Last night CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” featured a story on Universism, a faithless movement that calls itself a religion. Well, it is, sort of. CNN termed it the “Seinfeld of religion” because Universism believes in nothing.
I’ve started a Universist group here in Salem and have corresponded quite a bit with Ford Vox, the movement’s founder. The CNN story spurred me to expand upon a friendly critique of Universism that began with “Herding cats, Universism’s challenge.”
A transcript of the CNN story can be found as a continuation to this post (I cleaned up the initial rough transcript by comparing it with my recording of the program). What you can’t see from a transcript is the setting of the Universist meeting in Alabama that was filmed by the CNN crew.
To my mind it reflected one of the central problems I have with the Universist Movement: for a philosophy that believes in nothing, it is overly centered on the beliefs of Ford Vox and other core organizers. Ford is shown standing at a podium with a microphone, addressing an audience who, when they talk, seem to be speaking to him, not to each other.
This isn’t the way our Salem group operates. When we get together, it’s a freeform discussion all the way. Now, I realize that a national organization needs to have leaders who speak for the group. But I’d suggest that the Universist leaders should act in accord with my pithy summary of Universism:
I don’t know anything about God or ultimate reality.
Neither do you.
So let’s get together and share our not-knowingness.
By contrast, the official Universist creed is much more involved. It includes lots of confident statements about morality, science, religion, truth, and the like that belie the uncertainty that is supposed to be the hallmark of Universism. This contradiction came out in the CNN story.
Ford Vox says, “The idea is that there is no external truth, that there is no objective truth that we should all strive to adhere to. Rather, there is an ongoing, continuing search for truth.” And in explaining why Universism is against faith, one of the movement’s “theologians,” John Armstrong, says “Faith basically we define as letting other people think for you.”
OK. But then shouldn’t Universism be devoid of truths that members seemingly are supposed to accept? Why can’t Universists simply congregate around the banner of not-knowing? What reason is there for any central creed of Universism other than, we’re all clueless when it comes to God, spirituality, and metaphysics.
My impression is that Ford Vox, whom I admire and respect, has come to some profound personal realizations about what life is all about. That’s great. However, those are his realizations. Not mine. Not yours. His. They shouldn’t be the foundation of a movement that says every person has to find his or her own meaning, and that nothing should be accepted on faith.
Here’s another problem I have with Universism: it takes itself too seriously. All the humor in the CNN segment came from the reporter (Tom Foreman). Ford and John should have been the ones making fun of the Universist Movement, in line with another religion’s sage advice, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”
Having been a publicist in another career incarnation, I know how tough it is to come up with witty responses when you’re nervously appearing on-camera. Still, I feel that Armstrong missed a chance after Foreman said to him, “Some people would say this religion already exists and it's called…college.”
Armstrong looked like a deer caught in the headlights when he should have laughed and said something like, “You’re absolutely right. Just without so much beer.” Or on a more serious note, “That’s true. Except in this religion nobody ever graduates; we’re all lifelong learners.”
Instead, he said after a considerable pause: “I had never thought of it that way before.” And Foreman ended the segment with, “Is it possible?”
I’m attracted to Zen and Taoism because neither philosophy gives a hoot about being dignified and respectable. Fools are the norm, particularly in Taoism. By contrast, traditional religions care a lot about looking like they have their act together.
Since Universism is all about not-knowing, uncertainty, and doing your own spiritual thing, it should project a light-hearted carefree air. But that didn’t come across in the CNN story.
The way I see it, Universism wants to wear a religious cloak and be known as a religion. It wants to have an official creed and ministers (plus a ring and T-shirts). Yet, as was emphasized last night, nothing is under the religious trappings.
So why put them on at all? Spiritual nakedness is fine with me.
Here’s the CNN transcript:
HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Most of the world's religions have one thing in common, they are old, very old, even ancient. Each one, though, was an upstart before it caught on. Of course, the world was a much different place when they were taking root, which made us wonder, what's it like to be an up start religion in the 21st century? Well, for one thing, there's the "Seinfeld" factor. Once again, here's CNN's Tom Foreman.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the heart of Alabama iron country where faith runs generations deep, a new religion is being forged, but heaven, hell, even God don't matter much here.
FORD VOX, UNIVERSIST MOVEMENT: This will be the first meeting of the new year.
FOREMAN: Because Universism is all about the ability of anyone to know anything. That's the inspiration of medical student, philosopher, founder Ford Vox.
VOX: The idea is that there is no external truth, that there is no objective truth that we should all strive to adhere to. Rather, there is an ongoing, continuing search for truth.
FOREMAN: The Universist Web site displays a lengthy manifesto, pages of press coverage, even rings with a flashy hurricane-like logo. The three-year-old group claims 10,000 members, including atheists, agnostics and people who are disillusioned with traditional faith. Like Lindsey Tillery.
TILLERY: A religion shouldn't be the rituals you do on Sunday.
FOREMAN: She grew up a strict Southern Baptist, but was never comfortable with church doctrine or leaders.
TILLERY: I can't believe that someone else that's a human being that's never spoken with God can be able to tell me what I need to do to get closer to that god, any more than I could tell them.
FOREMAN: By definition and custom, Universism may not really be a religion at all. Consider, almost every religion has some deity, a set of rules or even laws.
CHRIS LELAND, FOCUS ON THE FAMILY: And they have normal religious rites and rituals. This doesn't follow that. It's more of a philosophic or sort of theologic group then it is actually a religion, at least in my mind.
FOREMAN: John Armstrong, a Universist theologian of sorts, says it is certainly a religion, just not like others.
(on camera): Are you against established religions?
JOHN ARMSTRONG, MEDIA RELATIONS, UNIVERSIST: We are against faith. We are against the imposition ...
FOREMAN: What does that mean, against faith?
ARMSTRONG: Faith basically we define as letting other people think for you. Basically saying, here are the established truths that govern this universe and you need to just have faith. In other words, don't question them. You should simply believe them.
FOREMAN (voice-over): Nothing on faith, no truth trusted? Sounds familiar.
JERRY SEINFELD, COMEDIAN: So we go into NBC and we tell them we've got an idea for a show about nothing.
JASON ALEXANDER, COMEDIAN: Exactly.
SEINFELD: They say what's your show about? I say nothing.
ALEXANDER: There you go.
SEINFELD: I think you may have something here.
FOREMAN: Some call Universism the "Seinfeld" of religion, no ministers, no real rules, no churches, nothing except endless evening talks on politics, life, death, love, all questions, no answers.
(on camera): Some people would say this religion already exists and it's called…college.
ARMSTRONG: I had never thought of it that way before.
FOREMAN: Is it possible?
(voice-over): Still, believers like it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I like the fact that I can go in this group and be an individual. I don't have to pretend like I believe what everyone else believes because that's what you're supposed to believe.
FOREMAN (on camera): The Universists know they have a long way to go. Most of the world's great religions are hundreds, in some cases thousands of years old. But who knows, maybe a lot of them looked like this in the beginning.
(voice-over): A diverse group of disaffected souls heading out into the world with the gospel of uncertainty. Tom Foreman, CNN, Birmingham, Alabama.