Unitarian-Universalism and Paganism

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 17, 2006 — 13 Comments

Sometimes, all it takes is one crank letter to show the ideological cracks in Unitarian-Universalism. The Humanist/Theist divide is one that has been simmering quietly in the background for some time. Is the addition of modern Paganism going to be the step too far? Is it possible that the famously ever-tolerant association of liberal churches could finally splinter along Theist/Humanist lines?

UU Humanist ‘Chalicechick’ shares her own thoughts about Pagans in the UU church.

“This isn’t sneering, but I always dreaded Beltane when I was in a congregation with a critical mass of pagans. I didn’t like the costumes or the chanting or the maypole or the Queen of the May election all out on the church lawn in a big festival. I always thought it made us look sort of silly. And whatever the pagans do is reflected on us. As I sat at the toasting table and tried to play along, I was nervous as I watched people walk by on the sidewalk and stare.”

Meanwhile, conservative UU Theist Joel Monka calls UU Humanists out.

“I’ll tell you old-school UU Humanists out there something: you should thank Bertrand Russell that you don’t always get what you wish for… if all the UU Christians and UU Pagans left, the average age of the average congregation would approach triple digits, and the membership list would drop down to double digits- and half of them would be Buddhist. We irrational, superstitious psychotics are keeping your doors open; the least you can do is sneer at us behind our backs instead of right in our faces.”

When the story ran at Witchvox, several Pagans shared their bad experiences with UU congregations.

“I have been to one Unitarian Universalist church about 15 years ago where I received about as warm a welcome as if I’d wandered into a Baptist church! Luckily, that is the only one I’ve run into like that in the past 20 years, but some individuals within the UU churches are, shall we say, less open minded than others.”Dee Moonhawk

“I produce the annual Witches’ Ball in Denver. For many years I also produced a Beltane event called the Magickal May Festival in conjunction with the Womens’ Spirituality Group at one of the local UU churches…I got caught in the middle of a turf war between some unhappy Unitarian Humanists and the Unitarian Religious…Anyway, these particular Unitarian Universalist Humanist old-timers didn’t like the fact that a bunch of religious newcomers (Pagans, Buddhists, etc) were usurping their control of this congregation. They wanted all of these newcomers to go away and let them go back to being the familiar, small, congregation they had been in the past. They made life very hard for some of us before they were through.”Living Goddess

“When I attended a local UU church, I was called a “superstitious ninny” to my face, and regularly had my religious preferences (and that of my husband, who is Christian) insulted during the sermon…”Harmony

“I think some churches forget that without the Pagans entering the congregation, most of them would have stagnated years ago!! From the two congregations I’ve been affiliated with over the years, the majority of new members have been Pagan, have young families and are very active within the church…If you look at the average age of the average UU church, it is probably somewhere near 70. Without the influx of Pagans into the congregations, the churches would eventually just die off.”Cheryl Grant

In the comments section of a previous post, one Pagan Pride organizer discusses why she believes Pagans might want to hold their events at the local UU church.

“Location for PPD is complicated – having been part of the PPD committee locally this year, I was around for a lot of the site decision discussion. For us (and I’d assume for a lot of other places), it’s often a question of picking the best combination of trade-offs. Public park would be nice – but weather can be a concern. Plus, the city park systems have some restrictions on vending and other activities that would be problematic. (and reservation systems can be problematic in our local parks.) Plus, with a larger gathering (the Twin Cities Pagan Pride is up in the upper hundreds), it can be hard to arrange multiple classes/rituals in an accessible/findable way that doesn’t mean hiking all over creation to get to stuff (mobility issues for some people.)”

According to the Pagan Pride Project web site, twelve Pagan Pride events are taking place in Unitarian-Universalism churches this year. It is difficult to say if the majority of these are merely situations of convenience or if it might denote a trend towards a congregational preference. I’m hoping that in the next few days I’ll be able to interview someone from the Pagan Pride Project about these issues. In the meantime I’ll keep my readers posted if any conversations about Pagans in the UUA appear in te UU blogs or discussion lists.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Willow Rhiamon

    For about 10 years now, I have been a die-hard Pagan. I mean, bordering on being anti-christian. I am very fulfilled in my Pagan beliefs. About 4 years ago I discovered the local UU church in my area, and have been attending ever since. I absolutely love it there. They are very open minded and are even fascinated with my beliefs and practices. It is one place where I can speak openly about my Pagan beliefs and I receive very positive feedback from them. It saddens me to hear Pagans speak so horribly about the UU’s. Especially when we are so bombarded with hate from many in society. I understand that not all UU churches are as open and accepting as mine, but I also know that many Pagans carry a chip on their shoulder and tend to be defensive before anyone has a chance to upset them. Maybe these people who had negative experiences need to step back and ponder whether they could have contributed to this problem.

  • Poodlezilla

    I was going to post my personal story, but then realized that it would make me findable. Uh, I believe in gods and goddesses. I love the humanists-they are all so organized, but so far as hanging out with them on Sunday morning in a quasi-religious ceremony that skirts diety-eh, I’d rather be recovering from a hangover.Overall opinion: Nice people with a severe “weird-out” factor around those of us who are pagans.

  • Morrigan Waters

    Okay, the comment about “the failures of Neo-Paganism” really got my back up. First of all, you don’t just utilize that phrase and not expound on it!! They just put that phrase out there and went on to another subject! Admittedly there probably ARE failures in modern paganism, but so are there failures in Islam, in Buddhism, and *gasp, could it be?* Christianity! No religion is perfect, so why harp on imperfetions? All that aside, I nearly choked on my bagel when I read “Upon receiving one of the anonymous complaints by mail, she said, “I used it to line the bottom of the cage of my guinea pig.”

  • The Emerson Avenger

    Willow Rhiamon is more than a little bit off base when she says – “It saddens me to hear Pagans speak so horribly about the UU’s. Especially when we are so bombarded with hate from many in society.” If Willow entered into a genuinely free and *responsible* search for truth and bothered to read the news article she would quickly see that some U*Us, almost certainly fundamentalist atheist “Humanist” U*Us, spoke quite contemptuously (if not horribly) about pagans and paganism. The quoted “critic’s” letter described Pagan Pride Day events as a “travesty” and “a potpourri of flaky spiritualities and ancient occult practices resembling a medieval Dungeons and Dragons festival.” It suggested that it was a “sad and *scary* thing” that Pagan Pride Day “will probably draw a bigger crowd than discussion on how Unitarians might lead a “long overdue reform” of liberal religion.” I don’t see the organizer of Pagan Pride Day, Lorna Steele, saying anything about U*Us that can be truthfully described as horrible. On the contrary her response to the obvious intolerance and bigotry expressed by her shadowy “anonymous critics” seems to be quite moderate, even gracious under their pressure. This controversy has all the hallmarks of intolerant and even bigotted radical atheist “Humanist” U*Us going out of their way to trash a “spiritual” event. I have faced similar intolerance and bigotry from “Humanist” U*Usm in the past and I am saddened to see that it still exists within U*Uism in spite of my decade-long efforts to expose it and denounce it in order to provoke some “long overdue reform” of U*Uism. . . Specifically the significant reduction, if not outright eradication, of anti-religious intolerance and bigotry as practiced by fundamentalist atheist “Humanist” Unitarian*Universalists.

  • Chalicechick

    I read the WitchVox thread and there were a decent number of pagans who shared their GOOD experiences with UUism, too. Not just that meeting in a UU church is more convenient, but that there are UU churches out there that reach out to Pagans. I wish some of those comments had made it into this roundup instead of four negative comments and the comment about how our churches are convenient to rent. CC

  • Jason

    Chalicechick,I see your point, but I was trying to illustrate “the cracks” in Unitarian-Universalist harmony. I think that most of the time Pagans speak of UU churches as friendly and open places. So it was newsworthy to see a ripple of disatisfaction appearing. “Man pets dog” isn’t a story.

  • Chalicechick

    That’s probably the same logic the Rhode Island newspaper editor used when he turned one crank letter into a story that got national play on the blogosphere.Can’t say I like it. CC

  • Jason

    “That’s probably the same logic…”I don’t think so, but I can see how you would feel that way. Sorry.

