Author Archives: Daniel Harper

Noted with comment

“The contemporary version of religion is sport. It is sport, with its sacred icons, revered traditions, symbolic solidarities, liturgical assemblies, and pantheon of heroes, which is the opium of the people. It is also the culture of the people, in both major senses of the word: a communal form of life, but also a chance to display or appreciate the kind of artistry from which the mass of citizens are otherwise largely excluded.”

— Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (Yale Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 45-46.

And consumer capitalism favors sports over organized religion not least because sports can generate a large amount of consumer spending. Ordinary religion does not generate so much consumer spending: Scientology generates ongoing spending by adherents though one could argue that it’s not spending on consumer goods; Hiillsong Music and other producers of Christian pop music generate some significant consumer spending; and not much more. How can religion serve as the opiate of the masses when what the masses really want to do is spend money on consumer goods?

Bath time

We left a large clay saucer (the thing you put under a potted plant to hold excess water) out on the railing of our balcony, and filled it with water to make a bird bath. Many of the neighborhood birds have come to drink or bathe, including California Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma californica), American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), and Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis). The crows and scrub-jays are too big to bathe, and all they do is drink the water — pretty boring. I most enjoy watching the juncos bathing — sometimes, one bird will be splashing around in the water while another waits impatiently for its turn to bathe. Yet even watching crows drink is better than staying glued to online “news” sources for more stories about a U.S. president who denies human-caused climate change while taking great glee in dropping the biggest bombs he can.

Dealing with attacks again

My hosting service let me know that evil hackers are attacking various parts of my blog. To address this, I’ve implemented “captcha” forms on various parts of the blog. Sorry for the inconvenience, but you’ll have to do some simple math before you post a comment. I’m also implementing other security measures — please email me if you run into problems.

In a comment, Alyson writes: “I was wondering if you had any practical input on how to teach this subject without making the non-white children in the congregation feel uncomfortable or singled out in the process. Our RE class is actually fairly diverse, more so than the entirety of the congregation, and I do not know how to broach this topic with them.”

Alyson, I’m facing the same problem: how to teach a group of Unitarian Universalist children who are not all white about white supremacy. Here’s what I’ve been thinking so far….

For initial inspiration, I start with Dr. Marcia Chatelaine and her crowd-sourced #FergusonSyllabus. Although Chatelaine’s Ferguson syllabus was mostly aimed at public schools and post-secondary education, this is actually incredibly useful for those of us working in Sunday schools that are at least somewhat diverse — because Chatelaine’s syllabus has to deal with far greater diversity than exist in most Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools, it helped me see how to structure lessons that do not assume that everyone is white, that do not assume that everyone shares exactly the same opinions about race, etc. In other words, I feel that Chatelaine’s approach opens up a metaphorical space in which to explore the topic from diverse experiences and diverse points of views. This article by Chatelaine at The Atlantic has a good set of resources to explore, including links and children’s books; at least some of these resources could be useful in teaching a diverse Sunday school group about white supremacy.

As noted in an earlier post, Chatelaine recommends working in subject areas that you know something about. With that in mind, I’m working on some Unitarian Universalist-specific children’s stories from Unitarian Universalist history (based on serious historical research I did, including in primary sources). Two stories I’m working on right now are about nineteenth century African Americans, one a would-be Unitarian and one a short-term Universalist, that reveal how Unitarianism and Universalism were less-than welcoming places for non-white persons. One of these stories-to-be also touches on class bias in Unitarianism, so we can get into intersectionality at a kid-friendly level (one of the points Chatelaine made in a workshop that I attended is that intersectionality is a useful strategy in teaching this general topic). In the other story, the African American was a vital part of a local congregation, but only for a short time. Most importantly, the stories of these two people are complex, not simplistic, and inspirational: some white persons were moving away from white supremacist worldviews at the same time that some black persons were moving towards liberal religion, and all these persons had complex lives and motivations worth telling stories about.

If I manage to write these two stories, and I think they’re worth sharing, they’ll get posted here on my blog. But even if I don’t, maybe this can get you thinking about how you can take Chatelaine’s advice and use YOUR strengths as a Unitarian Universalist religious educator — what topic area do you know best, and how can you apply that to teaching about white supremacy? And then how can you use your expertise to open up a metaphorical space in which children with diverse experiences and diverse points of views can explore the topic?

I think it’s also important to acknowledge some of the resistance we will face when we try to create this open metaphorical space in which a diverse group of children can explore this topic. I think we religious educators will face strong and conflicting pressures: white parents who want to protect their children from this topic, non-white parents who don’t want their children to have to be in a white-dominated environment to learn about this topic, non-parent adults who want us to adhere to a strict party line, congregational leaders who want us to fit into what they’re doing (instead of asking us what we’re doing, and building something around the children) — and some of us may also have to deal with micro-managing parish ministers and clueless denominational leaders and busybody academics, all of whom think we religious educators are not competent to take on leadership in this area.

