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Pew Forum Survey Shows Unitarian Universalism Wandering Deeper Into Irrelevance

Yesterday, I wrote about one particularly odd finding in the latest survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: In New York State, the survey says that there are less than half as many atheists as people who don’t believe in God.

Today, I want to focus on another finding by the survey. This subject of this finding is rather fuzzy as well, but the finding itself is quite clear. The fuzzy subject is Unitarian Universalism, and the clear finding is the denomination’s continuing decline.

The number of Unitarian Universalists found by the Pew Forum survey was so small that they had to be lumped into larger group, called “Unitarians and other liberal religious faiths”. Even after being lumped together in this way, this group consisted of just 1.2 percent of the people surveyed. Unitarian Universalism has always been small, but it’s now shrinking down to a microscopic level.

unitarian universalism chalice smokeEven those Unitarian Universalists that remain don’t seem very engaged. According to the Pew survey, only 23 percent of Unitarian Universalists say that they participate in study groups or religious education programs more than once or twice a year. The portion of Unitarian Universalists who say that religion occupies a very important place in their lives has diminished by 20 percent. At the same time, the percent of Unitarian Universalists who say that they never bother to attend any events put on by the congregations they belong to in name has gotten larger.

What’s more, the liberal nature of Unitarian Universalists seems to be in decline. Over the last eight years, the number of Unitarian Universalists who believe in a hell where people are subjected to eternal divine punishment for failing to adhere to divine law has risen by 60 percent. So, what’s the point of joining a congregation that claims to be liberal, but where hellfire and brimstone types are an increasing presence?

There are plenty of Americans who are disenchanted with the religious groups that are available to them, and could join an alternative organization. Religiously unaffiliated Americans have grown from 16 percent to 23 percent of the population just in the last eight years.

It seems that, as much as Unitarian Universalists like to claim to be an alternative to traditional modes of religious life, they are now perceived by more Americans as a part of the traditional modes of religious life. Unaffiliated Americans aren’t buying what the Unitarians are trying to sell.

13 thoughts on “Pew Forum Survey Shows Unitarian Universalism Wandering Deeper Into Irrelevance”

  1. Larry says:

    What specific section is that spelled out in?

    In doing a search function on the whole Pew pdf file, I found the word Unitarians mentioned several times, but none for UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS or UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM.

    And (which is where things get confusing), they ARE today two different things.


    First: Today, Unitarian Universalism is about the very liberal general, non Christian religious philosophical movement.

    Second: Unitarianism is the relatively CHRISTIAN theology that includes a central belief in the unitary nature of God and tends to express much less fundamentalist beliefs and is more tolerant.


    “Unitarianism is a somewhat liberal Christian theological movement named for the affirmation that God is one entity, in direct contrast to Trinitarianism, which defines God as three persons in one being. Unitarians maintain that Jesus of Nazareth is in some sense the “son” of God (as all humans are children of the Creator), but that he is not the one God himself. They may believe that he was inspired by God in his moral teachings and can be considered a savior, but all Unitarians perceive Christ as human rather than divine. Unitarianism is also known for the rejection of several other Western Christian doctrines, including the soteriological doctrines of original sin and predestination, and, in more recent history, biblical inerrancy.” (A good book source book is ” An Explanation of Unitarian Christianity” by D. Miami, 2007) As such, IMO, it could be readily possible for more fundamentalist types to become members of specific churches (it has happened in other churches, even liberal variants) and evolve the teachings / practices of that congregation to a more severe fundamentalist / evangelical approach; in fact, I would be shocked if that didn’t happen fairly frequently – which then leads to a decline in membership).

    Now (and recall that my search of the whole study found ZERO results for Unitarian Universalist or Unitarian Universalism):

    “Unitarian Universalism is a (very) liberal ‘religion’ (or philosophical faith) that is characterized by a ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning’. Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed but are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth. As such, the Unitarian Universalist Church includes – amongst members of ANY religions – many agnostics, theists, and atheists among its membership.”

  2. Larry says:

    As to Christian Unitarianism:

    “Unitarians believe that mainline Christianity does not adhere to strict monotheism but that they do by maintaining that Jesus was a great man and a prophet of God, perhaps even a supernatural being, but not God himself (as the concept of Jesus being ALSO a god destroys the monotheistic claim). They believe Jesus did not claim to be God and that his teachings did not suggest the existence of a triune God. Unitarians believe in the moral authority but not necessarily the divinity of Jesus. Their theology is thus opposed to the trinitarian theology of other Christian denominations.

