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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hitchens: UUs 'don't give me enough to disagree with.'

At last we know what Christopher Hitchens, the latest dogmatic crusader against religion, thinks of Unitarian Universalism. Hitchens discusses Unitarians in an interview on the Atlantic Monthly's website:

[Jennie Rothenberg Gritz:] One complaint you've gotten a lot is that you lump all religious people together, throwing the moderates in with the extremists. What's your opinion on Unitarians, for instance?

[Christopher Hitchens:] They say Unitarians believe in one God maximum. And they do produce the Jefferson Bible. They keep it in print. Good.

I once read that only six percent of Unitarians consider God to be their primary religious motivation. Most of them are more focused on social justice and community service.

I've spoken at Unitarian churches very often. It seems to me, again, that they don't give me enough to disagree with. But as for lumping them in, I'll say this. Have you read Camus's La Peste? At the end, the plague is over, the nightmare has dissipated, the city has returned to health. Normality has resumed. But he ends by saying that underneath the city, in the pipes and in the sewers, the rats were still there. And they'd one day send their vermin up again to die on the streets of a free city.

That's how I feel about religion. Thanks to advances of science, education, political tolerance, pluralism and so on, religion can now be one option among many—who cares who's a Unitarian or who's a Congregationalist? But in the texts, the actual texts, there is always this toxin that's ready to be revived. What I say is, "Do you believe this stuff or don't you?" In other words, "In what respect are you different from a humanist?" The authority of the texts is always on the side of the extremists, because they do say what they say. So be aware of this danger. That's all I'm arguing.

Weirdly, Hitchens then goes on to berate Reform Jews and Unitarians — two openly liberal, modernist religious movements — for conscientiously revising their traditions while attempting to maintain some connection to their traditions. Why is this weird? Because he says that his family holds "a rather vestigial Passover seder so our daughter knows what the tradition is." And he wants kids to be familiar with the King James Version of the Bible. (But then how will he keep the rats in the sewer?) He favors religious literacy of a sort — and yet he's steadfastly oblivious to the academic disciplines of religious studies that could help him understand why and how people are religious beyond slavish devotion to dogma and he dismisses all forms of liberal theology before even acquainting himself with it.

Of course, it's always worth keeping in mind that Hitchens's definition of religion is grotesquely limited to one that a particularly obnoxious fundamentalist Protestant might hold: "Religion is saying that you know the mind of God and you want to obey His revealed commandments, on pain of losing your soul, at least," Hitchens says. "People who really live their lives in fear of that — God-fearing, as they used to say — I can respect. [Although they're bonkers!] People who are somewhere between Unitarianism and Reform Judaism — it just seems weak-minded to me."

("Transcending God," Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, Atlantic Unbound 7.12.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 17 July 2007 at 6:08 PM

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July 17, 2007 06:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

Reading the interview with Hitchens also reminded me of a strange conversation I had more than a dozen years ago with a rather hard-edged atheist Unitarian, who objected that our Unitarian church's theater group was going to see a Shakespeare tragedy. Shakespeare's views of psychology had been proved false, she pointed out to me, which meant that we didn't need him anymore.

As an English literature major, this made absolutely no sense to me -- but if your fear is that a book, or its enactment on stage (or in church), will let the rats of some antiquated worldview emerge from the sewer, well then I guess we must stamp them out forever. Yet Hitchens can read the King James Version without catching a fever; I wonder why Unitarians or Episcopalians can't safely read the New Revised Standard Version.


July 17, 2007 06:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

On a somewhat related topic, see my review of Mary Midgley's book The Myths We Live By and Ursula Goodenough's book The Sacred Depths of Nature, in which I also discuss Hitchens's fellow atheism advocates Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett: "Science and its metaphors" (UU World 11/12.03).


July 17, 2007 09:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

It helps when reading Hitchens to notice which side of his mouth he is speaking out of.


July 17, 2007 09:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

Let me get this straight, if I can...

So if you have a belief system that, in the past, has given birth to monsters and attrocities..
You can tame it, but it's still dangerous...
Because 'the rats are in the sewer' and it is still capable of issuing its ancient horrors.

Right. And this from a guy who still believes in socialism?

hafidha sofia:

July 18, 2007 12:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

I don't think it's contradictory that Hitchens would perform a cultural ritual even while he finds belief in a God and the authority of religion to be fertile ground for human misery. Maybe it's a matter of what one expects religion to be?