But acknowledging the potential sources of resistance helps me clarify three basic pedagogical challenges. First, we know there is always resistance to tackling tough moral and ethical issues; we have dealt with this before, in teaching comprehensive sexuality education, in teaching about death, in teaching children to think for themselves. Second, we know Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion devoted to open inquiry; we constantly challenge children to think deeply and openly about everything from the Bible and God, to masturbation and consent, and we constantly have to work to hold open that metaphorical space where children can enter the zone of proximal development in a learning community. Third, we know that race and racism are topics that make adult Unitarian Universalists very uncomfortable, which means they will tend to judge us harshly no matter what we teach; but we’ve been through this before, when we religious educators quietly taught about sexism and heteronormativity in Sunday school classes, even though those topics made many adults uncomfortable.

I think the thing that makes me most nervous about this white supremacy teach-in is that so many people will be watching me, ready to judge my teaching inadequate. And I wonder if your question stems in part from that same feeling. As an educator, I know these one-shot teach-ins never accomplish much, so I know already that whatever I do in a one-hour teach-in will be inadequate. Teaching and learning are long, slow, mysterious processes; we will not achieve miracles in an hour; we need to be in this for the long haul. And that means that the most important thing I can do in this teach-in is to respect each individual who participates, listen with openness to what they have to say, create a supportive learning community — so that they will keep coming back. It’s just like teaching OWL for grades 7-9 — many of the teens don’t want to come to the first few sessions, so you have to build a supportive community where any question is taken seriously and everyone feels a part of the community. For this white supremacy teach-in, then, our most important goal will be to make people want more.

That’s all I’ve got for you right now. Not sure if I’ll post my lesson plans and supporting material here — Unitarian Universalists are far too prone to savage and destructive criticism when it comes to teaching about white supremacy, and I just don’t have the energy for that right now. But feel free to contact me through email.

Teaching about white supremacy

How can we teach young people about “white supremacy” within the constraints of a typical Sunday school? What are some of the theoretical considerations, and what are some practical considerations?

One of my professional organizations, the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) has called on Unitarian Universalist religious educators to participate in a “white supremacy teach-in” in the coming weeks, to follow up on the denominational brouhaha which led to the resignation of Peter Morales from the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

This is a great call to action, but where do we come up with pedagogical strategies to teach children and teens about white supremacy? I’ll get to practical suggestions after a brief review of theoretical resources; although if you’re a hands-on educator you may want to go straight to practical suggestions, skipping over theoretical considerations which may seem pretty remote from actual children and teens.

Theoretical resources
Practical suggestions

Theoretical resources

Let’s start with the obvious: with bell hooks and her book Teaching to Transgress, and with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both these books provide useful theoretical perspectives. However, in my experience these books are not very useful for children and young people since they focus on persons age 18 and up.

Lev Vygotsky is another obvious source of pedagogical insight. Vygotsky’s theories provide us with such well-known concepts of “scaffold-and-fade,” and the zone of proximal development. For a helpful summary of zone of proximal development, I like Seth Chaiklin, “The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction,” in Kozulin et al., Vygotsky’s Educational Theory and Practice in Cultural Context [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003]). Chaiklin makes a number of points that might prove helpful. Chaiklin points out “the zone for a given age period is normative, in that it reflects the institutionalized demands and expectations that developed historically in a particular societal tradition of practice,” thus implying a strong connection between institutional demands and children’s development. Chaiklin also carefully defines the technical meaning of “imitation” in Vygotsky, and then points out that “the main focus for collaborative interventions is to find evidence for maturing psychological functions, with the assumption that the child could only take advantage of these interventions because the maturing function supports an ability to understand the significance of the support being offered”; thus, there are definite psychological and developmental limitations to the amount of learning that can take place within the child.

And in a Unitarian Universalist context, I believe it’s helpful to connect Vygotsky’s collectivist understanding of learning and development with James Luther Adam’s theological conception of the congregation as a voluntary association in mass democracy. Adams’s conception of congregations as voluntary associations helps us understand that face-to-face and personal encounters within a congregation help prevent the atomization of the individual, which in turn can prevent mass democracies from hurtling towards totalitarianism. So Vygotsky teaches us that “a person is able to perform a certain number of tasks alone, while in collaboration, it is possible to perform a greater number of tasks”; and Adams’s work suggests not only that the congregation is a place where we can collaborate together to support a liberative and liberal democracy, but also that the congregation as a whole can support the developmental growth of children and teens towards healthy maturity.

Another useful theological resources is William R. Jones’s essay Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows. In this essay, Jones makes a very helpful connection between theism and the “left wing” of theism: both are humanocentric worldviews, in which it is up to humans to effect positive change. Jones help us see that we can’t wait around for some Daddy God to bail us out — for that matter, nor can we wait around for Big Daddy Science to bail us out — a humanocentric point of view acknowledges that it’s up to us humans to effect change. (Jones makes the same point in his book Is God a White Racist?)

