Are We Really About Freedom From Religion?

There's some flap being generated about an advertisement from the "Freedom From Religion Foundation" in the latest issue of the UU World. I know some people have said that they've written letters to the editor, so I imagine you'll be seeing some in your next issue. At first I didn't understand what all the fuss was about. I think I get mailings from FFRF at the church, addressed to a previous minister. I've seen their webpage, at least. From what I've seen, it seems like their major purpose is to promote separation of church and state, which is a cause that UUs generally believed in. Yes, the organization is unforunately named, and the name makes me wince. I have that same reaction every time "Imagine" by John Lennon is sung in a UU church, something I've witnessed more times than I care to count ("And shouldn't it be 'there are no countries'?" the English teacher in me asks.):
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Yes, folks, WE ARE A RELIGION. And I am tired of UUs glorifying the notion of no religion at church. Yes, I like the song, too, and you all sing it beautifully, but it's time to own up to the fact that we are a religion. But just as I "let" the song be sung in church, I was not ready to write a protest letter about the ad in the UU World.

Then I opened up the UU World as it arrived today. Oh. Now I get it.

The advertisement appears on the inside of the front cover. It's the first thing that you see when you open the magazine, and it's a full-page ad. It says "Are you looking for a sign? How about a bus sign? Definitely not a sign from above." This is mixed with six images of their bus sign campaign*:

It then has information on how what their agency is, "a 501(c)(3) non-prophet [sic] association of atheists and agnostics working since 1978 to keep state and church separate," and some information about where to get more information, and a membership form.

I am a humanist and an agnostic, but I could choose to talk about this as an example of the "New Atheism" which I have preached against. While this is an example of the sort of atheism which is a fundamentalist atheism intolerant of theism and theists (i.e. comparing a belief in God to nursery tales), and which, as such, I believe has no place in our churches where we embrace our theological diversity, this is not even what I find the most egregious about this advertisement and it's placement in our magazine. (And I do like Katharine Hepburn's statement a lot better among these bus signs--it's an "I statement" with a positive message about what we can do, despite their choosing to emphasize the first part of the statement over the second.)

The problem is that impact of this advertisement is that you open up our denomination's major publication, and what you see first is an advertisement that seems to be saying, "What are you doing being a Unitarian Universalist? We'd like to free you from that." It really does, after all, come down to the name of their organization, the comparing of religion to slavery, and the "non-prophet" quip. This flies in the face of our new UUA President's words, seven pages later, which say:
The message of the election is clear: We Unitarian Universalists want our movement to change. We want to embrace the possibilities inherent in these uncertain times. We are not reconciled to being a declining part of American religious life. We have too much to offer. The world needs our prophetic and compassionate voice.
If we have a prophetic voice to share, if there's a purpose to being Unitarian Universalists, and we want to grow our faith, what are we doing putting an advertisement in the very front of our magazine that mocks exactly what Peter Morales is calling us to? Why do we begin by cutting ourselves down before we can even hear his words of prophecy and power? Advertising money? It's not a good enough reason to cut down our message so effectively.

*A note to readers of the blog on Facebook: Images and videos from this blog do not, Funfortunately, come with the blog post when it feeds into facebook. To view them, you'll need to go to the blog post itself at In this case, you can also go to FFRF's images at


Robin Edgar said…
Excellent blog post Cynthia.

I will be weighing in on this matter myself over the weekend but you are the first UU blogger I know of to have posted images of the ad or at least the FFRF's proposed Atheist Bus Campaign ad that the ad seeks donations for. I had to write to the FFRF itself to request a copy of the ad. Its copresident Dan Barker sent me an email with a PDF file of the ad within the last hour or so.

Best Regards,

Robin Edgar
smijer said…
I am a humanist and an agnostic, but I could choose to talk about this as an example of the "New Atheism" which I have preached against. While this is an example of the sort of atheism which is a fundamentalist atheism intolerant of theism and theists (i.e. comparing a belief in God to nursery tales),

I have often been critical of the New Atheists, too (and I enjoy going to Jerry Coyne's blog to tweak him!)... I don't know to what extent FFRF has aligned with that point of view, but I would argue that these ads really don't rise to the level of anti-theism of the New Atheists, or intentionally express intolerance per se. The Dawkins quote is the most insensitive - especially to Jews, and not appropriate for a UU mag ad... but it isn't an incitement. It expresses a point of view which is probably sincerely held, and is unfortunately defensible reading scripture in the context of modern values. It certainly challenges the believer, and it does so abrasively - but I don't think it really represents intolerance.

Similarly, the Clarence Darrow quote doesn't belong in our mag and is a throw-away line to begin with. But it isn't intolerance.

And, the others are innocuous expressions of a legitimate point of view.

I don't know about raising a fuss over the two objectionable quotes... I imagine I've seen worse in the pages of UUWorld, whether in ads or in actual content... I can't call an example to mind. But I can't get too bent out of shape about 'em.

