Loving and Leaving UU

Dear friends:

I was an active member of your church from Nov, 2010 to sometime in 2015.  When I joined, I took to heart Mark’s comment that we are really members when we are disappointed and stay anyway.  I stayed through many small disappointments, but three big ones resulted in my leaving UU.  I’d like to share them with you, in the spirit of creative interchange.

Some time back, after listening to the sermon, Found in Translation, I approached Mark and said, “In your sermon, you said words didn’t matter.”  He quickly grew agitated.  He pointed his finger at me and said, “I said ‘words didn’t matter TO HER.  TO HER!”  I wanted to ask how meaningful connections could be maintained when we privately relax the meanings of words.  Perhaps other people care whether their words hold the same meanings for us.  But we never got that far.  The exchange was very brief and ended with him saying, arms in the air, “I’m not mature enough to have this conversation with you.  I need some space.”

I was taken aback, and I wanted to give him a break.  Perhaps he was having a bad day.  But other encounters made it evident that Mark didn’t welcome questions about his sermons.  I was disappointed because I had been attracted to UU’s history of rationality and free expression.  Mark’s frequent extolling of creative interchange sounded great to me.  But I found that it was mostly talk.  

The second turning point was during a book study downstairs on Sunday morning.  The topic was a book by a liberal Christian.  This is right up my alley and I joined in the discussion.  It didn’t take long for the facilitator to pointedly let me know that we weren’t there to critique the book, just discuss it.  I was embarrassed and asked him if he had taken the facilitator training I had taken (from Harvey H).  If he had, he never would have put someone on the spot like that, or tried to silence them.  I didn’t return.

The last occurred after I left UU.  I attended a funeral at your church and spoke with your acting Membership Coordinator.  She didn’t know that I had left.  When I told her, she asked “Why did you leave?”  I said I didn’t fit in.  She said, “Yea, some people don’t”.  

Her blunt answer was refreshing in a way.  It explained a lot.  UU was not an inclusive place!  Sure, they talk that way because they welcome gay people and such.  But even they have to fit in because, well, why else would they come?  In reading the pamphlets in your lobby, I was under the impression that UU was the place for nonconformists and freethinkers, for the least of those among us.  It’s not welcoming if we only welcome people we find agreeable.  But here was a staff member who finally told me the truth, that UU is like other churches.  If you fit in, you’ll feel welcome.  But if you don’t fit in, well of course people aren’t going to be glad you’re there.  Sadly, this means your children won’t be missed in RE, either.

I’ll admit this broke my heart a little, but I was glad to know the truth.  If you just want to build a community for certain people, God’s frozen chosen as they say, then I wish you all the best.  But if you wish to really be a place that welcomes those who are not welcome elsewhere, then I urge you to think about what real inclusivity means.  It’s hard!  It’s hard because human nature leads us to seek out like-minded people and people we like, not those we are different from and whom we don’t like.

Few places even aspire to it.  Ideally, hospitals and the courts would cultivate this kind of equality and the professionalism required to make it real.  Despite its rhetoric, I have concluded UU doesn’t aspire to it (although some congregations might).  This may be one reason UU hasn’t grown in nearly 50 years.  It seems to have settled for creating communities, even if some who really want to belong are left out.

One concrete suggestion I can make is for 1st Unitarian to become a Freethinker Friendly congregation:


Michael Servetus was killed for debunking the Trinity.  Would he be welcome in today’s UU if he took issue with one of the 7 Principles?  I hope he would be.  That would be the church for me.

I still think that UU is positioned to contribute in ways no other church can.  It could be a home to the burgeoning population of Nones.  It could challenge the bigotry of mainstream religion.  If UU wants to be, it could be a home for everyone, including heretics like Michael Servetus.


Don Severs

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Can believers be good?

Is morality possible with God?

We’re used to hearing that morality is impossible without God. This is the idea that without God to be the source and ground of values, our choices would be expressions of mere preferences, and a case could always be made for acting differently. Anything goes because there are no objective values. “Without God, anything is permissible.” Of course this makes no sense, but Dostoevsky had one of his characters say it, so it has stuck.
But many, mostly liberal, believers admit that morality doesn’t depend on God. They grant that nonbelievers or believers in false religions can be good, either because of Common Grace, or because we live in a universe that contains Good because it was created by God, or because Good doesn’t depend on God.

But do these positions hang together? Can we be good in a universe that includes God?
Not only does morality not depend on God, it’s hard or impossible to live morally if God exists. It’s hard for a believer to be good. First, consider the Euthyphro Dilemma:

Is something good because God does it?


Does God do only what is good?

In the first case, goodness is arbitrary, and thus meaningless. In the second case, there is a standard of Good that even God follows. God may still be the best way to know what is good, but we could still be good and (imperfectly) know what is good without him.
The philosopher, William Lane Craig, says Euthyphro is not a true dilemma:

“…the theist doesn’t want to say that the Good is good simply because God happens to approve of it, since this makes morality arbitrary (call this Horn A). Nor does he want to say that God approves the Good because it is, in fact, good, since this seems to entail the existence of standards of goodness outside of God (call this Horn B).”

As a theist, Craig naturally rejects Horn B and focuses on Horn A. To render Horn A impotent, he says God is ontologically Good, not just semantically Good. He is the embodiment of Good. So, we say “God is Good”, but he isn’t good because we say it. He is good necessarily, by his nature.

None of this undoes the dilemma. ‘Good’ loses all meaning if it only means that “God acts out his nature”. Even weather systems do that. In this case, to say “God is Good” is just to say “God is God”. (If I am missing something here, please let me know.) So, Euthyphro holds. If you’re a conservative, authoritarian believer, and still think (or feel) that God is Good no matter what he does, then what follows will be nonsense to you.

Many liberal believers get this far. They believe that God is good, but don’t think God, or belief in God, is necessary to be good. They admit that, if God doesn’t exist, it would still mean something to say, “It’s good to stop unnecessary suffering” or “It’s wrong to torture children for fun”. William Lane Craig denies this. During his debate with Louise Antony, when discussing morality without God, he appears incredulous, as if he can’t even comprehend how torturing a kid could be wrong without God to ordain it as wrong. Antony wondered aloud how he could have any friends, and I do, too. Saying this means that humans have no value in themselves, and that it would not be wrong to torture them if God didn’t exist. This is to say that you don’t love humans at all, only God, and that all your morality is ‘vertical’, it comes from God. You treat humans well only because God commanded it, not because of any ‘horizontal’ connection you have to them. Accidental, evolved behaviors like loving our kin aren’t ‘good’ to him, they are just matter in motion. Antony explains that, yes they are matter in motion, but not ‘just’ matter in motion. They consist of matter in certain motions, certain configurations, and that is what we value. Yes, rocks and humans are made of the same atoms, but the arrangements really make a difference. Craig acts like he can’t grasp this. It’s his Argument from Incredulity.

But, whether Craig is right or wrong about that, many liberal believers accept that moral statements carry meaning (beyond expressions of mere preference), even if God doesn’t exist. How do they support this?

Humans have been caring for their babies since before they conceived of God. To Lucy, in 3.5 million BC, it was still obvious that you should care for your kids, avoid pain and seek pleasure. The same is true of modern infants. These are notions of good and bad that don’t require God. But are these ‘moral facts’? The theist wants to say that even though Lucy may not have had a conception of God, it was still God that made helping a child a moral act. Besides, animals help their kids, and they aren’t moral agents. Without God, what makes helping a child a moral act?

Antony points out that humans have additional moral properties that animals lack. We are aware that other beings feel pain, and thus have moral responsibilities they don’t, even when our behaviors are the same.

Craig’s view would mean that even basic notions of good and bad are only felt because God created a ‘moral’ universe, that objective moral values exist (perhaps Platonically), independent of human activity. But please notice that this is an unnecessary add-on. Saying that pulling my hand back from a fire is a result of an absolute morality ordained by God contributes nothing that evolution hasn’t already done. This is why Pascal said of God, “I have no need of that hypothesis”. Empathy is all we need, and that is an evolved trait.

The liberal believer can accept all that, but chooses to leave God in. If God isn’t needed for morality, what is he doing there? This is a huge demotion for God. He’s still there, but everyone would be fine if he weren’t, like an aging, irrelevant uncle at a party. But up to this point, it seems God does not, at least, make it harder to be moral.

But wait. We know that, if God created the universe, he included a lot of suffering (even if it is the consequence of The Fall). Given this fact, there are two options:

One is that He had no choice. This makes him a force like weather, bound by his nature, unable to do more (or less) about suffering and evil in the world. He becomes amoral, and it means nothing to say he is good or evil.

Two is that he had a choice. This makes him evil or indifferent, which is evil.

So, even if God is not necessary to be moral, he is either no partner in morality (option 1), or a bad actor himself, someone we should resist. If you continue to devote yourself to him, you endorse his treatment of your neighbor. This matters to your friends whether your belief is true or not.

What kind of people can be moral in a universe with God in it? Only people like Craig who define morality as ‘being on God’s side’. But this is to give up goodness itself! It is an amoral position, a capitulation to power, plus lots of moral-sounding wallpaper to hide that fact. As I noted, these are not people you want in your life. They don’t love you for yourself. They only love you because God tells them to. Imagine telling your kids that you wouldn’t love them if God didn’t exist. That’s what Craig says at every debate.

What’s a good believer to do? It isn’t mentioned very often, but one can believe and fight God, demand better of him. Judaism has a strong tradition of this. You’d think being God’s chosen people would have some sort of advantage, but with friends like God, who needs enemies? Then there are maltheists. They believe in God, but think he is evil. Finally, the misotheists are those who hate God. They’re brave.

So, there are your choices. To be a believer and a good person, a person who stands with the least of those among us, we must condemn God for his treatment of them, even if we also thank him for life and other good things.

But is this wise? What human would have the courage to stand up to God? That depends on how God treats those who condemn him. In Christianity, resistance is futile and the surest way to perdition, even if it’s the result of Conscientious Objector status. And there’s no parole from hell. It’s entirely punitive, not rehabilitative. It would take a rash person indeed to take such a position, so brave we’d have to call it crazy. But it’s possible.

On the other hand, if God doesn’t care if you condemn him, the way you don’t care when animals in the zoo howl at you, then you’re safe. But what religion is that, where one’s attitude toward God doesn’t matter to God? Not Christianity or Islam.

It seems that in a universe that includes God, our options are stark. We can fight back without hope of changing anything. We can fight back risking eternal, horrendous suffering. We can fight back, hoping he’s not concerned about a frail primate lecturing him. But we can’t go along, we can’t devote ourselves to God without condoning his appalling neglect of our neighbors.

In this light, atheism is a huge relief. We are free to create our own meaning, rather than having the same meaning imposed on everyone. We can look our suffering neighbor in the eye, knowing we’re not doing business with anyone responsible for their plight. And we can improve morality itself. Under God, we could progress morally, but there was no hope of finding a better morality. Without God, we can be truly progressive, and continually refine our ethics. Of course, this has always been occurring as loving humans thought about moral problems. Then, true to form, religion stepped in to take the credit.

Atheists skip that last step. We avoid complicity with God. And we take moral responsibility for our actions, and even morality itself. Much of morality is set (Antony would say it’s objective) by facts about human nature. But free of God’s dictates, we can keep working to improve our moral codes.

That’s impossible with God in the picture.
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Salvation by Character: How UUs can Find a Religious Center

NB:  Dr Loehr has graciously agreed to allow me to share this article.  I am posting it with his permission, in the hope his ideas will reach a wider audience.


Salvation by Character:

How UUs can Find a Religious Center

©Davidson Loehr 1999

Originally written for the UU World magazine’s November-December 1999 issue, the editors there lost interest after the “Politics as a Religion” section was added, which is quite critical of “Unitarian Universalism” as a religion.  The assistant editor with whom I was dealing wouldn’t admit this, saying simply that once I added the section on politics as a religion, “the whole piece became incoherent.  Nobody here can understand it.”  So perhaps there are varying legitimate responses.  See what you think.




When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.

When goodness is lost, there is morality.

When morality is lost, there is ritual.

Ritual is the husk of true faith,

the beginning of chaos.


— Lao-tzu



When I look at UU congregations today, and hear the stories others are telling of their internal struggles, I see the signs of chaos.

Our tiny, hard-to-find churches are filled (if “filled” isn’t too presumptuous) with well-intentioned people who gather under one roof but who lack a common religious language. We house many enclaves — theists, humanists, wicks, liberal political activists — but they are variations without a shared theme, at least a shared religious theme.

We have a lot of company. Across the religious spectrum, churches are splitting through the narcissism of small differences. I recently heard that a new denomination is formed each week.

Mainline and liberal churches, including ours, continue to attract a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. Here, I’m only interested in the theological reason, which may initially strike UUs as strange, even irrelevant: we have not adequately filled the hole left by the death of God. Neither have other mainline and liberal churches, but I’m most interested in our churches here.

The theological problem of Western religion can be put another way: During the last few centuries, God ceased to be a being, and became a concept. The “being” God needed a place to be, and that vanished when people stopped believing there could be anything “up there.” Since then, “God” has “dwelled” in the minds and hearts of believers, as a concept, an idea, or a feeling. While the language has stayed the same, this “category change” for the word “God” has changed the game of theology almost completely.

In Western religion, this change of referent for the word “God” from a being to a concept creates a vacuum which can be put very simply: concepts don’t have attributes. Philosophers describe this problem as the confusion of essence with existence, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, or the concept of reification. More simply, the “Guy-in-the-sky” could perform the whole array of anthropomorphic activities. He saw, heard, spoke, walked in the garden, created, planned, thought and loved us. But God-as-a-concept can’t “do” a thing. The idea of “God” (or “Goddess”) can’t see, hear, plan, or — most distressingly — love anybody. This robs religious beliefs of integrity and relevance, a strain felt throughout our culture.


Religion and Salvation

Most dictionaries define “religion” as involving a belief in a god, and nearly everyone still takes that to mean a supernatural Being who lives somewhere “up there.” And “salvation,” religion’s other key concept, is widely understood as getting to go “up there” after you die, so you can live forever.

I suggest instead a “radical” definition of these words, getting down to their root meanings.

*     “Religion” comes from the Latin religare, and means “reconnection. (“Re-” means “to do again”; “-lig” is the root found in words like “ligament” and “ligature,” and refers to a connective.)

*     “Salvation” comes from the same Latin root as the word salve; it refers to being “saved,” but also to a healthy kind of wholeness.

Putting them together (I think they must go together): Religion is the search for a feeling of reconnection to a healthy kind of wholeness.


The liberal bias: intellectual integrity

Not all religious paths require intellectual integrity. In fact, most don’t. When I was in graduate school, I had a classmate who was a brilliant student, took his Ph.D. with honors — and was a Moonie. My cognitive dissonance finally got so loud I asked him over lunch one day how he could possibly keep the things he learned in his Ph.D. program in the same head with the things the Moonies taught him without splitting in half. “Oh, that,” he replied without missing a beat. “That’s easy. You just have to keep what you know and what you believe separated. There’s a lot of that going on, you know.”

There is indeed. That’s a key difference between the broader conservative religious paths and the narrower liberal paths. The kind of “peace” religious liberals seek may surpass understanding, but it can’t bypass it. By keeping what he knew and what he believed separated, my classmate lost any possibility for achieving the kind of integrity that is a non-negotiable component of liberal religion. If we’re going to check our brains at the church door, almost any faith will do. Ours is, and has always been, a much harder and more demanding route. The quality of integrity it offers can lead us to a personal authenticity forever beyond the reach of those who keep what they know and what they believe separated.

Today, we need to unload, reexamine and rethink the religious symbols we use to express our deepest hopes and yearnings — especially the symbol “God.” This task falls, by definition and tradition, to religious liberals. It is one of the most sacred responsibilities we owe to ourselves and to the future of religion. Once “God” — the quotation marks have been necessary since at least the Enlightenment — is merely a concept, new questions arise: (1)

*    Why, for example, should we frame our religious questions in God-language at all? More politely we might ask: “To what extent, and within what limits, is god-language (or goddess-language) really helpful any longer? Aren’t there clearer ways of framing our important questions and provisional answers?”

*    And if we decide to use the symbols and metaphors of god-talk, why should we talk in terms of monotheism? As some Jungians have made clear, in real life we have competing demands on us, not a single booming voice. Our task is not obedience (as in the Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis 22), but discernment. We must balance equally valid demands of parenting, career, personal fulfillment, adventure, lust, responsibility, and a dozen more. (2) Even if we’re to use the symbols of deities to express the seriousness of our desired allegiances, real life seems clearly to be polyvalent, not monotheistic.

*    Why remain within the biases of Western religions? The most we can hope for through most Western salvation stories is a relationship with “God,” mediated through “correct” beliefs, rituals or behaviors. In Eastern religions, the goal is to realize our identity with the sacred powers of life. Isn’t this a preferable and more advanced level of spiritual aspiration?

Goethe said the person who doesn’t know two languages doesn’t truly know even one, meaning that when we can only say things one way, we will confuse our way of thinking with “the way things really are.” If we have no religious language, we’re left mute. If we know only one religious language, we will confuse the map with the territory, and defend that one map long after it has gone out of date. This is the area within which our problem lies. And the problem itself, I believe, points toward its resolution. See if you agree.


Three Religious Options That Fail

I want to look at just three religious styles that are prominent in our churches today, and suggest that they are examples of the chaos, not the Way. The three are:

*    Scientism

*    Politics as a religion

*    Theological double-talk


  1. Scientism.

This is a thought style that could be called rationalism or logical positivism. It is the style of thinking widely associated in our congregations with “secular humanists,” but I want to consider the thought style, rather than the various people who sometimes use it.

What I’m calling scientism is a particular form of thinking with a very specific origin and history. This kind of reasoning exalts Science (and usually capitalizes it), and criticizes most “spirituality” as a fuzzy melange of feelings lacking necessary definitions.

Scientism operates within the theory of knowledge that guides the scientific method and most of our more rigorous sciences, focusing on objective facts with empirical verification, rather than subjective feelings or intuitions that can’t be put to this kind of a test.

The origin of this way of thinking explains its strengths and limitations, whether in the 17th century or in our own. This is the theory of knowledge defined by Descartes in the early 1600s, and perhaps best known as Rationalism. At its time, it was a heroic invention by a young genius trying to save Western civilization from more of the bloody religious wars he had known throughout his life.

Descartes’ genius was to separate knowledge into two categories. Rationalism, later the basis of the scientific culture, was to explore objective and impersonal knowledge, which could not, he thought, conflict with the other kind of knowledge. That other, older, knowledge included all the questions about meaning and purpose in life, about moral and ethical values, how we should live, what made life fulfilling. These questions, in this subjective kind of knowledge, he excluded from his new rationalism, to protect the new thinkers from the bloody wrath of the Church (Descartes was a devout Catholic). He also assumed, without ever seeming to question it, that the Church would be able to satisfy the yearnings of believers, with a field of knowledge cut off from any easy possibility of rational (later scientific) verification.

To this day, our scientific cultures, and the scientistic thought style within our churches, disdain sloppy forays into symbolic, metaphorical, or subjective areas. Their rationalism and empiricism, true to Descartes’ intent, is rigorously confined to matters which can be quantified. And this, again as Descartes intended, puts almost all religious or “spiritual” questions out of bounds — as tens of thousands of UU theists, Christians, wiccans or “spiritualists” can attest. (3)

Our modern scientific culture has accomplished much by restricting thought to that which can be quantified, that which is objective rather than subjective. We want our cars, planes and bridges built on this foundation of cold hard facts, not on what might “feel right” to a particular engineer.

But these concerns, as valid as they are within their narrow range of usefulness, have very little to do with the spiritual (by which I mean emotional, ritual or psychological) hungers and searches for meaning and purpose which bring most people into our churches.

And so this scientistic style of thinking is today a reaction against religious language, but can not, because of its limited scope, hope to be an adequate heir to religious thinking. It seeks to clarify thinking, but operates within a severely restricted theory of knowledge that can not, by definition and design, address the personal and subjective hungers that, for the majority of us, constitute the religious search. So, while the intent is good, scientism adds to the chaos in our congregations.


