Anti-intellectualism among Unitarian Universalists

Kim Hampton nails it in a post titled “Anti-intellectualism in Unitarian Universalism”:

“Why is it, for all of our supposed intellectualism on a wide range of subjects, most Unitarian Universalist show absolutely no curiosity regarding religion itself? Part of the reason Unitarian Universalist social justice work can be so haphazard is because most UUs don’t understand that the only way to sustain oneself in the work of social justice is to have a firm religious grounding.”

Examples of our anti-intellectualism are easy to find: fundamentalist humanists who refuse to engage in thoughtful dialogue with angry theists (and vice versa); those who reduce Unitarian Universalist thinking to thoughtless recitations of the “seven principles”; those who conflate politics of the U.S. Democratic party with Unitarian Universalist social justice; etc.

I think Hampton makes an especially good point about the anti-intellectualism that pervades Unitarian Universalist social justice work. Yes, Unitarian Universalists should be opposed to the current practice of ICE separating children from their parents. But on what grounds do we oppose this human rights violation? — do we ground our opposition in natural law arguments, or in arguments from the Western religious tradition? The answer makes a difference. Back in a 2002 General Assembly lecture (see below), Prof. Carole Fontaine argued that Unitarian Unviversalists occupy a unique niche in human rights work: we should be able to talk with both secular and scripturally-based human rights workers, and thus we should be able to build alliances between these two groups, potentially a very powerful coalition.

But we can’t get to that point unless we get over our anti-intellectualism, and start thinking seriously about who we are and what we can do. And so, right now as Unitarian Universalists we are wasting an opportunity with the humanitarian crisis of the separation of immigrants and their children: had we been more thoughtful and less anti-intellectual, we could on the one hand challenge the completely incorrect Biblical justifications offered for what ICE is doing, while offering a liberal religious denunciation of the ICE abuses; and on the other hand build more effective bridges between religious progressives and secular human rights workers.

More about Fontaine’s lecture….

Alas, in one of its housecleaning efforts, the UUA has removed my reporting on Carole Fontaine’s lecture from (along with most reporting on General Aseembly 2002). Fortunately, I still have the article I wrote, and I’ll post it here:


General assembly 2002
Workshop #3048
Strange Bedfellows?: Scripture(s), Human Rights, and UU Theological Principles
Dr. Carole Fontaine, John Taylor Professor of Biblical History and Theology, Andover Newton Theological School
Saturday, 3:45-5:00 p.m.

The annual Unitarian Universalist Scholar’s Committee lecture at General Assembly was given this year by Dr. Carole Fontaine. Dr. Fontaine is John Taylor Professor of Biblical History and Theology at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. She is a well-known feminist Biblical scholar and self-proclaimed “bible geek” who is editor of the Feminist Theological Companion to the bible series. She is an active Unitarian Universalist in preparation for the UU ministry.

Dr. Fontaine began by asking, “What it will take to form a global conscience for planet Earth?” Using both feminist analysis and deconstructionism, she looked at how the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Koran can influence understandings of human rights. Dr. Fontaine contends that Unitarian Universalism, with its traditions of religious tolerance and free inquiry, stands in a unique place to promote understanding between differing conceptions of human rights.

Dr. Fontaine referred to the Rev. Bill Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International and and former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who has "lodged human rights in a humanistic principle: the profound capacity for human empathy." But for many people around the world, the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and the Koran determine how human rights are understood. But, said Dr. Fontaine, “scripturally-based and secular-based rights workers can work together,” and Unitarian Universalists are in a position to talk with both secular and religious people.

Dr. Fontaine proposed feminism and feminist analysis as a corrective to many of the problems of both the natural law and scripturally-based approaches to human rights. Feminist scholars look at scriptures in terms of the historical milieu in which they were written, and then look at how later editors and interpreters have altered the meanings of scripture. Dr. Fontaine believes in “reconstituting Jesus as a human rights guy,” saying the later Christian tradition has obscured his potential relation to human rights issues. “I like Jesus. He’s my guy. The fact that he’s executed on trumped-up political charges — I mean, he’s the Stephen Biko of the 1st century. We can work with this!” she said.

According to Dr. Fontaine, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions all “encountered major threats in their early days” with the result that the traditions turned against outsiders in the later traditions. Referring to the Koran and the later Islamic tradition, Dr. Fontaine said, “The feminist reading of the Koran says it is hoping to ameliorate the existing conditions for women [but] the contributions of women were slowly obscured by [later] male authorities.” In short, she said, “The patriarchal interpretation has robbed us of thoughts we can use” in service of human rights.

“All of these books,” said Dr. Fontaine, “in many ways have inscribed a less than inspirational view of humanity, which makes it difficult to cull a human rights from them.” Yet at the same time, she feels there are passages in all three books that provide inspiration and guidance to people working for human rights, adding “There are places in each scripture that just glow.” She referred to Matthew 25 in the New Testament, and Leviticus 19:16 in the Hebrew Bible. As for the Koran, Dr. Fontaine quoted feminist scholars who say “the Koran is the magna charta of human rights.”

As for Unitarian Universalists, Dr. Fontaine said “we have the right to keep the good parts” of various religious traditions. She believes the seven Unitarian Universalist principles offer religious inspiration for human rights workers, especially the first principle that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.

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