We need your voice! Is Evidence Common Ground for Unitarian Universalists?

Are you in a Unitarian Universalist church?  There have been some ongoing changes in Unitarian Universalism (UU) over the past few years, and it appears likely that UU, as a whole, faces stark choices that will determine its future.

Many of us – as Pagans, as Naturalists, or as both – find a comfortable, welcoming home in Unitarian Universalism (UU).   I’ve been an active UU for nearly 20 years, including having been president of my congregation, and helping in many different areas, from teaching children to leading services.  For others, it’s sbanot quite as good a fit.  Local congregations can vary widely, with some vibrant and exciting, and others more sedate – with a range of spiritual directions as well.   I know that not all of us here at HP are UUs, but I think the direction of UU is relevant for the futures of Paganism, Humanism, and naturalism in America, and perhaps the world, and I’ll be speaking as a UU for this post.

Our full UU history is too big a topic for a blog post, but some parts are especially relevant to Naturalistic Pagans.  I’m written a condensed history* at the end of this blog post that I encourage you to read – it’s amazing to me to see how such a tiny religious movement could include so many people who made our world what it is today, such as Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Susan B Anthony, and many more.  UU history includes idea after idea that was radical, scandalous, blasphemous, and crazy back then, but is accepted by practically everyone today.  These include ideas like rights for women, children, African Americans, and LGBT people – and the ideas that nature itself is sacred, that reason is very important in determining truth, and that traditional doctrines can (and should!) be openly questioned.

Though our history is vibrant, purpose driven, and radical, UUs have been adrift in the last few decades, and have not been flourishing (see the graph at right).  There could be many reasons for this, and I think that a significant part of this is our lack of a clear message.  Common jokes about UU’s suggest that we “can believe anythiuung”, also echoing the same concern- and UUs talk about how to explain what UU “is” to others.  Despite our large societal impact, I suspect that most Americans today have never heard of Unitarians, Universalists, nor even UUs.

What do we believe?  What do we stand for?  Any group, if they are to continue to exist, needs common ground – ideas that hold the group together and are not universally accepted in the wider society.   Is it clear what these are in UU today?  It might depend on who you ask.  Our Seven Principles help, but some of them are so widely accepted that they don’t provide unifying common ground.  I think we do have common ground – common ground that can invigorate and empower us – and that a good chunk of that common ground is our acceptance of evidence and our commitment to make this world a better place.

Our reliance on evidence and reason is embodied in in our fourth principle, which encourages us to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  “Responsible” means that we can’t just believe anything – that reason, evidence, and the impact on society and real people are important considerations in deciding on any belief.  At a time when fake news and open evidence denial have invaded our national leadership, this part of our message is desperately needed.  We reject the idea that the literal word of any ancient text is sufficient to establish certainty.  We UUs often have a wide range of beliefs in areas where there is not a clear scientific consensus, such as what the meaning or purpose of life may be, or reincarnation, life after death, some concept of goddesses or gods (such as pantheistic ideas or archetypes), etc.  Evidence accepting Hindus, Christians, Agnostics, Jews, Pagans, Atheists, and more can find a home in UU (see the UU Six Sources).

This rich heritage of radical thinkers going back centuries has put us UU in a unrivalled position, as the only religion with historic roots that is able to fully embrace evidence, while welcoming people with many different spiritualities.

What will be the future of UU?  I’ve been fortunate to be involved in that discussion with a wide range of dozens of UUs (including John Halstead), and our group has collectively realized that our UU principles, along with evidence itself, already hold the answer – and point us toward being the radical, reality-based religion of tomorrow.  Though we don’t know if UU will, as a whole, continue our heritage and move in this direction, we’ve produced a summary pamphlet (Common Ground, click “read the pamphlet” at this link), and an online sign up.  This common ground includes the four gifts of a compelling cosmology based on evidence, a saving message of our freedom from the empty threat of hell, an inspiring vision of a sustainable future, and powerful spiritual practices based on our world.  We hope this will unite UU’s, invigorating both UUs and the CUUPS chapters that many of us are a part of, to welcome everyone and help us build the sustainable world of tomorrow!   Please consider signing, at this link. Thank you.

