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Can Unitarian Universalists Really Believe Anything?

Posted by jennicadavishockett // November 11th 2015 // Future of Faith, Guides and Tools, Issues and Trends // 28 comments

What_UUs_BelieveContrary to What You Might Have Heard, UUs Don’t Just Believe Whatever They Want

Unitarian Universalists (UU) are a strange bunch. In any given gathering of UUs there may be someone whose faith is based on the teachings of Jesus, someone who has a daily meditation practice, someone who sees God in nature and someone who doesn’t see a god in anything. And yet they can all sing the same hymn and worship together.

You may meet Unitarian Universalists who believe there’s a divine spark in each of us and others who believe that to be human means to have a fun mix of good and evil. And yet we come together to support one another and grow spiritually.

There are some UUs who believe God has a plan for them and others who believe they are in control of their own destiny. And yet they can all join together to fight for immigration reform, reproductive justice, LGBT + rights and racial justice.

We truly are a theologically diverse spiritual community. Because there is such a diversity of practices, ideas and beliefs some might say “UUs can believe whatever they want.” They’re almost right, except for being pretty wrong.

You see, as a Unitarian Universalist you can have different beliefs than another UU. You can even appreciate the beliefs foundational to other religions as true for some people even if they are not true for you. But when it comes down to it, UUs can’t just believe whatever they darn well please and still call themselves UU.

In fact, even the idea that UUs believe that people of other religions or no religion can believe whatever they want is not entirely true. We actively work to dismantle those beliefs and practices in the world that we believe cause harm to people, groups and our earth.


Unitarian Universalists believe in covenant. We commonly think of covenant as a sacred promise we make to one another to create an inclusive and welcoming community. But that’s just a small aspect of the power of covenant. We also believe we are part of the covenant of life that leaves no one out of the circle of love. Former president of the UUA Rev. Bill Sinkford describes Unitarian and Universalism respectively as,

“One God, no one left behind.”

We believe we have a responsibility to stand up to those people or groups who are tearing the fabric of the covenant of life and help repair those tears. We also believe well will be imperfect at doing so. As Martin Buber says,

we are a “promise making, promise breaking, promise renewing” people.

As Unitarian Universalists we believe…


All souls are sacred

You can’t believe that someone deserves more or less love because of their skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, how much money they make or owe or because they’ve done something good or bad and still be UU.


Black Lives MatterAll Souls are Sacred is a truly radical statement

There is a unity that makes us one

UUs do not believe that we’re all separate, isolated individuals who need nothing from others and have nothing to give others.


Aspen GroveAspen trees are rhizomes so all the roots in a grove are connected

Courageous love can transform the world

Believing that it’s ok to get what you want or make your point through violence and coercion OR that you can just sit back, relax and the injustices of the world will work themselves out is not UU.


This is What Love Looks LikeUnitarian Universalist Commit2Respond climate justice march

In salvation in this lifetime

UUs can’t believe that it doesn’t matter how you behave while you’re alive or that the only reason to be “good” is to have a cushy afterlife.


Before I dieBefore I die I want to help heal the world

And that truth continues to be revealed

You can’t believe that you know everything there is to know or at least can find out everything there is to know because the be-all and end-all capital T Truth is written down somewhere and still be UU.



These 5 statements of faith are known as the 5 Jagged Rocks and were created by Nancy Bowen and some religious professionals in the Unitarian Universalist Association Mountain Desert District. They are an adaptation of James Luther Adams’ 5 smooth stones of religious liberalism which, if you’re not familiar is a reference to the biblical tale of David and Goliath. As David used stones to slay Goliath, so we as a liberal religion can use these 5 statements of faith to overcome hate, prejudice, division, exclusion and brokenness.

So, the next time you find yourself about to say or agree with the statement that “UUs can believe whatever they want,” just remember we believe:

All souls are sacred 
There is a unity that makes us one
Salvation in this life
Courageous Love has the power to transform the world
And truth continues to be revealed.



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28 Responses to “Can Unitarian Universalists Really Believe Anything?”
  1. Mary Benard says:

    The new pamphlet Finding What We Believe is also a great answer to the question of whether UUs can believe anything they want. It’s a personal testimonial about taking belief seriously as a UU. You can read the text at http://www.uuabookstore.org/Finding-What-We-Believe-P17713.aspx

  2. Kat says:

    I love this post! I am going to save it forever. Also, the cranky unicorn.

  3. Ed Selby says:

    In my personal experience, you cannot be a libertarian atheist and a UU :/

    • Sooozie says:

      That’s just not true. Unitarian Universalism is officially a religion without faith or creed: its foundational seven principles are only about acting morally, and none of them specify belief in God as a requirement.

