Is It Religion? — Pt. 5, Unitarian Universalism

Sermon copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Opening words

They drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.

by Universalist poet Edwin Markham

Unison chalice lighting words

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

by Unitarian poet Edward Everett Hale

Moment for All Ages: What do you say when someone asks what UUs believe?

A tough question for Unitarian Universalist kids (and for Unitarian Universalist adults, for that matter) goes something like this: “So you’re a Unitarian Universalist. What do you Unitarian Universalists believe, anyway?”

The thing is, we Unitarian Universalists can’t really answer this question. If you’re a member of a Christian church, usually you’re supposed to believe in God. But for us Unitarian Universalists, it’s different — some of us believe in God, some of us don’t believe in God, some of us worship the Goddess, and some of us don’t think much about gods or goddesses at all. Then if you’re a member of a Christian church, you’re usually supposed to spend time believe the Christian version of the Bible is a holy book. But for us Unitarian Universalists, it’s different — some of us do read the Christian version of the Bible, some of us prefer the Jewish version of the Bible, some of us read other sacred books like the Buddhist sutras, and some of us don’t believe in reading any sacred books.

When someone asks us Unitarian Universalists what we believe, we can’t give them a simple answer. I recently had this happen to me. A Christian minister said to me, “So you’re a Unitarian Universalist. What do you Unitarian Universalists believe, anyway?” But when I started to say to give them a detailed answer, similar to what I said just now, I could see their eyes glaze over. They basically stopped listening.

Honestly, when people ask us what we believe, they don’t want the real answer. They just want a sound bite. Over the years, I’ve come up with some sound bites you can use, and I thought I’d share some of these with you.

When I get the question: “Do you Unitarian Universalists believe in Jesus?”… my sound bite answer is: “Yes, we believe Jesus was a radical rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth.”

When I get the question: “What do you Unitarian Universalists believe?”… my sound bite answer is: “We believe that what you do is more important than what you believe.”

When I get the question: “Do you Unitarian Universalists believe in God?”… my sound bite answer is: “We believe everyone has to figure out the truth for themselves.”

And we really do believe that. This is what makes our congregation so interesting. We learn from other people. Together, we search for truth and goodness.


The first reading was a May 17, 2004, news story from the Fort-Worth Star Telegram. This story is no longer online, but read an extensive excerpt here. Seven days later, the state reversed its ruling, restoring tax exempt status to Red River Unitarian Universalist Church.

The second very short reading is by Duncan Howlett, from a pamphlet titled “What Do Unitarian Universalists Believe?”

“We reject all doctrines and creeds and theologies if they pretend to any finality. We think the fabrication of such systems valuable, but we do not believe one or another of them.”

Sermon: “Is It Religion, pt. 5 — Unitarian Universalism”

For the past few months, I’ve been doing a series of sermons titled “Is It Religion?” In the first sermon I asked whether sports is a religion; in the second sermon, whether Christian nationalism is a religion; in the third, whether communism and capitalism are religions; in the fourth, whether Christmas was a religion, or at least religious. In each sermon, the answer boiled down to — yes and no. If you’ve heard one or more of these sermons, you’ll recall that part of the problem is that there is no generally accepted definition for religion. Today I’m going to have a look at Unitarian Universalism, and I’ll ask whether it’s a religion or not. And once again, the answer’s going to be — yes and no.

In the first reading this morning, we heard how the Texas comptroller’s office denied tax exempt status to a Unitarian Universalist congregation, on the theory that it wasn’t a religion. The reality was a bit more complicated than what we heard in that news story. An entry on Harvard University’s Pluralism Project website gives a fuller story:

“On May 30, 2004 the First Amendment Center reported, ‘It’s been a strange and scary week for religious liberty in the great state of Texas. In September 2003, the office of Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn denied tax exemption to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Denison, Texas. This fact was not revealed until last week, when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram learned of the decision. After few days of bad press in the newspaper, Strayhorn’s office announced May 24 that she had reversed the decision and granted the church tax-exempt status. Nobody has paid much attention over the years as the comptroller turned down Wiccans, New Age groups and Freethinkers – not exactly popular groups down in Texas. But picking on Unitarian Universalists finally sparked some outrage.’”

Even though this happened twenty years ago, this remains a fascinating story because it reveals some important truths about the way our society defines religion.

First of all, one of the key ways our society defines religion is through tax exempt status. The ability to bestow or withhold tax exempt status gives government officials the power to define what is religion and what is not religion. This is an incredibly difficult task for those government officials, because there is no consensus on how to define what a religion is. When the Texas state comptroller’s office tried to establish clear and consistent criteria for defining what constituted a religion, they turned to a definition of religion that is widely held in our country — a religion must include “a belief in God, or gods, or a higher power.”

That definition worked well for several months, allowing the comptroller’s office to deny religious status to Neo-Pagan groups and Freethinker groups. However, we Unitarian Universalists were willing and able to fight back, and we regained our tax exempt status. Which put the Texas state comptroller’s office back in the position of deciding what a religion is, in the absence of any objective criteria. So it is that our society defines religion in part by asking government officials with no expertise or training in religious studies to decide who gets tax exempt status and who doesn’t. And religion can also be redefined by anyone is capable of pushing back on government rulings.

A second important truth about the way our society defines religion: our society defaults to defining religion as “a belief in God, or gods, or a higher power.” That’s the definition the Texas state comptroller’s office defaulted to when they were trying to establish objective criteria to define religion. Here in the United States, we generally accept this as normal: if you’re religious, you believe in God; if you believe in God, you’re religious.

