When I was a junior at Grove City College, I took a class on intercultural communication. One of our class assignments was to visit a church service outside of our own denomination, or better yet, outside of our own religion. While I tagged along to a Catholic church service with my roommate, one of my classmates visited a Unitarian Universalist Humanist church. You better believe that everyone in the class thought that was one of the weirdest churches anyone had visited.
The girl who visited this church described the “service” as something like “I don’t know . . . It was pretty chill . . . We sat around and talked, sang a few songs, and ate soup. There was no doctrine and it was open to people of any religion. They said anyone could worship any god they wanted to.”
This was the first time I ever heard of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist religion. I’ve never really understood what their core principles are except for “you can believe what you want and eat soup, I guess,” but recently I had the chance to learn a little more about this nontheistic religion.
This week, my husband and I attended the Pittsburgh Freethought Community’s monthly lecture on the topic. The Reverend Robin Zucker, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Dr. John B Hooper, Treasurer and Member of the Board of Directors of the American Humanist Association (and a founding Director of the Pittsburgh Freethought Community!) had an informal conversation on freethought, humanism, and the unitarian universalist religion. You can watch their entire conversation here.
Throughout their conversation, I felt like I was trying to grasp what they meant by humanism and how they defined it. I think that when you get as technical as these two were in defining terms like humanism, secular, religion, supernatural, and freethought, it can make communication very difficult.
For example, I have always understood humanism to be a worldview. When I wrote my paper on secular humanism in 2017, I quoted Mark Vernon’s Understand Humanism in saying that a humanist is “someone who believes that human values, experience, and imagination are the best tools we have for living a good life and making sense of the world in which we live.” I’ve always gone out of my way to be very clear that I believe that humanism and atheism are not religions. But perhaps I haven’t been entirely correct.
Atheism still is not, and never will be, a religion. I’m just getting that out of the way right now.
But I think that these two Unitarian Universalists taught me that there is the humanist worldview and then there is the Unitarian Universalist Humanist religion, with a capital H. The difference between the lowercase H and capital H versions is still negligible to me, because their principles are almost identical. However, UUs identify as religious people who do not hold to any specific creed. To me, it sounds a step above “spiritual but not religious.” Instead, it’s “spiritual and religious but not… like… god-religious. Or you can be if you want. It’s up to you.” This is hard for me because I have always used a god-worshipping definition of religion as a matter of practicality in differentiating between traditional theistic religions and mere worldviews like lowercase H humanism.
I believe that trying to completely grasp what exactly Unitarian Universalist Humanism is, is like trying to pin Jell-O (or jelly?) to a wall. Any way you slice it, the more specific definition you give it, the more exclusive it gets. The heart of UUH, however, is an attempt at total inclusivity.
From the way it sounded in the talk, it is hard to define UUH because they want their congregations to be open to anyone no matter what they believe. This leaves UUH ministers like Rev. Zucker with slim options of what to preach or include in service. How do you minister to a cynical atheist, a nontheistic Buddhist, a liberal Christian, a spiritual humanist, and a Grove City College student doing a church-exploring assignment all with one sermon?
If you want to learn a little more about Unitarian Universalism and related topics:
Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism – I haven’t read it, but they gave away copies of this book for free at the lecture I went to, so of course I got one and I’m sure it’s got great information on UU!
An Atheist Goes to Church – Unitarian Universalist Church Review by Holy Koolaid – I came across this while searching for a featured image. Thomas is a really cool YouTuber and cohost of one of my favorite podcasts, so check out his review of a UU church! This church had a more religious emphasis than I expected.
Again, here is the video of the lecture that inspired this post!