Strained Bedfellows: Pagans, New Agers, and "Starchy Humanists" in Unitarian Universalism

Richard Wayne Lee, University of Alabama in Huntsville



Despite the considerable resistance of its largely humanist membership, Unitarian Universalism in recent years assimilated such new religious movements as neopaganism and new age. In accounting for this apparently unlikely development, I examine the historical development of Unitarian Universalism, its integration of new religious movements, and the internal conflict this provoked. I identify three factors that, in combination, make sociological sense of the significant impact on Unitarian Universalism of these movements.


Sociological study of American new religious movements (NRMs) has produced a mass of research and theory on such issues as the social causes of their apparent proliferation since the 1960s, processes of conversion and commitment, and organizational dynamics. This article addresses a significantly less researched issue with respect to NRMs: their impact on long-standing religious bodies. Specifically, it analyzes the influence of recent NRMs on Unitarian Universalism (UU).

Known for decades as a "haven of starchy humanists" (Winston 1991), UU has in recent years assimilated a set of new cult movements. These include, most visiby, American Zen, new age, Native American spirituality, and neopaganism (the latter subsuming goddess spirituality and witchcraft). This analysis of UU's remarkable turn toward "spirituality" is based mainly on secondary data gathered by the author during and after a two-year study of a UU church in Atlanta, Georgia (1990-92).1

Unitarianism and Universalism (merged in 1961) arose in the early 19th century as denominations of Protestant Christianity. As fully discussed elsewhere (Lee 1995), both acquired salient cult characteristics (enumerated below) well before merger. UU retains important denominational features, however: (1) It is in a "positive relationship with society and accepts the legitimacy claims of other religious collectivities" (McGuire 1992:140), (2) The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) manifests organizational structures common to American denominations (i.e., central and regional offices with full-time staff, regulation of clerical ordination, and exchange of dues and services between member churches and itself, etc.), and (3) UUs generally deem themselves members of a denomination. On the other hand, UU resembles a cult in the crucial dimensions of belief and belonging.

In addition to prompting interest in the topics mentioned above, recent NRMs stimulated an active but still inconclusive effort by sociologists of religion to define "cult" in an analytically rigorous way, and particularly to clarify how it differs from "sect."2 While scholars debated alternative conceptions of both, sensationalized media accounts applied the cult label to groups as sociologically disparate as "moonies" and neopagans. In popular usage, the term now suggests a deviant religious group composed of highly committed but troubled and/or brainwashed members under the powerful (even malign) control of a charismatic leader. An adequately sociological distinction between cult and sect is crucial to analyzing the influence of recent NRMs on UU. The definitions offered here synthesize elements frequently specified in social-scientific analyses of cults and sects.

The cult is a group composed of radically individualistic religious seekers. Consequently, it is loosely organized and its belief system is sufficiently minimal and/or generalized to permit a high degree of ideological heterogeneity. The cult emerges as a "new" religious system; its innovation, however, mainly consists in eclectically combining beliefs and practices appropriated from various domestic and foreign sources. Though normally organized around a founding charismatic figure (who leads by example rather than fiat), members largely determine for themselves which elements of belief and practice to accept or reject. As an alternative to conventional religion, the cult stands opposed to mainstream culture, an antagonism reciprocated by society toward the alien in its midst. The cult does not insist, however, that it possesses the truth. Upholding the authority of the individual — and relatively pluralistic itself in consequence — it instead confers varying degrees of legitimacy on the claims made by other religious groups. (Contemporary examples: the Meher Baba movement, Vedanta, and Silva Mind Control.)3

The sect, on the other hand, is a highly solidary, ideologically homogeneous religious group dedicated to a clearly specified doctrine. It generally forms as a breakaway group from a church or denomination, protesting the parent body's perceived compromise with a highly imperfect World. Though doctrinally related to mainstream religion, the sect's dissenting character engenders mutual hostility between itself and society. Normally under charismatic lay leadership, the disciplined membership strictly adheres to all elements of belief and practice. Deviants are commonly ostracized or expelled. The sect insists that it possesses the truth, rejecting all other religious groups as illegitimate. (Contemporary examples: Holiness groups, the Unification Church, and David Koresh's Branch Davidians.)

UU embodies in institutional microcosm Emile Durkheim's "cult of the individual" (a.k.a. "cult of man"). Witnessing the apparently linked phenomena of increasing secularization and individuation, Durkheim at the turn of the century heralded traditional religion's displacement by a new common faith better suited to the secularity, individualism, and ideological pluralism characteristic of modern western society. Assuming the functional necessity of some measure of societal moral consensus, Durkheim argued that the diversity of modern thought and experience impelled a shift from traditional religious belief to the only alternative possible under such conditions — a secular and ethical religion of the rights and dignity of the individual (Marske 1987).

Since human personality is the only thing that appeals unanimously to all hearts, since its enhancement is the only thing that can be collectively pursued, it inevitably acquires exceptional value in the eyes of all. It thus rises far above all human aims, assuming a religious nature. (Durkheim 1951:336)

Consecrating the person as the object of supreme value, the cult of the individual upholds justice and equity as its first principles:

The task of the most advanced societies may therefore be said to be a mission of justice...Just as the ideal of the lower societies was to create or maintain a common life as intense as possible, in which the individual was engulfed, ours is to inject an even greater equity into our social relationships... (Durkheim 1984:321)

Officially creedless, UUs pursue radically individual quests for "truth and meaning." UU churches dedicate themselves to supporting each member's personal search for answers to life's ultimate questions. As a young woman pictured in a print advertisement prepared by the UUA puts it: "Instead of me fitting a religion, I found a religion to fit me." Members informally assent, however, to a set of "Principles," humanistic precepts broad enough to encompass UU pluralism. First among these is "The inherent worth and dignity of every person." Second is "Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" [emphasis added].4

Hence, a common devotion links UUs in their diversity, an implicit creed of the paramount value of the person. This fundamental doctrine entails, in turn, an ethic of justice, equity, freedom of belief, acceptance of differences, personal development, etc. In short, UU upholds with uncanny fidelity the central principles of Durkheim's cult of the individual.5

UU's assimilation of new cult movements is attributed here to the combined effect of (1) its vulnerability to external belief systems, (2) its ideological affinity with the movements specified above, and (3) demographic change. Though the integration of cults overtly opposed to its decades-old secular humanism appears anomalous, analysis will show that this is consistent with UU's character as a cult of the individual. To ground this analysis, we must first survey relevant aspects of UU history.

Unitarians and Universalists

American Unitarianism coalesced as a liberal-Protestant movement in the early decades of the 19th century as Harvard-trained Congregationalist clergy rejected as unreasonable central tenets of Calvinism, i.e., predestination, human depravity, and the triune nature of God (Tapp 1973:3). Attracting a largely elite membership, the movement represented the expression within American Protestantism of the 18th century's critical examination of traditional doctrine.

Though branded heretics by the orthodox — English evangelical William Wilberforce pronounced Unitarianism a "halfway house" between orthodoxy and "absolute infidelity" — early Unitarians upheld the central Christian doctrines of scriptural revelation, the divinity of Jesus, atonement, and resurrection. Reason as the arbiter of belief, however, elevated the religious authority of the individual above that of the church or Scripture. Since individuals differed with respect to the reasonableness of particular beliefs, Unitarianism in less than a century fully vindicated the Wilberforce dictum.

Immediately after its organization in 1825 as the American Unitarian Association (AUA), Unitarianism faced an internal rebellion — transcendentalism — that initiated "rational" Christianity's decline from core doctrine to one option among others (Ahlstrom and Carey 1985:xiii). Leading transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned from the Unitarian ministry in 1832, complaining that the denomination's excessive emphasis on reason had turned it into a "religion of dry bones," and a "thin porridge [of] pale negations."

Transcendentalists identified religion with the inner life of the individual, with mystical experience, intuition, and feeling (Cauthen 1962:15-16). The divine permeated the universe, revealing itself in nature and in the human soul.

The soul was a person's temple, there were sermons in stones, the universe was divine, salvation was the realization and fulfillment of the divine in humankind (Ahlstrom and Carey 1985:29).

Erupting in the mid-1830s and continuing into the following decade, conflict between liberal Christians and transcendentalists convulsed the fledgling denomination.

At mid-century, Unitarianism proved highly receptive as well to "spiritualism" (Burrill 1994:16-19). Seeking a reasonable explanation of immortality and the supernatural, many religious liberals readily embraced the belief in communication (through human mediums) with the spirits of the dead.

...[S]piritualism promised empirical evidence, proof that could be seen and heard, that the dead lived on and a World beyond this one existed (Albanese 1992:264).

Unitarian interest in spiritualism quickly dissipated in the 1890s, however, with revelations of mediumistic fraud.

By the end of the 19th century:

Unitarianism's theology had become blurred and inclusive. Both those who accepted Scriptural revelation and those who positively denied it were received into the [American] Unitarian Assocation (Marty 1961:157).

The AUA in 1894 declared Unitarianism officially creedless. Liberal Christians, transcendentalists, and humanists now found common ground mainly in commitment to ameliorating the negative social consequences of laissez-faire capitalism (i.e., the "Social Gospel").

