Category Archives: Liberal religion

The year ahead: Good things to watch for in Unitarian Universalism

I’m a Universalist at heart, and Universalism is a hope-filled faith, so as I look ahead to 2011 I can’t help but seek out signs of hope within Unitarian Universalism. Here are some of the things that give me hope for the coming year:

Community ministry: Most of our local congregations continue to stagnate and even decline, and they are not very good advertisements for our faith tradition. But our Unitarian Universalist community ministers are out doing all kinds of good work in the world; they serve as hospital chaplains, military chaplains, directors of non-profit organizations, social service providers, etc., etc. These are the people who are out there letting people know who we are. We have to figure out how to support these people without locking them into the weird narrow conception of congregational polity that now dominates us.

Three experiments in new congregation starts:

This coming year, I’ll be watching three very different approaches at starting new congregations. Each of these three new congregations does not fit the typical model of new congregation starts within Unitarian Universalism — no fellowships here, no existing congregation supporting a new congregation, no extension ministry, no support from the Unitarian Universalist Association. One is a project to revitalize a moribund church; another focuses on serving the wider community rather than members and friends; and one an entrepreneurial church start common in other denominations but not within Unitarian Universalism. Continue reading

Year in review: Unitarian Universalist growth initiatives

The year in Unitarian Universalist growth initiatives may be summed up quite simply: there continue to be fewer Unitarian Universalists, few local congregations seem to have any interest in taking the simple steps necessary to grow, and hardly anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit is stepping forward to start new and innovative Unitarian Universalist communities.

As an extreme example of Unitarian Universalism’s lack of initiative, let’s look at the San Francisco Bay area, where I live. The San Francisco Bay area comprises nine counties, 7,000 square miles, and 7.4 million people. A poll by the Pew Forum in 2008 determined that 0.3% of U.S. adults call themselves Unitarian Universalists, and therefore we’d expect there to be at least 22,000 Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area. Since the Bay area population tends to be liberal, well-educated, and open-minded, however, I would expect there to be more Unitarian Universalists than the national average. Conservatively, I’d guess there should be something like 30,000 to 40,000 Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area — yet there are fewer than 4,000. In all of California, the most populous state in the U.S. with a population of more than 37 million people, there are only 16,089 Unitarian Universalists (according to the 2010 UUA Directory).

If this isn’t bad enough, there is only one so-called “emerging congregation” (that is, a relatively new congregation not yet admitted as a full member of the Unitarian Universalist Association) in the Bay area, and that one new congregation is actually a group of people who left the Oakland church in the middle of a conflict over whether or not the music director should be fired. Because conflicts typically drive some people away from religion entirely, I’d guess that this emerging congregation actually represents a net loss of Unitarian Universalists in the Bay area.

And if that isn’t bad enough… Continue reading

The year in review: Liberal religion

The phrase “liberal religion” continues to provoke unbelieving stares from the many people who believe that religion is, by definition, conservative. And that sums up the state of liberal religion in 2010. Much of the U.S. population still believes that in order to be religious, you must doubt scientific knowledge, believe in things that are difficult to believe in, and at least pay lip service to an ethical system that is at odds with mainstream U.S. culture.

Most U.S. media (including news outlets, movies, television, etc.) continue to portray white Protestant evangelicals as normative when it comes to religion; Catholics, Jews, and Mormons are thrown in as amusingly eccentric variations on white Protestant evangelicalism (the Jews are practically Protestant in U.S. pop culture, except that they don’t believe in Christ). The Black church is rarely noticed, except in media offerings aimed squarely at the African American market; other ethnic Christians, including Hispanics and various Asian Christians, are mostly ignored by the media.

As for liberal Christians, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, and liberal Muslims — U.S. media and U.S. pop culture basically pretend they don’t exist, except when news outlets decide to run yet another story about how mainline Christian churches are declining in membership. Neopagans, many of whom are religious liberals, get even worse treatment by U.S. media — they are portrayed as if they are something out of a Stephen King horror novel. The only religious liberal group that gets some positive mention by U.S. media are liberal Buddhists, probably because the media like the saffron color of the Dalai Lama’s robes.

And Barack Obama is not helping increase understanding of religious liberalism. Continue reading

Normative religion?

