Downside to decline

The report by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Institutional Change puts it starkly: if Unitarian Universalists don’t figure out how to become less white, we will die out (because: demographics).

Fair enough. But we’re seeing rise of the “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation, and so maybe it’s time for organized religion to die. If it’s time for organized religion to die, why should we care?

In a recent article titled “White Christian America built a faith-based safety net. What happens when it’s gone?”, Religion News Service has an answer to this question:

“The growth of the so-called nones doesn’t mean that belief is disappearing, but ‘loosely organized spirituality’ among people who have few ties to each other lacks precisely the organization that can marshal thousands of key volunteers.

“‘They don’t congregate,’ [Brad] Fulton [associate professor of nonprofit management at Indiana University] said. ‘And that is the key thing.’

“Religious congregations, on the other hand, he said, ‘ask people to give once a week, week after week. They tell people about volunteer opportunities once a week, week after week. There is no other social institution like them.’

“In some ways, the infrastructure of religion matters more than the spiritual part. The so-called nones, at least for now, can’t replace that.

“‘There is some upside to organized religion that has very little to do with religion,’ he said. ‘They have a great mechanism to bring people together. It is really hard to identify an organized secular equivalent.'”

This is not far from what Unitarian theologian and sociologist James Luther Adams said in the mid-twentieth century: congregations function as voluntary associations. And congregations provide real and tangible benefits to society.

Another point worth noticing here: Fulton, a scholar of management, says that what congregations do — that no one else does — is to congregate, “week after week.” The loose networks created by social media (so far at least) don’t do this, so unfortunately we can’t expect social media networks like Black Lives Matter to fill this void.

7 thoughts on “Downside to decline”

  1. Is this code for saying the UUA needs to reach into the working class? Last I checked, most of America’s churches are effectively segregated by both race and class.

  2. If the COIC position is that UUism should become more welcoming and racially integrated in order to survive, it strikes me that this is both (1) wrong, and (2) a bad motivation for something that may be a good change.

    It’s wrong because UUism is so small that simply becoming somewhat more welcoming and engaging to any outsiders in any group would be sufficient to generate high percentage growth. It is also wrong because although the U.S. is racially diversifying, I think sometimes people forget that what “white” means is subject to change over time. I suspect that by the year 2060, many families who today are considered “Hispanic” (Or Latinx, if you want to go with that term) will be considered “white”, both by themselves and others, assuming “white” is still a relevant label lin the year 2060.

    It is also bad because taking some action simply to survive is not a very positive approach to reform, and certainly isn’t inspiring. It’s insincere — you’re saying you really don’t want to change, but you are changing for very self-interested and selfish motives.

    I think a better reason for the UUA diversifying is : (1) in general it is better for as many U.S. institutions as possible — neighborhoods, businesses, the police, government, churches — to become more racially integrated and income integrated, as we need greater social solidarity in the U.S., and (2) trying to diversify forces you to think about the difficult question of how an organization becomes more diverse while still retaining its core purposes and mission that still make sense upon reconsideration. More diverse institutions will be better as long as they still achieve their legitimate core purposes.

    So, for example, the UUA clearly to some extent can become more diverse simply by hiring more diverse leaders, who can provide role models. I think a lot of the messy debate over the so-called “hiring controversy” in the UUA could have been avoided, and maybe clarified, if a few years ago the UUA Board had just agreed that they wanted the UUA President to be more aggressive in pursuing affirmative action goals. We seem to have been unable to achieve that without going through a crisis.

    And I agree with you that churches are a key part of society’s social capital. The point is that this social capital is better positioned to promote broader social solidarity if it is more racially integrated and income integrated. (A Nazi group might have a lot of internal social capital, but obviously does not promote greater overall social solidarity across all groups.) But in doing that, UUism needs to remain a liberal religion, otherwise — what’s the point?

  3. Will, my coded reference is actually aimed at the Unitarian Universalists who think the rise of the “nones” is a Very Good Thing, because they think the rise of the “nones” means the rise of atheism, which isn’t true; the rise of the “nones” is actually the rise of anti-institutionalism, which is Not a Very Good Thing.

    Nevertheless — Yes, most of America’s churches are segregated by race and class. Yes, the UUA has effectively become a church for the white upper middle class. And yes, if UU congregations want to continue as institutions, we had better figure out ways to include both non-white populations and working class populations. Sadly, I’m not optimistic.

  4. Dan, interesting point about the nones. I think you’re right. UUs always (well, for as long as I remember) joked about being disorganized, but the UUA really isn’t. I have no idea how the UUA could become less institutional, but I’d think that would be a better goal.

    I wish I could say something to make you optimistic. The best I can do is to say I think pessimism is also premature. Things are shaking themselves out. Maybe the UUs will be able to offer something like Octavia Butler’s vision in her Gospel books.

  5. Will, I’ve been thinking a lot about Octavia Butler’s vision. (And John Brunner’s books “Stand on Zanzibar” and “The Sheep Look Up,” and Doris Lessing’s “Canopus in Argos” series, but for different reasons.) I think the religions that are going to do well are religions like Neo-Paganism that are decentralized and with robust local groups and good informal inter-group networks. I’m less certain about religions following a charismatic leader, which is kinda what Octavia Butler shows, simply because charismatic leaders often don’t build religions that survive long-term (think Mary Baker Eddy; the only thing that’s keeping Christian Science going today in most places is endowments). Maybe the model for the decentralized version of religion appears more in Ursula K. LeGuin.

  6. Tim, you made me laugh out loud when you said, “you’re saying you really don’t want to change, but you are changing for very self-interested and selfish motives.” That’s just what I was thinking. It’s like the congregational fundraising campaign that says, “Give us money so we won’t go out of business.” Not a compelling reason.

    As our congregation slowly gets more nonwhite (we’re down to 85% white amongst RE families, which I know is pitiful, but by UU standards it’s pretty good), what I’m finding really enjoyable is how good it is to have families coming from different cultural/ethnic/racial backgrounds. So that’s another selfish reason — our congregation is a lot more fun as it becomes more diverse — but at least it’s a reason that says, “We want you for who you are,” rather than “We want you so we won’t die.” If that makes sense.

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