Who Are We, Anyway?

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading comes from the 2011 book “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” by sociologist Mark Chaves.

Why the dramatic increase in religious “nones” [since 1990]? … The best explanation for the acceleration of that trend is that it represents a backlash to the religious right’s rising visibility in the 1980s. As Claude Fischer and Michael Hout put it, “the increasing identification of churches with conservative politics led political moderates and liberals who were already weakly committed to religion to make the political statement of rejecting a religious identification.” The basic idea is this: if I was raised, say Catholic or Baptist, and I am a social and political liberal who is not particularly religious, before 1990 I still would be comfortable enough with my religious background to tell a pollster that I am Catholic or Baptist. But after Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s rise to prominence, heavy Catholic church involvement in anti-abortion activism, and extensive media coverage of the religious right’s campaigns against feminism, evolution, and homosexuality, I am less comfortable affiliating with the religion in which I was raised. Now I am more likely to respond to a religious preference question by saying “none” because that is a way to say, “I’m not like them.” After 1990 more people thought that saying you were religious was tantamount to saying that you were a conservative Republican. So people who are not particularly religious and who are not conservative Republicans now are more likely to say that they have no religion. [pp. 20-21]

The second reading is from “Why I am a UU: An Asian Immigrant Perspective,” by Kok Heong McNaughton.

“I am an ethnic Chinese born and raised in Malaysia…. I first heard the word ‘Unitarian’ in 1976 from a Taiji student of mine who was a member of the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos…. I followed the activities of this church through their newsletter for several months before attending my first service.

“This was a service about Amnesty International. It blew my mind. Back home in Malaysia, I grew up without political freedom. As students, we were told to avoid any involvement in politics. Our job was to study. Leave politics to the politicians. Accept the status quo. Don’t rock the boat. You’ll be OK. Try to make trouble? You’ll mysteriously disappear and rot in a jail somewhere. Here I was flabbergasted because here’s a group of people whose passion was to free political prisoners in third world countries! I never knew about Amnesty International. I suddenly felt this connection of humankind for one another, that there are people here in the free world who care enough to fight against injustices in the world. I never knew of a church that would take a stand on human rights issues. I had thought that all one does in a church was to sing hymns, praise the Lord, pray for one another’s salvation, and put money in the collection basket.

“After that first service, I returned again and again. The more I found out about Unitarian Universalism, the more it fitted. I particularly appreciated the use of science and reason to explore and to determine for oneself what is the truth, what are myths, what to accept and what to reject in building one’s own unique theology. I didn’t have to take everything on blind, unquestioning faith. Another aspect of Unitarian Universalism that makes me feel special as an Asian American is the emphasis on cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. I didn’t have to check a part of me at the door and to pretend to be who I wasn’t. My ethnic differences were not only accepted, but they were affirmed and upheld. People were interested in what I had to share: I teach Taiji and Qigong, I taught Chinese cooking classes, I bring ethnic foods to our potlucks, I even share my language with those who were interested. I am often consulted about Taoist and Buddhist practices and readings, and asked if I thought the translations were accurate. My opinion mattered. This not only gives me pride in my culture, but it also encourages me to dig deeper into my own heritage, to find out more in areas where my knowledge and expertise are lacking. It helps me to look at my heritage with fresh eyes.”

Sermon: “Who Are We, Anyway?”

Fifteen or so years ago, back when I was working at First Unitarian in New Bedford, an old college friend who became a rabbi paid me a visit. He brought his children along to see the church building, a big old stone pile built when New Bedford had the highest per capita income of any city in the United States. I pointed out the huge Tiffany glass mosaic behind the pulpit, and a few other historical objects that I figured visitors would be interested in. Then my friend the rabbi wanted to point out a few things to his children. “In a Christian church,” he began. “Well,” I said, not wanting to contradict him in front of his kids, “We got kicked out of the Christian club more than a century ago. So I’m not sure you could call us Christians.”

