Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“What do you call an atheist with children?”

“A Unitarian Universalist.”

It’s a joke—but there’s some truth to it. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has long been a home for atheists, agnostics, and Humanists looking for community and supportive resources. In fact, atheists and Humanists have been involved from the beginning of the UUA.

Maria Greene, the new Director of Development & Communication for Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association.

Maria Greene, the new Director of Development & Communication for the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association. Photo courtesy Greene.

But the idea of religious atheists—of atheists joining, attending, and even leading churches or other “houses of worship”—is controversial among many atheists. Likewise, some Unitarian Universalists struggle with including atheists in their communities.

To learn more about these tensions I spoke with Maria Greene, the new Director of Development & Communication for the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association (UUHA), formerly known as the HUUmanists. Greene is also a professional web developer who volunteers with the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts and helps coordinate the Concord Area Humanists, a UU Humanist group and chapter of the American Humanist Association.

Chris Stedman: What’s your personal story? How did you become passionate about Humanism?

Maria Greene: I was brought up Catholic and left the church in high school. My extended family is quite religious but it just never clicked with me, though I kept singing with the choir through college because I like to sing. It wasn’t until I read Greg Epstein’s Good Without God in 2010 that I considered my need for an in-person community that shares my values—and went looking for it.

CS: What are the goals of the UUHA? How do they align with and diverge from the UUA’s? How do they overlap with and differentiate from those of explicitly nonreligious atheist, agnostic, and secular groups?

MG: The goals of the UUHA are to celebrate and promote Humanism in society, but particularly in Unitarian Universalism, and to be a bridge between the secular movement and the UUs. The general consensus is that Humanism has lost ground in the UUA, in favor of “anythingism” and spiritualism.

UU is a creedless religion, but it was really the cradle of modern Humanism. There’s still a strong core of reason in the UUA, along with a very Humanist set of ethical principles we all agree on. I believe Humanism is the “special sauce” that distinguishes the UUA from other liberal religions, and that UUs need to emphasize and promote it in order to evolve and adapt to the world today.

I know that other organizations in the Secular Coalition for America with us think we’re “too religious”—even though they accept that we completely reject the supernatural. UU congregations fill a human need for community and connection, and UUs believe in individual freedom of thought—so we argue a lot internally about things like the use of religious language.

UUs aren’t secular, but they promote separation of church and state, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and social justice in a way that many secular groups are only just learning how to do. Love and compassion are critical for all UUs. Critical thinking can be lacking sometimes, in my opinion—but I’ll take tolerance over dogmatism any day.

CS: Can you say a bit about the history of the UUHA and Humanists in the UUA? And what do you see as the future of Humanism in the UUA?

MG: The UUHA was founded by Edwin H. Wilson, Lester Mondale, and others in 1962, shortly after the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists. I suspect the Unitarian ministers were concerned about the “woo-woo” reputation of the Universalists and wanted to make sure Humanism continued to be strong. Many of the same people had been responsible for the founding of the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 1941—and Wilson was the Executive Director and sole employee of the AHA for many years.

The Humanist movement was really started around 1917 by Unitarian ministers like Curtis Reese and John Dietrich, and a large number of signers of the original Humanist Manifesto were Unitarians or Universalists. Humanism has outgrown its religious upbringing though, just as many of us have as individuals.

In my opinion, the UUA has to get past its traditional, Protestant Christian roots and grow into a collection of communities that value justice and compassion—and help their members find support and a way to put their collective will into improving society and sustaining the planet.

CS: Some atheists, agnostics, and Humanists don’t feel comfortable in UU churches. How do you see the UUHA supporting those people?

MG: I don’t feel comfortable in many UU churches—at least not ones that usually call themselves churches as opposed to societies, fellowships, or congregations. Each congregation is different, however, and the leadership sets the tone. In Minneapolis, MN, there’s a Unitarian Society that is explicitly Humanist. There are others that have Humanist services each week. In my area, we have a strong Humanist group that meets at the UU hall and is a chapter of the AHA.

As part of my work for the UUHA, I’ve just started putting together a program that will bring the Secular Student Alliance’s Secular Safe Zone program to UU congregations. As part of receiving that designation, congregations will have to include atheists and other nontheists in their welcoming statement—which will get the conversation going about how welcoming they really are.

If a Humanist UU feels uncomfortable at their congregation, we encourage them to “be the change they want to see” and start a Humanist group. There’s comfort in numbers and we are such a large part of just about all UU congregations that we can support each other as we get the big ship that is the UUA to slowly turn.

