last two presidents of the UUA have chattered about God incessantly.
The current leader, Bill Sinkford, says he wants to insert "traditional
religious language" into our UU principles. In the March-April
2003 issue of UUWorld, he said he has an "elevator speech"
he gives to strangers who ask what UUs believe.
Here it is: "The Unitarian side tells us there is only one
God, one spirit of life, one power of love. The Universalist side
tells us that God is a loving God, condemning none of us, valuing
the spark of divinity that is in every human being. So my version
of what Unitarian Universalism stands for is, One God, no one
Before him, President John Buehrens lauded: "a God who is
not self-involved or fearful but creative and therefore always
giving away being and power. A God who is not static but growing
and changing, who is hurt or given joy by what we do or leave
Well, I'm a Unitarian Universalist, and I don't think any "loving
God" or "growing and changing God" hovers invisibly
over me. I don't think any such spirit "values" anything
about me, or "is hurt or given joy" by what I do. That's
what standard Western religions preach. That's "traditional
religious language." But the UU I have known for a half-century
never espoused such a message.
It makes me uncomfortable for our national presidents to imply
that our theology is pretty much like the supernatural beliefs
of most Christians, Jews and Muslims. Mine certainly is different.
I reject the magic claims of those faiths -and so does virtually
every UU I know.
Personally, I don't care what private beliefs a UU chief holds.
He or she can chant beads to the Virgin Mary, or spout "the
unknown tongue," for all I care --as long as it's kept private.
But when a public declaration is made by UU president, most people
assume that it represents all of us. However, to many of us, it
To solve this problem, I wish our denomination would adopt a policy
saying something like this: "The UUA takes no position on
the existence, or non-existence, of God. All members are free
to reach their own conclusions about this profound question.”
If we had such a statement, it would show the world the great
intellectual freedom enjoyed by UUs. It would spotlight the historic
skeptic role of our church. It would show that we welcome atheists
as well as God-believers. And it would show that Dr. Sinkford's
God talk, and that of Dr. Buehrens before him, applies just to
them, as a personal outlook.
But we don't have such a declaration, so the problem remains.
I've tried to address it in magazine articles. I wrote a piece
about our freethought heritage -but UU World wouldn't print it.
So I wrote an explanatory introduction, and both were published
in last fall's Free Inquiry. Let me read part of them: ( from
Free Inquiry magazine, fall 2002 )
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 mediators, 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
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.
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
Here is the second essay rejected by UU World and printed in Free
ROOM FOR DOUBT IN THE UNITARIAN CHURCH
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.
"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, Adams 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
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
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 W 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, W 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.
A. Haught, editor of The Charleston Gazette and a senior editor
of Free Inquiry magazine, has been a Unitarian Universalist for