Universalism also arose in New England, forming a national organization in 1833. Early Universalism and Unitarianism differed only slightly with respect to belief. They differed significantly, however, in class compostion, the main factor discouraging merger.

Universalism drew its members from the working and lower-middle classes of New England society. Rather than an elite intent on liberalizing the Congregational Church, Universalism arose as a religio-economic rebellion against the taxes imposed to support New England's established religion (Robinson 1985:4).

Less educated than the Unitarians, Universalists initially offered stiffer resistance to nonbiblical movements (Cassara 1971:5). In response to transcendentalism's growing influence in the denomination, the Boston Association of Universalists in 1847 adopted a model statement defining the official criteria of acceptance into Christian ministry.

Resolved, that this Association express its solemn conviction that, in order for one to be regarded as a Christian minister with respect to faith, he must believe in the Bible account of the life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (Cassara 1971:168).

Despite such resistance, transcendentalism steadily gained ground in Universalism, as did spiritualism.

Universalists also followed Unitarians in turning from the World beyond to this World and its problems. By the end of the 19th century, members associated "Universalism" less with the theology of universal salvation than with a secularized milennial vision of global peace and justice (Robinson 1985:6). The 1917 Universalist Declaration of Social Principles and Social Programs signalled a move away "from a conception of Universalism as a theological doctrine to a broadened notion of Universalism as a working philosophy aimed at securing the universal harmony of all individuals on earth" (Robinson 1985:140).

The humanist movement of the 1920s-30s surged into Unitarianism and Universalism. Congregations now accepted into fellowship even atheists opposed to all forms of supernaturalism as impediments to human progress. Unitarian ministers and theological students founded the organization that was to become the American Humanist Association; 14 of the 34 signatories to the 1933 Humanist Manifesto I were Unitarian ministers. As humanist influence grew, a new controversy divided members — the "humanist-theist debate" over whether God is necessary to religion at all.

By the early 1950s, it was clear that the humanists had won.

Although the concept of God served still as an inspiration to some, the bulk of Universalists and Unitarians had become the most basic of humanists. They believed, like Confucius, that although there may be a divine power in the universe, if man's problems are to be solved he must solve them himself. (Robinson 1985: 41-42)

Humanism carried Unitarianism and Universalism "beyond Christianity" to the cult of the individual.

Unitarian Universalism

Substantial upward social mobility on the part of Universalists in the postwar years reduced the class differences that for more than a century had blocked merger. Founded in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) five years later undertook an analysis of its combined membership.

The results (UUA 1967) indicated that UUs ranked higher than all other American religious groups in levels of income and in education, as well as in per-capita employment in professions, managment, and business ownership.6 The study found as well that a remarkable 89 percent of members had converted to UU, most either from liberal Protestant denominations (42 percent) or from nonaffiliated status (32 percent).

With respect to belief, 53 percent of respondents identified themselves as humanists; 44 percent defined God as a "natural process within the universe, such as love or creative evolution;" while 30 percent deemed an concept of God either "irrelevant" or "harmful." (Only 3 percent professed belief in God as a "supernatural being.") Regarding practice, 36 percent prayed "often" or "occasionally," and 64 percent "seldom" or "never."

Coincident with publication of the study, UU membership began a perecipitious decline, falling from a high of 281,000 in 1967 to a low of 171,000 in 1982. Though the liberal Protestant denominations suffered severe membership losses over the same period (averaging 20 percent), UU's staggering 40 percent decrease appeared to threaten extinction. Conservative Christianity, on the other hand, showed astonishing vigor and a new public assertiveness. Through the 1980s the liberal Protestant churches either continued to decline (at a reduced rate) or stagnated; UU membership, however, grew to 204,000 in 1993 (UUA 1993).

The Association surveyed its members again in 1987 (UUA 1989). UUs remained a high-SES group with respect to income (31 percent earning over $40,000), education (50 percent completing 17 or more years), and occupation.7 It also remained a convert body (86 percent). A majority (55 percent) claimed a "humanist/ existentialist" identity; 49 percent defined god as "some natural process, etc.;" but now only 20 percent judged the concept irrelevant or harmful. (Four percent accepted a supernatural definition of God.) With the religious practice question changed to "meditate or pray," 57 percent performed one or the other "often" or "occasionally," and 43 percent "seldom" or "never."

Together, the two surveys show a predominantly humanist orientation since merger, but with significantly fewer members by 1987 either unconcerned with or opposed to concepts of the divine, and with a near reversal in the proportion engaging in personal religious practice (perhaps an artifact of adding the word "meditate"). Combining both surveys with the results of an intervening continent-wide study (UUA 1979), responses to a question on Sunday services show a steady and marked increase from 1966 to 1987 in the importance to UUs of more conventional aspects of religion (see Table 1).

