An article on the descent of the Unitarian Universalists into terminal wokeness

January 6, 2023 • 12:16 pm

If you want to stop reading because I used the word “wokeness”, in the title, be my guest, but I still haven’t found a word that expresses the same ideology in a concise way. If you have a concise term for the present (an pejorative) use of the term, by all means suggest it. But I asked this question before, and nearly all the readers said “wokeness” is fine.

At any rate, I used to think that Unitarian Universalism was, if you wanted a church, the best church to join. They don’t have a creed, just some humanistic principles, and you can go if you’re of any faith. I went to a service onee, and although I know that UU grew out of Christianity, there was not a single cross to be seen. If you feel that you need a church for the social vibe, then either join the UUs or Quakers. (I myself don’t feel the need for that, but some do).

Lately, however, the UUs (and, to some extent the Quakers) are getting woke; the dislike of Israel and Zionism, and embrace of CRT, are two symptoms of this fulminating “progressivism” (if you want to call it that).

The change in UU first struck me in 2019, when I wrote a piece about the Church’s attack on an antiwoke critic that smacked of authoritarianism and bullying. That piece was quoted by David Cycleback in his own critique of the change in UU published in Free Black Thought (click on screenshot below).

Here’s Cycleback’s bio from the article:

David Cycleback, Ph.D., is a philosopher and cognitive scientist, Director of Center for Artifact Studies, and a member of the British Royal Institute of Philosophy. He has written ten university textbooks, including Nature and Limits of Human Knowledge, Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems, and Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence. His most recent book is Against Illiberalism: A critique of illiberal trends in liberal institutions, with a focus on Unitarian Universalism.

And he uses two quotes from me. One is praise from me used to start the piece:

Evolutionary biologist and religion critic Jerry Coyne (University of Chicago) concurs: “Of all existing religions that claim to be religions, Unitarian Universalism (UU) seems to be the least dogmatic and therefore the least harmful—and perhaps the most liberal and tolerant.”

Then comes Cyclebacks list of the Church’s recent descent into illiberal ideology.

Now not being a UUist, I can’t vouch for what Cycleback, who’s a white religious Jew, has to say about this church, but thought I’d report it as one person’s opinion. It’s certainly not just his alone, though, as my previous piece showed 500 UU ministers acting as penitentes for the church’s supposed white supremacy.

A few quotes is all I’ll give you. I know we have some UU readers, so please speak up and either criticize or support Cycleback’s views:

I am Jewish and I identify with Judaism’s strong tradition of embracing viewpoint diversity and free inquiry. I’m also neurodivergent (autistic and bipolar) and was raised in an academic family that promoted intellectual curiosity. With its slogan, “We don’t have to think alike to love alike,” my local Unitarian Universalist congregation was made for me and people like me.

UU has traditionally been mostly white, and, as with many organizations these days, aspires to become more diverse and welcoming to minorities. I support this goal. I am one of the small number of Jews in UU and the only practicing one in my congregation. Further, part of my research is in neurodiversity, including how to make organizations more welcoming and accommodating of neuroatypical people.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), however, has chosen a destructive, intolerant approach that not only won’t create racial harmony but will likely attract few minorities to congregations while driving away many liberals.

As happens so often, it’s a small vocal minority who seems to have coopted the UU “theology” and cowed everyone else. This is familiar to me, because it’s how wokeness invades academia. It spreads because nobody dares to oppose the vocal minority, loudly flaunting their virtue, for fear of being called a bigot or a racist:

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), however, has chosen a destructive, intolerant approach that not only won’t create racial harmony but will likely attract few minorities to congregations while driving away many liberals.

In what one UU minister has described as a “coup” by “reactionaries,” the UUA was taken over by a small group of activists who wish to transform UU into an authoritarian, dogmatic church. The UUA has adopted as a kind of theological mandate an extreme, illiberal interpretation of critical race theory (CRT), incorporating the ideas of Ibram X. Kendi, Tema Okun, and Robin DiAngelo.

Rev. Dr. Thandeka, a black Unitarian Universalist minister, spelled out in 2007 the main tenets of the “antiracism” that was already then being adopted by the UUA:

One: All whites in America are racists.

Two: No blacks in American are racist. [… T]hey can’t be racist because racism in this conceptual scheme is defined as prejudice + power.

Three: Whites must be shown that they are racists and confess their racism.

As she pointed out at the time, these three tenets violate the principles of the UU covenant, misunderstand how power actually works in America, and over-attribute racism to white people.

As the three “antiracist” tenets identified by Rev. Dr. Thandeka suggest, the worst excesses of “woke culture” you can think of are now found in the national UU: Dogmatism, religious-like fanaticism and self-righteousness, racial essentialism and neo-racism, censorship, call-out and cancel culture, victimhood culture and caste systems, ideological language and language policing, expectations of ideological and political conformity, authoritarianism, punishment and even expulsion of perceived heretics.

. . .As UUA sees its views as unilateral and dogma, dissent and countering views are not only suppressed but many dissenters shut down and punished.

Longtime UU Ministers Richard Trudeau and Kate Rohde were censured for expressing dissent, Trudeau merely for asking questions in a ministers’ forum. Longtime progressive activist Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof was expelled from the UUA for writing a book criticizing the UUA’s new identity politics.[JAC: My piece was about the treatment of Eklof.] Rev. Rick Davis was removed from the Good Officers program for advocating for Eklof as his Good Officer. A Good Officer’s job is to act as a proverbial public defender for the minister they represent. Davis afterward called the whole process a “kangaroo court” and “a setup to provide a predetermined outcome.” He referred to the ministers association’s discipline procedures as “truly Kafkaesque.” Rev. Cynthia Cain sums up the situation:

UUs everywhere, but particularly clergy and particularly on social media, are afraid to speak their truth. Their fear is due to their perception that not only will they be shamed, shouted down, and piled upon metaphorically, but that they may actually lose their standing with our association and consequently their livelihoods. This I know for certain.

Following the new UUA orthodoxy, many newly ordained ministers work to stifle dissent in congregations. They often platform only the UUA-approved agenda and censor, punish, and even expel dissenting congregants. Congregants have been publicly called out for questioning the orthodoxy and even recommending the reading of unapproved books. A few ministers have promoted the idea that dissenting congregants should be re-educated or asked to leave. One UUA leader singled out older liberal congregants as having to change their way of thinking or leave UU.

I’m quoted again at the very end of the essay (below), but this time with my reservations about the Church:

At the beginning of this essay, I quoted Prof. Jerry Coyne’s praise of UU. However, in the same essay, he also wrote, “Since UU is one of the few ‘religions’ that I haven’t criticized strongly, as it is nondogmatic, liberal, and (I thought) charitable, I was truly disappointed to see it turning into The Evergreen Church of Perpetual Offense.”

How this will all ultimately play out in Unitarian Universalism only time will tell. However, the plummeting membership, dissolving congregations, and increasing strife do not point to a pleasant or productive future. Instead, we appear to be getting an object lesson in how to destroy a liberal church.

47 thoughts on “An article on the descent of the Unitarian Universalists into terminal wokeness

    1. Because of the increasing evangelistic nature of the current UU, I’ve been defining them as Latter-Day Puritans.

    2. Due to the increasing level of evangelic fervor in the UU, I’ve been defining The Woke as Latter-Day Puritans.

  1. Per your first paragraph, what does “wokeness” achieve that “political correctness” does not? I’m fine with the latter term, but the former appears to have been twisted by the right to mean something that it didn’t mean originally: to be awakened to the needs of others. Or as one person on Twitter put it, “Woke is an antonym of ignorance.”

    1. Perhaps if the coiners of “woke” had used English or any other standard language instead of Ebonics, people wouldn’t have to axe what it really means.

      1. “Woke” originated as Black slang for “alert.” Or as Leadbelly says near the end of his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” It’s generally white folk who turned it into a synonym for “political correctness.”

        1. Yes, but language evolves. I’m STILL waiting for someone to show me an example of something which is woke but a) not part of the traditional progressive agenda and b) not absurd. Surely you don’t think that everyone should speak like one did back in Leadbelly’s day.

    2. “Wokeness” is very different (in the sense of being well beyond) mere political correctness.

      “Wokeness” divides everyone into “oppressors” (white, male, cis etc) and “oppressed” (“of colour”, “queer”, “non-binary”, etc), and asserts that all structures in society are maintained by “oppressors” to actively oppress those groups that are “racialized”, “minoritized” and “marginalized” (note the done-to-them aspect of those words).

      The aim of “wokeness” is then to overturn this whole system. Anyone who disagrees with them on anything is then necessarily a bad person who is acting out of “hate” and a desire to maintain the oppression. No debate can be had with such “hateful” people, indeed it is morally mandatory to ostracise them and subject them to “re-education”, or, if they resist, expel them from society in order to overturn the systems of oppression.

      Hence, “wokeness” is authoritarian and intolerant in a manner far beyond political correctness.

