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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Survey: 0.3 percent of adults are Unitarian Universalists.

There's some intriguing news for Unitarian Universalism-watchers in the Pew Forum's fascinating new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. (Yup, it's time for some religion statistics!) The survey of 35,000 American adults was broad enough to pick up statistically significant samples of even small religious groups, like UUs. And the good news is that Unitarian Universalism seems to be a religious brand that has traction well beyond the formal membership of UUA-affiliated churches.

The survey says 0.3 percent of adults identify as UUs, or three in a thousand. By my clumsy math, that seems to be somewhere around 677,000 adults. (The U.S. Census estimated that there were 225.6 million adults over 18 in 2006; see tables here.) The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, which had also asked individuals how they identified themselves religiously, also identified approximately 0.3 percent of the population as Unitarian Universalists, or 629,000 adults in 2001. So, as a religious brand, Unitarian Universalism is holding steady at 0.3 percent as the overall population grows.

However, according to the 2006-2007 congregational certification figures collected by the UUA, there are 157,515 adult members of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States. (Another 1,787 adults are members of UUA congregations outside the U.S. The certification table doesn't offer totals, so I copied the whole chart into Excel and let it count.) Jeff W. is also working his calculator over at Transient and Permanent; like me, he concludes that 24 percent of the adults who identify as UUs are also members of UUA congregations.

The big news out of the Pew Forum survey generally is the "churn" in U.S. religious affiliation: 28 percent of Americans have left the religion in which they were raised for another religion (like I have) or no religion. If you add in Protestants who have switched Protestant denominations (like my wife), that number grows to 44 percent. The Boston Globe puts this story on the front page this morning, perhaps because U.S.-born Roman Catholics are fleeing the church in droves; here's the New York Times coverage.

But it strikes me that if the 76 percent of Unitarian Universalists who aren't members of UUA congregations are still identifying as UUs — rather than as "atheists" (1.6 percent), "agnostic" (2.4 percent), "nothing in particular" (12.1 percent), or fractional options like "spiritual but not religious" and "eclectic" — then there's something about Unitarian Universalism that makes it a compelling and distinctive identity.

Something worth noting about the UUA's data this year: Congregations have started submitting average attendance figures, which gives us a snapshot of the size of the worshiping congregation (members, friends, and visitors) rather than making us rely on formal membership figures. Not being a statistician, I'm not sure that it's fair to simply add up the averages, but that figure is 96,807 for U.S. congregations for 2006-2007. Is attendance actually lower than reported membership? If so, Steve's suggestion that congregations deliberately underreport their membership to keep their Annual Program Fund payments down can't possibly account for very many of the 400,000+ UUs who aren't members. Most of these people are not affiliated in any meaningful (or at least measurable) way with our churches.

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 26 February 2008 at 8:09 AM

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Jeff W.:

February 26, 2008 08:23 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chris, I'm glad to see this story get the wider attention it will on your blog. But just wanted to point out that the penultimate paragraph ends abruptly--I suspect something got dropped when you pasted the entry into your blogging program.


February 26, 2008 08:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chris, I downloaded the report and there's a chart on page 5 that shows .7% of Americans are UU. I wonder where the discrepancy lies?


February 26, 2008 08:47 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, Jeff. I must have started to have a thought, but never actually finished having it. ;) I've deleted the partially completed sentence.


February 26, 2008 08:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

Debbie, the chart on page 5 shows "Unitarians and other liberal faiths," which includes five different self-identifications; the largest, at 0.3 percent, is Unitarian (Universalist). You can see these in the interactive Affiliations page on the survey website by clicking Other Faiths. They're also listed on page 15.

Heather Vail:

February 26, 2008 09:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

It seems to me that there are a lot of members of UU congregations who don't regularly attend church. At least that's true for my local congregation. At my church, the membership number includes a lot of college-aged young adults who became members as youth - and continue to be members - but only come to church services three or four times a year. This may be true for other churches also.

Plus, I know a lot of members who attend church about every other Sunday. On an given Sunday, then, only half of those people would be counted in attendance numbers.

Jeff W.:

February 26, 2008 10:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

I could fill a book with the number of thoughts I've started but never finished.

Joseph Santos-Lyons:

February 26, 2008 10:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

We talked a lot about the fact that many UU continue to identify - perhaps for compelling reasons, perhaps for other - particularly among the younger generations. It helped drive much of the leadership and spiritual development work we did among those churning among congregations, particularly with raised UU's.

