Journal Article: Away from a Language of Reverence

By Maria Greene, originally published in the journal "religious humanism", Vol. 44, No. 1. 

The use of religious language in Unitarian Universalism is the primary reason for the exodus of UU Humanists and the primary factor keeping out non-theists who are looking for supportive community in which to explore, express and embody their values. While everyone agrees that, as a non-creedal religion, Unitarian Universalism welcomes both theists and Humanists, our inability to agree on a vocabulary that expresses our shared beliefs causes divisiveness within our ranks and makes it difficult for people interested in our movement to understand what we stand for. Even referring to Unitarian Universalism as a religion is difficult for some UU Humanists who recognize that the majority of people hearing the word will assume that being religious requires belief in a deity. Others feel strongly that religion is a more encompassing term that is the only one that adequately describes the role Unitarian Universalism plays in their lives. UU Humanism is not sterile and coldly rational -- it embraces wonder, awe, love, reverence for all life, compassion for humanity, and respect and delight in nature. Our cultural default vocabulary for these emotions and convictions is theistic-religious. If we are to keep Unitarian Universalism welcoming to Humanists and other freethinkers, we need to express these values clearly, strongly and joyfully but we need to do so with words that a non-theist can use with integrity.

It has been over ten years since the "Language of Reverence" debate flared up in Unitarian Universalist circles. In a January 2003 sermon, then-president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, William R. Sinkford, issued a call for a return to a "Language of Faith". Sinkford decried the inadequacy of the language of the UU Purposes and Principles:

"We have in our Principles an affirmation of our faith which uses not one single piece of religious language. Not one. Not even one word that would be considered traditionally religious. And that is a wonderment to me; I wonder whether this kind of language can adequately capture who we are and what we're about."

By telling his deeply personal and touching story of religious conversion from Humanism to God-belief, Sinkford explained how he became comfortable using the word "God". "But," he states, "'religious language' doesn't have to mean 'God talk.' And I'm not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language." He then referenced a paper by David Bumbaugh, titled "Toward a Humanist Language of Reverence". In that paper, Bumbaugh asserted that, "It is incumbent upon us to challenge the parochial and limited claims of traditional religions with the enlarging and enriching and reverent story that is our story and their story: the Universe Story." To Bumbaugh, the story that science tells has all the mystery and wonder of any story told by a traditional religion with the added benefit of being demonstrably true and universally valid. But Sinkford's quote from Bumbaugh's paper is the following:

"Humanism…gave us a doctrine of incarnation which suggests not that the holy became human in one place at one time to convey a special message to a single chosen people, but that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in hummingbirds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing."

Sinkford's final few paragraphs are about various broader definitions of God, of which the preceding quote sounds like it could be one. He states, "My growing belief is that, as a religious community and as individuals, we may be secure enough, mature enough to find a language of reverence, a language that can acknowledge the presence of the holy in our lives." Clearly, the implication is that Humanists need to be more comfortable using traditional religious language and not object to using the word God to have, at the very least, a pantheistic definition. Yet using Bumbaugh's paper to support that conclusion is misleading and is missing the entire point of "Toward a Humanist Language of Reverence".

More recently, Peter Morales, the current UUA president, expressed his conviction that, "Belief is the Enemy of Faith".  President Morales' goal is to encourage us to focus less on our differences (our beliefs) and to unite in a tradition (a faith) that, "is interfaith at its core". He wants us to reach out to the religiously-unaffiliated "Nones" who "appreciate the contributions of all the great religions".  The goal of having people from all backgrounds (Humanist or traditionally religious) come together because of shared values is a worthy goal. But the current use of religious language in Unitarian Universalism alienates existing non-Christian UUs and puts out a neon unwelcome mat at the UUA front door that keeps away the very "Nones" they are now courting.

The "Nones" make up just under 20% of the US population and 32% of people under 30, and their numbers are growing. By self-definition, they are non-religious -- most have explicitly rejected organized religion. Most of them are not atheists or agnostics, but 33% of them are. Even so, according to the Pew Forum:

" A majority of the religiously unaffiliated clearly think that religion can be a force for good in society, with three-quarters saying religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds (78%) and a similar number saying religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77%)."

