Reclaiming My Right To Speak Out
John J. Dunphy
(published in the Spring 2015 edition of the Secular Humanist Bulletin)
Like many humanists, I’ve been involved with a Unitarian Universalist church. It seemed appropriate. At a Unitarian dinner held in New York on January 15, 1892, Robert Ingersoll stated:
“…let me say that I have the greatest respect for the Unitarian Church…The Unitarian Church has done more than any other church — and maybe more than all other churches — to substitute character for creed, and to say that a man should be judged by his spirit; by the climate of his heart; by the autumn of his generosity; by the spring of his hope; that he should be judged by what he does; by the influence he exerts, rather than by the mythology he may believe…”
Ingersoll also praised the Universalist Church at that long-ago dinner.
“…and I want to thank the Universalist Church, too. They at least believe in a God who is a gentleman…in a heavenly father who will leave the latch string out until the last child gets home…I have great respect for that church.”
The American Unitarian Association emphasized the oneness of God and rejected the Trinity as well as the divinity of Jesus. Many Unitarians were abolitionists. Robert Gould Shaw, a Unitarian, served as a Union colonel in the Civil War and commanded the all-black Massachusetts 54th, which was the subject of the film “Glory.” The Universalist Church of America rejected the existence of hell and maintained that everyone was admitted to heaven.
Humanists began entering both denominations in the early twentieth century. Many Unitarian churches in particular gradually rejected any kind of supernaturalism and proudly proclaimed their humanism. When the two denominations merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), members who regarded themselves as humanists were in the majority. While humanists remained a decisive presence in the UUA when I began attending my local church, the theological composition of the denomination was beginning to change.
The UUA has no creedal requirements for membership. Prospective members are sometimes shown a “Statement of Principles and Purposes” and asked if they agree with assertions such as “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” which are hardly likely to alienate anyone with a working conscience. This open-door policy that allows congregants the freedom to believe pretty much whatever they like makes Unitarian Universalist churches welcoming places for those who would not feel comfortable — or wanted — in any Christian church, however liberal.
The modern pagan movement found its way into Unitarian Universalist churches in the 1980s. I attended some of their gatherings at our church just out of curiosity. When we joined hands to unite our energy or some such thing, I always made a point of positioning myself between a couple of very attractive women I wanted to get to know better. I also recall the formation in 1989 of A Course in Miracles study group in the church. For the blissfully unaware, A Course in Miracles is a three-volume set of books that devotees believe was channeled from none other than Jesus Christ himself. No, it’s not a how-to course that teaches one to heal the sick and raise the dead. Much closer in theology to Christian Science and Hinduism than orthodox Christianity, A Course in Miracles maintains that the phenomenal world is an illusion and simply abolishes illness, injury and death by declaring them unreal. One exercise in its “Workbook for Students” volume instructs devotees to repeatedly recite statements such as “God did not create that airplane crash, so it is not real.”
I attended three or four A Course in Miracles meetings at church but never returned after one session when I almost inadvertently became a guru of this movement. A particularly ardent devotee was explaining why the course was a much more accurate account of Jesus’ true teachings than the four gospels. The gospels as originally written, he told the gathering, no longer existed and today we had only mangled translations. A Course in Miracles, on the other hand, had been directly channeled from Jesus himself. For just a moment, I forgot the Prime Directive of Unitarian Universalism — Thou Shalt Always Be Respectful of the Beliefs of Others — and said in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “In other words, A Course in Miracles cuts out the middleman.” To my astonishment, my snarky remark was met with approval rather than anger. “Exactly!” said the gentleman who had championed the superiority of A Course in Miracles over the gospels. “It cuts out the middleman!” The assembled devotees gently applauded. To this day I don’t know how I managed to keep a straight face.
Our minister at that time strongly identified with Judaism and held an annual service for the victims of the Holocaust. At the conclusion of the 1988 service, a member of the congregation bolted from her seat before church had concluded, dashed to the front of the sanctuary and asked the minster whether she could tell “her story.” The poor minister, too befuddled to say “Yes,” “No” or “Please return to your seat,” remained silent, which the congregant apparently took for a green light to address the congregation. “Her story” was a grisly, macabre past-life fantasy.
In her previous incarnation, this woman told us, she had been living in occupied Poland during World War II and was having an affair with a Nazi officer. Now beginning to sob, the woman said that he had arrived home one day and discovered to her horror that the Nazi officer has molested her daughter. He then drew his service pistol and killed both the woman and her daughter. The congregant openly wept as she described the pain she felt as the bullets entered her body.
Our minister said nothing regarding this woman’s “testimony,” which was probably the wisest course of action, and simply concluded the service. If anyone resigned their membership in outrage over this spectacle, I never heard about it. In fact, this person’s testimony actually grew the congregation. A woman known for her frequent emotional outbursts embraced the past life-Polish woman while weeping copiously. She and her husband had been attending the church for some time but hadn’t yet joined. The past life-Polish woman’s testimony so moved them that they both signed the membership book that Sunday.
To the best of my knowledge, not one member of the congregation uttered a single disparaging word about this fiasco. Why? Unitarian Universalist protocol demands that those who attend its churches respect the religious beliefs of each other. If the past life-Polish woman honestly believed that she was murdered by the Nazi officer she had been sleeping with, one couldn’t even mildly criticize that belief. Telling the Course in Miracles devotees that denying the existence of evil is ridiculous and that Jesus no more wrote those three books than he wrote War and Peace would be cruel. All religious beliefs represented in a Unitarian Universalist church — no matter how ludicrous they might appear to any rational person — are worthy of respect. Bite your tongue, smile and remain quiet, even when confronted with what you regard as blatant absurdity.
After biting my tongue so often that I almost severed it, I left the church. Now, when someone boasts of being Joan of Arc in a past life or chatting with a particularly knowledgeable disembodied spirit during a New Age channeling session, I express my candid opinion. Yes, I’ve ruffled a few feathers, but the joy I experience from freely speaking my mind is like emerging from a stuffy church with its windows nailed shut into a fresh spring day with the air scented by blooming trees and flowers.
John J. Dunphy is the author of “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois, “Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers” and “From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois.” His latest book, “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” will be published this winter by McFarland.