Is there value in re-examining exlusively congregational purposes by the UUA?

As a lifelong UU and consistent member of congregations basically forever, I've always believed in the congregational prioritization, yet also saw (in that classic UU style) the "both/and"of our outreach ministries in other forms. Also the stretching of "congregation" to encompass justice and campus ministries beyond the campus of a church.


February 26, 2008 11:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

A couple of comments on membership/attendance numbers:

1. I think that at least 20% of the members do not attend services in a given week, so yes, average attendance numbers should be much lower than membership numbers.

2. In our Society, the attendance count does not count the RE teachers or other members who seem to be doing something else during service [usually setting something up for coffee-hour].

3. I'd love to see our congregations report their highest attendance numbers for services (usually Easter and/or Christmas). More of the some-time, kinda-sorta UUs show up at these services than normal - but they're all part of the congregation's community.

If one were to need to numerically classify a congregation, I think one could do pretty well with 6 numbers:

o Acknowledged Members
o Paid Members
o Average Service Attendance
o Maximum Service Attendance
o Registered for RE
o Average RE Attendance

I think the interaction of just these numbers can lead to all kinds of assumptions and questions about the health of a congregation.


February 26, 2008 11:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

It seems incredibly important to figure out how those 500k non-congregational UUs understand their UU identity. (I have no idea how to go about that.)

I find that number very encouraging. If we were to expand our understanding of UU identity to extend beyond congregational UUs---in concrete ways---the effect would be mind blowing.


February 26, 2008 12:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, I've been wondering how a sociologist would put together a research program to learn more about these non-congregational UUs. Any ideas?


February 26, 2008 12:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

One way to start gathering some of the data Pamela points to would be for congregations to start using the Congregations Count tools offered by the UUA. I understand that this model was developed at the UU Church of Berkeley.

Elizabeth J. Barrett:

February 26, 2008 02:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think the UUA wants every person of every age counted: infants, RE teachers, greeters, youth group, etc. Absolutely Everyone in the building at the time of weekend worship services. At my congregation, the ushers are asked to guesstimate attendance by beginning with the number of seats in our sanctuary, subtracting the number of empty spots, adding lobby and hallway dwellers, worship participants and staff. That total is added to the RE & childcare guesstimate.


February 26, 2008 03:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Another factor to keep in mind as far as evangelical traditions is that they don't place a priority on cleaning up their membership rolls. Unless they get a letter from another congregation---which is less and less common---they don't go out of their way to take people off the rolls. A Baptist preacher friend of mine tells me her congregation's total membership from the rolls is probably triple the real number of presently involved members.

Patrick Murfin:

February 26, 2008 03:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

As others have pointed out, Sunday morning attendance is a poor yardstick for either Congregational membership or for unaffiliated UU’s who materialize occasionally at services—unless extremely detailed records are kept. Last Saturday teams from five growing congregations in the Central MidWest District (Eliot Chapel in Kirkwood, Mo.; DeKalb, Elgin and Woodstock in Ill.; and Bradford Community Church in Kenosha, Wis.) met together for the second session of a Planning for Growth and Vitality Workshop sponsored by the UUA’s Congregational Services office and the District—a good example of how the UUA can and does service congregations. All of us were selected because we have been experiencing steady growth and have potential to grow even more. In mutual conversation we all agreed that average Sunday morning attendance was a remarkably consistent 50% of official membership. Typically each will peak two or three times a year with 70-80% attending for significant holidays, special events, and Church School programs and celebrations. Otherwise there are regular, irregular attendees (once or twice a month); older members who are in nursing homes or other wise limited; members who have moved but maintain their membership; some parents who only bring their children to RE without attending services themselves; folks who travel on business or for pleasure; people who the minister pissed off with a sermon recently; people who enjoy other programming and projects of the church but dislike formal worship; and the inevitable flotsam who drift in, sign the book and are never seen again. And this is among congregations considered both healthy and potential models for growth for other small mid-sized congregations.


February 26, 2008 03:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, Patrick! So, if we were to assume that other congregations are like yours and that half the congregation's membership attends on any given Sunday, and the reported membership of certified congregations is 157,515, we might expect the average weekly attendance to be 78,757 nationwide. But the average attendance figure is 96,807 -- 18,050 more. That's a bit higher than 11 percent of the total membership, yet it appears that these are attending non-members.


