People join church organizations because they want to “belong”. They want to be part of a group. They want to join and become a member of a herd because there is safety in numbers and becoming a member of a group provides a feeling of safety.
People in church organizations sometimes call each other “brother” and “sister” and they recognize each other by their shared practices, values, and beliefs. People who join often have felt lonely and demoralized and are looking for validation and affirmation of group approval and support. After gaining acceptance there is often an experience of a “relief effect” which is the comforting experience of one’s dependency needs getting met.
Unfortunately, this acceptance and experience of peer affiliation is gained at the cost of the development of us/them dichotomy being created to strengthen the identification of the individual with the group thus as James Griffith writes, “…appears able to protect morale in the face of adversity.”p.25 Griffith goes on to write, “However, the strength of peer affiliation can depend on the management of a firm boundary between those in the religious group and others outside it. This has unfortunate consequences when this boundary becomes a barrier to empathy toward those outside, justifying stigma, or in worse cases, coercion, exploitation, or violence.”p.25
This boundary between us/them appears to promote a sense of peer affiliation and engagement by the individual with the group and vice versa. Unitarian Universalism, being a very inclusive organization, often does not have clear boundaries because it welcomes all comers from various religious traditions or none and thus presents itself as a very amorphous, ambiguous entity. This inclusiveness reminds me of the bumpers sticker, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
Perhaps the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism do create some sort of boundary which allows group identification especially in the preamble to the statement of the principles themselves when it states, “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: …….” However, some also object to the use of the seven principles as a creedal test. What the objection is, is not clear, but seems antithetical to have a clear statement of values which contributes to peer affiliation and identification.
When the subject of religion comes up and I mention that I am a Unitarian Universalist and the interlocutor then asks “What’s that?”, I often mention the seven principles and the six sources. People usually agree with the seven principles. On the face of them, there isn’t much that would be controversial or objectionable. The devil is in the details as they say and a further exploration of the application and meaning of the seven principles in daily life and organization policies raises questions and obstacles and so, in my experience, most people are reluctant to go to a deeper discussion of the implications of actually applying the seven principles.
Peer affiliation becomes desirable and perhaps necessary when a person or a group are faced with adversity and threats. When threats and adversity arise it often becomes us versus them and sides are chosen. Unitarian Universalists, as group, seem to be conflict avoidant because of their weak attachment style. There appears to be very little in Unitarian Universalism to be worth fighting for or sacrificing for because of its anemic theology, avoidant – dismissive attachment style, and amorphous peer affiliation which President
Peter Morales points out in his January 15th, 2012 letter “Congregations and Beyond” where he acknowledges, “And, I am realizing in a profound way that congregations cannot be the only way we connect with people.” And then he goes on to describe the very weak or non existent peer affiliation and seems to be arguing that Unitarian Universalism promote itself as an ideology, i.e. a “movement” in order to capture financial contributions and some sort of social agreement on social justice issues.
If Unitarian Universalism is merely a social movement, I think President Morales’ strategy could be appropriate, but if Unitarian Universalism aspires to be a post modern religion, it dilutes and trivializes the deeper spiritual core of what Unitarian Universalism has historically developed and attained.