I prefer religious language - no snark! Well, almost none.

[Editor's note: this is a response to David Breeden's Sneaking One Over on the Humanists post and the religious language poll.]

That's right I'm one of the ten percent of respondents in the poll who expressed a preference for religious language - not because I use it a lot, but because it is useful to me in a much wider universe, than is "non-theistic" language alone.  I do use a lot of non-religious language too - in the meetings and on the advisory board of the large Midwestern Secular community (CFI Michigan) to which I belong. And much of the time, in the UU congregation (Berrien UU Fellowship - about half humanist in membership) in which I am active. And in the overwhelming majority of my dealings with HUUmanists.  

But when I deliver a sermon to that congregation, (also half non-humanist) as I do in retirement a couple of times a year, at the invitation of the current minister, or when I preach "on the road," usually about UU Humanism and its various projects, I use some, not a lot, of "religious language."  As I do when I converse with my colleagues, retired and active in the UU ministry, and when I talk to congregational and UUA leadership.  I don't use religious language exclusively in these settings, but neither do I hobble myself socially or intellectually by a stubborn refusal to admit that the words exist, and have great meaning to others, many of whom I would like to cooperate with in a variety of endeavors. 

My point is that it is not a simplistic choice between using one vocabulary or another.  I'm perfectly capable of talking about "faith" to one UU, and "commitment" to another, or using both terms in the same paragraph to a "mixed" audience.   I can talk at length about "spirituality" in a UU context, and never use the word at all in a humanist context. I can talk about science as the way of knowing (and making predictions about) the material world, and I can talk quite comfortably and successfully about "God" to someone whose religious stance (UU or more traditional) includes a belief in God, though I have been an atheist since childhood.   

I didn't pick choice # 3 in the survey: "I don't have a problem with it (religious language).  I can translate the words to have non-theistic meanings." I didn't pick it  because I don't need to make religious language go away by translating it.  It has its uses, even to one who, like me, does not accept the supernaturalism behind much of it.  Note that I say "behind," it. There's nothing inherently supernatural about the concept of human spirituality - and spare me the bleat that it contains the word "spirit."  There's nothing logically impossible about holding a God concept that is totally natural.  I know some of you are already typing away about how "almost everybody" hears those terms and thinks supernaturalism, and how we mislead when we use words outside of their commonly accepted meanings. I will give you my response in advance - might save us both some aggravation:  

In forty plus years of UU, humanist and interfaith interactions, I've never had a common project for social justice, for service to those in need, or for just plain human community, fall apart because someone misunderstood my use of language.  Never had someone say "we can't feed the hungry together because when you occasionally say "sacred" you don't seem to mean what we all mean by it;  never had someone decline to lobby a congressperson with me because either our beliefs or the language we use to describe them, are different; never been told that "we can't break bread together" and have fun together because we hold to different metaphysical schemes for the significance of bread-breaking and hospitality.  

Have I had people refuse to work with me on "interfaith" projects?  Yes, but they were the folks who also wouldn't work with the Baha'is and the Hindus and the Buddhists in town, and in some cases not even with the Catholics and Jews. I stopped worrying about what they thought about my choice of language long ago. In fact, if my occasional humanistic use of religious language confuses them, so much the better.  And frankly, I've stopped worrying about what many of you, my fellow humanists think about my and others' occasional use of religious language.  To the roughly half of you who simply don't like it much, or are even made to feel unwelcome by it, I say - we've got too much to do to spend time and energy on this. If you don't like it when I occasionally say "faith" or spirituality", well - translate it, if you must, and please otherwise just ignore it.  I'll try to find some other kind of welcoming flag to wave. 

I don't use religious language a lot, and when I do, I certainly don't use it to turn away or upset my fellow humanists. I don't demand that you must use it in return.  And if I see you wince, I'll dial it back in our particular conversation. Deal?


About Roger Brewin

Roger Brewin's picture

Roger Brewin became a UU minister in 1977 and is currently retired from active ministry, after serving nine UU congregations. He is Minister Emeritus of First Unitarian Church of Hobart, IN. Roger is a long-time board member of HUUmanists and is editor of our journal, "Religious Humanism". He also performs one-man shows as a historical impersonator of Darwin, Dickens and Clarence Darrow.