I’ve been trying to read the new sociological study of U.S. religion by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010). But I’ve gotten stalled on page 18. That’s where Putnam and Campbell define a scale of religious intensity, or religiosity. They measure religiosity “with a series of questions that tap into different ways of being religious, including both behaving and believing.” And here are the six questions they use to measure religiosity:

How frequently do you attend religious services?
How frequently do you pray outside of religious services?
How important is religion in your daily life?
How important is religion to your sense of who you are?
Are you a strong believer in your religion?
How strong is your belief in God?

Using this scale, I automatically cannot rate at the highest level of religiosity. Why? Because I don’t pray (outside of the pastoral prayers I may say in Sunday services). I also get knocked down the scale because, depending on how you define “God,” I don’t have a strong belief in God. Indeed, if I have to use the word “belief” to express how I know God, then as a non-Cartesian empiricist I would have to say I don’t “believe” in God any more than I “believe” or “disbelieve” any sensory impression.

Putnam and Campbell admit one could raise some possibly valid objections to the way they measure religiosity. In particular, they admit that “readers may wonder whether these particular questions favor one religious tradition over another….” This is an objection that anyone who is a Unitarian Universalist would raise, since probably half of us don’t believe in God, including some of our most religious Unitarian Universalists. Putnam and Campbell go on to say:

…This is a common concern when social scientists study religion, as religiosity is sometimes measured with questions that are normative within Protestantism, specifically for evangelicals. …we acknowledge the concern that perhaps this particular religiosity index is inadvertently biased toward evangelical Protestantism, or some other religious tradition.

From my point of view, their measure of religiosity is clearly biased toward evangelical Protestantism. Which doesn’t make me eager to read the rest of the book. Which also makes me realize the extent to which evangelicals dominate the public conversation about religion in the U.S. And which also makes me want to force Putnam and Campbell to spend some time reading the work of linguist George Lakoff.

There was no innkeeper, and he wasn’t inhospitable

Anyone who knows the Christmas story knows about the inhospitable innkeeper who wouldn’t allow poor pregnant Mary to stay in the only inn in town. Unfortunately, that’s not what the story originally said in the ancient Greek, according to Stephen Carlson of Duke University in The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Καταλυμα in Luke 2.7, New Testament Studies 56 (2010), pp. 326-342.

This apparently is a scholarly argument that has been going on for centuries, and at least one Renaissance scholar was reprimanded by the Inquisition for daring to show that “καταλυμα” in this context does not mean “inn.” Carlson summarizes his thesis as follows:

Putting these exegetical conclusions together, the entire clause should be rendered as ‘because they did not have space in their accommodations’ or ‘because they did not have room in their place to stay’. This clause means that Jesus had to be born and laid in a manger because the place where Joseph and Mary were staying did not have space for him. Luke’s point is not so much any inhospitality extended to Joseph and Mary but rather that their place to stay was too small to accommodate even a newborn.

Rats, there goes this Sunday’s Christmas pageant.

Another reason to belong to a local congregation?

I found the following in the executive summary of Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, prepared by the “Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America,” Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. This paper seems to indicate that many of the things I value most — social equality, racial diversity, breaking down class distinctions, changing the world, etc. — are positively associated with just being a part of a religious community. Note that the paper is silent on the matter of specific beliefs. I’d hypothesize that what’s most important about religious community is not specific beliefs, but rather the fact that a religious community is organized around high ideals with ethical implications.

What is the impact of this religious engagement? Involvement in communities of faith among all goers collectively is strongly associated with giving and volunteering. Indeed, involvement in religious community is among the strongest predictors of giving and volunteering for religious causes as well as for secular ones. Religious communities embody one of the most important sources of social capital and concern for community in America. Religious people are great at ‘doing for.’

Moreover, religious involvement is positively associated with most other forms of civic involvement. Even holding other factors constant (comparing people of comparable educational levels, comparable income, and so on), religiously engaged people are more likely than religiously disengaged people to be involved in civic groups of all sorts, to vote more, to be more active in community affairs, to give blood, to trust other people (from shopkeepers to neighbors), to know the names of public officials, to socialize with friends and neighbors, and even simply to have a wider circle of friends. Interestingly as well, Americans are more likely to fully trust people at their place of worship (71%) than they are to trust people they work with (52%), people in their neighborhood (47%) or people of their own race (31%).

Another distinctive feature of religious involvement is that it is less biased by social standing than most other forms of civic involvement. Poorer, less educated Americans are much less likely to be involved in community life than other Americans, but they are fully as engaged in religious communities. Conversely, religiously engaged people have, on average, a more diverse set of friends than those who are less engaged in religion. Holding constant their own social status, religiously engaged people are more likely than other Americans to number among their friends a person of a different faith, a community leader, a manual worker, a business owner, and even a welfare recipient.