      1. One should never forget the Bolshevik/Leninist origin of the strategy of Who/Whom?, which ought to be relegated to the proverbial (Trotskyist) dust-bin of history, but, sadly, “wokesters” now occupy many of the commanding heights of the culture, if one may borrow another phrase from the early history of Bolshevism.

        1. I have no idea what you mean but wokeness has destroyed most of the small groups of those ideologies, where there is one oppressor. And it is not the personal.

      1. PC is to Woke what a wart is to a malignant tumor. One is a minor inconvenience you can learn to live with, the other is an aggressive invasive sickness that will destroy all it touches unless it’s excised.
        Also, PC attacked a mostly stable, mostly prosperous, mostly middle-class country that had multiple defenses against it (tradition, law, sanity, patriotism, strong social bonds etc); Woke has been unleashed on a secular deracinated postnational country where all bonds and traditions have been gradually eaten away by the Market God and by the Trojan Horse called Critical Theory, which well-meaning academics wheeled inside our gates a few generations ago.
        As we can see, a Cultural Revolution is upon us, and every person place and thing is in the process of being reconfigured by the new Woke religion.

        1. I agree that the ideology that is referred to as “woke” is rooted in Critical Theory, the Pandora ‘s Box that unleashed all of the other “Critical” evils upon us.

  2. Jerry and friends, allow me to repost my response to Coel’s link to this article in yesterday’s Hili, then I’d like to enlarge on it.
    “Thanks much, Coel. I’m someone who Used to be UU, and I read this with great interest. Yes, the now-entrenched wokeness of the Association was one of the reasons I left it, though not the main reason, which I won’t go into here. I must say, right before I left, my head was spinning at the rapidity with which wokeness took over the UUA, though in retrospect it’s not surprising, since the UUA had been, as Martin Gardner said, a Temple to Political Correctness for a long time.”
    I’ve been a member of three UU congregations over a span of a couple of decades. I have witnessed practically everything Cycleback reports. I’ll give two examples:
    1) One of the hymns we used to sing was titled “Standing on the Side of Love,” by Jason Shelton, one of the most prolific and popular UU composers. It came to pass that someone objected to the word “standing” as being ableist, so Shelton changed the lyrics to eliminate any mention of standing and retitled the hymn, “Answering the Call of Love.” I was a member of the choir, and each of us choir members had to go into as many hymnals as we could and paste the preprinted new lyrics over the old, a herculean task for the number of hymnals in our fairly large congregation.
    2) I had put my children into RE classes, and they reached the age when they could take a course in human sexuality. At the orientation session for parents, the instructors kept saying that sex was a spectrum, really the first time I had heard that. I politely opted out of the course for my kids.
    I recommend the book, The Gadfly Papers, referred to by Cycleback.

    1. “It came to pass that someone objected to the word “standing” as being ableist, so Shelton changed the lyrics to eliminate any mention of standing and retitled the hymn, “Answering the Call of Love.”

      Incredible. Who do the objectors think they are helping by doing this?

      And, who exactly are the objectors? Are they disabled themselves, or are they able-bodied people who think they are acting on behalf of the disabled?

      I have come to see most of these objections in much more cynical terms…as in, the people who demand these changes are likely not doing it out of ethical concerns, but rather are doing it to signal their virtue and raise their status in the group.

      1. Good questions, Joe. I don’t have the answers. I suspect that the objectors are the able-bodied as you say.
        One of my UU friends is wheelchair bound, has been for 25 years, and he never objected to the original lyrics.

      2. Good questions, Joe. I don’t have the answers but suspect that the objectors are able-bodied as you say.
        One of my UU friends is wheelchair bound, has been for 25 years, and I never heard him object to the original lyrics.

      3. Gosh, what would they ever make of “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the Cross. Lift high his royal banner; it must not suffer loss.”

        Or “Battle Hymn of the Republic”? It’s just full of ableist lyrics. Maybe that’s what makes it so vivid. People actually able to do things. Action words, you know.

        “Mine eyes have seen the glory . . .
        “I have seen him in the watchfires . . .
        “I have read the righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps . . . [not just able to read but able to see in low light conditions without assistive devices!]
        “Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel . . .[only with OSHA-approved steel-soled safety sandals, though]

        and this whole stanza:

        “He is sounding forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.
        He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat.
        Take heed my soul to answer, and be jubilant my feet.
        While God is marching on.” [Too much marching. Need some motorized scooters, preferably with oxygen tanks.]

        Lot of body parts need to be working there!

        ‘Course, maybe they don’t sing that in the UU. Even “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” got cancelled from the United Church of Canada a long time ago.

        1. Another hymn:

          “On Christ the solid rock I stand,
          All other ground is sinking sand,
          All other ground is sinking sand.”

