What is Unitarian Universalist Humanism?

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!

8 Replies to “What is Unitarian Universalist Humanism?”

  1. Rebekah, I have followed your Closet/Curious Atheist blog with appreciation for a long time. I’m glad to shed some light on Unitarian Universalist humanism, since I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister (Minister Emeritus, Fremont CA). To begin with, I’m not surprised if the word “humanism” seems vague, since the term has multiple meanings. It may or may not mean “atheist.”

    Unitarians and Universalists were American denominations, named for two Christian heresies. Both of them gradually became open to non-Christian religions and then to non-theistic philosophies of life. Since they were non-creedal churches, they didn’t have to change any doctrines to welcome non-theists. The Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961. By that time secular views were so strong that many theists felt disrespected. Later the pendulum swung back, and God-language is used more frequently (but seldom in the Biblical sense of God as a supernatural person who works miracles.) In general all opinions about God are accepted. In my own congregation our minister sometimes speaks of God in an affirmative way, but early in every Sunday service she says this: “Whether you believe in God, don’t believe in a Higher Source, believe in Humanist or Secular leanings, … you are welcome here.”

    To a visitor, Unitarian Universalism can seem more traditional than it really is. Many UU ministers wear robes (I don’t), we meet on Sunday, we sing hymns (many of them quite secular), and some ministers say “let us pray,” with the understanding that people can interpret this as a call to meditate or reflect. But if people focus on substance instead of superficial form, they will realize that this is a radical mutation in the evolution of religion. We unite around a commitment to common values, not a common creed.

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  2. I spent a while working with the UUs. (My Mom is now a member of a UU congregation, after spending much of her life as Presbyterian.) I wanted my youngest daughter to take a couple of the classes they offered (a world religions field trip class in 7th grade, and a year of really good sex ed in 8th grade), and I wound up teaching RE there for three years. They even let me include critical thinking into my lessons!

    Instead of dogma, they have a set of seven principals, here: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles
    Anybody who is on board with these will probably be OK at a UU, regardless of what other beliefs they hold.

    The sermon topics are actually a lot more wide-open than you would think. The pastors can talk about almost anything, and they can draw on wisdom literature from anywhere, including from other religions and any other source they like. (My mom’s church once had “choose a sermon topic” as an auction item for a fundraiser, and the winner chose “Star Trek”!)

    My general impression is that it’s sort of “church lite”. It’s really good for people who have had it with being told what to believe, but still like all the other parts about church. Getting together for an uplifting weekly message, singing in a choir, community service, potlucks, small study groups, classes for the kids, they’ve got all of that. If you have deconverted, but still find that you “miss church” then give UU a try.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As far as being limited by what they can address in their “sermons” simply because everyone might believe differently “theisticly” not really. They tend to address social issues heavily as they’re very peace, ecology, diversity, anti racist oriented. They also focus on local community issues, history, the arts…world religious ideas and concepts just not from a doctrinal or apologetic sense.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. At one of the few WWU Freethinkers meetings I attended, I remember a guy saying he had attended a UU “solstice celebration” i.e. “Christmas-but-not-technically-Christmas.” Interesting concept, although it strikes me as rather pointless no matter how I look at it.
    Humanism also strikes me as rather redundant, although I suppose it is an effective term to sum up a philosophy of tolerance, or whatever humanism is supposed to be. I suppose you could say that my humanist principles formed the root of the religion-related issues I discussed in my recent post “Why is it so easy to damn others” https://lionsdan.wordpress.com/2019/06/13/why-is-it-so-easy-to-damn-others/

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never tried UU, but friends have. I have heard of atheists going to UU services as a sort of Sunday morning passifier after coming out. It seems to be more about what it is not, rather than what it is. Sounds like it might be the church/religioin of ‘can’t we all just get along?’ (Coexisties?)

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  6. Years ago on another website I became friends with a man who turned out to be the pastor of a Unitarian church in Utah. The principles he mentioned were very much as you say, and it always seemed to be the one kind of religion I could get into, if I had the desire to join any organized group. VERY laid back, very open to almost anyone and anything.
    I can imagine it must be an eye-opener for anyone from a stricter church, Lutheran or Baptist or even Catholic. It does appear to empower the congregants and after all, that is what a church should be about.

    Liked by 1 person

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