As a few of you may know, I attended the Mormon Church from age six or so until last year. I hit all the expected milestones: I went off to Mormon-run Brigham Young University after high school, served a full time mission at age 19, and was married in the Mormon temple. I don’t think I ever fully believed it, though. For one thing, I never had the kind of personal, supernatural experience that’s supposed to be part of one’s conversion to Mormonism. For those who know the Mormons, the church’s entire missionary effort is predicated upon trying to get people to read the Book of Mormon, and then pray to know if it’s true. The person knows it’s true if they feel a happy, peaceful feeling commonly referred to as a “burning in the bosom.” I never did feel it. There were so many times that I wanted to, or wished I did. Notwithstanding the fact that I was never really converted, I went along because it was easier; my family and many of my best friends were Mormons. I even served a two-year mission, primarily because it was easier to go than to explain why I didn’t want to.
I always had intellectual objections to Christianity, since I was seven or eight years old. There were things that simply did not make sense. As I grew older, it was very difficult for me to compartmentalize myself, and choose not to analyze those elements of my religion. These objections covered everything from Mormonism’s peculiar historical claims (e.g. Native Americans being descended from the Jews, Joseph Smith finding scrolls - written by Abraham – in a mummy’s coffin, etc.), to the basic tenets of Christianity, such as the idea of someone else suffering for my sins, or the very idea that anyone would have to metaphysically suffer for my sins, for that matter. As I grew older, these issues became increasingly difficult for me to ignore, until, in the wake of my divorce, I gave up pretending altogether.
But the conflict, to me, was this: I did (and do) find elements of worth in Mormonism, and in Christianity in general. There are ideas of genuine beauty there. Something such as “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” which predates Kant’s Practical Imperative by 1900 years and is as simple and elegant as anything in Confucianism, for example. My problem was always that the Mormon Church made its doctrines an all-or-nothing proposition, its mythology and practice all rolled into one pill that I simply could not swallow whole. I wanted (and want) to believe that it’s wrong to kill, to steal and to hate, but without tying it to gold plates, mummy coffins or baptisms for the dead. Mormonism would never let me have that separation.
When I moved to Houston, I moved in with my mom, who is Vietnamese and Buddhist. I didn’t talk to many people about it at the time (to avoid the annoying-white-Buddhist-guy stigma), but I began studying Buddhism, starting with sacred writings provided to me by the monks at Mom’s temple. I tried reading them and meditating on them at the head monk’s recommendation. From how I had observed the Buddhists talk and behave, I thought I might find something I could use. After reading the Buddhist texts, I was pretty disappointed. Much like Christianity, Buddhism’s ethics came wrapped up in a ball of bizarre, arcane cosmology. Once again, I found myself wishing I could separate the two. I wanted to believe that it’s important to value all living things. I wanted to believe that true peace comes, not through fulfilling one’s every desire, but by eliminating excess desire. But along with these teachings I was expected to accept reincarnation, demons, karma and hundreds of layers of heaven.
My problem with Christianity as well as Buddhism is that I have never had much use, or tolerance, for the supernatural. I’ve never had any truck with horoscopes, ghost stories, wine turning into God’s blood, fortune cookies, “magick,” faith healing, pyramid-building aliens, Ouija boards, past-life recollections or the Holy Ghost. Honestly, I don’t see much distinction between them. I’ve always sort of cocked an eyebrow at people who left their Christian upbringing to become pagans or Wiccans, as all supernatural beliefs are pretty much equal to me – equally spurious. I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that I’m essentially a rational, faithless man.
So about two months ago, I was posting on the Straight Dope Message Board, which is the only other place (than MySpace) on the Net that I spend much time on. Its member population is heavily slanted towards the brainy, educated, liberal and atheist, but there is a significant minority that falls outside those tendencies. At any rate, I was posting in a thread titled something like “Why Don’t You Go To Church Anymore?” A bunch of people were sharing their own stories about how, when and why they fell away from the religion of their upbringing. I posted my own story, and I added something along the lines that it’s too bad there’s no church for people who don’t believe in God, because a lot of the rest of it (support structure, educational opportunity, pool of like-minded people, etc.) is appealing to me. Someone replied to my post saying that if I felt that way, I might want to try the Unitarian Universalists.
I knew next to nothing about Unitarianism; from the little I had heard and from the physical appearance of their churches, I had always assumed they were another Protestant sect, maybe a little more oddball than the Methodists or Presbyterians, but generally cut from the same cloth. After reading about them on their website, I realized that I could not be more wrong. I won’t bother regurgitating all of their beliefs here; anyone interested can follow the link and look on their own. But at the core, they’re a religious organization without any creed. Basically, you don’t have to believe any specific thing – or anything at all, if you don’t want to – to belong. They’re all about providing a supportive environment where people who share the same desire to find meaning in life can pursue it, without dictating what they must find. People of all religious backgrounds are welcome. Buddhists are welcome. Wiccans are welcome. Atheists are welcome. People who worship wooden statues, ears of corn, unicorns or waterfalls are welcome. Gays and lesbians are welcome. They provide theological instruction that covers every conceivable human belief system, presented without prejudice. In addition, they’re very environmentally conscious and very active in the community, working with the homeless, drug addicts, abused women and children, etc.
My curiosity piqued, I went to one of the eight or nine Unitarian churches in Houston one Sunday in early April. My first impression was that it was disappointingly similar to a Christian church. The stained glass, the pipe organ, the robed choir: all were more or less reminiscent of a Methodist or Presbyterian church. Once things got under way, however, the differences became obvious. It was my good fortune to attend on a once-a-year occasion the Unitarians call “Coming of Age.” Unitarian adolescents spend their seventh grade year in study, meditation, soul searching and (if they are they praying kind) prayer. During this year, each young man or woman is mentored by an adult from the congregation. The object of this is to come up with a life philosophy and worldview that is uniquely theirs. During the Coming of Age ceremony at the end of this year, each of the participants presents and explains his or her conclusions to the congregation. On the Sunday I attended, four boys and three girls spoke. Of the seven, two proclaimed themselves atheist, two had a more or less Judeo-Christian belief system based around an anthropomorphic deity, two had a more or less Buddhist-Hindu approach including karma and reincarnation, and one girl had a vaguely pagan approach where she felt there was divinity in all nature. The wonderful thing, to me at least, was not the wide variety of conclusions these kids had arrived at, but the fact that the congregation cheered loudly for each of them. Several of the boys and girls noted that their beliefs differed from those of their parents, yet the parents stood and applauded for them. It was at this point that I realized I was somewhere very different from the religion in which I was raised.
I’ve been back regularly since then. It’s only been two months, so it would be premature to say I’ve joined this church. What I will say at this point is that I feel very comfortable with this group. It’s a group of people who seem to be asking the same questions I ask myself about life and truth and morality. The great thing is that few if any of them claim to have the answers, and those who do claim to have the answers, don’t claim that their answers are necessarily valid for me. I don’t know if the Unitarian thing would work for everyone, but so far it’s worked for me. It’s been church for atheists, which is a very comfortable place for me.
Random cool things about the Unitarians:
- Quote from one of the ministers (they’re a husband and wife team): “Trust those to say they seek the truth. Doubt those who claim to find it.” How many ministers of other religions would say something like that?
- Church is full casual dress. Jeans and t-shirts. Even the old people dress casual.
- Everyone goes out for lunch and margaritas after church.
- You get to hear Emerson and Thoreau quoted like scripture.