As we Unitarian Universalists know, there are several problems with defining religion in this way. Perhaps most obviously, there are people who consider themselves religious who don’t believe in God. More importantly, naming “God” in this definition shows that we consider Christianity to be the paradigm for all religion. That definition does not say, “a belief in Allah, or gods, or a higher power.” That definition does not say, “a belief in the Goddess, or gods, or a higher power.” “God” comes first, and by that most Americans mean the God of Christianity. To which most Americans would probably add the following qualifying statement: “The Jews worship the same god as the Christians, so it’s also the god of Judaism.” Which simply isn’t true, because most Christians venerate a triune god consisting of three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Jewish God most definitely does not include Jesus.

Thus, when Americans assume that religion is the same thing as belief in God, we’re basically assuming that Christianity is our default religion. If it looks like Christianity, then it’s a religion. If it doesn’t look like Christianity, then it’s not a religion.

From what I’ve seen, we Unitarian Universalists have mixed feeling about the Christian churches being the paradigm against which our religion is compared. On the one hand, we want to consider ourselves a religion. Obviously, we’d like to keep our tax exempt status. And many of us think of Unitarian Universalism as a religion — it’s something that offers us spiritual nourishment, and it enriches our lives in ways that religion is supposed to do.

On the other hand, though, here in the U.S. many people now identify religion with a certain form of White evangelical Christianity. By this definition, to be religious means to oppose LGBTQ rights, to forbid women as clergy, to ban books, and so on. If that’s what it means to be religious, then we Unitarian Universalists do not want to be religious — we support LGBTQ rights, we welcome all genders as clergy, we are horrified by book bans, and so on.

Because of the different ways in which Americans define religion, we Unitarian Universalists sometimes think of ourselves as religious, while at other times we feel that we’re not religious at all. It depends on how you define religion, and what the consequences are for either being a religion, or not being a religion.

As you think about that, let’s quickly go back in time to India some two hundred years ago. As the British Empire started to take over more and more of the Indian subcontinent, the British decided that India had a dominant religion which they called Hinduism. Actually, there was no such thing as Hinduism before the British came along. There were several different traditions, including the people devoted to Vishnu, the people devoted to Shiva, the goddess-centric tradition devoted to Shakti, the Smarta tradition, and so on. But the British — perhaps out of bureaucratic convenience — lumped all these traditions together under the name Hinduism, basically meaning someone from the Indian subcontinent who was not a Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, or other religion.

Thus, “Hinduism” was originally a name imposed on India by outsiders. However, the people who got lumped together as “Hindus” quickly discovered that there were advantages to being classified as a religion, because the British Raj afforded certain legal rights to religions. It turned out to be very convenient to be categorized as “Hindu.” The people called “Hindus” by the British colonial government came to accept, and eventually to embrace the name.

Obviously, our situation as Unitarian Universalists is very different from the Hindus under the British Raj. We Unitarian Universalists helped create the government of the United States; it’s not something that got imposed on us from the outside. But there is a rough analogy with our religious situation. Our society continues to be dominated by Christian assumptions and Christian definitions of religion. That definition of religion is imposed on us by others. Because we don’t fit neatly into the Christian definition of religion, we get misunderstood either as “a religion that doesn’t believe anything,” or, worse yet, “a religion where you can believe everything.” Yet even though we are misunderstood by the wider society, being classed as a religion provides certain benefits to us.

Yet our biggest problem right now is the belief of an increasing number of young people that all religions are homophobic, transphobic, sexist, and anti-science. Even though we Unitarian Universalists are none of these things, there are many young people who don’t understand that.

I’ve seen this play out in an unfortunate way when some Unitarian Universalist young people reach their middle teens. They get so disgusted by the excesses of White conservative Christians, they decide they don’t want to be part of any religion, not even Unitarian Universalism.

I’ve also seen this play out in a less unfortunate way as some teenagers stick with Unitarian Universalism, but hide that fact from their peers. These teens understand that Unitarian Universalism is a force for good in our society, but they get so tired of explaining to their peers how Unitarian Universalism is not like conservative Christianity, that they finally give up and hide their religious affiliation.

On a more positive note, I’ve seen quite a few Unitarian Universalist teens who are happy to be public about their Unitarian Universalism. I’ve known a couple of Unitarian Universalist teens who, when they turned 18, got a flaming chalice tattoo. That’s about as public as you can get with your Unitarian Universalism.

Finally, on a very positive note, I’ve known a few teens who used their Unitarian Universalism as a force for change in the world. One case in particular stands out for me. An LGBTQ teen was an active member of, and leader in, their high school Gay Straight Alliance. During their freshman and sophomore years, they never talked about being a Unitarian Universalist at Gay Straight Alliance meetings. Then in their junior year, they made a conscious decision to go public with their religious affiliation. Some of their peers were aghast — how could an LGBTQ person be “religious”? To which this teen responded (in no uncertain terms) that Unitarian Universalism was a religion that very actively supported LGBTQ rights, and that kind of a religion was something they actively wanted to be a part of.

Now we can return to the original question. Is Unitarian Universalism religion? No, because the paradigm for religion in our society is conservative Christianity, and Unitarian Universalism is most definitely not conservative Christianity.

Is Unitarian Universalism religion? Yes, because we do the things that religions are supposed to do. We have high moral and ethical values that we live out in the real world, such valuing all persons equally regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, or race.

Is Unitarian Universalism religion? Both yes and no at the same time, because we want to challenge the definition of religion that says all religion has to be like conservative Christianity.

This brings to an end this series of sermons answering the question, “Is it religion?” Even if this sermon series is now a blur in your memory, I hope you will remember that there is no one generally accepted definition for religion. And if you get nothing else from this last sermon in the series, I hope you’ll remember that if someone asks you, “Are you religious?” you can reply, “It all depends on how you define religion.”