Friday, 2 October 2009

Atheists and Unitarians

I am an atheist.

I am also a member of a Unitarian congregation.*

So when this news item showed up in my blog reader (courtesy of Friendly Atheist), I immediately felt torn in two directions.

Briefly, the denominational magazine of the international Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), Unitarian Universalist World, ran an ad for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The ad was meant to encourage UUA members - many of whom are atheists and most of whom would likely support the FFRF's main purpose of separation of church and state - to join FFRF and support its work.

However, the content of the ad (reproduced at left courtesy of Daylight Atheism or here in PDF) contained several quotes hostile to religion from famous atheists.

Some UUA members complained that this was an inappropriate ad to run in a publication for people who overwhelmingly consider themselves to be religious. The editor issued an apology, saying that he probably should have run an ad more tailored to this particular audience. (Note, however, as Hemant pointed out in a follow-up post here, that there were in fact only 8 complaints from UUA members, and several comments of support. Also, the FFRF has gained some supporters through the ad.)

So, on the one side, we have some affronted UUA members. I sympathise. After all, despite what some thin-skinned atheists (including, to my surprise, Hemant himself) are claiming, the ads do attack religious belief. Here are a couple of the quotes:
As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion. (Butterfly McQueen)

Faith is believing what you know ain't so. (Mark Twain)
So, religion is equated to slavery, and faith to willing self-deception. Whether you think it's true or not, that's insulting to religious people. It is not simply an assertion of the positive value of atheism.

On the other side, though, organized atheists often have a hard time getting their voice into the public sphere. Public ad campaigns on billboards and buses have often been rejected for being too controversial, even when carrying a very simple statement of non-belief. ("Don't believe in God? You're not alone.") Despite the success of recent books promoting atheism, it can still be an uphill battle to get people to even listen to us.

In the end, though, I have to side with Greta Christina. In this thoughtful and calm article dissenting from the kneejerk atheist position, she points out that no private organization is under a legal or moral obligation to give voice to opinions that they object to.

Don't forget: in his apology, the editor did not say "We should never have considered an ad from an organisation like the FFRF." He said (emphasis mine):
I have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to run this particular ad. While the stated mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is entirely consistent with UU values, this ad seems hostile to all religion. To be more specific, I believe that I failed to help the advertiser match their message to our readers. An ad spotlighting FFRF’s purpose of “working for the separation of state and church” would have been more appropriate than one that for many appears to be condemning religion in general.
There seems to be a tendency among some atheists to equate "You should express your dissent from religion in a less antagonistic manner" with "You should shut up and leave religion alone." Sure, there are some people who think we should shut up. But the Unitarians are certainly not among them, and this incident does nothing to suggest they are. (Remember: they did run the ad!)

On a different tack, Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism (who also has a Unitarian connection) discusses the problems that arise from the use of the term "religion" to describe Unitarians. They do not share either dogma or supernatural beliefs - two features that are pretty much universal among religions as we're used to thinking of them. So when FFRF and others make a comment about "religion", it's fairly likely that it isn't meant to apply to folks like the Unitarians.

I disagree with Ebonmuse's speculation that this was a "marketing decision". Unitarianism has developed from a clearly, specifically Christian denomination into what it is today without a clear break in the continuity of the community. There is no obvious time in their history where it makes sense to say, "before this, Unitarians were religious; ever since, they have been non-religious". In other words, it is a historical accident that an essentially non-religious community describes itself as "religious". Nevertheless, as Ebonmuse says, Unitarians stand out as exceptional among religious communities (alongside liberal Quakers, some western Buddhists, and secular Jews) in that they share few of the qualities that tend to identify a group as religious.

Having said that, it would be sensible for anyone advertising in a church publication to know something about how church members see themselves, and to adjust their ad accordingly, regardless of how unusual their definitions are. The purpose of an ad should be to attract interest, and offense rarely manifests as a willingness to support the offender.

I'll close by sharing Greta Christina's words. "We have to not be reflexive cheerleaders for people who are on our side. We have to judge these questions, not by choosing sides between atheists and non-atheists, but on the basis of the ethical principles involved. ... [T]he atheists aren't always going to be right."



* I will use "Unitarian" because that is how our congregation identifies itself. I know that many people who fall under the UUA umbrella prefer "Unitarian Universalist", but unless I'm talking specifically about such an individual I'll default to the shorter term.


