Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
From the May 14, 2011 edition of The Citizen
A recent article in the New York Times observed that Pitzer College, part of the consortium of elite small colleges in Claremont, California, has started a major in “Secular Studies.” According to the May 7, 2011 article, by Laurie Goodstein, “Professors from other departments, including history, philosophy, religion, science and sociology, will teach courses like ‘God, Darwin and Design in America,’ ‘Anxiety in the Age of Reason’ and ‘Bible as Literature.’ The department was proposed by Professor Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist of religion, and approved by the college as recognition of the fact that the fastest growing religious identity group in the United States is “Nones.” That is to say, people who belong to no religious group. According to the most recent polls, 15% of Americans now place themselves in this category.
While much attention has been paid to the mega-church movement, Protestant congregations with thousands of members that provide everything from their own sports leagues, movie theaters, and restaurants, often combining a human potential or gospel of prosperity message on top of their evangelical message, thousands of others have been leaving religion altogether. This is on top of those who have grown up in totally secular homes. I am reminded of this every time that I receive a phone call from someone asking if I “do weddings for people who don’t belong to your church.” I do. I also do same-sex weddings.
Although Americans still attend worship services at higher rates than other western countries, a growing number of people are opting out and doing something else on Saturday or Sunday morning. Why?
I believe there are several reasons. One is what I will call “backlash.” When one looks at social issues such as the public campaigns against gay marriage and reproductive freedom, issues that represent an extension of personal freedom, which has been the defining quality of the American experience, the opponents of these freedoms come from conservative religious voices—in our legislatures, and throughout the media. Have you ever heard a professed atheist voice opposition to gay marriage or reproductive freedom? I maintain that the voice of oppression is religious rather than secular, when it comes to social issues, just as many in the religious camp opposed interracial and interfaith marriages until well into the second half of the twentieth century.
I believe that another reason is the growth of science. It is absurd that we are still arguing about the teaching of evolution in our nation’s schools. What is commonly accepted in virtually every reputable college and university is skipped around in many of our nation’s public schools, where science teachers can be intimidated by threats to their livelihood for teaching evolution rather than the biblical story of Creation. While one may never get back to the moment before all this started, scientists are quite certain about what happened from the first milliseconds after the universe exploded into being, and they are even more certain of how we evolved from the most basic forms of life. The fact that we are all interrelated is something to celebrate, something that should unite us in striving to protect and preserve, as well as appreciate our world. The story of separate and distinct acts of creation, particularly the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, may be ennobling poetry, but they are not science, and do not belong anywhere near a science course. Pitzer has it right when it treats the Bible as literature. Students in future generations would do well to learn about the Bible, the Qur’an, and other examples of religious literature. They would also do well to learn about how these great books were assembled, what was left out, and why decisions
were made to include various laws and teachings—not to make them permanent fixtures in our legal system, but to learn about how society has evolved through the centuries.
It is ironic that some of our nation’s founders and political heroes were more forwardthinking than some of its current legislators and politicians. A Deist such as Thomas Jefferson, or even a religious skeptic such as Abraham Lincoln, would have difficulty in today’s political environment. While both might have said “God bless America,” they were both religious progressives who may have been categorized as “Nones” today. Jefferson favored the sermons of Joseph Priestley, the scientist who was also a Unitarian minister. Jefferson once wrote that he believed every young American man of the next generation would eventually become a Unitarian. Lincoln never joined a church, though he has often been called the most sophisticated religious thinker ever to become President of the United
States. Personally, I look forward to the day when a self-professed atheist or an honest agnostic will be able to run for public office without facing opprobrium from those who would chastise her or him for their candor.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I welcome those who come to our congregation with their skepticism about religion. I want our congregation to be a place where people will feel free and safe asking the most significant and personal questions about life, death, and meaning. I want it to be a place where they will hear “yes, think about what the world can be,” rather than “no, just believe, it has been and always will be this way.” Ours is a different
kind of religious faith. It is a faith in one another, and what we can do to tilt the axis of society in the direction of compassion, progress, and hope for the future.