THE UNITARIAN QUANDARY

( Free Inquiry magazine, fall 2002 )

By James A. Haught

The largest identifiable body of agnostics in America is within the Unitarian Universalist Church, a traditional stronghold of freethinking. A 1987 survey found that only 3 percent of UUs believed in the standard supernatural God of conventional religion. Two-thirds acknowledged a life force or spirit of love - but 28 percent called the word God "an irrelevant concept."

More recently, in a 1997 survey of the denomination's 220,000 members, about half of respondents described themselves as humanists - by far the largest category. Doubt was strongest among older members. They're a remnant of a postwar heyday when multitudes of skeptical scientists and professors joined UU as a new Enlightenment. In those days, the denomination's Beacon Press printed hard-hitting critiques of religion, such as works of Paul Blanshard. Some churches displayed slogans such as "To Question Is the Answer" and a Peter Ustinov remark: "Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them."

Today, thousands of these UU secular humanists feel voiceless, because their organization rarely questions the invisible spirits and magical heavens of major religions. Unitarian Universalism has grown so diverse - embracing Wicca priestesses, liberal Christians, Buddhist meditators, New Age mystics, Postmodern symbolists, etc. - that any official rationalist assertion would hurt someone's feelings. Questioning the supernatural is taboo. A polite silence prevails. Beacon Press now prints "uplift" books.

Worse, many ministers talk of God and Jesus in ways that boggle the agnostic majority. The denomination's new president, once an avowed atheist, now chatters about God. He told a Massachusetts congregation: "The task of the Unitarian side of our faith is to find our own relationship to the divine, to God. The task of our Universalist side is to view that God as a loving God." After the Sept. 11 religious horror, he reassured America: "There is a loving God who will hold out her hands to hold us... and be there to catch us as we fall."

We skeptics in the pews are mystified by such theism. In the past, UU took no stand on the existence, or non-existence, of God. Now our national leader and numerous ministers are proclaiming the former, and we who lean toward the latter are left out in the cold.

At my UU fellowship in West Virginia, one minister (a once-Southern Baptist who had lost his faith) declared that God is the heart of the church. This caused turmoil, eventually followed by additional complications producing his ouster and a bitter rift in the congregation.

"Spirituality" is today's UU buzzword, and it appeals to great numbers of new Unitarians. Wicca priestesses in my congregation talk of "the goddess" and "spirits of the north, south, east and west." Being literal-minded, I ask what they mean - but I never understand the answers. The "women's spirituality" group in my church deals tarot cards (but ignores my suggestion of ouija boards).

In 1997, the New York Times magazine printed a special issue on religious diversity in America. The UU example was a woman minister who heard a magical voice speak to her while she whirled in a spiral dance led by Starhawk, the witch. I was embarrassed to have my church represented by auditory hallucinations.

Doubters among Unitarians tend to gravitate to the church's adult discussion circles, where they ponder physics, philosophy, psychology, social issues, and the like. Some of them don't attend the main "worship" services, which are replicas of hymn-singing Protestant rituals. Or if they attend, it's done partly like a family obligation, to avoid ruffling feathers among fellow members.

Many of the skeptics join the UU humanist affiliate, or a small group called UU Infidels. Other sparks of the old freethinking remain. Recently, one of my minister friends spoke on "Why I Am an Agnostic" and "Why I Am an Existentialist." But he's an exception. Most congregations avoid such touchy topics.

So you see, perhaps 100,000 American agnostics belong to a movement that once was a pioneer in religious doubt, but now they feel marginalized within their own organization. They can't question the surrounding mysticism without seeming rude. I recently described this dilemma in an article for the official UU magazine, but it was rejected. (I understood. Naturally, the "house organ" must promote harmony within the ranks, not sow discord.)

However, I think those 100,000 UU skeptics at least should discuss their predicament. Knowing that many agnostic Unitarians also read Free Inquiry, I want to share the essay that UUWorld wouldn't print. Here it is:

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A great truth about our denomination rarely is mentioned. It isn't cited in our Seven Principles or other church declarations. Yet it lies at the heart of our movement.

This unspoken truth is that most UUs doubt the supernatural. We question the mystical, magical, miracle claims central to all other faiths: the pantheon of gods, devils, heavens, hells, saviors, angels and the rest. In fact, disbelief is the foremost feature setting UU apart from conventional religions. UU is the only church that welcomes complete atheists as members.