For theoretical resources specific to religious education, I’d turn to my other professional organization, the interfaith and international Religious Education Association (REA), which includes both scholars and practitioners. Over the years, the REA has published or presented interesting scholarship on how to teach liberation and social justice; the most notable recent instance is REA’s 2012 conference “Let Freedom Ring”: Religious Education at the Intersection of Social Justice, Liberation, and Civil/Human Rights. So REA conference proceedings and the REA journal Religious Education have plenty of theoretical material that would help in teaching about white supremacy. The problem with the REA publications is that you have to read through a great deal of material to find relevant articles, and even then you often have to do some translation from another cultural contexts (e.g., figuring out how an article outlining teaching peace to Israeli and Palestinian youth might translate to a U.S. context).

Beyond REA publications, there are plenty of progressive religious educators who have written books that offer resources for this kind of endeavor. A couple of books that come immediately to mind are John Westerhof’s book Learning through Liturgy, and Robert Pazmino’s Foundational Issues in Christian Education; Westerhof’s book helps usnderstand how learning takes place in and through worship services; and I have found Bob’s book extremely helpful in confronting my own internal inclinations and biases. A few Unitarian Universalists with anti-Christian biases and prejudices might be repelled by these books; but I’d suggest that the exercise of tamping down anti-Christian biases long enough to find the good in those books could be a useful preparatory exercise for those who have a serious desire to teach against racial bias and prejudice.

As an educator, I have been greatly inspired by Marcia Chatelaine’s workshop “Talking to Students about Ferguson,” given at Ferry Beach Conference Center in July, 2015. Chatelaine, a professor of history at Georgetown University, helped me understand how intersectionality could be a useful pedagogical strategy. Her workshop also helped me to understand how to get past the strong emotions elicited by Ferguson; she suggested addressing Ferguson from within one’s own area of disciplinary expertise. Thus, as a historian, she could talk about the history of Ferguson as a white-flight suburb, using her are of disciplinary expertise to generate insight.

Finally, I would also turn to the works of educational philosopher Maxine Greene. In particular, I have found her short essay “Diversity and Inclusion: Towards a Curriculum for Human Beings” to be foundational for the kind of liberative religious education I hold us as an ideal. I’ll give one brief excerpt from this essay that might serve as an inspiration for a suitable pedagogic practice for teaching about white supremacy:

“[T]here has been a prevalent conception of the self (grand or humble, master or slave) as predefined, fixed, separate. Today we are far more likely, in the mode of John Dewey and existentialist thinkers, to think of selves as always in the making. We perceive them creating meanings, becoming in an intersubjective world by means of dialogue and narrative. We perceive them telling their stories, shaping their stories, discovering purposes and possibilities for themselves, reaching out to pursue them. We are moved to provoke such beings to keep speaking, to keep articulating, to devise metaphors and images, as they feel their bodies moving, their feet making imprints as they move towards others, as they try to see through other’s eyes. Thinking of beings like that, may of those writing today and painting and dancing and composing no longer have single-focused, one-dimensional creatures in mind as models or as audiences. Rather, they think of human beings in terms of open possibility, in terms of freedom and the power to choose.”

I wanted to end with that passage from Maxine Greene because it points the way to the kind of flexible, learner-focused teaching that I want to do.

Practical considerations

When I translate these (and other) theoretical resources into practical pedagogy for young people in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school setting, here are some of the things I think about:

1. My teaching will be centered on activities that allow learners to be “selves in the making.” And, given my own strengths as a teacher, this means I’m going to use the arts; and knowing my limitations as a teacher, I’m going to do best with telling stories (I could see other people using dance, drama, etc., but those are not in my skill set). [This point inspired by Maxine Greene.]

2. My learners are going to be at various points in their development. I would love to be able to do some kind of formal pre-assessment, but that’s not realixtic in the context of an hour-long Sunday school session. Therefore, I’ll have to be a flexible teacher, willing to adjust my lesson plan to accommodate those who turn out to know very little, as well as those those who already know a lot. [See Bob Pazmino’s chapters on “Sociological Foundations” and “Curricular Foundations.”]

3. The educational goal of teaching about white supremacy is a BIG task. Since I have to be realistic about what can be taught (and learned) in a given limited time, I’m going to set realistic — and probably modest modest — educational objectives for one teach-in session. But for the long term, I will also continue the liberative educational praxis I’m already using and committed to. [See bell hooks about the realities of teaching.]

4. Anybody who has taught knows that teachers have to regulate the emotional temperature of a class. The phrase “white supremacy” will obviously generate strong emotions in many people; in fact, that’s the whole point of using that phrase. But I don’t want to limit my educational objective to merely eliciting emotions of shame, anger, guilt, and/or hatred, because from experience I know that too much of those emotions can stop the learning process temporarily (e.g., white people can shut down due to shame, non-white people can shut down due to anger, etc.). So I’ll need to balance how these emotions are elicited in the short-term, against a long-term goal of liberative educational praxis.

