Sunday, July 9, 2017

Is Unitarian Universalism losing members because it demands too little of them?

Some UUs have asked why their denomination is shrinking and losing members. In the U.S., religious affiliation has been declining with the percentage of "nones" increasing so it might be concluded that UU is not unique in seeing a diminishment in membership. However, another reason for the dwindling UU membership might be that it expects so little of its members that the general perception might be that membership is not valuable and worth any investment.

Christoper Kavanagh has an interesting essay on Aeon entitled, "People are intensely loyal to groups which abuse newcomers. Why?" His essay deals with the idea of hazing and why, with increasing laws against it, it still continues in many organizations especially among the young.

Kavanagh writes, 

"From an evolutionary perspective, researchers have noted that enduring the physical or psychological effects of hazing could serve as a costly signal demonstrating an individual’s personal strengths, as well as the quality of the group that can motivate such acts. The anthropologists Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler (2003) of the University of Connecticut, for instance, analysed records of 19th-century religious settlements in the US, and found that religious communes with the costliest ritual requirements proved to be longer-lived than either secular communes or religious communes that had less costly requirements."

As the bumper sticker says, "If people don't believe in something, they will fall for anything." This bumper sticker is especially relevant to Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalism, it could be argued, has done a poor job of articulating its theology and principles. It makes little, if no, demands on aspirants who would like to become members. I was told by a minister of a UU church when asked how one goes about becoming a member, "Just sign the book."

I said, "Just sign the book?"

He said, "Yes, all you have to do is sign the book."

I said,"What makes one eligible to sign the book?"

He said, "Nothing. If you want to become a member all you have to do is sign the book."

I did sign the book, but it seemed to me to be a fatuous exercise with little meaning or weight. My membership in that church lasted about two years until it was torn apart by internal strife and conflict. Since I left that church 12 years ago it has gone through three more schisms. The ability to resolve conflict is difficult or impossible if there are no clear standards or norms upheld by leadership. In this vacuum, any opinion and preference is  as good as any other and there is no glue or cohesiveness contributing to group identity and maintenance.

Kavanagh writes further:

Drawing on such research, Cimino’s automatic accrual theory suggests that hazing provides an important solution to a recurring adaptive problem faced by our species during our evolutionary history: how to accurately assess the intentions and quality of new group members. Over time, coalitions are often able to amass substantial group resources, including properties and status. So the question becomes how can groups prevent exploitation of these resources from non-contributing free-riders?

The answer proposed by Aldo is that by dramatically increasing the costs of associating with the group, weak would-be members are kept out. Meanwhile, for those who are admitted to the group, the dominant position of veteran members is solidified.........Invariably, for the groups with higher status and more resources, more severe initiations are constructed.

Does Unitarian Unversalism have anything of value to offer its members? If so, what are the costs of membership? Who is willing to pay the price? People argue that "you get what you pay for" and "no pain, no gain" and "easy come, easy go." Perhaps Unitarian Universalism is failing because it expects and requires too little for membership.


1 comment:

  1. As long as local congregations are autonomous with no central authority to be accountable to, this lack of leadership will continue to be a problem.


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