  1. Politics as a Religion

For a complex of reasons which deserve their own essay, liberal politics has been substituted for liberal religion in our society during the past thirty or forty years, as it also has in many UU churches — and, I believe, at the UUA. It is taken for granted that most of those who join UU churches are Democrats, pro-choice, friends of NOW and the ACLU, for Jesse Jackson but against Clarence Thomas, for Gloria Steinem but against Camille Paglia, and more for “individual rights” than for individual responsibilities.

We are presumed to hate sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination against sexual orientations. We endorse phrases like “the Black point of view,” “the gay/lesbian point of view,” “the women’s point of view,” and most still have strong sympathies with the aims of “political correctness” (though with growing qualms). Our social and political sentiments are presumed to align with those of liberal political and social policies in general; and, in general, they do. Social conservatives, Republicans, pro-lifers and those who speak out for conservative political or social agendas generally feel far less comfortable in our churches, regardless of their religious beliefs.

To be sure, conservative churches have their comparable campaigns for pro-life marches, Republican candidates and conservative letter-writing campaigns. The political captivity of the churches is a sign of our times.

Within our movement, there are many religions, each with its own distinctive origin and history. We have Unitarians, Universalists, Christians, theists, wiccans, humanists, Buddhists, a variety of mystics, and others. But the official group identity known as “Unitarian Universalism” is best understood as representing the social and political ideology shared by most of our members, regardless of their religious beliefs. The “UU Principles” grew out of discussion groups designed to produce a description of the things those few people happened to believe. In effect, we were taking a “poll” of the generic values that characterize the kind of cultural liberals who are drawn to our churches (and to discussion groups). The core “principles” of the new religion called “Unitarian Universalism” were primarily descriptions of social and political ideologies, not religious beliefs. We weren’t asking what we should believe, or what was worth believing. We were just asking what the people like us who were at these discussion groups happened to believe.

“Unitarian Universalism” is primarily a political identity that accepts a wide variety of individual religious beliefs, precisely because the religious beliefs are peripheral and the politics are central to the identity and goals of the UUA. As long as members are pro-choice (for just one example) they can be Christian, Jewish, atheist, wiccan or Other, because their religious beliefs are irrelevant as long as their social and political identity is in order. But if they are very vocal about being pro-life, they will not be likely to feel very welcome — again, regardless of their religious beliefs. This is the description of a political ideology, not a religion.

A few more observations must be noted in passing. First, politics, even good politics, makes lousy religion. Its vision is too restricted by topical issues and class biases, and it tends to view those holding opposing political ideologies as enemies. Worse, political ideologies tend to treat people as pawns or “tokens” in the larger political games, rather than as individuals in their own right.

One story on point is worth sharing. It happened at the Community Church of Boston, founded in 1920 by Clarence Skinner, the notable Universalist minister whose name is deeply linked with social responsibility in our Association (the Skinner Sermon Awards, Skinner House Books, etc.). Skinner was particularly eager for his church to be a community brought together out of disparate kinds of people, and indeed the minutes of one board of directors’ meeting of the Boston church indicate that much time was taken up “in attempting to find a more representative Negro than the one they had.” (4) Here is a human being turned into a token — and in one of the most socially conscious, committed churches of its time. When an organization accepts a political identity, people become markers, used to show the world that we are “politically correct.” In my experience, this tendency to transform our favored minorities into such pawns remains strong within “Unitarian Universalism” today.

Second, the positions taken by cultural liberals (including many of us) are neither as enlightened nor as noble as we lead ourselves to believe. We are, we insist, against all the bad “-isms”: certainly against racism and sexism. But the essence of racism is the presumption that by knowing someone’s race, we can infer anything else about them. The essence of sexism is the assumption that we can infer someone’s character or opinions through knowing only their sex. Phrases like “the Black point of view” and “the women’s point of view” are profoundly racist and sexist. Let’s be blunt: There is no such thing as “the Black point of view,” or “the women’s point of view.” Claiming this reduces human beings in these categories to mere tokens in an ideological game that cannot do justice to our calling as religious liberals.

Who would speak for “the Blacks”? Jesse Jackson or Clarence Thomas? Al Sharpton or Shelby Steele? Our political ideology dictates what we have decided “proper” Black people should represent.

Who would speak for “women”? Gloria Steinem, Camille Paglia, Katherine McKinnon, or Phyllis Schlafly? And how would you frame your argument? Again, choosing one of these women to be “more representative” of “women” than others merely identifies the political ideology which has captured us. Blacks, Hispanics, women, men, gays, lesbians, and every other category of humans cover the whole spectrum of opinions on all issues. To grant them less is to diminish their humanity. We desperately need religious perspectives on these issues and many more, instead of the disturbingly narrow ideologies that turn people into soldiers in our unending wars between political half-truths, adding to the chaos of a movement without an adequate religious center.


  1. Theological double-talk

By this, I mean “God-talk” used as a nostalgic, ornamental addition to ordinary language. This is the most popular style of using God-talk today. We frame our ultimate concerns, our fears and yearnings and our understanding of the human condition in ordinary language — or in the vocabularies of “scientific” disciplines (psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc.) rather than in religious jargon. Then we add a few “religious” words or phrases — a prayer, benediction, or gratuitous references to “God,” as ecclesiastical flourishes or ritual signs of our intent to keep that older language somehow involved. Three examples might help clarify the way this double-talk looks and works.


  1. Dissembling.

This is the tack that Rabbi Harold Kushner took in his influential book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He excuses God from any responsibility for bad things that happen: they just happen. They’re part of the crapshoot of life. (Or, as the Epicureans said a couple millennia ago, the bottom line is Chance, not Providence.) For Kushner, “God” is what helps us get through all the stuff we have to endure. But this is a “God” without power to change things, more like a warm word or an old friendly sound we can invoke when we’re frightened. We hope this old deity — who can’t do anything — loves us, even if it’s a pretty anemic kind of “love.” But this argument let Rabbi Kushner save face for the symbol “God.” He remained, nominally, within his tradition of god-talk, ancient Hebrew myths, and modern reflections on those stories (and remained a rabbi). Those myths and reflections contain wisdom that he and others don’t want to lose (as well as containing many useless and some harmful teachings).


  1. Latitudinarianism.

Another way to understand theological double-talk is through recalling the Latitudinarian movement and its parallels today.

This was the effort of 18th Century Anglican clerics to stay within a tradition by taking greater “latitude” with its teachings. It was a kind of intellectual “two-step.” First, to preserve their sense of integrity, they announced they didn’t really believe the literalisms of their religious tradition. God wasn’t an active agent in the world, except in our imaginations and devotional habits — there was no Guy In The Sky. Then, with personal integrity and intellectual honesty restored, they returned to their devotions, again to repeat all the creeds and formulae they no longer believed, in order to “remain within the tradition.” From the outside, it’s easy to ridicule this two-step as sheer hypocrisy. From the inside, it must have felt like preserving the best of both the intellectual and devotional realms, keeping what they knew and what they believed separate.