    Unitarian Christology can be divided according to whether Jesus is believed to have had a pre-human existence. Both forms maintain that God is one being and one “person” and that Jesus is the (or a) Son of God, but generally not God himself.”

    “Although there is no specific authority on convictions of Unitarian belief aside from rejection of the Trinity, the following beliefs are generally accepted:

    – One God and the oneness or unity of God.

    – The life and teachings of Jesus Christ constitute the exemplar model for living one’s own life.

    – Reason, rational thought, science, and philosophy coexist with faith in God.
    Humans have the ability to exercise free will in a responsible, constructive and ethical manner with the assistance of religion.
    Human nature in its present condition is neither inherently corrupt nor depraved (see original Sin) but capable of both good and evil, as God intended.

    – No religion can claim an absolute monopoly on the Holy Spirit or theological truth.

    – Though the authors of the Bible were inspired by God, they were humans and therefore subject to human error.

    – The traditional doctrines of predestination, eternal damnation, and the vicarious sacrifice and satisfaction theories of the Atonement are invalid because they malign God’s character and veil the true nature and mission of Jesus Christ.”


    “Unitarians have liberal views of God, Jesus, the world and purpose of life as revealed through reason, scholarship, science, philosophy, scripture and other prophets and religions.

    They believe that reason and belief are complementary and that religion and science can co-exist and guide them in their understanding of nature and God…

    Unitarian Christians reject the doctrine of some Christian denominations that God chooses to redeem or save only those certain individuals that accept the creeds of, or affiliate with, a specific church or religion, from a common ruin or corruption of the mass of humanity.”

    Okay, now recall that this would be Christian Unitarianism at its IDEAL. Due to being a loose confederation and not a strict dogmatic faith organization (which would defeat their own philosophy), one could see how fundamentalists could take over or “morph” these types of Christian (granted quite liberal Christian) churches and evolve into a more and more fundamentalist leaning philosophy at individual church levels.

    “The Unitarian Christian Conference USA is a network of congregations and ministers in the United States identifying with the historic Unitarian Christian tradition. The Unitarian Christian Conference USA promotes the concept of the unity of God and the message and example of Jesus of Nazareth as a rational and enriching spiritual path for personal development and a guide for creating a world of justice, peace and human dignity. The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF, founded 1945) predates the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) and Universalist Church of America (UCA) into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in 1961. UUCF continues as a subgroup of UUA serving the Christian members.”

    (Not exactly an iron fist like the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church or the Southern Baptists)

    “Notable Unitarians include classical composers Edvard Grieg and Béla Bartók, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker in theology and ministry, Joseph Priestley, John Archibald Wheeler, and Linus Pauling in science, George Boole in mathematics, Susan B. Anthony in civil government, Florence Nightingale in humanitarianism and social justice, John Bowring, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in literature, Frank Lloyd Wright in the arts, Josiah Wedgwood in industry, Thomas Starr King in ministry and politics, and Charles William Eliot in education… Four presidents of the United States were Unitarians: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft. Adlai Stevenson II, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, was a Unitarian, and he was the last Unitarian (so far) to be nominated by a major party for president.”

  3. Larry says:

    As to (non Christian) Unitarian Universalism:

    Where things got confusing (going back to 1961):

    “Unitarian Universalism was formed from the consolidation in 1961 of two historically Christian denominations, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, both based in the United States; the new organization formed in this merger was the Unitarian Universalist Association.

    At the time of the North American consolidation, Unitarians and Universalists had expanded BEYOND their roots in liberal Christian theology.”

    “Today they draw from a variety of religious traditions. Individuals may or may not self-identify as Christians or subscribe to Christian beliefs. Unitarian Universalist congregations and fellowships tend to retain some Christian traditions, such as Sunday worship with a sermon and the singing of hymns. The extent to which the elements of any particular faith tradition are incorporated into personal spiritual practice is a matter of individual choice for congregants, in keeping with a creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development.”

    “The defining belief of Unitarian Universalism is that religion is a matter of individual experience, and that, therefore, only the individual can decide what to “believe.” The roots of this belief can be found in the Unitarian insistence on freedom of personal conscience in matters of faith. As a result, while Unitarian Universalists have no required creed, they treat as a sacred value complete and responsible freedom of speech, thought, belief, faith, and disposition. Unitarian Universalists believe that each person is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues, such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife.

    UUs can come from any religious background, and hold beliefs and adhere to morals from a variety of cultures or religions. They believe that what binds them together as a faith community is not a creed, but a belief in the power and sacredness of covenant based on unconditional love. That love is enough to hold together such variety derives from their Universalist heritage which affirms a God of all-inclusive love.

