Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ask Harry - Why is UU a dying religion?

Harry Holleywood is an astute observer of life from a spiritual, psychological, and sociological perspective. He specializes in ethical concerns and offers encouragement to the confused, perplexed, curious, and seeking. Today there is a new category being inaugurated on this blog tagged "Ask Harry". If you have questions or topics for Harry leave a comment.

Question: Harry, why is Unitarian Universalism such a small denomination and why does it seem to be dying?

Answer: Have you noticed that human beings seem to more highly value things that are in short supply? You recall the economic principle of supply and demand? When things are in demand but the supply is small the value rises, right? When things are in high supply and demand falls, the value decreases. It seems that Unitarian Universalism is too easy a religion. It requires very little from its adherents and so it is perceived as having very little value. In other words Unitarian Universalism is a cheap religion which anybody can join and it asks very little, almost nothing, from you. Therefore, it holds very little attraction and offers very little benefit for members.

Other religions promise God's love, economic benefits in this life, heaven in the next life, liberation from guilt and shame, and quick and easy instructions for a better life. How does Unitarian Universalism compete with that?

Some UUs say that the answer to the dwindling numbers is what they call "Radical Hospitality" but this is illusory because what are we inviting people to join into? Hospitality to what? Nobody seems to know or if they know they can't articulate it very well.

So if people ask, and its an appropriate question, "What is Unitarian Universalism?", nobody can say. It's anything from Atheism to Christianity, from Earth religions to consumerism. People who want to know walk away confused.

Unitarian Universalism is dying because it doesn't really stand for anything. As the bumper sticker says, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." We are living in a difficult and confusing time in human history. Things are changing very rapidly. Many people are scared and they don't even know what to be scared of. The insecure and those who feel inferior are looking for answers, they are looking for orderly principles to use to organize their lives in times of great social transition. Religion provides the answers to life's big questions. UU seems to have little to offer and so it is dying. Other religions have their iconic gurus whether it's Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, Moses, or Mammon. Unitarian Universalism is sorely lacking. People are thrown back on their own devices and in their terror they want reassurance from some authority figure who promises to take care of them and solve their problems.

So, my friend, UUs are orphans in the world, wandering aimlessly looking for answers and waiting for the next thing to happen. With so little to offer, there are very few buyers. Why are you surprised at this?


  1. David, I can't accept the premise that UU is dying, but I'll agree that we're at a critical crossroads, and we do need to finally, collectively address just "what kind" of religious liberalism we seek to embrace and advance. Duncan Howlett's book "The Critical Flaw (-- at the Heart of Religious Liberalism)" addressed this need for us to finally get off the fence and stop trying to simultaneously be both a modifying faith and a full-fledged, "thorough-going" liberal faith of unprecedented diversity, where the quest for truth is indeed a sacrament.

    It appears to me that those congregations of UU that cling to a primary model of modified Christianity -- especially in the Northeastern U. S. -- are holding back the rest of the movement. Those are the places that are showing the greatest decline, reflecting a trend that also is weighting down our friends at UCC and other mainline Christian denominations (of similar modifying tendencies), and our spiritual cousins in the United Kingdom, as well.

    No, UU is not necessarily dying, and it does have a lot to offer. This is reflected in scattered pockets of robust growth. In order to do so as a "movement," however, we must first commit ourselves to being weaned away from all (institutionalized) Christocentric biases -- to move from a liberal partialism to a true universalism -- in order to become the richly diverse, critically-thinking and ethically united faith-alternative that it can be. In this regard, we would do well to study carefully the message of Duncan Howlett -- and the passionate, prophetic liberal ministries of A. Powell Davies and of John Wolf. We need to see that when we are truly able to embrace the uniqueness of a liberal faith which is interested in far more than just constantly refilling and patching the potholes on the inadequate and crumbling roadbeds of a outmoded liberal Christianity, then we can truly begin to spread our wings and offer this faster-moving, rapidly shrinking world the kind of "saving" faith it needs. But, until we do finally hop off of that fence and take the full plunge into a thorough-going kind of liberal-religious faith community, seems to me that what we'll be offering is just more mixed messages and a confused mission.


  2. First, thank you David for your thoughtfulness and for your courage in addressing the issues that bedevil us.

    I can't say if UUism is dying; it certainly is not growing--not even keeping up with the population growth.

    I disagree that UUism has nothing to offer. The alternative is to accept an authority that we might not be able to accept. People who believe that the Bible is without flaws would not want to be UUs. Looking at it another way UUism is an existential religion because it says that we are responsible for ourselves. Not many people want to be responsible for themselves, they want a higher power to take care of them. They are Children of God, not Adults of God.

    Like a nuclear reactor that is housed within a containment vessel, a Unitarian church is a containment vessel for our various beliefs or lack of beliefs. It is--or should be--a place where we can find our own way, learn from others, and receive feedback regarding our personal truths.

    UUism is for people who THINK.

  3. Frankly, David, I think UUism offers far more than most people are willing to accept. I think Harry is off the mark.

  4. David,

    Regarding the differences in regional growth trends, I wonder if we're seeing a demographic "tipping point" in New England. Here's a link to recent blog post about this:

    UUA Demographic Trends and "Tipping Points"

  5. Actually I think U*Us are seeing a demographic *dipping* point in New England if I am to believe the official UUA statistics showing a steady decline in the membership of New England U*U congregations. Believe it or not UUA Financial Advisor Dan Brody said,

    "The good news is that a lot of people are dying."

    when delivering his report on the UUA's dismal financial sitaution at the April 2010 UUA Board of Trustees meeting. He was of course referring to the fact that the UUA is receiving more money from bequests than usual which offsets the shortfall in other areas. I seem to recall warning U*Us about an apparently aging demographic over a decade ago now.

  6. "UUism is for people who THINK."

    You have no idea how many U*Us I know who, besides abjectly failing and obstinately refusing to THINK, are stunningly thoughtless. If The U*U Movement was *really* for people who THINK it would not be in the mess that it is in today. . .

  7. The above Dan Brody quote may not be 100% accurate but, as one Rev. Ray Drennan might say, it's "true enough." A more accurate quote, if not a 100% verbatim quote, would be -

    "The good news is lots of people are dying."

    He said this as he was presenting a graph showing an increase in the amount the UUA receives from bequests. I am not sure that corpse-cold Unitarians who donated money to the UUA in their wills would be thrilled to hear that their deaths were "good news" for the UUA.

  8. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments on this article and special thanks to Steve Caldwell for the referral to his very good article.


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