Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Existential anxiety management requires different kinds of religion

The second set of warning signs which Charles Kimball mentions in his book, "When Religion Becomes Evil" are blind obedience, charismatic authority figures, enslavement to doctrines, withdrwal from society, and abdication of indiviual responsibility.

When members of a religion engage in the above practices evil is easy to perpetrate whether it is killing physicians who practice abortion, discriminating against people with same sex sexual orientation, condoning war and torture, and believing and promulgating non scientific ideas such as creationism based on myth and superstition.

The function of such religions is to enhance the power of the clergy by having members abdicate personal power to their jurisdiction. The leader then wields tremendous power in determining the fate of the group as well as the groups relaltionships with others. Jim Jones, David Koresh are severe examples but Robertson, Dobson, Falwell, Hagee and the Popes are milder versions of the same phenomenon.

Unitarian Universalism offers quite different dynamics to its members supporting the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, support for the democratic process, a recognition of the interdependent web of all existence, and a congregational polity which respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

James Fowler wrote a seminal book on the Stages Of Faith which outlines the psychology of people attracted to different religions and religious beliefs. More immature personalities are attracted to more fundamentalist religions because they provide an external structure to bind the existential anxiety of less autonomous people. More liberal religions tend to attract the more autonomous, mature personalities because they function more independently with internalized values and feel unduly contrained by external requirements.

One of the main functions of religion in society is to help individuals manage their existential anxiety and less mature individuals require more structured religions with more external control while more mature individuals prefer less structured religions with fewer external requirements.

For this reason Unitarian Universalism will never be a world class religion until human kind matures far beyond its current levels of individual autonomy.


  1. I have real mixed feelings about that. My personal experience does not indicate that people who want a structured religion are in any sense less mature than those who want a structured one. And I doubt that Fowler actually did a study to back his ideas up.

    Personally, I have always disagreed with the people who are always trying to add structure to UUism (e.g. People who want the seven principles to be a creed which people can be judged against or people who want to get rid of church polity and want the UUA to take a greater role in running churches). That said, while I think those people are incorrect about what is good for Unitarian Universalism, I don't think they are 'less mature' then those who disagree.

    Fowler's article seems like a "People who agree with me are mature and awesome, people who don't are immature fools" argument dressed up in philosophical terms.


  2. I can think of a few other reasons why Unitarian*Universalism will never be a "world class religion" to say nothing of "The Religion For Our Time™". . . I might add that The U*U Movement™ is not nearly as free from blind obedience, charismatic authority figures, enslavement to doctrines, withdrawal from society, and abdication of individual responsibility as many U*Us would like to believe. At least two of those failings play a significant role in the conflict I have been involved in for over 13 years now which has no end in sight due to U*U blind obedience to, or at least blind faith in, "less than excellent" U*U religious leaders. If a handful or two of individual U*Us, mostly U*U religious leaders, had accepted personal responsibility for their "mistakes" in the early stages of this conflict it could have been settled within a few months at most. In fact it is the ongoing obstinate refusal of U*U religious leaders, UUA administrators, and lay U*U church leaders to accept ANY personal responsibility for ANY of their now numerous "mistakes" which is probably the primary reason why this conflict continues to this very day and is likely to continue for some days, weeks and months to come.

  3. Dear Chalicechick:

    The words mature and immature are mine and not Fowler's, and I don't use them in a judgmental way but to describe levels of psychological development. Perhaps better words than mature would be aware and unaware. The social construction of the sacred domain which we call religious is, for most people, hidden, and most unaware people think that these constructions are "real" when in fact they are emphemeral and the product of social imaginations and behaviors. It takes very aware people to come to this insight. Less aware people tend to think more concretely and rigidly. The facticity, to use Peter Berger terms, that fundamentalist religions have answers based on social objects they have constructed and legitimated through referral to authoritative texts is a quite different approach to the world which for less aware people seems entirely plausible while religions that don't have absoute answers to existential questions and encourage individual exploration have less societal legitimization and much less plausibility in our current culture of rapid change which causes existential insecurity and leads insecure persons to look for reassurance and safety in stable and orderly social constructions.

  4. I don't think "aware" and "unaware" is more accurate or more helpful. I've known plenty of people who are aware of everything you describe, and could describe it themselves in even greater complexity, yet still prefer a more structured religion.

    I know plenty of Christians who view huge chunks of Christianity as metaphor. For them, that that social construction of the church is not the important part is not the unusual insight you seem to see it as. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that my parents started me on the "God is everywhere and can be worshiped lots of different ways. You're worshiping God when you're doing good things for other people. But going to a Presbyterian Church on Sunday is our favorite way of worshiping God and making sure we worship him at least once a week" school of thought when I was a very small child.

    There will always be people who use free religion as an excuse to design God in their own image, much as there will always be people who use structured religion to justify God hating all the same people they do.

    But I think those are the extremes. Or, to put it another way, if I'm aware that I have a test coming up but don't create some structure for myself, I tend not to study. If I make myself a schedule of what to study when, then I do study. Personally, I take a practice test, note where I'm weakest, study what I don't know well for awhile in slots of time dedicated to specific subjects ("tuesday at three I will study Promissory Estoppel"), then right before the test, make my study slots subjects I do know well as a reminder and to get my confidence up. Much like I'm perfectly aware that there are other ways to study or even arrange my studying within a schedule and those ways are valid, I know what method of study works for me.

    Is it so impossible that a great majority of even conservative Christians have simply found what works for them?

    (Yes, again, there are loud examples of people who claim that everyone who disagrees is going to hell. The world is never short of jerks. But that doesn't mean that the jerks speak for everybody. Unless you let them by only listening to them and judging everyone else on their words.)


  5. Dear Chalicechick:

    I wish we could sit down and discuss this topic together over a cup of coffee for an hour because it is a pretty subtle and nuanced topic and I am not sure that we have a disagreement although maybe we do.

    I am not sure what word would be more meaningful to you if you don't like maturity or awareness. My point is that some people seem to tolerate ambiguity and paradox better than others. My experience has been that more mature and aware people seem to do this better because they are less fightened of chaos or lack of social structure. This is more an emotional thing than an intellectual thing.

    I understand your point that some people don't believe the creed completely but still go to church because they get something out of the practice. What is it that they are getting that makes it worthwhile then for them to go? It performs some function for them and fulfills some purpose.

    Intellectually I did not agree with Roman Catholic doctrine and teachings but I continued to go to church for years and raised my children in the church. When I moved over to Unitarian Universalism it made a lot of sense to me but I still felt anxious leaving my life long faith tradition. The lack of structure in Unitarian Universalism was liberating but also unnerving because what I was getting involved in wasn't clear.

    Religion provides a context for people's lives, a way of organizing one's lived experience to make sense to the individual. Some religious models are more rigid and authoritative and others are more ambiguous and person centered. When people's lives are in chaos and they are in great pain they look for more structure and clearer answers and when things are going well, these meaning making processes are not so desparately desired.

    The question I am trying to work out is what kind of a personality would feel most resonant with a liberal model of religion as compared to someone who is more attracted to more absolutist fundamentalist formulations?

    All the best and thank you for the conversation,

    David Markham

  6. Thanks to you as well.

    I tend to think of it as "people who like structure" and "people who like less structure" and then each church has a healthy dose of people who might not be in the ideal faith but were raised in their current faith and have good friends and don't want to leave. And people who might have been raised in a good faith for them, but decided they didn't like it anyway for some other reason.

    Of course, even among UUs there are people who don't like the unstructured polity and do like the unstructured religion and vice versa. I see the two as necessary to one another, but my view is not unanimous. Far from it.