While the consistently high value assigned to "Intellectual stimulation" indicates the continued salience of humanism, Table 1 also shows a striking increase over 20 years in the importance of "fellowship," "celebrating common values," and "participation and worship" [emphasis added]. The data suggest that this increase is linked to generational change; whereas older members in 1987 ranked intellectual stimulation higher than these other aspects of the church service, the reverse was the case for younger members (UUA 1989:18).8


Combined Survey Responses to the Question:
"How important to you are the following aspects of attending church service?"


Aspect of ServiceYearVery ImportantSomewhat ImportantNot Important
Intellectual Stimulation196774%23%3%
Celebrating Common Values1967304921
Group Experience of Participation and Worship1967244333

UU leaders in the 1980s began to call for the Association's "spiritual" revitalization. At the height of humanist hegemony in the 1960s, UU activism in the civil rights and antiwar movements imbued members with a sense of shared identity and purpose. In the 1970s, however, UU joined the liberal Protestant churches in retreating from projects of large-scale social change. Members focused on personal growth, introducing into UU the various self-development systems of the human potential movement. It was during this decade that the liberal churches experienced their steepest decline in membership. Its prime cause soon became clear: the baby-boom cohort's massive defection from organized religion (Hoge and Roozen 1978; Wuthnow 1976).

Anticipating substantial reaffiliation as the children of the "sixties generation" reached church-school age, UU leaders in the 1980s implemented a growth strategy targeting the cohort. Central to this effort was opening UU to a "new spirituality" consistent with the residual countercultural values of many in this generation. These include "direct experience and intuition" over "abstract reasoning," awareness of the "true inner self," and "living in accord with the monistic assumption that all life is united and all existence is one" (Tipton 1982:14-20). In Born Again Unitarian Universalism, prominent UU minister and theologian F. Forrester Church issued an urgent appeal.

What is called for, today more than ever before, is something like a new spiritual consciousness. A consciousness of our interdependencies, upon one another and between ourselves and all that lives and sustains life here on earth (1987:69).

Female ministers served as an important channel for this message at the congregational level. Constituting 38 percent of seminarian studying for UU ministry in 1976, by 1979 females outnumbered males at 51 percent. The upward trend continued into the 1990s: 1984 (57 percent), 1989 (63 percent), and 1991 (67 percent).9 As the clergy feminized, new cult movements gained support and legitimacy in UU churches.

A New Spirituality

While the liberal Protestant denominations partially ingested elements of recent cult movements (e.g., meditation, healing rituals, religio-therapy, feminist conceptions of divinity, etc.), UU swallowed many of them whole. Several of these movements won official recognition by the UUA Board of Trustees as Independent Affiliate Organizations (IAOs), with chapters in UU churches across North America.10

Despite their apparent variety, these movements share a "monistic meaning system" affirming "the latent metaphysics unit, or oneness, of all existence..."(Robbins and Anthony 1990:491-93). Similarly, Beckford (1984:269) identifies an imagery of "holism [that] provides a context of ultimate meaning for human life by stressing the interdependence between the bodily, spiritual, and material dimensions of the human life-World." Like transcendentalism, the cult movements now active in UU are forms of mysticism. As such, they espouse what may be termed a theology of interdependence and immanence — the view that reality is an interconnected whole whose essence is divine; that human beings embody a "seed" or "spark" of the divine, and that, therefore, each person is sacred.

Personal observation of the 1991 UUA General Assembly (June 20-25, Hollywood, Florida) confirmed the high visibility of recent cult movements at the Association level. The exhibit hall offered a veritable smorgasbord of information on contemporary cults, with staffers in colorfully decorated booths distributing literature on Zen Buddhism, Native American spirituality, new age, and neopaganism.

A pamphlet distributed by the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) described neopaganism as a "usually pantheistic, and almost always earth-centered [spirituality] which borrows and adapts from the best of pre-Christian paganism, as well as utilizing (sic) the thought of contemporary religious thinkers." A Psi Symposium flyer announced a program sponsored by its Greater Boston Chapter titled "Making Sense of the World's Political Climate Through Astrology:"

This program will combine the effects of both astrology and spirituality on the World's situation. [The speakers] will discuss the effect Pluto's transit is having on the World, the coincidences binding the USA's and Iraq's political leadership, and how all this is affected by sun signs.

Judging by the stir it created, the high point of the Assembly came not at any of the scheduled events but at an impromptu summer solstice celebration led by CUUPS members at midnight on the beach behind the conference hotel. Participants danced and chanted inside a ring of seaweed. The following day a UU minister led a program called "What's Spirituality and How Can I Get Some?"

