Tag Archives: Unitarian Universalism

Unitarians Throw Atheists And Humanists Under The Bus

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logo for the Unitarian Universalist AssociationLate last week, I got what could only be described as a gut punch when I learned that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the group that governs all the Unitarian Universalist churches in the country, had signed a new affiliation agreement with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). The UUA had broken with the BSA over its policy of excluding atheists and LGBT scouts and leaders. The agreement is just more proof that the so-called non-creedal religion really dislikes atheists.
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Rick Warren and UU martyrs

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Reading some of the articles on the blog, you can sense some issues I have with a like minded group. Although Unitarian Universalists are in general supporters of Humanism, there have been problems on some issues. One example came up over the reaction to the invite of Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inaugural of President Obama in January. The other recent issue was in an article about the life sentence given to the killer who shot up a UU church in Knoxville in 2008.

My friend Derrick sent along the following:

Rev. Mark Belletini from First UU [in Columbus Ohio] wrote an editorial for this week’s Outlook newspaper. Here’s a link:


The thrust of the article comes in Belletini’s statement that “I was moved by Senator Obama’s leadership in asking [Rick Warren] to accept this honor” of “leading the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration” (Outlook Weekly, Feb 11, 2009, p. 15).

Nowhere does the article question whether it is appropriate to have prayers at an inauguration. Nowhere does the article question whether it’s appropriate to have someone like Rick Warren to represent our best hopes for change. Instead, the article is a collection of warm imagery, relativism, strawmen, red herrings, and excuse making on Warren’s behalf aimed at shaming anyone who might oppose Warren’s presence. (It’s difficult to politely convey how revolting I find Belletini’s comments to be.)

In contrast, Freethought Today announced on the cover of its Jan/Feb 2009 issue that FFRF has a “Challenge to Inaugural Religion Filed.” We are fortunate to have organizations like FFRF that are willing to reasonably face facts and stand in favor of our basic rights.

Derrick is right. There shouldn’t be prayers at a purely civic ceremony and in the article Belletini glosses over the bigorty espoused by Warren during the Prop 8 campaign. He says:

The Senator knew that this country is made up of people all kinds, including people, like Warren, with distorted and disastrous understanding of people like me. But this guy isn’t going to wake up one morning and suddenly be a pro-GLBT secularist. Picketing his church, writing him excoriating letters, chiding him for his prejudicial biblical interpretations may make me feel good, but its hardly appealing to this man’s humanity.

Rick Warren at the Inaugration? Milk Would Have Approved (Outlook Weekly, Feb 11, 2009, p. 15)

Sometimes people say or think something so vile they need to be called on it and shown their view has no place in a civil society. Inviting the guy to speak at such a prestigious event just ignores that fact.

We aren’t talking about a simple dispute on public policy but plain old fashioned BIGOTRY by people like Rick Warren. You don’t reward it or try to understand it. You freeze it out of the civic arena. You call those people out, shine a light on their hate speech, and make them feel bad for even considering it.

People who gloss those vile ideas over or ignore them give them strength and they will never go away.

There was another troubling thing involving Unitarian Universalists that I read about this past week.

In a liberal blog I read called Crooks and Liars they had an article about the murderer who shot two people at a UU church in Knoxville and how he admitted to the killings in order to rid this country of liberals. He was acting in response to the various hate books put out by Bernard Goldberg, Sean Hannity, and other right wing nut jobs.

In the beginning of the entry was this:

“Progressives around the country can breathe a little easier today: James Adkisson has been sentenced to life behind bars for the deaths of Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, the Unitarian Universalist martyrs who died during his assault on their church in Knoxville, TN last July.”

Then this:

“Three: The right wing has, as usual, grossly underestimated our courage and our commitment. The members of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist quickly and effectively disarmed and captured this man within seconds after he opened fire. Adkisson expected fear; what we got was determined resistance. It’s why he’s still alive today, and why more UUs aren’t dead by his hand. The TVUUA congregation should be our enduring example of liberal grace under fire.”

Knoxville church shooter’s manifesto leaves no doubt: murders were political terror against liberals

UU martyrs?

That is a bit of a stretch in my view. The victims were UUs and they were killed in a UU church but not because they were UU’s specifically but because they were associated with liberals and liberal causes.

Wikipedia has listed a few actual UU martyrs:

1529: Ludwig Haetzer – beheaded in Konstanz, Germany; believed Jesus was a leader and teacher, not a God due worship

1553: Michael Servetus – burned at the stake after a prison term because of writing a book criticizing biblical evidence for a Trinity.

1942: Norbert Capek – preached religious freedom (including Unitarianism). Was sent to the Dachau concentration camp, and later gassed to death at Hartheim Castle.

The difference is clear. The victims in Knoxville weren’t killed because they refused to renounce their beliefs, they were murdered for gallantly trying to disarm a deranged person.

Vague Theism Threatens Humanism

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Ten years ago, when I finally settled on Humanism as my world outlook (that I finally found a label for the view I had) and I joined my local Humanist group, The Humanist Community of Central Ohio, and I got really involved by joining the Board of Trustees of the group and editing the member’s newsletter. It was at that time I was exposed to the internal politics of the Humanist movement.

All movements have factions. They all have a common goal but different beliefs and methods to get that goal. These internal conflicts tend to hold back the movement as people make power plays to try and get their agenda to the top. Each side is so involved in the internal fighting that they miss the goal right in front of them.