By the way, blogger is truncating the three images on the right - you might want to put them on separate lines.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Thanks, smijer, I have fixed the images.

It's not that I find the quotes that offensive, as I said, that's not really the point here, it's that the overall impact of the advertisement mocks our very existence as a religion, and that the placement of such in our denominational magazine at the very beginning is basically UUism stabbing itself in its own back.
smijer said…
Eh... I don't know. We are a religion that embraces nontheism (otherwise, I wouldn't be in it)... I don't know that it mocks our existence as a religion - you might even say it endorses a religion like ours. But it is objectionable, especially to theists in our midst, on the couple of counts where the quotes mock theist beliefs. That's really the angle that bothers me...

But I can dig where you're coming from, anyway.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Yes, I agree, we do include atheism. And I think that's important. It's not that this promotes atheism that is problematic. Promote atheism all you want. Mocking theism, on the other hand, that's not cool; I agree with you there. To clarify what I think mocks our existence goes back to the name -- Freedom From Religion. Religion and theism are not synonymous. The overall impact of the advertisement says to me, "Religion is silly and harmful, and we will protect you from it." And I see UUism as a religion, one that includes diverse theologies, but a religion nonetheless.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Smijer said: But I can't get too bent out of shape about 'em.

Despite posting about this, I'm not really bent out of shape about it, by the way. It's something to debate in blogland, but not something I'm up in arms about. I agree with you there.
smijer said…
I feel that we & they are using the term "religion" different ways. In fact, if people ask about my religion I do tell them UUism... but I quickly let them know I'm a non-theist because I don't want to give a misleading impression to them - I don't want to be guilty of posing or passing. I would like to see the term religion rehabilitated such that it wasn't so often used synonymously with supernaturalism... but we're not quite there yet...
Cynthia Landrum said…
Yes, I see what you mean. My husband said to me after reading this, "Well, you're always very passionate about the fact that 'religion' doesn't always mean 'belief in God.'" That is, to me, a key point of Unitarian Universalism, and something this advertisement, and the organization by virtue of their name and the Butterfly McQueen quote and arguably the Twain as well, completely ignores.
Robin Edgar said…
Looks like you have got some good debate going here Rev. Cyn. Hopefully others will join the debate here. I have recommended that other UU bloggers read your post in a comment posted here. I will have more to say about this later but I am in general agreement with your take on the questionable publication of the ad in the UU World magazine. One of the things that I find most ironic about this whole issue is that the Freedom From Religion Foundation bus ads themselves are presented as stained glass windows which not so subtly suggests that the famous atheists who are pictured and quoted in those ever so *religious* stained glass windows are atheist saints of sorts. I recall Chicagoland UU blogger Bill Barr talking about atheist saints quite recently.

"Fellow Worker Murf and myself the only UU's I know who were into the Red Lifestyle. It was a lifestyle. It was a Religion. We had a hymnal. We had saints."

I think that the Freedom From Religion Foundation needs to rethink their bus ad campaign, and possibly even their name. ;-)
Cynthia Landrum said…
Thanks for the link over at "Berry's Mom," Robin. I enjoyed reading what you and others were saying over there.
BGD said…
Evidently, Clarence Darrow was a Unitarian.
Robin Edgar said…
You're most welcome Rev. Cyn. The "fundamentalist atheist" anti-religious intolerance that the UUA tacitly condones, if not actively affirms and promotes at times. . . has always been a major concern of mine and I am glad to see some productive debate about that issue arising from the controversial FFRF ad that was published in the UU World magazine. Just as the recent Henry Louis Gates Jr. vs. Sgt. James Crowley incident opened the door for more discussion and debate of race relations in the U.S.A. I hope that this recent controversy leads to the UUA responsibly addressing the Humanist/Theist divide more generally in the coming months and years with an emphasis on dealing forthrightly on the "fundamentalist atheist" intolerance and bigotry of *some* Humanist U*Us which I have reasonable grounds to believe is a major contributing factor to why Unitarian*Universalism is "a tiny, declining, fringe religion" to quote UUA President Rev. Peter Morales. I hope that Unitarian*Universalists will continue the discussion and debate and turn this incident into a "teachable moment" that leads to better relations between U*U theists and atheists. As per my comment on your other blog post I would encourage U*Us to go the extra mile and try to persuade the FFRF to reevaluate their proposed or actual Atheist Bus Campaign ads as some of them are sure to offend many God believing Americans regardless of which God or gods they may believe in. . . I have always believed that free and open debate of this issue can lead to better relations between U*U theist and atheist but for years, if not a decade or more. . . the UUA has tried to censor and suppress that necessary debate or simply pretend that this issue is of little importance. The institutional cover-up and denial on the part of the UUA is quite regrettable and does no good for the U*U religious community. Hopefully Scott Ulrich's letter accepting responsibility for this mistake is a harbinger of more admissions of even more serious mistakes on the part of UUA leaders when it comes to this important issue, to say nothing of other serious mistakes made by UUA leaders in various other areas.
jeanne said…
Hello Rev. Cyn,

This is such an important conversation. Thank you for your words here.

