Is Unitarian Universalism a Religion or a Movement?

In a comment on yesterday’s UU Trouble Makers Wanted post the notion of Unitarian Universalism being a movement came up.  Is it a religion, a movement, both?

My opinion:

I think Unitarian Universalism is a religion.
I also think it is possible to have a larger “Unitarian Universalist movement.”
I do not think Religion = Movement…

I’ve been pretty honest about my feeling that we need a UU revolution.  We need to change big time if we are going to accomplish our work and ministry in this world and not just survive, but thrive long term.   I’m thinking that this revolution may very well happen outside of our congregations with the revolution benefiting them.

600,000 self identified UUs in the 2000 census.
~200,000 adult members of the UUA

That’s a lot of free-range UUs out there.   Imagine the tribes, movements and ministries they could start if they wanted to!   They outnumber members of the UUA 2 to 1.

Anyhow, I think there can be such a thing as a UU movement.  I do not think Religion = Movement and that the words can be used interchangeably.

In the future I think we’re going to see UU “house churches” and a wide assortment of in person and web based UU tribes emerge.  As various congregations decline and die out I suspect individuals will carry on without buildings and budgets and, well, evolve.

I’m here to help our existing congregations adapt for the 21st Century.  I’m also looking forward to seeing what comes down the pike. 😉

What do you think???

FREE-RANGERS: What are you waiting for?!  Permission????   Do something already….

Need some inspiration?  Watch this….

And read this…


Disclaimer: My wife the Rev. Amy Freedman, a Unitarian Universalist minister, is taking this year off from serving a congregation. So despite working as a UU consultant and guest preaching most Sundays, technically for the first time in decades I too am a freerange UU.  Shocking, I know…

13 thoughts on “Is Unitarian Universalism a Religion or a Movement?

  1. What do you think about generational theory? If you think there’s some truth to it, what do you make of the Millenials being a hero/civic generation? Will they be a new generation of institution-builders, and if so, what kind of institutions? And what part of that process do the “troublemakers” who are one generation older play?

    More questions than answers today!

  2. Unitarianism and Universalism are threads within the larger movement of Liberal Christianity which in turn was a thread within Liberalism in the classical sense, not the US political sense. The UUA is an association of Churches/Societies. Our Churches as a whole, do not a movement make. Too varied and too small to claim status of a movement I think.

  3. Not too sure about the “a” part, but I do believe Unitarian Universalism is “movement, and it’s “religion” as well. I believe we occupy an almost unique position on the radically liberal end of the religious spectrum, with perhaps only the Ethical Culture folks anywhere near us. In our continuing movement toward an ethical and active rather than doctrinal emphasis–as Rev. Morales has called it, a “religion beyond belief,” — I’m very happy to see a continuing trend among UU congregations away from an institutional identification with Liberal Christianity — moving toward what Duncan Howlett (in several books) described as a more “thorough-going,” rather than “modifying” (or fence-straddling), mode of religious liberalism. (The most recent outward evidence of this move, by the way, toward a thorough-going, radically inclusive paradigm for our particular mode of liberal religion is the Gloucester MA congregation, which is now the Unitarian Universalist Church of Gloucester, instead of the Independent Christian Church.)

    In his book “The Fatal Flaw (at the Heart of Liberal Religion), Dr. Howlett made a strong case for the need for us to (institutionally) stop trying to straddle the fence between a modifying Christianity (of the UCC variety), and a more pluralistic, ethically-centered approach to religion. That attempt to have it both ways he considered to be our “fatal flaw,” yet he also offered a hopeful glimpse at how we just might be able to finally bring a much-needed clarity, and fewer mixed signals, as we try to share our distinctive brand of liberal religion with the larger world. To do that, I agree with Howlett, will indeed require continued “movement.”

  4. As a Unitarian Universalist who identifies with both the religion and the movement, I find our institutions are too quick to marginalize the wider UU movement that doesn’t come to church on Sundays. We try to get them back into our institutions so that they can ‘count’ as UU.

    Really, I think this question needs to be asked and serious self-reflection needs to be had: What are we who identify with institutions doing that keeps people with similar religious, social, and political views away from us? What makes our institutions undesirable to a huge number of people?