5. Oversimplification is always a temptation in teaching, and I think it’s a particularly strong temptation when teaching about white supremacy. To avoid oversimplification, I’m going to take inspiration from Marcia Chatelaine’s advice on teaching about Ferguson: use intersectionality. Intersectionality asks: how are different oppressions linked? (I suspect this will be an especially useful approach for adult Unitarian Universalists, because so many of them are already doing significant work and learning in sexism, classism, ablism, homophobia, etc.; thus intersectionality can connect what they’ve already accomplished and learned about to the topic of white supremacy.) [This point inspired by Marcia Chatelaine.]

6. Chatelaine also suggests: focus on an intellectual discipline or subject area you know well, and delve into that. The intellectual disciplines where I have some level of professional knowledge and expertise — philosophy, liberal theology, religious education — aren’t particularly well suited to teaching children and teens about white supremacy. So I tried to think of a subject area where, although I don’t have professional expertise, I have enough knowledge that I could teach something to children — and I thought of environmental justice, a topic I have already taught to children and teens, and a topic that lies at the center of social justice concern in our congregation.

———

The above are some preliminary considerations and practical ideas for implementing a one-shot “teach-in” on white supremacy. Note that what I am proposing does not necessarily conform to the teach-in called for by Black Lives of UUU. I’m specifically addressing the educational considerations of teaching young people in a Sunday school setting; Black Lives of UU has issued a broader call to include this topic in worship services, Sunday morning Forum, etc.

Furthermore, my practical ideas grow out my own congregation, here in the very specific cultural context of the Bay Area — a region where Cesar Chavez started his career, a region where Chinese immigrants at times lived in virtual slavery, a region where Japanese Americans were illegally (and immorally) interned during the Second World War, a region where one police force (Oakland P.D.) was under federal control because of racial prejudice. I could also mention Oscar Grant. I could also mention to overt sexism and racism of Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc., and of start-up culture, and of Silicon Valley venture capital firms. In terms of environmental justice, I might consider why it is that East Palo Alto, a historically black city, doesn’t have enough water supply to support the kind of development that could bring more jobs (and could also bring more gentrification that might drive out people of color). Bay Area racial history is complex, and your area will differ.

Irrelevant

I admit it, I’m feeling irrelevant.

As I watch a social media debate about accusations of “white supremacy” engulf my denomination, I’m all too aware that I’m on the far periphery of that debate.

Part of my problem, as I learned in a May 27 article on the UU World Web site, is that I’m a religious educator. According Peter Morales, who just resigned as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), this means I am not competent for leadership:

“Some have noted that a preference for ministers for certain staff positions also means the candidates will skew white, since there aren’t many UU clergy of color. Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. ‘So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?’ he asked, adding, ‘you don’t want to set people up for failure’ by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.”

Because I’m on the far periphery of my denomination, because I’m not privy to all the inside information that people on Facebook seem to have, I’m trying hard not to judge anyone who is centrally involved in this debate. But I’ve finally decided that I’m really angry about this comment by Peter Morales. In my first position as a part time Director of Religious Education, I had to hire, supervise, and in one case fire an employee; supervise a couple dozen volunteer staff; coordinate with committees and other staff; and manage events and projects. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of stupid things, but I gained a hell of a lot of management skills, and I was mentored by more experienced DREs who were very adept managers. I got more on-the-job leadership and management training in three years of part-time work than many parish ministers get in five years of full-time work.

But Peter Morales’ attitude is what I’ve come to expect from the cosy little in-group at the head of the UUA: — Religious educators must make poor leaders because, you know, it’s women’s work, and we all know that women don’t make good leaders. As for the male religious educators, if they had real skills they’d have become real ministers (I’m looking at you, Dan Harper).

Yes, I’m generalizing here. There are plenty of people at the UUA who value religious educators. But I have felt dismissed by UUA leaders; the only word for it is “patronized.” And it’s not just the UUA that is pervaded by that patronizing attitude of dismissal towards religious educators; many members and leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) do a marvelous job of being politely condescending towards religious education and religious educators; and the UUMA never seems to offer continuing education to its members about religious education, I guess because real ministers shouldn’t lower themselves to that level. I may be generalizing here, what I’m saying may not be true of specific individuals, but what I’m saying is generally true.

Not surprisingly, this kind of thing makes me angry. And I’m a middle-aged white guy. Imagine how I’d feel if I were not white, or if I were a woman.

Maybe part of the UUA’s problem is that we have too many ministers in senior leadership positions. More precisely, we have too many of a certain kind of UU minister with an inflated sense of self-importance, with blind spots about their own prejudices, and with strong connections to a loose network of powerful people within the denomination. Many of these are good people. But this loose network of powerful people in the upper echelons of the UUA (and of the UUMA) takes care of its members in ways that are not good. I have watched this network close ranks around their friends who committed sexual misconduct (I still remember the time I wound up yelling at a senior UUA staffer over the phone regarding a minister who had committed egregious sexual misconductor). I have watched this network provide soft landings for its members when they needed a new job. I also believe this network shunts competent women and competent people of color into the less prestigious jobs at the UUA (“she’ll be a good fit for the Religious Education Department”; “he’ll fit right in to the Diversity Office”; etc.).