      • Ed Selby says:

        Snoozie – my experience tells me otherwise. Four UU congregations over the span of 25 years – all of which embraced what can only be called “theism” in one form or another, and expressed an unambiguous dismissal of challenges to those forms of theism – have led to the conclusion that atheists need not apply. The “free and [add emphasis] responsible search for truth and meaning” means nothing when questioning beliefs in “guardian angels” is seen as hostility.

        • jennicadavishockett says:

          Ed, that sucks that you’ve had that experience in not 1 but 4 congregations. Am I hearing you right that you’re disappointed that your challenges of theism were not welcome in the congregations you’ve belonged to?

          The common UU refrain that “we need not think alike to love alike” comes to mind in this case. Personally, there have been many times I’ve listened to someone preach the UU gospel – while in a pew, or listening to a podcast – and thought “well they’re certainly not preaching to me.” But I know that UUism isn’t really here to speak directly to me 100% of the time and I can welcome other people’s believes – even when they’re seemingly contradictory to mine – without having to challenge them (provided of course that those beliefs aren’t harmful to others or the earth).

          • Ed Selby says:

            You are hearing me correctly. I was particularly drawn to the free and *responsible* search for truth and meaning which, to me, meant challenging and testing the things we claim. It appears that in the UU congregations I attended that was not the case – that “responsible” meant, as your last sentence says, those beliefs aren’t harmful to others or the earth.

            I am a #6 on the Richard Dawkins atheist scale (De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that there are no gods.”), and when faced with faith proclamations – especially in a church that is allegedly dedicated to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning – I am inclined to challenge those claims for veracity – for truth. Instead, I was expected to simply accept that having conversations with plants, visualizing guardian angels, or vitriol against 1 Corinthians 13 – without question, without challenge, on “faith” – is normal and healthy.

            So – no UU for me. Someone else somewhere else noted that the UU church is “halfway house” for those of us raised sectarian and on our way to being atheist. I tend to agree. (And we haven’t even touched on making non-liberals feel unwelcome! Even those of us who spearheaded the Welcoming Congregation program. Seriously)

          • Debbie says:

            I don’t know about libertarians but many in my congregation are atheists, including myself

    • Kate carroll says:

      Ed, That is surprising to me as I’ve been in two congregations where a large proportion of the members are atheists. I’ve not discussed with anyone, and records are not kept on political affiliation, but surely would not be surprised if I learned many are libertarian as well.

      • jennicadavishockett says:

        Ed, what’s your take on the 5 statements in the article? “There’s a unity that makes us one, all souls are sacred, salvation in this live, courageous love can transform the world and truth continues to be revealed”

        • Ed Selby says:

          I concur on every point.

          • shelli says:

            Ed, I found your experience very interesting. I like UU’s 7 principles, so my husband and I attended a UU church for 2-3 years, but we came to feel it was overly atheist, and there was very little spiritual guidance offered. Some congregants would show their anger and resentment toward other religions, which I think reflected their individual issues and not that of UU as a whole, but it was still off-putting for us. We were also put off by feeling like if we didn’t follow a politically liberal point of view, we wouldn’t fit in. We lean left on many issues, but we aren’t that liberal. And we are not activists. I know this is very important for UUs, so I guess it’s just not a church for us, which leaves us without one.

            I have heard that no two UU churches are alike, and I think this is their weakness.

    • MC says:

      Ed, I find your statement very puzzling, since in all of the 4 UU congregations I’ve affiliated with over the last 20 years, atheism was the norm, and in the fellowship I grew up in, atheism sometimes seemed like a requirement … Adults in the congregation preferred that we not use the word God outside our Religious Education Program (though for some Goddess was acceptable). It was something my youth group really chafed against, having been taught in Sunday school that Unitarian Universalism embraces the theist, the polytheist and the atheist equally.

  4. I love this! I can’t wait to check all the resources included here. Thanks for this post. ?

  5. Karen Dau says:

    Sounds really good until I read the “Affirmation of Faith” used weekly in my congregation (which I refuse to repeat) that ends with “thus do we covenant with each other, and with All.” HUH? This is “anything goes” theology if I ever saw any.

    • Bart Frost says:

      What is the Affirmation of Faith that you read every Sunday? Could you tell me more about why the last sentence makes you uncomfortable?

    • jennicadavishockett says:

      Karen, it’s hard to know exactly what you mean without reading the full covenant. But, so I know I’m reading you right, are you saying that “thus do we covenant with each other, and with All.” suggests that we’re an anything goes theology?

      When I read that statement what I hear is “we promise not only to be together with integrity, we promise to act with integrity with everyone we come across and with the greater All (mystery, interconnected web, God, what have you).” And that we extend the invitation of covenant to everyone, but don’t necessarily expect that everyone wants to or is able to be in covenant.

  6. T Ruddick says:

    This is fascinating, because in practice I have found–after decades of UUism and attendance at many different congregations–that these statements are perhaps goals, but not actuality.

