It isn’t often that we get to observe the birth and death of a religion. Especially a non-religious religion. Universism is, or was, such a beast. Its brief rise and sudden fall offers some instructive lessons concerning the dangers of institutionalized belief.
I’ve been writing about Universism since I discovered it last July. At first I considered it a kindred unfaith that was completely compatible with my churchless leanings. I then plunged deeper into Universism and organized a local Salem Universist discussion group.
But then the central Universist Movement started to turn weird. My posts became more critical, starting with “Herding cats, Universism’s challenge,” moving to “A friendly critique of the Universist Movement,” and culminating with “I abandon Universism.”
Today I decided to see what was up in the world of Universism and found that the weirdness has continued. The founder of this so-called “faithless faith” seemingly is just about the only person remaining on the Universist sinking ship. Ford Vox has taken over the organization’s website which features this language at the bottom of the page:
Universism has been seen on CNN, in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, and many more. Universism is a trademark and copyright of Ford Vox. All rights are reserved.
OK, but it’s hard to imagine Jesus copyrighting Christianity or the Buddha getting a trademark on Buddhism. And I’m not sure what it means to reserve the right on a philosophy that claims to have no dogma other than the open-minded search for truth. Ford Vox has a healthy ego, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re out to energetically counter the ill effects of traditional religions.
However, the Open Letters to Ford Vox posted on The Freethought Fellowship forum reveal what a mess he made of what could have been a promising movement. For example, John Armstrong, the spokesman for Universism, says:
I regret to offer my resignation as the spokesperson for Universism as well as the editor/author of deism.org. Unlike some, my reasons is not that I don't like you personally nor is it because I don't agree with the principles of Universism. In my heart, I still hope that some movement like it will succeed where Universism failed. My reason is that I feel Universism, whether or not you restart it in some other form, is a lost cause.
The reason Universism is a lost cause, frankly, is you. Again, I like you personally and respect you for the idea you came up with but I'm convinced that you can't manage a freethought movement and you're never going to let it go. Your apparent need to control the movement so tightly is just never going to work and it will inevitably antagonize any followers you manage to find. Freethinkers don't like strict management.
Yes, you can’t herd cats. Nor try to tell people who want to think for themselves what to think. My involvement with Universism, which included rewriting the Universist Movement FAQs to make them more coherent and understandable, has taught me that an organized un-religion is prone to the same defects as the organized religions which it supposedly is an alternative to.
In short, the problem is organization. As soon as two or more people are gathered together in an organized fashion, things are likely about to start going downhill. That’s how the universe works: entropy or disorder naturally increases.
But if you start with disorder and stay disorderly, there’s no problem. Nothing can fall apart if it isn’t put together, as the Tao Te Ching wisely advises.
Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquility.
And in this way all things would be at peace.
I’ve become a believer in a Religion of One. I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours, everyone else has theirs. No problem. Each to his or her own. Problems begin with a Religion of Two, and escalate from there.
I love my wife and she loves me. But when one of us tries to convert the other to our own way of spiritual thinking, you can feel tension in the air. It’s uncomfortable. And unnecessary.
What Ford Vox never realized is that dogmatic religious belief can’t be countered by equally dogmatic non-religious belief. As the cliché goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. Closed-mindedness is healed by open-mindedness.
Universism potentially could have become another home for free thinkers and untraditional spiritual aspirants. However, it needed to leave all the doors and windows open so that fresh ideas could flow freely. Instead, the founder’s ego tried to make the Universist Movement a monument to him. And that’s why it failed.
Monuments are set in granite. Which is exactly what the world doesn’t need: more rigid religious commandments etched in stone.