answers to common questions
Here are some of the more common questions we get asked about Unitarian Universalism. Not every Unitarian Universalist would answer them in exactly the same way, but it gives you an idea of what we are about.
i've heard that Unitarian Universalism is a "creedless" religion. What does that mean?
A "creed" is (according to Webster's Dictionary) "an authoritative formula of religious belief". Unitarian Universalism does not espouse an authoritative formula. There is no single statement of belief to which we insist that all people subscribe. Being "creedless" does NOT mean being amorphous or rudderless. Unitarian Universalism guides its followers with principles, not dogma. Members draw from all religions, taking what is good from each, with the ultimate goal of living a moral, spiritual life. Unitarianism and Universalism have rich heritages going back many hundreds of years.
what are the seven precepts of Unitarian Universalism?
The seven precepts of Unitarian Universalism are:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.
- The goal of world community of peace, justice and liberty for everyone.
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
do Unitarian Universalists have religious rituals?
Yes, although the rituals can vary from congregation to congregation. One of the shared rituals is lighting of a candle called a chalice, which signals time for prayer and meditation. We include spiritual readings, songs, and a sermon in our services.
Our ceremonies — of marriage and starting a new life, naming or dedicating our children, and memorializing our dead — are phrased in simple, contemporary language. We observe these rites in community, not because they are required by rule or dogma, but because in them we may voice our affection, hopes and dedication.
Though they may vary in our congregations and may change over time, Unitarian Universalists celebrate many of the great religious holidays with enthusiasm. Whether we gather to celebrate Christmas, Passover, or the Hindu holiday Divali, we do so in a universal context.
who are the members of Unitarian Universalist congregations and what is their belief in God?
Unitarian Universalists do not all believe the same thing. Unitarian Universalists include a broad cross-section of people following the common precepts of the faith. Their belief in God varies. Here are some of the types of people who are Unitarian Universalists. You might find some who are similar to you:
- Conventional Unitarians and/or Universalists — The original "Unitarians" believed in God but did not accept the "trinity" concept. They believed that Jesus may have been a great rabbi, but not that he was God himself. They studied Jesus' teachings, but did not pray to him as God. The original "Universalists" also believed in God, and that every person would attain salvation after life on earth When traditional religions were preaching damnation and hellfire, Universalists were riding across the country preaching universal salvation and the importance of living out one's principles through action on earth.
- Those From Traditional Religions — Many people come to Unitarian Universalism from other faiths. Former Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists, and Protestants have found Unitarian Universalism. Because Unitarian Universalism does not demand adherence to a strict dogma and is tolerant of a variety of religious creeds (see above about "creed"), mixed-marriage couples often feel comfortable attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They can worship together and their children can get a background in morals and ethics, along with an education in a number of religious beliefs.
Many of our members were raised in traditional religions which no longer seem relevant to them, yet they are not willing to live lives without some kind of religion, or they are taking another look at religion for the sake of their children. These people may have found their inherited religions too restricting or their dogma too rigid, and opted for a religion that gives importance to reason and thinking and freedom. These individuals can often find what they were looking for in Unitarian Universalism and their children are provided with a moral grounding.
- Humanists — There is a strong contingent of humanism in Unitarian Universalism. Humanists can be agnostic or atheistic, or people for whom God is either metaphorical for the common spirit of mankind or is not seen as personally intervening in their lives (as in deism, the predominant religious outlook of many of the US founding fathers). Unitarian Universalism is a way of developing their own spirituality in a non-god-based way, of discussing morals and ethics, of grounding themselves in principles of living, and can be a forum for performing good deeds for their community.
do Unitarian Universalists pray to God?
We include references to God in almost all of our services. There are prayers that come from a variety of sources and which portray God in various manners. Everyone is free to interpret these references to God in whatever way suits their taste — from the traditional religious manner to those for whom God is more metaphorical.
Unitarian Universalists typically do not "pray" to God in the sense that we do not try to flatter God or to ask God to be nice to us or ask for personal wealth or bestowment of favors. We appreciate God's work and how it applies to our lives. We are more concerned with living ethical, moral lives here on earth.
how does Unitarian Universalism deal with these differences in the views of God?