*A Very Simplified UU History

UU history dates back to the reformation, when some Christians realized that the traditional Christian Trinity can’t be found in the various Bibles (Catholic, Protestant, etc.).  Rejecting the trinity based on evidence resulted in some being burned as heretics (such as Michael Servetus, executed by John Calvin), and they were given the derisive name “Unitarians” (as opposed to the “correct” view of Trinitarianism).  By rejecting the dominant Trinitarian view, they attracted thinking minds – at least those who were willing to risk it.  Isaac Newton held secret Unitarian beliefs.  Like several other Enlightenment thinkers, Joseph Preistley – the father of Chemistry, was an enthusiastic Unitarian, who (after escaping from an anti-Unitarian mob that destroyed his laboratory) was instrumental in establishing Unitarianism in the United States.  Several of the first Presidents of the United States were Unitarian, as was Charles Darwin.

Unitarians were central in the Transcendentalist movement of the late 1800’s, such as Henry David TMichael Servetus 02horeau.  The Transcendentalists showed us the sacredness of nature at a time that many only saw nature as a resource to be exploited.  Through the 1800’s and 1900’s,  thousands of Unitarians dedicated their lives to the monumental causes of abolition (Theodore Parker), African American Rights (Robert Shaw), women’s suffrage (Susan B Anthony), ending child labor (Clarence Darrow), the civil rights movement (James Reeb), marriage equality (Hillary Goodridge), and more.  Universalism was also an important Christian movement over those same years, denying that a good god would punish anyone eternally in Hell.

By the early 1900’s both the Unitarian and Universalist churches has continued to be on the cutting edge of society, and both contained a large proportion of Humanists and Atheists.  Recognizing their commonalities, they merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.  After this, the denomination did not flourish, for reasons that are not completely understood.  UU in the 60’s has been characterized as being too dry and boring (though I wasn’t alive then, and don’t know).  By the 90’s, UU was looking to become “more spiritual”, with some UU churches (and especially some UU clergy) moving toward liberal Christianity, and other congregations becoming more welcoming of Pagans, etc.  Membership has continued to stagnate through today, however.  Many of us think that this could be partly due to the lack of a clear message, and not taking into account current changes in America’s religious landscape.


Jon Cleland Host

Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997.  He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature.  He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University.  Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org).  Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality.  He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.


8 Comments on “We need your voice! Is Evidence Common Ground for Unitarian Universalists?

  1. This is an interesting idea. “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is already a core UU principle. Isn’t that enough? Although I am comfortable with basing my beliefs in evidence, some people might feel that beliefs can be derived in other ways consistent with the UU approach such as intuition, or even from visions in dreams and trances. Insisting on evidence-based belief might alienate a large segment of the UU community. My own UU congregation has people who believe that goddesses are real, a belief that probably is based in personal experience and emotion rather than evidence.
    Debates such as this can be divisive. The United Church of Canada, Canada’s largest protestant denomination, is facing an existential issue right now, brought about by a challenge of atheist minister Gretta Vosper’s suitability to lead her congregation. Vosper will undergo an examination of her suitability to continue in her role as a UCC minister in the next year because of her atheism. However, she is loved by her congregation, has widespread support by ordinary church members, and some UCC ministers have come out of the closet as atheist/agnostic themselves. I think she will likely remain a UCC minister, but the review is an awful process to inflict on Vosper and people who agree with her. As a person of the agnostic/evidence-based persuasion, I left the UCC for the UU church. I hope Vosper is found “suitable” because I agree with her: “How we live is more important than what we believe.”
    Buddhism has a tradition of adjusting beliefs to evidence, or at least, pragmatism. I wouldn’t be too quick to assert that the UUs have the market cornered on evidence-based spirituality or rationality.
    I will read the pamphlet you link to in your article and sign up because you raise points worth exploring. As I said at the start of this epistle, your idea is interesting. This is a time to build bridges.