    Current concepts about deity, however, are diverse among UUs.

    While some are still Monotheistic, often from a Judeo-Christian perspective, many profess Atheism or Agnosticism. UUs see no contradiction in open Atheists and Agnostics being members of their community because of the rich Unitarian legacy of free inquiry and reason in matters of faith. Still other UUs subscribe to Deism, Pantheism, or Polytheism. Many UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the “spirit of life” that binds all life on earth.”

    “The Seven Principles and Purposes”

    Deliberately without an official creed or dogma (per the principle of freedom of thought), many Unitarian Universalists make use of the ‘Principles and Purposes’ as a list of principles for guiding behavior.

    These “Principles and Purposes” (adopted in 1960) are taken from the by-laws which govern the Unitarian Universalist Association. While these were written to govern congregations, not individuals, many UUs use them as guides for living their faith.

    The ‘Seven Principles’ were created in committee and affirmed democratically by a vote of member congregations at an annual General Assembly (a meeting of delegates from member congregations).

    The Principles are as follows:

    We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

    – The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

    – Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

    – Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

    – A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

    – The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

    – The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

    – Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

    “The Unitarian belief that reason, and not creed, defines the search for truth, and the Universalist belief that God embraces all people equally has led to the current Unitarian Universalist belief that truth and spiritual meaning can be found in all faiths. This is reflected in the wide-array of spiritual practices found among UUs today. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations include Buddhist-style meditation groups, Jewish Seder, Yom Kipur and Passover dinners, iftaar meals (marking the breaking of Ramadan fast for Muslims), and Christmas Eve/Winter Solstice services. Children’s and youth’s religious education classes teach about the divinity of the world and the sanctity of world religions. One of its more popular curricula, Neighboring Faiths (formerly Church Across the Street), takes middle and high school participants to visit the places of worship of many faith traditions including a Hindu temple, a Reform or Orthodox synagogue, and a Catholic church.”

    “Both Unitarianism and Universalism were originally Christian denominations, and still reference Jewish and Christian texts.

    Today, Unitarian Universalist approach to the Christian/Jewish Bible and other sacred works is given in Our Unitarian Universalist Faith: Frequently Asked Questions, published by the UUA:

    – ‘We do not, however, hold the Bible—or any other account of human experience—to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books – with imagination and a critical eye. We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that “revelation is not sealed.” Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world — we look to find truth anywhere, universally.’

    In short, Unitarian Universalists respect the important religious texts of other religions. UUs believe that all religions can coexist if viewed with the concept of love for one’s neighbor and for oneself.

    Other church members who do not believe in a particular text or doctrine are encouraged to respect it as a historically significant literary work that should be viewed with an open mind. It is intended that in this way, individuals from all religions or spiritual backgrounds could live peaceably.”

    – The Unitarian Universalist Association:

    “Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is a liberal religious association of Unitarian Universalist congregations formed by the consolidation in 1961 of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Both of these predecessor organizations began as Christian denominations of the Unitarian and Universalist varieties respectively.

    However, modern Unitarian Universalists see themselves as a separate religion with its own beliefs and affinities.

    They define themselves as non-creedal, and draw wisdom from various religions and philosophies, including Humanism, pantheism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam, and Earth-centered spirituality.

    Thus, the UUA is a syncretistic religious group with liberal leanings.”

  4. Larry says:

    From looking at the charts where “Unitarian” wording is listed, it is in the “Other” category, not the Christian category.

    If they are talking about the Non Christian “Other” category, they should reference the Unitarian Universalism – and NOT the (Christian) Unitarianism.

    Yet by the language description that is presented in this article, it refers to the (Christian) Unitarianism and NOT the Non Christian Unitarian Universalism.

    I’m not sure that Pew grasped the difference possibly?

    In any case, I would say pretty much a definite screw up in regard the two faiths.

    By the way, here’s an example (literal written transcript) of a recent “sermon” from a Unitarian Universalism church that I had some association with many, many, many years ago:

    Sounds about the same as my few attendances. And definitely NOT fundamentalist or evangelical.

    (Sorry about the link)

  5. Dave says:

    What’s interesting is that the UU official website lists their social justice agenda which is virtually indistinguishable from the Dem Party platform. Is it that the more relevant a religion tries to be, the less relevant it becomes? In other words, when given a choice of joining an organization that aligns with one’s beliefs, maybe people figure why not take the one with a little more mojo, that being the larger and more visible Democratic Party.

    Also, Leroy, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” What the …
    Does that include Conservatives? Libertarians? Other commenters?

    1. Larry says:

      I am quoting from online literature (some from their suites, some from Wiki… which is why the quoted the information is in quotation marks”).

