The Religious Agnostic, Life of a UU

This post is part of Not Your Average Week, a TNGG Theme Week.

I grew up Catholic, but I’m not anymore. It’s a common enough story. That I went back to religion is rare. That I went back to a religion that’s losing people is rarer still.

My family went to church most Sundays (except Christmas and Easter due to crowd loathing – we were like the reverse of everyone else). My sister, brother, and I attended religious education throughout our youth. The parties for First Communions were my introduction to cheese and cold cuts trays, not that I eat either anymore.

I was confirmed, and sponsored my brother. My jewelry box resembled my mother’s and my grandmother’s: a peek inside and you could find crucifixes, rosaries, and pins. I have saint medals on my keys: Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene (I like a good contradiction), St. Ignatius and St. Christopher. I played in the church choir, kept going to church when my family stopped, and prayed. I prayed a lot. In parks, in school, in random quiet moments. God never talked back of course. I kind of knew he wouldn’t. So is planted the first seed of doubt.

The stories of Jesus exalted the need to help the poor and downtrodden. There was nothing greater, it seemed, than serving others for the glory of God. I believed that. In fact, it resonated so strongly with me that I considered being a nun at one point. (I heard these gals, the rare young nuns, interviewed on NPR six months ago and could relate with nearly every word.) God loves everyone; service and justice seemed the only right thing to do.

Part 1, The Great Catholic Exodus

Then. college happened. Enter evolutionary biology, science and doubt. There were always a few points of “Does Not Compute” with Catholicism that I ignored until this new phase of life. First of all, if Catholicism is the only way, that would mean the most kind-hearted man I’d ever known (my father), was going to Hell for the sin of being Methodist. Um. No.

Second, how about women in the Catholic church? Why were the leaders of churches only allowed to be men? I remember looking around my classroom at some of the less leadership inclined boys, and thinking that it wasn’t fair that the Catholic church saw them as more qualified than I was.

Not to mention, why were the people giving family advice the same people prohibited from having one? My folks were ardently pro-choice, as most Catholics are, but the church taught that as wrong. My parents’ reasoning made more sense. Then there was the whole evolution thing. The Catholic Church isn’t so afraid of science these days, but there was enough doubt for me to conclude that I had been making a mistake to believe.

I neatly fit the trend of young adults who leave the church in college. The fastest growing group of Americans are the non-religious. That’s where I was, part of the Great Catholic Exodus.

When I dropped Catholicism, I did not drop the sense that social justice is important. If anything, it became more important. If God can’t save the world, it’s up to the people who live on it. And so, activism filled in the place of purpose that religion once had.

Part 2, Trying to Find a Purpose

Something happens when you spend long periods of time as an atheist in the social justice advocacy world. You can lose your grounding in what “right” actually means. It becomes tempting to worship at the alter of the Democratic Party. Then when you realize they are part of “the man”, there can be an inclination to dip your toes in something more extreme, without the due critical thinking required.

I started to get the sense that there was a presumption that the liberal idea was always the right one. There were some tenants of liberalism that struck me as a bit destructive. Hedonism made me uncomfortable. I think Habermas and the many schools of feminism ultimately did me in. The rest of philosophy didn’t help either. Activism is hard, and I felt like I was floating without a moral grounding.

Part 3, Enter… Unitarian Universalism.

You may know it from a joke or two on The Simpsons. I presumed it was some Christian sect the first time I heard of it. Unfortunately, I was pretty prejudiced against religion then, and did not give it a second thought. A few years later, I took abeliefnet quiz which said I fit atheism and Unitarian Universalism 100%. OK, Belief-net: Unitarian Universal-what? Wikipedia became my next source of information. Theologically sound? Maybe not, but what millennial doesn’t go to Wikipedia first?

Creedless faith? I like it. Principle of democracy? Sure. I didn’t really trust that Pope fellow anyway – he seemed too human to be a channel of the divine (not that there is anything wrong with being human). Google mapped the nearest church… and it was too far away for my car-less undergraduate self to get to. OK. I pocketed the information.

Part 4, What Is It?

Why is it weird that I am UU? Well, I am part of a generation that eschews institutions. I am a young adult in a religion that struggles to retain them. The religion itself is losing members across the board, even though we intend to embrace and welcome everyone, regardless of your belief. It is a weird lifestyle to be part of a non-dogmatic faith.

First of all, there is the struggle of explaining what Unitarian Universalism is; we call it the “elevator speech.” Being a small religion (only approximately 100,000 people in the United States are UUs) compounds this. There is the backpedalling whenever I tell someone that I go to church – No, not a church like that. Explaining that though I am part of a creedless church, it’s not wishy-washy, and it does inspire some of my ethical decision making. There is the issue of identity. “Who am I?” does not get answered. “Why am I doing this?” comes with ideas, nothing definitive. It is not for the faint of heart.

The religious often feel like outsiders in a secular world, or at least a world that does not conform to their religion. UUs are outsiders in the world of religion. The first UU church I was a member of was barred from participating in a religious food bank network because it was not Christian. A UU friend of mine did not get a job with a Christian organization because as UUs, we not necessarily believe Jesus is the Lord and Savior. The person seated next to me in the pews probably disagrees with my interpretation of theology, and the person next to them disagrees with both of us. Sometimes people say that UU*ism is the religious wing of the Democratic Party. They don’t mean that kindly.

It’s a group of people that gets together because we think striving for something higher is important, and work towards it. My religion is caring about the world, this time with people who care about the world for the sake of it.

Christine Slocum I am an imperfect person (though I prefer "work in progress"). In 25 years I have managed to become a graduate student in sociology, a Unitarian Universalist, vegan, social activist and the wife of my best friend. Originally from Syracuse, NY, I now live in Seattle, WA with aforementioned best friend and two dog-like cats.

View all posts by Christine Slocum

6 Responses to “The Religious Agnostic, Life of a UU”

  1. Maggie Boone

    Thank you for writing about your religious evolution. (“Conversion” doesn’t seem to be the right word.)

    I relate to a lot of this post, as I am a former Catholic, current UU, and not much older than you (30). My congregation has a lot of other “recovering Catholics”, as well. Our fellow religious liberals, the UCC (my last church was UCC) now has a book out about the sudden surge of former Catholics in their midst.

    I’m in Massachusetts, in the orbit of Boston, so one thing that affected my parting ways with the Catholic Church, which you didn’t mention, was the huge clergy sex abuse scandal. While I was tired of being denied equal rights as a woman, and I didn’t believe any of the teachings about birth control, or the eternal fate of my Methodist great-grandmother, what brought me to the point where I dropped out was that not only did some priests abuse kids, but the power structure not only let it happen, but covered it up, and blamed the media (esp. the Boston Globe) for slandering the Church. I knew Jesus wouldn’t condone that bad behavior, so I knew in my heart it couldn’t really be the “One True Church”. If it ever was, it wasn’t anymore. Jesus had left the building. My nuclear family all dropped out too, at different times. However, my extended family is still largely church-going, to each their own.
    I still consider myself Christian, just with a different “take” on it. Out of the two UU churches in town, I chose the one that was still most like a traditional congregational church (It was founded in the late 18th century by splitting from the regular congregational church.) I picked this UU congregation because I knew some people there, and the music program is locally renowned.


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