July 18, 2007 07:26 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hafidha, exactly! What's odd to me is that Hitchens simply can't grasp that religion functions for many, perhaps even most people, more as culture than as dogma. There's significant scholarship that interprets religion along these lines, too, which he ignores or dismisses.

Of course, I'm not content to treat religion only as culture, but I also insist on the critical evaluation of religious claims and practices, which makes me a religious liberal — something Hitchens finds no value in at all.

Doug Muder:

July 18, 2007 07:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

In my UU World review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Harris' The End of Faith I noted this: "In short, both authors uncritically allow fundamentalists to define Western religion. Unsurprisingly, liberalism’s inauthenticity follows quickly from these fundamentalist premises."

Looks like we can add Hitchins to that list. All of them take for granted that what defines a religion is its sacred text. The idea that a religion could be an evolving tradition never enters their minds. Imagine if science had that attitude: "Newton is wrong. Therefore we must never mention his name again except when we point out that he is wrong."

If there were one thing I wish I could teach these folks, it's that fundamentalism is not (as it claims) a return to old-time religion, it's a reaction to the modern critique of old-time religion.

hafidha sofia:

July 18, 2007 03:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Doug writes, The idea that a religion could be an evolving tradition never enters their minds.

I don't know that this is the case. What might be happening is that they think the whole thing is futile. For example, when I left Islam, I tried doing so gradually. First, I questioned hadith (secondary sources of Islamic practice; some might argue they are in reality the primary sources). Then, I dismissed hadith, and focused my attention on the Qur'an. I realized it was difficult to use Qur'an only because there were few interpretations of it that didn't follow the de facto Muslim Orthodoxy (Muslims have done an impressive job of limiting interpretations of their text up until very recently). So I met people who were working on new translations and interpretations that were not based on hadith. This was very exciting - and extremely time consuming and tiring.

After a point I realized that if I didn't know what the Qur'an really said because I believed people had been misinterpreting it for so long, what was the basis of me being so attached to it? And how was I ever going to be able to know what God really meant? And what did this have to do with me living life as a good person? If it took 100 years to get a decent interpretation of the Qur'an that suited me, was it going to take me 100 years to know how to be a good person?

And then I thought, "What am I doing with my time?" Why am I so convinced that I have to live my life grounded in Islamic principles - which are (in my mind) under dispute?

So I left Islam entirely. I gave up trying to "reform" it. Was it easy? Hardly! And I've met other people who essentially feel the same way, but still feel obligated to claim (and defend) Islam because of their spouse or children, or parents, or culture - all the while struggling to understand a religion they've already pledged unfailing allegiance to. I'm glad not to be in that predicament.

Liberal Christians seem often to be doing the same thing. Trying to reinterpret - but why? Why don't they start fresh? Why don't they just say, "This appeals to me; I don't know why, but it does," instead of spending (in some cases) their whole lives trying to prove that their preferred interpretation should be applied to others?

I can understand why people feel compelled to do this, but I don't think all of these religious exercises are necessarily holy or sacred.

The other day when I told the DH about the Episcopalian priest who is also a Muslim, and the confusion she was causing, my response was "Wow; she's kind of a strange bird, but seems happy." The DH's response was, "Why is she wasting all of her talent on any of this?" My short answer was, "It's important to her," and I'd never dream of holding her back.

But I also feel badly for her because here is a person potentially symbolizing peaceful co-existence - is this not what all religious liberals claim to want? But instead what you see is practitioners hastening to draw lines in the sand.


July 18, 2007 03:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hitchens has been very clear that he thinks "faith" itself is a bad thing. He also is very opposed to religious organizations becoming involved in secular politics.

So when UUs describe themselves as "people of faith" and use that status to advance a political agenda as in "As people of faith we oppose...", we are obviously doing things Hitchens doesn't like. Hitchens would wonder why we need to invoke faith to support things that any reasonable person would support anyway. He isn't very clear about this because he doesn't take us seriously.

I suspect he also wouldn't approve of the uncritical way UUs endorse non-Christian religions such as Buddhism and Paganism. I am sure he would disapprove of the way UUs are reluctant to condemn violent Islam. That was certainly a big issue in his recent debate with Chris Hedges. I doubt he would approve the GA resolution of a couple of years ago supporting the US leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad who had been charged with mass murder.

I am sure he would have been appalled by Forrest Church's UUworld article of last year calling for censorship of writers who offend Islam. Church even cited approvingly the sura justifying the fatwa against Rushdie. [5:33] "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His apostle and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement"

So I don't think Hitchens has a problem with our ritual or our theology. I think by "weak-minded" he means that we just don't have any judgement.