At this point, I can see that I’ve let my anger get the better of me, and I’ve gone on too long. “Bring it home, preacher” is what they’d say in some congregations. So I’ll ask: How do we get out of this?

Well, I hold out little hope that any of the three candidates running for UUA president will show increased respect for religious educators (and no, being condescending and not listening are not signs of respect). If you can’t show respect for the people who are training up the next generation of Unitarian Universalists, that’s not a hopeful sign. And if you can’t show respect for religious educators, why would I believe that you could show respect for people of color?

Nor do I see any imminent signs of culture change at the UUA. I know there are good people on the UUA Board of Trustees, and good people working at the UUA in Boston, and as field staff. But UUA policy is set by General Assembly, and General Assembly is dominated by well-to-do white people who can afford a vacation in late June, and well-to-do ministers who have a big enough professional expenses budget to attend. In other words, it’s the same old people who can afford to meet face-to-face who are going to continue to set policy.

Maybe something will come out of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism movement. I hope so, but I’m not counting on it.

If we’re going to make real change happen, I strongly believe it has to start from the grassroots: from our local congregations. That’s where I believe we can do the real work: face-to-face in local congregations, where we can respond creatively and specifically to immediate problems. Don’t wait for the UUA to lead the change: make your congregation lead the UUA. Make religious education central to your congregation. Make racial justice central to your congregation. Make your congregation fight against the resurgence of sexism.

As I write this, I realize that it might not be me who is irrelevant. Nor are we religious educators irrelevant, despite Peter Morales’ dismissal of us as incompetent. It might be that the UUA, the senior leaders at the UUA, their cronies in the UUMA and elsewhere: all of that is increasingly irrelevant.

Denominational politics

I haven’t had time to pay much attention to denominational politics for the past year, between my boss going on sabbatical and the death of my father. But the recent uproar at denominational headquarters has been so big, I’ve had to pay attention.

Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and the second person of color to hold that office, resigned yesterday amid charges from critics that he is perpetuating a “white supremacist” culture at the UUA. He had three months left in his second and final term as UUA president.

Some of the charges leveled at Morales say that he did not do enough to hire non-white people into senior leadership positions at the UUA. I was actually surprised to learn that the number of non-white employees (excluding service workers) was up to 11% — a pitifully low percentage, worse even than notoriously racist Silicon Valley tech firms, but much higher than I expected given how lily-white Unitarian Universalism is (I’d bet most of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are maybe 97% white).

Obviously, the first thing the UUA needs to do is hire those qualified non-white applicants who do apply for UUA jobs, and Morales resigned amid accusations that didn’t always happen. Mind you, I don’t want to second-guess UUA hiring decisions, but the UUA gives the impression of a cosy little in-group — not unlike Silicon Valley tech firms — and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn qualified non-white candidates are passed over in favor of white people who would “fit in.”

But even if the UUA starting hiring every qualified non-white candidate, there’s a bigger problem: there aren’t many Unitarian Universalists to begin with, and the overwhelming majority of them are white. When I served on a search committee for a district staffer a few years ago, I felt the pool of candidates was frighteningly small; there just aren’t a lot of Unitarian Universalists who want to work for an organization that demands long hours and offers modest compensation. In an interview on Monday, Morales said something that I agree with: the UUA could expand the pool of qualified applicants by considering persons of color who are not Unitarian Universalists, just as All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., did when they hired an associate minister a couple of years ago. Given how white Unitarian Universalism is, hiring non-Unitarian Universalists might be the only way the UUA will be able to increase the number of non-white staffers from 11% up to 36% (the percentage of non-white people in the general U.S. population).

[Update 4/1: In online discussions, people have pointed out that when the UUA does hire people of color, it often treats them badly enough that they leave the UUA (or even the denomination). Obviously, expanding the pool of candidates will be a waste of time if the UUA chases away its non-white staffers. So much for the one idea I had to address this problem.]

Above all, I don’t think we should give up on racial diversity. I have very little to do with the UUA any more (the last thing the UUA needs is another middle-aged white guy hanging around), but I’m still committed to moving my own congregation towards more racial diversity. On the other hand, I admit I’ve pretty much given up on trying to increase class diversity, and I hold out little hope for a non-Anglophone Unitarian Universalist congregation in the U.S. Sometimes I even feel as though we’re back-sliding on the meager progress we had made towards fighting sexism in religion.

Thank God I’m a Universalist, so I have this irrational hope that love will triumph in the end. Because at this moment in history, it does not feel as though love is triumphing, not within the UUA — nor in the wider U.S. society.