36 Comments

  1. samuel Johnston

    I was married in a UU “church” and attended for some years. Later, I attended an atheist Quaker group. They were both short on religion and long on politics. Religion has to do with deep feelings concerning the human condition as felt with by individuals all along their temporal life journey.
    Our UU was more or less a political wing of trendy Progressivism. Nothing wrong with political expression mind you, but in theses cases it crowded out religious development and wisdom.

    • One person’s religion is another person’s politics–and the other way round, too. No student of religion–or politics–can even take the search back to ancient mythology without coming across innumerable instances of the combination of religion and what we now consider politics.

      Our Constitution that originally set up our so-called democratic experiment was almost immediately amended with what has come to be known as the Bill of Rights, and the very first clause of the very First Amendment called for the separation of church and state, religion and politics. That principle has been steadily violated. It is being brazenly violated today. Many loud voices in what are known as the “religious right” and “conservatism” would have the principle of that first clause of our First Amendment violated much more with their brand of religion.

      To the degree that we ignore the intrusion of religion into our political process, we will endanger both our government and religion, at least as badly as it has already been damaged by the intrusion of money into our political process. The current Catholic majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, by the precedents of its declaration in Citizens United that money is speech and corporations are people, have already dragged us down that dangerous road.

      • samuel Johnston

        Hi Gilhcan,
        “the very First Amendment called for the separation of church and state, religion and politics.”
        Well, no. Any religious group can be as political as it likes. The complete text concerning religion is:
        Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
        or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ….
        After the Civil War, the congressional prohibition was extended to the States.
        Now personally, I agree that there SHOULD BE a Jeffersonian Wall, but as you say, “That principle has been steadily violated.” Yes the “religious right” is notorious, and vociferous, but the “progressive” left is often as bad- only different. One Sunday at our local UU “Church”
        (their term not mine) the Minister announced from the pulpit that those members who wished to join the protest against the army’s School of the Americas, should board the busses outside. (They expected that they would be arrested by the military for conducting the demonstration on the base grounds.) I protested to the minister that making such an announcement in her official capacity was not appropriate, and doubly so because it called on members to break the civil law. To her credit she apologized, but I doubt many UU members agreed with me.
        I do not say that churches should never take a political stand. Here in Alabama many Churches across the political spectrum have served notice on the legislature that they will not comply with the laws requiring them to stop rendering aid, shelter, and assistance to immigrants. I support this stance because the Alabama Law in question violates the “free exercise” of traditional religious activities.

  2. Susan Humphreys

    Mr. Johnson you use the word “religion” where i would use the word “spiritual”. Then there are many that think the word “spiritual” implies some supernatural connection rather than seeing it as the internal spirit of each person which is how I see the word. Our language is often very inadequate but it is all we have, the only way to get ideas across to others. I think a person can be “spiritual” and be an Atheist! As well as be “spiritual” and be Religious (as part of an organized Religious denomination–Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, etc.)

  3. I’ve been a UU for about a decade, and I see incredible potential. We UU’s could again be relevant – in people’s lives, in the country, and in the world. But instead we are withering – slowly shrinking and aging.

    It seems clear that much of that withering is due to those of us who want UU to be another liberal Christian church. That leads to extinction, since we can see that the liberal Christian churches (Episcopal, UCC, etc) are dying quickly. Christian churches overall are dying too, as more and more people realize how harmful and uninspiring the Bibles are.

    With the explosive growth in the nones, and literally millions of people searching for a reality-based, relevant, and inspiring religion, the path that I hope the UUA takes is clear.

    To be relevant, real, and vibrant, we UUs need:

    1. A compelling cosmology – our shared 14 billion year Great Story from the Big Bang to today.
    2. A saving message – that we are all worthy to live together in love, without fear of a mythical hell.
    3. An inspiring vision of the future – a just, peaceful and sustainable world we get to build for our future generations.

    If we continue to squander our great U and U heritage on warmed over Bible fuzzies, we’ll soon be an historical footnote, and someone else (maybe the Sunday Assemblies?) will flourish by fulfilling #1-3 above. Or it could be us. Today. Now. for real.

    It’s our choice.

    • Good points Jon. I would ad a number 4 however. Community is good and flat statements of position on these beliefs is fine. But this only gets us so far, and tends to be repetitive when it comes to actual content that will hold and grow a congregation over time. It also leads to a lot of “preaching to the choir”.

      What people will desire and need in the long run, is a *practice*. That is, a practical approach to living one’s personal life in ways that increase happiness and answer that age-old question of the philosophers, “what is the best way to live?”

