They Came From Other Churches

A new survey gives a picture of Unitarian Universalism as a growing movement of (mostly) humanist seekers.

BY: John Dart

 

Before the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America in 1961, the former group ran an ad campaign suggesting, "I was a Unitarian all along and never knew it." The Unitarian Universalist Association could revive such a slogan today in view of recent surveys. Two polls indicate that only 10 percent of its members were born and raised in UU traditions. Both a new, regional survey by an Ohio University scholar and a nationwide poll conducted in 1997 by the association determined that UUs found a philosophical-ethical home in the socially liberal, creedless, gender-inclusive denomination after rejecting the teachings and practices of their previous religious traditions.

"More so than for any other religious tradition, a person can become UU because of what he already believes rather than believing what he does because of becoming a UU," said James Casebolt, coauthor of two papers on the regional survey read at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion annual meeting in October. Casebolt surveyed UUA congregations in Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

Reasons given by Unitarian Universalists there for leaving other churches were along the line of "couldn't believe dogma, but wanted community" (ex-Methodist), "could not accept Jesus myth" (nominal Episcopalian), "my wife and I could not reconcile the Christian theology with a rational approach to life" (nominal Presbyterian). The second-most common theme was the perception that one's original tradition was restrictive and exclusivistic, said Casebolt and student researcher Tiffany Niekro.

There have been enough seekers aligning with the now-1,000-plus congregations and fellowships to help the Boston-based UUA to post 19 consecutive years of growth. Adult contributing members number 156,968, said John Hurley, communications director.

However, 629,000 U.S. adults--four times as many as UUA members on church rolls--think of themselves as Unitarian Universalists, according to directors of a third poll, the Religious Identification Survey 2001. That estimate was extrapolated from the random survey of 50,000 households released in October by City University of New York. CUNY's previous poll in 1990 came up with 502,000 adults calling themselves Unitarian Universalists--many more than those active in congregations.

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