  2. OK, I read the pamphlet. I think its strength is in its optimistic approach, and its focus on “making this world just, healthy and sustainable” as “sacred work.” This is inspiring.

  3. I don’t fully understand what the pamphlet proposes. As I read it, UU Common Ground is concerned with the long-term success of UU, and with UU’s role in unifying many people and having a global impact. First, I’ll admit I’m deeply suspicious of savior stories…But is UU Common Ground also an effort to narrow the cosmologies represented within UU to only evidence-based ones?

    With respect, I agree with much of Untethered Dabbler’s first comment. I don’t think UUs can believe anything they want; as the CG pamphlet points out, the 4th Principle compels us to consider how our ideas affect others. But I think there’s room enough in UU for those who subscribe to only evidence-based cosmologies, as well as those of us who hold other cosmologies in mind. For example, I maintain both a physical cosmology (Great Story, or something very similar) and mythological cosmologies. Multiple ways of knowing and framing human experience enrich my life and help me develop Self; I don’t wish to give any of them up.

  4. Good points – let’s discuss them and see where it leads. Also, if you are on facebook (the link is in the pamphlet), I encourage you to join the discussion there also and raise these and other points for discussion.


    You mention that you agree with much of Untethered Dabblers (UD) first comment, but that comment was made before reading the pamphlet. After doing so, UD says :

    “OK, I read the pamphlet. I think its strength is in its optimistic approach, and its focus on “making this world just, healthy and sustainable” as “sacred work.” This is inspiring.”

    So it sounds like the actual pamphlet didn’t have some of the things that she had a concern about.

    The pamphlet is an effort to encourage UUs to celebrate our common ground – the ideas that are consistent with the evidence and inclusive. There are several separate concerns addressed in the pamphlet, and some different concerns raised in the comments above. So I’ll pick one to start with.

    UD writes “My own UU congregation has people who believe that goddesses are real, a belief that probably is based in personal experience and emotion rather than evidence.” And, a related note, Anna writes ” I think there’s room enough in UU for those who subscribe to only evidence-based cosmologies, as well as those of us who hold other cosmologies in mind.”

    These are related. In both, the idea of celebrating the world the evidence shows us is being mistaken for the idea of restricting anything that isn’t shown by evidence. The pamphlet does not suggest that we restrict ideas that are not-testable or bar people who believe them. The bottom paragraph on the “Religion Grounded” page reads:

    “This includes those of us for whom a goddess or god concept is important. Ideas like some kind of a force of love, a pantheistic god, many forms of theism and polytheism, or a connection with the Universe are often consistent with evidence – and thus don’t require evidence denial. That mean that all of us – theist and non-theist – can stand shoulder to shoulder and point out the ongoing harm to real people caused by evidence denial, and harmful ideas, such as the idea of an exclusive god as described by a literal reading of ancient texts, the idea of the rapture, the idea of relying on ancient texts over modern medicine, & so on.”

    This point is that ideas outside the testable evidence that don’t hurt anyone are welcomed (such as your beliefs about the developing Self). Ideas that deny evidence and/or cause real harm are open for discussion. I’m suggesting that the ideas in the pamphlet aren’t asking you to give anything up. Does that make sense?

    I fully agree that emotional, transcendent experiences are vitally important to most people’s spirituality (certainly mine!). That’s a big part of the thrust of the pamphlet – to say that we can fully embrace and celebrate our world in a spiritual way – which many other religions can’t do as whole-heartedly.


  5. Another sub-topic – Renee, you mentioned Buddhism. While we UUs may not have the market cornered on evidence based spirituality, I see several reasons why we might have a better shot than Buddhism – though I’ll agree from the outset that I see Buddhism as one of the most likely religions to be able to move beyond a reliance on supernatural belief (mostly because the others are worse).