Most Nones recognize that religions can be a force for good but they aren't interested in joining one themselves; 88% of them state they are not looking for religion. Why do we think we will appeal to the Nones by using religious language and holding on to religious forms?

The language we Unitarian Universalists use to describe what we do, like the white-steepled buildings we tend to inhabit in the Northeast, reflects our Protestant Christian legacy as the descendents of the New England Puritans. Most of us say and have:

·      Church

·      Sunday worship

·      Ministers (usually decked out in robes & stoles)

·      Religion/Religious education

·      Sermons (from a pulpit)

·      Hymns (often accompanied by organs and to old Christian tunes)

·      Prayer and other spiritual practices

Every congregation is autonomous, so there is a great deal of variation, but these are pretty standard words that describe what we UUs do.

I am good friends with an older couple; the husband is a cradle UU and the wife is culturally Jewish. She told me she would never have been comfortable at their UU church and only went in the beginning to make her husband happy. I am friends with another couple, one an activist Humanist and the other a Buddhist, who regularly attend a local Jewish synagogue with their children because it is an important part of their extended family culture. They regret the theistic content of the services and the children's education, but Unitarian Universalism would never appeal to them because it is too culturally Christian. My town does not have a large Muslim population but we do have a very large Asian one (almost 20%), none of whom are represented in my UU congregation. My guess is that our congregation's culture is too White Anglo Saxon Protestant for them to feel comfortable. As an ex-Catholic choirgirl, I am personally comfortable at Sunday services, but my Humanist, "son of Nones" husband would "rather have his teeth pulled" than attend regularly. What UU churches normally do is exactly what the Nones are rejecting and it is not interfaith beyond the Christian denominations.

What about the Humanist UUs? In other words, what about those of us with no "faith" in a higher power, who are naturalists as opposed to super-naturalists? UU authorities continue to insist, just as Sinkford implied ten years ago, that we must redefine religious words to have a non-supernatural meaning so that we can all speak the same language. We must be "Religious Humanists". Forget the dictionary or common usage; "Religion" means "coming together", "faith" means "a deep, emotionally-involved trust",  "God" means "mystery, love, the universal life-force", etc. Besides allowing us to gloss over our differences in "theology" (and to make the new theists feel welcome), we are told that this "religious redefinition game", as Mike Werner calls it, is good for us.  As Sinkford said in his 2003 sermon, it represents, "Growing out of a cranky and contentious adolescence into a more confident maturity."

Many UU Humanists (I guess not the cranky and contentious adolescents among them) went along with this at the time. As the New York Times reported ten years ago,

"One former president of the association, William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said he viewed himself as a religious humanist but supported efforts to use a 'wide lexicon' of religious language. 'I've long been critical of the position of some humanists that would sanctify secular language and lock us into a calcified rationalism,' he said."

Maybe this was a legitimate criticism of some Humanists in Unitarian Universalism at the time or of the "old guard" now. There is almost always a kernel of truth in any stereotype. The early Humanist documents, such as the original, 1933, Humanist Manifesto, reflect an Enlightenment-untempered-by-Romanticism slant on human nature and human potential. But it is not a valid criticism of modern Humanism, in my opinion. Modern science continually shows the interdependence and inseparability of our rational and emotional sides. That's a very dry way to put it, but modern Humanists know how to laugh, to cry, to sing, and to express awe and are increasingly comfortable doing so, often in groups. Yet most of us do not embrace terms like "spiritual", "religious", and "faith" to describe what we do and it is condescending to say this makes us immature. It makes us honest and clear about what we believe. Bumbaugh's beautiful description of "the Universe Story" is still adequate as a language of reverence, but even the phrase "language of reverence" is too easily misconstrued, as Sinkford showed us.

So, if we can't "have our cake and eat it too" by agreeing on a vocabulary that satisfies Christians and non-Christians, irreligious Nones and Humanists, should we give up religious language altogether? Wouldn't that alienate the believers instead and make us all cold and "calcified"? The question is the same as the one in the wider culture of whether our secular government should use God language. For instance, if we take "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance (to put it back to the way it was before that phrase was inserted in 1954 during the "atheist commie" scare and McCarthyism) isn't that the same as the government endorsing atheism? Or, in the UU case, would eliminating God language and focusing on our shared Humanist ethical principles mean we no longer endorse those among us who believe there is a theistic something that grounds those principles? There are certainly those who would feel that way.  Which group should we make feel unwelcome? There does not seem to be a "yes/and" solution to this "either/or" problem.

Let me emphasize that it is important for Humanists to be welcome in UU congregations. The majority of Americans distrust atheists and, as a result, prejudice and discrimination against them is widespread in America. Dana Perino, a Fox News pundit, told us recently, "I'm tired of them ... if these people really don't like it ["Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance] they don't have to live here". In other words, if you do not believe in God you do not belong. At around 6% of the US population (and probably more because there is so much stigma to admitting atheism even to a pollster), there are more atheists than there are all non-Christian religionists combined. What would the reaction have been if Perino had said, "if you are Jewish you don't have to live here" or, "if you are Muslim you don't have to live here?" Because she was talking about atheists, there was no general outcry. It's OK to marginalize atheists, like LGBTQ folks before us, because too many of us are in the closet and unfamiliarity breeds distrust.

Not to mention Unitarian Universalism has a proud Humanist legacy, as Rev. Sinkford acknowledged:

"I’ve learned that the response to Unitarian Universalist “Humanists” needs to begin with gratitude. These persons supported our congregations and institutions for decades. Without their faithful support there almost literally would not be a Unitarian Universalism today, or at least not one that we would recognize. It is also critical to affirm that there will always be a place in our faith for persons who name themselves “Humanist.” The great virtue and value of our faith is its ability to live as a religiously pluralistic faith, where our religious differences are seen as blessings rather than as curses. We live that reality imperfectly to be sure, but we hold fast to that vision. This is one of the great gifts we offer to our wounded world."

But does this not sound like "these persons" are being allowed to stay? At a recent atheist convention, Rebecca Hale, former UU and now president of the American Humanist Association, put it this way,

"They [UU Humanists] stay within the UUA because that used to be their home and they like the people. They gave money to the building fund and they like the sense of community. The problem is that their parents moved and didn't give them the new address. They followed them and now they get to live in the garage."

If we cannot agree on a common language, do we need to abandon Sinkford and Morales' vision of a pluralistic faith? Perhaps we should. There's an argument to be made that organized Humanism was harmed when a group of Humanist ministers started the American Humanist Association in 1941 but remained loyal Unitarians, just as the 19th century Free Religious Association never went anywhere because it was made obsolete when Unitarians abandoned their creedalism in the late 1800s. If organized Humanism had become a completely separate, congregational movement distinct from Unitarianism, it might have had more strength. Perhaps it is as Larry Reyka stated in a 1985 letter entitled, Why I Am Not a Unitarian Universalist on the occasion of leaving his UU congregation:

"The alliance of convenience between residual Christians and Closet Humanists is inhibiting - to both groups.  Neither theists nor atheists may act boldly or creatively on their convictions out of fear of offending the other.  For Humanists, the result is a timid humanism that spends more time keeping peace with the god believers in the church than meeting their own needs as Humanists and reaching out to other Humanists in the larger community."

Perhaps we have irreconcilable differences and should agree to separate. We could encourage setting up more explicitly humanist and explicitly Christian UU congregations so that we don't have to spend time "keeping peace". I am not willing to accept that, however. I am not a Closet Humanist and I am comfortable acting boldly and creatively. I agree with president Morales and with Megan Foley, who, in her sermon titled No Kind of Religion at All? , said, "Unitarian Universalism is based on what we do together, how we want to act together. It is not based on what we believe or don’t believe about God. " (You should read the whole thing, it ties together Reyka's rejection of Unitarian Universalism with an earlier, extended version of Morales' belief/faith article called Religion Beyond Belief.)

