Celestial Lands Liberal Religious Faith… and the occasional political musing.

Can a Deist find a Home in Unitarian Universalism?

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.

Click here to explore Unitarian Universalism

Yours in Faith,

David

11 Thoughts on “Can a Deist find a Home in Unitarian Universalism?

  1. It might interest you to know that I was pretty much a Deist myself until God came along and got personal with me. . .

    If devout atheists can find a home in Unitarian*Universalism I see no reason why Deists cannot.

  2. Robin,

    I got that from reading your story, but I had not asked.

    For myself, I would put it the other way… I went by Deist alot before I began to get really personal with God. :)

    I get this question often from those who have just discovered Deism, and somehow Google routes them to Celestial Lands. Because the Dynamic Deism doman still forwards here, and because DD was so high in the Google searches on Deism, I get alot of people (about 20 per day) who are searching for Deism. So, many ask about how Deism and Unitarian Universalism might relate to one another.

    In my expeirence with many of my fellow Deists over the years, the problem was not so much whether or not UU might welcome them, but rather whether they were willing to become involved in anything that remotely resembled organized religion. I understand that, but I made the opposite choice.

    Besides, anyone who thinks UU’ism is all that organized has not spent much time around UU’s! :)

    Yours in Faith,

    David

  3. :So, many ask about how Deism and Unitarian Universalism might relate to one another.

    Well I think that it would be fair to say that a good number of 18th and 19th century Unitarians were Deists. How many contemporary Unitarian*Universalists are Deists is another question. To what extent do Pantheism and Deism overlap in your estimation?

  4. It is an interesting question Robin, and one that has been deeply explored within the Deist communities outside of Unitarian Universalism. You will find whole forums dedicated to “PanDeism” and “PanenDeism”, getting at just the kind of overlap that you mention.

    Many modern PanDeists and PanenDeists also seem to find connection with the writings of Ken Wilbur and others around Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics.

    Several Deist commenters here regularly hint at my being a PanenDeist, and they are probably right.

    Many Unitarian Universalist theologies could be understood as Pantheist or Panentheist… and many of those have a deep belief in free-will. As such, you could make the argument that many of those Pantheist and Panentheist UU’s would fall under the PanDeist and PanenDeist terms as well…

    But I am a big believer in letting people self-identify their own theology, and find the labels for that theology that they are comfortable with. I dont know how often people try to stick me in boxes that I am not terriably comfortable with, and I try my best not to do that with others.

    Good observation, Robin…

    Yours in Faith,

    David

  5. Good observations are one of my specialties David. ;-)

    I am very much a PanenTheist myself.

  6. Did I forget to mention that interesting questions are another specialty of mine?

    Sometimes my questions are a little *too* interesting, and my observations a little *too* good, for *some* people’s tastes. . . ;-)

    I will look into those “PanDeism” and “PanenDeism” forums you mention here.

    BTW I have done a reasonable amount of research into how total solar eclipses influenced the religious beliefs and practices of the “Southern Death Cult” aka “Moundbuilders Indians” who, if I am not mistaken, are closely related to the Cherokee tribe if not its precursors. If you are interested in knowing more about this in terms of reclaiming your own Cherokee heritage just let me know. I got some very nice photos of Etowah and a few other Moundbuilders sites when I visited Georgia in 2006. I will try to put a few online soonish.

  7. Robin,

    I would be interested…. you have my email. Thanks!

    Yours in Faith,

    David

  8. Dear David, What about a–Unitarian United Deist Church..Make sense in any way, shape or form?

  9. Doug,

    As you may know, I was involved in the effort to develop the United Deist Church as an international denomination back in the early part of the decade. I discovered that organizing Deists is a nearly impossible task… especially as a church…

    I have found there are many UU congregations that are quite Deistic, even if they do not use that term. However, I do not think a congregation that was exclusively Deistic would be appropiate.

    So, there is room for Deism within UU congregations, but they would not be limited to Deism.

    Now, many Deists were also philosphically and theologically Unitarian, and a few of the famous Universalists were often acused of Deism… so the connection is long-standing.

    I wish you well in your ministry.

    Yours in Faith,

    David

  10. Keith Wright on Tuesday July 27, 2010 at 15:20 +0000 said:

    David,

    This is an interesting day of reading for me. I’m glad you are still posting.

    Keith

  11. Pingback: Deism and Unitarian Universalism - Religious Education Forum

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: