my UU elevator speech – for what it’s worth…

June 27, 2008

Dan Harper’s “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist” blog entry at called for UU elevator speeches. 

(During Saturday’s debate the two Presidential candidates Peter Morales and Laurel Hallman were also asked to give one. Check it out online. I have to warn you though: Laurel’s speech was apparently designed for the elevator of the Empire State Building.)

So at first I explored some ideas about comparing our relationship between UUs and the Seven Principles with those of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but that went nowhere. A next attempt to start with history had my imaginary elevator compagnera yawning instantly.

And all in only ten seconds? Impossible! More like fourty (think: tall buildings).

Anyway, here goes:  

(since the embedded video image (above) is so ugly, below a screen shot, the T-shirt reads: When Religion Ruled They Called It The Dark Ages. I bought it from Denver anthropologist David Eller, author of Natural Atheism. I’ll write more about the book at a later point. Until then: Details are at


Here’s the transcript:

“It’s a progressive religion with Christian roots. There’s no one holy book, instead, we find useful ethics and wisdom among many religious and humanist traditions. For us, real spirituality shows itself in what a person does for others, not in what they believe about God or no god. For instance, many UUs do not believe in a God, but practically all believe that you should try to be a good person regardless. So our focus is on social justice, on tolerance, on listening, on empathy. But also on joy. Sex, for example, is seen as a wonderful thing. What was your room number again?”


Hallman and Morales debate, tune in Sat 6:45 pm Eastern

June 26, 2008

A first debate of the two candidates for president of the UUA happens (and is webcast live!) Saturday evening at 6:45-8p.m. Eastern time. Many congregations feature it live as it’s more fun to watch it together and stick around for a discussion. Plan to attend!

The stream is at 

and the full UUA webcast schedule is here:

Both candidates have websites with a campaign blog (screenshots and links above)

(At present Laurel’s blog is RSS syndicated and automatically picked up by, Peter’s not yet due to a tech issue).

This should get interesting! 

Unlike the US presidential race with its artificial ‘issues’ and general horse race character the UUA’s candidates are focussing on real issues that will decide the future of our movement.

Blogs can be a good forum to exchange views and arguments on that front provided that people behave in a civil manner. One blogger raised flags about possible hijacking of threads by partisan commenters, spam-like flooding with posts and such. Let’s not overreact to something that hasn’t even occurred yet. A discussion over the goals and qualifications of the new president is necessary and should not be artificially censored by overeager blogiquette.

Regardless of whom you’ll eventually favor, it’ll provide deep insights into this religious movement and the hurdles it faces.

The election is a year away but the sooner we start the discussion over goals and priorities the better. Read up on Laurel’s and Peter’s positions and their track records!

The worst that can happen is that the candidates’ positions morph indistinguishably into each other – then we’d be left with no real choice 🙂

Deranged but effective: how megachurches make visitors come back (while UUs make them leave)

June 26, 2008


I just read (and highly recommend) the book by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi: The Great Derangement (May 2008). It addresses the 9/11 conspiracy crowd, the appallingly corrupt workings of the Congress and Senate, and the phenomenal success of lunatic right wing fundamentalism. For that third topic he went undercover for months and joined a hugely successful if ideologically evil Texas megachurch. (See the linked excerpt article below: “Jesus made me puke”. The provocative title refers to being made to spew out ‘demons’ into a barf bag during a ‘healing service’.)


What fills the pews in those 5000 seat arenas? (according to Matt Taibbi) 

1) People are (as sociologists can prove) lonely and disconnected on an unprecedented scale. (I failed to dig out the statistics that I recently saw, their measure or indicator was how many persons someone had other than spouses or parents in whom they could trust to discuss deep emotional issues. Please respond if you can identify the study.)

2) People are hurt. Financially, emotionally, they suffer from evil jobs, endless commutes, they have little life outside their consuming drudgery. Addiction also figures prominently, as do abuse and bad relationships.

These churches are effective, Taibbi writes, not because of their often ludicrous ideologies but because they offer real support in those areas of affliction. (Whether they support is effective is another question, but at least they offer support, and starting to address a problem is always a step in the right direction).

They are also good at retaining folks because they form small groups inside their larger settings (sometimes called ‘tribes’) where people get connected through bible study etc with a regular subset of the same few people. It combines the pleasure of being part of a large group or movement (I call it the ‘stadium effect’) with the joy of really getting to know well a few people who embark on the same journey.

