UU Humanist Takes On Spiritual 'Malarkey'

(Universalist Herald - January-February 1998)


By James A. Haught

Religion has two components: (A) the humane - preaching compassion and brotherhood; (B) the supernatural - worshiping invisible gods and saviors, anticipating magical heavens and hells, rebuking unseen devils, praying for miracle healings, etc.

I've always felt that A was marvelous and B was malarkey.

When I was young, Unitarian Universalism mostly reflected my view. Although the denomination contained a wide variety of people, nearly all the members I knew were science-minded rationalists, mostly chemists and college professors. They rejected supernaturalism while endorsing humanitarianism. That fit me like a glove. I never thought of UUism as a religion, but rather as a humanist philosophy.

Gradually, I came to see the world as a huge loony bin in which billions of people pray to hundreds of deities that actually don't exist. I felt that priests of many stripes aggrandize themselves by perpetuating delusions. To me, it's grotesque for them to teach children that an invisible deity waits to punish or reward them after they die. Belief in a spirit realm has endless variations - from "channeling" souls from Atlantis, to foretelling the future with Tarot cards. I felt that honest people have a moral duty to challenge the whole rigmarole. To this end, I wrote many "freethought" articles and books.

Meanwhile, our denomination changed, with a trend away from my view. Perhaps it happened because we're tolerant liberals who welcome everyone as equals. "New Age" mystics and "Earth Goddess" pagans felt at home in UU congregations, and invited their friends. Now we're a peculiar mix of old-line agnostics and "spiritual" newcomers. Today, one of the trustees of my fellowship is a Wicca practitioner. I guess she's a "good witch," but I'm afraid to ask.

Embracing everybody in a creedless church is a noble notion, but it presents problems. What will we do if "God-hates-fags" fundamentalists, or white supremacists, or abortion clinic harassers begin attending? They are people too. Being all-inclusive, we couldn't turn them away. (This seems far-fetched, I admit - but a decade ago, I'd have said the same about Wicca witches.)

Frankly, I can't think of any solution to our humanism-versus-spiritualism tug-of-war. I wouldn't expel anyone from the church - and I'm not ready to quit myself. Maybe it's good that a sour old cynic like me is confronted with starry-eyed believers. It forces me to clarify my values and ideas, for the internal debate. I won't stop expressing my view that supernaturalism is hokum, but I want to do it in the least-hurtful way.

To remind UUs of their skeptical tradition, I put my writings into an Internet web site, and I'm e-mailing congregations around North America, inviting members to read my pitch. I really don't expect to have much impact, but I want to keep the voice of doubt from dying out entirely in our denomination.