As a teacher of World Religions in my UU church in Ohio (and as a Universalist in orientation), I offer for consideration some excerpts from ~Universalism in America: a Documentary History of a Liberal Faith~ edited by Ernest Cassara (Skinner House, 1971, 2nd. edition 1984):

"In the resolution of the humanist controversy [which put "the responsibility for life on earth on man's shoulders" rather than in divine hands -j], Universalists and Unitarians took a step which carried them beyond Christianity. Probably because of their aversion to Christian creeds they had always been sympathetic to the claims of other religions, even while affirming their allegiance to Jesus. As early as 1805, Hosea Ballou in A Treatise on Atonement stated his belief that 'the divine grace of reconciliation may be communicated to those who have never been privileged with the volume of divine revelation, and who have never heard the name of a Mediator proclaimed, as the only way of life and salvation.' In 1882-1883 James Freeman Clark, a Unitarian, published his sympathetic treatment of Ten Great Religions. Both denominations were active in sponsoring the World Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In secular affairs, they were among the most staunch supporters of the idea of the League of Nations and then the United Nations, and in their Service Committee sought to meet the needs of men in many parts of the world without regard to their religious beliefs.

"Paradoxically, the rise of humanism in the 1930s, with its denial of the existence of any deity, caused the liberals to look with a more tolerant eye on the claims of non-Christian religions. The Scriptures of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism (among others) were introduced into services on an equal footing with those of Christianity. Universalists and Unitarians seemed to be saying that man possesses within him a basic religious need which has to be met and which has been expressed in various formulations in different cultures."

Food for thought...

All the best,
Robin Edgar said…
Any extensive quote from any publication is "food for thought" Jeanne. Maybe you can tell us what *you* want to say?
Caroline said…
Good Morning, Rev Cyn - This is indeed an important dialogue and I actually believe it is one that should be carried forward into the presence of congregations and into the publications of the organization. I guess I would probably call myself, now, a theist UU. Previously I called myself a Christian UU. I try in my life to follow the major teachings that I believe came from Jesus, and I do believe that he lived and that something very special happened at his death. However, I don't want to be associated with mainstream US Christianity as it exists today. So theist UU seems to suit. I remember my experiences, though, in a major UU church in the '70's and being put down in discussions because I claimed a Christian viewpoint and a belief in Jesus and a Godde. It hurt and stung. And stayed with me. However, I knew that this behavior was not really in line with UU beliefs in general and hung in there, but taught about my experiences and beliefs to my children. I think they heard and I am proud of them as UU's today. Those experiences, however, along with the appearance of these adds in the UU publication, are what lead me to remind others that this conversation does belong in the congregation and in the publication.

Caroline, Detroit
Robin Edgar said…
Well said Caroline.

"So theist UU seems to suit."

You might want to try Unitarian or Universalist on for size. It is after all the Unitarian Universalist *Association* so it should be possible to be a full blown Unitarian in *association* with Universalists and vice versa. It is a sad day for Unitarian Universalism when you can't be a bona fide Unitarian or Universalist without catching flack from U*Us. . .
Alena said…
I believe we've distilled ourselves into trouble. We've declared all things as fitting into either "theist" OR "non-theist". (Certainly neither is part of my definition of myself so I'm weary of what in my world translates as power struggle over turf.) Honestly now, how does one choose neutrally between positions where one is "yes" based, the other "no"?

Don't care what the intention is in these conversations, the outcome is inclusion/exclusion. For me, this borders on a passive-agressive choosing love. Current terms being used run counter to stated goal of building mutual respect.

Further, ironically, with obvious hurt feelings among all groups, each still seems to continue to personify "sides" (interchangeably)into what might be described as bully and victim roles. Seems to me the appropriate/hostile perspective can only perpetuate the "us-them reality" so easily channeled these days.

Clearly no one wants to "own" the definition of "choosing love". Most of us want to be fair, etc. Yet, seems to me, we keep translating what it means through filters of personal belief et al (often including fearful, hurt feelings) thus we nip in the bud communicating through love.

"Freedom from Religion" does seem a distracting, unfortunate name for an organization whose vision is raising awareness for/promoting separation of church and state, as Cynthia mentioned paragraphs ago.

However, until more folks of all persuasions, individually and collectively, are willing to activate conscious, constructive awareness of what might be called their personal "chip(s) on their shoulder", we will continue to get more of the same. The problems lies in the middle of me/us/we, each and every one! NOT with THEM (whoever they may be.)

We have become a combative culture. When did fighting become more honored than finding common ground and translating it so that the pain in others links with that of our own? ONLY then do we build cultural structures that serve us.

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