Read The Eloquent Atheist Webzine
UU Infidels Newsletter
Spring 2004
Introduction or Injury?
Book review of A Chosen Faith
by John Buehrens and Forrest Church
by Nathan Hartshorn

In the summer of 1999,having just graduated from college, and being an atheist who was curious about Unitarian Universalism, I bought a copy of A Chosen Faith, the popular "Introduction" to the religion written by former UUA president John A. Buehrens and prominent UU minister Forrest Church. I was interested in finding out how my beliefs and doubts would fit in with such a liberal religion.

I was shocked and horrified by the book. In its total and reflexive antagonism toward nearly every element of my (thoroughly ordinary) atheist worldview, A Chosen Faith taught me that Unitarian Universalists detested me and everything I stood for. Five years later, I understand that this message is surely not the one that Unitarian Universalists, including the many
wonderful UU theists know, want to deliver. I can only conclude that A Chosen Faith presents a badly distorted picture of Unitarian Universalism.

One concern I have with the book is that both authors continuously rely on traditional religious language (chiefly God, faith and religion) without ever mentioning that many Unitarian Universalists see these words differently than the authors do. A reader of A Chosen Faith can only conclude that Unitarian Universalists unanimously accept Church and Buehrens's ideas about what these terms mean and the values they carry. This is, at the very least, a troubling omission.

Making things far worse, though, is A Chosen Faith 's uniformly negative and insulting take on skeptics, atheists, and other nonbelievers. The book is overflowing with personal attacks directed at us: we are depicted throughout as "obstinate," "threatened," "deluded," vain, dismissive, fearful, ignorant and isolated "spiritual vacuums" who live a "mere secular existence." Buehrens airily hypothesizes that children raised in secular homes are more likely to join fundamentalist cults or follow various other "isms." Church declares that "having traded God for 'truth,"' we skeptics "are left with neither." Chapter after chapter demeans and vilifies anyone whose piety does not meet the authors' standards.

It gets worse. In the space of a single horrendous paragraph that would warm the hearts of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Buehrens accuses those of us who vainly "try" to find meaning and truth outside of what we consider to be "religion" of "practicing a form of self- delusion." He derisively informs us that "Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit." Buehrens approvingly quotes conservative Christian proselytizer C.S. Lewis at us: "the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything." Finally, citing two Gospel passages, Buehrens declares that our belief system, "zealous atheism," is a "demonic pseudo religion." (I submit that no Unitarian Universalist should ever call anyone else's belief system a "demonic pseudo religion"!)

There is not a single nice word about nonbelievers in this entire book to balance the avalanche of ill will it hurls at us. Not one word. The meaning and integrity that so many Unitarian Universalists have found in leaving supernaturalism behind? Ignored. The wonder and power that we find in the natural world, so far as our reason and science can reveal it? Trashed.

The authors of A Chosen Faith barely concede that nonbelievers are human beings, as opposed to self-delusional, demonically pseudo religious spiritual vacuums; clearly they do not see us as legitimate Unitarian Universalists.

Both authors' chapters on the "humanist teachings" Source are incredible. Rather than depict the deep meaning that a large proportion of Unitarian Universalists find in a non-theistic, rationalist philosophy we call "humanism," they instead write about idolatry--and make it clear that they consider the aforementioned philosophy to be an idolatry. Science and reason are present in the section only to be attacked; the authors say not a thing about the deep meaning so many of us find in those pursuits but instead describe in great detail the horrors we suffer when we ignore their limits. Both authors call for a "new humanism" refashioned by "new, transformational Insights" (such as Church's "sovereignty lies in the corporate body, not in the individual member"), and they warn that they will fight "the forces of Retrenchment" tooth and nail if we complain. This is scary stuff.

I am now a Unitarian Universalist, very much despite having read this book. My journey into our religion has consisted in large part of understanding (because I've been convinced by terrific Unitarian Universalists, many of them Christians, pagans, theists and deists) that Buehrens and Church are entirely wrong about the place of atheism, humanism and skepticism within Unitarian Universalism. More generally, I have learned that hateful diatribes by adherents to any UU theology against any other one do terrible damage to our chosen faith. We cannot afford to do to one another what A Chosen Faith does to nonbelievers.

We covenant to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I believe A Chosen Faith repeatedly violates this covenant. As such, I believe it is an extremely poor choice to serve as an introduction to our religion. Please do not inflict this book on a nonbeliever you care about.

Nathan Hartshorn, 27, is an attorney and a member of the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis.