Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Woo

As part of my daily blog feedage, I make a point of reading a mix of like-thinking progressives and mystics, but also spend time perusing the thoughts of the godless and the Pharisee. One of the more intriguing recent posts I've read recently was, again, at the In it, an atheist was struggling with whether or not to attend a local Unitarian Universalist congregation as a way of providing community for his family. UUs, from my own personal experience, are radically inclusive and tolerant of difference. Inclusiveness and tolerance are, in fact, the governing ethos of that community. That, coupled with a desire for social justice, is pretty much the only thing that UUs require for entry into their herd of friendly, purring cats.

Most remarkably, nearly all of the atheists who responded to this issue were incredibly supportive. There was a strong consensus that Unitarian congregations were atheist/agnostic friendly, and a great place to go to encounter other freethinking and open long as you didn't have a huge chip on your shoulder about folks who believe in God/Jesus/Goddess/Vishnu/Allah/The Force/Thingummy.

That pattern of thought took things to an interesting place. Nearly all of the respondents identified the one element of a Unitarian community to beware of as "the woo." A congregation might be to "woo-ey." Or have too much "woo." The word "woo" tends to evoke in me an image of a man down on his knee with a rose in his teeth. He's outside the window of a Victorian home in a small town, while a barbershop quartet sings Sweet Adeline in the background. This is not what they mean by "woo."

Or at least, I don't think so. I haven't been to a UU worship recently, and with them, you never know.

Instead, the Woo appears to be used to describe spirituality in any of its forms. Prayer. Candles. Dreams. Visions. Meaning, those things that tend to make we Presbyterians uneasy. As the Frozen Chosen, we're quite comfortable with process and structure and polity. We're also at home engaging in exegetical analysis of texts, preferably while providing citations from our favorite subset of scholars and referencing the Greek and Hebrew in ways that Show Our Superior Intellect. We're fine talking about social issues, be they from a liberal or conservative bent. We're practical people. We get things done.

But when it comes to experiential faith, to articulating those moments of trembling ecstasy, well, we clam right up. As someone who can officially declare himself a cradle Presbyterian, I heard talk of personal spiritual experience exactly zero times from the pulpit growing up. Not once. It was not spoken of in Sunday School, at any level. It just wasn't.

It's too disorderly. Too irrational. Too emotional. It lacks clear foundation in Scripture and tradition and process. It makes us seem...ugh...Baptist.

And we can't have that.

For those coming out of traditions that are all weeping and shouting and testifying and Feats of Spiritual Strength and weeping some more, that might seem a blessed relief. But for those coming up in our corner of the reformed tradition, I think it might be helpful for church to be...every once in a while...a place where we talk about those dreams and moments of numinous intensity, where we can share and pray and wonder. If we Presbyterians find themselves as unable to do that as atheists, then perhaps we should ponder whether or not this might be a factor in our struggles to revitalize our fading fellowship.


  1. First let me say that the phrase "entry into their herd of friendly, purring cats" is a beautiful piece of writing. I admire it tremendously. And that's not the kind of thing that I do lightly. :)

    But I also think you haven't quite understood what is meant by "woo." It's definitely not "spirituality in any of its forms." We atheists don't much like the term "spirituality" for etymological reasons, but that doesn't mean that we are opposed to what you call spirituality. That kind of profound experience is not peculiar to theism, and all my favorite atheists feel it, strongly. Carl Sagan had it coming out of his ears. Sam Harris has it. That's why he is so interested in Eastern mysticism as a form of subjective science. It is what motivated Dawkins to write Unweaving the Rainbow, and the recognition of its significance and power it is even the theme of the first several pages of The God Delusion. That's not woo.

    Woo is not candles. Who doesn't like candles? Woo is ear candles. It's the "healing energy" of crystals on pendants, or consulting tarot cards or astrological charts, or trying to cure bacteriological infections with chiropractic adjustments or homeopathic flower essences. Ug!

    Many atheists get there through skepticism. We revere the truth. We have a "spiritual" relationship with the truth, and the beauty of the truth. And skepticism is a major part of the discipline of approaching the truth, and so, in a sense, skepticism is sacred to us. And so magical thinking, even if it isn't theistic, is obnoxious to us. It's an affront to human dignity and intelligence. But that has nothing to do -- or nothing to say against -- with awe, or fervor, or interest in experience that is both numinous and naturalistic.

  2. @ Browning: Thanks! Much appreciated. I'm sure both Movie and Scooter would be welcome at any UU gathering. Good story, by the way.

    I tend to assume that word gets said whilst rolling ones eyes and doing a "spirit fingers" move. That seemed to be at least part of the thrust of that term as it was being used...the spiritual as New Age schtuff. Other commenters seemed to go further with it, and given that it's a colloquialism, it's a bit hard to nail down. I've always taken "woo" with a grain of salt myself, although I'm gently tolerant of it as it manifests itself in my own circle of faith-folk. So long as they complement the homeopathics they give their kids with a good dose of antibiotics, I'm fine.

    Mysticism and magical thinking are very, very different things.

    Then again, I'm aware that there are ways of knowing through intuition and ecstatic experience that are often..shall we say..esoteric. Providing a safe space to articulate, explore, and develop those experiences is part of the role of faith.