I am a None -- if you ask me, "What is your religion?", I will answer, "None". To paraphrase James Croft, Unitarian Universalism may consider itself a religion but it is not my religion even though I am a UU Humanist. Similarly, I do not like the phrase "Religious Humanism" and prefer Humanism with no adjectives because my experience causes me to equate religion with belief in the supernatural. What attracts me to Unitarian Universalism, and why I "signed the book", is its respect for reason, its humanistic ethic, and the community.  What repels me and many of my fellow, mostly post-Boomer Nones is the Protestant-light language and structure. I'm glad that UUs have this non-creedal stance so that I am accepted but I don't want to just be tolerated. I'm not willing to live in the garage. Because I value "the free and responsible search for truth and meaning", I respect others who have come to different conclusions than me, including Humanists who consider themselves religious. I find the different perspectives interesting and enriching, and I enjoy engaging with everyone about their searches. Most importantly, I recognize my fellow UUs as allies in the vast amount of like-doing and like-acting that is required to make this world a better place. This is more important to me than differences in (a-)theology. The third UU principle, "acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations", means we welcome and value people who have different creeds and we support them as they explore, deepen or modify them. "Encouragement to spiritual growth" is not a code phrase that means we push people to embrace religious language or be considered "spiritually immature". If I could rewrite the Principles, I would do the opposite of what Rev. Sinkford suggested and change this to "encouragement to personal growth", removing the only quasi-religious word that is present.

Greg Epstein, Harvard's Humanist Chaplain, participated in a program at the last UUA General Assembly. After describing his experience studying UU polity with a class of UU ministerial candidates at Harvard Divinity school, he told us,

"You almost had me ... it was close for me about whether I was going to take that step [of becoming a UU minister] or not, but I felt I really wanted to be part of a creedal community, not a non-creedal one. I have a creed, if you want to use that word, it is Humanism. I'm so invested in the idea that I know what I believe and I'm damn well going to stand up for it. I'm not saying that you can't within the UU congregational model, because of course you can, but for me,  I was so focused on that as my priority that I wanted to know what I believed and I wanted to dedicate my life to what I believe and the living it out, that for me working in a creedal setting was actually more appealing ... and I think we need both models."

I choose the model of remaining in a Unitarian Universalist congregation as a proud and out-of-the-closet Humanist and atheist, but then, I'm not considering becoming a minister. Being affiliated with any creed is seen as a career-limiting move for any UU minister today and only the most courageous will do so. Today's talented young people who are committed to Humanism and are training to become leaders, like Epstein, aren't interested in Unitarian Universalism anymore. They don't feel drawn to it because they know they will not be able to fully express who they are given the "ministers must be all things to all people" mentality that pervades. They're off building their own replacements for what Unitarian Universalism used to be, Humanist Communities, and this bodes ill for the future of our movement.

Finally, my suggestions for addressing the religious language issue are:

a) Encourage congregations to slowly move to more inclusive language in their shared time and space together, especially Sunday services. Explicitly welcome Humanists and atheists and acknowledge and affirm their point of view. This does not mean banishing all theistic songs/prayers/statements/holidays/ceremonies from congregational life, just noting, when appropriate, that these are meant to celebrate the culture and the beliefs of some, not of all. If the resources are available, keep one service per week explicitly Humanist and free of religious language and style. Investigate groups like Ethical CultureSunday Assembly and the Houston Oasis for ideas on what a Humanist service might look like.

b) Support UU creedal groups and embrace diversity in local congregations and nationally without being afraid of difference. This includes not just the UU Humanist Assocation, but the UU Christian Fellowship. Covenent of UU Pagans, UU Buddhist Fellowship, and so on. Congregational leaders should encourage the formation of local groups and individuals should join and support the national organizations that reflect their beliefs. If we have local or at least national support, none of us should feel like we don't belong even if we do hold to a particular creed. The national organizations, in turn, should encourage the UUA to be more inclusive and welcoming by moving away from Christian religious language, especially in UUA publications and on-line.

c) Form relationships with non-UU freethought groups. If there is an AHA chapter, Secular Assembly, Secular Student Alliance or any other group near you (you can use the Secular Directory to help find them), invite them to meet at your facility and publicize their events to your congregation's members. These groups will help meet the intellectual and social needs of Humanist UUs and are excellent allies for social justice, cultural and other projects.

d) Continually reaffirm the commitment, as my congregation's covenant puts it, "to live together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another."


