What is Unitarian Universalist Humanism?

What is Unitarian Universalist Humanism?

When I was a junior at Grove City College, I took a class on intercultural communication. One of our class assignments was to visit a church service outside of our own denomination, or better yet, outside of our own religion. While I tagged along to a Catholic church service with my roommate, one of my classmates visited a Unitarian Universalist Humanist church. You better believe that everyone in the class thought that was one of the weirdest churches anyone had visited.

The girl who visited this church described the “service” as something like “I don’t know . . . It was pretty chill . . . We sat around and talked, sang a few songs, and ate soup. There was no doctrine and it was open to people of any religion. They said anyone could worship any god they wanted to.”

This was the first time I ever heard of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist religion. I’ve never really understood what their core principles are except for “you can believe what you want and eat soup, I guess,” but recently I had the chance to learn a little more about this nontheistic religion.

This week, my husband and I attended the Pittsburgh Freethought Community’s monthly lecture on the topic. The Reverend Robin Zucker, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Dr. John B Hooper, Treasurer and Member of the Board of Directors of the American Humanist Association had an informal conversation on freethought, humanism, and the unitarian universalist religion. You can watch their entire conversation here.

Throughout their conversation, I felt like I was trying to grasp what they meant by humanism and how they defined it. I think that when you get as technical as these two were in defining terms like humanism, secular, religion, supernatural, and freethought, it can make communication very difficult.

For example, I have always understood humanism to be a worldview. When I wrote my paper on secular humanism in 2017, I quoted Mark Vernon’s Understand Humanism in saying that a humanist is “someone who believes that human values, experience, and imagination are the best tools we have for living a good life and making sense of the world in which we live.” I’ve always gone out of my way to be very clear that I believe that humanism and atheism are not religions. But perhaps I haven’t been entirely correct.

Atheism still is not, and never will be, a religion. I’m just getting that out of the way right now.

But I think that these two Unitarian Universalists taught me that there is the humanist worldview and then there is the Unitarian Universalist Humanist religion, with a capital H. The difference between the lowercase H and capital H versions is still negligible to me, because their principles are almost identical. However, UUs identify as religious people who do not hold to any specific creed. To me, it sounds a step above “spiritual but not religious.” Instead, it’s “spiritual and religious but not… like… god-religious. Or you can be if you want. It’s up to you.” This is hard for me because I have always used a god-worshipping definition of religion as a matter of practicality in differentiating between traditional theistic religions and mere worldviews like lowercase H humanism.

I believe that trying to completely grasp what exactly Unitarian Universalist Humanism is, is like trying to pin Jell-O (or jelly?) to a wall. Any way you slice it, the more specific definition you give it, the more exclusive it gets. The heart of UUH, however, is an attempt at total inclusivity.

From the way it sounded in the talk, it is hard to define UUH because they want their congregations to be open to anyone no matter what they believe. This leaves UUH ministers like Rev. Zucker with slim options of what to preach or include in service. How do you minister to a cynical atheist, a nontheistic Buddhist, a liberal Christian, a spiritual humanist, and a Grove City College student doing a church-exploring assignment all with one sermon?


If you want to learn a little more about Unitarian Universalism and related topics:

Humanist Voices in Unitarian Universalism – I haven’t read it, but they gave away copies of this book for free at the lecture I went to, so of course I got one and I’m sure it’s got great information on UU!

An Atheist Goes to Church – Unitarian Universalist Church Review by Holy Koolaid – I came across this while searching for a featured image. Thomas is a really cool YouTuber and cohost of one of my favorite podcasts, so check out his review of a UU church! This church had a more religious emphasis than I expected.

Again, here is the video of the lecture that inspired this post!

0 thoughts on “What is Unitarian Universalist Humanism?

  • June 30, 2019 at 9:19 am
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    Years ago on another website I became friends with a man who turned out to be the pastor of a Unitarian church in Utah. The principles he mentioned were very much as you say, and it always seemed to be the one kind of religion I could get into, if I had the desire to join any organized group. VERY laid back, very open to almost anyone and anything.
    I can imagine it must be an eye-opener for anyone from a stricter church, Lutheran or Baptist or even Catholic. It does appear to empower the congregants and after all, that is what a church should be about.

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  • June 30, 2019 at 10:03 am
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    I’ve never tried UU, but friends have. I have heard of atheists going to UU services as a sort of Sunday morning passifier after coming out. It seems to be more about what it is not, rather than what it is. Sounds like it might be the church/religioin of ‘can’t we all just get along?’ (Coexisties?)

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  • June 30, 2019 at 10:19 am
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    I have often wondered about the UUs. But, having given up on religion, my curiosity wasn’t enough to get me into a UU church. But maybe I’ll watch a little of that video.