February 26, 2008 03:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

A small cautionary note about treating the number of people reported in the annual certification process as the total membership of UUA congregations: Typically a bunch of congregations (usually small ones) fail to recertify by the February deadline each year, and lose their credentials at the next General Assembly -- but this doesn't mean that they are no longer member congregations. Some of these congregations certify again the next year, just as others drop the ball and fail to certify. This year, 986 congregations certified. Based on recent figures, that would indicate that approximately 56 congregations didn't certify. That also means that the adult membership figure from the certification number could off by as much as 2,500.

Last year, there were 1,042 congregations in the UUA, 1,018 of them in the U.S., according to the UUA Directory. I expect this year's number to be more or less the same: In 2005, there were 1,039; in 2006, 1,041. Unfortunately, I can't find an easy way to get last year's adult-only U.S. membership number out of the 2008 Directory, but it's very close to 158,000.


February 26, 2008 04:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

At a service in October 2006, I offered the following meditation:

The National Survey of Religious Identification is sort of religious census taken every ten years. It reports of a range of membership data regarding religious affiliation, and it provides a startling number that I’d like to use as the foundation of our meditation this morning. The number is 629,000, and it is the survey’s estimate of the number of adult Unitarian Universalists in America in 2001. I say the number is startling because it’s not exactly the same number reported by our congregations to the UUA that year. That number was 157,000. So, if we are to take these numbers at face value, then we can say that there are 4 times as many people who, when asked in a national survey, claim to be Unitarian Universalists as there are members of our congregations. How can we make sense of that? How can there be nearly half a million Unitarian Universalists who don’t go to church?

My guess – and this really is just a guess – is that if we were able to talk with each of those folks, we’d find that they are a wildly diverse group. How many people consider themselves Unitarian Universalists but can’t find a local church where their theological understanding is truly welcomed and accepted? How many people consider themselves Unitarian Universalists but can’t handle being the only (insert adjective here) in their church, who don’t want to be “the one”? How many Republicans? How many death penalty supporters, or pro-lifers? How many non-college graduates, or blue-collar workers, or people living just above the poverty line?

And what about the people who fit into one of the categories I just described, but who are counted as members, who are here in this room right now? How many times has the “typical Unitarian Universalist” been described in print or from the pulpit and left those folks out of the definition? Can you imagine a faith so powerful that you would put up with all that? That you would keep that faith alive even though your congregation somehow keeps forgetting that you’re a part of it? Would you keep coming back?

Let us hold 629,000 Unitarian Universalists in our minds and hearts, and imagine how our community, how our movement might be transformed if this was truly a place where we could all be a people of faith together. Try to see their faces, to imagine their families and their work, to listen to their stories and their songs. Imagine how hard it might be, and how much richer all of our lives might be because we responded to the challenge...

David Pollard:

February 26, 2008 05:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

Another consideration is the spotty coverage of UU congregations. For instance Laredo, TX is a city of over 200,000 people, but it's over 130 miles to the closest UU congregations (San Antonio.) While the population doesn't bode well for UUism on a demographic basis (the majority is non-English speaking and poor) there's GOT to a few self-identified UUs there.


February 26, 2008 07:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

I suspect many of the 629,000 missing UUs are people like me who grew up in UU congregations and didn't find them interesting as young adults. I know a couple of people who grew up UU but even in middle age avoid church. They just don't like the judgemental culture of political correctness. I don't like it either, but am willing to put up with it.

It seems that UU RE doesn't prepare kids for the conformist culture of churches with congregational polity.

Desmond Ravenstone:

February 26, 2008 08:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

The one question which appears to be missing in this survey is this: Why are people turning their backs on religious and spiritual communities, even when they still consider themselves religious or spiritual? This is especially important for the UUA. If there are so many people leaving mainline denominations, even personally identifying themselves as UU, why are they not then coming to us?

It would be too easy to label this as radical individualism fueled by a consumer culture, where folks can "shop around" for sources of inspiration in bookstores and the Internet. For one thing, most are still turning to the same sources from the world's religious traditions. Even in individualistic America, there is still the need for social connection and community - for a place to belong. And ironically, the Internet has provided ways for new forms of community to form, from online discussion groups and Second Life to local "meetups" of like-minded people with email reminders.

