Unitarian Universalist Humanists And The Interdependent Web of All Existence

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“We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.”Carl Sagan

Unitarian Universalism is big on social justice. Although some congregations appear to be more keen than others on getting involved in the issues of the day, in general this is a religious group that cares about equality, inclusion, and justice. Contemporary Humanism seems to be headed in much the same direction, with more and more social activism. A key difference may be that while Unitarian Universalists tend to accept the scientific method, it doesn’t seem to receive the same amount of attention that Humanists give it. In fact, to many Unitarian Universalist Humanists it looks like the denomination as a whole is moving towards more ‘spirituality’ and less reason. Herein we find something that I believe can be a key distinguishing contribution that UU Humanists can make to the ‘Living Tradition.’

Before anything else, let me defend my statement above about spirituality and reason. I am not saying that UUs are becoming less reasonable, although I wonder how many buy into the rhetoric against such advances as GMOs. Rather, I’m talking about a diminished public appreciation for science and reason, replaced by ‘the language of reverence.’ Part of this is understandable, as I’ve heard disparaging remarks about a certain variety of UU congregations as being little more than ‘lecture halls.’ 

While 100 years ago people may have sought out lectures to attend, that is certainly not the case today. Services need to be more interactive and artistic to be meaningful to people. Further, shared ritual can help to strengthen the bonds of a community. That said, this doesn’t need to be a pendulum swinging, between some form of spirituality and a more cerebral approach. Equilibrium is possible.

UU Humanists are generally as committed to social justice as UU Christians, Buddhists, Pagans, and those of the various other perspectives. In that we can and should contribute, understanding that there isn’t much unique in what we bring to the table. Yes, we have concepts from the Humanist tradition and manifestos to cite, but this isn’t where we can make the biggest, unique difference.

What should UU Humanists be doing in addition to working for social justice alongside UUs, Humanists, and people beyond these? In my opinion, we should be promoting science and reason in the most interesting, engaging ways possible. This is the sort of thing we see in Sunday Assembly, where people sing along to pop songs and hear talks about social issues, scientific research, and other challenging and thought-provoking topics. Unitarian Universalism has social justice covered; what it needs as well are advocates for understanding the amazing universe of which we are a part.

The story of our universe, our earth, and our evolution is one based on facts – as best we’ve ascertained so far – and has the potential to unify humanity like no other narrative ever could. UU Humanists have a great and awe-inspiring message to convey, one that can be appreciated best with greater understanding of scientific discoveries. In fact, given that Unitarian Universalism is a ‘Living Tradition’ wherein belief is not static and truth is always being pursued, the scientific method fits right in.

What can local UU Humanist groups do? Off the top of my mind, here are a few ideas:

  1. Start a Skeptics in the Pub meetup. This one requires virtually no official involvement on the part of the congregation. Basically, find a pub where your group can meet, promote this in the congregation (coordinating with leadership) and beyond, and get together for drinks and conversation. Each time this group gathers, ideally monthly, there can be a different theme and format. One month there could be a guest who is an expert in some field of science. She can give a talk and take questions. Another month a group member could lead a discussion around a topic of interest in terms of Skepticism, science, reason, etc. Another month could be a games night. The point is to keep it lively and stimulating.
  2. Start an RE Class. Depending on the size of your group and the cooperation of your UU congregation, you could offer to organize the curriculum and provide teachers for an RE class, preferably for children, in which science is taught in a fun way. There can be experiments, videos, and whatever else that will keep the kids’ attention and communicate core science concepts.
  3. Sponsor a science fair. If the RE class is a success, or even if you don’t do the RE class but have sufficient support in the congregation, your local UU Humanists group could arrange a congregational science fair. Set some standards, schedule a science fair night (complete with snacks and a brief talk to kick things off), and have some judges go around awarding ribbons. Top projects would qualify for trophies, and the judges probably should be from outside the congregation to avoid hurt feelings. If you can bring in 3 or more research scientists, professors of science from a local university, or others working in science-based fields, that would be ideal.
  4. Lead a service. The universe is an amazing place. Organize a liturgy that celebrates that fact, including quotes from the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson as well as a positive, captivating talk centered on the known facts of this one life we know exists. There can be a Humanistic chalice lighting and responsive readings as well. Be creative.

Those are just a few possibilities. If you think UU Humanists could be doing more to promote a rational approach to understanding the interdependent web of all existence, what other ways would you suggest we go about doing it? 

Shared Mythos in a Multicultural World

Just a few years ago I read an article entitled “

But if Not: The Miracle of Dunkirk.’ It’s essentially a lament over the lack of biblical literacy in the modern world, and it focused on a point about the value of shared culture. This remains one of the silliest arguments for biblical literacy I’ve ever read. Of course, I have some thoughts I’d like to share on the subject of the mythos we understand and share.

First, there truly is a dearth of biblical literacy, even among the ranks of ‘Bible-believing Christians.’ Though youth ministries have their Bible drills (or Bible Bowl), this is little more than trivia that can be memorized. Sermons tend to hover around certain key doctrinal concepts, or are so superficial in the name of ‘relevance’ that people really only get either a passing glance or a narrowly focused look at the Bible. Without both dedicating reading and deep study, people aren’t going to find themselves comprehending anything real about the Bible. They won’t notice the various voices, the shifting cultural mores, and the distance of it all from their modern experience. For the most part, conservative Christians take their Bible pre-chewed and filtered through the lens of 19th century evangelicalism. 

Second, it is more than a little sad that mainline Christian churches comparatively little time and energy on the Bible. I’ve been to services and small groups over the years among progressive Christians than are friendly, vibrant, and fun, but which convey little of the roots and rudiments of the faith. If the Bible is to be so little regarded, they ought to drop the fiction of being a ‘Christian’ church. If that sounds harsh, then I phrased it correctly.

Third, it is absolutely absurd to argue in favor of Biblical literacy because it promotes common cultural understanding. The Bible is not needed for such a thing. Societies through the centuries have had a common mythos that helped draw them together, and in our increasingly multicultural, globalized society, taking one from a particular place and time and making it work for the entire world, or simply a single great nation like the United States, simply isn’t feasible. Outside of the Abrahamic faith, what do Jains, Sikhs, atheists, Buddhists, Hindus and others have to do with the Bible? Only those committed to converting the world to Christianity could see value in the ‘shared language’ argument, and then only because they are a bit out of touch with reality.

Fourth, and most importantly, we already have a common mythos in the form of diverse major stories than we all know well. Consider the recent anti-Trump protests. The overall theme is ‘resistance,’ and so naturally Star Wars symbols and terminology have popped up all over the place. Consider how shocked we are when we encounter someone who never watched Star Wars. People advocating for Biblical literacy among the general populace won’t like it, but we have what we need to communicate with a shared understanding, and it isn’t just Star Wars. It is movies, TV programs, video games, and music that contributes to the mythos with which we can all either identify or at least understand.

It is good in certain circumstances and for specific reasons to be knowledgeable of the Bible. It is not, however, remotely necessary to promote societal coherence. We have and are making what we need.