[4/1: several typos corrected]

Pysanky

Chris, with Carolyn’s help, had his annual pysanky workshop today. A pysanka (plural: pysanky) is an Easter egg decorated in the Ukranian style, using wax resists and multiple dye baths. Carol and I haven’t been able to go for a few years, and it was a pleasure to be able to make pysanky once again this year.

Religious Diversity in Silicon Valley

(Excerpts from a talk I gave at the UU Church of Palo Alto)

Over the past seven years, I’ve been exploring the religious diversity of Silicon Valley. This project started out because I was supporting the middle school class that goes to visit other faith communities. But over the years, it has taken on a life of its own, and has helped me better understand the role of religious organizations play in strengthening democracy, and it has also caused me to substantially revise my definition of what religion is.

So that’s what I’d like to do today: explore religious diversity in Silicon Valley, and maybe go on some interesting tangents.

And I’m going to start off by setting a limit around this exploration: I’m NOT going to look at solo practitioners of religion, or individual spirituality. This happens to be an important limit, since we are in an era of anti-institutionalism in which an increasing number of individuals refuse to identify with any organized religious community, even when they profess to have some kind of individual religiosity.

The role of faith communities in democracy

But I AM interested in exploring religiosity as it is expressed in a faith community, because I believe that faith communities can help sustain democracy. James Luther Adams, a theologian and sociologist, studied the role of voluntary associations — including faith communities — in democracies, and he concluded that they played a fundamental role in keeping democracy healthy. Among other things, he studied the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s (he even visited Nazi Germany himself in the mid-thirties), and found that one of the ways that the authoritarian Nazi regime came to power was by severely limiting voluntary associations. Thus Adams found that the right of free association is in fact critical to democracy; free association is critical at keeping authoritarianism in check.

This should be a major concern for us in the United States today. What we saw in the past two presidential administrations was a willingness to extend the powers of the presidency to an unprecedented degree; the rapidly rising use of executive orders is perhaps the most prominent example of this. The current presidential administration seems to be further extending the use of executive orders, further extending the powers of the presidency, and this administration seems to have tendencies towards centralization of power and decision-making in a smaller group of people. This should cause us to pay attention to the possibility of rising authoritarianism. This is coupled with a wider cultural tendency: some of the greatest popular culture heroes today are people in the business world who rule their business as authoritarian regimes, and these authoritarian business leaders are taken as positive examples to be emulated.

I find these trends and tendencies to be moderately alarming. Out of my alarm, I think, springs my deepening interest in voluntary associations such as organized religion. Although there is a lot of talk today about “resistance,” such talk strikes me as promoting a negative or passive approach, which is doomed to fail. Instead, I would like to promote positive responses to authoritarian trends; rather than merely saying, “Authoritarianism is bad,” I want to be able to say, “Here are some interesting and fun things we can do that strengthen democracy.”

And one of those interesting and fun things we can do to strengthen democracy is to celebrate the vibrancy of religious diversity, as it expressed in faith communities.

What is a “faith community”?

When I talk about “faith communities,” I mean something quite specific. A “faith community,” in my definition, is a voluntary association in which people have come together around matters of religion and spirituality. This definition is tailored for the U.S. context; it would work less well in certain European countries where there are still established churches funded by the government; and it would work less well in certain East Asian contexts where religion is less tied to voluntary associations.

But here in the United States, there is a strong connection between religion and voluntary associations, and defining a “faith community” as a voluntary association in which people have come together around matters of religion and spirituality — this definition proves to be useful and interesting.

At this point, you should be asking yourself: “What does he mean by ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’?” It may look like I’ve been avoiding a firm definition of these terms, but as it happens, I do have a fairly precise definition in mind, a definition which works well in the context of a discussion of religious diversity, a definition which is primarily functional but not ontological or metaphysical. Therefore, from a functional standpoint, I’m not going to insist on a strong distinction between “religion” and “spirituality,” because in our democratic society we don’t have a distinction between these two terms that is widely accepted.

Here’s my functional definition: “religion” is what we point at when we say the word “religion.” This may sound like I’m avoiding the issue, but I’m not; I find that mostly when I point at something that looks like religion, most people will say, “That’s religion.” Sure, there are things that we point at which we can’t get wide agreement on as to whether they constitute religion or not. If I point at Scientology, some people will say, “That’s a religion,” and others will say, “That’s a massive con game.” So my definition does not have really crisp boundary lines. But mostly, when I point to a Christian church or a Jewish synagogue, or a Shinto shrine, or a Sikh gurdwara, or a Hindu temple, or Humanist gathering, or a Neo-Pagan ritual, most of us are going to say, “Yes, that’s something to do with religion.” We may go on to say, “That is a kind of religion that I think is disgusting or heretical or appalling,” but we acknowledge that it is religion.

Now I want to go a little farther, and place religion in a broad category that includes various kinds of cultural production. This broad category also includes the arts; and I would include organized sports as an art form, too. I find it helpful to think of religion as part of a broader category of “Arts and Religion,” and there has been some interested scholarly study of how certain art forms and certain sports activities look a great deal like religion.

