I was recently discussing Unitarianism with a friend who also happens to be the wife of a Methodist minister. Our conversation turned to the subject of theological diversity within religious communities. My friend argued for the importance of everyone believing the same things, while I – not surprisingly – took the position that we need to have the freedom to follow the path that is right for us.  I thought, as I listened to her description of her church, how nice it would be if we all believed the same thing – it would certainly make my job a lot easier. But, I said to her, I doubt that everyone in your husband’s congregation believes in everything they are supposed to. She replied, “Oh, I don’t believe half of the statements in the creed we recite each Sunday!”  And this is the minister’s wife! But, she went on to say that this is not the point – that the power of their community is in sharing the same teachings, rituals and stories, week after week, and year after year, whether they believe them or not.

While I can appreciate that style of religion and the comfort that its consistency brings, I could never embrace it myself. For me to recite statements of belief that I can not accept would be of no value for me or for anyone else for that matter.  It would not cause me to abide by its teachings. On the contrary – feelings of hypocrisy would – and have in the past – make me run in the opposite direction.

The most interesting thing about this exchange was the notion that anyone would want to recite a statement of beliefs that they don’t accept.  I recognized then that my friend exerts her religious individualism very quietly, as she privately – and usually silently – denies many of her religious community’s creedal statements.   

My friend and I stand at very different places along the continuum from religious individualism to religious conformity.  My religious individualism is not private or silent.  For me, authenticity in religious belief is essential.  We must follow where our hearts lead, rather than follow some dictates that do not necessarily suit us.  

In saying this, I am standing in a centuries-long history of religious dissenters from which Unitarians sprung.  We heard Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words a few moments ago.  

     To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your
     private heart is true for all men,--that is genius.

     Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.  Nothing is at last
     sacred but the integrity of your own mind.  

     No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.

Emerson – one of the prophets of American Unitarianism – told us to walk by our own light and to avoid that common light known as society.

In Emerson’s time, his words were exceptional.  He and other reformers and free-thinkers brought a much needed message of liberation from a repressive culture and religious uniformity.  

Today, however, the evil of conformity has given way to its perhaps more corrosive opposite – individualism.  One of my favourite quotes is appropriate here.  It was first uttered by Lord Acton: “Every institution finally perishes by an excess of its own first principle.”  Our institution, liberal religion, championed the freedom of the individual to use her own conscience in matters of religion and values. Today, individualism threatens not only us, but our larger society as well.

Philosophically, religiously, and politically, our cultural emphasis has shifted over the years, so that the individual began to come first, rather than the group.  At the same time, our economic and technological progress has tended to make us less physically dependent on one another.  This has represented true progress: it has freed untold millions from the suffering of hunger, exposure, and disease.  But it has also enabled our separation.  Whereas we once needed to work together in close interdependent relationships for our very survival, most of us now get what we need at a distance – from impersonal institutions, stores, and services.    Alexis de Tocqueville, said the following about the US, but it is now increasingly true here and else where in the developed world:

    there are more and more people who though neither rich nor powerful
    enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth     
    and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no
    man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the
    habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole
    destiny is in their hands.

Individualism overcame conformity and interdependence and then it just kept on going!  Long been thought of as a peculiarly American quality, individualism has travelled far beyond the shores of my Darwinian homeland.  A recent study names the UK as the world’s third most individualistic society, close behind the US and Australia.  Today, our western culture tends to focus almost exclusively on the individual and his momentary needs and desires.  

Individualism is now so firmly entrenched, that we can not readily envisage what it is to structure society in any other way.  Individualism is a part of how we think and how we see our world. We can no more imagine life from a non-individualistic perspective than a fish can imagine life out of water. Can we even picture what it would be like to evaluate every proposal, action, and idea in terms of the general good rather than the good of the individual?

How do you react to these words: independent – dependent?  Individualism – conformity?  Which is appealing and which is not?  The shared convictions of our culture dictate that we must be independent. To be strong, to be healthy, to live a successful life, is to be completely self-sufficient.  Dependence is made out to be shameful.  To be dependent is to be weak.

Of course, this notion of fierce independence is a myth.  Human beings are among the most social creatures on earth. We delude ourselves to think that we are complete individuals in and of ourselves who – in our fullness – enter into community.  This is part of the false reality that we live in.  In truth, our characters are shaped and formed in the incubator of community. It is from our interactions with others – the loving, confrontational, challenging, and supportive ones alike – that we become who we are.  Community makes the individual.  It is not the other way around.

But trapped in our individualistic beliefs and ideals, we are driven away from one another.  We believe that we must be self-sufficient, and so we withdraw from communities – such as religious groups – that could nurture and heal us.  Only 5% of people in this country actively participate in a religious community – and this is not because some other institution has stepped forward to replace this rich source of community and shared values. No – we are increasingly on our own.  

Our individualism induces us to harm ourselves through isolation and pursuit of an impossible ideal.  It also causes us to harm others: we are led to believe that others should be self-sufficient, and so we look down upon those who are not.  We end up increasingly isolated, lonely, and disconnected and we further the spread and deepening of this malaise when we fail to contest the false doctrine of independence.

It is also apparent to most of us that individualism does not, in the final analysis, do a particularly good job of protecting our individual rights.  In the United States, the right to own guns is championed by those who appeal to the values of individual freedom. Why, they ask, should we be prevented from arming ourselves for our own protection?  Just a few weeks ago, we saw the horrific results of such policies in the tragic massacre at Virginia Tech.  The freedom to obtain a gun did bring freedom to the 32 people who were killed there, or the wounded, or the families who will never fully recover from their senseless losses. Remarkably, some have argued that this tragedy resulted from there being not too many guns, but too few. If only one of the intended victims had been armed, they assert, the disaster could have been averted.  This sentiment portrays a complete blindness to any way of thinking but one that is centred squarely on the individual.

We have seen society swing dramatically from one point on a continuum – conformity and interdependence – to the opposite extreme – fierce independence.  Where are we headed from here?

I hope that it is not unfounded optimism that leads me to detect the beginnings of a pendulum swing towards a more moderate position.  Ironically, technological advancement, which helped to drive the move toward individualism, may now become a moderating influence.  Through technology, we now have more possibilities to connect with others than at any other point in history.  The internet has begun to create connections in new and as yet not fully understood ways as it brings people with common interests into a kind of virtually community that stretches fully across the globe.  

Technology has also extended the amount of time in our lives when we may need to depend on others.  The young can no longer find sustaining employment without many years of education – years during which they tend to be dependent on parents.  At the other end of our life spans, we are living longer and may spend more years in need of the physical and financial support of others.  Thus, we find an increasing state of interdependence where the young and old are cared for by those in the middle of their lives.

Our first religious principle revolves around our deep assurance that there is worth and dignity in each human life. This is no easy faith, but a profound and bold assertion – one that we are challenged to defend again and again amid the evidence of human cruelty.  This belief provided the foundation for our rejection of blind conformity and drove us toward individualism as we recognized that we – being as worthy as any other – had the right to follow the dictates of our own conscience.  As Lord Acton warned, this principle, in excess, has indeed proven destructive of institutions – including our own. But this daring stance also contains within it the seeds of the opposing impulse.  Increasingly, we recognize that, as Martin Luther King said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  Appreciating that worth and dignity apply equally to all, and that the sacredness of the individual depends ultimately on our deep connection with all beings, we apply our loving efforts to the reweaving of the garment of our communal destiny.

May it be so.