My friend the rabbi looked surprised. From his point of view, of course we were Christians: we met on Sunday, we had a church building, our services are almost identical to typical mainline Protestant church services. “Then what would you call yourselves?” he said. “Um,” I said, “Maybe Post-Christians? That probably describes us best.” While I said it, I realized that the term “post-Christian” would have little or no meaning to his children, then aged about 5 and 7 years old. Nor would the term post-Christian mean anything to the vast majority of adults in the United States.

This trivial anecdote gets at a big question: Who are we, anyway?

On the one hand, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that we are, in fact, Christians. So what if the other Christians didn’t let us into the Christian club when they formed the National Council of Churches, and later the World Council of Churches? Christians are fairly notorious for saying that other Christian groups aren’t “real Christians.” At various times, other Christians have said this about the Mormons, the Christian Scientists, the Seventh Day Adventists… and right now the United Methodists are splitting apart because the conservatives among them say that “real Christians” would never allow same sex marriage. Christians are pretty notorious for saying that other Christians are not Christians. So just because Unitarian Universalists got kicked out of the Christian club doesn’t mean that we’re not Christians.

On the other hand, while there are many Christians among us, I’ve met Unitarian Universalists who think of themselves as atheist, Pagan, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or nothing in particular. I’ve been to a number of Unitarian Universalist Pagan services that had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. I’ve hung out with Unitarian Universalist Jewish groups, who are quite firm about absolutely not being Christian. Then there are the many sub-groups among us who don’t do any kind of deity — the atheists, the non-theists, the humanists, the apatheists (people who are apathetic about the concept of God), the religious naturalists, and so on. Among the atheists there are Christian atheists, atheists who want to retain the cultural aspects of Christianity. And then there are people like me, the wild-eyed mystics who don’t fit neatly into any of these categories. We have way too much religious diversity to be considered Christians.

Part of the problem is that Christians are generally allowed to have just one religious identity. You are either one thing, or another. You can be a Christian or a Jew, but you can’t be both. It gets even narrower than that: You can be a Roman Catholic or a Protestant, but you can’t be both. Christianity presents a distinct contrast to some East Asian cultures, where it can be completely acceptable to feel affiliated (to for example) Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and folk religious practices all at the same time.

Another part of the problem is that Christians generally think of religion as being all about correct belief. You believe in God, you believe in the Trinity, then you’re a Christian — and then the Christians try to impose that criterion onto other religious traditions. However, any comparative religion scholar can tell you that there are plenty of other religious traditions that are not focused on belief.

A third part of the problem is that our Christian-dominated culture assumes that religion has only a few big categories. There’s Christianity, which is assumed to be the paradigm against which all other religions are measured. There’s Judaism, which is sort of like Christianity without Jesus. There’s Islam, which is sort of a branch of Christianity with another prophet. There’s Buddhism, which is sort of like Christianity because Buddha is a reformer like Jesus. There are some other major religions which kind of resemble Christianity. Then there are lots of “primitive religions” which are primitive because they don’t resemble Christianity. When you put it like this, it all sounds like nonsense, and yet a great many people in our society really do think that other religions are honest-to-goodness religions only insofar as they resemble Christianity.

In light of our societal prejudices, no wonder it’s hard to explain Unitarian Universalism. We don’t have a problem with multiple religious identities, like Unitarian Universalist Buddhist or Unitarian Universalist Christian. We don’t have one correct belief, but expect that we will all be open and searching. We don’t feel that Christianity is the paradigm against which all other religions are measured. By our society’s standards, we are not, in fact, a “real religion.”

And honestly, many of us are just as happy that we’re not considered a “real religion.” The religious right has created a climate where to be religious means being sexist and homophobic. The religious right has created a climate where to be religious means rejecting evolutionary science, rejecting climate science, and maybe even rejecting all science that comes up with inconvenient conclusions. The religious right has even begun to create a climate where to be religious means being a Christian nationalist. No wonder that a growing percentage of Americans, when asked to identify their religious affiliation, choose “none.” So if the Christian right claims that we Unitarian Universalists are not a “real religion,” that may be the best thing that could happen to us.

I’ve now spent much of this sermon in explaining, not who we are, but who we are not. This is the reality of being a Unitarian Universalist in our society: we don’t fit into the neat little box of American religion. I’m afraid we just have to get used to the fact that we’re going to have to explain over and over again that we don’t require people to believe in God, that we are not Christian nationalists, and that by American standards we are not a “real religion.”