To sum up, then: a faith community is a voluntary association that does religion, where “religion” is defined as what I point to when I say the word, and where religion is part of a broader category of cultural production that we can call “Arts and Religion.”

And I think you will find all this becomes very useful when we start looking at religious diversity. So let’s do that — we’ve got the preliminaries out of the way, let’s start looking at religious diversity in Silicon Valley.

Religious Diversity in South Palo Alto and Midtown

Let’s begin with our immediate neighborhood. Recently, I went looking for all the faith communities near our congregation, in a rectangle one mile wide by mile-and-a-half long, bounded by roughly by Oregon Expressway to the north, El Camino Real to the west, San Antonio Road to the south, and Highway 101 to the east. I came up with more than thirty faith communities that met regularly within this rectangle. I was astounded at this number — that’s a lot of faith communities located in such a small area.

Now let’s look at the religious diversity that is represented in this rectangle.

Denominational diversity

When Americans think of religious diversity, they usually think of how many denominations they can find. So we’ll start with denominations, though really the concept of denomination really works best for Protestant Christianity, and not so well for other types of faith community. Here are the denominations represented in this rectangle:

— 9 mainline Protestant Christian faith communities
— 1 Roman Catholic faith community
— 1 Orthodox Christian faith community
— 12 other Christian faith communities
— 1 Post-Christian faith community (that’s us)
— 4 Jewish faith communities
— 1 Muslim faith community
— 2 Buddhist faith communities
— 4 New Religious Movements (one of which would probably identify itself as Christian)
———
— 35 total denominations identified

The amazing diversity of Christian faith communities

Not surprisingly, the majority of these faith communities are Christian, as is true of American society as a whole: most of the faith communities in the U.S. are Christian. But don’t make the mistake of lumping together all these Christian faith communities as some kind of monolith. Christianity arguably has as much or more internal religious diversity as any of the major world religions; you could make a strong case that Christianity is as diverse or more diverse than either Hinduism or Orisa Devotion, and that’s saying a lot.

Compare, for example, an Orthodox Christian worship service, with its incense and chanting and elaborate decorative arts and music — compare that with the simplicity of Quaker silent meeting for worship. Or compare the social structure of Roman Catholicism, with its tradition of strong central authority, with the radically decentralized congregational polity of the Disciples of Christ. Or compare the cool emotional tenor of Lutheranism to the ecstatic worship of some Pentecostal groups. Compare the religious narratives of the Latter Day Saints, with the religious narrative told by a liberal Baptist church; the Latter Day Saints draw on the Bible and the Book of Mormon, whereas the Baptists are going to limit their narrative to what they find in the Bible.

Religious liberals and secularists often close their eyes to the religious diversity within Christianity by reducing Christianity to one statement: “Christians believe in God and Jesus.” This is a mistake on two levels. First, it trivializes the vast differences in Christian beliefs about God and Jesus. If you believe that all Christians believe the same things about God and Jesus, remember the amazing diversity of Christianity; so I’d challenge you to rethink that belief, because it doesn’t hold up.

There’s a second problem with reducing Christianity to one statement: “Christians believe in God and Jesus.” To do so reduces Christianity to a belief system, but no religion can be reduced to a belief system. The scholar Ninian Smart has come up with seven dimensions of religions. These seven dimensions are:

1. the practical and ritual dimension
2. the experiential and emotional dimension
3. the narrative dimension
4. the doctrinal and philosophical dimension
5. the ethical and legal dimension
6. the social and institutional dimension
7. the material dimension (which includes the arts and material culture)

So even if it were true that all Christians believe exactly the same thing about God and Jesus, you cannot reduce religion to the doctrinal and philosophical dimension, while ignoring the other six dimensions. Now it is true that you will find some religions emphasize one or more of these seven dimensions, and certainly Christianity emphasizes the doctrinal dimension. (Parenthetically, it is worth mentioning that most atheists are very similar to Christians, insofar as they emphasize the doctrinal dimension of religion.) But that being said, the person who is serious about investigating religious diversity needs to take into account all dimensions of religion — not just the dimensions that most concern them, but all dimensions.

For those who wish to study religious diversity seriously, a helpful analogy might be made between Christianity and arachnids. Now, there are people who are creeped out by spiders, and these people have some level of arachnophobia, that is, an irrational fear of spiders. Ssimilarly, there are secularists, atheists, and even some Unitarian Universalists who have some level of “Christian-phobia,” an irrational fear of Christianity.

When an arachnophobe sees a spider, they become immediately and irrationally fearful and say, “Ugh, a spider, step on it!” Compare the arachnophove to someone like Jack Owicki, a very knowledgeable amateur student of arachnids — when Jack sees a spider, he is able to appreciate it for what it is, classify it by family and genus and maybe even species, and determine its place in the wider ecosystem. If you want to be serious about studying religious diversity, you have to act towards Christians the way Jack Owicki acts towards spiders; in other words, don’t let your irrational fears get the better of you.