What can UUs learn here?

If a church wants to grow it must first make a visitor feel welcome as a person and then have a mechanism where s/he gets involved and makes lasting acquaintances. My minister, Peter Morales, explained recently that in his experience (both here at JUC and in congregations he’s visited nationwide) almost all visitors have already thoroughly checked out a church online (read sermons, been to etc) before they step through the door.

So their question is (says Peter): Are these my people? and not: Do they believe what I believe? 

If they are not actively welcomed and made to feel that, yes, there might well develop a deeper connection, they won’t return.

Many congregations apparently fail to make visitors return. Peter Morales thinks it’s not because of intentional snobbery but rather because our culture of welcoming is underdeveloped, too timid, or simply unreflected.

In a recent campaign event he said about the art of welcoming people: “You don’t have to do it perfectly, and we don’t do it perfectly, and the churches that grow like crazy don’t do it perfectly but they pay attention and they care. The first thing is to get people to care and then to pay attention.”

Since this post now has half turned into a campaign pitch I might as well give a direct link – to both candidates!

Don’t miss the candidate forum webcast this Saturday: 6:45 – 8:00 p.m Eastern time (it takes days until it’s available archived, you have to tune in live or you’ll miss it)

4059 UUA Presidential Candidates’ Forum with Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman and Rev. Peter Morales, Candidates:

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire

Note: Our church, JUC, gets small Amazon referral fees when purchases are made through a JUC link. I suggest you look into that for your own congregation. People are slow to pick it up but I spend loads on Amazon and simply bookmarked JUCs referral button and use it religiously


yesterday in the grocery aisle: “I’m something of an agnostic but I believe something is out there”

June 25, 2008

Yesterday, the Denver Post made the Pew Religious Landscape survey its front page story, posting the admittedly astonishing figure of 92% “of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit” next to the headline: What we believe, and the subtitle: Survey surprise: Many not bound by church doctrine.  

Denver Post front page, Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Later that day I was in the grocery aisle of my local supermarket when I overheard a conversation between two employees who were restocking colorful peppers. Apparently they were discussing these headlines, and the younger one, in his mid 30s, said: “I’m guess I’m something of an agnostic.” But then he went on to say he also believes “something is out there”.

Maybe attitudes like his explain the odd findings of the survey I commented on in my initial post (that 22% of atheists and 55% of agnostics believe in God or a universal spirit).

However, is this kind of ‘belief’ really any different from that about alien civilizations that we’ll get to meet as soon as Scotty get that bloody warp drive on the Enterprise fixed? I’m not joking here, thanks to Star Trek vast majorities of boomers have soaked up the general idea that plenty of intelligent life is “out there”, not on the basis of a conscious review of arguments and evidence, but through cultural immersion and osmosis.

Admittedly, just as likely this worker had that sense of awe in mind, the feeling many people get when they are overwhelmed with joy or sorrow, or what Richard Dawkins dubs Einsteinian wonder.

I will also posit that cultural acclimatization may be a big part of it. Throughout life Americans are flooded with a vocabulary, with role models, with behavioral norms that make the existence of an imaginary friend called God seem natural and obvious.

Perhaps the suspicion that there’s “something out there” has a deeper root in our psychological makeup. 

It’s the tendency of higher organisms to assume or suspect agency. We’re on the lookout for stuff that may be out to get us. That’s why we (and other ‘superstitious’ animals) often interpret shapes and sounds as predators: better to err on the side of caution than ending up as someone’s meal.

I’ll come back to that theory, which I learned about from Stewart Guthrie’s “Faces in the Clouds”.

Pew or Puke? The 2008 US Religious Landscape survey makes me sigh

June 24, 2008

The UU blogger over at #mce_temp_url#TransientandPermanent parsed some of the Pew survey findings and pointed to some major shortcomings, to put it mildly, of its methodology. For instance that it ‘finds’ that over 22% of atheists believe in God as well as a majority 55% of agnostics. Oops – but no, it’s no typo.

Most likely it’s due to having left the god concept undefined and nebulous. The concept of god as an active agent is light years apart from that of a since departed prime mover. People are killing each other over the difference.

I’m sure people will talk about it at the current General Assembly. It reminds of an old thread on the UU coffee hour blog where people reported having done a local survey about beliefs in their own parish, with surprising results. It’s easy to fool oneself about the distribution of beliefs until you actually ask and count.