"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.
Nevertheless, a concerted effort to appeal to high school youths and young adults has apparently paid off "During the past decade the number of high school youth in our congregations increased fivefold, and the number of young adults increased sixfold," said Buehrens, who this fall is a visiting professor at the UUA's Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of high school youths increased and the UUA transformed "a large number of lay-led fellowships into congregations with professional ministry," Buehrens said. From 1993 to 1997, congregations sponsoring campus groups went from 19 to 135, and the growth has continued, he said.
Buehrens was skeptical about surveys showing only 10 percent of members being born-and-bred UUs. Among young adults, he said, roughly one-third were "raised UU." And the percentage of New England church members whose parents were in Unitarian or Universalist congregations would be much higher than 10 percent, most observers say.
So, just what is "UUism," the denomination's unusual umbrella term? Though critics usually look upon the UUA as a union of unbelief and uncertainty, the church body's Web site upholds a belief that "personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion." Since "human understanding of life and death, the world and its mysteries, is never final," the association endorses the "free search for truth," or more precisely, "unfolding truths" over time. Underlying its actions is the belief "that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion."