In the late 1970s, the American automotive industry was ill-prepared when the overthrow of the Shah of Iran resulted in gas prices doubling almost overnight. Many people today mistakenly believe that Japanese auto manufacturers used this opportunity to introduce small, fuel efficient cars in order to break into the American car market. But, to paraphrase Lee Iacocca, designer of the Ford Mustang and often credited with single-handedly saving Chrysler during this time, the Japanese had built nothing but small cars for 30 years. They would have been ready for this crisis whenever it occurred.
The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, or UUA, faces a similar crisis today. Despite a 68% population growth in the United States over the past 50 years, the organization’s membership has hovered around 150,000 throughout the same period. If this trend continues, the UUA will be no more significant than the Flat-Earth Society is today. But, just like Japanese car manufacturers, there is a segment of the UUA membership which has quietly been building the future just waiting for the opportunity to break out and begin growing the UUA again. They are the modern Humanists. And they share a common ancestry with the UUA.
The UUA formed in 1961 with the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Unafraid of diverging from mainstream theology, Unitarians rejected the Christian concept of three gods in one. Michael Servetus, the Spanish physician, would have made a good Unitarian had he not burned at the stack in 1553 for similar heresy. This maverick willingness to go where reason leads attracted many well-known figures to Unitarianism. This list includes leaders of diverse fields such as Charles Darwin (science), Susan B. Anthony (civil-rights leader), Thomas Jefferson (politics), Charles Dickens (literature), and many more.
In the early twentieth century, Unitarian churches produced a new breed of leaders who soon altered the foundation of religious understanding even further than their forbearers. The first decades of that century were filled with amazing scientific advancements which exposed the true power of human reason like never before. Newton had brought the stars from the heavens down to earth. And the magnitude of this feat went unchallenged until atomic theory, relativity, and quantum mechanics laid bare the underlying infrastructure of an expanding universe. Unitarians were first to recognize what this meant for religion and were unafraid once again to adapt to a new understanding. Thus was born a Humanist Manifesto, drafted in large part by Raymond Bragg, Secretary of the Unitarian Conference. This public declaration clearly defined the new form of religion called Humanism. Like its name implies, Humanism relies not on imaginary forces to create a conditional utopia, but on the capacity of human reason entangled with compassion to advance humanity toward a better life for everyone on the planet. Of the thirty-four signers of this historic document, sixteen were ministers in Unitarian churches.
While Humanism evolved from its religious roots into a secular form through two successive updates to the Humanist Manifesto, the Unitarian church fought to retain a religious core by broadening its scope from a Christian-dominated base to religious pluralism. After the merger with the Universalist Church of America, the UUA became the preferred place for people whose beliefs differed from mainstream Christianity, yet who were unwilling to forego religious practices altogether due to personal beliefs or social pressure. All the while, the American Humanist Association quietly consolidated and improved their secular Humanist ideology, waiting for the opportunity to burst upon the scene as Toyota did in the 1980s.
The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York City was to the American Humanist Association what the Iranian crisis was to Toyota – the catalyst that made the world notice the true value of secular reason against religious intolerance. This catalyst wasn’t immediately evident, though. Not until an avant-garde of atheist writers who braved the taboo waters of religious criticism in the wake of 9/11 did Americans begin to awaken to the reality that religion breeds hatred. While some hardened their resolve that their particular religion was the right answer, many sought a new solution. Just as Americans once discovered Japanese cars decades earlier, people are finding Humanism today. This places the UUA at an important cross-road where they must decide which camp to belong. Will the UUA leadership adapt to a new understanding of religion unveiled or will it resolve obstinately to hold fast to baseless faith that has thus far only failed humanity?