      In the West we have come to follow the Christian model of thinking it’s all about “what you believe” and we end up merely bloviating opinions back and forth at one another. Meanwhile, Eastern models are more about “what you do”. Naturalistic spirituality must be about more than simple declarations of stances, more than like-minded people artificially driving to the same room once per week to repeat them to one another, more than political action, and more than simple awe/wonder. There must be a deep and robust set of applicable practices which practitioners can become more skilled at over time, and increase our compassion and wisdom. Such a practice can transform lives and our character, and allow us to become experts at dealing with one another and with life’s challenges. That is what is missing in so many of these efforts today.

      Sincerely,
      Daniel Strain
      Executive Director
      Spiritual Naturalist Society

      • samuel Johnston

        “We want you to tell us….” he paused, “The Answer.”……..Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection.
        “Tricky,” he said finally.”- Hitchhikers’ Guide
        Hi Danial,
        I agree wholeheartedly:
        “In the West we have come to follow the Christian model of thinking it’s all about “what you believe” and we end up merely bloviating opinions back and forth at one another. Meanwhile, Eastern models are more about “what you do”. Naturalistic spirituality must be about more than simple declarations of stances, ”
        I spend a couple of years with American Buddhists and they tend to make the same mistake of thinking that Buddhism is about loyalty to ideas, or leaders, and failing to remember that Siddhārtha Gautama advised that we must be our own Buddha.

      • Absolutely agree with you Daniel Strain… I was a Christian for over 20 years and after leaving my “faith” I did not feel comfortable in essentially the same routine but with no content in my local UU church… I have recently discovered Secular Buddhism and am delighted once again in my life because I am able to connect with this concept of the *practice*… our local UU does have a zen group for meditation but honestly we need more Dharma talks.

  4. Sunday Assembly is proof positive that people are open to non-theistic “religious” gatherings without the supernatural. The UUA in recent years seems to have positioned itself as a liberal interfaith denomination, attempting to serve as a haven for people not quite comfortable in other communities. I say that as an outside observer, so my views may be inaccurate or poorly informed.

    In any case, I do believe that religious humanism can be a compelling and attractive outlook for the UUA. After all, “atheism” is merely a viewpoint regarding the existence or not of supernatural beings. It is not, by itself, a religion or even a philosophy.

  5. samuel Johnston

    Re: Susan “Our language is often very inadequate but it is all we have,..” I agree. Meaningful conversations require that we extend ourselves a bit.
    This insight is the beginning of wisdom, well… wisdom concerning language anyway. People who spar over the “ownership” of words are suspect as to their motives. One aspect of “religion/spiritual” is inner feelings that are independent of form. Another aspect is the comfort of social acceptance. Still another is our desire to make order and sense out of our experience. Still another is a sense of well being vs. fear and anxiousness. The list could go on and on. The one note band of shallowness motivated by the fear factor is a major opportunity for exploitation by the power seekers. Fear can easily overwhelm the more subtle emotions, so it needs to be subdued, not encouraged.
    Hell is the creation of the exploiters. Being confused is bad enough.

  6. Jonathan J. Turner

    Speaking of Unitarian jokes, I joined a UU congregation in 1990 and stopped attending in 2008. Inspired by my experience, I expressed it in a brief poem, a haiku (5+7+5 syllables):

    Unitarian
    Universalism is
    NOT a religion!

    I’ve been waiting to see if, when and how the Fatheist column would take notice of the 600-lb. gorilla in the humanist clubhouse: Unitarian Universalism!

    One might suppose that forming a UU-Humanist group so soon after the UUA was established would be redundant (see Corliss Lamont’s account of the UUA’s 1961 founding in the 8th edition of his “The Philosophy of Humanism”). Thus, it is a little surprising to see today’s UU-Humanists claim that the UUA is now going soft on humanism. In “Toward Common Ground” Howard Radest noted a similar softening in Ethical Culture’s humanism through its decline in the 1930s. This supports my opinion that the UUA will eventually share the fate of Ethical Culture (and Sunday Assemblies will too, for that matter).

    The UUA is now faced with head-to-head competition with Sunday Assembly for the fealty of the faithless. No doubt the rebranded UU-Humanists, with a fresh communications professional, aspire to capture more of the “nones” religious demographic. (At the same time, we should note that the UUA itself continues its latest overall rebrand, rolling out the new logo, moving from 25 Beacon, etc.)

    The UU-Humanists are but one part of the hyphenated UU-World: the UU-Buddhists, the UU-Wiccans, the UU-Pagans, and (yes!) even the UU-Christians, as subsets of UU believers. What does this diversity suggest about unity of principle or purpose within the UUA?

