Almost a month ago, I published an incredible, awesome article titled “Being a Theist Does Not Make You Religious.” The point was to desynonymize “theism” and “religion,” to break the easy conflation of these terms, to show that a person may be one without being the other. And so, in that article, I established that one may be a theist without being religious.
But what about the other direction? Might one be religious without being a theist? That will be the topic of this article. And the short answer is: yes, absolutely. My argument appeals to a very well established principle: actuality entails possibility. In other words, one definitive way to answer the question of whether x is possible is to see if there are any instances of x being actual. If you say “It is not possible for any birds to live in Antarctica!” my pointing out “Yeah, but check out these penguins!” is a definitive rebuttal. (“Okay, smart guy, but no parrots live in Antarctica!” “Yes, I agree with you there.”)
So what’s our equivalent example of actual birds in Antarctica, our example of religious people who are non-theistic? My example is Unitarian Universalism (UU). I spoke in a UU congregation in Arizona in 2016 while on a promotional tour for my co-authored book An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar. As we will see below, the UU is actually the perfect setting for the conversation that Justin Schieber and I had in that book.
In order to get our equivalent of penguins in Antarctica, we will need to establish that UU is a religion and that it is non-theistic. In terms of religion, the UU defines itself as a “Faith” (a common synonym for religion), they have “religious practices,” they meet on Sundays in congregational gatherings for worship, they sing their own hymns, they have creedal statements of belief and practice, and they even have developed formal catechesis for younger adherents.
I don’t think that religion should be thought of conceptually as an identity that admits to necessary and sufficient conditions. Rather, it is a family resemblance concept and UU exhibits multiple hallmarks: it’s one of the family. In other words, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck (or, in this case, a penguin).
What about the non-theism part? To answer that, we need only consider their own statement of Beliefs and Principles:
“Our beliefs are diverse and inclusive. We have no shared creed. Our shared covenant (our seven Principles) supports ‘the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.’ Though Unitarianism and Universalism were both liberal Christian traditions, this responsible search has led us to embrace diverse teachings from Eastern and Western religions and philosophies.
“Unitarian Universalists believe more than one thing. We think for ourselves, and reflect together, about important questions”
You might put it succinctly as follows: UU is a commitment to seek truth in community whatever that truth might turn out to be. Consequently, this faith welcomes atheists and agnostics into full membership and participation in their community just so long as they share that desire to know. In fact, the UU website includes a specific section devoted to Atheist and Agnostic Unitarians.
Next, I’d like to deal with the question of size and establishment. The UU was formed in a formal merger in 1961 and today has approximately 200,000 members in the United States and 800,000 worldwide. It is not a major world religion but it most surely is a religion.
So imagine a UU named Dave. A lifelong atheist, he nonetheless grew up in the church, has been a member for as long as he can remember, attends Sunday services and other social events religiously, sings the hymnody with gusto, seeks to apply his faith commitments in acts of service and to live an upright ethical life, teaches the catechism to his children, and seeks to embody the tireless pursuit of truth in love that embodies the UU religion. Is Dave religious? Certainly, he is.
Some years ago, I met an atheist named Daniel. He told me of the time that he deconverted from Christianity. It was a very difficult and lonely time for him. But for a time, he found a new community by joining a UU congregation. However, that didn’t last and by the time I met him he was a faithful participant in the Society of Edmonton Atheists, a group that meets regularly within Edmonton in pursuit of their understanding of science, ultimate meaning, and the good society.
The UU is clearly a non-theistic religious community and so it is no doubt that such communities exist. Perhaps the more interesting question is how many of the local skeptic/atheist/humanist groups like the Society of Edmonton Atheists might likewise meet the standards for being religious communities. Do they, too, have that family resemblance? It’s an interesting question but it cannot be answered while sitting in one’s armchair. Rather, it can only be answered by getting up and getting to know those specific communities. Religion, it turns out, could be far more widespread than we ever supposed.