Our first experience with Unitarian Universalism

So I said recently that we’d been thinking of visiting a Unitarian Church. Last Sunday morning we went ahead and attended a service of the Fourth Universalist Society, a Unitarian Universalist congregation that meets on the Upper West Side.

We enjoyed it, and the found the congregation extremely welcoming. The building, which was built as a Universalist Church in the nineteenth century, is also rather more impressive than I’d expected. It also shows its Christian roots rather strongly—for example, there’s an altar with crosses built into it, and a mural of Jesus above it—but no one’s ever pretended that these roots aren’t there, and apparently they even cover these things up on occasion to give a more secular feel.

The service started with a welcome address, followed by the lighting of a chalice, while everyone read out the following:

May the light we now kindle inspire us,
To use our power to heal with love, to help with compassion,
To bless with joy, to serve the spirit of freedom,
In the fullness of community.

I think the tone of that is a fair indication of the tone of the whole “service”, and I believe of the movement in general.

Then there were some secular hymns and some communal meditation (basically communal prayer with the God taken out: an expression of what we hope for and what we are grateful for). There was also a reading—this time from Buddhist philosophy—and a sermon, entitled “Life is Not a Body”. I found the sermon the hardest thing to take. Although the communal meditation felt very like praying, I thought it made more sense than praying. If there’s a benign god who knows everything already and will (presumably) always do what’s right regardless of human intervention, what’s the point of praying to him? Indeed, if there isn’t such a being, believing there is and praying to him may make it less likely that you’ll get what you pray for, because you shift the responsibility of achieving it from your own shoulders (I recommend reading Dan Dennett’s take on this). But if you’re not praying to anyone, then simply expressing communally what matters to you may not be such a bad exercise: it focuses your mind on goals without this encouragement to shift responsibility, which may be useful. And, of course, it’s a bonding exercise. So I had no real problem with that. And although I don’t see much evidence to support many of the metaphysical claims of Buddhism, there’s nothing wrong with having readings from a variety of sources every week: at the very least you learn something about other people and cultures.

As I say, it was the sermon I found the hardest to take. The reverend was essentially arguing in favour of a mind-body distinction (and she threw in the word “spirit” a few times). She claimed that, while our childhood bodies are different from our adult bodies, there is something that remains the same. She also invited us to imagine how easy it is to raise our arms, and then to consider how it must feel for people who have lost control over their bodies to the extent that they might want to raise their arms, but can’t: the body is broken, but the mind intact. I wasn’t convinced. Would she draw the same distinction between minds and brains? We are all familiar with brain damage that alters the mind. While this doesn’t decisively contradict the claim that the mind is something other than a brain-secretion (or however you want to visualise it), it shows immediately that the relationship between physical change and mental change is not a very good basis for drawing a strong line between the mental and the physical. Philosophers of embodied cognition would point out that even her example of raising one’s arm is problematic: that the shape of one’s mind is in fact intimately bound up with the shape of one’s body. Nor, incidentally, am I at all convinced that there’s any more “spiritual” or mental continuity between my 10-year-old self and my current self than there is between my body then and my body now.

But then I’ve heard similarly problematic views expressed at Humanist society gatherings (such as rather odd ideas of what discoveries in quantum mechanics mean for science), and it’s not as if there are not very interesting philosophical questions to be asked about the relationship between mind and body. The good thing about Unitarian-Universalism is that this sermon could not be taken as a statement of what the audience should believe, because there’s not much that Unitarian Universalists do expect you to believe. Sure, they have principles, like the “inherent worth and dignity of every person”, or “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” (which are hard to disagree with), and they claim to be working towards the “goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all”, which is not something I’m going to start campaigning against. And one of those principles is a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”, drawing partly from “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and results of science”. Which leaves empirical claims entirely open to challenge.

So I think we’ll go again.



Filed under Humanism, Religion, Atheism etc.