  1. OK, ignore my comment - I have just done some research and now understand Unitarian Universalists. It still seems somewhat conflicted to me to be an Atheist and a member of this group.

  2. It is truly shocking that there is such a taboo on freethought and open debate on religion in our country that the Freedom From Religion Foundation's lovely bus ads featuring thought-provoking quotations by famous nonbelievers, would come under fire from this naive blogger.
    The UUA, whose congregations are full of members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, atheists and agnostics, is creedless. We have been invited to speak at countless UU societies over the past 31 years. Our ad was not an attack on the UUA, it was an espousal of the views of most Unitarians! Perhaps the infiltration of the UUA by new members who are not freethinking, who do not really understand its creedless position, accounts for this mind-boggling reaction as a small number. Fortunately, reason seems to be prevail with many of the readers of The World, as the Foundation has gained many new members and supporters (too early for the final tally but it was a successful ad for us to reach out to new supporters). What I find unconscionable is the fact that The World was happy to accept over $4,000 from our tax-deductible charity for this ad, then publicly repudiated our ad after the fact. Talk about bad manners! Frankly, we think the UUA should refund our money. It's an even sadder day when an atheist blogger repudiates the wisdom of Mark Twain's "Faith is believing what you know ain't so" (could there be a more succinct definition of religious faith?) and actress Katherine Hepburn's observation, "I'm an atheist, and that's it. I believe that there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to reach other and do what we can for other people."

  3. One problem I've observed among us atheists, freethinkers, secular humanists and skeptics is this tendency (as Annie Laurie Gaylor has so aptly demonstated) to hoot and fling feces when any irrationality in our own behaviour is pointed out. My, my we get tetchy about this. I guess it comes with taking pride in reason and rationality – so when someone (even a “Friendly Humanist”) points out that perhaps we've behaved a tad irrationally (like by placing an ad that paints all religion as evil in a magazine that has a significant proportion of its readership who may consider themselves as members of a religion, though a non-dogmatic one) we blow our tops. Out come the big phrases - “taboo on freethought” (wtf?), “our ad was not an attack” (who said anything about attack?), “infiltration of the UUA by new members who are not freethinking” (I'm sensing a whole lot of crazy now...I mean seriously, “infiltration”, puh-leeze!). HOOT HOOT HOOT!!!

    My own first reactions upon reading about the FFRF ad was
    1.Most UUs I know wouldn't even bat an eyelash at this ad so how many people actually complained? (I later found out that this was a mere 8)
    2.I do know some UUs from a liberal christian background who still consider faith a virtue (not blind belief, but more of an action like something akin to hope and working for a better future). I bet that Mark Twain quote would irritate them. But they would probably enjoy being challenged on this.

    In the end, I have to admit that the FFRF ad was PERFECT for the UUA magazine. I mean – look at all the kerfuffle. If FFRF had chosen to place some bland “let's keep church and state separate so we can get along” ad in there, it would have gone completely under the radar and none of this blogging and commenting would have happened. So, perhaps the “Friendly Humanist” is totally wrong here and this move by the FFRF was indeed very well thought out and rational.

    Annie Laurie – there is no need to ask for your $4k back – with this kerffufle I think FFRF has probably been able to get more than its money's worth! Best of luck with the membership drive but do try to calm yourself down a bit. Just because a blogger criticises the FFRF's choice of quotes in an ad does not mean that they are against freethought or are out to get the FFRF or are ignorant of the UUAs creedless position or are some type of evil anti-freethought-psuedo-atheist who has “infiltrated” the UUA. Afterall, open criticism is what freethought is all about.

  4. If there were no God, there would be no atheists.
    -G.K. Chesterton
    Enough said?

  5. Mary, I partly agree with your quote. In a world without religious belief, there would be little point in asserting one's particular lack of religious belief (though I'll bet some philosophers would do it anyway).

    Of course, all the atheists I know (including myself) already suspect that there is no god, and yet we remain atheists. So it's unlikely that we're going to accept Chesterton's quip as true, no matter how snappy and clever it sounds.

  6. What's the point in being a member of a Unitarian congregation when you're an atheist?

  7. Dominic: I've moved the blog to a new domain, so I'll respond to your comment there. Here is a link to this same blog entry under the new domain.

    (I'll also close down comments on this site and redirect people there, so that this doesn't happen again.)


This blog has now moved to a new domain:

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