Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



Now and then someone will say to me, “I don’t think of Unitarian Universalism as a religion, I think of it as a philosophy of life.” I’ve never really known quite what they mean by that and have assumed, probably too casually, that it means that they had a bad experience with an abusive religion when they were younger and simply want to erase the whole concept of religion from their lives. Quite recently I heard it again and thought that it was probably high time I look at the idea more closely and see why people seem to think a philosophy of life is preferable to religion, whatever each of those terms means — and either of them is probably debatable. It may be that our sense of the meaning of each of them is more intuitive than objective, and that would make their meanings obscure to any hearer — almost as obscure as the word god.

Early on in my relationship with Unitarian Universalism I moved from one town to another, and one of the people in the church from which I was mov­ing said that if I could not find a church which satisfied me in my new home, or if there were none available, I could always go to the Ethical Society meet­ings.  That was,  I dis­covered later, actually rather odd advice, since there are far fewer Ethical Society groups than Unitarian Universalist churches, so the likelihood of my finding one was considerably smaller, but my curiosity was piqued and I tried to learn something about them to see if I would indeed prefer their meetings to Unitarian Universalist church ser­vices.  They were founded a good while ago by Felix Adler, and I suppose could be called secular humanist groups.  Although they often are led by Unitarian Universalist ministers, advertising for them through classifieds in the UU World, they do not consider themselves a religious organiza­tion.  Their meetings — not services — tend to be presentations and discussions of  issues of sig­nificance in our lives, much like our forums, though in the last few years that has begun to change and hymns and poetry have sometimes crept in.  However, at the time, I decided to look first for a Unitarian Universalist church.  The Ethi­cal Society didn’t seem to be “religious” enough for me. 

Although there are frequent exceptions to this rule, some people liking more casual Sundays bet­ter, one of the reasons often given for preferring a regular church service led by the minister to a lay-led service is that the lay-led service isn’t really a ser­vice.  It is a lecture or a discussion with no overtones that feel religious, whatever that means to the person saying it.  Actually, that is not necessarily the case at all, and I have been to many lay-led services that seemed very religious to me, and I know that it is a goal often consciously consid­ered by those arranging the service, but I am simply reporting what is often said.  That seems to me to be objective evidence that at least to large numbers of its mem­bers, Unitarian Universalism is clearly a religion and should look and act like one. 

Knowing that I was going to resent it, I looked up the word religion in the dic­tio­nary.  That’s Webster’s New World Dictionary. And I did resent it. It was all about worshiping a superhuman power.  No wonder so many of us don’t want to be perceived as prac­ticing a religion!  The only thing I liked about it was the origin of the word.  It is Latin, religio, to bind back.  So I thought I would turn to another reference book, one for which I have a great deal of respect, and I looked it up in the Encyclopedia Bri­tan­nica.  My faith, based on the fact that they’re the only encyclopedia I’ve ever dis­covered which seemed to know what Unitarianism Uni­versalism is, was not ill-founded.  Sure enough, they seemed to have an inkling of the true state of affairs.  This is what they said:  “religion, man’s (sic) relation to that which he regards as holy.  The ‘holy’ need not be thought of as su­pernatural, much less as personal; and if the word ‘god’ be defined in personal or supernat­ural terms, it follows that reli­gion includes far more than the rela­tion to God or a god.  Simi­larly, the phrase  ‘relation to the holy’ may be con­ceived of in a variety of forms.  Worship is probably the most basic of these, but moral conduct, right belief, and participation in reli­gious institutions are generally also constituent elements of the religious life as practiced by believ­ers and worshippers and as com­manded by religious sages and scriptures.”  Hey, it works for me! Actually, I found out the reason for the Britannica’s understanding of liberal religion. One of the top editors of their U. S. version was the father of one of my young members in New Orleans.

The was an interesting woman I knew in Sharon, MA, who was the most mar­velous conversation-starter I ever knew.  She seemed to have an instinct for the line thrown into the middle of the party which would get ev­eryone in­volved, often, admittedly, in an argument, but the arguments were always theoreti­cal rather than personal.  Even one-to-one she would practice the art.  I was in my third year of divinity school when she and I were driving together to some function and she asked me, “How do you define the word religion?”  Well, I hadn't really thought of doing it in a sound byte till then, but after a pause I said that I thought it could best be defined as a sys­tem of beliefs and practices in regard to what­ever a per­son or community  held as giving meaning to life.  She said, “That’s not what the dictionary says,” and that was when I began my continu­ing campaign against the widespread belief in the inerrancy of the dictionary.  I suggested to her that the school that I was at­tending spent a certain amount of time on that specific issue and were not necessarily in agreement either with the dictionary or with one another on the question of the content of religious faith, a question that the dictionary had ob­viously settled on behalf of the Western majority, but not in a way that would in­clude all those who might describe themselves as religious.  The Buddhists are particularly use­ful as an example of this since no one would question that Buddhism is a reli­gion, but there are many Buddhist sects which consider the idea of a personal god ir­relevant at best.  Gau­tama Buddha was himself not dogmatic on the issue.  His in­terests, though clearly reli­gious, did not include speculative theology.  My friend’s reason for starting the hare in the first place was, of course, not merely conversa­tional.  She wanted to say, for the reasons that I suggested at the beginning of the sermon, that Unitarian Universalism was not a religion but a philosophy.