4 responses to “Our first experience with Unitarian Universalism

  1. Justin

    Interesting. Do you think you got something different out of communal prayer that you wouldn’t have out of say, a chant at a football game or singing at a concert? The prayer sounds completely banal to me, and might as well be identical to a religious prayer with all its light, power, healing, blessing and fullness. It’s hard to see (admittedly just from this prayer alone), that the absence of the word god shifts responsibility to your own shoulders. It’s just too abstract and borderline mystical. The sermon you describe seems to bear this out, and just reinforces why these kind of regular secular ceremonies make me uncomfortable. Seems like they just lazily drift toward an unfocused spiritualist nonsense.

  2. Yeah, I’m not sure I really got anything out of the “prayer” myself (beyond the communal bonding that, as you point out, I could have got from a chant at a football game or singing at a concert). My point was merely that I didn’t feel uncomfortable about it in the way that I might have from a religious prayer. And although I conjectured that perhaps it doesn’t lead people to shift responsibility from their own shoulders, I’m happy to concede that this is really just an untested hypothesis: I don’t have any evidence to judge whether or not it does.

    And yes, I agree that there is a real danger of drifting towards an unfocused spiritualist nonsense (as I pointed out in my earlier post). Though I’m not convinced that this is something inevitable in secular ceremony. I like to hope that it’s at least partly to do with the religious roots of UU.

    So I’m certainly having to make compromises here. Which may well prompt you to ask what I get in return. The answer’s easy: a kind of community that’s harder to find elsewhere when you’re new to a city like New York. Basically it’s a bunch of people opposed to religious dogma, and in favour of most of the same things I’m in favour of (e.g. gay rights and other kinds of equality), but otherwise very diverse in age, ethnicity, background, and so on, and who gather weekly mostly for the sake of community, and to work towards goals that I’m in favour of achieving. I can’t sing, I don’t much enjoy football, and in fact there are very few organised communal activities that offer what this Church offers, and don’t involve more compromises from me. Besides, the compromise I’m making—being in the presence of irritating spiritual ideas—is partly a result of something I like: a rejection of dogma (it just leads here to a somewhat more uncritical open-mindedness than I might like). Besides, when I have on occasion gone along to other communal event — like sports events — and met people through them, I’ve come across just as much nonsense. Humanist societies are somewhat less prone to it, but (in my experience) they’re more prone to harping on about how stupid religion is, which is fun, but gets rather wearing. That said, I have also been looking into Humanist Groups in New York.

    One day I’ll start a group that combines all the things I want. Probably no one will come.

  3. @Justin: Having reread your comment, I should add that when I was talking about “prayer”, I was referring to the “communal meditation”, not to the bit we read out while the chalice was lit. That, I think, was just ritual for the sake of ritual (or, rather, for the sake of bonding). The meditation, by contrast, involved her asking us to focus on things we’ve done in our lives that we wish we’d done differently, then on ways we’ve acted that we’re particularly proud of, and then to think of how in the future we can be more like the people we want to be. We were also invited to pass up a slip mentioning any milestones (e.g. birthdays, engagements, deaths etc.) that we’d like mentioned, and (if we wanted) to say the names of anyone who was particularly in our thoughts.

    And all that, I think, was a fairly useful activity. Although, as I say, I have no evidence to show support my hypothesis that it genuinely is useful.

  4. Justin

    I agree with all your sentiments about community. I just find the whole thing interesting. In simply removing just the word god and keeping the rest it seems like you need another target for the spirituality that’s still present in the rest of the words and even the building itself. Whether that’s a deistic Universe or some mystical mind-body distinction, simply a rejection of dogma does not lead to an embrace of reason. It’s an obvious point, but it’s why I feel uncomfortable at the whole idea.

    But maybe it’s something else. Maybe getting together every week to talk about or reiterate your big picture views on life, the universe and everything is just a bad idea. I reckon it’d be about a fortnight without solid answers before I started making stuff up too.

    What I’m saying is when you start your group I’ll join.

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