Field research conducted by the author from 1990 to 1992 at UUCA in Atlanta indicated the inroads made by the new spirituality at the church level. A locally controversial meeting-place in the 1950s and 60s for liberals active in the civil rights and antiwar movements, UUCA remained predominantly humanist by the late 1980s.11 By the early 1990s, however, members involved in new cult movements enjoyed the active support of the church's senior and associate ministers. Male and female, respectively, they promoted Native American religion and neopaganism as analogs to their principal doctrine: process theology.

A CUUPS chapter formed, as did a Zen study group. A new age group ("Explorations in Spirituality") promised in a repeating newsletter blurb to teach interested members "everything you always wanted to know about mandalas, mantras, meditation, chakras, colors, crystals, music, energy balancing auras, healing, and more."

The Humanism-Spirituality Conflict

UUs active in the various new cult movements face a common internal antagonist — secular humanists. Starting in the mid-1980s, the "dogmatic" humanist commitment to rationalism came under increasing attack by UU clergy, conference speakers, and letter writers to the Association journal, World. For their part, humanists denounced the new spirituality as regressive, a backward slide to superstition. The humanism-spirituality conflict was joined.

Simmering tensions came to a boil when an article by UUA President William Schulz titled "Unitarian Universalism in a New Key," appeared in the World (January/February, 1990:4-7). Signaling the turn toward spirituality, he offered a decidedly religious definition of UU.

Unitarian Universalism affirms that Creation is too grand, too complex, and mysterious to be captured in a narrow creed....At the same time our convictions about Creation lead us to other affirmations: That Creation itself is Holy — the earth and all its creatures, the stars in all their glory; That the Sacred or Divine, the Precious and Profound, are made evident not in the miraculous or supernatural but in the simple and everyday; That human beings, joined in collaboration with the gifts of Grace, are responsible for the planet and its future....

Shulz's remarks generated considerable controversy. A subsequent issue of the World (November/December, 1990) devoted a special section to reader responses, pro and con. One one hand, a reader found Schulz's definition "beautifully expressed and cogent." Another said Schulz had distilled "the clearest, most articulate essence of Unitarian Universalism known to me." Yet another applauded his "recognition that our movement cannot move forward without articulations of our faith."

On the other hand, a writer asked "whether Schulz's music can be arranged so as not to sound discordant to those of us who do not capitalize 'Creation,' who don't know what he means by 'the very evidences of God,' and who are not inclined to supplement reason with 'the Holy.'" A self-identified humanist challenged Schulz's assertion that UU essentially affirms the "complex majesty of Creation," rather than freedom of religious belief.

Most emphatically I propose that the "bedrock" is individual freedom. First, we must be free to seek knowledge and develop our beliefs; only then can we understand and appreciate the universe.

A lifelong member complained:

I was born a Unitarian and for years have thought of myself as a Unitarian Universalist, so it is worrisome to find that the head of the denomination draws a circle that excludes me....

Another critic objected to Schulz's apparent proclamation "that spiritual touchy-feely theology is the future direction of our denomination and that atheistic-agnostic hardheads better get the message," adding:

I got the message and I don't like it one bit. I do not agree that our denomination must go in the spiritual direction in order to gain more membership. In fact, I think that is a way to lose current members and alienate potential ones.

F. Forrester Church poked a stick into the core of the humanist anthill when he delivered a speech titled "A New Humanism" (Church 1991:3-13) to the 1990 General Assembly meeting of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists (HUUmanists), the IAO for humanist UUs. Church provocatively denounced the "old humanism" as "elitist, snobbish, intellectually driven, and individualistic in its thrust." At the following year's meeting, the HUUmanists president lamented the widespread and irate criticism within UU of humanism.

Humanists have been put down in the movement and we do not deserve to be put down. We are absolutely committed to pluralism in the denomination.

Oriented to scientific-technical rationality, UU humanists naturally reacted with particular hostility to cult movements associated with pre-modernity and including occult elements (i.e. neopaganism and new age). A single issue of the World (January/February 1992) containing an article about a UU witch and another titled "Celebrating the Goddess Within" provoked the following reader responses:

Once I was proud to be an Unitarian Universalist, and I could not understand why others thought us silly. But after reading the articles on [a] self-proclaimed witch, and a commentary on worshipping the goddess within, I not only understand, I agree....I am disturbed by the increase in mysticism and "new age" philosophy in our churches....There are limits to tolerance (World, May/June 1992:3)


....I am concerned about a revival of witches and witchcraft, even in the earliest meaning of wise woman/healer.... UUs are often considered a far-out sect; let's not give our critics a chance to level more derision our way.