Episcopal Bishop Shelby Spong has made his reputation as a modern proponent of this Latitudinarianism, and he is a popular author among many people in our own churches. But the real cutting-edge Latitudinarianism today comes from the work of the Christian scholars of the Jesus Seminar. These scholars have been quite candid in denouncing all of the religion’s supernaturalism. Jesus’ body didn’t “ascend to heaven”; it decomposed (or was eaten by the dogs and birds around Golgotha, as Catholic scholar Dominic Crossan has it). The virgin birth was Christian mythmaking, and the miracles were hagiographic literary devices common at the time. The Jesus Seminar Fellows, like the 18th century Anglican clerics, show honest and admirable candor. Then, intellectual integrity restored, Seminar Fellows (all but a few of us are Christians) return to their churches and participate in the creeds and traditional confessions: virgin birth, resurrection, Savior, Redeemer, and God.

With this move, we are pulling the wool over our own eyes, by using two different words, both spelled “G-o-d,” but with fundamentally different meanings. One (God) means a being existing somewhere “up there,” in time and space. The other (“God”) means a concept, a feeling, an idea.


  1. Bargaining.

In Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s versatile model, this is Bargaining. The Bargain is: We’ll relinquish all supernaturalism, all the miracles, all notions of this man Jesus as an otherworldly savior figure. In return we’ll keep using all the terms we’ve just debunked, and still call ourselves Christians. But it will be a Christianity without a Christ, a resurrection without an afterlife and a God without an existence — except in the determined imaginations of believers.

It’s like wanting the Smile, without the Cat.

The same two-step occurs in synagogues, mosques, or the Mormon Tabernacle, of course — or in wiccan groups in our own churches, when anthropomorphic attributes are projected onto The Goddess. But the stubborn fact remains: concepts don’t have attributes, and playing this game compromises our integrity and our religion. It is another example of keeping what we know and what we believe separated, the move I don’t believe can be allowed within the tradition of liberal religion.


These three won’t do

Like Santa, the old God-as-a-being is gone. Those who’ve dressed up in his clothes have tried to sell us visions of science, politics, and theological self-deceptions. All three of these currently popular religious paths are inadequate:


  1. Scientism is inadequate because of its intentionally restricted theory of knowledge, excluding precisely those psychological, ritual and emotional hungers that constitute what most people in all times have identified as the religious search.


  1. Politics as a religion is inadequate because of its intentionally restricted, partisan, and class-bound vision. Liberal politics is a dangerous and dehumanizing substitute for liberal religion.


  1. Theological double-talk is inadequate because it has committed the cardinal sin of liberal religion, by separating what we believe from what we know.


These three paths are about feeling good or right rather than being good or right. Any trustworthy notion of being good — notions of the Good Life, the noble person, or the wise path — must be measured against standards that transcend the ideology of our own group. Otherwise, they are impossible to distinguish from narcissism and its sister, solipsism.

One final vision of the self-deception I’m trying to unmask comes from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:


Imagine this game — I call it “tennis without a ball”: The players move around on a tennis court just as in tennis, and they even have rackets, but no ball. Each one reacts to his partner’s stroke as if, or more or less as if, a ball had caused his reaction. (Maneuvers.) The umpire, who must have an “eye” for the game, decides in questionable cases whether a ball has gone into the net, etc., etc. This game is obviously quite similar to tennis and yet, on the other hand, it is fundamentally different.” (5)


Theology without a “theos” (god) is a lot like tennis without a ball. The talk is similar, the ecclesiastical moves are similar, there are still enough conflicting certainties to go to war over, and the costumes stay the same. And yet, on the other hand, it is a fundamentally different game! When gods die, we need a healthy suspicion of the people dressing up in their clothes; it’s kind of like the difference between Elvis and Elvis impersonators, but without the music.


Finding the Center

Religion is the search for a feeling of reconnection to a healthy kind of wholeness. And the most enduring form of that health and wholeness is character, reconnecting individuals with their greater possibilities, and more responsible and vivid roles in their families, societies, and in history. The legitimate heir to dissipated deities is a religion of salvation by character, grounded in the noblest parts of our common humanity. We need to begin articulating a religious — as opposed to merely a liberal political — vision. Our “social action” outside the churches should be on behalf of this more inclusive vision, rather than the partisan marches for which we too easily settle.

Without getting diverted into yet another area that deserves its own essay, I’ll hope one example of a religious rather than political vision will suffice here. On the issue of abortion, we have generally rubber-stamped the pro-choice agenda, as religious conservatives march behind a narrowly-conceived pro-life agenda. Without more distinctions, neither is a religious vision. The religious center on this issue would have to begin from the acknowledgment that we must regard human life, at all stages of development, as sacred, and must be able to make convincing and contextual moral arguments to support the termination of any life, including the life of a developing baby. Once that basic premise has been granted, we can move toward making the necessary distinctions that can help us understand when and where abortion is, in fact, the most moral and responsible decision. If this sounds too idealistic, it describes the middle way that has, in fact, been found in other industrial, “advanced,” societies. (6) Public discussions operating from this central position could bring a much more nearly religious perspective into the currently political and narrowly ideological deadlock on this issue. To put it in theological poetry, a religious perspective must aspire to getting a “God’s-eye view” — by which I mean the most inclusive view possible — of complex situations, rather than just a righteous partisan slant.


A Universalist approach

The search for a religious center doesn’t have to start from scratch. Even a cursory study of the world’s great traditions shows us that religion does have an enduring and empirical subject matter. Its insights measure the quality of our lives and our worlds, for better and worse, whether we “believe in them” or not. Most of these truths do not seem to have changed much in recorded history. They seem to be species-specific traits and norms that most peoples of most times have recognized as inviolable, and which we also recognize as inviolable — though we seldom articulate these facts:


*    The Way we seek is older than the gods, as Lao-tzu said.

*    We want to learn how to relish the transient pleasures of life without becoming limited and defined by them, and how to nurture our life-giving circles of friends — as the Epicureans taught.

*    We know that neither we nor any supernatural agencies can control what life brings our way, so we should learn how to control our responses to life — as the Stoics taught.

*    Most of us believe in “salvation through understanding,” as the Buddhists have taught.

*    All of us need to be reminded — in the Roman Seneca’s magnificent phrase — that we are all limbs on the body of humanity, and we must learn to act accordingly.

*    We know, but want to be reminded, that if only we could treat all others as our equals, our brothers and sisters, as “children of God,” that we could transform this world into a paradise — as Jesus taught in his concept of the “kingdom of God.”


This is the kind of “universalism” we need to be about today. These are the enduring truths that have always guided spiritual searches for that healthier kind of wholeness.


