Monday, March 4, 2013


What is a ‘cult’? The purpose of this post is to shed some light on the meaning of this much abused and misused word ‘cult.’

Recently, I became aware that a neighbour of mine---who has little or no time for religion of any sort (which is fine with me)---was heard to say that the religious body of which I am a minister, namely, Unitarianism, was a ‘cult.’ I was quite bemused by the comment. You see, if the person in question had some definite religious convictions of their own, the comment might be understandable up to a point, but that was not the case here. The word ‘cult’ was simply being used in a pejorative sense---which is ordinarily the case---and as a weapon of some silly sort.

Well, is Unitarianism a cult? Definitely not! If anything, it's a kind of 'anti-cult.' Here’s why.

A cult almost always claims some new or special or unique revelation.  Unitarianism---also known in some places as Unitarian Universalism---does not. Also, a cult invariably invests its founders, and often its leaders as well, and their teachings and writings, with the impress of finality, if not infallibility. Unitarianism does none of those things---indeed, the whole idea of infallibility is anathema to Unitarians, not to mention bloody silly! In addition, a cult is a system of religious beliefs that replaces one’s own beliefs with its own, and gives legitimacy---sometimes blatantly, and sometimes quite subtly---only to its own teachings, such that, if a person cannot or does not conform, they are excluded whether by formal excommunication or other means. Unitarianism is and does none of the above.

Unitarianism is both a denominational and a transdenominational vehicle for all spiritual seekers, regardless of their religious affiliation or background. Unitarianism freely shares its teachings with all persons, and it has always had a broad and liberal spiritual focus.

Now, what I am about to say is very important. Unitarianism is not so much a religion per se as an approach to religion and a praxis, that is, a particular and quite distinctive way in which certain spiritual principles (such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and the interdependent web of all existence) are engaged, applied and put into practice.

Unitarianism is not a single religion among other world religions---some scholars and commentators call it a meta-religion---but rather a way of looking at religion and spirituality, and at the many varieties of religious and spiritual experiences of the whole of humanity (including our experiences and enjoyment of music, the arts and sciences, as well as the natural world). Unitarianism is also a way of looking at life---with curiosity, openness, non-discrimination and choiceless awareness. Unitarians, being liberal-minded, like to 'think things through' in a critical, informed, disciplined, and fearless way.

Lewis B Fisher, the late 19th-century Universalist theologian, once wrote, 'Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.' I like that.

Although not a philosophy per se, Unitarianism performs a similar function to philosophy at its best in that it provides a fundamental and overall coherent apparatus for understanding and criticism, illuminating all fields of human inquiry including politics, economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, ethics, and the arts. Unitarianism provides a ‘key’---but just one key---to understanding those and other disciplines. In short, Unitarianism is a movement, a position, and an adventure in ‘continuing spiritual education’.

Unitarianism, in its more ‘modern’ form, came out of the Protestant Reformation when many people claimed the right to privately read and interpret the Bible for themselves and to set their own conscience as a test of the teachings of religion. The theological roots of Unitarianism can be found in early Judaism as well as in 16th-century Europe (in particular, Hungary, Poland and Romania) when some prominent Biblical scholars affirmed the notion that the Divine was one and indivisible, and challenged the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was uniquely and exclusively God. (Please note the important combination of those words---‘uniquely’ and ‘exclusively.’ Christian Unitarians had no problem affirming the divinity of Jesus, but his supposed deity was a different matter altogether.)

The philosophical roots of Unitarianism go back much further, and can be found in such people as the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Skeptics, all of whom affirmed natural morality, freedom from superstition, and salvation by character.

Unitarian churches, fellowships and societies impose no particular creed, article or profession of faith upon our members and adherents. Unitarians are therefore free to explore and develop their own distinctive spirituality and are encouraged to do so in a responsible way. There is nothing to believe in Unitarianism. Indeed, most Unitarians would regard beliefs and belief-systems as impenetrable barriers to knowing truth or reality.

During the last couple of hundred years Unitarianism has expanded beyond its Christian roots with many modern day Unitarians embracing Humanism, agnosticism, atheism, various forms of theism, nontheistic forms and systems of spirituality such as Buddhism, progressive Christianity and earth-based spirituality. In short, ‘post-Christian’ Unitarianism affirms the underlying truth of open and tolerant religion---sensibly interpreted.

Unitarians boldly affirm that the sacred or holy is ordinarily made manifest in the enchantment of everyday life, and embraces all persons and things as part of an interdependent cosmic web. Unitarians seek to live together in peace and promote the highest good for all, relying upon the authority of reason, conscience and experience in order to arrive at solutions to problems in a spirit of rational humaneness.

True it is that most if not all of the mainstream Christian churches regard Unitarianism as a cult. As proof of this Unitarian churches, fellowships and societies have consistently been denied membership to the World Council of Churches and their affiliated bodies around the world. Of course, as is often said, one person's orthodoxy is another person's heresy---and vice versa. Also, please keep in mind the above mentioned definition of a cult, namely, a system of religious beliefs that replaces one’s own beliefs with its own, and a religious movement that gives legitimacy only to its own teachings, such that, if a person cannot or does not conform, they are excluded whether by formal excommunication or other means.

Now, by this definition all of the mainstream Christian churches are cults, with the Roman Catholic Church being the largest and most successful of them all. Each member has to conform and fit the denominational bed ... or else! Ditto with Sydney Anglicanism, which has become a cult within a much larger cult (the latter being the worldwide Anglican Communion). In any event, in the eyes of the law, all religions bodies are ‘sects,’ each with its own particular cultus or form of worship.

Unitarians are non-conformists in all senses of that word. They are proud to be different, and they don’t mind being called heretics. You see, the word ‘heretic’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘one who chooses’. Unitarians choose to be different. They choose to affirm as true what, in good conscience, they are each capable of knowing and understanding.


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