At mid-decade, humanists generally appear to regard as a fait accompli the Association's assimilation of new cult movements. Indeed, rather than criticize the new spirituality, UU humanists now tend to denounce their own past intolerance and seek conciliation. The featured speaker at the 1991 HUUmanists meeting anticipated this chastened attitude in his concluding remarks:

Humanist thinking needs to add to its rationalist preoccupations an appreciative acknowedgement of those tacit expressions of knowing and understanding that constitute the so-called transrational12realm. Without this develoment, humanist rituals and ceremonies — in short, humanist aesthetics, will remain truncated (Arisian 1991).

Under the title "Confessions of a Bigoted Atheist," the World (November/December 1993:21) published an emblematic expression of humanist contrition.

For many of us, including me, agnosticism and atheism were synonymous with Unitarian Universalism, and we'd fight for them with little tolerance for other views....I'm glad to report that in the last few years this situation is turning around.

Offended by this writer's "predictable description of humanists as intolerant fighters of a war on spiritualists for church control," an "affirmative humanist" concluded his letter to the editor with a plaintive appeal.

Please stop stereotyping humanism by painting all those who ascribe to the belief system as intolerant, disruptive, and confrontational. Leave a place for humanists. We need sanctuary in this society more than most (World, March/April 1994:4)

From the bishop's palace to begging sanctuary at the church door, UU humanism's fall from grace vividly indicates the powerful impact on UU of recent cult movements.

Discussion and Conclusion

Though beginning life as two liberal Christian denominations, UU emerged genetically disposed, as it were, to manifest cult characteristics. Its distinctiveness at inception consisted in making reason the test of belief. Differing over the reasonableness of particular elements of traditional doctrine, these liberal Christians embraced the principle of individual freedom of belief, as well as its corollary — acceptance of differing views. These two principles opened the movement to a pluralizing series of new religious and secular belief systems. In 1894 Unitarianism issued its declaration against creed, and in 1917 Universalism adopted its Declaration of Social Principles and Social Programs. No longer the movement's unifying doctrine, rational Christianity became one option among others.

The ideological center then shifted to secular humanism. Sunday services in the 1960s resembled academic gatherings. Typically addressing philosophical, psychological, or sociopolitical issue, "sermons" prompted sometimes highly argumentative "talkback" sessions, pitting ministers against congregants, and congregants against one another; taboos proscribed the use of language associated with traditional religion (e.g. God, holy, sacred, grace, etc.). Reporting the results of the UUA's first survey after merger, Newsweek in 1967 derisively termed UUs "atheists who have not shaken the church habit."

But the principles of individual authority and acceptance and differing views eventually forced even UU humanism to acquiesce in its own deposal after new cult movements breached its defenses. Exemplifying the process Talcott Parsons termed "value generalization" (1977:307-13), the UU "Principles" adopted in 1985 codified a system of meaning and value sufficiently catholic to encompass liberal Christians, secular humanists, Zen practitioners, and lately even new agers and neopagans. Members displayed bumper stickers proclaiming "To question is the answer," a motto eminently suited to radically individualistic seekers united only in their devotion to the worth, rights, and development of the person.

Vulnerability to External Belief Systems

UU retains denominational structures, but it behaves in cultlike fashion with respect to belief and belonging. As to belief, individual authority permits members to pick and choose as they like from religion, philosophy, and science in customizing a personally satisfying Worldview.

"Epistemological individualism" accomodates the seekers UU attracts, but it also result in an ill-defined identity and indistinct boundaries (Wallis 1974:304-5).13 Cult identity is vague because "[t]here is not locus of authority beyond the individual which is vested with a right to determine heresy;" boundaries in turn are indistinct because leaders may not apply "authoritative tests of either doctrine or practice." Like the cult, UU is in principle open to all who at least minimally affirm its diffuse system of belief.

Concerning belonging, radically individualistic seekers are far more interested in what the religious community can do for them than in what they can do for the community.

Cultic movements face a problem of commitment. Each is viewed as one among a range of paths to truth or salvation rather than as a unique path....The involvement of the membership thus tends to be temporary, occasional, and segmentary (Wallis 1974:307-8).

UU clergy and Association officials perennially bemoan low commitment on the part of the membership. A few indicators suggest its severity: The second-highest income earners among North American religious groups, UUs rank lowest in financial giving to their churches; approximately 95 percent of those raised UU eventually disaffiliate; and three-fourths of those responding to the the latest continent-wide survey (UUA 1989:38) admitted that their church participation was either moderate (24 percent), low (24 percent), or nil (25 percent).

Given such fragile bonds, UU churches violate the principle of acceptance of differing views at their peril.14However unwillingly, members who define UU as an "Enlightenment-scientific-democratic syndrome of values" (Bartlett and Bartlett 1968:8) must either share the sanctuary with new agers and neopagans or switch to the American Humanist Association.