Character traits

The qualities of character that we admire in ourselves and others aren’t a secret. We all know them. If you doubt it, think back on all the memorial services you have seen or done, and remember what we say in our eulogies, when we look for good and true things to say about someone who has died. We know exactly what has and does not have lasting worth. When we are trying to speak well of our dead, we don’t speak of their power, sexual prowess, popularity, political correctness or wealth.

When we speak about character, we value the same things humans in all times and places have cared about: honesty, integrity, responsibility, authenticity, moral courage. We love good wit, spurn malicious intellects. We admire generosity, hate greed. We praise selfless caring, recoil from co-dependence. Selfishness and narcissism may be acknowledged in a eulogy because we know we must not lie, but they are acknowledged as faults, not gifts. We never approve of those who side with the stronger against the weaker, or who use others as “things” to serve their own personal hungers or ideological agendas. We don’t regard anyone very highly who has no sense of owing something back to life or to those who loved or needed them.

And all of these traits point back to the one kind of salvation that noble people in all times and places have admired and eulogized: salvation by character. Not “self- esteem” or empty pride, but developing the kind of character of which we rightly can be proud. Not “feeling good” but the far harder and longer task of being good people.

Questions of character aren’t fancy. They’re very ordinary sorts of questions that extend our horizons beyond the biases of our little in-groups to reconnect us, through our common humanity, with all people in all times and places. They include questions like these:


How am I becoming a better partner, parent, neighbor, citizen, and world citizen?

How have I built bridges toward those whose religious or political beliefs will always differ from mine, yet who are, as I am, limbs on the body of humanity?

How is my life a blessing to a world not made in my image?


The Queen of religious idioms

Since we are defined by a myriad of spiritual paths within our congregations, we have both a need and a responsibility to learn how to communicate between them. This is easy. There is only one language that is shared and understood by everyone in our churches: ordinary language. This means that all jargon — theological, psychological, mystical, whatever — must be expressible in ordinary language, or else it is merely a language-game serving an in-group identity, rather than a path toward healthy wholeness or the establishment of a true community. At a minimum, every adult in our UU congregations should be expected to learn two idioms fluently: the idiom of their own religious search, and the ability to translate their searches and findings into ordinary language so that we might not merely “tolerate” each other’s differing spiritual journeys, but actually understand them.

As medieval Churchmen once defined theology as “the Queen of the sciences,” ordinary language is, in our pluralistic movement, the queen of religious idioms. It is the only language that can let us communicate honestly, deeply and clearly between the many different spiritual paths on which we find ourselves.

Furthermore, this insistence that religion be expressed in ordinary language is, I would argue, the essence of the liberal religious spirit. The 15th century Catholic priest Jan Hus preached in Czech rather than the Latin of the priests, and taught that the chalice was to be shared with all, because religion must be expressed in ordinary language and put in the hands and lives of ordinary people. Our UU chalice represents this chalice of Hus’s, as our flame stands for the fire in which he was burned at the stake for expressing this liberal spirit. (I have also heard that this explanation is a complete romanticism without any reference to the real Jan Hus.)

Likewise, Martin Luther taught that religion must be expressed in the ordinary language of the people rather than the jargon of the priests, preaching in and translating the Bible into German. And when Friedrich Schleiermacher, who is known as “the father of liberal theology,” wrote his Speeches to the Cultured Despisers of Religion in 1799, he knew even then that the audience he most needed to reach were those who had already sloughed off theism because they despised its bogus supernaturalism and theological mind-games. Schleiermacher created liberal theology by transposing the traditional teachings of Christianity into concepts akin to existential psychology. This was also the path of Soren Kierkegaard two generations later: translating religion into the language that could speak more directly and powerfully to the depths of ordinary life. Paul Tillich learned from Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard, and recast theology as depth psychology fifty years ago, as many Jungians and existential psychologists have also done.

Each of these people saw that religion must be translated out of jargon, out of the specialized language of the priests, and into talk — as straightforward as they could make it — aimed directly at ordinary people. Ordinary language is also the best way to communicate with people outside the church who have those spiritual hungers that would make them want to be inside the church, if only the church would bother speaking to them instead of to itself.

It’s a harder challenge in a pluralistic society than it is anywhere else in the world. It is hardest of all in the liberal churches with the widest freedom — ours. It’s a challenge worthy of us.

We have never looked back with pride on religious liberals who didn’t go forward into new and uncharted territory during a crisis of religious expression. We admire Channing, Parker and Emerson because they took new paths. We don’t remember the names of the vast majority of Unitarians or Universalists who stuck with “the old ways,” or got lost in their era’s religious fads.

It’s easy to duck these responsibilities, to play down toward easy comfort. Many people in many churches, including ours, even seem to prefer it. We’ve each grown comfortable within our idiosyncratic religious languages, whether theistic, wiccan, scientific, mystical, Buddhist or Other. We withdraw into our own enclave of like-minded people, making congregations full of variations without a shared religious theme. The narcissism of our times endorses this search for small identities that feel no need for a common vision or language beyond the political and social identity of “UUism.” I want us to be embarrassed by such limited aspirations.

Both the history and the spirit of liberal religion have bequeathed to us, and demanded from us, a more profound vision and more courage to take liberal religion to the next level for the new millennium. Each Sunday, we reach over to that chalice symbolizing an early martyr’s determination that the messages and gifts of religion be offered in a language and a currency open to all who come. Then we light that flame, reminding us of the terribly high price our religious predecessors paid to pass this sacred liberal baton on to us.

Now it’s our turn. As religious liberals enter the twenty-first century, we need to spend less time worshiping history and more time making it. (7)








(1) The quotation marks are necessary around both “God” and all attributes, once “God” has become a concept rather than an existing being. God — meaning the Fellow who lived above the dome of the sky — could see, hear, plan, intervene, and love. But as a concept, “God” can, at best, “see,” “hear,” “meddle,” and “love.” The quotation marks are needed to remind us that here the old symbols and metaphors are fundamentally misleading, and are steering us away from the real phenomena, which are of a different nature and lie in a different direction.

(2) I’m thinking especially of Jean Shinoda Bolen’s work in this area, through her influential books Goddesses in Everywoman and Gods in Everyman.

(3)For a fascinating book on how and why Descartes developed his restricted theory of knowledge, see Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.

(4) I got this from a paper Kendyl Gibbons presented at Prairie Group several years ago. She got the quote from Charles Gaines’s Clarence R. Skinner: Image of a Movement, (Boston: Tufts University, 1961), chapter 6.

(5) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. I, p. 110 (“the philosophy of psychology” is what Wittgenstein renamed what was once called epistemology.)

(6) For an informative comparison of over twenty industrialized nations and their policies, see Mary Ann Glendon’s 1986 Abortion and Divorce in Western Law: American Failures, European Challenges.

(7) I thank my colleague Peter Raible for this closing sentiment.




