Tuesday, October 27, 2015

This is Goodbye

Fifteen years ago, a growing awareness of my sexuality led to my embrace of kink and polyamory. Ten years ago, I began to reconnect with Unitarian Universalism as a home where my sexuality and my values intersected, and where I was convinced that others would be able to do so as well. Indeed, many other kinksters and polyfolk are found in UU congregations and organizations, and shared with me the hope that the radical hospitality they had provided to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks would be extended to us. Now, after much effort, and some serious reflection on recent events, I've come to another conclusion:

I was wrong.

I've often talked about the difference between "UUism" and "UU-dom" with others, much like when some radical Christians distinguish their values and ideals from the practices of institutional Christendom. I had thought that the discordance between the values of UUism and the practices of UU-dom would somehow decrease. Instead, I've seen them grow much worse.

UUism is presented as being centered on love and reason, but UU-dom is more fixated on money and image. UUism is presented as being a community seeking common ground and radical transformation, but UU-dom is run like a business conglomerate which plays off various factions like checkers on a game board. UUism is presented as extending radical hospitality for all, but UU-dom cherry-picks who is really welcome while squirming with discomfort in reaction to the rest.

I still believe in the values espoused under UUism. I am no longer able to put up with the practices of UU-dom.

At the beginning of this journey, I would have enthusiastically told anyone identifying with kink and/or polyamory to check out their local UU congregation. Over time, I've heard from too many such people who have either fled or been driven out, sometimes because they were met with hostility, sometimes over other problems. I've heard from too many leaders within the UUA who will praise my work and encourage me to keep going, but only in private and off-the-record, and with no meaningful support beyond that. As for the pushback experienced in recent months, I won't burden you with the details. Suffice it to say that, with all the dysfunction and dissembling I have witnessed, my only honest answer to what I thought of UUism would be: "Great in theory, but far too few real-life examples."

Perhaps, one day, UU-dom will come closer to UUism's values. But I don't see that happening in my lifetime. So it is time for me to take a different path, and to say ... Goodbye.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thoughts on "Atheist Churches"

Ask many Unitarian Universalists what they think of Sunday Assembly -- the growing network of communities offering "all the best bits of church, but without the religion, and awesome pop songs" -- and the response will seem politely dismissive, often wondering why these folks don't just join us instead of "reinventing the wheel."

You're about to read a dissenting view.

Yes, there's much that Sunday Assembly (and another US-based movement, called the National Oasis Network) could learn from UUs. But I would contend that the relatively rapid growth of these so-called "atheist churches" also shows that UUs might learn more from them. Such as ...
  1. Keeping the message simple: The Oasis Network holds to five basic principles, beginning with "People are more important than beliefs." Sunday Assembly's philosophy is expressed even more succinctly as "Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More."
  2. Including without diluting: Both of these networks were started by committed secularists and atheists, yet they also welcome and include the full range of people who would not fit into a traditional religious communities. The emphasis is less on bashing religion (like the "New Atheists") or mimicking it, and more on building an alternative community around shared ethical concerns and psychological needs.
  3. More egalitarian: Linked to both their inclusion and freethought roots, the communities in these networks are less reliant on professionals and experts, even drawing on models from Quakers and more radical "emerging" church groups.
  4. Meeting people's needs: Atheist and Humanist groups have previously focused on intellectual needs, almost to the exclusion of emotional and aesthetic ones. Sunday Assembly and Oasis are attempting a more holistic approach.
If the rate of growth for these groups is any indication, they would appear to be doing something right. And, if they are to be accused of "reinventing the wheel," allow me to contend that there are times when that is necessary.

People will find ways to meet their needs, even if it means sidestepping "official" channels. I've seen it in my work as a medical equipment specialist, where families are willing to pay out of pocket for walkers or electric beds rather than wait for doctors to fulfill the cumbersome requirements of Medicare, or endure the waiting lists of our competitors. When you need a wheel, you find a way to get one, even if the only "legitimate" supplier tells you to fill out a form and wait for their staff to get to it. Same thing for the kind of "alternative" community offered by Sunday Assembly, Oasis Network, or UUs.

Where the efforts of these newer groups will lead, I don't know. But my impression so far is that Unitarian Universalists will not learn from what success they've garnered so far by ignoring or dismissing them.