For a positive statement of who we are, we can turn to the second reading, the excerpt from Kok-Heong McNaughton’s essay “Why I Am a UU.” A few things stand out for me in Kok-Heong’s essay.

First and foremost, as Unitarian Universalists we care enough to fight against the injustices we see in the world around us. Our religion does not exists only to support our personal spiritualities. We also come together to make the world a better place. While this might seem to be a characteristic of many religions, our approach is slightly different. Rather than having a pre-determined notion of what we should do to make the world a better place, we look at the many problems around us and use reason to determine where we might make the most difference.

The use of reason is an important part of who we are. Rather than relying on blind, unquestioning faith, we ask questions and and use our reasoning powers to try to answer those questions. Since we know how easy it is for us human beings to deceive ourselves, we also come together as communities to try to get closer to the truth. In other words, we use the principles of scientific method. Scientific method requires a community of peers to examine each other’s hypotheses and conclusions. You have to be willing to rethink your conclusions if other people show you evidence that you might be wrong.

We also attempt to value the cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity among us. This actually goes along with our search for truth: we know from science that all human beings have biases that we’re not really aware of, and in order to get through our biases to the truth, we need to constantly check with other people who may lack our biases. I will also say that this for me is the most exciting part of being a Unitarian Universalist. As a straight white provincial male from west of Boston, it’s way too easy for me to think that Boston is the Hub of the Universe and that there is no life west of the Connecticut River; which means it’s way too easy for me to take for granted things that I should really be questioning. Our religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity is one of our greatest strengths.

One of the ways we celebrate our diversity is by allowing the various individuals in our community to share their individual talents and expertise. You can see that here at First Parish. Our members teach our religious education classes to our children. One of our members with expertise in Buddhist practice leads a meditation class. Our circle ministries are planned and coordinated by our members. Our social justice programs are planned and led by our members. And while a minister leads a little more than three quarters of our Sunday morning services, close to a quarter of all our services are led by lay people. Each one of us represents a source of knowledge and wisdom, and we encourage each other to find out more where our own knowledge and expertise is lacking.

Our religion does not provide certainty. Instead of saying, “We have the one true answer so you better come join us,” we say, “We’re trying to figure all this out, why don’t you come join us?” Can we sum all this up in a single simple positive statement? There used to be a push for Unitarian Universalists to come up with an “elevator speech,” a ten-second spiel on Unitarian Universalism that we could spit out if someone asked us to explain our religion while sharing an elevator with someone. The format of an elevator speech tends to push people to try for certainty: we are this, or we are that. But if we’re a faith without certainty, then an elevator speech will most likely misrepresent who we actually are.

So it is that if someone asks me — Who are you Unitarian Universalists, anyway? — I don’t have a set response. I may say that we don’t care much about what you believe, but we do care what you do with your life. I may say that we believe the search for truth is ongoing, and that searching for truth works best in a community where a diverse group of people can help you challenge your unquestioned assumptions.

Sometimes, someone is insistent to know exactly what it is the Unitarian Universalists “believe.” So here’s what I might say to give a positive statement of what Unitarian Universalism is all about. We care enough to fight against injustice; we use science and reason to help us find the truth; we need community to help us find truth; we value cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity; we all take responsibility for teaching and learning together.

And if I meet someone who seems genuinely interested in our congregation, who seems like they’re maybe thinking about becoming a part of our congregation, then I won’t spend a lot of time explaining who we are, or what we “believe.” When Kok-Heong McNaughton started asking about her local Unitarian Universalist congregation, the person she talked to didn’t waste time in explanations: “When I indicated an interest,” said Kok-Heong, “instead of giving me an earful, she simply called up the church office and put me on their newsletter mailing list.” If we’re more about deeds than creeds, the newsletter is a pretty good way to introduce someone to our actual deeds.

And maybe that’s the best short answer to the question, “Who are you Unitarian Universalists, anyway?” Read our newsletter. Look at our website. Know us by what we do.