Ideological Affinity

Potentially open to a range of external belief systems, UU assimilated only a particular set of new cult movements: American Zen, new age, Native American spirituality, and neopaganism. Though differing in important ways, these movements share the mystical theology of interdependence and immanence. Mysticism facilitated their entry into a group dominated by secular humanists in four ways: (1) as heirs to the mystical tradition established by transcendentalism, they inherited both its legitimacy and its constituency; (2) they affirmed the exceptional value of the person; (3) they upheld the authority of the individual and the acceptance of differing views; and (4) they embodied a religiosity compatible with modern rationality.

Belief in a supernatural God had all but disappeared in UU when humanism consolidated control in the early 1960s. According to the UUA, among the surviving "theological emphases" was "mystical religion," a slightly updated version of the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

[UU mystics are] focused upon attaining direct intuitions of oneness and relatedness with nature and/or the divine. The universe is characterized by a unity that man may experience directly by cultivating the proper sensitivities. Such experiences, for the mystic, are of greater value than any subsequent intellectual formulations (UUA 1963:25-26).

The spirituality of UU's new cult movements is similarly centered on intuition of the presumed unity and interdependence of reality; it also regards nature as particularly evocative of mystical experience. Theological kinship with the spiritual tradition founded by Emerson conferred a measure of legitimacy even on new cult movements associated with premodernity and "tainted" by occult elements. Though a mystic constituency apparently existed in UU before integration of these movements, its size cannot be estimated.

Mystics affirm, on theological grounds, the exceptional value of the person. If "all finite beings have their existence within God, who is the ground of the soul, the 'seed' or 'spark' of all creatures" (Campbell 1977:382), then humans not only embody divinity but, as self-aware beings, may nurture it to the point of achieving personal identity with the divine. As mystics, UUs involved in the new cult movements sacralize the individual because they regard the inner person and the divine as one (cf. footnore 5).

Liberal Christians embraced freedom of belief and tolerance because individuals differed over thereasonableness of doctrine. Mysticism transforms religion into a "purely personal and inward experience" (Troeltsch 1931). Mystics, therefore, uphold the religious authority of the individual and the acceptance of differing views because individual mystics differ over what constitutes true religious experience.

To the mystic, religion is not a cognitive but an experiential matter; it is an inward and ineffable sense of unity with the All. Consequently, mystics disdain reason as not only irrelevant but contrary to true religion. As transcendentalists condemned "rational" Christianity, UU spirituality proponents denounced the rational bias of secular humanism. The persistence of mysticism in this reason-exalting movement suggests, however, that the two are in practice compatible with one another.

That both vest the individual with authority in matters of belief has been noted. In addition, since mystical belief rests on the experience of oneness, mysticism shares modern rationality's preference for empirically verifiable knowledge. For the mystic, "God, in a final and irrefutable way, is before the apprehending mind" (Ahlstrom and Carey 1985:7).

Demographic Change

The following remarks by three UU ministers credited with fostering significant growth of their congregations appeared in an article titled "How To Make Our Congregations Grow" (World, January/February 1992:12-17).

Unless we once again take hold of a theological meaning system that is relevant to our age and to the current generation, I fear that we risk becoming a footnote in American church history.

I sense a deep seated spiritual hunger in our society....I think our churches are beginning to respond to people's questions in ways that have meaning, especially to younger adults....

Younger people, roughly those born after World War II, have a whole different culture,and our churches are not necessarily willing to change to fit their needs. If we continue the same outworn motif that still predominate in many of our churches, we are going to lose a whole generation that comes to us looking for something positive.

The message was clear: To grow, UU churches must turn from the secular humanism of its older members to the spirituality of disaffiliated baby boomers.15

Two demographic changes encouraged UU's opening to new cult movements. The chief and most obvious of these is the mere existence of millions of unchurched baby boomers reaching child-rearing age in the 1980s; educated, individualistic, and religiously privatized, they appeared to represent a potential membership bonanza for the "quintessential boomer church" (Newsweek, 17 December 1990).16

Also important was the cultural impact on UU of the rapid influx of women into ministry beginning in the late 1970s. With the aid of a workshop series on goddess spirituality and feminist witchcraft — "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven," produced by the UUA in 1986 — female clergy served as the principle conduit into UU of neopaganism. Feminist ministers, female and male, fired the first salvos in the assault on humanism, denouncing its "patriarchal" rationality. As more and more females occupied pulpits vacated by retiring males, the humanist grip on UU weakened while new cult movements gained increasing legitimacy.