      4. I wonder if changes predicated on the hyper-sensitivity and vulnerability of disadvantaged groups originated with the way we started treating children. No scary costumes at Halloween; no allowing them to go alone to parks; no teasing even in gentle fun. It could easily traumatize them for life.

        Maybe after infantalizing actual children, we started on the Adult Child.

        1. Bugs Bunny cartoons had death (and rebirth, of course) and violence.

          Nowadays death and violence is exquisitely calculated out of the equation because it won’t sell otherwise. What remains? Character egos – the egos are damaged by “offense” and insult.

          I’m done I’m done!

      5. When I took some sensitivity training for disabled many years ago, the main speaker was wheelchair bound and shared with my fellow social workers some demeaning behavior her group has received. Also in her presentation, she said her group had a slang term for able bodied people calling them “Stand Ups”. To me that was descriptive, but not derogatory. The change in lyrics of UU hymnals to me indicates more of a UUA fiat, then benefiting the disabled. “It’s not what they say , but why they say it” , I think applies here.

      1. . . . and against mute people, who cannot *answer* the call of love! Also: what if they did not consent to receive a “call” from Love? Isn’t that sexual harassment?

  3. Yes. I used to identify as a UU; I went, signed the book and contributed. But they became increasingly dogmatic (in this direction) and I lost interest.
    In the past few years, one of the UU churches hosted a women’s retreat and it turns out that a group within the host church objected to that because the group, by design, excluded biological males who were “gender fluid.” So that long time retreat folded.
    I’d much rather watch bad football on Sundays than return to the church in its current form.

  4. “It came to pass that someone objected to the word “standing” as being ableist,…”
    So now metaphors are out, e.g. “None so blind as those that will not see.”

  5. I followed the links but got confused. The quotes and bullet points are not from official UU documents but claims and/or observations by those involved. It took three readings to figure out that Thandeka’s line items were her distillation of events and also that she disagreed with them.

    @Barry Lyons points out “woke” has been appropriated to mean something very different than its original meaning. As a new reader to this site, I’m getting whiplash reconciling the opinions from the ends of the spectrum.

  6. While I am still technically a member of a UU congregation, I have not attended in some time. The UUA is currently engaged in a periodic review of Article II of their bylaws. This section covers the “Principles and Purposes” of the UUA.

    The draft revision expressly names UU as a religious community, while the current text makes no such assertion.

    The current text affirms and promotes the “inherent worth and dignity of every person”. The draft revision states that we are all “sacred beings”.

    The current text promotes the “right of conscience and use of the democratic process”. The draft text calls for pluralism, but not for democratic principles and practices.

    The current text cites “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;” The draft version makes no reference to science or humanism.

    The UUA seems to be moving backwards and will end up on the wrong side of history.

    1. For more on how the UUA has been taken over by the woke, see this book – “Used to Be UU: The Systematic Attack on UU Liberalism” by Casper Kiskel.

  7. I think we need to take John McWhorter seriously when he argues that wokeness is not simply *like* a religion, it *is* a religion:

    Q. For those who haven’t yet read your book, what makes “wokeism” a religion? Why is it important to you that readers recognize it as such?

    A. It is a religion in that it entails suspension of logic in favor of overriding tenets: not faith in Jesus but awareness that racism exists regardless of whether one’s solutions actually help people. It is also a religion in its red-hot intolerance of dissenters’ very presence. It is important to understand this because we are faced with a religion threatening to take over our state, as it were.

    1. Even McWhorter’s doing that?

      Those are typical traits of religions, but not the definition of religions, and you’d think something should have to fit the definition of something before it’s considered to be it.

      There are plenty of things in this world that involve intolerance and suspension of logic over facts. Draw a big circle to include all those things. Religion’s smaller circle goes inside, and wokeness and other things go inside it too (but not within religion’s circle).

  8. Jerry, for many Liberal (i.e., non-Evangelical) Quakers and their organizations it’s more than “to some extent” now. Having begun my association with Quakers (“Friends”) in 1975 and held various leadership positions over the years, I left in 2021 for two main reasons: (1) the rise of dogmatic, self-righteous “wokeness,” even to the extent of suggesting abolition of police and prisons and approval of rioting and looting (so much for Quakers pacifism?), and (2) the not-unrelated loss of the crucial traditions of challenging narcissism and of making group decisions in mutual respect and openness of mind.

  9. I have a dear friend who is a Unitarian; his wife is Jewish. Around 30 years ago, I asked him what a Unitarian is. He told me this, a sentence I will never forget: “A Unitarian is a person who believes in one God…(pregnant pause)… at most.” I love that quote.

