The Limitations of Free Religionism and Creedlessness

A February 15th article in the Chicago Tribune about the Unitarian Universalist Assocation’s recent advertising push, describes the problems with the Association’s “Free Religionist” stance quite well.

The Rev. Jennifer Owen-O’Quill, 37, minister at Second Unitarian Church, said all that diversity can leave people feeling lost. “We’re going to give you the opportunity to explore all the religious wisdom in all the world — and good luck,” she said. “That doesn’t really help people form themselves as religious people.”

This is an unavoidable liability in a nominally creedless religion, which does very little except provide people the leeway to explore. One might reasonably ask, in a country where the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause already gives us “the opportunity to explore all the religious wisdom in all the world,” is there really a need for this sort of thing?

But, there are also questions about whether the de jure creedlessness of the Association translates to a de facto creedlessness. Some more traditional Unitarians and Universalists complain of an unspoken anti-theist dogma pervading the organization.

The same Tribune article explains:

When [Association president Rev. William] Sinkford suggested in a speech in Texas a few years ago that the church needed to reclaim the language of reverence and holiness from conservative Christians, it sparked much debate amid fears that he was trying to shoehorn God back into every Unitarian church.

Thus, in spite of the oft-expressed virtue of respecting all religious beliefs, there is still an undertone of suspicion and negativity against theism. Often this is glossed over by appealing to other (and quite laudable) forms of acceptance and diversity, like race and family status, as in the vaguely non sequitur sentiment expressed in this postcard from Tampa Bay Association members:

What the people shown represent, of course, is not a diversity of beliefs. This display of non-ideological diversity, though quite admirable and progressive, leaves open the question of UU’s true attitude toward diversity of belief.

However, the Association’s famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) late 2007 advertising campaign clearly implies an intolerant stigma against theism, and certainly runs counter to the idea of being accepting of other people’s beliefs:


Maybe you’re uncomfortable with the idea of God — or at least someone else’s idea of God.

Of course, being adamantly Unitarian in our theology, AUR sees nothing wrong with rejecting someone else’s ideas of God. But, we also do not make unqualified blanket statements about embracing other beliefs. This would be dishonest, and not in keeping with a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

AUR’s clearly-articulated idiomatic approach to religion—that the language and imagery one uses to talk about God and spirituality is not as important as the meaning of a single all-reconciling Source of the universe—embraces certain other beliefs, and rejects others. Viewing creed as a matter of idiom allows for broad ecumenism that reaches out to the good in other religions.

But we believe that the conceit of complete creedlessness sews the seeds of a philosophically lawless culture where unspoken prejudices become a sort of secret dogma, unchallengeable because it is unspoken.