Monday, May 30, 2005

Why I Am Not a Universist

I recently read an article in my local paper about a new religion called "Universism", created by a medical student in Massachusetts. I was intrigued.

I am a skeptic in all matters transcendent, with existentialist leanings. At the same time, I miss the sense of community that can be a vital part of religious life, especially as I have encountered it in more progressive Christian congregations. So, I was curious to see what a "faithless" religion would look like.

I checked out the Universist web site (, and read the recent speech by Ford Vox, "Rise of the Faithless."

I have to say that I am more than a little disappointed. In fact, I was alarmed by what I read.

Vox advances the thesis that much of the cruelty, death and devastation in human history can be attributed to faith, which he defines as "adherence to a collectively held religious Truth despite evidence to the contrary and without continuing efforts to seek out, understand and weigh evidence." As a consequence, he calls on the emerging "Universist community" to engage in "one of the last great struggles of human history", which is to "end the social influence of faith."

It seems to me that Vox has misdiagnosed the problem: it is not faith per se that has caused so much trouble in human history, not even faith shared within a community; the trouble has been the all-too-human tendency toward dogmatism and intolerance, the tendency to blame "them" - whoever "they" are - for every evil.

Because of this misdiagnosis, Mr. Vox offers a vision of "faithless" religion that is every bit as dogmatic and intolerant in its relativism as evangelical Christianity is in its doctrine, and he is only too willing to blame "them" - people of faith - for every evil.

Dogmatic relativism is not especially coherent. While Vox defines faith as blind adherence without the search for evidence, all Universalism can offer is faithlessness that undercuts the possibility of evidence. His is a thoroughgoing, almost gleeful nihilism that denies any possibility of agreement on ethical questions, or even questions of scientific evidence. In the end, it's all personal.

I would like to know from anyone who has seen Vox speak whether he can utter the following line with a straight face: "The Universist conception of religion is that there is absolutely no absolute religious truth." He has fallen into the trap of the Academic Skeptics, the philosophers who eventually came to prominence in the Academy founded by Plato. They asserted dogmatically that there can be no knowledge - an obvious contradiction that more thorough skeptics like Sextus and more moderate skeptics like David Hume avoid with ease.

There is a streak of militancy through Vox's speech that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Near the end, he invoked the vision of people marching lock-step under a banner of revolutionary relativism. I found myself wondering: Who will be first against the wall?

As a skeptic, my goal is to question my own assumptions about the world and to encourage others to do the same, recognizing that we always start this questioning from where we are, using the tools we have available. My approach requires a fair amount of generosity toward others in light of our limits and our foibles - a generosity that is incompatible with a frontal assault on "faith".

This is why I am not a Universist.

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