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  • June 30, 2019 at 11:02 pm
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    At one of the few WWU Freethinkers meetings I attended, I remember a guy saying he had attended a UU “solstice celebration” i.e. “Christmas-but-not-technically-Christmas.” Interesting concept, although it strikes me as rather pointless no matter how I look at it.
    Humanism also strikes me as rather redundant, although I suppose it is an effective term to sum up a philosophy of tolerance, or whatever humanism is supposed to be. I suppose you could say that my humanist principles formed the root of the religion-related issues I discussed in my recent post “Why is it so easy to damn others” https://lionsdan.wordpress.com/2019/06/13/why-is-it-so-easy-to-damn-others/

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  • July 1, 2019 at 9:22 am
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    As far as being limited by what they can address in their “sermons” simply because everyone might believe differently “theisticly” not really. They tend to address social issues heavily as they’re very peace, ecology, diversity, anti racist oriented. They also focus on local community issues, history, the arts…world religious ideas and concepts just not from a doctrinal or apologetic sense.

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  • July 1, 2019 at 9:26 am
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    I spent a while working with the UUs. (My Mom is now a member of a UU congregation, after spending much of her life as Presbyterian.) I wanted my youngest daughter to take a couple of the classes they offered (a world religions field trip class in 7th grade, and a year of really good sex ed in 8th grade), and I wound up teaching RE there for three years. They even let me include critical thinking into my lessons!
    Instead of dogma, they have a set of seven principals, here: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles
    Anybody who is on board with these will probably be OK at a UU, regardless of what other beliefs they hold.
    The sermon topics are actually a lot more wide-open than you would think. The pastors can talk about almost anything, and they can draw on wisdom literature from anywhere, including from other religions and any other source they like. (My mom’s church once had “choose a sermon topic” as an auction item for a fundraiser, and the winner chose “Star Trek”!)
    My general impression is that it’s sort of “church lite”. It’s really good for people who have had it with being told what to believe, but still like all the other parts about church. Getting together for an uplifting weekly message, singing in a choir, community service, potlucks, small study groups, classes for the kids, they’ve got all of that. If you have deconverted, but still find that you “miss church” then give UU a try.

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  • July 1, 2019 at 12:31 pm
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    Rebekah, I have followed your Closet/Curious Atheist blog with appreciation for a long time. I’m glad to shed some light on Unitarian Universalist humanism, since I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister (Minister Emeritus, Fremont CA). To begin with, I’m not surprised if the word “humanism” seems vague, since the term has multiple meanings. It may or may not mean “atheist.”
    Unitarians and Universalists were American denominations, named for two Christian heresies. Both of them gradually became open to non-Christian religions and then to non-theistic philosophies of life. Since they were non-creedal churches, they didn’t have to change any doctrines to welcome non-theists. The Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961. By that time secular views were so strong that many theists felt disrespected. Later the pendulum swung back, and God-language is used more frequently (but seldom in the Biblical sense of God as a supernatural person who works miracles.) In general all opinions about God are accepted. In my own congregation our minister sometimes speaks of God in an affirmative way, but early in every Sunday service she says this: “Whether you believe in God, don’t believe in a Higher Source, believe in Humanist or Secular leanings, … you are welcome here.”
    To a visitor, Unitarian Universalism can seem more traditional than it really is. Many UU ministers wear robes (I don’t), we meet on Sunday, we sing hymns (many of them quite secular), and some ministers say “let us pray,” with the understanding that people can interpret this as a call to meditate or reflect. But if people focus on substance instead of superficial form, they will realize that this is a radical mutation in the evolution of religion. We unite around a commitment to common values, not a common creed.

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  • July 30, 2019 at 9:24 pm
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    In my case I was brought up Catholic, I’ve attended a Baptist ordination, been to a bar mitzva , etc. Even went into a Catholic church for a wedding or funeral. It was out of respect for the individual rather than the religion.

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  • September 29, 2019 at 9:59 am
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    Hi! I found your blog post on a search for Unitarian Universalist blogs. I recently joined my local UU church after first becoming involved with our UU’s CUUPS group (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, an eclectic Pagan group following UU principles).
    Unitarian Universalism as a whole does have a focus on humanitarianism and social justice. My local church is very involved in social justice issues in our community. Sermons are often about these issues, the arts, science, and history.
    Because we have an active Pagan group, we also occasionally hold Pagan-based sermons. These are typically a celebration of certain Pagan religious holidays, but with more of a focus on nature and history than any deities due to the interfaith nature of the congregation.