For nearly two centuries UU has influenced American culture in a manner greatly disproportionate to the number of its adherents. It has done so by adopting and nurturing a series of fledgling religious and social movements that, lacking its institutional haven, may have flown a shorter distance or never taken wing at all.

Its recent assimilation of mystical cult movements can be located, descriptively, in this larger historical context. The objective of my analysis has been to show that this seemingly improbable development may be understood, sociologically, as due to the combination of three factors: UU's fundamental affirmation of the exceptional value of the individual, its cultlike character with respect to belief and belonging, and comtemporary demographic change.



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Thanks are due to Frank J. Lechner, Nancy T. Ammerman, Steven M. Tipton, Gary Allen Fine, Richard B. Robinson, Robert Tapp and Stephen Warner.

1 With approximately 900 members, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Atlanta (UUCA) is the largest UU congregation in the Southeast. Considered a bellwether in the North American Association of UU churches, it afforded favorable opportunities for close observation of continent-wide trends of change.

2 For a review of this work, see the section titled "Recent sociological conceptions of "cult" in Robbins (1988: 150-160).

3 For definitions of the cult generally consistent with this, see Campbell (1977), McGuire (1992), Richardson (1979), Swatos (1981), and Wallis (1974).

4 The remainder include: "Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; The right of conscience and the use of democratic practice within our congregations and in society at large; The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part."

5 Westley (1978, 1983) contends that a number of the human potential movements of the 1970s (e.g. Scientology, Arica, Silva Mind Control, est) qualify as Durkheimian "cult of man" groups since they uphold the "central belief" that each person embodies "...a Higher Self, Essence, or Being that transcends the world." Thus, she concludes, they hold the human individual as sacred" (1983:25-32). As Durkheim defined the cult of the individual, however, the "exceptional value" of the person does not depend on supernatural or other exraordinary qualities.

6 This finding is consistent with studies going as far back as the 1920s. Analyzing the religious affiliation of persons whose biographies appeared in the 1926 edition of Who's Who In America, Huntington and Whitney (1927) found that, per 100,000 adherents, Unitarians topped the list with 1,288 biographies, followed by Universalists (413) and Episcopalians (174). Lehman and Witty (1931) found 81 times as many distinguished Unitarian scientists as expected according to the proportion of members in the U.S. population. (Universalism and the Quakers ranked second, each with seven times as many expected.) Analysis of the 1985 edition of Who's Who in America (Selth 1987) showed that Unitarian Universalism led with 503 biographies per 100,000 members, followed by the Quakers (208) and Episcopalians (115.5).

7 Though now slightly below Jews in median annual income, UUs still rank first when occupation, home ownership, education, and income are combined to index "social standing" (Kosmin and Lachman 1993: 256-67).

8 Unfortunately, the report simply dichotomized age as above or below 30 years.

9 Source: Ann Scott and Carloyn Kemmett, UUA, Boston.

10 After gaining IAO status in 1970, the Unitarian Universalist Psi Symposium shifted in the 1980s from an initial focus on paranormal phenomena to new-age concerns, e.g., metaphysics, astrology, holistic health, spiritual development, meditation, auras, chakras, crystals, etc. The Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS), and IAO since 1987, links UUs involved in the various divisions of neopaganism.

11 Seventy-three percent of those responding to a Congregational Identity Survey ranked "intellectual stimulation" above all other reasons given for attending church services and meetings (UUCA 1988).

12 The concept is central to the theology of F. Forrester Church:

For too long, those of us with skeptical temperaments have contented ourselves with a false distinction, namely that anything not susceptible to rational proof is by definition irrational. What we tend to overlook is that beyond the rational and irrational lies a transrational realm. The rational realm includes everything that can be ascertained as fact, the irrational everything that can be disproved according to the same criteria; distinct from both, the transrational realm arches beyond the scope of our analytical capacity to parse the creation. (1991:10-11)

13 Recognizing this dilemma, the Association three decades ago warned that UU might appear to outsiders as "little more than a cheery affirmation of everything in general and nothing in particular" (UUA 1963:164).

14 The survey indicated that members rank acceptance of differing views second only to individual authority in the scale of important UU principles.

15 With half of its members over 55 years old, a high death rate, a low birth rate, and an extraordinary inability to retain its youth, UU must recruit large numbers just to maintain membership at current levels.

16 Though membership increased by 33,000 between 1982 and 1993, available UUA statistics give no indication of the number of unchurched baby boomers who joined during these years.


This article is reprinted from Sociology of Religion, volume 56, number 4 (1995), pages 379-396, Copyright © 1995 by The Association for the Sociology of Religion. It was subsequently reprinted in Religious Humanism,vol. 30, nos. 1 & 2, winter/spring 1996, p. 7-29, with permission of the author.