Monday, October 16, 2006

Is the UUA a secular organization?

Peacebang’s latest post, Cancelling Sunday Morning Worship At GA: Not A "Cultural Shift" -- A Mistake , raises an interesting question about the “cultural shift” Ms. McGregor refers to when she says, “We are not a secular organization.” Is it possible that Peacebang is wrong, and that the GA planners are “culturally shifting” into the truth when they change the emphasis of the meeting to business rather than spirituality... that they have realized, if only unconsciously, that we have in fact become a secular organization?

Let’s take the “Man from Mars” test- forget history and tradition, and examine what is in front of you. Pick a dictionary- here’s Merriam-Webster Online: 1 a : the state of a “religious”- a nun in her 20th year of religion b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to “religious” faith or observance 2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of “religious” attitudes, beliefs, and practices 3 archaic : scrupulous conformity 4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Is there a single one of those definitions that we fit as a denomination? No; in fact many organizations that do not claim to be churches, and are legally and culturally fraternal organizations that fit that dictionary definition better than we do- the Boy Scouts and the Masons, to name just two, require their members to believe in something (pick a God, any God)- we do not.

Is there any rite or practice that we are privileged or required to do that only a religion may perform? No. Weddings may be performed by J.P.s; in many states you’re married when the license is signed, and a priest only witnesses the fact anyway. Many fraternal organizations perform funerals; the Masons (along with Rev. Clear) spoke at my father’s. We do not perform or require baptisms or any other rites.

Do we perform any social services that a secular organization may not do? No. Many secular organizations engage in disaster relief, or work with the poor, or lobby Washington. The DeMolay chapter I belonged to as a kid regularly donated to the Wheeler Mission (a homeless shelter); the Star Trek fan club I used to belong to chartered and filled an entire semi full of goods for Hurricane Hugo relief. Contrariwise, there are many fraternal organizations that perform social services that we do not do as a denomination- the Masons, for example, run retirement homes and cemeteries.

The Indiana State House of Representatives has been fighting a court battle recently over their opening prayers- the ACLU objected to the use of “Jesus”. The judge gave a definition of acceptable secular prayers they could use- and I find nothing in the “WorshipWeb online resources for worship” on the official UUA website that would violate the judge’s guidelines. Surely that’s an odd position for a “religion” to be in. We call ourselves a “faith”, and talk of worshipping together- but we are also proud of welcoming those who eschew both faith and worship.

Let me put it this way: can you write a definition of “religion” that would include the UUA as presently constituted, and not also include a Star Trek club with a socially conscious membership?


Chalicechick , in the comments to her post referrencing me and Philo, gives the best definition (useable as an "elevator speech") I have seen to date.


Anonymous said...

Your final question is easy. I actually was engaged in a discussion about it roughly 3 weeks ago. UUism is a religion in that fact that a religion believes in a higher possibility of being. Either God, Multiples of Such, or Humanity...most UU's fit within those categories. Trekkies may believe in the possibility of a "higher" being, but not to the extent that most agnostics do...and can be significantly challenged through logic.

Joel Monka said...

I don't know about your definition, Bart- there is no requirement that a member aknowlege the possibility of the existence of anything he cannot see. There are an awful lot of committed atheists in the UUA, some of them very vocally so; some of them were very bitter about Rev. Sinkford's call to reclaim the language of reverence. In fact, quite a few UU ministers are atheists.

Anonymous said...

But most atheists are humanists and some say that humanism is the belief in humans as a higher power. And I said a higher possibility of being, not a higher being (being meaning person in the latter but in the former I use it to mean living). So a God may be a higher level of existing, or living as a moral humanist might be the higher level of existence for one person. But I doubt you'd find a UU that says "Everyone's going to hell in a handbasket...ya'll suck" But then, even that could be a higher level of existence I guess...

Bill Baar said...

What you see with Trekkies is the influence of Religion on culture. It's why the US is indeed a "Christian Country" (especially as far as non Christian's are concerned) because they can see the stories woven into our culture while we overlook them.

Same goes with Harry Potter. It's not a religion, but the stories are filled with all of these European pagan myths.

What you find with UUism is a religion that concedes a lot to culture. It's why the UUism I remember from the 60's could dabble with free love in the 60s and claim marriage a right today. We flow back and forth with the culture.

We're still a Religion. We're just captive to contempory culture; and in this instance of the GA, the culture of Business meetings.

We're not culturally prophetic prophetic as Mike Hogue would say I think.

Anonymous said...

It's really hard to come up with definitions that capture exactly the cases we want to include and drop the cases we want to exclude. Consider 'chair'. Is a broken chair still a chair? Is a beanbag chair a chair? Is a childs little chair a chair? Howabout a stool or a bench or a pew or a booster seat?

We want to find some 'essential' property that divides chairs from non-chairs, but there is no one such property. Instead, there are a whole bunch of chair-attributes; the more of them a given chair-candidate has, the more comfortable we are counting it as a chair. But our classification is always based on context, too. I invite you to a dinner party and ask you to bring a couple extra chairs. You bring a beanbag and a broken chair. I don't invite you back.

So it is with religion. There is no single essential attribute that decides whether an organization is a religion. Having a doctrine about divine beings is just one religion-attribute.

We have a lot of religion-attributes that Boy Scouts, Masons and Trekkies don't:
- Seminaries, curricula and credentialling procedures for ministers.
- Programs and classes that are intentionally designed to promote the spiritual growth of our members.
- Religious instruction for our young, including instruction teaching them how to address ethical, moral and spiritual questions.
- A duty of our clergy to visit those members in the hospital or in jail.
- Regular services which are intended to provides spiritual instruction and uplift.
- Hymns, stained glass windows, listings in the Yellow Pages 'Churches' sections, Sunday school, periods of prayer and meditation, flower communions, Joys and Concerns, naming ceremonies for our children, weddings and funerals.

No one of these things is essential to being a religion. Taken alone, none are necessary; none are sufficient. Taken as a whole, they are the very fabric of my religious life as a UU.


Anonymous said...

Did you mean this one:

I view being a better UU, more focussed on working for truth, beauty and justice, refining belief through reason and seeking the highest and best as something to work for.

from ChaliceChick?

Joel Monka said...

Yes, that's the one.