If doubt is entwined in our church, why the silence about it? After all, it has been crucial, right from the beginning. The very word, unitarian, conveys disbelief. While Christianity proclaims three invisible deities in the Trinity (and additional spirits such as Satan, the Virgin Mary, demons, angels, saints, etc.), early Unitarians doubted that Jesus was a god, and said so. They were called anti-trinitarians -- doubters of the Trinity. Some pioneers, such as physician Michael Servetus, were put to death for it. The first known Unitarian preacher, Francis David of Transylvania, was imprisoned for his doubts, and died in a cell. The English home and laboratory of scientist-Unitarian Joseph Priestley were burned by a Christian mob.

In America, renowned Unitarians were skeptics. Although Thomas Jefferson never officially quit the Anglican Church, he's somewhat our patron saint. We all know that he wrote, wishfully: "I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian" (letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822). But we're less aware of Jefferson's contempt for Christian supernaturalism and the ministers who preached it:

"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter" (letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823).

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear" (letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787).

"To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say that they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise" (letter to Adams, Aug. 15, 1820).

"The priests of the different religious sects... dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight" (letter to Correa de Serra, April 11, 1820).

The first Unitarian president, John Adams, was less abrasive than Jefferson, yet time after time he scorned established churches. He signed a 1797 treaty with Tripoli declaring that "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." In an 1814 letter to John Taylor, he wrote:

"The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning.... And, even since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? [his capitals] The blackest billingsgate, the most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooish brutality is patiently endured, countenanced, propagated, and applauded. But touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your legs and hands, and fly into your face and eyes."

Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote scornfully: "As men's prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect." ("Self-reliance," 1841) And he said: "Other world? There is no other world! Here or nowhere is the whole fact." (quoted by George Seldes in "The Great Quotations")

Henry David Thoreau, another Unitarian (who, like Emerson, eventually quit churches entirely), sneered at religion as "a baby-house made of blocks," and wrote: "I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster." (both from "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," 1841)

This skeptic pattern continued through succeeding generations. Another Unitarian president, William Howard Taft (1857-1930), was offered the presidency of Yale University, at that time allied with the Congregationalist Church, but he declined on doctrinal grounds.

"I do not believe in the divinity of Christ, and there are many other postulates of the orthodox creed to which I cannot subscribe," he wrote in an explanatory letter to Yale.

Doubt of supernatural Christian beliefs was the driving force of the entire Unitarian movement in Europe and America. The rise of scientific thinking two centuries ago impelled many New England congregations to leave their former denominations and join the Unitarian tide.

Our chief distinguishing feature is the lack of a creed - which, indirectly, proves that UU is skeptical. Unlike standard churches, we don't chant that we "believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth" and his "only begotten son," etc., because we cannot. Many freethinking members would recoil and rebel.

Today, however, it seems taboo for any UU to voice the skepticism that lies at the core of our church. In my half-century of affiliation, I've rarely heard clear assertions of disbelief in the aforementioned gods, devils, heavens, hells, saviors, angels and the rest. I haven't heard bold statements like those of Jefferson, Adams, Emerson, Thoreau or Taft.

Worse, it has become fashionable for UU ministers and leaders to invoke God. Many of us in the pews can't guess what they're talking about. Obviously, they don't mean the god of Jerry Falwell, President Bush or Osama bin Laden. We assume they're speaking in theological crypto-jargon, with some abstruse, allegorical, postmodern meaning that's actually meaningless. Perhaps the denomination should require ministers who use the word to provide a definition.

Why does our denomination, rooted in doubt, never mention doubt - and even make standard-sounding appeals to God? Maybe it's because UU is so diversified. Questioning the supernatural might seem rude to members with New Age, Buddhist, Earth-centered, Christian and other spiritual inclinations. Since UU takes an official hands-off approach, with no creed, the church is open to a remarkable variety of people. Therefore, the only way to maintain harmony evidently is to avoid mentioning beliefs - even the skeptic beliefs that created the denomination.

Well, I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but I think we agnostics should be allowed to express our honest views within our church. I'd like to penetrate the silence, but do it without injury.

Every denomination provides fellowship, the nurturing "extended family" in which members share the joys and problems of their lives. In this regard, UU is no different from the rest.

Every denomination advocates humanitarian social action to help the poor, the sick, the impaired, the old and others in need. In this regard, UU is no different from the rest.

We're different in only one way: Unitarian Universalists doubt the magic claims of conventional religion. I wish we were allowed to say so.

(Haught, editor of The Charleston Gazette and a senior editor of Free Inquiry, has been a Unitarian Universalist for four decades.)