    Will the UUHA be able to turn the UUA ship, even as it continues to LIST: Paul Kurtz’s Humanist Manifesto I, the UUA’s Seven Principles, the three–Wait! FOUR points from the comments above: lots of to-do lists.

    OK, one final Unitarian joke and comment from sociologist of religion Peter Berger, from the 2006 Religion in a Globalizing World conference:

    Q: What’s the beginning of the Unitarian version of the Lord’s Prayer?
    A: To whom it may concern. [LOL]

    Peter Berger continues: “There is a market niche for Unitarianism for people who define themselves as seekers, OK? So the seekers get together and seek. But it’s not a very promising position, with whatever openness or doubt or hesitation. Unless a religious community has something to affirm, it has no raison d’être.”

    • Jonathan J. Turner

      I apologize for replying to my own post, but after reviewing Maria Greene’s responses to Chris Stedman’s questions once again, and inspecting the UUHA website, I have a few more thoughts to share:

      First, it now seems apparent that UU-Humanist leaders see the tide of new-atheism, including Sunday Assembly, as an existential threat to their power position within the UUA and UU-ism.

      Second, the idea that non-theists would obtain–or even need–a privileged and compulsory “welcomed” status in UU congregations through amended “welcoming” statements would be ludicrous on its face if it were not out of the mouth of Maria Greene herself, above.

      Thirdly, I highly recommend rummaging through the articles and comments on the UUHA web site to fully appreciate the tempestuous and voluminous discourse which characterizes contemporary UU humanist thought.

      Fourthly, if the humanists eliminated all religious language in their UU congregations, would they be willing to give up their religious tax exemptions? LOL again…

      • “First, it now seems apparent that UU-Humanist leaders see the tide of new-atheism, including Sunday Assembly, as an existential threat to their power position within the UUA and UU-ism.”

        Curious how you came to that conclusion, Jonathan? I’m looking forward to attending the fourth SA in Boston in a few days and I’ve been to them all.

        Actually, LOL on the “power position within the UUA”. We’re trying to emphasize the humanistic ethic that is the core of UU and make sure those who reject the supernatural are fully included. Why is that ludicrous? If congregations are going to use pseudo-religious language to define themselves to the outside world (like calling their congregations “churches”) then being explicit in a welcome statement just clears up any confusion.

  7. Selah Eric Spruiell

    This is one of the main reasons why, after 10 years in a UU church. I stopped going. I am Afrikan American, raised Presbyterian. I have explored Judaism. I currently practice Soka Gakkai Buddhism, consider myself a Taoist, am exploring Religious Science and Hoodoo as spiritual practices. Although I do not recognize Jesus as my Lord and Savior and as G-D’s only begotten son, I feel that he was an exceptional human being with a lot to offer us in terms of carrying ourselves as human beings.

    I know, that there is a Supreme Intelligence of the Universe and I have been in touch with that presence since I was a little boy. I am I partnership with that presence. I personify that presence, for my own purposes as HE, although I acknowledge that HE can be SHE as well.

    To me, a church is a place of worship. A place to commune with The Holy Spirit.

    I find that I want to worship with people who feel as I do. Soka Gakkai and Religious Science provide that for me.

    I’m afraid UU does not.

    I’m much more comfortable with the original meanings of UU, the Unity of the one G-D. All people receive redemption, and the transcendental nature of the universe – G-D is everywhere and everything, including me and you. We are all individual manifestations of G-D.

    I found that lacking in UU.

    So I left.

  8. samuel Johnston

    Hi Selah,
    “To me, a church is a place of worship. A place to commune with The Holy Spirit.”
    While I do not share your specific notions, which are expressed by you in Theistic terms,
    I do share the desire for a quiet respectful place to “get in touch with my spiritual side.”
    Causes, activities, and “faith in action” as they say, have their place, but without the balance provided by the “inner light” as Calvin would say, the activities seem empty and shallow. I have no desire to “worship” myself, mankind, or the human enterprise, but I do wish to take joy and comfort in the experience of life itself. Social work, however worthwhile, just doesn’t fill the inner space for me. Life could be worthwhile even if we accomplished nothing. FWIW, I give advanced seminars on front porch sitting.

  9. Maria said, “I know that other organizations in the Secular Coalition for America with us think we’re “too religious”—even though they accept that we completely reject the supernatural.” We do? Wow, that’s news to me.

    Our first source says, “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” Just what IS that transcending mystery and wonder? What is the intelligence that renews our spirit? And, just what is the spirit? What is the unseen mystery that animates a human being?