About Maria Greene

Maria Greene's picture

Maria Greene is the UU Humanist Association's former part-time Executive Director. (Maria has stepped down at the end of 2017 to attend to some extended family health issues.) Maria is also a professional web developer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, their three busy kids and assorted pets. Maria's home congregation is the First Parish Church of Stow & Acton, she helps coordinate the Concord Area Humanists, a UUHA local group and chapter of the American Humanist Association that meets in Concord, MA, she is a volunteer with the Secular Coalition for Massachusetts, and with the Boston Coalition of Reason.


I don't think it is possible to conduct a worship service with inclusive language without neutering the religious experience. We need to say what is in our hearts to get meaning out of UUism. That means that all of us, a good deal of the time will be out of our comfort zone when we hear others talk. But I love the UU experience and its diversity. I am a Scientific Pantheist. But I happily sing the Alleluias at Easter, and pray to the four directions for Wiccan and Shamic ceremonics, and all the rest. I would feel somewhat impoverished if I was just in a congregation of Pantheists. I love the inclusivity of my UU Sundays.
I have been a member for almost thirty years now, and have seen the transition from a mostly Humanist denomination to a multihued one. I have also heard from a number of Humanists that have felt alienated with the changes these last few decades. My feeling is that if a person no longer feels this is their home, then go and start another more congenial group - go with my blessing. But I do not want to be part of a solely Pantheist experience. I have fallen in love with the UU diversity and want to stay.
As to David's Language of Reverence, I heard him deliver this address at G.A. and have talked with him about it. My opinion is that it is good, both for the UU and for Humanism. I believe that most people have a spiritual component that needs to be expressed and celebrated. A language of reverence certainly fits a person like me, who considers a Pantheist to be an atheist with poetry in their soul, and Pantheism has a natural reverence. But Humanism does too. Humanism has its own passions, in the search for reason and truth and the quest for meaning out of the human condition. A language of reverence help to keep this passion alive and it also helps those of our fellow UU's that are not so inclined as the the nature of the Humanist point of view.

It is good to hear the perspective of a long-time UU (since I am fairly new at only three years of membership). I like that: "a Pantheist [is] an atheist with poetry in their soul".  My only problem is with "if a person no longer feels this is their home, then go and start another more congenial group". That's not the only option. Why leave? Start a group inside the congregation. If the Sunday services are uncomfortable, help organize more congenial meetings. The pendulum has swung toward more "spirituality" in most UU congregations, away from the earlier Humanism. Since when does UUism require us to all think alike? It's big enough that we can make our own community within a community in which we feel at home.

While my history isn't long enough in my own UU congregation to speak about the past I question the idea that we've moved toward anything approaching traditional spirituality. While religious language may be somewhat more prevalent than in the past, in my experience any use of the word God is followed by a number of caveats designed to assure everyone that it could mean anything, or nothing, and definitely not one specific thing.

My sense is, despite whatever changes have taken place in recent decades, that many UU theists and Christians feel like they are on the margins as it is . From this article i sense that many humanists feel the same way. Perhaps the future of the UU movement is an explicitly humanist one (though I think that would require openly acknowledging this in our principles and sources), but I really don't see how we can go that direction and expect theists not to feel like they are being encouraged to leave.

You are right, Pete. The idea of individual freedom to search for truth and meaning comes with the result that we all may come to different conclusions. There is nothing wrong with that and I wouldn't want to be in a homogeneous community. It is true that some theists and Christians in particular express a feeling of marginalization in some UU circles, just as Humanists do. The solution is dialog and inclusion. I don't see anything bad in the caveats that follow the use of the word God. Without the caveats many people will assume the meaning is the cultural normal meaning. In my opinion, it is wise and courteous for the minister (or whoever is using the word) to acknowledge our diversity and clarify the way they are using the word.