    First, Buddhism is traditionally based on supernatural belief. The whole goal of Buddhism from the start through today is to break out of the supernatural process of death and rebirth (samsara). That traditional Buddhism thus requires a belief in the supernatural samsara, or else there would be no point to escape something that doesn’t exist. This is true for all three major branches of Buddhism (Therevada and Mahayana – more on Vajrayana below).

    Secondly, even in the more modern approach that only a very few Buddhists take (though many here in America do so), where “enlightenment” is seen as more a personal attainment than an escape from samsara, Buddhism is still explicitly about immortality (soul-less annatta) and focusing away from the world we live in (dukka). This inward, personal salvation focus, along with a denial of making this world a good place – is more similar in that way to the Abrahamic religions than it is to the Naturalist, UU or Humanist focus on this world. This one appears to be true of Therevada and Mahayana Buddhism, and especially true of Vajrayana Buddhism). Though these different branches have different goal states (to become an arhat in Therevada, a bodhisattva in Mahayana & Vajrana), the differences in those goals are irrelevant here, because they are all escapes from improving this world. In fact, evidence tells us about this world – why be based on that, when it’s what we are trying to escape?

    Thirdly, on a purely practical level, Buddhist churches are currently limited to California, medium to large cities on the West Coast, big cities like New York, Chicago, and few others, with a total of fewer than 100 outside of CA. That means that for many Americans, a UU congregation is closer. UU’s have around 1000 churches across the US. Though over a million Americans are Buddhists, (several times the number of UUs), their communities don’t seem as accessible.

    Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t think a clear case for evidence based common ground can be made in Buddhism. Many Buddhists – especially in the wider world (though some in the US as well) – are very explicitly supernaturally based, as mentioned above. I wonder if a Common Ground for Buddhists was attempted, that a supernatural concept like samasara might be a stronger candidate than anything else?

    In summary, while many aspects of Buddhism give me hope for a modern, non-supernatually based Buddhism (like Stephen Batchelor’s Naturalistic Buddhism and the really cool Kalama Sutta), a lot of formerly central ideas will have to be seen metaphorically, and so I see the amount of shift needed for that as greater than the shift needed by UUs. What do you think?


  6. Message body
    It varies from congregation to congregation, but many of us longtime UUs have felt that many places, especially with the influence from Boston, are pushing UU in the direction of accepting all ideas so as to be “radically accepting”, and moving away from critical thinking, sometimes towards liberal Christianity, and to push out Pagans and Humanists. For instance, there is ongoing talk about merging with the United Church of Christ (bringing up the whole Greta Vosper issue above), and giving Christianity preferred status so as to be “especially welcoming to Christians”. Some examples include the 2016 General Assembly service, the attempt to change the sources a few years ago, and the GA programming giving Christianity preference and nearly devoid of Pagans and Humanists, and the “interfaith” article, which avoids including Pagans and Humanists. I’ll put some links here – but most are vague because these things are not often said openly – reading between the lines shows otherwise (I’m often amazed at how UUs – especially ministers – can say a lot of nice sounding things without saying much concrete. Of course, I don’t want to throw stones there because I contributed to the multi-page pamphlet that you just read without getting the gist of it either! : ) ). For instance, when reading the “interfaith” piece, read the comments at the bottom, then re-read the article.
    In addition, with a new UUA president being elected this year, many of us wanted to bring these concerns up and see where the presidential candidates stand (Miller, Pupke, Frederick-Gray), as they may be planning different directions.

    Read the first sermon, the “50 year” sermon: http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.uuma.org/resource/collection/642878F9-E6F5-4B16-83E1-292B097B20F9/Annual_Newsletter_2015.pdf
    Here is a call to merge with UCC: http://chalicechick.blogspot.com/2006/01/fixing-uuism-merge-uuism-with-another.html

  7. Excellent post, Jon! I haven’t identified with Paganism myself, but the points you make are strong as usual and should appeal to Humanists and other UUs, as well. I will share. We just hosted Michael and Connie at UU Santa Monica, so I’m feeling extra fired-up about “sacred realism.” 🙂


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