    For example, I think a group of people who can be understood within this question and lens are a significant proportion of young adult UUs (ages 18-35~), who historically and consistently feel marginalized and unserved by congregations and formal UU ministries. I won’t go too much further with this because I think the question stands on its own for consideration. But in order to grow, we have to critically reflect on what the religion looks like, sounds like, and feels like to the people who like our ideas and our principles, but not our dominant expressions of them.

  5. There already IS a progressive universalist movement going on right now! And no, it is not being lead by Unitarian Unviersalists.

    Leaders like Carlton Pearson and Brian McLaren are – at this very moment – leading such a movement. I predict that as this movement grows it will gain more and more traction with the mainstream. New church plants that are non-congregationalist but lead by strong leaders with mission and vision will flourish (see or Many of these churches will identify with the gospel of inclusion and progressive universalism.

    The question is, will the UUA adapt by including these churches in our association in order to support their work? Will those churches even want our help? I don’t know. Either way – liberal religion flourishes. The only question is whether it’s called “Unitarian Universalism” any more.

  6. More and more I’ve come to view ‘religions’ as ‘opinions’…one of an infinite number of paths to ultimate truth. In that regard, yes, Unitarian Universalism is a religion. It’s a viewpoint of ‘how’ to get to the ultimate goal. Those who agree with this set of ‘how’ should come together and find others of a similar mind. Those who disagree should respect a different path and remain humble enough to understand that their own ‘how’ could be just another road to the same destination.

  7. I understand the cultural and anthropological reasons for calling UUism and movement but I don’t like it, at least within our congregations. I grew up UU and I spent a lot of my childhood trying to explain to people why I was just as religious as they were. It doesn’t help if the leaders in our congregations shy away from words like “faith” and “religion” to describe Unitarian Universalism. I first understood how important this was when I was new in ministry and folks from outside the church would ask me to do a wedding but tell me, “we don’t want a religious ceremony.” I found myself saying – “I’m a minister, I only do religious ceremonies.” It helped me to name that about myself and over the years (50 years in the church and 25 in the ministry) I’ve gotten more and more certain that who we are and what we do in our congregations is deeply and powerfully religious. Let’s call it that and stop waffling.

  8. Thanks Barbara. In my mid twenties I started answering the question “Are you religious?” with “Absolutely! In fact, I’m one of the most religious people I know…” That led to some fabulous discussions about liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism.

  9. Hi. I’d like a definition of the word “movement.” I’ve been assuming I understand but I question that now. I do not think we are a movement. I’m relatively new to UUism. I’ve wondered if language we use to describe ourselves is self-soothing and actually, the exact opposite of reality. How can we be a “movement” literally, if we have declining membership? One of the greatest examples of the power of a movement was in the election of President Obama. The movement for dramatic change as personified by him then was clearly a 21st century movement because of how it swept the country. The tea party is a movement and it happened in a year. (We all must work to make it a short lived movement). UUism isn’t sweeping the country. In fact it feels like it’s becoming increasingly invisible. I have never seen it as a choice in lists of religious affiliation questions. Moreover, I went to a local seminary in Wash. DC to see if I’d be interested in taking classes. The first person I met was the director of admissions and he referred to my chalice pendent as a “logo.” I noted that for me it’s a religious symbol. I also heard from current UUs who are students there that the student body has no idea what UUism is and the UU students usually feel defensive.

    1. I agree that we aren’t. But I think we need to start a UU movement, or more particularly, a UU tribal movement. And by that I’m thinking of tribes in terms of Seth Godin’s book TRIBES (Amazon link Here is an excerpt from a related e-book (Download pdf

      A tribe forms when the special interest group, fan base, or community breaks through into a new mode of operation. It becomes a “movement” where people have the ability to interact up, down and sideways, where members step up into leadership roles, and where the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of the separate parts.

      Tribes thrive on interconnectedness. A leader emerges who sets the direction and then facilitates ways for the tribe to connect and move forward together. She may lean in or back off, but she does it on purpose to support the tribe, to gain and sustain momentum. The members’ connectedness with each other is at least as strong as their connectedness to the leader.

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