Religion Redefined
Issue   |   Thu, 09/01/2011 - 21:27

As modern American society becomes ever more secular, it seems as though we might need to re-examine what role religion plays, and as more unorthodox groups such as the Unitarian Universalists (Unitarians) and American Jews gain prominence and official recognition, it seems that we need to re-examine even the fundamentals, like the very definition of the word. Merriam-Webster defines religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” However, neither Unitarian Universalism (UU) nor American Judaism (AJ) quite fit this mold. The former calls itself a religion while consisting of a congregation that is largely involved in other “faiths” and is mainly atheist, and the latter consists of a people who associate themselves with the religion while very largely not believing in, or following its teachings. Traditional religious service is designed for a religious community to worship the divine. Elements such as love, fulfillment and togetherness, those most unanimously agreed upon by the nonreligious community to be religion’s most positive aspects, have been left as mere byproducts (though certainly very accepted and celebrated byproducts). Both UU and AJ have reversed this causal chain of effect. Unitarians gather in meeting houses to fulfill each others’ spiritual and humanistic needs, while American Jews will very adamantly insist that they are Jewish, even though most don’t keep kosher, follow the rules of the Sabbath or, as per a recent study, believe in God. Instead of having religion serve the divine as a primary objective and then leaving the positive elements as consequences, these two “religious” groups count the attainment of those positive elements as their primary objectives, and then leave belief and/or worship to a supernatural force as an acceptable (though commonly omitted) consequence.

In “America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity,” Robert Wuthnow writes that people in search of new faiths fear commitment to any one religion because they are often averse to settling on a single, definitive set of doctrines. Uniarian Universalism has circumvented this issue by eliminating all such doctrine from its ideology. American Jews, chiefly those belonging to Reform Judaism and those not pledging allegiance to any movement, have managed around it by not expecting each other to commit to any doctrine at all. Instead Jews favor a pride in their own ethnicity and perhaps some Westernized traditions, such as the celebration of Hanukkah and, in some decreasing cases, staying clear from pork. Aside from loving humanity and being a strong believer in social causes, being a Unitarian implies nothing of one’s theology (including the fact that one even has a theology). Unitarian Universalism allows, and in fact encourages its members to seek truths and guidance from a variety of influences, including other religious faiths. For Unitarians, “the individual is the ultimate source of religious authority.”

Unitarians have neither a set religious creed nor dogma, differentiating them from almost all other religions. Although their roots are associated with Christianity, they don’t hold the Bible to be “either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth.” They study the Bible but only for ethical education and inspiration, in the same way they study other texts, such as the Vedas and modern scientific literature. The only “texts” that the Unitarians collectively agree on are the “Seven Principles and Purposes” and the “Six Sources,” a collection of seven common values of Unitarians and six sources of influence that its 1,078 congregations draw upon to build their ethical and spiritual philosophies (individualized and personalized, of course). In the spirit of UU’s democratic propensity, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s original statement of purpose was agreed upon by a popular election of the UU of America’s individual member congregations in 1960. This has been updated as the philosophies of the congregations change over time, turning eventually into the list of “Seven Principles and Purposes” and the “Six Sources.” Just like the case with every other ideology, Unitarians are under no obligation to study or even accept the lists, but most follow the principles listed in them at an extraordinarily ardent and devoted level.

Judaism is unique in that in the case of no other group can you find so many American families that associate themselves with a religion, yet are as far as three generations removed from any ancestors who were observant to its ideology. You would be quite hard pressed, for example, to find someone who labels himself as catholic but also claims to be an atheist. Judaism is far more than just a religion; it is a cultural, ethnic identity. For many, the distinction between Judaism as a religious ideology and an ethnicity is blurry at best.

Although American Jews and Unitarian Universalists are unique in their own rights, neither are particularly recent groups to gain prominence in the United States, nor are they even all that unusual. The amount of true, orthodox religious practitioners from all groups has been decreasing since, arguably, the ’70s, yet in political rhetoric and even official “polls” we consider ourselves to be a highly religious nation, an anomaly amongst similarly developed countries. We must therefore either give up this notion, or else accept that the very meaning of “religion” has changed.