    I attended a Unitarian service once, at the invitation of my friend. My role was to deliver a speech entitled “Creationism in the Public Schools: the Fallacy of Equal Time.” This was in the early 1980’s when creationists were campaigning to have “creation science” given equal time to real science in the public schools. It was a university town so, perhaps not surprisingly, the Unitarian Sunday service featured academic talks. This congregation—Fellowship they called it, not church—was secular. It seemed to welcome a wide range of views.

    It’s too bad this is happening.

  10. Wokeness still seems fine as the concise term.

    I don’t think the “pejorative” objection should even be considered, since “woke” was the word its espousers originally selected and promoted, only to back away when it was merely adopted as requested by its critics.

    The downside is that some still think it simply means “kindness” and require clarification, so it’s an obstacle to conveying or conversing with those people. (But that’s the same relatively minor and traditionally acceptable problem as is found when people think that Christian simply means “someone who tries to be a good person,” or that atheist means “immoral person.”)

  11. Not only have Unitarian Universalists become “woke” but they have become Authoritarians who use a kind of “Newspeak” not unlike that of Big Brother. Their by-laws require two candidates to run for the presidency, but they are allowing only one, a hand-picked, CRT extremist, who brands as ‘racist’ those who, with little evidence or cause she dislikes. Most elections are single candidate affairs with those few who petition to be a candidate not allowed access to communicate freely with delegates who will vote. Appointments are made by the orthodox woke and only come from the orthodox woke. UU’s, who used to be known as a group where if there were seven people there were eight opinions now have voting outcomes reminiscent of Soviet era elections. Ministers who run afoul of the woke go through a process reminiscent of some combination of the inquisition and re-education camps. The structure of Unitarianism means that many individual churches are not heavily hurt yet, since they often operate outside the boundaries of the national organization, but since the seminaries have also become “woke” congregations are having difficulty finding Liberal UU clergy rather than woke clergy. I have been a UU since 1957 when I was in grade school. I have been a UU minister since 1980 (now retired). UUism was, for most of its history, ideologically wedded to the Enlightenment, to freedom, reason, and tolerance. It was a great place for intellectual freedom and exploration and also made great contributions to many of the forward thinking movements like civil rights, feminism, environmental awareness, scientific progress, etc. But when a branch of the Left turned away from liberalism, it was disconcerting to see this group who had embraced the Enlightenment, suddenly become heretic hunters with a streak of cruelty.

  12. David Cycleback’s candid and insightful essay expresses exactly how the concept of “wokeness” has evolved in much of the public mind. But I would go further. I’ve been reading about political and religious cults, such as the concise overview by renowned scholar Robert Lifton: “Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry”. Just extend his concept from charismatic and dogmatic leaders to charismatic and dogmatic movements. Most of his 8 features of cults are a surprisingly good fit to Wokism: Take the 4th trait: Cult of Confession (confess to false accusations or face severe punishment). Only the language differed: Rohde and Eklof were asked to “come back into covenant” or “right-relations” by apologizing for the “harms” they had supposedly caused.

    But there was no “due process” or impartial investigation to determine whether or not there was solid evidence to back up these claims (it’s still absent). The assumption was “guilty, period”, “not innocent until proven guilty”. This is just like the inquisitors in Maoist struggle sessions who told their targets that the charges had to be true because the authorities said so – denial was evidence of guilt. This very much like the “gas-lighting”, or “blame the victim tactic”, used in Wokism. A prime example is Robin DiAngelo accusing people of “white fragility” if they deny her accusations of racism (based on the assumption that “white identity is herently racist”, not evidence).

    I am on the board of UUs for Multiracial Unity Action Council (based on the “black and white” together approach of MLK) and a defender of our 7 principles. I monitor UUA affairs closely by listening in on board meetings, poni

  13. “Two: No blacks in American are racist. [… T]hey can’t be racist because racism in this conceptual scheme is defined as prejudice + power.”

    Pretty classic question-begging going on here: Redefining a word to fit their argument, then claiming that their argument is true “by definition”. Why on earth are so many otherwise intelligent people taken in by such illogic?

    My response to such diktats is: Why should I believe this? “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” The burden is on the claimant to prove their case.

  14. “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

    -H.L. Mencken
    Sententiæ: The Citizen and the State, p. 624

    And then:

    Andrew Doyle
    The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World
    January 3, 2023


    Noah Rothman
    The Rise of the New Puritans: Fighting Back Against Progressives’ War on Fun
    Broadside Books (July 5, 2022)

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