Rieux replies

I’ve been sitting on a reply to Rieux, who wrote a comment a couple of days ago in “Mutual Respect at Philocrites and in the UUA.” Since I called him out, and he responded respectfully, he deserves a thoughtful reply. And that takes time.

Here’s his comment:

As for “fighting badly”–there is something to be said for not sinking to the level of one’s opponent, but (as the Peacebang-Rieux, er, dialogue demonstrates) I’m on par with plenty of other commenters on the Net in being prone to fighting vitriol with vitriol. I have a hard time responding to lines like “Who are these people who still think that it’s special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity?” with love and kindness.

I’m not sure that “the machinations of snarky Christians and our well-honed gallows humor” really does justice to some of the prominent shots that I’ve seen nonbelievers take from UUs. The very legitimacy and worth of UU nonbelievers as people is called into question by some of this stuff–and not infrequently it’s from high places in the UUA. The trend you see (and I do too) toward UU theism and Christianity being on the “sexy” rise wouldn’t trouble me if I didn’t get the idea that some of the (ever-more-) powers-that-be don’t plan to treat the “less-fashionable set” terribly kindly.

I’m not asking for your permission to be an atheist and humanist. I just want the ugly treatment to stop. I’m happy to apply the same criteria to folks on my side of the theological aisle, if that matters–I’d love it if the mud fight stopped in both directions.

Do you see any risk, any potential problem with UU believers treating their nonbelieving neighbors poorly? Is there any way we can object to such matters without being silly victimologists?

First, don’t believe I have anything against you personally. If I disliked you — which would be pretty hard to do, seeing as we have never met — I wouldn’t reply, and would flush your comment. (This is neither a democracy nor a public utility.) I still think you fight badly; that is, uneffectively and with unintended results. The written word — especially quickly written, as in blogs — conveys emotion and intentionality with more ambiguity than the spoken word, which is why I prefer the latter. That said, you come off unsympathetically and a bit paranoid.

I know this viscerally because I (with nearly every UU Christian minister; Peacebang, you’re not off the hook) have done the same thing before. I have fought badly — defensively, snidely, hyperbolically — and never got anywhere good with it. Reread some of the comments made here and at Philocrites with the shading, “Don’t make the same mistake.” There’s nothing wrong in my book with a good, hard wordy fight so long as it resolves more conflicts than it creates.

Now, let’s look at one of the phrases that has lead to offense. I’ve heard variations on both sides of the sentiment before, for what it’s worth: Who are these people who still think that it’s special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity?

Even though it comes out of frustration and pique (I don’t hear malice) I’d invite you to read the question literally. Bless our souls but as Unitarian Universalists we do pride ourselves as precious and different, and cultivate a grandiose sense of self like few can. I suspect it is a side-effect of our small numbers, elusive mission, uncertain institutional future, and a Arminianizing trend (a hallmark of Unitarianism, adopted by Universalists to their peril; really, it is a hallmark of Americanism, too) toward smugness and self-cultivation. I think the most important word in the above question is still. It is high time all of us get past the sloganeering and get on to some of the more sustantive theological, philosophical, and ecclesiological work I know we’re able to do. (This is one of the reasons I’m over the “elevator speech” jag. Does anyone actually know, with some degree of detail, what Bill Sinkford means when he refers to the “Good News of Unitarian Universalism”?)

Let me ask Peacebang’s question — and I think I know her well enough to intuit a variation, say, if martinis were served — “So, Rieux, spill: what’s the truth?”

My experience with Unitarian Universalists — one reason I’ve given up Arminianism for good ol’ Universalist Calvinism — is that we’re nice to our friends, more than capable of being complete turds to those who aren’t, and that above all, we respect strength and despise weakness. Which is to show that we’re just as human as everyone else.

But you asked for an action point: if you don’t like the way you and your ken are being treated, stand up and demand something. (First, figure what point you want to make, then make it.) You’ll have to be thoughtful, patient, deliberate, and un-self-possessed. (All, you may note, are classic spiritual disciplines.) Don’t talk yourself out of getting a blog: you’ll not get a better platform at any price. Consider dropping the veil of anonymity.

If you think you see a bully, stand your ground. You’re hardly likely to be clobbered, and we promise not to be threatened.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. My excuse for not replying quickly here is that I didn’t see this until this afternoon. (Not that I’m incapable of sitting on a hanging discussion for days, but anyway.)

    I would start by begging notice of the context of Rev. Peacebang’s comments: she was responding to a Boston Globe article that profiled a group of Boston-area atheists who meet periodically to discuss issues of nonbelief. There was plenty to chew on in the piece–for example, the sad tale of how one group member has been treated poorly by his family for deconversion.

    Philocrites’ response to the article was to laugh at the (group members’) notion that they lived in a “sea of religious conformity,” and to point out an ugly comment that the article imputed to a member of the group. I still think that response was inappropriate.

    Rev. Peacebang, however, reacted with untrammeled personal scorn. In context, I don’t understand how you can read her opening shot (“Who are these people who still think it’s special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity?”) without seeing “malice”; it seems to me an unavoidable conclusion that her entire intent was to mock and insult the subjects of that article. I’m not going to back down from my contention that that comment–and any other like it, regardless of whether the target is a theist or atheist or UU or not–is deeply inappropriate. Attacking a person for considering her own (a)theological viewpoint “special” and “unique” is, I submit, fundamentally contrary to the Fourth Principle.

    Peacebang then widened the slur out to anyone who tells her that he’s “spiritual but not religious”; she described an incredibly insulting response she imagines delivering to such a person. Then, to close, she thanked “the LORD” that the article had not connected the atheists it profiled with Unitarian Universalism.

    I’m sorry, but the entire thing is deeply disrespectful of nonbelievers. It conveys the message that Peacebang has nothing but bile for us and that she sees public connections between UUism and “these people who still think it’s special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity” as unequivocally bad. Well, I am one of “these people,” and I take serious issue with that.

    My response was unquestionably harsh; I’m happy to admit that, and if my tone is part of the problem in that thread, I can cop to that too.

    But I’m still waiting for you, or Philocrites, or any UU theist to explicitly agree that what Peacebang did was wrong–that it communicated a personal attack on nonbelievers that is seriously out of place in UUism. (Peacebang herself later admitted that her comments consisted of “snotty barbs.” Are she and I alone in that sentiment?) Yes, I wrote some harsh stuff on that thread–but I didn’t attack her theology; I only criticized Peacebang’s (and a few others’) comments. She took a shot at my (non-)beliefs, and at “these people” (sorry, but that phrase has unavoidable overtones of race- and gay-baiting) like me who hold them. I think her offense was far different, and considerably worse.

    As I’m sure you have gathered, the inattention that is too often paid to such slights rankles me mightily.

    Bless our souls but as Unitarian Universalists we do pride ourselves as precious and different, and cultivate a grandiose sense of self like few can.

    Sure–but the people whom Peacebang accused of being grandiose (or actually of thinking their own thoughts “special” and “unique) aren’t, to any of our knowledge, UUs. And I rather think Peacebang’s complaints about being horrifically oppressed by expressions of atheism and/or “spiritual but not religious”-ism betray at least as much grandiosity and smugness as the people she criticizes.

    As I said on the initial thread, though, I submit that every person’s theological view is “special” and “unique,” and that we all have every right to treat our perspectives (and expect them to be treated) that way. Peacebang’s point obviously comes from her idea that garden-variety atheism–i.e., dissent from the traditional notion of “God”–is a been-there, done-that idea that’s entirely old hat. Her point is that these atheists are treating a certain idea as important when, she declares, it clearly isn’t.

    I think she’s wrong, and more to the point I think she has no right to demand that other people find important (or interesting or “special” and “unique”) the same ideas that she does. I contend that “reject[ing] traditional images of the Deity” (just like lauding “Christ’s love,” or speaking of “God moving within me,” or…) is every bit as special and unique as a free and responsible human being decides it is.

    You want me to read the question literally? Okay–well, we’re atheists. We don’t believe in gods as we understand them, and we who have adopted the “atheist” label think that matters. Obviously there are a lot more “truth[s]” to be told by any atheist, or group of same; but that’s the general one.

    If you don’t like the way you and your ken are being treated, stand up and demand something.

    That’s exactly what I see myself doing here, on Philocrites, and elsewhere. I contend that atheists and other nonbelievers get pasted considerably more frequently–and on considerably more offensive terms–by prominent UUs than is generally understood. “Standing up” is my Net raison d’etre; there are distressingly few people who are doing so.

    Don’t talk yourself out of getting a blog….

    Far from it! It’s currently under construction.

    Consider dropping the veil of anonymity.

    Well, that has its perks. When a prominent, nationally-known UU minister decides to hide behind a pseudonym while smacking nonbelievers around, I’m not sure that I want to forego the benefits of anonymity to respond.

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