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There’s a new movement receiving a great deal of attention lately.  The Sunday Assemblies have been growing and spreading in England in the United States, promising a congregational experience without God and touting the admirable motto, “Live better, help often, wonder more.”

I hadn’t paid them much attention, although what I’d heard had made me wonder whether they knew about Unitarian Universalism or Religious Humanism – and whether we might be a fit for these people. Then I heard an interview with the two founders, who made it very clear that they welcome people who believe in God as well as people who don’t, and that some of their leaders are in fact Christians. “Aha,” I thought, “they really are like Unitarian Universalists.”

And then the whole thing took a huge turn.

“We really don’t mention God, or Atheism, or anything like that. We make it as welcoming as possible for all people. We don’t talk about faith, because that ends up alienating people, but we also don’t talk about not believing in it,” said Sanderson Jones, the group’s co-founder.   Asked what they sing, the other co-founder, Pippa Evans, answered, “The songs that as you wake up in the morning, you’d be happily singing along to….”  And the examples they gave were utterly content free – the lyrics didn’t seem to matter.

That’s when it hit me that there is a significant difference between Unitarian Universalism and the Sunday Assemblies.  The movement they presented is based on a model of never challenging anyone. The guiding principal seems to be that no one who comes should ever be made to feel uncomfortable – and to me that just isn’t enough. Authentic community is sometimes uncomfortable, and people need to be able to deal with hard questions of meaning. We don’t have to believe in God – I don’t, at least not by conventional definitions – but we should be able to be challenged, from time to time, in our assumptions.

That seems to be the fundamental difference between the Sunday Assemblies and Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalists embrace diversity, talk about the many things we believe, sometimes challenging each others’ assumptions just by doing that, because we recognize that being with people who see things differently than we do helps us grow and deepen as human beings. In the Sunday Assemblies – at least based on the interview – diversity of viewpoints is something that might exist but isn’t talked about, assumptions go unchallenged, and everything is kept very, very safe.

Ironically, this is what Unitarian Universalists are often falsely accused of being.

I hope I’m wrong about this, because I would celebrate the emergence of a powerful, culturally relevant new Humanist movement. They certainly are doing good work in the world, and they are as yet very young.  But I need a community that will help me make meaning through the tough times of life, that will challenge me to think as well as feel, and that will help me grow as a person. That’s why I’m a Unitarian Universalist.

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There are a lot of reasons to celebrate the step that the Boy Scouts of America took this week.  Ending the ban on gay scouts is a significant change, and an acknowledgement of just how far our country has come in the past few decades.  It is not, however, enough.  As long as the Boy Scouts continue to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and religion, I cannot support them.

It pains me to say this.  I have seen how much good the Scouts can do in a boy’s life, watched the Scouts help boys grow into thoughtful, sensitive leaders with an ethic of volunteerism and a love of the outdoors.  I honor these young men for all they have achieved, and will give them all the recognition they are due.  At their best, the Boy Scouts are an organization few others can match.

But discrimination is wrong.  The Boy Scouts now accept gay boys only to tell them implicitly that they are second class – good enough to be grudgingly accepted by the troop, perhaps, but never good enough to be Scout leaders or staff.  These boys may be included, but as long as the Scouts promote this kind of bias, they will never be welcome.

I would love to see the day when the Scouts end all discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and will honor the move when it (inevitably) happens – but I will still not be able to support the Boy Scouts of America.  How could I, knowing that as a Humanist Unitarian Universalist, I would not be welcome?

With all the attention the Scouts’ policy toward gays has received, few news outlets have focused much on the Scouts’ ban against atheists.  Simply put, if you do not believe in God, you cannot be a Boy Scout.  You cannot work for the Boy Scouts.  You are unwelcome.

I find this unconscionable.  That an organization which purports to represent American values blatantly discriminates on the basis of religious belief violates the most fundamental principles of this country.  It is an insult to our forebears, and a terrible lesson to teach boys and young men.

Theologically, the ban on atheists makes no sense at all, because once you’ve said you believe in God, you haven’t said very much.  My own theology is non-theistic, but it would be easy enough to give what I do believe the name “God.”  I know many people who do; it just isn’t the language I typically choose.

It saddens me that the policy against atheists stands, and also that it has received so little attention.  Does the public really believe that atheist scouts and leaders present some sort of threat?  Do the Scouts?

I suspect the answer is more simple – most people simply do not know about the ban on atheists, and the freedom not to believe in God, while sacrosanct in our Constitution, is seldom lifted and honored.

One day I hope to support the Boy Scouts; I admire what they do.  One day I hope they will find the integrity to let go of policies that belittle boys and men for who they are and what they believe.  When that day comes, I will be the first to applaud.

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