Monday, March 5, 2012

Join a UU congregation? What are the benefits?

As I have mentioned before on UU A Way Of Life I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has worked in the mental health and substance abuse field for over 44 years. As a Psychotherapist I have always been very interested in the role that spirituality and religion play in the lives of my clients. There is a great deal of research that demonstrates that religion can be a protective factor in enhancing a person's health and well being. There is also evidence that it can be a risk factor as well.

I have been reading James Griffith's latest book, Religion That Heals, Religion That Harms: A Guide For Clinical Practice. Griffith makes a distinction between personal spirituality and religion. Griffith writes, "Like many, I have been repeatedly puzzled by the strange disconnect between some person's religious beliefs that saluted love and compassion while their actions fueled hatred and violence, all the while feeling no conflict between the two." P.vii

Griffith goes on to explain that personal spirituality and the sociobiological systems such as attachment, peer affiliation, kin recognition, social hierarchy, and social exchange as they function in religious organizations explain heuristically this disconnect. Griffith says, "For example, religious behaviors that facilitate identification with one's religious group can also extinguish a sense of accountability to those outside the group. Religious beliefs can create such a totalizing, all-encompassing picture of 'what is real' that everything within its purview is defined, ordered, and assigned meaning, to the exclusion of any alternatives." p.7

Griffith writes "Sociobiological processes that enable a religious group to feel cohesive and its members to feel competent can also propel violence toward others, particularly when personal empathy is weak across the group boundaries." p. 8

Increasingly people in the first world countries are growing disenchanted with organized religion which they perceive as dogmatic, rigid, and dysfunctional. According to a report in Time Magazine in the March 12, 2012 issue the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. is the "nones", people who report no religious identification or affiliation. The "nones" have doubled since the 1990s and now stand at about 16% of the population. The "nones" are not necessarily atheistic but rather say they believe in some sort of god or higher power. Only 4% of Americans identify as atheists.

Unitarian Universalism offers an option for fulfilling the sociobiological needs of these unaffiliated people, but even if they are attracted to the lack of dogmatism, the de-centralized congregational governance system, they don't join congregations as UUA President Peter Morales pointed out in a recent letter "Congregations and Beyond" released to UUA members on 01/15/12. In his letter, President Morales points out that over 650,000 people on survey identify with UU principles and even contribute money to the UUA "movement" but only about 160,000 are affiliated with any congregations.

Reflecting on  Griffith's ideas about sociobiological systems it is more apparent why UU congregations are so small and fail to grow. Griffith points out that from a sociobiological view religious organizations perform 3 important functions: provide group security and sense of belonging, sustain and enhance morale of the individual and group, and provide physical, emotional, and social support that contribute to the cessation of suffering. If Griffith's ideas have any value, they lead to a further analysis of the degree to which Unitarian Universalist congregations provide a sense of security and belonging, an enhancement to morale, and assistance in ameliorating the existential anxiety of their members as individuals and as a group when they are met with events and circumstances that contribute to distress and suffering.

More specifically, to what extent do UU congregations foster and facilitate attachment, peer affiliation, kin recognition, social hierarchy, and social exchange, the sociobiological needs of human beings?

In addition, to what extent does Unitarian Universalism contribute to and nurture the personal spirituality which most Americans report having even if they are not affiliated with any religious denomination or church? It seems that one of Unitarian Universalism’s strengths, i.e. recognizing several sources for spiritual and religious understanding and acknowledging that there are many roads to Rome and multiple ways to “skin the cat” are both its strength and its weakness. It appears as President Morales writes in his letter that four times as many people report identifying with the “UU movement” than actually join congregations. In some ways they find their personal spirituality acknowledged and validated and yet feel no need to join and support a congregation. This has certainly been my experience in Brockport, NY where 3 years ago a new UU congregation was formed, the Brockport Unitarian Universalist Fellowhip. Many people have told me they are sympathetic to Unitarian Universalist ideas and values and they are glad the church exists, but they are not interested in joining or even coming on a regular basis. It would seem that these people’s spiritual needs are being met but there is no reinforcement or reward for their sociobiological needs. In other words the church serves no perceived function in our community that provides benefits that outweigh the costs of affiliation and membership.
Until Unitarian Universalist churches can re-design their services to meet the security, morale, and cessation of suffering functions of our society and appeal to people’s attachment, peer affiliation, kin recognition, social hierarchical, and social exchange needs, there will continue to be low appeal for joining and investing in a UU congregation. While participation in a UU congregation is not a risk factor for religious harm, it is a very weak protective factor. Being a member of a Unitarian Universalist church does not confer the social benefits that it once did in the United States. On the contrary it is often the butt of jokes because of its anemic theologies and lack of social structure and cohesiveness. As a result, Unitarian Universalism appears to have little to offer in meeting people’s sociobiological needs and to nurture a coherent, meaningful spiritual life.

The fact that President Morales refers to Unitarian Universalism as “a movement” when he writes in Congregations and Beyond, I am also convinced that our movement has enormous potential to involve more people and have a greater impact.” implies that Unitarian Universalism is a social movement and not an authentic religious organization. As one person told me, “I don’t need to join another social movement, there are plenty of those and I am a member of some already. I am looking for something that will nurture me spiritually and address my needs to be a member of a religious community where there are people who share my values and deeper yearnings for an understanding of the transcendent experience of life.”

Is Unitarian Universalism a religion or a movement? If it is merely a movement, I can agree with some its values and activities, but I have no need to join. I might send a check to support the work of the social movement organization, but I have no interest in getting actively involved in its activities. On the other hand, if it is a religious organization that would expect something of me if I were to join, it is something I would have to take more seriously and decide whether the benefits of membership would outweigh the costs and it appears that for several hundred thousand people Unitarian Universalism congregations don’t offer enough benefit to make the investment personally satisfying.


  1. Interesting piece. There seems to be little depth to the Unitarian Universalist faith. There is no acknowledgement of the mystical at all, and a cosmological explanation is incoherent as it leaves the faithful to draw from multiple sources. The situation reminds me of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. This leaves it difficult to fulfill the pedagogical function that most churches fulfill other than to promote what has been pejoratively called "psychobabel".

    However, you are on the right track, Dave, and I look forward to your further analysis.

  2. Sociobiological needs is a powerful frame of reference to understand what is happening in churches today as more and more people step away from affiliation and participation having been turned off by dogmatic creeds and rigid governance structures. The level of consciousness of Americans seems to be much higher today than in previous generations. The sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church and the sexual picadillos of the televangelist preachers such as James and Tammy Fae Baker, Jimmer Swaggart, et al. have led to an awareness of the hypocrisy of clerics. The official representatives of many denominations have clay feet. We are in a period of the de-idealization of church leaders. People are finding that they can do quite nicely without the mediating structures of denominational religion, Unitarian Universalism included.

    What matters to people is the nurturance of their interior spiritual lives and the facilitation of their personal development with the moral and value structures of the contemporary society which they are living in. Whether Unitarian Universalism can adapt to the changing spiritual needs of the people of America and around the world remains to be seen.

  3. I watch a lot of people come and go. The overall effect though is a diminishment in the size of my church. This saddens me and I wish I knew how to help them stay. My church is mostly people over 50. There are a handful of young people but they don't seem too involved in the church life. They come at the behest of their parents. There doesn't seem to be much here that is of interest to them.

  4. I, too, have heard my UU faith referred to as a "movement" and it offends me too. It is not a social movement but rather the basis for a cosmological view of life and an ethical platform to manage life's dilemmas if a practitioner takes the UU principles seriously. I am concerned that the UUA President would use this term to describe a relgious denomination which has been around since the 16th century in Europe and the 18th century in the United States. This word "movement" seems to minimize the deeper, more substantial faith which we covenant and affirm with each other.

  5. The low membership of Unitarian Universalism is due to its failure to inject fear into people and then provide the "saving grace" to mitigate those contrived fears. Without a contrived need, people see little benefit in joining. The injection of fear works in politics, in the law, in medicine, in education as well as in religion. If Unitarian Universalism is to flourish it must create some monsters which it can vanquish, otherwise people will not perceive what it has to offer as relevant. As advertisers know if they are to sell a product, they must first create a need for which their product is the answer. Unitarian Universalism has failed to do this.

  6. I feel the UU (Unitarian-Universalism) is both a religion and a movement. I know one simple thing ... I feel good going to a UU service and hearing a sermon that makes me think and is a caring congregation of people. I don't want to analyze too much who joins a UU congregation. I'm a member of the UUA church in Brockport New York ... ours is going slowly but steadily, a tribute to planning and leadership and a faithful minister.

  7. There is a big difference between a religion and a movement. A religion has a mystical component and a movement is merely an ideology. When people refer to Unitarian Universalism as a "movement" it turns it into an ism like communism, socialism, fascism, and patriotism. If Unitarian Universalism aspires to be a bonafide religion it must have mystical component. Unitarian Universalism has tried to import this mystical compaonent from its 6 sources but has not created a mystical tradition, rituals, belief systems, and practices uniquely its own. Historically it has attempted to wrap itself in some residual characteristics of Christianity but as it branches out into other sources it dilutes whatever coherence it has of its own pedagogy which leaves it floundering on the shoales of ridicule and mediocrity.

  8. Because of the de-centralized governance Unitarian Universalism doesn't have the structure to become a sizable religion. The leadership exists only on a local level and the UUA is largely an ineffective organization that is herding cats. I have never seen a franchise business run the way the UUA does. There needs to be some accreditation process and more direction from the national and district level. Until the UUA gets its act together the denomination will continue to flounder. The UUA is so liberal it is almost anarchist which doesn't bode well for sustainability.

  9. I go to church because I like the coffee and donuts and the people are nice. My friend used to go with me but she quit because she lost her job and needed help and nobody would help her. I like the church but my family and friends keep telling me it's not a real church. They don't really believe in god and stuff like that. I just tell them I like it and the people are nice.

  10. If there are 160,000 members of UU congregations in the US how many are cradle UUs vs how many converts?

  11. I'm one of those who like what the UU's stand for but wouldn't join a church I don't feel any spirituality there and I think that's very important humans are spiritual by nature.

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