Unitarian Universalism: Cult of Rationality

A lot of people on the internet, and presumably in the real world, spend a lot of time denouncing religions. Some seem to make a career denouncing all of them, some a crusade of denouncing a particular one, and many make a personal brand by denouncing all but one. Religion is a very personal thing, and a very contentious issue.

Religion is nearly impossible to define. Almost all definitions will be seen by some as being either too narrow or too broad. Buddhism, for instance, encompasses many schools of thought, several of which teach little or nothing about “God” or the supernatural. There are many who argue that this excludes Buddhism from the list of religions, and many who argue just as passionately that it does not; and there are both adherents and critics of both sides on of that debate. There are a great many hours of reading to be done arguing about whether Atheism is a religious belief, going so far as to ask the judicial system of the USA for a ruling and the creation of denominations of disbelief.

I would like to avoid debating the word religion, so let me refer to Merriam-Webster:

1a : the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion>

 b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3archaic: scrupulous conformity :conscientiousness
4: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Now, Unitarian Universalism clearly has a set of Principles, though their status in the movement is poorly understood. It has many causes, which no one is required to take up to be considered part of the movement, so we likely fail that criterion. We have no universal practices (no pun intended). I would like to think that the one place where we currently meet the definition is that we do attempt to promote an attitude of love and gratitude. Still, I have my own doubts as to whether the UUA actually speaks for a religion, or is just an association of groups that want to feel like part of something bigger. The truth is somewhere in the middle, I am sure.

That being said, there is a movement that has formed around the UUA. There are people who believe in the 7 Principles as a guideline for sharing the world more peacefully. Groups are forming to spread the message that it is ok to be yourself, even if you aren’t everything you could be just yet. There is a movement, happening almost in spite of the traditions and leadership of the UUA, that wants to make the world a better place, and believes that Unitarian Universalism can help make it happen.

Like religion, “cult” is a hard word to define. Most of the places it appears on the internet seem to be using the definition “belief I find weird”, while others simplify it to “belief I don’t hold”. The original concept in anthropology was that of a splinter group within a broader religion that placed emphasis on a single figure or idea, giving it higher status than was orthodox, such as the Hindus who revere Krishna, or the Catholics who elevate Marry to near divinity. Unitarian Universalism has no position within a larger religion, ruling out this definition. The original sociological use of the word “cult” was to denote groups with limited structure and dogma, as opposed to those that were highly organized. These were often break-away groups that had fallen away from some more established group and had yet to find their own structure. This description fits Unitarian Universalism quite well. We broke away from our Christian roots, having given up the ideas of human-form deities and eternal rejection by a perfect, loving creator. We embraced those parts of other religious traditions which complimented the things we held on to, and we sought to understand what else they could teach us about the human condition. Being a collection of seekers, we have not spent enough time trying to hammer out a decent governing structure; if anything, we’ve invested a lot of work into making sure that the structure we have is inefficient and incapable of enforcing much at all in the way of standards. This, then, could make us a cult, though only in an archaic sense that few people intend when ascribing the word to Unitarian Universalists.

So, are we a religion? There is no way to build a consensus. Are we a cult? If so, it is only because we reject the idea that older ideas are always better as loudly as we reject the idea that there should be a mandatory retirement age on revelation; a maximum length of service, after which pearls of wisdom expire. We embrace science, while remembering that science is a series of guesses, constantly being proven incomplete and inadequate, constantly growing in scope and shifting in focus. We embrace the wisdom of ages and the teachings that have helped carry various cultures through history. We understand that there are needs in the human soul and that neither science or philosophy alone can fill those needs in all people.

We are a cult, built around the idea of love and respect for all of creation, of which we are a part. We believe that there is one human race, adn it is housed entirely on the planet Earth, and that the fate of each one of us, and our whole species, is ultimately bound to the fate of the whole planet. We believe that no amount of quiet prayer has ever achieved more than reverent action.

If we are a cult, then it is one dedicated to relationships and community. If we are a religion, then it is one that is still wrestling with its Principles and beliefs. If we have a future, it is because we understand that the universe is constantly being revealed to us, and that there is always more to learn. We are a young movement, but we have a lot to offer. Call Unitarian Universalism anything you like, but once we figure out what we really want to be, we just might be the religion for the new millennium.


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