The surprising success of lifeboat faith

The surprising success of lifeboat faith

Unitarian Universalism cannot thrive if we don’t at least understand the appeal of religions that give people identity and direction.

Doug Muder
Orange and white lifeboat.
© rcx/


In hope that Fredric Muir’s essay “The End of iChurch” (in the Winter 2012 UU World) will spark a larger discussion about the future of Unitarian Universalism and what we should be emphasizing about ourselves in the twenty-first century, I offer my contribution to that discussion:

I believe that any strategy for the twenty-first century has to start by answering this question: What the heck happened in the second half of the twentieth century? Statistically, the answer is simple: Fundamentalism surged, mainstream Christianity crashed, and (among many smaller faith traditions) Unitarian Universalism more-or-less held its own.

But why? Hardly anybody was predicting that at mid-century. As late as 1965, a theologian as insightful as Harvey Cox could write:

The rise of urban civilization and the collapse of traditional religion are the two main hallmarks of our era. . . . It will do no good to cling to our religious and metaphysical versions of Christianity in the hope that one day religion or metaphysics will once again be back. They are disappearing forever . . .

Far from being a lone voice in the wilderness, Cox was expressing an intuition shared by most intellectuals of his day: As science explained more and more about our world and universal education brought those explanations to the masses, the market for traditional religion would dry up, and the demand for more sophisticated worldviews would rise. Just as Ben Franklin’s lightning rod had taken away Jehovah’s thunderbolt and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory was making Genesis obsolete, rising sciences like psychology, sociology, medicine, and meteorology would inexorably shrink the gaps in our understanding where the old gods still hung on.

And what religion was better positioned to ride that incoming wave than Unitarian Universalism? We even had a successful prototype: The Rev. A. Powell Davies (who came to All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., in 1944) seemed to have found just the right mixture of humanistic theology and social action. Looking back from 2006, Warren Ross wrote:

In little more than ten years, Washington-area Unitarians started eight new churches―several of which are among the largest congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association today.

That explosive growth justified Davies’s optimistic vision for Unitarianism:

We could be forerunners of a church which includes the whole human community . . . on the basis of universal fellowship and universal freedom.

But that's not how history played out. Growth came not to the churches who modernized their theology, adapted to science, and staked out their place in the secular city. Quite the opposite, the religious growth story of the second half of the twentieth century was resistance to secularity, science, and modernity. Biblical literalism met the scientific worldview head-on and rejected it outright: The world was created in six days a few thousand years ago. The Garden of Eden was a real place where a historical Adam named the dinosaurs. Fossils come from Noah’s universal flood. Jesus was not a great teacher mythologized by overzealous followers, but the cosmic Son of God who rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. Not only did he perform miracles two thousand years ago, but he can be your personal friend today and intervene in the modern world to find you a parking space or get you a better job.

Why did that kind of religion catch on instead?

Where the mid-twentieth-century intellectual elite went wrong, I think, was in its assessment of what religion meant to everybody else. Sure, scientific theories like evolution and the Big Bang offer a more compelling interpretation of the evidence than the myths in Genesis. But the core attraction of religion has never been its ability to explain the physical world. Christianity didn’t replace paganism because Noah’s flood story was more compelling than Gilgamesh’s, and today’s fundamentalists aren’t going to switch churches to find a better account of the fossil record.

Far more than explanation, the appeal of religion lies in identity and orientation: Who am I? Who are my people? Why is my life important, and what am I supposed to be doing with it? The rapid change in the modern era has only increased the importance of those perennial questions and raised the value of answers that feel solid and steady.

Conservative Christianity beat the pants off liberal religion in the twentieth century because—at least for most people—it answered those questions better: You were created uniquely and are loved personally by God. God has a plan both for you and for the world. Your people are the small, embattled (and perhaps even persecuted) group that understands this plan. Your life’s purpose is to participate in God’s plan, and if you do, you both prepare the way for the Kingdom of Heaven and accept God’s offer of eternal bliss after you die.

Those answers rock. They get millions of people out of bed in the morning and keep them going through hard times. Americans of the late twentieth century were willing to carry a lot of theological, historical, and scientific baggage in order to maintain that conservative Christian identity and orientation.

