Monday, January 18, 2010

Humanism vs. Theism: Does anyone actually care anymore?

This was a comment from Chalicechick to the Discuss! thread, promoted to a post of its own for pertinence

A few months ago, as an experiment, I asked the UU theology mailing list if anyone had seen or experienced any atheists giving theists grief or vice versa IN THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS. I emphasize that last bit because lots of people have stories of mistreated theists that are a decade or two old, and they always seem to tell them as if they happened yesterday. I wondered if it ever happened anymore or if we just talked about it like it did.

I got one "yes" response, and that it was an incident from several years ago and soon after, his/her church got a new minister who made it clear that this behavior wouldn't be tolerated and there hasn't been an issue since.

That one "yes" aside, literally no one had seen any anti-theism or anti-atheism in their churches on the last couple of years. But several people still announced that "theism vs. atheism" was this incredibly important divide within UUism. I really don't understand why. To me it seems like the idea of people being actually mistreated and churches being divided on "theism vs anti-theism" or "atheism vs. humanism" is a big Boogeyman that scares lots of UUs but is mostly illusory.

Do you see "the God question" as something that divides your church right now? Have you seen anyone actually treated badly because of their faith in the last couple of years? If not, are se sure it's really that big a deal anymore?


  1. There's been a tremendous shift in recent years. My own congregation was nearly a theist-free zone a dozen years ago, and we still have a couple secular humanist small groups- but we now also have a couple of spiritualism small groups, a Pagan studies small group, and a Goddess group. I haven't heard any hostility since the incident reported three years ago in The Wild Hunt , and even that was overblown, it turns out

  2. I think the minority of individuals who make it a big deal get a disproportionate amount of attention. Most of the UUs I know, both in my own congregation and elsewhere, don't give it a second thought.

    As for the term humanism, this can be viewed in one of two ways. "Big H" Humanism tends to be an all-inclusive worldview, its ranks internally divided between religious and secular varieties. There's also the "small h" version of humanistic ethics, which can be embraced by theists, atheists and agnostics of all kinds. I find the latter much more prevalent in UU circles than the latter, at least in my own interactions.

  3. Mostly people in my congregation are tolerant and accepting of others' theistic or non-theistic ideas. This month I'm preaching on "the God question" a couple of times and have gotten only positive responses, no arguments. I do intentionally provide a very large "container" for the concept of God, with a lot of room for a lot of different views.

  4. My impression was always that the letters circling the Rhode Island congregation were the work of a kook who liked to write letters, rather than the opinion of the congregation. After all, Pagan Pride had been hosted by the church before without incident. At the time, this story struck me as exactly the thing an old editor of mine would have sent me off to exaggerate.

    Naturally, I recall that the articles on the incident were commented on by people writing things like "Wow, that church must be entirely full of intolerant jerks" and "I visited one UU church once three decades ago and they weren't very nice to me, so all of UUism sucks."


    Desmond, I know the distinctions of what Humanism can mean, but I went with several popular ways for framing the same basic controversy.


  5. DairyStateMom experienced 2 instances of direct anti-Christian bigotry at my church within the last 3-4 years. Neither was directed at her personally; 1 was in the context of an announcement, the other a remark in a talk-back after a sermon. Neither remark made any distinction about the kinds of Christianity the person was attacking.

    That said, this past fall the minister at my church emphasized in a sermon the Christian roots of UUism and also the fact that a number of UUs embrace a Christian identity or a theistic one.

  6. For what it is worth, I've been staying away from my local UU congregation because of anti-theism. And it's been a long time, so I'm not 100% sure where they are on this kind of thing today.

    Instead, I've been attending Mass at a local Episcopal church. This, even though I'm still a member in good standing with the CLF.

    I guess in a lot of cases, the anti-theism isn't *blatant* but it does manifest in little things, like refusal of people to use words like "God" in and around the church. Changing song lyrics (and I'm not being a grumpy Garrison Keillor here...this is something I noticed a long time ago) so that theistic words and ideas are not sung. Who knows - maybe it's possible that there's just this "culture" of anti-theism that has been quietly supported for a very long time in the UU world.

    Just my two cents.

    But of course, I could be wrong...

  7. As a member of a church where "God" comes up all the time, I'm always tripped out to hear about congregations where people feel like they can't even talk abot God. (Most congregations I've attended have been 50/50 theist vs. non-theist/atheist) Does no one in that congregation ever go to GA? We had a Christian scholar as the Ware lecturer just a few years ago, after all and you hear about God at denominational events all the time.

    My temptation would be to give the church another shot, and if they still come off as anti-theistic have a talk with the minister about it.

    It does sound like DSD's minister is on the ball about it (after all, it's not like the minister actually has much control over what happens in a sermon talkback and every church has a few jerks.)


  8. CC - It sure as heck did in our congregation during its transition time from senior ministers. A group got together who just couldn't stand the intriem minister we had, and among the loudest complaints was that he was being too Christian and started pretty much a campaign against him, going so far to contact his old congregations to see if they had problems with him too. With the new minister, we haven't had a flare up like that, but this was going on from about 4 to 2 years ago. It got really ugly, people stopped attending the congregation because of him being "too Christian." Don't know if that counts as recent enough though. Our congregation has a "covenant of healthy relationships" as a direct result of all the mess.

  9. Actually, you know, that example you give might just be from my congregation in retrospect. Sounds like it fits.

  10. My initial point wasn't so much that it never, never happens ever. Indeed, I expected to hear more "yes, there's been anti-theism and it happened thusly..." answers than I got.

    My thought was that these issues are often talked about like they are a huge problem for UUism, when I think we are at the point where they cause problems in a few churches, but any fissure in the denomination itself has mostly healed.

    who objected to her Christian interim minister only when he mentioned that something in the Old Testament had been "translated from ancient Greek."

  11. It's still happening all the time at my church.


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