We feel that our differences are small compared to our similarities, our belief in a common set of principles. We draw strength from our diversity. That is puzzling to many people. They wonder about what it is that binds us together.
One of the answers is our shared values. Surveys show that Unitarian Universalists enjoy the highest percentage of shared values of any denomination in the United States.
We feel it is important to have a coming together of a community of people who share the same principles of living. We learn from each other in an open and tolerant way, with mutual support. We do not claim to have the inside track about who or what God is at the exclusion of everyone else. We believe religions that make such claims are simply mistaken.
what do Unitarian Universalists believe about an afterlife?
We do not pretend to know what happens after death on earth. We do believe that the notion of hell is a concept invented by well-intentioned people during the early middle ages to frighten followers into conforming. It is the basis of historical Universalism that if there is a heaven and a loving god, then everyone is admitted.
Focusing on what we DO have knowledge of, and control over, for Unitarian Universalists, heaven is what we are responsible for creating every day, right here on earth, through tolerance, respect, enlightened reason and a positive, enthusiastic action of serving others.
what do Unitarian Universalists think about the bible?
As discussed above, there are varying views about God. Similarly, there are different views of the bible. Typically, however, Unitarian Universalists believe the bible was written by a number of well-intentioned people throughout the years. These people were documenting the oral stories and traditions of their day. They were trying to bring order and morality to life. There is some great wisdom in the bible which still applies today, as is the case with many documents from great philosophers and from other religions.
Unitarian Universalists study the bible and other religious and philosophical documents, but we look at principles in the light of reason and personal judgment. Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world — we look to find truth everywhere, universally.
does Unitarian Universalism encourage acting on one's principles?
Yes! Unitarian Universalism encourages members to act on their principles. We put less emphasis on formal beliefs and more on practical living. Our interest is in deeds, not creeds.
We have been in the United States for the entire history of this nation, and, were active in the founding of the country. Many of the leaders of the American revolution (Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams and many others) were Deists, Unitarians or Universalists.
Unitarians and Universalists were among the leaders in the fight against slavery. The famous words of a government, "of the people, by the people, and for the people" were taken by Lincoln from a sermon by the great abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. Lincoln kept a set of his published sermons by his bedside.
Five Unitarians were presidents of the United States. We were leaders in the establishment of public schools, mental hospitals, of votes for women, of nursing, of settlement houses, and more.
Women's rights were fought for and won by Universalists of the stature of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, and by Unitarians including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone. The Universalists were the first denomination in the United States to ordain women to the ministry - in 1863. Dorothea Dix pioneered prison reform and got the mentally ill out of shackles.
In the realm of literature, it is notable that Horatio Alger, Louisa May Alcott, and Walt Whitman were all Unitarians. Horace Greeley, the great journalist, was a Universalist. America's greatest essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister.
Unitarians and Universalists have been leaders in just about every major issue involving justice since this country began. We were in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. One of the people who were killed by segregationists during that time was James Reeb, a Unitarian minister. Adlai Stevenson was a Democrat and a Unitarian. William Cullen Bryant, another Unitarian, was one of the founders of the Republican Party.
We are devoted to education. 75% of the members of our congregations have college degrees; more than 40% have advanced degrees. Among our members are people like Horace Mann, the great educator. We have founded many great universities. In California alone, Cal Tech and Stanford are among them.
We are people who live our religion, and work to make our values real in the world. Across the years and across the nation, we have been working with and for our community, and the greater community of all humankind.
see for yourself
Many people, when they first learn about Unitarian Universalism, are surprised and delighted to discover that we are the perfect religion for them. They would have been with us many years earlier, but they just did not know that a religion such as ours existed!
We welcome you to share not just in our history, but in the commitment to make our tradition live and thrive, to build a better future for ourselves and for all the people of the world. We invite you to see how our approach matches your own feelings, your hopes, your thinking, your aspirations.