So perhaps the question is not why people are not attracted to UU beliefs, but why they are not attracted to UU patterns of community. This goes back to the earlier discussion on this blog about the role of congregations and "strict congregationalism" - and whether we as a faith movement needs to radically reexamine the types of community we need to nurture our souls and affirm our values.

Some more specific questions we might consider asking ourselves...

* Could the formality and regularity of many of our worship services seem too rigid and limiting to many seekers? Should we consider more casual and openly celebratory means of expressing our spiritual selves?

* What about the role of affinity groups within our movement? While I've heard many deride such groups as supposedly fragmenting UUs along the lines of "identity politics", the fact is that they can and do attract interest, participation and action for many within our faith.

* How can we learn from other communities (religious and otherwise) how they form and sustain their groups, using the Internet and other resources? Meetups, for example, offer ways for like-minded people to connect in groups without needing any centralized institution. Could we draw on this paradigm to create new models of fellowship at the regional or district level - something in between the traditional congregation and the continent-wide "virtual congregation" of CLF?

* Can we find or develop new ways of decision making - less bureacratic and hierarchical, more dynamic and inclusive - either parallel to existing structures or eventually replacing them?

We UUs like to pride ourselves on "thinking outside the box" when it comes to theology. Perhaps it is time we started doing so with regard to polity and fellowship.

Rev Elz:

February 26, 2008 09:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Those statistics about the non-attending UUs holds up in my ministerial experience. We UU clergy get many calls from funeral directors trying to arrange something for a family or a deceased person whose last known affiliation was UUism.

Same with weddings and civil unions: "We haven't really been to church, but we think yours might be one that would let us really have the ceremony we want."

Those 75% non-attenders are yet another reason for challenging the one-minister-per-congregation formula, in favor of adding more of us associate, assistant and affiliate ministers to more rosters.

David Pollard:

February 27, 2008 12:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

After looking at the Pew report, it would appear that a large part of the UU's missing from congregations are men.
The segment that UUism was dumped into (along with Wicca, Paganism and Native American faiths) reported (page 93) that 54% of the respondents were male - only Hindus reported a higher male/female ratio.
Yet if you go to your typical UU church you will see that a majority (sometimes a large majority) of the congregants are women. It is unlikely that the "missing men" of the Other Faiths segment are hiding out in Paganism, as Goddess spirituality participation is even more predominantly female than UU church attendance.
So, the question is where are the UU guys?

Ron Robinson:

February 27, 2008 12:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

Desmond, just wanted to say, Amen. That is the question. The responses to it are legion. Ron


February 27, 2008 06:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Where are the 400,000 UU’s that are not affiliated with a UU church or fellowship? This question reminds me of the following astronomical problem.

There are an estimated 70,000 Pluto and Eris sized dwarf planets in the Solar System, based upon models of its origin. We only know of a handful. So where are the vast majority of them? They are likely 30 to 50 times farther away than the Earth is from the Sun (on a region called the Kuiper Belt). They are to dim to be seen usually. How did they get there? Two hypotheses: a) They formed that far from the Sun or b) they formed closer to the Sun but they got flung there by the gravitational push and pull of Jupiter and the other planets. Most astronomers think b).

Now let’s look at the 400,000 UU’s. Two hypotheses: a) They became UU’s on their own outside of a church community or b) They became UU’s by joining a church but then they got “flung” out by the push and pull of congregational dynamics.

Both hypothesis can be supported by anecdotal evidence. I want to parse a bit more what could be meant by the expression “to be ‘flung’ out by the push and pull of congregational dynamics.” I know that people are going to jump to the easy conclusion that this most mean that we are not welcoming enough to [insert a demographic here]. Let me take another approach.

When you are a good congregational UU, one that not only writes a check every moth but actively takes on leadership and shared ministry positions in your congregation, you will be in the thick of a rich network of interpersonal processes. How likely are you that you will be in the mist of a conflict with a DRE and another congregant, or the minister or another congregant? How likely is it that if the capital campaign fails and, although you are not responsible for that failure, you become guilty by association with people who made it a failure? What if you become president and become burned out by the responsibility? If you have two stressors like work and a volunteer church leadership, which one are you likely to jettison first? Once you are rested, did you get enough of your needs met as a congregant that you would want to come back to the thick of it? What if your church is not engaged with the life of the community or the problems of the world, and you want to dedicate what little volunteer time you have to a non profit that does?

