joel! Thank you for being here!

Robin Edgar said...
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Robin Edgar said...

Joel said - You had some points that, rephrased and stated separately, could remain in the original post if you desire.

I so desire Joel. . .

Robin Edgar said...

For the record, contrary to what some people think, some of your suggestions about how theists and atheists can share U*U are "less than excellent" even considerably so. . .

"A member's beliefs must be treated with respect. Not agreed with - respected."

You do not indicate that you are only talking about beliefs that were fully consistent with U*U principles Joel. The fact that the preceding sentence concludes by saying -

UUism must belong to whoever will covenant to behave in a manner consistent with the Principles and Purposes, regardless of their beliefs.

in no way implies that all members' beliefs or behavior actually are consistent with the Principles and Purposes and you and I both know very well that U*Us often say and do things arising from personal beliefs that are not in fact consistent with U*U principles. Even within the context of behaving in a manner consistent with the Principles and Purposes of U*Uism a member's "less than respectable" beliefs, regardless of what they may be, need not be respected. There are all kinds of beliefs held by individual U*Us that are not worthy of much respect, let alone being agreed with and accepted. That being, said the "less than respectable" beliefs of individual U*Us should be responded to in a manner that is consistent with U*U principles. I will repeat what I said about Rev. Ray Drennan's "less than respectable" beliefs because they provide a fine example of beliefs that should not be respected within the context of U*U principles and have everything to do with the topic of how both theists and atheists can share U*U -

Am I really supposed to respect Rev. Ray Drennan's apparently fervently held beliefs that I am psychotic, my own religious beliefs are nothing but "silliness and fantasy", Creation Day is a cult, belief in God is "primitive", most religious rituals are "meaningless"? I think not. Not only do I strongly disagree with these intolerant "fundamentalist atheist" beliefs but I disrespect them because they are simply not *respectable*. That is but one single example of how member's beliefs need not be respected if they are unrespectable beliefs. Respect is earned not handed out willy-nilly to anyone who demands it. That being said U*Us should none-the-less share their concerns about members questionable beliefs in a manner that honours and upholds U*U principles so they should be as civil as possible when confronting another member about beliefs that they neither agree with nor respect.

"Atheists, don't talk about theocracies and millions killed in crusades. Theists, don't talk about Stalinist purges and outlawing God."

This overly simplistic assertion comes across as the kind of PC self-censorship that is all too typical of some U*Us. What ever happened to "Unitarians believe first of all in truth in its supremacy and its authority. It does not need to be embalmed to be preserved for posterity. We jealously guard the right to know, to speak, and to argue freely, according to conscience, within our own church and in society at large. We are opposed to censorship, by church, state, or any other institution. We believe that truth stands the best chance of emerging under conditions of freedom."

Oh I know. It was consigned to the U*Ubliette aka the "memory hole" of the U*U World. At minimum it seems to have been conveniently forgotten. . . Of course Rev. Charles Eddis conveniently forgot to give John Milton credit where credit is due too in that he failed to provide the slightest "honest attribution" for the words he borrowed from Areopagitica.

Both U*U atheists and U*U theists have every right to speak, and to argue freely, according to their consciences, within U*U "churches" about theocracies and millions killed in crusades and/or Stalinist purges and outlawing God.

:UUs, regardless of belief (or the lack thereof) aren't going there.

Sure they are Joel. There and well beyond.

:People who would go there would be happier in other churches or organizations. People go to UU churches to fellowship in safety and freedom; save the extremist rhetoric for the extremists.

Well extremist rhetoric is another matter. Atheists and theists can talk about theocracies and millions killed in crusades without engaging in "extremist rhetoric", just as atheists and theists can talk about Stalinist purges and the outlawing God and religion without doing so either.

"Remember why people become UU in the first place. While there are those who were raised UU, they are in the minority; most come to UU as adults, and they came because they didn't feel welcome anywhere else."

Plenty of people who would be quite welcome elsewhere come to U*Uism simply because they believe the false and misleading advertising of the UUA and CUC and think that the U*U "church" would be a better fit for them than other religious communities. . . When these illusioned people are subsequently disillusioned they very often go somewhere else where they are more genuinely welcome. The fact of the matter is that I never once felt all that welcome at the Unitarian Church of Montreal thanks to the clique of "Humanist" U*Us who, as per your post and Goodwolve's contrite "confession" that you quoted, had a "strong proprietary mindset" and couldn't stand my "infiltration" into *their* alleged Unitarian Church.

"Driving such people out of your congregation because of their beliefs may be the only true UU sin."

Don't worry Joel there are plenty of other true U*U sins but that certainly is one of them. I am still waiting for U*Us to confess to, and redress, that sin and some others they are guilty of. Of course the biggest sin of the U*Us is to hypocritically pretend that they do not sin. . . I call that sin the hubris of the U*Us.

Interestingly enough the word verification code for this comment is inumnag which some might interpret as suggesting innumerable nags. . . ;-) I would not need to engage in incessant nagging of U*Us if U*Us made a reasonable effort to actually practice what they preach would I?

Robin Edgar said...

"A member's beliefs must be treated with respect. Not agreed with- respected."

Here is yet another Unitarian*Universalist example of a member's beliefs that need not be treated with respect even if they do not violate U*U principles Joel. UUA Presidential candidate Rev. Peter Morales' campaign slogan is,

"We can be the religion of our time."

OTOH Rev. Mortales recognizes that Unitarian*Universalism is currently a "tiny, declining, fringe religion" in the same "stump speech" that introduces his campaign slogan. I have asked Rev. Peter Morales to articulate how he intends to "grow" U*Uism from a "tiny, declining, fringe religion" to "the religion of our time" within *our time*. He has so far avoided aka neglected aka failed to do so. So just how much respect should I, or anyone else, hold for Rev. Peter Morales' "We can be the religion of our time" campaign slogan which looks more and more like meaningless over the top empty campaign rhetoric as a result of his failure or indeed refusal to justify it?

Anonymous said...

Joel, with your permission, I would like to excerpt some of your statements and share them on my blog, Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. I would attribute all quoted comments to you and cite your blog, of course. Before posting, I would send a draft to you for your approval. Would that be OK?

For replying: http://theistsandatheists.wordpress.com/

Joel Monka said...

Yes, of course you may!