From time to time someone asks me about the relationship between Deism and Unitarian Universalism. For many years I was considered something of a “leader” (as much as Deists have leaders) in several attempts to organize Deists around the world… from the United Deist Church to the Deist Alliance. For years I moderated the “Dynamic Deism” discussion forum, the archive of which is still hosted here at Celestial Lands. I was a part of “The Deus Project” that later became the group known as “Universism”, though I never participated in and was highly critical of that organization. I also never participated in the most well known Deist organization, “The World Union of Deists” because of what I believe to be deep anti-Semitism in that group’s leadership.
The Unitarian Universalist Association website sends people interested in Deism here to Celestial Lands, though I have made suggestions for some better places. Near as I can figure, no one has made the change because I am probably one of the most public UU’s who identifies with Deism, even though I rarely use that label for myself these days.
Some might challenge whether the label Deism could still be applied to my systemic theology, though I believe it is still in there. My theology has become quite a bit more complex than it was in the days of my Deist activism, but I still hold that God does not interfere in the universe… sortof. I now believe that we can touch the presence of God (call it the Holy Spirit) and that kind of communion can transform lives. But this is not an intentional or personal act of God, it is something that happens simply because “God exists, and there it lies”, to quote Thomas Paine.
I will be honest, when someone asks me to label my theology beyond “Unitarian Universalist”, I tell them that I am a very liberal Christian with a Zen practice. Though much of my foundation rests upon the Deist understanding of a non-personal God, I rarely use that label anymore.
When I came to Unitarian Universalism the second time, I was seeking a religious community that I had despaired of building among Deists. There were so few Deists, they were so scattered, and they were often so against any kind of organization that even began to look like organized religion, and I wanted a church. I remember a months long debate about whether to call the United Deist Church a church (something some UU congregations go through also), and that debate would re-begin with about every third new member.
When I started attending the UU Fellowship on Galveston Island, in Texas, I began by preaching a sermon on Deism. It was a bad, bad sermon. It was horrible. It was my first ever attempt at a verbal sermon. But as I was walking away, a member told me that she believed much the same things, she just called them Unitarian Universalism. So I started doing some research, and I re-wrote that first sermon to something approaching decent. Here is an excerpt from it, entitled “Where did all the Deists Go?”
When I began my research, I was struck by a quote from Alexis De Tocqueville. In discussing the Unitarians, he said that “‘It’s evident that the Protestants whose minds are cold and logical, the argumentative classes, the men whose habits are intellectual and scientific, are grasping the occasion to embrace an entirely philosophic faith which allows them to make almost public profession of pure Deism.”
De Tocqueville thought of the early Unitarians as Deists! I then went on to learn that not only had the Unitarians been highly influenced by Deistic thought, but so had the Universalists. One of the early founders of American Universalism, Hosea Ballou, had been so influenced by the Deistic writings of Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine that other Universalist ministers said the only thing he kept of Christianity was the name.
In fact, the closest that the Unitarian church ever came to a trial for heresy was in 1843, when a Unitarian Minister named Theodore Parker presented a book entitled “Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion”. In that work, Parker argued to remove all that was mystical and miraculous from Christianity, and instead to find its basis in the natural laws of the universe.
His book was denounced as “vehemently deistical” by many Unitarian ministers, including the well respected minister of Boston’s First Church. At the next gathering of Unitarian ministers in Boston, the issue was debated, rather heatedly. Many ministers said that they could not be “in fellowship” with a minister who did not believe in miracles. Others defended Parker, and said that Unitarians had always guarded the freedom of thought. Parker was asked to resign as a Unitarian minister, but he refused. When it came down to it, there were not enough votes to “convict” him, but he in many ways became a pariah.
Now, every person studying for the Unitarian ministry is required to read the writings of Theodore Parker. In fact, when you graduate from one of our UU Seminaries, you pick up your diploma from Theodore Parker’s writing desk. If I said that this tradition had nothing to do with why I chose that seminary to attend, I would be lying.
I had found out where the Deists had gone! They had not died off, they simply became Unitarians, or at least some of them did.
Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religious faith, in which what unites us is not what we believe, but how we go about finding our beliefs and living our lives. Unitarian Universalism will not tell you what to believe, but it will provide a method for finding those beliefs, and a community of fellow seekers with whom you can share with and learn from. If there is a core “belief” to Unitarian Universalism, it is a belief in “right relationship”, or how we live together in peace, justice, and interdependence.
So, many Deists find religious community within Unitarian Universalism. They are well accepted, and they have a history as a part of both the Unitarian and Universalist faiths going back over 200 years. There are many who hold Deist beliefs in UU’ism, and may not even call themselves Deists. There are also Christians, Humanists, Buddhists, Pagans, Atheists, and Secularists, among others, who also find their religious home in Unitarian Universalism.
Pope John Paul II once called Unitarian Universalism as “the faith that finally took all the heresies and made them into one religion.” It is an apt understanding. We are held together by how we live in this world, not what we believe. Deists can find a quite comfortable religious home in Unitarian Universalism.
Yours in Faith,