Unitarian Universalist Humanists And The Interdependent Web of All Existence

[Editor's note: this post was originally published on Adam Gonnerman's Tumblr.]


“We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are.” - Carl Sagan 

Unitarian Universalism is big on social justice. Although some congregations appear to be more keen than others on getting involved in the issues of the day, in general this is a religious group that cares about equality, inclusion, and justice. Contemporary Humanism seems to be headed in much the same direction, with more and more social activism. A key difference may be that while Unitarian Universalists tend to accept the scientific method, it doesn’t seem to receive the same amount of attention that Humanists give it. In fact, to many Unitarian Universalist Humanists it looks like the denomination as a whole is moving towards more ‘spirituality’ and less reason. Herein we find something that I believe can be a key distinguishing contribution that UU Humanists can make to the ‘Living Tradition.’

Before anything else, let me defend my statement above about spirituality and reason. I am not saying that UUs are becoming less reasonable, although I wonder how many buy into the rhetoric against such advances as GMOs. Rather, I’m talking about a diminished public appreciation for science and reason, replaced by ‘the language of reverence.’ Part of this is understandable, as I’ve heard disparaging remarks about a certain variety of UU congregations as being little more than ‘lecture halls.’ 

While 100 years ago people may have sought out lectures to attend, that is certainly not the case today. Services need to be more interactive and artistic to be meaningful to people. Further, shared ritual can help to strengthen the bonds of a community. That said, this doesn’t need to be a pendulum swinging, between some form of spirituality and a more cerebral approach. Equilibrium is possible.

UU Humanists are generally as committed to social justice as UU Christians, Buddhists, Pagans, and those of the various other perspectives. In that we can and should contribute, understanding that there isn’t much unique in what we bring to the table. Yes, we have concepts from the Humanist tradition and manifestos to cite, but this isn’t where we can make the biggest, unique difference.

What should UU Humanists be doing in addition to working for social justice alongside UUs, Humanists, and people beyond these? In my opinion, we should be promoting science and reason in the most interesting, engaging ways possible. This is the sort of thing we see in Sunday Assembly, where people sing along to pop songs and hear talks about social issues, scientific research, and other challenging and thought-provoking topics. Unitarian Universalism has social justice covered; what it needs as well are advocates for understanding the amazing universe of which we are a part.

The story of our universe, our earth, and our evolution is one based on facts – as best we’ve ascertained so far – and has the potential to unify humanity like no other narrative ever could. UU Humanists have a great and awe-inspiring message to convey, one that can be appreciated best with greater understanding of scientific discoveries. In fact, given that Unitarian Universalism is a ‘Living Tradition’ wherein belief is not static and truth is always being pursued, the scientific method fits right in.

What can local UU Humanist groups do? Off the top of my mind, here are a few ideas:

  1. Start a Skeptics in the Pub meetup. This one requires virtually no official involvement on the part of the congregation. Basically, find a pub where your group can meet, promote this in the congregation (coordinating with leadership) and beyond, and get together for drinks and conversation. Each time this group gathers, ideally monthly, there can be a different theme and format. One month there could be a guest who is an expert in some field of science. She can give a talk and take questions. Another month a group member could lead a discussion around a topic of interest in terms of Skepticism, science, reason, etc. Another month could be a games night. The point is to keep it lively and stimulating.
  2. Start an RE Class. Depending on the size of your group and the cooperation of your UU congregation, you could offer to organize the curriculum and provide teachers for an RE class, preferably for children, in which science is taught in a fun way. There can be experiments, videos, and whatever else that will keep the kids’ attention and communicate core science concepts.
  3. Sponsor a science fair. If the RE class is a success, or even if you don’t do the RE class but have sufficient support in the congregation, your local UU Humanists group could arrange a congregational science fair. Set some standards, schedule a science fair night (complete with snacks and a brief talk to kick things off), and have some judges go around awarding ribbons. Top projects would qualify for trophies, and the judges probably should be from outside the congregation to avoid hurt feelings. If you can bring in 3 or more research scientists, professors of science from a local university, or others working in science-based fields, that would be ideal.
  4. Lead a service. The universe is an amazing place. Organize a liturgy that celebrates that fact, including quotes from the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson as well as a positive, captivating talk centered on the known facts of this one life we know exists. There can be a Humanistic chalice lighting and responsive readings as well. Be creative.

Those are just a few possibilities. If you think UU Humanists could be doing more to promote a rational approach to understanding the interdependent web of all existence, what other ways would you suggest we go about doing it?


About awgonnerman