Defining “Religion” for Unitarian Universalism

Like some (or perhaps even many) of you, I’m reading Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol. It’s a great read, no doubt about it. But early on, there’s this one part that really bugs me. It’s on page 30, where one of Professor Langdon’s Harvard undergraduates wonders whether Masonry is a religion. “Give it the litmus test,” says Langdon. “What are the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion?” An alert student answers, “ABC. Assure, Believe, Convert.” “Correct,” Langdon replies. “Religions assure salvation; religions believe in a precise theology; and religions convert nonbelievers.”

This is the part that bugs me. A bajillion people are going to read Dan Brown’s thriller, and most of them will swallow his definition of religion—which is a bad one—without blinking an eye. According to his definition, liberal Christianity is not a religion.

Neither is Judaism, Taoism, or Unitarian Universalism. None follow the ABC formula.

But if ABC doesn’t describe Unitarian Universalism, what does?

For me, the better formula is EMC. Unitarian Universalism envisions a transformed world; Unitarian Universalism maps the way there; and Unitarian Universalism challenges people to be inner-directed and authentic in their spirituality. EMC.

Take E. Our religion envisions a future in which people respect the interdependent web of all existence as well as the inherent worth and dignity of every person that dwells within it. Our religion envisions the spread of faith communities which support a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in an empowering context of mutual acceptance and encouragement. Our religion envisions world community, grounded in democracy, in which there is peace, liberty, and justice for all. All of this comprises the transformed world which Unitarian Universalism envisions.

Note how I have simply reframed the Seven Principles here. The “E” part of my EMC formula touches on things we are already familiar with. And so does the “M” part. “M” maps out the way forward by naming specific spiritual disciplines which, if practiced regularly, will enable us to help make Unitarian Universalism’s inspired, future oriented-vision come true. These spiritual disciplines include worship, study, service, generosity, life in covenant-centered community, and inner-development practices like prayer or meditation. Each of these is an integral part of the map.

E, M, and, finally, C. “C” stands for “challenge”: Unitarian Universalism does not so much convert as challenge. It challenges people to face up to the fact that our transformed vision of the world is not guaranteed; we must work hard to make it so. It challenges people to be willing to grow and change over time, even if it takes us into places of chaos and messiness and grief. It challenges us to trust life and have faith that it is worth living, even in the worst of times. It challenges us to reject parroting other people’s religious ideas and to be authentic and inner-directed in what we believe and value. It challenges us to connect with the Divine Spark that is within each and all and, out of this experience of wonder and awe, to heal our world and make it whole.

This is the formula that describes our faith. Not ABC, but EMC. And do you see how closely it resembles Einstein’s famous equation: E=MC2? I think there’s an intriguing suggestion here. In our Unitarian Universalist way of religion, there is power. Dan Brown may not know it. Let’s be sure we do.


Rev. Anthony David, Senior Minister