If Unitarian Universalism is going to be the growth story of the twenty-first century, we’ll need to do two things: sharpen our own answers to those identity-and-orientation questions, and diagnose and exploit the weaknesses in the conservative Christian answers.

The second task is easier than the first. It’s obvious that something about the Christian answers isn’t connecting, because the fastest-growing religious identification among young people is “none of the above.”

Wondering why, I’ve been reading young-adult spiritual-journey memoirs. And while I can’t claim that they form a scientifically valid sample, they do point to a theme: As much as young people yearn for a small supportive community and a personal connection to God, they also yearn to identify with humanity—not just the small part of humanity that belongs to the same church.

In Evolving in Monkey Town, Rachel Held Evans describes her journey away from the conservative Christianity she was raised in. Her transformation begins when a YouTube video of the Taliban beheading a young woman goes viral at Evans’s fundamentalist college. But instead of sharing the anti-Muslim reaction of her fellow students, Evans notices that the victim is Muslim, too, and so must have entered hell as soon as her severed head hit the ground. That sets Evans thinking: Anne Frank died as a Jew, not a Christian, and so she also must have gone straight to hell—from being tortured by Nazis to being tortured by God. Evans could not worship that vision of God, so she had to find a different one.

In Tribal Church, Carol Howard Merritt recalls being a 15-year-old on a mission trip to China. Inside her comfortable Evangelical community, she had easily accepted the doctrine of hell. But looking out her bus window on a land with a billion souls bound for damnation was a different experience, one she could not make peace with.

In Faitheist, Chris Stedman recounts his rage at a God who had created him gay and then condemned gays to hell. Meanwhile, in books and blogs too numerous to mention, young straight Christians express their shame that their church (and their heaven) has no place for their gay and lesbian friends.

Eboo Patel’s books— Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground—tell of young adults’ enthusiasm for his vision of interfaith social action: They yearn to celebrate the values they share with people of other faiths, and are inspired to discover that their desire for a better world gives them more allies than they had thought. Given the choice, they would help people first and iron out the theology later.

So the vision of church as a lifeboat headed for heaven while the great ship of humanity sinks to hell may be temporarily energizing, but perhaps the twenty-first century is yearning for a larger God than the God of the Lifeboat.

The obvious dysfunctionality of America’s polarized politics and the religious right’s role in increasing that polarization also works against the conservative Christian vision. On every side, rhetorical armament grows even as the battlefields shrink into trivia. All but the bitterest partisans yearn for an encompassing vision, within which we can disagree with civility and negotiate like reasonable people.

Perhaps a God who only saves the people who agree with Him is not the God to heal our world’s wounds.

Unitarian Universalists who know their history will notice that our faith arose in conditions just like this. Unitarianism developed amid the sectarian strife of the Counter-Reformation. And Universalism was a response to the revivalists’ vision of an angry God too small-minded to save the vast mass of humanity.

So what kind of answers can our religion provide today? This is the far more difficult task, and I hope many UUs will take a stab at it. Here’s mine:

Who am I? Who are my people? You are simultaneously a unique, irreplaceable center through which the Universe experiences itself, and a member of a species that is struggling to discover its unity in spite of its many apparent divisions.

What should I be trying to do with my life? Overcome your isolation without losing your individuality. Self-absorption and self-surrender alike are attitudes too simple to answer humanity’s challenge. You can connect deeply with humanity only by appreciating the single life you experience directly, and you can fully express and develop your unique Self only in community with others.

Why is my life important? The human struggle is your struggle, and vice versa. The march towards unity happens at many levels, but it starts in each individual human soul.

At the community level, we need to add one more question: How does a Unitarian Universalist congregation help? The congregation is simultaneously a safe, supportive place to begin removing the isolating armor of Ego, and a base camp from which to venture out into the larger world. In the same way that each person needs to transcend the false dichotomy of self-absorption/self-surrender, each congregation must transcend the false inner-directed/outer-directed dichotomy. The ideal congregation is always nurturing, but never a fortress.

There is, of course, much more to Unitarian Universalism than I’ve captured in these few sentences. We will want to teach our newcomers the Seven Principles; the affirmations of Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance; our history of social action; and much, much more. But there will be time for that, after we help them answer the identity and orientation questions that brought them to religion in the first place.