(c) 1999 Davidson Loehr

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UU 2.0:  Now Freethought-free

cuddle sessionBelieve?  Don’t?  We don’t care because it doesn’t matter!  Just come and join our weekly cuddle sessions.  No one will ask you what you believe or tell you what to believe.  Even our cherished 7 Principles are entirely optional.  Believe in equal rights for gay and transgender people?  Great.  Don’t?  Fine, either way, because we’ll never know.

We don’t ask, and we don’t tell.  You may have heard the slogan “If you see something, say something”, the idea that to be responsible, loving citizens, we have to speak up when we see things that don’t add up.  Well, not in UU.  If you want to speak up, you may, but only if no one objects to the way you speak up.  We’ll make sure that no one makes you uncomfortable, and that you will not make anyone feel that way.  But don’t worry, that almost never happens in UU, because people like that rarely show up, and when they do, they usually just don’t come back.  Whew!

In UU, we are nice at all costs.  UU was born in freethinkers like Michael Servetus.  He boldly told the Catholics and Calvinists that the Trinity made no sense.  We love to pick up reflected light from his great sacrifice at being burned at the stake for that.  But today, we are anything but freethinking because that might cause a conflict, and that would harsh everyone’s vibe.  UU is a safe space.  You won’t find any tough love here, so relax.

What if someone shows up who is familiar with UU’s history of freethought?  Don’t worry, we know how to deal with that.  We use shunning.  It’s very effective, and we always have plausible deniability.  We can just say a person made us feel uncomfortable.  It usually only takes one treatment for such a member to leave for good, taking his whole family with him. Vibe restored!

You may be worrying that some churches have a vibrant apologetics movement.  Members are educated about their tradition, and are urged to be ready to defend their positions.  Rather than getting offended or deflecting challenges to their faith, people react charitably, trying to take in the often well-founded critiques of religion, and even considering where their faith might be wrong or in need of improvement.  The idea is to have good reasons for what you believe and communicate them, even to detractors.

You won’t find any of that in UU!  If a member were to suggest that we can be more inclusive, or more in line with the 7 Principles, our proven techniques drive them away.  We won’t require you to defend any UU positions, or even to understand them.  We’re creedless, so the 7 Principles are mostly for show.  If we took them seriously, we’d have to hold our members to them, and in this postmodern era, that would be bad for business.  Oh, we love to take shots at Right Wingers, but that’s ok because there are never any present.  Conflict avoided!

We like to say we’re radically pluralistic, but that’s required!  Everyone is welcome, as long as you fit in.

So, UU is a no-conflict zone.  Still not reassured?  You’re probably wondering how UU makes sure they only drive out real abusers and troublemakers, and not someone who is honestly concerned about living up to UU’s principles.

Consider this recent case:

One cunning UU sought out the Humanists in UU and posted his invective on their Facebook page.  He thought that if anyone was a freethinker in UU, it would be the Humanists, but boy was he wrong.  He had the temerity, based on UU’s own statistics showing that UU is inbred, to post “UU is inbred”.  Well, the admin was on top of things and banned him.

We hope you can now see that there is no possibility this caring man had our best interests in mind.  He had his own narcissistic agenda to make sure we were living the 7 Principles (in this case, the responsible search for truth), and that is just not what we’re about.

So, as much as we hate to make anyone feel unwelcome, it is sometimes necessary to purify our church.  If freethinkers are not expunged, our Safe Space is infected and that infection could grow.  Believe me, we’ve seen it happen.  When outspoken, “caring” people show up, perfectly comfortable churches are often transformed within months into challenging, vibrant movements with almost constant discussion about how to best serve everyone, not just the members who happen to fit in because they never risk saying anything of import.

So, please check us out.  Not because we need you or the diversity you might bring.  But because you need us.  You need a Safe Space.

Well, that’s 800 words of 8th grade English, so it’s time to stop.  Remember:

This isn’t your parents’ UU.
This isn’t Enlightenment UU.

This is UU 2.0.  We’re with it and in the know.

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Courtesy: Con men love it



A brainstorming session by some British ministers included some far-out ideas for the Pope’s visit.  Now, they’re apologizing.  Yes, apologizing to the organization which systematically raped tens of thousands of our children in recent decades.  Bizarre.


90% of communication is non-verbal:  tone, body language, facial expression.  We’re a tribal species and social interactions are paramount.  We need each other to survive and we have fragile egos.  We’re all afraid that someone is going to dominate us, steal our mate, get more food or sully our reputation.


But this sensitivity has a dark side. It causes judges to threaten grieving parents with contempt if they show anger toward their child’s killer in the courtroom.  It causes parents of raped children to admonish them never to say anything disrespectful about a priest.  It causes us to praise soldiers coming home from killing children and civilians.   And it causes British politicians to censor themselves when joking about sexual predators in the Catholic Church.


On top of this, in the name of objectivity, journalists report the most heinous events in the same tone used for the weather.  If you betray any disgust or condemnation in your tone, you are unfit for the job.  To make up for this, we have cable news, editorial pages and documentary films.   But much of our communication is neutered, devoid of emotional force so that we can communicate without offending each other.


Is there an appropriate time to get angry?  Is there an appropriate time to express it publicly?  I think there is.  In fact, I think it’s sometimes wrong not to express anger


•             When kids are tortured (by priests, abusive parents or anyone they are entrusted to)

•             When Wall Street insiders bring the economy to its knees

•             When our military kills children and other innocents


Richard Dawkins is known for breaking decorum and speaking frankly.  Despite his urbane, calm manner, some people think his tone is aggressive and strident.  He points out that he is no more strident than movie reviewers or sports announcers, but when the topic is religion, people get their feelings hurt more easily.  Here, the physicist, Neil de Grasse Tyson, rebukes Dawkins.  Ignoring Dawkins’ message, he fixes on Dawkins’ style:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfik (2 minutes)


Tyson’s worry is that Dawkins’ approach will reduce his ability to engage and teach people.  It is a valid concern, because education isn’t one-way.  It requires enough trust and commitment of both teacher and learner to form a relationship through which ideas can be exchanged.  If we offend or alienate someone, the conversation is over before it gets started.


So far, so good; but humans are devious and clever.  Whenever a convention like courtesy or respect is in place, there will be con men and cheaters who will try to use it for their advantage.  Just think about the last time you answered a telemarketing call.  They know most people will answer a ringing phone.  They know that most people won’t interrupt or hang up.  They use these courtesies against us to make a connection to their market at almost no cost to them and with no regard for our privacy.


Politicians and the military establishment know all about human nature.  They create an almost mythological realm of glory, brotherhood, patriotism and honor in death that subverts our normal desires to live with our families and bounce our grandchildren on our knees.  It’s all voluntary these days, of course; but dissent is stifled, not just by the government, but by our fellows through yellow ribbon magnets, bumper stickers and plain old threats.  “Support our troops” isn’t a mere request.  If you don’t, you don’t deserve to live here and you’ll be asked to leave.  This is completely antithetical to our founding principles of freedom of speech and democratic principles.  Any one of us could be in the minority on any number of issues.  How we treat minority voices shows how serious we are about democracy.  When it comes to supporting our military aggression, most of us are scared into going along.  The cost in human misery and American reputation is incalculable.