      But, yes, that is what it sounds like they are saying to me.

      But the main point is that this is what each of the two (really different) groups are saying – not what I personally am saying. About 25 years ago I attended a UU church with a friend who was a member about 3, maybe 4 times (and we are still in occasional contact though we have both moved – as did the involved church , to a neighboring town). And also (somewhat prior to that) attended two different Unitarian churches once each.

      And that was when I noted the manor difference between the two churches.

      The Unitarian churches were both decidedly Christian – though, at least then, very, very liberal Christian… both ascribed to the belief that EVERYONE would be saved and that there was no Hell, as is fairly normal dogma with legitimate Unitarian churches (and even a number of Quaker churches and some Episcopalian churches – maybe others – today). I think that is one of the misconceptions that exist. With the labeling of Christian, these denominations (and / or some particular churches of other denominations) get lumped in with the “hellfire and brimstone” fundamentalist churches with the assumption of having ALL the same beliefs. Compared to the fundamentalist churches, the Unitarians have very minimal established dogma. But compared to the UU churches, there definitely is one (again though, quite liberal).


      The Unitarian Universalism church was decidedly NOT Christian. It respected Christianity’s moral teachings – as it did those (positive moralistic teachings) of Buddha, Tao, Socrates, Plato, Muhammad, etcetera. And accepted members as well as guests who were whatever denomination of Christianity, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim or whatever religion or Agnostic (my friend) and even Atheist (there were two such members there at the time of my visit). As to dogma, it seems that dogma is (basically) left to each church – and that each church pretty much leaves 90+% of dogma details up to individual members (while I noted in my case and in readings that I’ve done, that the vast majority of UU members likewise believe that “everyone will be saved”, that there’s a positive Afterlife but no “Hell”).

      But again, the items you query in your quote above weren’t MY words, just quotations from online articles.

    2. Larry says:

      Also, I seem to get the feeling that there’s an inference being made that true Democrats can only be atheist or agnostic. Just a feeling. Like an anger (hmmm… maybe not quite the right word) that ALL of the UU members (Or the Unitarians or just the Unitarian Universalists or both?) should just throw in the towel and become atheists so they can become true Democrats?

      I would hope not as the study by Pew Research’s “Religion & Public Life Project” as reported by CNN last January had some interesting points.

      Their quote:

      ” …Nearly 92% of Congress — or 491 of the 535 members — identifies as Christian, according to a study by Pew Research’s Religion & Public Life Project. That number is slightly up from 90% in the 113th Congress and continues a trend where the percentage of Christians and Jews in Congress outpaces their national average.

      Though Christians dominate both parties, Democrats are more religiously diverse than Republicans. Of the 301 Republicans in the 114th Congress, Jewish freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York is the only non-Christian.

      A large majority of Democrats in Congress (80%) are Christian, with 44% Protestant, 35% Catholic and 1% Mormon. But unlike Republicans, Democrats in Congress are 12% Jewish and have two Buddhist, two Muslims, one Hindu and one unaffiliated member…

      What’s more, there has been a noticeable decline in Protestants that mirrors nationwide trends. In 1961, 75% of Congress and roughly 2/two-thirds of the country identified as Protestant. Fifty-seven percent of the 114th Congress is Protestant, while 49% of the country identifies as such today.

      One area where nationwide trends have not been reflected in Congress is with the religiously unaffiliated, the most underrepresented in the country.

      Though 20% of the country does not identify with a faith, only one member of Congress — Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — publicly identifies as such.

      Cooperman said the under representation of unaffiliated Americans might be a political decision by members of Congress.

      “One of the things we have seen in our surveys is that the American public says one thing they l’ke to see in candidates for office is strong religious beliefs,” said Cooperman, who noted that when Pew asked voters what qualities impact their vote, the most negative attribute was someone who doesn’t believe in God.

      ‘On the whole, American adults tend to say that they do want strong religious beliefs in candidates and they tend to say that they would be less likely to vote for someone who says they do not believe in God.’ he added.”

      So aside for the ratio discrepancy being due to that latter comment as relates to Democrats, how much more so does it fit the group seemingly excluded here (as far as the electorate), that being the very large numbers of Independent voters. Although it must be emphasized that this study is most primarily about the religious makeup of the 113th and 114th Congress (which, surprising to me, contained one Unitarian Universalist member – who, I don’t know).

      In fact according to a later Pew study, 39% are Independent compared to 32% Democrat and 23% Republican. I would have to assume that it is equally true that they too fit in that group of “American adults tend to say that they do want strong religious beliefs in candidates and they tend to say that they would be less likely to vote for someone who says they do not believe in God… “.

      And without taking a major (good majority) of the Independent vote (which many polls show a strong number tend to “lean right”), elections will generally end up being handed to Republicans.


    3. Larry says:

      A slightly newer Pew study which dealt with Party affiliation between 1992 and 2014 as based upon a multitude of factors.

      Including religion.

      One of the things that I noted that is of importance to Democrats is the religious leanings of strongly Democrat (and Protestant) Blacks and strongly Democrat (and primarily Catholic) Hispanics. Jews tend to also be more primarily (2 to 1) Democrat, and I assume this is regarding religious Jews rather than secular ones as that was the nature of the study.

    4. Larry says:

      In what (from last February) seemed to be a shocker poll result:

      But then in reading the article, I realized that while not fully an “Open Access / Voodoo Poll”, it is a bit shy of being (IMO) fully scientific.

      1. Larry says:

        Then there’s the current Democrat candidates.

        Bernie Sanders lists simply Jewish on his U. S. Senate bio page (as accessed through Wiki – possibly from 2007?).

        On his campaign website, he indicates that he’s a “not very religious” secular Jew. So his faith is Jewish (secular not meaning atheist, but simply a strong believer in separation of church and state) who appears to not be a regular practitioner.

        FRom the Inquisiter last month:

        “Sanders, who is Jewish, does not speak often about his religious background, the Washington Post noted. But this week during an interview with Jimmy Kimmel he was asked whether he believes in God and if he thinks that is important for the race.

        Sanders gave a non-answer.

        ‘I am who I am,’ Sanders said. ‘And what I believe in and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together. That I think it is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people.’ Sanders added: ‘This is not Judasim. This is what [Catholic] Pope Francis is talking about — that we cannot worship just billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.’… The Vermont Senator has said he believes in God — including in an interview with USA Today — but like most aspects of his personal life, has not gone into details… Though his faith may not be a personal one, religion in general seems to be exerting a strong influence on the Sanders campaign. He has spoken of his admiration for [Catholic] Pope Francis, and stood up for Israel against its critics. Stretching back even further, a connection to religion seems to have helped shape Sanders’ philosophies. Just after graduating college, he traveled to Israel for a month to study the state’s experiment with socialism.”

        (Interestingly – for his strong and sincere admiration of Pope Francis – Bernie Sanders is married to a second wife, Irish-American, who identifies herself, according to Vanity Fair interviews, as a Roman Catholic)


        Hillary Clinton is a United Methodist Church member. The UMC is divided into a conservative wing and a liberal wing. Hillary belongs to the latter category.

        From a Washington Post article in September (by Daniel Silliman):

        ” …Voters consistently say they want politicians to have faith, yet they often don’t believe them when they talk about it… A 2014 Pew poll found that nearly half of Americans would like to see more religion in politics. More than 40 percent of Americans think political leaders don’t talk about their faith enough. This is even true for many Democrats, though the political left is seen as less religious. Nearly a third of Democrats told Pew that political leaders talk too little about faith. Another Pew poll found that 42 percent of Democrats want to know that their candidates believe in God… The United Methodist Church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Methodists, members of a mainline church with evangelical roots, have traditionally emphasized the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus and the imperative of social activism and caring for your neighbor… One ne of the first things she did when she got to the White House was to join a Bible study, made up of a bipartisan group of Washington women… As first lady, Clinton also met regularly with Michael Lerner, a liberal rabbi and the editor of the magazine Tikkun. They discussed Lerner’s ideas for how, as he wrote, ‘to build a society based on love and connection, a society in which the bottom line would not be profit and power but ethical and spiritual sensitivity and a sense of community, mutual caring and responsibility.’… Paul Kengor, a professor at the conservative Christian Grove City College, suggests that some are surprised because the media doesn’t recognize the religious left. Christians are seen as conservative and typically opposed to ‘godless liberals,” at least in media narratives’

        “There seems no question that Hillary is a sincere, committed Christian and has been since childhood,” Kengor writes in ‘God and Hillary Clinton,’ which was published in 2007. ‘Hillary is a very liberal Christian, and would be categorized as part of the religious left, along with millions of Christian Americans.’…”

        From a somewhat atheist site:

        “The United Methodist Church is made up of both conservative and liberal congregations. The Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington which Hillary Clinton regularly attends describes itself as a ‘reconciling congregation.’ According to them, this means aside from not making any distinctions about race, ethnicity, or gender, they also invite ‘gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons to share our faith, our community life and our ministries.’.. ” (So as outlined in the Washington Post article, a part of the liberal wing).

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