    Our 7th Principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” How is it that everything is interdependent? Is this merely a physical process, or is there some unseen Intelligence connecting, guiding the movement all things like clockwork? The giant hawk that landed on a tree during one of my sermons, just after I pointed it out, might have something to say about that. “Spooky,” one congregant described it…

    The fruits of humanism are to use our faculties of observation and reason to be scientific in the search for truth. In my case, reason has led to the undeniable existence of a supernatural mystery. No, I don’t believe in a guy in the sky? He/She/It’s much, much closer. Maybe like, in my own heart. And, I reckon, in yours, too.

  10. Wow. I thought I new UU’s well. I did not realize how confused you all are. So sad to see (read) intelligent people denying their need of a Savior. It takes more faith to be an atheist than a Christian. I truly love you all because my God loves everyone equally. We can’t earn favor by being good, whatever that means. I pray you find lasting and eternal peace by acknowledging Jesus for who He claimed to be.
    I am not a hater. This dialogue just breaks my heart when I read of people who want community but deny the existence of God. If your search is honest I have no doubt where you will end up.

    • samuel Johnston

      Hi Terry,
      Arete (and the search for “truth”) is its own reward. It also honors the Gods. You really need to listen less to preachers and their fear mongering. Intelligence and orthodox belief have a negative correlation. Join the confusion! It is the mark of those who are alive! The peace of death will be long.

    • I appreciate your well wishes, and my minister feels like you about the courage of atheists, but I just cannot accept so much of the supernatural, religious language—I simply find it meaningless to me, sometimes off-putting.
      To each per own, I guess—and let’s keep the exclusionary bits to private sessions!

  11. Thanks for this clarification.If the matkers in to which we export are starting to contract, this could well spell even more trouble for our economy.The only positive indicator in our economy at the moment is our export capability – which is driven by external demand.If that demand starts to ease off, it will be another nail in this country\’s economic coffin.

  12. Cyndi SImpson

    So much here I disagree with – as well as some profound misunderstandings of UU history and theology. Just makes me tired. I’ll try to collect some energy to respond, maybe.

  13. As a UU minister I have to say I’m a little frustrated by the idea that UU’s should “seek to be more Humanist.” Our polity is exclusively congregational, meaning we place the authority at the congregational level. Some congregations are VERY Humanist and others are not. That’s the joy and challenge of Unitarian Universalism. What I see the UUA moving toward is a more pluralistic understanding of faith — a place where seekers of all theologies can come together and grow, and make the world a better place, bound by our common vision for the world rather than “what’s in our heads.” My congregation in Annapolis has a Darwin-inspired summer camp for kids and an annual Darwin Sunday, and we often refer to science, wonder, and human potential in services and classes. However, we ALSO refer to the Bible, Buddhist teachings, Earth-centered wisdom, etc. UU’s have SIX sources of Inspiration. Not one. Not just Humanism. Not just Christianity. Those are only 2 of the 6. And we seek to be inspired by all of them.

  14. I am a 3rd-generation atheist who came to UUism through a “perfect storm” of 3 personal crises that left me in need of friends—NOT of religion (in fact, the new minister of my UU society called me “courageous” for getting through my suicidal times without religion—but I don’t see how it would have helped). I found the friends I needed in the local UU society (which, although named a church, never uses that word elsewhere in its constitution). Until very recently, I felt completely accepted there—in the last few years, words like “ministry”, “worship”, and “prayer” are cropping up more often, which I find unsettling, at least. Still I remain, fighting to limit the “god language” and ensure the rational, nontheistic language is heard as well.

  15. I am curious about the name change to UUHA—any commentary on that? I am hoping that it is not a step back from strict humanism of the HUUs toward accepting that “woo-wooism” of the “U”s that it was created to counter—however, in the current environment that would disappoint, but not surprise, me.
    I think I need to check out the Secular Coalition for America—and bring the Secular Safe Zone, if not a humanist group, to CUC (my UU society).

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  17. My family is atheist, and my late wife dragged the rest of us to a UU church years ago. Strangely, it stuck, and now I’m a Sunday school teacher and the mentor of a young man in our Coming-of-Age program. Our daughter loved the sex-ed and coming-of-age programs. And my wife’s ashes are buried in the church’s memorial garden. There are atheists and believers in the congregation, but I can’t tell who is which. Humanism is officially one of six sources of wisdom that the UUA draws on. Here in Seattle, atheism seems more welcome than it might be in certain East Coast congregations.

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  1. […] The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has long been a home for atheists, agnostics, and Humanists looking for community and supportive resources. In fact, atheists and Humanists have been involved from the beginning of the UUA. But the idea of religious atheists—of atheists joining, attending, and even leading churches or other “houses of worship”—is controversial among many atheists. [Read more] […]

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