Unitarian Skeptics Feel Marginalized
(Freethought Today, June-July 2004)
By James A. Haught
Around 100,000 agnostic / atheist / skeptic / freethinker / godless Americans belong to the Unitarian Universalist Church, according to member surveys. In one poll, almost one-third of UUs called the word God "an irrelevant concept." These doubters were drawn to the denomination because of its historic tradition as a sanctuary for thinkers who cannot swallow supernaturalism -- a heritage encompassing many of the best minds throughout U.S. history.
But UU skeptics, which include me, have grown frustrated in recent decades because the organization turned increasingly "churchy." Discussion circles gave way to "worship services" and leaders began invoking God -- while agnostic members who attempted to question the trend were silenced.
For example, former UU President John Buehrens lauded "a God... who is hurt or given joy by what we do or leave undone." Current President William Sinkford says "there is a loving God who will hold out her hands to hold us... and be there to catch us as we fall." Sinkford wants more "language of reverence" in the denomination.
Old-line secular humanist UUs like me try to raise questions -- to ask what our leaders are talking about. But national chiefs in Boston won't allow it. The denominational magazine barely tolerates any questioning letters, and vetoes all such articles.
Here's an example. UUWorld rejected this piece from me:
Regarding the UU "language of reverence" initiative, I want to offer a brief in opposition. Let's start with a philosophical treatise, as follows:
Simple logic proves clearly that a loving, merciful, father-like, creator God - the Deity of most modern churches and politicians - cannot possibly exist.
Suppose a child is dying of leukemia. The anguished parents and relatives pray fervently for a cure. As often occurs, the child dies anyway. If a divine spirit could have answered the prayers, but coldly did nothing, that spirit would be heartless.
Worse, only a fiend would devise leukemia in the first place, while creating everything in the universe. Ditto for the creation of breast cancer, AIDS, pneumonia, leprosy, smallpox, cholera, ravaging parasites and all the other deadly diseases that drag people to painful death.
The recent Iranian earthquake killed more than 30,000 and left multitudes homeless. Only a monster would invent earthquakes while concocting the world -- and do nothing to prevent them -- and refuse to save their perishing victims.
In 1998, floods from Hurricane Mitch drowned about 9,000 villagers in Honduras and left 2 million homeless. What sort of monster would devise hurricanes and killer floods? Or do nothing to prevent them? Etc.
At a different level of cruelty, only a fiendish mind would create foxes to rip rabbits apart, and sharks to kill porpoises, and cobras to swallow mice, and spiders to trap flies, and hawks to pierce squirrels, and pythons to crush pigs, and cheetahs to disembowel antelopes, and alligators to swallow ducks, etc., etc. Much of nature - supposedly the handiwork of God - is a system of slaughter "red in tooth and claw."
No human would be cruel enough to invent such heinous things. Yet billions of people pray to the supposed Creator of the universe as an all-merciful, all-loving Father. It's utterly irrational.
Obviously, logic leads to an inescapable conclusion: A compassionate Creator cannot exist. Realities on this planet don't preclude a vicious, hateful Creator, but they rule out a kindly one.
In philosophy, this dilemma is called "the problem of evil." Most churches never mention it. The few who do have a standard excuse: We can't know the mind of God, they say. But this is a cop-out, because those churches claim to know the mind of God in most other ways. This evasion is just as irrational as the belief that a loving father devised leukemia, earthquakes and cobras.
In Unitarian Universalism, some ministers declare that God exists.... Presumably, these leaders don't mean the Creator envisioned by conventional churches. Usually, they don't explain what they mean. If pressed, they may offer abstruse definitions such as "ground of our being" or "spirit of life." But the ground of our being is electrons and quarks -- and the spirit of life is the amazing reproductive ability of DNA. Are these to be worshipped?
I think UU leaders should be cautious about using the G-word, which 90 percent of people interpret as the aforesaid all-merciful designer of the universe.
UU congregations contain many of the most intelligent, educated, scientific-minded Americans. UU children outscore youths of all other religious groups in SAT tests, according to a 2002 report in The Wall Street Journal. Thus, a significant portion of UUs see the obvious logic disproving the existence of a merciful Creator. They become uncomfortable when their ministers proclaim that God is real.
To us in this category, the "language of reverence" effort seems like a veiled attempt to proclaim indirectly, through vague hints, that UUs believe in the "loving God" that logically cannot exist.
To resolve this problem, I suggest that our denomination adopt a policy statement something like this: "The Unitarian Universalist Association takes no position on the existence, or non-existence, of God. Members are free to reach their own conclusions about this profound question." Such a statement merely would articulate the reality that already prevails in our faith. Putting it clearly on record would show the world that UU is different from all other religions - and also show that UU ministers who invoke God are expressing just their personal views.
We need such a defining declaration more than we need language of reverence.
Logic leads to this conclusion, too.
Frankly, I was fairly sure that Boston wouldn't print this essay, before I sent it. The national leadership isn't likely to proclaim that UU members are free to decide for themselves whether there's a God. That wouldn't display "reverence," but the opposite.
A UUWorld editor told me my piece was rejected on grounds that modern, liberal clergy no longer think of God as a loving Creator father. But this merely illustrates the charade that is taking place. Virtually the entire religious world envisions an invisible divine Creator. UU ministers who say "God" may have some incomprehensible postmodern definition in mind -- yet they know that nearly everyone reading or hearing their words will think it means the traditional deity. In effect, they're pulling a deception.
Can Unitarian Universalism regain its historic role as a haven for intelligent skeptics? Or is it destined to be a make-believe church, holding "worship" services and invoking God -- while keeping agnostic members subdued?
Honestly, I don't know. If its future is the latter, it will be a sad deterioration of a movement that once included America's finest thinkers.
(Haught, editor of The Charleston Gazette, has written a book on the history of religious doubt, "2000 Years of Disbelief." He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or postal mail at The Charleston Gazette, 1001 Virginia St. E., Charleston, WV 25301.)