Diversity of race, ethnicity, language

Next, let’s consider the fact that many faith communities deliberately limit themselves in one way or another by linguistic, racial, and/or ethnic boundaries.

This is a troubling concept to many Unitarian Universalists, and other religious liberals. We like to think that our religion should be open to everyone, and one of our ideals is that we would like our faith community to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our immediate surroundings. When we do this, we are following the example of Protestant Christianity, from which historically we emerged. Protestant Christianity, like Catholicism and Buddhism, is proselytizing religion: it seeks to draw new people in. Proselytizing religions assume that everyone could join their religion, and they actively figure out how to incorporate new people. Compare this to a religion like Zoroastrianism, which does not actively seek out converts, and doesn’t have an established procedure for accepting converts.

Thus we find that different faith communities have quite different approaches to racial and ethnic diversity: some strive for diversity, some avoid diversity. And this also makes clear that we should not automatically assume that our own religious assumptions translate to other faith communities.

And in fact, it is useful and very interesting to look at faith communities in terms of what racial, ethnic, and/or linguistic groups they serve. Let’s start by looking at some of the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of faith communities in South Palo Alto:

— 2 faith communities aimed at Korean Americans (Bridgway and Cornerstone), including both Korean and English speakers
— 4 faith communities consisting primarily of those born Jewish, including many who speak or read at least some Hebrew
— 1 faith community aimed at Chinese Americans (Central Chinese Christian), apparent emphasis on Chinese speakers
— 1 faith community aimed at Russian Americans (Holy Virgin), apparent emphasis on Russian speakers
— 1 faith community aimed at Japanese Americans (Palo Alto Buddhist Temple)
— 1 faith community consisting primarily of Gujaratis (Hatemi Masjid)
— 1 faith community aimed primarily at blacks (University AME Zion)

— We also find 2 Pentecostal faith communities that are multiracial both in their ideals and in practice (Abundant Life and Vive Church).

As it happens, most of the remaining faith communities in South Palo Alto, including our own faith community, are Anglophone congregations that are mostly white racially. But we should remain aware that there are ethnic white faith communities, too; for example, there are still some Roman Catholic parishes that cater to one specific white ethnic or national group, such as Irish Americans or Italian Americans.

In short, we can categorize faith communities by which linguistic group, which racial group, and/or which ethnic or national group they predominantly serve. This becomes particularly important in certain religious traditions, such as Therevada Buddhism, where individual faith communities will serve one linguistic and/or national group, for example, a Cambodian Buddhist faith community or a Sri Lankan Buddhist faith community.

Further ways to categorize faith communities

Let’s take a step back, and review some of the ways we can categorize a given faith community:

We can say which broad religious tradition they consider themselves a part of.

Here in the U.S., we can often categorize by denomination.

We can categorize by dominant socio-economic class.

And by now you may well be thinking about other ways to categorize different faith communities.

— Stance on same-sex relationships: If you know something about mainline Protestant denominations, you will know that local churches may differ as to whether they accept LGBTQ persons or not; so there might be two churches of the same Christian denomination fairly close to one another, one of which if fully accepting of LGBTQ persons, and another of which condemns homosexuality as a sin. You can find similar divisions on LGBTQ persons in Buddhist and Jewish and other faith communities.

— Worship style: We can also categorize faith communities by the style of their services. Are they informal, or formal? Are they friendly, or reserved? Look up faith communities on Yelp, and you will find them rated based on these categories.

And there are still other useful ways to categorize faith communities.

Finding religious diversity near you

All this is actually leading us to a super important question:

How do you go about finding faith communities near you?

Living here in Silicon Valley, of course we think that the best way to find neighboring faith communities is by doing a Web search. There are two main problems with this: first, the Web is generally not a trustworthy source of unbiased information about religion; and second, it can be hard to find geographically targeted information about religion on the Web. There is another problem: Some faith communities have no Web presence at all, either because they are trying to avoid notice, or because it just isn’t a priority for them.

Fortunately, there is one pretty good source of localized information about religion on the Web, and that is the online review site Yelp.

Here’s how to generate a geographically restricted listing of fatih communities using Yelp.

Bring up Yelp.com on your Web browser. In the search box labeled “Find” at the top of the screen, type in “Religious Organizations.” In the search box labeled “Near,” type in your location. And voilà: Yelp generates a little map of your area, and a list of religious organizations that have reviews.

Now there are problems with Yelp: there are often duplicates of the same religious organization under slightly different names; the category of religious organization includes things that I would not consider a faith community; some faith communities are not listed on Yelp; their geographical restriction works only moderately well. But overall it’s better than any other online resource, and it’s a great starting point. Yelp may help you will turn up faith communities that do not have a Web page, or only an obscure Facebook page, faith communities that you might otherwise miss.

So: you can start your Web search with Yelp. But online resources will only take you so far, and should be supplemented with on-the-ground research, such a driving or walking in the area, and asking friends and neighbors if they know of any additional faith communities.