In Humanism the factions are Religious Humanists and Secular Humanists. Religious Humanists tend to still keep the structure and function of a church while Secular Humanists, in general, throw anything “religious” out.

Religious Humanism was the initial flavor of the Modern Humanist movement and most if not all the signers of the first Humanist Manifesto, in 1933, were religious Humanists. The Manifesto and Modern Humanism were based within the Unitarian-Universialist church tradition.

Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a faith with no creedal requirements imposed on its members. It values religious pluralism and respects diverse traditions within the movement and often within the same congregation. Many see it as a syncretic religion, as personal beliefs and religious services draw from more than one faith tradition. Even when one faith tradition is primary within a particular setting, Unitarian Universalists are unlikely to assert that theirs is the “only” or even the “best” way possible to discern meaning or theological truths. There is even a popular adult UU course called “Building Your Own Theology”.

Many Unitarian Universalists consider themselves humanists, while others hold to Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, natural theist, atheist, agnostic, pantheist, pagan, or other beliefs. Some choose to attach no particular theological label to their own idiosyncratic combination of beliefs. This diversity of views is usually considered a strength by those in the Unitarian Universalist movement, since the emphasis is on the common search for meaning among its members rather than adherence to any particular doctrine.

Unitarian Universalism

In regard to religion, the Humanist Manifesto (1933) states:

The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes. Science and economic change have disrupted the old beliefs. Religions the world over are under the necessity of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience. In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism. In order that religious humanism may be better understood we, the undersigned, desire to make certain affirmations which we believe the facts of our contemporary life demonstrate.

Humanist Manifesto (1933)

Secular Humanism, as a label, came into the vernacular of the Humanist Movement during the 1970’s as opposition to Religious Humanism. The term Secular Humanism:

…was embraced by some humanists who, although critical of religion in its various guises, were deliberately non-religious, as opposed to anti-religious, which means that their humanism has nothing to do with spiritual, religious, or ecclesiastical doctrines, beliefs, or power structures. This is how “secular humanism” is most commonly understood by humanists today.

What Is Secular Humanism?

Basically Secular Humanists don’t have a church, don’t sing hymns, and don’t support or use “god” talk.

The internal conflict between Religious and Secular flavors of Humanism came about because of disagreements on “god” talk, rituals, and criticism of religion in general.

Religious Humanists seem to find any criticism of religion to be an attack on religious people and indirectly on them while Secular Humanists find Religious Humanists stuck in the mud – clinging onto the functions of religion.

Also increasing the conflict is a trend in UU churches to move away from Humanism as a foundation to more of what Marilyn Westfall, founder of UU Infidels, calls “vague theism.”

Given that only 20% of the ministers self-identified as humanists, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that they also had a weak affiliation with the UU source of humanist teachings. There are five sources for the tradition of UUism (these are included on the handout); and in the survey of ministers, humanist sources ranked 5th out of the five sources. The complete wording of the humanist source is as follows: [We covenant to affirm and promote] “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” The highest-ranked source, by the way, was the first: “Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder …”

From Humanism and UUism: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

For many years the Unitarian Universalism Association – the central governing body of the church – has certified many former Christian ministers as pastors of UU churches. That and the move toward “vague theism” has led to an obvious move away from the science and reason basis of knowledge as the following quote from Westfall’s talk points out:

[Recent UU seminary graduate named Matthew Gatheringwater said:] My school used to be notable for innovations in religious humanist theology. We used to be at the forefront of efforts [to] reconcile science and religion [my emphases]; now, visiting scientists reported that seminarians lacked basic scientific education. Humanist was a word often used in a derogatory sense in my UU classes and it was more often than not preceded by adjectives like “old”, “crusty”, “corpse-cold”, “bloodless”, and “unfeeling.” It was creepy to hear people use expressions like, “the congregation is waiting for the old humanists to die off before it changes the order of service.” It was more popular among students to be a Universalist … than a Unitarian, a feeler than a thinker, a prophet than a pastor, a theist than an atheist, and anything but a humanist.

UUs at local church here Columbus also expressed those same kind of negative views of Humanists and also Atheists when they called a friend of mine names such as “bigot” and “arrogant” when he questioned some religious “god” talk at what was suppose to be a free discussion at the church.

When I was President of HCCO and I gave a talk at the same church I had a debate with a member who claimed that because science didn’t have all the answers then its value wasn’t any better than someone who didn’t use science to get to the truth. It was the first time I had experienced the postmodern thinking infecting the UU church.

Recent conflict has been as a reaction to the rise of certain Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University Greg Epstein, in a news report about the 30th Anniversary of the Chaplainacy at Harvard, said:

“At times they’ve [atheists] made statements that sound really problematic, and when Sam Harris says science must destroy religion, to me that sounds dangerously close to fundamentalism,” Epstein said in an interview after the meeting. “What we need now is a voice that says, ‘That is not all there is to atheism.’ ”

Is Atheism Just a Rant Against Religion?

As a Secular Humanist those kinds of negative comments bother me as I am also an Atheist.

The problem is that people like Epstein continue the wrong assumption that Atheism is a world view. All Atheism is, is a lack of a belief in a “god”. I am a Secular Humanist because it provides me a frame work for my world view.

My atheism is my view on “god” and humanism is my philosophy on life.

It is simply sad when Religious Humanists fall for the same trap that god believers fall into when they try to paint Atheism as some kind of satanic negative religion. It also doesn’t seem ethical to complain about intolerance by being intolerant.

I want to work with Religious Humanists but as they move further away from science and reason, I find it harder to work with them on issues we agree on.