Zach Alexander:

July 18, 2007 10:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hafidha sofia, I think you're quite right about this (below), but I'm wondering whether you would include UUs or not.

Liberal Christians seem often to be doing the same thing. Trying to reinterpret - but why? Why don't they start fresh? Why don't they just say, "This appeals to me; I don't know why, but it does"[...]


July 19, 2007 08:02 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hafidha, as a post-Mormon, I share your experience of realizing that trying to find my own path to reform just wasn't going to work. There is such a thing as liberal Mormonism, but the religious culture as a whole is so conservative that I couldn't see the point. I left.

But there is a difference: Theological liberalism isn't just a marginal minority position in Protestant Christianity. It has been a prominent and even dominant view in many congregations and even in many denominations for more than a century. What this means is that a non-literal, modernist, socially conscious form of Christianity has become a viable religious option, not just something that scattered strong-willed individuals hope to find.

The Unitarians emerged as just such a group in the early 1800s. (The Universalists weren't liberals or modernists at first.) Other forms of theological liberalism emerged in the Congregational, Disciples, Baptist, Methodist, Brethren, Quaker, Lutheran, and even eventually Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. These days, although theological liberalism isn't the only prominent option in mainline Protestant churches, it remains quite alive.

Liberalism has a much harder time in Roman Catholicism, naturally, but I do know that social rather than merely individual forms of liberal Catholicism have emerged within the Church. Several religious orders — like the Paulists here in Boston — and independent magazines and writers — like Commonweal and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll — cultivate forms of liberal Catholicism.

Meanwhile, Reform Judaism took a modernist turn in the 19th century; Reconstructionist Judaism puts a different spin on it, but is also a liberal movement. (Humanistic Judaism is a bit like Unitarian Universalism in having gone a bit "post.")

Of course, antiliberal movements in each religion say that these developments betray the tradition or weaken it. But it is nevertheless true that in Christianity and Judaism, especially in the United States, full-fledged liberal religious movements have emerged and proven to be enduring.


July 19, 2007 08:15 AM | Permalink for this comment

UUwonk, that's a very interesting assessment. I think you're overly generous to Hitchens, but it's also true that UU culture has taken a notably indiscriminate turn.

I also think you're overstating Forrest Church's point a bit. Hitchens would probably have agreed with Church here: "When religion is involved, hate speech kills. It always has. And it likely always will." But I took Forrest to be counseling prudence more than censorship, and to be saying that just as religious traditions plant violent seeds, they also plant peacemaking seeds; the question is which we choose to cultivate.

You misrepresent what Church said when it comes to Rushdie, though. Forrest did not "[cite] approvingly the sura justifying the fatwa against Rushdie"; he quotes a Muslim writer who seems to be trying to interpret that sura in another way. It's inaccurate to suggest that Church in any way justified the fatwa against Rushdie. It may be, however, that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's interpretation, on which Church relies, isn't a very good one.

Doug Muder:

July 19, 2007 09:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

hafidha sophia,

You're making the same assumption I objected to: that some kind of fundamentalist literalism is where every religious person starts, and the question is where they might go from there. That may be true for many people, but it is not true for many others. It's not a defining characteristic of religion.

What I objected to in Harris and Dennett is that they defined liberal religion out of existence, except as a way station as one moves towards atheism. There is no place in their model for the kind of centuries-long liberal tradition that Philocrites talked about in his comment above.


July 19, 2007 04:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Church did not endorse the fatwa against Rushdie. He did refer approvingly to suras 5:32-34 which prescribe the death penalty for dissidents, including liberal Muslims. The death penalty for liberal Muslims is no joke. I mentioned Rushdie because he is so famous, but he is hardly the only victim. Hundreds of liberal Muslim intellectuals have been killed in recent years by fundamentalists applying 5:32-34.

So I found it strange to be reading a typically murky liberal discourse on hate speech and suddenly run into this endorsement of killing dissidents. I couldn't believe that a UU minister would be sympathetic to killing people because their words created "social turmoil". After all, we _like_ dissidents when they dissent against Christianity.

My general take was that Church hadn't really thought through the impact of his thinking on liberal Muslims. If conservative Muslims consider Rushdie's writings to be "hate speech" should, say, the Beacon Press refuse to publish them? I interpreted the essay as another example of UUs not really taking non-Christian religion seriously.