  • Robyn

    As a devout Pagan and a devout UU, I think there is something else going on in this Humanist/Theist schism that typically goes unrecognized. I think this issue is far more about a strong generational gap and the related power struggle than it is about any actual religious practices. If you look at the demographics of UUism, you will typically see 3 groups: older, usually humanist-leaning members (60+), 30-somethings with kids (25-45), and then the kids of the 30-somethings. The 30ish people are typically far more Theistically leaning than the older generation, and the Pagans amongst us are, shall we say, often the most obvious of the Theists. The older generation has been losing both power and place to the younger generations at UU churches for some time now, and they feel threatened. They watch as their traditional Sunday morning lecture turns into a genuine spiritual service, sometimes about things that they’ve never even heard of. In a sense, they’re rebelling. They’re scared. And, because it is certainly not politic to complain about “those young’uns” at a UU church (which is typically gasping for growth), they instead strike out at what they think is a fair target–the new strong streak of Theism, often wrapped in Pagan clothing. If this is the root of the problem, then trying to address the religious intolerance in UUism isn’t going to get us very far, because that’s just not the issue. Don’t get me wrong, I think that many of the Humanists genuinely dislike the emergent Paganism in UUism today, but I don’t think they’d be complaining if they weren’t feeling threatened by it, and that, I think, is a purely generational thing.Robyn M.

  • Anonymous

    The Emerson Avenger has spent the last ten years denigrating the Unitarian Church of Montreal. Here is the information that the church provides to those who enquire. Please feel free to pass it on.The withdrawal of Mr. Edgar?s membership from the Unitarian Church of Montreal was not motivated by his religious beliefs, but by his disruptive and aggressive behaviour towards the members of this congregation. His inappropriate behaviour has continued for more than ten years. Seven years ago he was brought before a Disruptive Behaviour Committee on several occasions, where over the next three years attempts were made to have him moderate his unacceptable behaviours. He would agree to proposed solutions and then go on as before. He was repeatedly warned that failure to comply with what he had agreed to do would result in serious consequences. Over this period, he was suspended from participation in Church life for six months. Unfortunately, upon his return his behaviour worsene , and he was suspended for an additional year. Again when he returned, his inappropriate behaviour continued. Finally in November 1999, at a meeting of the full congregation, during which he spoke on his own behalf, a congregational vote was taken and his membership was revoked. This decade long process, during which sincere attempts were made by the congregation to negotiate a solution, ended when it became clear that he had no intention of ceasing his disruptive and aggressive behaviours. It should be noted that Reverend Ray Drennan did apologise, in person, on more than one occasion. However, this did not meet with Mr Edgar?s satisfaction. Mr. Edgar has redressed his grievances to whomever he has saw fit, be it the UUA, CUC, etc., and his complaint to the Quebec Human Rights Commission in 2002 was summarily dismissed as being without merit. Mr Edgar continues to picket the church in the futile belief that the Church will act. Reverend Drennan is no longer the minister as he left at the end of August 2005, to follow his own life?s journey; and the church has simply moved on.

  • The Emerson Avenger

    The above SPAM is the misinformation and disinformation that a certain anonymous member of the Unitarian Church of Montreal sees fit to post in his or her misguided efforts to discredit my legitimate criticim of “Humanist” U*U minister Rev. Ray Drennan’s anti-religious intolerance and bigotry and the Unitarian Church of Montreal’s unjust, inequitable and uncompassionate punitive responses to my perfectly legitimate grievances. It is highly misleading, seriously distorts the truth, and even contains several outright falsehoods. Anonymous U*U knows this very well now yet he or she continues to post this deceitful disinformation even though I thoroughly rebutted it months ago. . . Interestingly enough Rev. Ray Drennan’s bigotted attack on Creation Day, which he falsely and maliciously labeled as a “cult”. . . is a prime example of the kind of anti-religious intolerance and bigotry that fundamentalist atheist “Humanist” U*Us tend to engage in. I find it quite disturbing that the Unitarian Church of Montreal and the greater U*U religious community not only prefer to Deny, Ignore and Minimize this kind of anti-religious intolerance and bigotry but go out of their way to condone it and even effectively endorse it, blame the victim, and go to highly questionable extreme lengths to punish me in an effort to silence my criticism and dissent.

  • Jason

    This conversation stops here on this blog. I’m not involved enough to make a judgement call, so any further posts on this matter by The Emerson Avenger or “Anonymous” will be deleted.

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