    All can believe whatever they wish so long as they harm no one? Ask some of the founders of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans just how welcome they were to practice their religious choices in many UU fellowships. Truth is revealed–I find that a mainstream view in UUism is that there is no truth, that the creation story of the book of Genesis (despite its gross internal contradictions) contains just as much truth as the scientific theory of evolution (just one example). UUs seem to have an unusual number of people eager to take offense at your personal differences.

    Moreover, for a denomination that promotes such openness, it’s odd that the Beacon Street national HQ enforces its will so heavy-handedly.

    So I’ve become a freethinker, where we’re welcome to embrace any ideas we’re willing to defend intellectually, and I’m much happier.

  7. T Ruddick says:

    And I find it ironic that a belief system that says all beliefs are valid should embrace moderation in a discussion board. I guess you want to make certain no really offensive free opinion comes through.

    • T. Resnikoff says:

      Dear T Ruddick,

      The editors at Blue Boat fully support the freedom of speech and expression, however we are constrained to moderate our discussion board, as does any responsible editor of a blog. We encourage our readers to freely express their sincerely held opinion, however offensive it may be to some. However we will not condone or allow the use of hurtful, hateful or obscene language, or any other inappropriate expression of that opinion. You will find that this is a common practice on blogs where the objective is to maintain an on-line space that fosters the free exchange of ideas.

      Sincerely, Ed.

    • Jon Cleland Host says:

      T, you raise an important point that comes up often in UU discussions. I’ve been very active in UU for nearly two decades, including congregational President, Board member, chair of many teams, gone too many general assemblies to count, and so on. I’ve heard a number of people think that in UU, all ideas are equally true – sometimes citing the first principle. However, the first principle doesn’t say that. Our first principle affirms that all people are equally valuable. Ideas, just like corporations, are not people, and aren’t guaranteed respect. Ideas are to be discussed, tested with evidence, and rejected or accepted. Too often, people make the mistake of thinking that disagreement with an idea is disrespect for the person stating it, which is of course false. All people deserve respect, all ideas deserve discussion. After all, many ideas are harmful, contradicted by evidence, and so on. As a result, to respect all ideas as equally valid or equally true is actually to disrespect those real people who will be harmed by harmful ideas – which violates are first principle. So both the first and fourth principles require us to discuss and test ideas, regardless of the risk of discomfort by those who make the mistake of tying their self worth to this or that idea.

  8. Peggy says:

    Hi all, I loved Jennica’s piece and found it gave me a great deal to reflect upon and explore. I think it is really important to discuss the non-negotiable stones of our beliefs, and edges of our willingness to embrace the beliefs of others. And I don’t really sense any disagreement with either the stones or the limits here. Instead, people are frustrated by what they have seen in their UU churches: “People in my church don’t tolerate or accept X”. I see that as something worth discussing but it doesn’t undermine Jennica’s points. I don’t think her piece is intended to be a description of life in all our congregations but more of an aspirational statement of who we are at are best or who we must become… And I personally think we are becoming it… I have witnessed the kind of intolerance that bruised people here… about ten years ago…. I don’t experience it now. I see us evolving to a place where we really understand how rich the brew is when all sorts of beliefs and experiences come together in worship….

    • jennicadavishockett says:

      That’s a good point Peggy, it’s important to remember there can sometimes be a disconnect between Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalists.

      • Peggy says:

        That’s why the best thing I have done to deepen my faith is attend GA where I feel a much stronger spirit and connection… After GA in Providence I went home and told people “we were actually singing and dancing in the aisles and waiving our hands during worship!” It is so nice to have that two way street between the faith center (I am calling GA that because it is where the most faithful tend to converge if they can afford and access it) and our churchs with their diversity…..

  9. jennicadavishockett says:

    Just came across this quote from Harvard comparative religion professor Diana Eck, “Unitarian Universalism is not the lowest common denominator; it is the highest common calling. The world
    is in need of your theology.” Love it.

  10. Caleb says:

    For me, I have found the word “responsible” in the fourth principle to call me to consider reflectively the 6 sources when thinking about what I believe. It demands that I think, that I am self-aware of my own beliefs (and prejudices) and be continually asking myself why I believe what I believe. To me, responsible believing means putting in the time and effort to ask the hard questions and attempt to find some answers.

    But the 7 principles themselves I also view as a barrier to believing “anything.” Jennica’s 5 points depicting some unity among UU belief can easily be linked back to the principles, and I choose to embody the common connection of the principles to the ten commandments in that I try to follow them faithfully. Which is not to say that I haven’t asked myself WHY, but that I don’t view following the 7 principles as optional to being Unitarian Universalist– if you’re not trying to embody them you’re not really living the faith.

  11. Sandy Loveday says:

    I have been a member of a UU congregation since the mid 1990’s. I consider myself an Universalist Christian – with all that the label entails. I am a minority in my congregation.

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