The Britannica says that religion has to do with the human relationship to the holy — that is to whatever evokes reverence from us or seems sacred to us.  I would sug­gest that it is the holy, however we perceive it, that provides meaning in our lives, that without it we are mere physical survivors.  That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves or occupy ourselves, merely that to do so for no transcendent meaning is by definition pointless.  We are alive and therefore we live.  To find abstract value in that or in any­thing else is to ad­mit the transcendent — to be, in effect, in some sense, religious.  The practice of religion is the activities which evoke the sense of connection to the tran­scendent that we have recognized.

I have called this sermon “Religion or Philosophy” because that is the way in which the question is most often couched, “This is a philosophy of life rather than a reli­gion.”  There should be, of course, no conflict.  Philoso­phy and liberal religion interact with and support one another.  They are con­cerned with the same issues.  There are religions that reject the love of wis­dom (the literal meaning of phi­loso­phy), but that is not because they have no interest in the categories of philosophy, but because they accept traditional an­swers with­out asking the philosophical ques­tions.  The in­terest in philoso­phy, however, would not exist without the religious consciousness, the feel­ing that there is meaning and purpose and value that can be or at least should attempt to be discovered.

Philosophy’s concerns are logic, ethics, aesthetics, politics and metaphysics.  Philoso­phy examines them while liberal religion goes on to use them.  Our process uses logic and reason just as philosophy does, and though we may not often concern our­selves with theories of aesthetics, the aesthetic aspect of our Sun­day service is often what turns it from meeting into worship.  Ethics, poli­tics and metaphysics, of course, are as much the focus of our search as that of any philosophy.  We ask the same questions:  What is the nature of good and evil; what would a just society be like; what is the na­ture of ultimate real­ity?  That last is what metaphysics is, as you know, rather than its new-age definition of exercises in prayer and medi­tation.  In the context of religion, metaphysics is simply another word for speculative theology.

Another reason, besides the one of dis­comfort with the concept of religion, that the question arises among us, is that it often really is difficult to tell the difference be­tween liberal religion and philosophy.  Liberal religion — at least our liberal religion — was the product of the philosophers of the Enlighten­ment.  It was the new epis­temology (a branch of meta­physics) of the Age of Reason which insisted that knowl­edge was to be found through ex­perience and experimentation (and authority which was in conflict with that experi­ence was no authority, even when the subject was re­li­gion) which was the foundation of liberal religion.

No wonder they’re difficult to tell apart!  However, there are differences, and they are important ones, although it is the religious con­sciousness that im­pels philoso­phy, and philos­ophy that shapes much of liberal religion.  The first important dif­ference is the place of tran­scendent values.  A philosophy of materialism or mean­inglessness can deny them.  It can even deny the signifi­cance of its own activity, its own love of wisdom.  Religion cannot.  Religion says that such things as love, jus­tice, compas­sion, and all the things that we define as good are what shape our lives with meaning.  Wor­ship, the activity that connects us to those tran­scendent values, those things of worth, is the central focus of religion.

Religion impels us to action.  That action may be merely going to church or walking in the woods in reverential mood, but if whatever our concern with values is does not do this, it may be philosophy, but it is not religion.  A philosopher may decide that a particular world-view is true, but is not re­quired to do any­thing about it.  Wisdom is sufficient unto itself.  Religion urges us to bring our ideals into reality ei­ther in our own lives as we live ac­cording to them, or, in a religion of social justice, in the community as well.  If our religion teaches us that justice is a religious value, we must do what we can to make it operative in society.  If our religion teaches us that compassion is impor­tant, we are required to practice compassion.  Philosophy is what you know about things, give or take a reasonable doubt or two.  Religion is what you do about them.  The philosophical work of religion should result in tan­gi­ble conse­quences in our lives.

Another word for religion is faith.  The dic­tionary is just as annoying about that word as it is religion.  It calls it unquestioning belief, and in one part of the defini­tion it specifies that belief as belief in God, or as it said in the other defini­tion, “the creator(s) or ruler(s) of the universe.”  Philosophy, of course, has nothing to do necessarily with such belief, but then neither must religion, although it may. The encyclopedia knew better than the dictionary when it said that religion was not neces­sarily a belief in the supernatural or in a personal god.  It does, however, deal with a commitment to certain structures of meaning, and the practices which live out and celebrate those structures. Your philosophy can be­come a faith, a reli­gion, if it becomes sacred to you to the degree that you will follow it loyally and with courage throughout the vicissitudes of life. Philosophy, the love of wisdom, examines impartially certain categories of thought in search of the truth. It asks only intellectual assent. Our faith asks more. It demands dedication to its truth, even when its truth is as tentative as that of philosophy, and through that dedication explains and offers life’s meaning.