Have you ever heard anyone claim to be religious, but not spiritual? I think I have, once or twice, jokingly. I’m pretty sure that I met a Catholic one time, or maybe a Jewish person; someone who lived in a religious culture, but did not have the belief that went along with it.
It is a strange thing to hear, and it is almost never said in those words, but I hear it a lot in the arguments I hear when we talk about growth in the UUA. We have a lot of members who feel very strongly about culture and wording, and some who are dogmatic about the lack of dogma in our tradition. We have some very religious people who are very opposed to the interjection of spirituality into their religion. Still, I can only think of one time I’ve heard a UU say it in those words.
The word religion is rooted in Latin. From religō (“I bind back or behind”), to religiō (“sanctity” “reverence” “respect for what is sacred”), and today, religion (a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith). It is certainly possible, and not uncommon in UU congregations, for people to hold things in reverence while denying any supernatural belief at all.
There are many in the UUA who feel that they get along well without God, Prayer, or other spiritual practices and concepts. This is certainly true for many of them. They come for the community, and their dues, their sweat, and their friendship still support the congregation and its work. Most of these people are willing to allow that there may be a God, even if they don’t need to seek a relationship with it, and that prayer (meditation, spellcraft, intentional gratitude) are a valuable part of the lives of others in the congregation, and thus have a place in services and church life.
There are others though, who are vocal in their opposition to Unitarian Universalism being spiritual, at least around them. There are those who bristle at discussion of God in a sermon or actual moments spent in prayer. They may not be a majority, but they can be very vocal.
This was a point of growth for the UUA for quite a while. Even just 20 years ago, going to church was an expected part of family life in many parts of the US. I was raised in the south, and it was unusual for my suburban classmates not to have a church that they felt a part of. The UUA provided that for a lot of people who didn’t have need or even room for God in their lives. That era has faded. The stigma associated with being churchless has faded over most of the US. We can’t continue to count on people turning to us because of what we don’t offer.
There are social clubs, service organizations, political groups, online communities, and so many other options for people to interact with each other. People are constantly creating new intentional communities. If we want to attract them to our congregations, then we have to stand for something, and we have to offer them something that they aren’t going to find anywhere else. We cannot survive as a religion with no spirit. There are plenty of places to find that these days. What we need to work on is offering a new vision of what it means to be religious, and encouraging UUs to create a unique kind of spirituality for the modern world.
There is no single right way to be a UU. That is very different from saying that you can believe anything you want. However you view them, being a UU is about promoting and affirming the 7 Principles. That has to include encouraging a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. That requires that we allow, and even occasionally encourage, discussions about divinity and spiritual practice. It is fine for a UU to be religious, but not spiritual, but if that is what we offer the world, then we will be forgotten by a world that can get that anywhere.
Next week, I will talk about what I think makes UU theology different, and why I think the world needs it so badly right now.