If I hold some kind of transcendent beliefs, but don't feel the need to gather with others, I'm 'spiritual but not religious.' What about the flipside: people without those beliefs who want to gather as humans?

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About two years ago, I was sitting in my AP Human Geography class as my teacher introduced the religion unit of the course. In the process of discussing religion as an anthropological phenomenon, he asked how many of us in the class attended church every Sunday. I, a relatively outspoken nonbeliever well into my “edgy atheist” phase, tentatively raised my hand—only to find that I was the only one in the class who had done so.

As my teacher noted this and continued his lesson, I felt myself shifting in my seat. Wait, I wanted to say, that’s not the full story. I don’t really … well, it’s complicated … I mean, I guess I do, but it’s not really like that…

My personal unease with accepting the label of devout Sunday practitioner of religion stemmed from my dual religious identity as atheist and Unitarian Universalist. Despite emerging in 1961 from the merger of two Christian sects (the Unitarians and, surprise, the Universalists), today the Unitarian Universalist Association has no unifying creed. Unitarian Universalists are united not by a common belief about divinity or an afterlife, but by common ethical values, including justice, compassion, and my personal favorite, a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

In some more Christian regions, outside observers can be forgiven for interpreting UUism as a progressive sect of Christianity. But where UU services are fully nonsectarian, or even explicitly secular, they hold a certain appeal for otherwise nonreligious people still seeking a congregational community, myself included. I, an atheist, would go to church each Sunday to talk about world religions in our religious education program, listen to “sermons” about the importance of compassion and justice, and sing “hymns” about protecting the environment and “letting the mystery be,” no theistic strings attached.

Those two religious identities didn’t always fit well together. Unitarian Universalism is still a religion and often retains many of the Christian religious trappings which could drive away nonbelievers, as it almost did to me. But what I did not know at the time, and am only beginning to learn now, is that humanism has always been one of the driving forces at the heart of Unitarian Universalism, and the history of the “living tradition” has been intimately intertwined with secularism and freethought since the beginning.

Appreciating a humanist past

The Unitarian Universalist Association was founded over 60 years ago as a religion without a creed because ultimately, a deity wasn’t necessary for them to believe that respecting one another and calling for justice were important. Those were the same values that drove the Humanist Manifesto in 1933 and its successors in 1983 and 2013. And they are the same values that created ideologically diverse pockets of humanist subculture across the United States.

This is perhaps uniquely apparent to David Breeden, minister of the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis. FUS jettisoned all religious language in 1916 as part of “going humanist” under minister John Deitrich, a prominent philosophical voice of humanism during the pre-merger Unitarians’ “Issue of the West” controversy in the early twentieth century. That controversy, which saw Deitrich and fellow nontheists from Unitarian congregations in the western states stand up to the theistic “Unitarian Christians” of the east, would set the stage for both the birth of large-scale humanism in the United States and the complete reorganization of Unitarianism.

“The first generation of humanists were not Harvard men,” David added. “Part of humanism is its Midwestern roots, because it always was not part of the power structure of the United States. There’s a very different view of where you are on the social scale.” Humanism slowly became wealthier and more “East Coast” in later generations, but David argued that it was at its core “a Chicago invention.”

In this sense, David claims that Unitarian Universalism as a tradition has actually spent decades “catching up” theologically to historically humanist groups like FUS. And many have a long way to go. My east coast UU church (which David was quick to point out as lingering Protestant verbiage) conducted its “worship services” in a “sanctuary,” and I was only able to work my way around the language to derive meaning from the “sermons” because that had been the language I was raised with. To other nontheists and members of non-Christian religious traditions, the similarities are far more stark.

This is something with which Amanda Poppei is intimately familiar. Before the former president of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association assumed her current ministerial position with the UU Church of Arlington, Virginia in 2020, she served as leader of the Washington Ethical Society for 12 years. WES holds joint membership in both the American Ethical Union and the UUA, bringing UU and Ethical Culture, an explicitly nontheistic “religious” tradition that predates the UUA by more than eight decades.

With experience in both traditions, she described in a 2020 piece for The Humanist how she often feels “like the most religious person in secular gatherings and the most secular person in religious gatherings.”

Despite Unitarian Universalism including far more theists than Ethical Culture, Amanda has found many similarities between the two traditions. She described both as the “main congregational versions” of secular communities, adding that they both “embrace atheists, agnostics, and humanists.” For its part, Ethical Culture was and remains a much more distinct tradition that “does not hold an interest in reimagining old traditions.” Unitarian Universalism, on the other hand, is an “evolutionary religion” with often clear Protestant underpinnings. As Amanda describes it, “a Protestant tradition that kept protesting its way out of Protestantism.”

Nurturing a humanist present

Both groups have their positive and negative aspects for humanists, but Amanda acknowledges that Unitarian Universalism can be harder to get involved with. An explicitly humanist space, like Ethical Culture, affords humanists (especially those with religious trauma) to join in a meaningful community without needing to endure navigating through religious language. If a humanist feels comfortable, however, Unitarian Universalism offers a more direct connection with people who hold differing theological views while maintaining the same ethical values.

To Amanda, these differences are largely limited to presentation: Unitarian Universalism is “more formal in its liturgy, but the sermons I give are largely the same.” David, however, argued to me that these language differences are more profound than many UUs might imagine.