Doug Muder:

July 20, 2007 10:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

I just went back and read the Church article. While I don't agree with uuwonk's characterization of it, I think I'm being generous when I say that it's muddled. The need to speak compassionately and respect the sensibilities of others gets mushed together with censorship laws and riots.

I've never been comfortable with laws that ban Holocaust-denial, for precisely the reason that someone might do what Church has done: cite them as a precedent. I'm OK with campus regulations against hate speech, because going to a particular college is voluntary. The idea that you need to follow some special regulations in order to create a good learning environment for all the students -- it works for me. The most you're threatened with is expulsion. But laws are different. A law is an implicit threat of state-sponsored violence. If you break a law, people with guns will come and take you to jail.

The principle of free speech is an attempt to erect a wall between ideas and violence. That wall often gets breeched, but I don't want the state breeching it pre-emptively because it anticipates that somebody else might breech it in the future. Because it's a short step from banning hate speech to banning revolutionary speech or union-organizing speech or anything that someone might react violently to. If Church recognizes that slippery slope, he makes no suggestions for how we might avoid sliding down it.

Look back to the Civil Rights movement. How often did "reasonable" racists propose to ban peaceful marches and protests because they might incite violence by unreasonable racists? If somebody wanted to make that argument today, they could quote Forrest Church to support their position. I'm sure that's not what he intended, but nothing in the article makes it clear that such a quote would be out of context. Where is the context for it to be out of?

The subject Church raises -- speech that very likely will incite violence, and may even be intended to incite violence -- is a difficult one that calls for careful analysis and well-chosen words. I wish I saw more of that analysis and care in Church's article.


July 20, 2007 10:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

I just feel the need to confess that I fairly recently credited "Christopher Hitchens" with the authorship of a book on the Ten Commandments when I meant to say "Christopher HEDGES." It was written correctly on my manuscript but I said it wrong in the pulpit. OOPS

Ron Robinson:

July 21, 2007 08:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

what is weird too is that when I read your quote of what Hitchens thinks of religion, "knowing the mind of God, want to obey his revealed commandments, fear of losing my soul if I don't" it kind of resonated with me, 33 years UU all my adult life. Don't know what he would make of that because it is deep metaphor and reintrepreting but also so very basic to me. Do I think I can know the mind of God fully? Of course not, not to mention all the aspects of that term knowing and mind of God, but it is something I seek to do; it is important to me, and I can rest that what I come up with doesn't have to be absolute in God's sense for it to be absolute for me; obeying, trusting, following, the commandments as I have received them in scripture and tradition? Yes, again my imperfect but heart-felt attempt to do so; it is just my understanding of revelation and where the commandments are and what they lead me to is different from fundamentalists, but that they are my touchstones too is basic; fear of losing my soul? you bet, it is a constant concern, not ultimately perhaps as I am a universalist, but lord knows how often I have lost my soul in my life and the consequences have been and remain fearful.

Is such re-definition a waste of time? I can't say for others, but for me it is the passion of my life and has been the cornerstone of my faith as a liberal type Christian and has also been the sustenance of my soul. okay, you can tell i am ready for church camp: swuusi here I come.


July 27, 2007 10:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

Here's Humanist leader Ed Doerr — a UU and an amazingly successful letter-to-the-editor writer, too — debating Christopher Hitchens on Interfaith Voices, a public radio program. (Thanks, UU LiveJournaler Aunt Moon!)

("Atheism and humanism in a pluralist democracy," Ed Doerr and Christopher Hitchens, Interfaith Radio 7.12.07; mp3)


July 29, 2007 06:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

I suppose I have twin excuses for popping up on this thread: first, the topic is rather relevant to my entire raison d'etre on the UU Web; but second, Hitchens is here citing the novel from which I stole my username.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think UU critics give Hitchens' points short shrift--but the problem with this rebuttal seems to me the simplest:

(But then how will he keep the rats in the sewer?)
I feel safe in presuming that Hitchens tells his kids that the texts in question (1) are predominantly fictional and (2) have no privileged position regarding any matter of moral or aesthetic inquiry. The "rat," as Hitchens sees it (and I largely concur), comes in handing said texts to children with the demand that the texts be treated with obligatory reverence.

As it happens, some UUs I could name sell that very rat--indeed, in the pages of your own magazine. As Hitchens might notice, "I say the Bible must be read to liberate—to liberate people, and to liberate the wisdom within the scriptures themselves" is not a sentiment that brooks any dissent over whether there is a meaningful amount of "wisdom within the scriptures." Or, perhaps more to the point, it entirely neglects the question of whether the amount of wisdom in the Bible is sufficient to justify the level of (ahem) plague bacillus that its pages are crawling with.