I cannot resist adding a caveat: As always, it’s wise to remain skeptical of such studies; it’s especially important not to confuse correlation and causation.

After you make the decision, what next?

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We were in a meeting talking about how our congregation makes decisions. And engineer told us what happened after they made decisions in her for-profit workplace. She said, “We used to have a saying: Agree and commit; Disagree and commit; or, Get out of the way.”

In congregational life, as in the for-profit world, there’s usually a fourth option: Disagree and sabotage. A decision is made by a duly constituted authority, or through an established democratic process, and a small group of people who disagree with the decision start to sabotage it. And why wouldn’t we behave in this way? That’s the way democracy in America works: once a decision is made, many politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) go out of their way to sabotage the implementation of the decision. Ordinary citizens like us unconsciously follow their example.

But I think our congregations should be countercultural; we should not do democracy the way many U.S. politicians do democracy. We shouldn’t blindly adopt the standard from the engineering world, but it might be a good starting place:

Agree and commit;
Disagree and commit; or
Get out of the way.

Noah? Right…

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[Update, 2021: Sadly, now that Bill Cosby has been called out by the #MeToo movement, I’d no longer show this video to children.]

The subject for today’s lesson in the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class was Noah. While the lesson plan in the Timeless Themes curriculum was pretty good, I knew immediately that I was going to scrap it — I knew I had to figure out a way to incorporate Bill Cosby’s comedy routine on Noah.

After taking attendance, we started out with some pre-assessment: “What do you know about Noah?” Some of the children knew quite a lot, and told what they knew in some detail and with pretty good accuracy. “So you pretty much know what the Noah story is,” I told them, “now let’s look at a video.”

The children loved the fact that I brought a laptop into class. “My dad has one of those!” “So does my mom, but I think hers is bigger. Do they make a bigger one?” With a group of this size — we had six children today, though sometimes we get ten — I much prefer having the children cluster around a laptop, where they have to deal with each other’s physical proximity, than sit back and stare at a big screen. I brought the video up. “My mom doesn’t let me watch Youtube.” I told the girl that her mom was wise because most of the stuff on Youtube was crap. “Make it full screen!” said several of the children in a chorus.
Continue reading

Why so many Americans think religion is stupid

Middle-class American religion sometimes goes out of its way to provide very comforting interpretations of the Bible. And yes, I include Unitarian Universalists in this sweeping generalization, for reasons I will outline below. However, comforting American middle-class interpretations of the Bible sound forced and it is pretty hard to take them seriously, as Diana Butler Bass suggests in this passage from her 2009 book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story:

At the height of the Liberation Theology movement in the 1980s, my friend Brad lived in Latin America, where he participated in a base community, a kind of radical Biblical study group in an impoverished village. Lay members rotated leadership, each week reading a text, offering an interpretation drawn from their own experience, and trying to relate scriptural stories to their own lives in order to inspire justice and social change.

One week the story was from Matthew 19, in which Jesus commands the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor to find eternal life…. Brad, an American evangelical, had grown up in a middle-class family and attended a good college. “It was fascinating to hear my new friends interpret this passage in such a different context,” Brad said. “They were very poor and they understood it very literally. They were comfortable with Jesus’s rejection of wealth.”

Brad admitted that he felt uncomfortable, however, especially when one person turned to him and asked how “our brothers and sisters in America” interpreted the story. Brad explained that Americans do not read the story literally. Rather, evangelicals take the direction spiritually. “Jesus insists that we give up whatever means the most to us in order to follow him, not necessarily our possessions. The story isn’t about money.”

The group fell silent, and Brad was unsure of what he had said. Finally, one of the leaders asked how they could trust that Brad was really a Christian since it was obvious that he did not “take the Bible seriously.”

As for Unitarian Universalists, we are more likely to spend our time arguing about the validity of standard middle-class American Christianity, which means we don’t have to face up to the really challenging implications of Jesus’s social message, implications that might challenge our comfortable middle-class existences. It is more convenient for our generation of Unitarian Universalists to dismiss Christianity with the argument that the Christianity we see around us, or in which we were raised, is puerile and shallow.

Similarly, what Unitarian Universalists think of as Buddhism too often is an American interpretation that reduces Buddhism to little more than a self-improvement program, one which doesn’t seem to me to have much in common with the challenging philosophy of Siddhartha Gotama.