It’s not easy to herd cats, as a memorable Super Bowl commercial showed us. Similarly, I’m wondering how the Universist movement (a “faithless” alternative to traditional religion) is going to be able to organize hard-to-corral freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, deists, and the like.
Here in Salem, Oregon I’ve organized a Universist discussion group. I’ve also helped Ford Vox, the founder of Universism, rewrite the movement’s FAQs (frequently asked questions). So my observations are from a friendly perspective, in contrast to those who see the rise of Universism as work of the Devil and the Anti-Christ.
In our Salem Universist meetings we haven’t yet discussed Universism, per se. The topic just hasn’t come up. Sort of strange, isn’t it? Universism bills itself as an alternative to faith-based religions, yet says that it is a religious philosophy. A philosophy without substantive content, in which the individual search for truth and meaning is all-important, not preset answers.
So when we Salem Universists get together there’s no mention of Universism. We simply talk about what’s going on in our lives, and how we’re trying to grapple with the Big Questions. Is there a God? If so, what kind? What’s our relationship with the cosmos? Does life continue after death? To name a few.
There’s nothing uniquely “Universist” in all this. We’re being open-minded, non-dogmatic, and respectful of each others’ opinions. The Universist movement says that these are desirable qualities, but so does almost everybody.
Thus I’ve been trying to figure out what connection exists between talking with friends in a coffee house or living room, and Universism central—which has a fancy web site and is garnering increasing media attention (CNN’s Anderson Cooper probably will air a story about Universism next week).
Increasingly it seems to me that there is a clear distinction between the organization called “Universism” and people who are drawn together under the Universist banner, or otherwise, to discuss spirituality, philosophy and the Meaning of It All. You can’t herd independent thinkers into a corral that they don’t want to enter, even if the fences say “We don’t fence you in.”
I mean, the nature of every organization is to be organized. And when you organize, you necessarily make decisions that affect the entire organization—not just one person. Yet the central tenet of Universism is that each individual is responsible for determining his or her own philosophy of life and morality. Which produces a conflict. Mild, perhaps, but still a conflict.
After Hurricane Katrina hit I got emails from Universism central saying that a charitable arm of the movement had been formed to solicit donations for medical equipment. As Scrooge-like as this may sound, I wrote to the head Universist honcho and told him that there are lots of charitable organizations that my wife and I donate money to. Hopefully, I said, Universism won’t get drawn into becoming a “do-gooder” group when this isn’t its stated mission.
Similarly, this excerpt from a message that went to Universist activists raised my eyebrows:
We’re organizing a Universist ministerial corps to perform weddings, funerals, other ceremonies and spiritual counseling. Universism of course holds that none of us have any special authority about religious matters. Our ordination of Universist ministers will simply certify that this organization is comfortable with these individuals representing themselves in an official ministerial capacity as Universists.
Maybe this is appropriate, but I was attracted to the Universist movement because it didn’t seem to have the attributes of a religion. Yet here we are with ministers being appointed by someone with the authority to anoint them as certifiable Universists, even though the organization says “none of us have any special authority about religious matters.” Again, a contradiction.
I support Universism. However, when I first wrote about it I expressed some qualms about joining up with an organized “ism.”
Cats don’t change their spots. I’m still resistant to being herded. Even into an expansive corral.