Unitarian Universalism and Religious Pluralism: Do We Miss the Mark?

In a recent post about religious freedom, I wrote about rallies held by the conservative end of the Catholic church. These rallies protested regulations prohibiting the picking and choosing of health benefits offered by employers, all in the name of religious freedom. I celebrated my own Unitarian Universalism and its tradition of respect for religious freedom, offering a definition of religious freedom a bit different from the one proposed by protesting Catholics.

A commenter, Robin, begged to differ, not about my definition but about Unitarian Universalist commitment to respecting the free and responsible search for meaning of those of all faiths. Robin notes that within many UU congregations, real and virtual, there is a marked rift between the values of Unitarian Universalism and the practice of individual UUs, especially in the area of respect for the beliefs of others. Especially when those beliefs are theist (especially Christian), this commenter notes a palpable distaste for from the Humanist/Atheist wing of Unitarian Universalists.

Sadly, I’ve seen this in my own congregation. I’ve overheard heated rants about Christians and theism during coffee hour. It’s embarrassing, given the UU commitment to supporting free spiritual searches by all and to protecting the worth and dignity of all humans. I’ve called this behavior out in meetings, meetings where we discuss where we are as a congregation on our road to supporting interfaith movements in our community. Sure, we teach our children and ourselves about the religions of the world, but that’s not interfaith work.  And badmouthing any religion in a church committed to supporting religious freedom is downright contradictory to even beginning true interfaith work. But for years, I hadn’t put together the connection between our lack of interfaith work and a bias against theism all too common in UU circles.

Along comes the UUA Common Read, Acts of Faith, by Eboo Patel. A few weeks back, I led a small group in a discussion on Acts of Faith, which is a mix of memoir and call for greater religious pluralism. Patel is a Muslim and founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization dedicated to serving the world while promoting religious pluralism and true interfaith dialogue. Patel quickly points out that he means real interfaith dialogue, not just the sort where religious leaders gather and talk about common beliefs and threads. He seeks instead a group of people working for what all faiths believe is important — service to others — while encouraging interfaith dialogue among those present.

I’d venture a guess that most UUs would support that goal. Committed to social justice and open to the idea that there are many paths up the mountain, working side by side with those of other faiths should be a UU norm. It’s where Patel goes next that likely causes unease in some. Patel does not advocate gatherings of the most liberal of the world’s religions. Instead, he calls for an Orthodox Jew to work with an Evangelical Christian while alongside a committed Atheist, and he calls for conversation. Conversation. Not conversion. Patel reassures the reader and the leaders of youth that he’s not desiring to dilute anyone’s faith tradition.  He states, citing a particular conversation with a Catholic leader,

By proclaiming our strong commitment to our respective faiths, even intimating that we believed what we each had was superior, we had cleared the way for an honest conversation. Neither of us was offended by the other’s faith tradition. to the contrary, it had created a common bond – two men of deep but different faiths talking about religious cooperation. (165)

Not conversion. Conversation and cooperation, while accepting the differences, as stark as they may be. This is a tall order for anyone of strong conviction. Most of us like to be right, meaning we tend to protect the view we have of the universe even at the cost of relationships with others. To join with others with beliefs as strong as our own yet radically different takes a willingness to sit with some discomfort. To work with others who believe their path is superior to yours takes humility and the ability to let go of the ego a bit more than may usually be comfortable.

It’s hard. Honestly, it’s that kind of frank conversation that I generally avoid with my friends whose religious views vary most sharply from mine, although I’m not sure we suffer for it. Our long-standing bilateral commitment to friendship tend to keep us focused on what we have in common, which varies depending on the friend. These relationships, while definite bridges between disparate faiths, are not interfaith work. Simply, the faith is left out. We don’t encourage each other on our respective spiritual journeys, although we don’t ignore the importance of these journeys either. (See an earlier post, Sharing Friendship, Sharing Religion, for one example.)

But what about Eboo Patel’s call to action? What about his call to have the conversations that actually accentuate the differences and encourage individuals to identify strongly with and practice their own beliefs while working side by side for the common good?  His assertion that this step is necessary if we want to reduce hate between faiths and make a more peaceful world causes me to wonder about the religious tradition I espouse and practice.  Unitarian Universalist, at least in principle(s) seem to be in a unique position to facilitate this. And yet, we too often don’t.