In a 2016 piece for UUWorld, he wrote that “I don’t feel that I can use the term “god”—or any of its, shall we say, “wiggle words”—with any personal integrity or authenticity.” The “wiggle words” that he references abound in UU circles. “God” has often been removed, but references to “divinity” or “the spirit of life” or “the mystery called by many names” remain in force. In an attempt to appeal to all flavors of theism (and, as those who may use the term would argue, nontheism), these terms have become the new theological language of the tradition.

But David argues that in glossing over theological differences, terms like these inadvertently argue that they don’t exist. “I think it makes it easier not to think it through. You know, I can be vaguely theistic today, I can be vaguely agnostic tomorrow…that should be a wrenching decision, because there’s a big difference between those two things.”

This is where Leika Lewis-Cornwell, the current president of the UUHA and self-described “mystic humanist,” comes in. In an address to the Washington Ethical Society in 2019, they referenced (among others) one thing that could bridge what she termed the humanist-theist gap: wonder.

“We all have those moments where we see a close-up of a cell or a sunset or another person or a math equation…where our entire being is just stunned. I don’t think that’s something that should be reserved just for people in theistic communities,” they argued. Each person deserves the right to the process of “meaning-making” in “community,” whatever meaning or community they see fit.

Imagining a humanist future

Religious humanists, all three of my interviewees argued, were uniquely positioned to bridge that “humanist-theist gap,” and to connect the two communities on whose cusps they live. And especially in an age of rising white Christian nationalism, both secular and religious people need all the allies they can get.

Leika used two terms to describe how “insular communities” can fail both their members and their potential allies: compulsion and condescension, compulsion being the coercive creed that prescribes “a path that must be followed rigidly” and condescension being the mindset that “my way is the best way, so it’s worth belittling other people and shaming other people to make them understand that their way is wrong.”

These traits are easy for the secular community to spot in religious spaces, but they can be less apparent in humanist spaces, even when they are apparent to outsiders. They added that it was only natural for any group of like-minded people to believe that way, especially on matters of religion, but concluded that “we as a community cannot be so arrogant that we don’t acknowledge what we have to learn.”

David shared a similar message, drawing from his experience with interfaith work in Minneapolis’s Downtown Senior Clergy. “They know I’m a humanist, they know I’m an atheist,” he says, “… and they respect me and my ideas because they know I’ve thought it through.” United in the hope for true social justice, FUS has bridged the humanist-theist gap and united people of faith and no faith toward a common cause.

Driving that unity is a simple sentiment: “Respect the hell out of everyone no matter what they believe…people matter more than ideas.”

And those ideas may even get in the way of secular communities recognizing that their allies may be closer than they think. Amanda, who hosted the first Humanist Clergy Collaboratory in 2017, convened the event because she saw that many congregational groups branded themselves either religious (like Unitarian Universalism) or secular (like Ethical Culture) and largely operated within those terms. As such, congregational humanists had largely splintered themselves.

“People find their sphere and have a hard time getting out of it,” she told me of the experience. The border-crossing there was not so much a bridging of beliefs as a bridging of language, with congregations spanning from Humanistic Judaism to Sunday Assembly and all flavors of humanist in between.

In each congregation’s language, a common value was apparent: hope. “You should have some language that is meaningful to you,” Amanda said, “but you don’t have to embrace all religious language.” Gaining meaning from religious language is not important, but gaining meaning from a language of your choosing is.

“So much of the nationalism and the white supremacy we see today is rooted in fear and loss, and people need something different that they can think is beautiful and possible,” she added. “Painting imaginative futures is part of what religious people do…and it can be part of what humanist leaders do as well.”

Part of embracing that beautiful possibility, however, is embracing our very concrete responsibility to create it. This responsibility may even involve confronting the term “humanist” itself, which Leika described as a “problematic term” for seemingly centering humans at the expense of the natural world, but added that it was one which “at least for now, we’re kind of stuck with.” 

The merit in the term, they argued, was not in centering humans, but in “we as humans centering our responsibility to each other, to the planet, and to the universe.” And this provides yet another opportunity for bridging that gap, as those responsibilities “don’t require, but they also don’t exclude, the supernatural.”

Recognizing those common experiences and connecting over beauty, wonder, and responsibility provide the most substantial opportunities for creating common ground with theists to pursue our common goals together. “I think that religious humanism has a huge role to play in that,” Leika added, “but I don’t think it has an exclusive role.

All three acknowledged that UU humanism still has a long way to go. It still needs to confront its complacency with Protestant language, and could afford to structure that “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” a bit more. But situated squarely at the joint of the societal arms of religion and humanism, it may be equipped to bridge the gap between those two arms to create a coalition capable of mobilizing against dominionism and Christian nationalism to protect both communities.

In a 2006 piece for UUWorld, the late William Murry, a UU humanist leader of the previous generation, referenced a quote by Carl Sagan: “A religion that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

Murry believed that “humanistic religious naturalism” was that religion, a philosophy that redirected its reverence from the supernatural to the natural, and called on humans to do right by it. Awe and wonder should not be experiences limited to those with a theological vocabulary by which to define it.

With exclusionary political philosophies on the rise, meeting our possible allies where they are is crucial. Religious humanism may provide the philosophical and linguistic tools to do just that. 

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Aidan Scully is an atheist and Unitarian Universalist from southeast Massachusetts who writes about religion and politics in antiquity and the modern age. He is currently pursuing an AB in classics, comparative...