I doubt Hitchens has looked into UU practices regarding holy books meticulously enough to have read it, but I rather think he'd see the last two paragraphs of the above-quoted essay as evidence that The Plague is alive and well within today's UUA:

I have sometimes used a simple phrase to describe my overarching perspective on life. It’s shaped, I say, by a “biblical humanism.” In using the term “humanist” I am not refusing to think about God or to search for transcendence. [....]

I am not interested in using my critical skills to tear apart or dismiss the religious experience of others in the name of my supposed “scientific” superiority or cultural modernity. No, I take the term “biblical humanist” from the German Jewish sage Martin Buber.
I'm not sure that paeans to the Bible always swerve into bigoted attacks on "humanism," per se; I suppose that's just the wonders of Rev. John A. Buehrens.

Given, however, that a recent past president of the UUA wrote that, and that our house organ printed it, I don't think Hitchens would be far off base concluding that the day has now come when, to the bane and enlightenment of UUs, the plague has awakened its rats and sent them forth to die in our happy city.


July 29, 2007 07:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

Rieux, from a historical standpoint the basic approach of liberal theology has been to insist on the authority of reason and experience as a counterpoint to the authority of tradition — with the effect of rather sharply limiting uncritical appeals to the Bible, church offices, or tradition. Unitarianism, from its most evangelically Christian varieties to its most keenly humanistic varieties, maintains this approach.

But what you seem to see in Buehrens (and in Church, your other bete noir) is not the appreciative, critical engagement with the Bible, but rather the potential for abandoning appeals to reason and experience altogether. You have too little faith in the liberal tradition.

What Buehrens is saying is that liberals can and should bring an interpretive agenda to the book — our interest in human liberation. Sure, he's also saying that we should bring a willingness to be engaged by the book as well, but he's not asking people to abandon their senses.

My annoyance at Hitchens, meanwhile, has a great deal to do with his insistence that "religion" is fundamentalists authoritarianism. This extremely narrow definition simply does not apply to millions of sincerely religious people in the United States and many elsewhere. But because he pays no attention whatsoever to contemporary religious scholarship and dismisses liberal theology out of hand, he's really just at war with a specific kind of religion. That's intellectually shoddy and it always rubs me wrong.

The Plague is one of my favorite novels, too. Camus is one of my heroes for his humaneness. His humanism, it has seemed to me, was borne out of his sympathy for human beings — not out of his dogmatic views about their beliefs.


July 29, 2007 10:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

The fallacy of Hitchens' general arguments against all religion from the faults of only the most intolerant and obnoxious adherents jumps into focus when we invert his argument and apply it to atheism. Yes, just as with believers, there are atheists who are rigid, exclusive, arrogantly confident in their own certainties, self-contgratulatory, intolerant and condescending. However, it would be just as wrong to deem those the defining characteristics of atheism, and to dismiss as insignificant all the atheists who don't fit the description, as it is when Hitchens declares such traits the defining characteristics of religion and dismisses as insignificant all the believers and beliefs that do not fit his description.


July 29, 2007 05:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

I composed a rejoinder to Philocrites' most recent comment, but it got far too long for a comment thread. So I'm arbitrarily posting it on my LiveJournal instead, here.

I'll just paste in the final section--the Camus stuff--because (1) it's my "home turf" (you want to defend religion as it's portrayed in The Plague? Hot dog--bring it on!) and (2) perhaps it'll make good bait for anyone considering reading the whole comment.


As for The Plague, in my reading, Camus has no love for liberal religion. Read Father Paneloux’s final sermon (an obvious extended Kierkegaard reference), composed in the aftermath of Paneloux’s harrowing brush with the Problem of Evil. Camus did indeed appreciate the human work done by religious folks of good will (perhaps you can compare Hitchens’ laudatory remarks about Dr. King), but he kills Paneloux off immediately after that sermon. As he writes, “for those others who aspired beyond and above the human individual toward something they could not even imagine, there had been no answer” during the plague year. As several commenters have noted, Paneloux's is the only death during the epidemic that comes with no plague symptoms; it's something else that kills him.

Meanwhile, the exchange that occurs shortly before Paneloux’s second sermon--immediately after he and the doctor with the funny name have watched a young boy die after an agonizing night spent battling the disease--might as well be between me and Forrest Church, or Christopher Hitchens and Philocrites:

Rieux turned toward Paneloux.