I don’t have an answer, but I think I have a starting point. It’s time to speak out against language that is antireligion. It’s time to call out the conversations in coffee hour, online, and in the pulpit that work against the goal of building respect for those who choose a faith other than our own. It’s time to identify what makes us uncomfortable and work within ourselves and our congregations, as well as the UUA, to combat the bias against theism that creeps into our conversations and decisions. I’m not suggesting we become doormats for the religious zealots who spread hate for all those who don’t share their beliefs. I’m simply suggesting we don’t become like them by producing our own rhetoric and hate.

We are, after all, a religion based on respect for all people and dedicated to supporting justice, religious freedom, and the rights of conscious. We can be part of the solution to  the rifts religious division causes in this world. We can do this while first understanding then respecting the depths of beliefs held by others, even when these beliefs are quite different from our own. We don’t need to agree with others or try to convert them to our way of thought. Religious pluralism puts into action radical inclusivity, and that’s about as UU as it gets.  Eboo Patel says it like this:

We need all those people — the hymn singers and the sun saluters, the Qur’an reciters and the mandala makers, the speakers of Hebrew and the readers of Sanskrit, the hip-hop heads and the folk music fans — and more. We need a language that allows us to emphasize our unique inspirations and affirm our universal values. We need spaces where we can each state that we are proud of where we came from and all point to the place we are going to.

I fear the road is long. I rejoice that we travel together. (182)

Namaste. Amen. So be it. Peace.

Sharing Friendship, Sharing Religion

The piece  “The ‘it’ Church”  in the Spring 2010 UU World  led me to think about a dear friend and neighbor.  The article, by Peter Morales,  UUA president, focuses on the role of having ‘religion’ in a church versus the not having it, his description of friendship brought my thoughts away from my church and closer to home to my neighbor and friend.

I’m blessed with a number of friends I can call on when in tears of sorrow or joy.  Without these people, I’m not sure how I’d have weathered a failing marriage and subsequent divorce.  Most of those friends developed from my La Leche League leadership, church, and homeschooling.  With most, I share similar political and religious values.  Our lawn signs (Democrats)and radio station (NPR) are the same.  We can discuss politics, social issues, and spiritual issues without contention (not too much, anyway).

And then there’s my dear neighbor friend.  We share quite a bit in common.  We  homeschool our kids, and our children are friends.  We borrow needed ingredients from each other, care for each other’s pets and flowers when the other leaves town, and watch each other’s children on occasion. We count on each other as an ear for concerns and joys.  I can cry in her presence without shame and with assurance of support.  However, our politics and religious affiliation differ greatly.  Once, when borrowing a conservative Catholic publication from her to read an article on breastfeeding, her husband declared the magazine might burst into flames upon reaching my property.  I laughed, and the article survived the trip to our liberal, Unitarian Universalist home without so much as a scorch mark.  He and I exchange similar friendly barbs, often about media choices and the like.

But his wife and I don’t go there.  Not, I believe, because of fear of conflict.   As many of my friends can attest, I’m often a fan of informal debate.  While I can’t speak for her, I know I avoid those topics because they don’t enhance our friendship or our understanding of each other.  Beyond the names of our respective religious affiliations, beneath the different politics, we share the same religion, at least according the Peter Morales’ description.

Religion, our religion, is what we truly care about, what we want to preserve, embrace, and create.    . . . when we ask one another what we truly love, what we truly value, what we care about more than anything else in life, something amazing happens. We don’t argue. We listen. We connect. We discover that we love and want the same things. We care about one another.  We want honesty, depth, and intimacy in our relationships.  We want enduring friendships. We also discover that we realize that we are all in this life together. We want to help heal the world. We want compassion, understanding, and justice to guide our actions and our governments. We want to work together, hand in hand, to build a world beyond exploitation and violence.   (Morales )

We share love for our children and families along with a desire to preserve our children’s hearts and spirits, allowing them time to be young.  We believe in holding our small ones close, meeting their needs day and night, respecting the voice they bring to our families.  We share values of kindness, love, and peace in our lives.   While we call it by different names and nurture it in different ways, we share a belief in a force greater than ourselves, something that calls us to go beyond our immediate desires and concerns.    Morales says, ‘”Religion is much more about what we love than about what we think”  (Morales).   I like that definition and its emphasis on the heart rather than the head (and I’m a thinker to the end), and as a seeker of connection, I appreciate it’s focus on our shared loves. 

I shared the Morales piece with my friend, along with a rather awkward bit about what I felt we shared and why I appreciated her in my life.  In part, this post is a somewhat more elegant statement to her.  It’s also an invitation to broaden your definition of religion and connect to one another.  As always, feedback and thoughts are appreciated.


Morales, Peter. “The ‘it’ Church.”  UU World. N. p., 15  Feb. 2010.  Web.