There are those who reject all religion because of “the problems it has created in the world” – and clearly there are many such problems to point to. But it is simplistic to say that “religion causes all people to care less about this life” or that it “slows down society’s progression”. That’s just not true!
Religion has guided many people throughout history to seek the path of love and justice; to risk their lives in support of those timeless unifying values. Much of society’s progression can be directly linked to those who were/are guided to those values through their religion.
But what if, in the name of love and justice, a religion guides its followers to fear, hatred, divisiveness and violence? How can UU’s engage in meaningful, respectful conversation with folks whose idea of what religion is or should be is negating? What if they reject religion outright and/or don’t even consider Unitarian Universalism a religion in the first place? Does it even matter whether UU is a religion?
Let’s start with definitions. The most popular traditional definition of religion lifts up belief in/worship of a supernatural being (God/s) as a requirement.
According to that definition Unitarian Universalism is not a religion because Unitarian Universalism does not mandate belief in God. (At best, it is viewed as one philosophy among many. At worst, it is viewed as a tool of Satan.)
However, Unitarian Universalism lifts up the freedom to define and redefine itself! As a “living tradition” it seeks to honor accumulated experiences and acquired wisdoms in order to come ever closer to that which is found to be true. Over time, that has resulted in Unitarian Universalism being self-defined as a “religion” that does not require belief in God. With freedom as a cornerstone, alongside love and justice, it celebrates diversity of religious thought.
But when that thought is divisive, when it negates our claimed freedom to engage in spiritual exploration that is deeply personal, guided by integrity and authenticity, we bump up against quite a challenge. It’s hard to be tolerant of those who are intolerant. It’s hard to be loving toward those who hate in the name of love. There’s no easy answer on how to do that – especially within the context of a religion committed to not mandating the specifics of religious belief or behavior!
In terms of whether or not it is important for Unitarian Universalism to be recognized as a religion, I certainly think it is. And I stand by the freedom to define it, among other things, as a religion that does not require a belief in God.
With that said, I’ve often been frustrated by Unitarian Universalists and others who think we are best defined as a philosophy, a social club or political club, rather than as a religion.
Of course they are “free” to think as they wish! But when we define Unitarian Universalism as a religion, we recognize it as directly linked through time and space with all those who have felt awe and wonder at life’s mysteries; have felt called to service not because it’s a “cool thing to do” but because of a deep-seated awareness of their place in the larger circle of humanity. In so doing, we recognize ourselves as dependent upon and responsible to something much greater than our immediate identities. And there is much needed comfort, strength and inspiration in that.
As a religion, Unitarian Universalism places itself on the spectrum of everything that religion has been known to be and has the potential to be: divisive, violent, irresponsible, injust, etc. on one end of the spectrum, right up to loving, healing, creative, nurturing, equitable, inspiring, etc. on the other.
As a religion, Unitarian Universalism does not disassociate itself from the harm that religion has created over time, or has the potential yet to create. We are not hiding under the moniker of “philosophy” or “world view” as a way to avoid challenging conversations. Instead, we’re working with everything that we were, that we are, and that we seek to become – united not by the specifics of beliefs, but by the values we covenant to have guide our actions.