I suspect that all of these process amount to a steady leak from our congregational numbers, which is small but steady and does add up.

I remember looking at our RE enrollment numbers one weekend and was shocked to discover that over a 5 year period we had 15 times as many kids go through our Sunday school classes compared to the number of kids that showed up at any one Sunday on average. Typical pattern: kid shows up for two consecutive Sundays, then stops for a month, comes back for two Sundays, and then never comes back. If you project those numbers to their parents, then that alone could account for a good fraction of the 400, 000 missing UUs: people who identify with the idea of liberal religion but don’t want the experience of being hurt or frustrated by being a part of a liberal religious community.

Here’s the question for you. Who or what is the Jupiter in your congregation that is flinging UU’s out to the outer reaches of the solar system?


February 27, 2008 09:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

See also Lizard Eater, who thinks many UUs grow up without a compelling answer to the question, "Why church?," and just don't see a reason to spend their Sunday mornings with a congregation.

Dan Harper, playing the spoilsport, thinks the sample size for Unitarian Universalists is too small in the Pew Forum study for anyone to derive actual numbers from it. "[T]he most I’m willing to conclude from all this," he writes, "is that more people (perhaps 2-3 times as many) report themselves to be Unitarians/Universalists/Unitarian Universalists than are reported as members of local congregations. But I already knew that, with about that degree of precision."

I continue to wonder how a sociologist would study UUs beyond the population you could find in a local congregation. We really do need to know much more than we know now.


February 27, 2008 10:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

Also, Ms Theologian explains why she doesn't go to church but is unmistakably a UU.

Stephen Merino:

February 29, 2008 01:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, it just so happens that I am a sociologist of religion (well, grad student). I have been very interested in this new Pew survey (I actually managed to get a copy of it days before it was released to the public).

You asked several times in your comments how a sociologist would study these self-identifying UUs that are not affiliated with a congregation. Normally, it would be nearly impossible to conduct any sort of large-scale study, but this Pew survey had a MASSIVE sample as social surveys go (one commenter said that 35,000 is too small as sample to make good estimates, but he's wrong - statistics show it can be done with much, much smaller samples!). They have another report to release in a couple months, and I think it is an opinion survey of the same people interviewed on affiliation. If it does include the whole 35,000 people, it would be an awesome chance to look at these UUs that don't go to church - see what they're like, what they believe, what they value, etc. Eventually, Pew will release all this data for other social scientists to use and look at. The website I work for at Penn State ( has actually made many Pew surveys available to the public online.

Peacebang had a great analysis of the issue on her blog today, and she touched on some great points. [Link added. —Philo] The real hard truth is that more strict churches experience greater growth and greater levels of commitment from their members. There is strong sociological evidence (and theory) to back this up. It is simply a fact. This really helps to explain why there is this gap in UU identity and UU belonging/involvement.

Now obviously, I'm one of those weekly-attending, fully-committed UUs, so I sort of go against the sociological evidence. But, the point is that mainline and liberal churches have been in decline for almost two centuries, and sociologists have been explaining why for a while now.

This whole discussion has inspired me! I'll be expounding on this more on my blog soon, and I'll try to bring some of my sociology to bear on the issue. Thanks, all!


February 29, 2008 05:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris: No, I do not think that "the sample size for Unitarian Universalists is too small in the Pew Forum study for anyone to derive actual numbers from it." My argument is actually based on trying to estimate margin of error (prob. greater than or equal to 10.5%), looking at the survey instrument to see if it actually tries to identify Unitarian Universalists (it doesn't), determining how many significant digits we can calculate to based on the figure used for U.S. population (down to hundred thousands, no more), and the fact that the Pew survey measures something quite different than UUA congregational membership figures. I generally agree with you that there are probably lots of people out there who call themselves UUs but who aren't affiliated with a local congregation -- but really, using questionable logic and inappropriate data to try to prove this point does not further the discussion or move us towards a solution.

