Does Unitarian Universalism Have A Future?

Short answer: not as it exists right now.

Long answer:

It’s no secret I left my UU church last year. While my specific grievances are personal and partly confidential, I can speak to an overall trend that I’ve witnessed in other UU churches.

Mainstream denominations are in big trouble, and Unitarian Universalism is no exception.

In the Gallup study above, the overall reason for declining church attendance is a “lack of religion.” The category “nones,” i.e. those with no professed religious beliefs, has been steadily increasing over the decades. Yet shouldn’t Unitarian Universalism, which embraces all religious traditions as well as secular humanism, be an attractive alternative?

I’d argue that the issue isn’t religion. It’s economic inequality, generational clashes, and systemic prejudice.

(Note: I’m not speaking from my personal experience with one congregation. The issues mentioned below are pervasive.)

Economic inequality

I’ve heard from several people how they’ve been marginalized in church life if they rely on pledge assistance or can only pay the minimum. There is often a discretionary fund for use by a parish minister for those who can’t afford to pledge but give heroic amounts of time volunteering, but not all ministers take advantage of this.

There is also a perverse power imbalance between low- and high-pledging “units,” i.e. families. High pledgers sometimes fill in the gaps between a church’s budget and the results of their stewardship drive, and can threaten to lower their pledge of they don’t get their way. Board members, in principle, should take into account the needs of their entire congregation, but to understate, compromises are often made. This ties directly into…

Generational Clashes

I’m not a fan of “ok boomer” or generational generalizations, but it seems that many UUs of a certain age closed their minds a long time ago.

I’ve seen how many church activities are scheduled during the day, when many people are at work. Or how committee meetings (basically UU communion, haha) are scheduled for rush hour, ignoring the needs of those who have to commute.

Churches have become hostile to children. Infants get shunted to a “wiggle room” or nursery equivalent, and older children are escorted to RE halfway through service (if they go at all!).

When participating in social justice workshops, one thing I’ve heard over and over again is how “I’m too old to be learning all this stuff,” how everything they learned in the sixties is good enough, thank you.

And if you’re unwilling to grow, then you certainly won’t address existing injustice within your own congregation.

Systemic Prejudice

Only in a denomination at war with itself would a minister publish “The Gadfly Papers,” which was the source of a major conflict in General Assembly last year. I didn’t even want to mention it, but its become  a litmus test for why I left.

The author, a minister out of Washington state, argues that “safetyism” and Identity Politics is causing a crisis. Only, it’s not — rather, the author of the pamphlet is facing an existential crisis, but refuses any kind of self-examination, instead blaming it on what used to be called “political correctness” (but in fact is just discernment and politeness). As Rev. Kate Lore puts it:

I guess we should have seen this coming. As our denomination makes bold changes to be less white-oriented, it was inevitable that some white people would resent no longer being the favored group. When all your life you have to have gotten a leg up, been at the top of the pyramid, it feels unfair to lose those bonuses. As the popular quote goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

If it were just one crank, I’d ignore it. (I have several cranks I ignore on Twitter on a regular basis!) But this pamphlet has gained traction among some parts of the UU community who would rather blame the newcomers, the young adults, the people of color, and anyone else that doesn’t look or act like them, than feel uncomfortable for a single minute.

Why is this pamphlet a litmus test? I’ve seen it used as cover by those who have alienated, harassed, and bullied people — often non-straight, non-white people — out of the church.

What, you thought homophobia, racism, and sexism no longer exist in UU land? It does. I’ve seen it first-hand. And those doing the bullying love “The Gadfly Papers,” in my experience.

But Isn’t UU About Tolerance?

Many of those that drove me away from UU I’d classify as followers of New Atheism, i.e. the hard secularism of Richard Dawkins, etc. There’s a drive to make UU a “safe space” for atheists and secular humanists (which it has always been!), but is really just an excuse to banish anything remotely like religion. New Atheism actually hides covert racism — atheists like Dawkins are awfully critical of religions that dark-skinned people practice like Islam, but not so much what they consider to just be “philosophies” like Buddhism (nevermind the atrocities occurring in Myanmar’s Buddhist regime).

The philosopher Karl Popper, in his paradox of tolerance, argues that we can’t be tolerant of the intolerant. What many UU congregations, including the one I recently left, have failed to do is take a stand here.

You do not tolerate the intolerant. You don’t tolerate bullies. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away in the real world.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If UU congregations continue to reject younger, non-white, non-heteronormative people, they’ll wither and die as their members age. New congregations and fellowships might grow alongside those hollowed-out tree trunks, but without the funds that older generations had access to, how will they grow?

I don’t see a future for UU churches, but I do see one for fellowships. There won’t be the infrastructure or critical funds to maintain large campuses with paid staff. Instead, UUs will meet in houses, coffee shops, rented-out synagogues, in the middle of the woods, and anywhere else they can find.

UUs will become nomadic. Our Mayflower will be a crossover SUV packed with six people driving to a protest.

As kind of an unexpected celebrity in UU land — or rather UU World — might I quote a geeky, wholesome movie from a few years ago?

“Unitarian Universalism is not a place. It is a people.”