“I know. I’m sorry [for shouting at you]. But weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.”

“I understand,” Paneloux said in a low voice. “That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.”

Rieux straightened up slowly. He gazed at Paneloux, summoning to his gaze all the strength and fervor he could muster against his weariness. Then he shook his head.

“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”
I accuse Church and Buehrens--and I think Hitchens accuses liberal religionists--of advocating love for, and indeed collaborating in, just such a scheme. And I think I picked the right username.


July 29, 2007 06:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

Rieux, I never said that I would defend Camus's portrayal of religion, and I don't think he ever intended a depiction of liberal religion. I simply said I admire Camus, which is true.

I just don't find much value in defining "religion" with "supernaturalism." It's too arbitrary and too dependent on the biases of American religious conservatives. Religion isn't an easy term to define, and I'd be hard-pressed to offer a philosophical or theological definition. But to me, religion is a social category that happens to include beliefs and practices that aren't tied up in supernaturalist metaphysics. Because too much of what gets studied as "religious" in contemporary scholarship doesn't fit into Hitchens's definition, I just can't accept his view.

I regret that UU atheists and more "religious" UUs keep talking past each other. They bring such different assumptions and definitions with them, I don't know how they'd even get a useful conversation going. My primary assumption is that a UU church is more likely to attract people who are looking for an open-minded place to learn about and even practice religion than people who are looking for a place free of religion. (I didn't say and don't mean "supernaturalism.") Atheism is possible in the first case and very likely in the second, but I couldn't be a UU in the second.


July 29, 2007 07:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hey, that's the best response to a me-defending-Hitchens comment that I've seen. I appreciate the care you have taken to understand where your interlocutor(s) are coming from.

I just don't find much value in defining "religion" with "supernaturalism." ... Because too much of what gets studied as "religious" in contemporary scholarship doesn't fit into Hitchens's definition, I just can't accept his view.
I think that's entirely fair. I suppose Hitchens might respond that he is interested much less in "contemporary scholarship" than in how religion manifests itself on the ground level of ordinary laypeople's beliefs, but that (including your inevitable rejoinder) is a worthwhile discussion that will draw no complaint from me.

I am very happy to see you recognize that, within UUism, these matters are largely about UUs (and, here, a non-UU) "talking past one another." I strongly agree--and I wish that more UU critics of outspoken atheism would recognize that. There is a fundamental difference between "We are talking past one another" and "You are an ignorant [or 'fundamentalist'] anti-religious idiot," and I fervently wish UUs would resort to the former response rather than, as too often happens, the latter.

Atheism is possible in the first case and very likely in the second, but I couldn't be a UU in the second.
Given your semantic clarification, I'm fine with your point there, too. I guess my only response is that there are many thousands (or more?) of Americans who see "religion" in much the same light as Hitchens and who naturally wish to avoid it--but who might enjoy, indeed flourish within, a UU congregation. (Such irreligious folk might be pleasantly surprised that there is so little religion, as they see it, in UUism.)

But if, as I am unhappy to testify, a large proportion of the UU world is so reflexively hostile to the notion that "religion" as such could possibly require supernaturalism, and therefore to the idea that we can present ourselves to the world as anything other than a "religion," aren't we ensuring that such self-declared non-religious folks will never darken a UU congregation's doorstep?

Those people--the ones who identify religion with supernaturalism and who want no part of it, but who may well thrive in our communities nonetheless--are my brethren. Are they less valuable as a UU mission field than everyone else is?


July 29, 2007 08:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

Are the non-religious "less valuable in the UU mission field"? No. I'd say two things about this: The first is that it can be trickier to help such people join and feel at home in a congregation, because they may spend a lot of energy trying to make sure that there's no "religion" waiting to burst out of the cellar. But the second thing is that most people base their decisions on what they find at the local level: A UU congregation that is warm and welcoming may do a great job of helping people who don't think religion has anything to offer them find a congregational home nonetheless.

My interpretation of the recent statistics showing a rapid increase in the number of Americans who identify as non-religious is that many probably are good candidates for UU outreach — not because these folks are atheists, but because they've abandoned religion under a pretty narrow definition and might be very interested to find what we have to offer.

I'm unsure, though, that atheists as such would want to join a congregation, even if we were wonderfully accommodating to them. I don't know that for sure. But I've heard that many historically Humanist congregations have been surprised by how many of their new members aren't Humanists anymore, which suggests to me that it isn't simply a matter of how a congregation defines itself or presents itself.

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