Stephen Merino -- You write: "You asked several times in your comments how a sociologist would study these self-identifying UUs that are not affiliated with a congregation." After reading the survey instrument, and carefully reading the Pew report, I have to conclude that not all these people are self-identifying as members of a Unitarian Universalist Association congregation, or even as Unitarian Universalists. Check out what the survey instrument requires the interviewer to do when someone says "Congregationalist"; obviously the survey is designed to catch various types of congregationalists; but there's nothing like that for UUs. So I am not convinced that all these people are self-identified UUs. Also remember that for the sample size for the people grouped into the religious subgroup they name "Unitarian (Universalist)" n=105, and then compare their methodology for other small groups, like Hindus -- they increased the sample size for Hindus in order to get more meaningful data.


February 29, 2008 06:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

I don't know how typical I am of the elusive identify-as-UU-but-don't-join-a-congregation demographic, but for what it's worth, here's my experience:

I took to identifying as UU many years ago for philosophical reasons, long before I ever set foot in a UU church. My theological views had liberalized out of the orbit of Lutheranism, but I didn't want to reject religion. So UU was (due to its breadth) a useful label for what I *believed* even though it didn't describe what I (being still a member of a Protestant church) *did.* I gather from the blogs that institutionally-affiliated UUs are highly self-conscious about their inclusiveness/welcomingness/etc, which is great, but don't let it obscure the fact that there are some of us who formed out here in Enrique's metaphorical Kupier belt. I've encountered a number of people over the years who don't have much of a religious identity on a day-to-day basis, but have settled on "UU" as an answer when someone asks them about their religion because it's a pro-religion answer without committing them to the doctrine of any particular church or sounding too new-agey (as "spiritual but not religious" would).

That said, I would like to join a congregation, but I'm not about to drive an hour to the nearest one (in Chandler, AZ) every Sunday. I imagine a significant part of the issue is that UU churches are pretty spotty over much of the country, but potential converts like myself pop up everywhere.

Stephen Merino:

February 29, 2008 07:26 PM | Permalink for this comment


Yeah, the survey doesn't have different Unitarian Universalist categories, but what purpose would that serve anyway? It's not like there are different kinds. I'm assuming that the survey did include measures of religiosity like church attendance, importance of religion to respondent, religious beliefs, and so on. They didn't release these data, but I remember reading that they are forthcoming.

Obviously, it's still a very small sample of UUs, as you point out, but it's better than what you could get on something like the General Social Survey, which may have 10 or 20 UUs or something like that. Anyway, with these Pew data, you could separate UUs that attend church and those that don't, and see how they are different. As you point out, however, it would be a small sample. But, it would be better than nothing!


February 29, 2008 09:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

At my tiny UU church, average attendance is approximately 80% of membership. However, I'm more interested in the fact that consistently half of those in attendance are non-members. We have those who belong and don't attend, and those who attend but don't "belong" in a formal sense.

As a board member, I watch total attendance as a gauge of whether what we're doing is on-target and am less concerned with official joining. The reasons why people do and don't sign the book are many and varied. As Chutney pointed out earlier this week, we lack an inspiring ritual for joining and don't make a big enough deal of becoming a member, so I also don't make a big deal of NOT joining.

My anecdotal evidence supports Stentor's assessment that some self-identify as UU because that label has more credibility than some of their other options. I recently took some college courses and was surprised to hear one of my young classmates clearly identify herself in an informal religion discussion as a UU, when I had never seen her at any local UU church service or activity.

I had to ask. She had been identified as UU through the Belief-o-Matic, read generally on UU beliefs, and agreed that her existing personal beliefs were a good fit. She had grown up in an evangelical protestant tradition, which she rejected as a young adult, but she had plenty of things she wanted to do with her weekends and other free time other than church. In this Bible Belt community, though, "I'm a Unitarian Universalist" keeps conversation moving (only slightly) more than "I'm not religious." Would this sort of self-identification seep into an anonymous academic study? I don't know.

Maybe as she gets older, she'll find reasons to seek a church community and become an active member of a UU church as well as simply "being" a UU. Or maybe she won't. I know plenty of people my age (40s) who still feel as she does, and as an overextended lay leader, sometimes (refer to Enrique's insightful observations) I'm one of them!


March 1, 2008 09:28 AM | Permalink for this comment

Dan, alas, I simply don't know enough about statistics to readily grasp the point you're making. If I misrepresented the gist of your post, I'm sorry — but it really does seem to be saying that there's not reliable data in the survey for UUs to learn much from.

You see the margin of error as so large that we can't hope to arrive at anything more precise than how many hundred thousand UUs there might be. Nevertheless, that's still 600,000 adults — many more than UU congregations can claim a connection to.

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