Then, we have the Catholic child-raping priests.  Raping children is odious under any circumstances.  But this scandal is even more repugnant because it went on so long, with so many enablers.  And we must count ourselves among them.  I allowed my child to attend a Catholic school for 4 years.   I had a lot of contact with the staff but none with the priests.  The only reason he got through it is luck.  Four Catholic priests in Iowa, including the one who officiated at my own wedding, have been disgraced for molesting children.  The parents of those children who did get raped were just as attentive and caring as I am.  I was simply lucky and they were not.


The problem is that the predator priests used our trust to continue their crimes.  Like all con men, they can only do that with our cooperation.  Abusing our natural politeness is how they operate.  Everyone deserves respect, except when they abuse it.


Richard Dawkins:


“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense; it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labeled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”







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Home for the holidays

If I were black in 1850, I’d be uppity.  If I were gay in 1980, it would show.  But it wouldn’t have to be that way.  I could be a quiet, docile black man, like the Sambo and coon stereotypes we never hear about anymore.  I could be a closeted gay man, an ‘older gentleman’, hoping silence would help my career or avoid scandal.

It’s Christmas, 1890.  You bring your working-class girlfriend home.  Your upper-crust mother cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.

It’s Christmas, 1940.  You bring your black girlfriend home.  Stephen Foster is playing on the radio.   You note the obvious racial epithets, caricatures and stereotypes in the lyrics.  Dad is aghast that you can’t let everyone enjoy a simple song.  Your mother cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.

It’s Christmas, 1970.  You bring your gay boyfriend home.  Dad stiffens, appalled that you would be so disrespectful.  Mom cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.

It’s Christmas, 2010.  You mention that you’re an atheist.  When the Hallelujah Chorus plays, you note that Christianity, being monarchical and autocratic, makes a strange partner for American ideals.  Your sister is bewildered that you can’t just enjoy it for its musical stature.  Mom cries and everyone is mad at you for upsetting her.

What should we do in situations like these?  Everyone likes to get along, so saying nothing is a good option.  Why rock the boat?  What is to be gained by speaking when you know others will be offended or uncomfortable?

In normal situations, in normal times, I would go this route myself.  But there are times when the old culture collides with the new one; where the advancing wave of change buckles the pavement.  I largely missed the great civil rights shift, where blacks very slowly became integrated into our society at all levels.  Every time a black was hired for a good job or an interracial wedding was held there were those who were offended.  Should blacks have stayed in their place to avoid offense?

What do we owe people who get offended?  No one wants to be deliberately offensive.  But what, exactly, is offensive about a black girlfriend, a gay boyfriend or an atheist insight into religion?  Offense in these cases just is the collision of cultures.  It is the feeling people have when you aren’t playing by their rules.  And you do it when you’re with them.

What effect does ‘being offended’ have?  It’s a topic-changer and conversation-stopper.  And it’s a threat:  “Say certain things and my mood will quickly change for the worse.  I won’t be content until you stop and promise not to offend me again.”  Now, we all have the right to draw boundaries.  If I don’t want to be in the presence of certain people, for any reason, I don’t have to.  But the easily offended don’t do this.  They want to go anywhere and speak with anyone and have their sensibilities respected.  This is cultural control, plain and simple.  When we welcome people into our lives, they are not programmable like the devices we carry around.  We live in a pluralistic society.  We don’t have to celebrate diversity, but it is a fact.  If we don’t like it, we can withdraw, but we can’t redraw things to our liking.  That is segregation.

Because of the place religion has in our culture, it is hard to see it from other angles.  We have been trained to see religion as a force for good.  It’s parallel to our natural patriotism.  America might make mistakes, but we never doubt our good intentions.  When people on the Left dare to question our good will, we are called unpatriotic.  I suppose, in a way, we are, if patriotism means blind love.  But that’s not what it means to me.  Since I love my country, I owe it my honest appraisal.  If we are wrong, but think we are right, then we are in love with an illusion.  We see this when we have a friend in an abusive relationship.  She’s likely to resent our honest input about her husband’s philandering.

So it is with religion.  If we love our faith, then we owe it our honest appraisal.  If it is solid, there is nothing to fear in inspecting the foundations.  The problem arises when we inspect the foundations of other people’s houses.  Are we right to do this?

It depends.  If they live alone, perhaps not.  Almost every city in the world inspects houses.  It’s a safety issue.  If your religion shuns medical care in favor of prayer, the tribe needs to get involved to protect your children.

Most cases aren’t of this type.  Most believers are good parents and citizens and I don’t accost them.  I write essays and post articles, but I’m not going to directly subject their faith to my unwelcome analysis.  But when we are in relationship with them and they bring religious ideas into the conversation, I think it is wrong to be silent.  It is wrong because it is dishonest and it maintains the impression that religious beliefs have no social consequences.

Most people I know rarely mention religion.  But when they do, they expect no reply, or benign assent.  This expectation is justified by the countless incursions religion has made into our culture without comment.  “In God We Trust” in on the money.  It’s on the money, right there with “Liberty” and “E Pluribus Unum”.  What greater stamp of reasonableness and universality can something have?  But slavery and segregation were once legal, too.  We are simply living in a time where religion still has an unquestioned public image, that of a wholesome force for good.  People spoke out against slavery for centuries.  The objections grew louder in the decades before the Civil War.  Desegregation took another hundred years.  We can expect a similar, slow process of realignment for the public face of religion.  Religion’s image will become more realistic:  it will be seen as a private comfort for certain people, but a source of division and supremacy in the public square.  This only sounds offensive today because we are early in the process.

What should we do when we hear racist music?  Racist speech?  American, Iranian or Nazi nationalist speech?  Supremacist religious lyrics?  We can choose not to speak up to avoid offense, but there are cases where being silent is itself offensive.  Social pressure works to maintain the status quo.  The civil rights movement showed us that change won’t occur without confrontation.  The great achievement of Parks, King and others was that they confronted our culture nonviolently, even though they received violence in return.  They refused to be silent.  They made people uncomfortable, but these were people who shouldn’t have been comfortable in the first place.

Let’s clarify one thing:  I don’t want reverse discrimination.  I don’t want religious people to cower silently, either.  We simply want to make real the promise of ‘a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’  Silent is not equal. Taking offense is social pressure that has evolved to keep others silent.  We don’t want to offend, but we can’t keep silent.  No one should.

If you keep your religious beliefs private, I won’t comment on them.  If you bring them up, put them on the money or insert them in the lyrics of songs, I will.  When ideas have social consequences, silence is complicity.

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