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  • October 18, 2020 at 2:43 pm
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    I’m 60 years old and was brought up in the UU church of the 60s and 70s. It was a radical time. As a kid, I don’t recall learning any of the basic tenets but they do exist. My main takeaway from their gentle indoctrination was tolerance and respect for other people–regardless of their beliefs.
    My parents had both been raised as Methodists but my father strongly rejected Christian dogma and my mother was also critical of the exclusionary aspects of organized religion. However, one thing my mother valued highly was being part of a larger, religious, community. Singing in unison about love and peace on a Sunday morning with dear friends near at hand, was indeed a spiritual experience for her. So, my parents became founding members of a UU church outside of Detroit. There, they made life long friends, who like them were dedicated to raising their kids in loving and accepting surroundings.
    When I got to high school, I stopped going to church and have never been a member of a church since. My sister, however, is a lifelong, UU diehard. I always enjoy visiting but don’t have the same need to become part of the UU community.
    I’m grateful for my upbringing. My husband, who was raised Catholic and is an avid atheist is far less tolerant of religious beliefs of all stripes. He feels like he was scarred as a child, which might be a bit of an exaggeration but certainly some of what he went through sounds quite unpleasant.
    I strongly disagree that Unitarian Universalism is about doing whatever you want. It’s about having the courage and confidence to care about and respect people who are very different than you. It’s about balancing your own desires for wealth, or fame, or power with the needs of others. At least that’s been my takeaway and while I don’t go to UU church, I do call myself a humanist.

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    • October 18, 2020 at 6:19 pm
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      My natural curiosity overwhelmed my religious piety.
      Nelson, Willie. It’s a Long Story
      Thomas Aquinas was right, curiosity is one of the major sins. For good reason: it was the curiosity most of us had concerning, first, Christianity, and then our wonderment about the universe. I was a curious Christian and I wanted to know everything about my religion. I learned too much. There were other stories of creation, floods, and a multitude of gods. Which could possibly be the true one?
      Humanist. It’s a good word. I first heard it, along with Atomist’s when I learned about Lucretius. He didn’t exactly deny the gods, he simply stated that nothing is created from nothing and there was no god was around to direct the construction of the universe. He was a disciple of Democritus who posited the fixed and “necessary” laws of a purely mechanical system, in which there was no room for an intelligent cause working toward an end.
      When I realized there were no gods I did not see any further need to ‘assemble’ and do ‘worship’ to the non-existent. I believe no more in the pagan gods than the Christian gods. Theists believe in some sort of god or gods. A-theist believes in no gods. Those who have a problem with the word need to check the etymology. We are not a religion. I belong to a couple of Atheist and Free Thought organizations, including FFRF, but I have never been called to a meeting.
      I know nothing of the Unitarian Universal Church, congregations, or whatever.
      Maybe there remains a spark of curiosity but still a need for some organized community interaction, singing of psalms, or human fellowship. That is a good thing but at the time it becomes organized with a human head, it is subject to be coopted for more nefarious uses.
      Christianity does scar the soul, Carol Seidl, but that is true of all religions. That s the intent, to burn their dogma into the minds from the earliest ages. There is no consideration for the psyche of the victim regardless of age. Those scars are not so easily healed when we do manage to break free. I would be less antagonistic toward religion if I thought it did no harm.
      There is a book that Rebekah recommended a while back, “The Power Worshippers” by Katherine Stewart. It will give a new or better understanding of how religion is used every day to direct society and politics. Although I haven’t finished it, I think it is well worth reading.
      Organized religion id for the profit of the organizers. Period.

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      • October 18, 2020 at 10:45 pm
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        You sound like my husband and I mean that in a good way. Sorry for your wounds. Thanks for your service to rational thinking.

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        • October 19, 2020 at 12:36 am
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          I only acknowledged it in a good way.
          I don’t mean that my scars are any different than others who were raised under the same circumstances. I think that for most of us the narrative is the same. My earliest memories are the images in my mind of ‘burning in hell’ and all those terrifying concepts taught in churches and carried into homes with children old enough to understand words but unable to tell fantasy from reality.
          These are not isolated instances, but common to the fundamentalist and charismatics. The intention is to saturate the young mind with their specific dogma. Both parents and preachers see this only as a positive thing. What harm could possibly be done?
          If Christianity is allowed to continue, I think those who would become Pastors, Preachers, or Evangelist should have a minimum of eight years of schooling. Something comparable to Psychiatrists or Medical doctors.
          First of all, they should have a full grasp of their material. By that time they should have come to the realization of the fallacies of their major text and deny themselves the fate of Jean Meslier, that French priest who taught for some thirty years, knowing that he was teaching a made-up dogma. At his death, he did apologize to his parishioners for the harm he had done to them.
          James Fergus:
          “The Christian religion brought about a long period of ignorance still known to us as the Dark Ages, during which thought was curbed, common education banished, and conscience given over to a rude, vulgar and ignorant priesthood. And whatever good Christianity may have done since, much of the degeneracy of mankind during this period must be laid at its door.” (All quotations from news links on the Fergus County History and Genealogy website.) D. 1902.
          Nuf sed.

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        • October 19, 2020 at 12:46 am
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          Oh, by the way, give your husband my best wishes. I was a long time in dealing with some issues. But I had the good fortune to learn there is a world full of people just like myself. I am learning (trying) to be more tolerant of those who practice their religions for, after all, it was not that long ago, I belonged to one of those groups. And I must say, I was one of the most vociferous. obnoxious, self-important, and deluded of the lot.

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