American Individualism

If American religion is based on personal experiences which differ from person to person, religion becomes highly individualistic. Roof (1993) explains that individualism is a pervasive secular ideal in which the individual person has the ultimate power and authority to achieve anything in life. "Willpower and determination are the critical factors shaping a person's life and success. Individuals have within them the power to make life as they want it" (p. 53). Although taken from Roofs text, this quote could easily have come from New Thought literature, which is based firmly on individual experience and responsibility.

This individual experience leads to different views of God and religion. Unity attempts to honor and explain these individual experiences. Barrette explained the concept in a sermon:

Our belief systems, those truths to which we hold — whether they're true or not — filter what we receive and what we are able to get in our guidance. We need to honor that experience in ourselves and in other people. What this means is there are as many roads to God as there are people, as there are belief systems. That's why in 12-step meetings they talk about God as you understand God to be, realizing that your experience of God will be very different than the person next to you. (Oct. 27, 1996)

The freedom to choose which is inherent in Unity's creedless nature is attractive to American individualists. As one Unity participant said, "I believe religion is personal between you and God, and there are many paths to God. I don't like organizations that say here are the rules — this is the only way to think. I find Unity less restrictive, but I'm still exploring" (respondent no. 4). Although this 44-year-old former Lutheran and Episcopalian is not a Unity member, she exemplifies the attitude of many who attend Unity.

The most extreme example of individualism shown in the survey responses was a 54-year-old woman who grew up Roman Catholic and attends Unity classes.

I am temporarily attending Sunday services as part of my participation in a 12-week prosperity class. I prefer to attend classes which reinforce my own beliefs and help me apply Unity principles in my daily life. I have not 'joined' the church simply because of a bias I have against joining any group that teaches religious or spiritual principles. I prefer to remain independent and free to change my beliefs if and when I see fit. I do not feel the need for community and am resistant to group worship. (respondent no. 2)

Individualism has been measured in various polls and surveys using the questions shown in Table 2. Unity's responses are compared with a Hoge et al.'s survey of Presbyterian baby boomers (1994, p. 86-87), as well as 1988 Gallup poll data (Gallup & Castelli, 1989, p. 46). The table shows that the individual rather than any church is seen by a majority of Americans as the ultimate authority. Hoge et al. also present results of the survey in eight categories, varying from fundamentalist to nonreligious. While a lower percentage of Unity respondents agreed that an individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independently of any churches or synagogues, the Unity numbers are similar to other "churched" groups surveyed for Vanishing Boundaries. It should be noted, however, that almost 30 percent more people in the Gallup poll agreed to the statement. On the other hand, Unity's almost complete agreement to the question of whether a person can be a good Christian or Jew without attending church or synagogue is much higher than the national percentage. Overall, these numbers paint Unity participants as relatively similar to other survey respondents in their views toward individualism.

Table 2 - Individualism

The individualism of American religion has received much attention from sociologists who operate under the secularization paradigm because of the idea that the more one makes decisions based on the self, the more society's norms will be abandoned. These concerns were first voiced by Emile Durkheim (1915), and have been reiterated countless times. The American nature of individualism is addressed well by Bellah et. al. (1985) in Habits of the Heart. They argue that American religion strays from the traditional religions in which the church plays an important role as a "community of memory" (p. 227). In these traditional communities, the religion functions as a "model or pattern for the whole of life" (p. 227) and therefore keeps society running smoothly. Americans do not understand or comply with this traditional religious pattern and rely more on individual choice when making religious decisions. In the end, Bellah et al. argue, it is society which is sacrificed for the individualism of American spiritual life.

But many Americans, like this 41-year-old Unity member, have contempt for the traditional religions which seem to be caught up in bureaucracy and hypocrisy:

Unity allows me to develop and grow spiritually in a way that meets my needs without imposing dogmatic ritual on me. While traditions have their place, a great deal of focus on dogma creates an environment where the "spirit" of the law gets lost in the "letter" of the law. The result of this seems to be guilt, loss of self-esteem, and hypocrisy, (respondent no. 8)

The conflict between tradition and individualism has resulted in what Bellah et al. identify as two poles of American religious life: a radically individualistic religion which holds a belief in a "cosmic selfhood" (p. 235), and fundamentalism, in which God is an external entity who imposes control and order. Both of these poles identified by Bellah et al. are based on personal religious experience, but at different levels. They argue that these two types are interrelated and difficult to quantify.

It is true that the first style emphasizes inner freedom and the second outer control, but we cannot say that the first is therefore liberating and the second authoritarian, or that the first is individualistic and the second collectivist. It is true that the first involves a kind of radical individualism that tends to elevate the self to a cosmic principle, whereas the second emphasizes external authorities and injunctions. But the first sees the true self as benevolent and harmonious with nature and other humans and so as incompatible with narrow self-seeking (utilitarian individualism). And the second finds in external authority and regulation something profoundly freeing: a protection against the chaos of internal and external demands, and the basis for a genuine personal autonomy, (p. 236)

The pole of cosmic mysticism is best represented by the concept of "Sheilaism," Bellah et al.'s well-known description of the individualized religion many Americans have created for themselves. This type of religion is named after Sheila, a woman who describes her faith as something she is totally in control of. Bellah et al. quote her: "I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice" (p. 221).

Bloom (1992), however, disagrees with Bellah et al.'s assertion that individuals like Sheila are worshipping themselves rather than God. "The issue is not self-worship; it is acquaintance with a God within the self (p. 259). Bloom's argument blends well with Unity's central theological tenet of the divinity of humanity. Unity encourages people to contact and act from the spark of God within themselves rather than from their egoistic human side. While this may seem individualistic on one level, the idea of God within also harbors an innate collectivity. The God in each person is connected to the God in every other person, as well as to the supreme being called God. Because it is the same God which is within each person, when people connect with and act from their divine center they are acting collectively on behalf of the God which connects them. This anti-egoistical ideal is expressed in a common affirmation during Silent Unity prayer services: "It is not I, but the Christ within who does the work" (Unity School of Christianity, February 1997). This argument, of course, assumes that there is a God and that people are able to act on their God-nature rather than their human nature.

Durkheim (1915), who was also concerned with the pervasiveness of individualism in society, argued that collective reinforcement was necessary to reinforce beliefs.

There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality. Now this moral remaking cannot be achieved except by the means of reunions, assemblies and meetings, where the individuals, being closely united to one another, reaffirm in common their common sentiments; hence come ceremonies which do not differ from religious ceremonies (pp. 474-475).

According to Durkheim's argument, all beliefs need collective reinforcement, even if that belief is based in individualism. Unity accomplishes this in several ways. Initially, Unity meets a religious need by showing people how to connect with the divine, how to have that individual experience. Although the experience of the divine is necessarily individual, that experience does not — cannot — last 24 hours a day. People who believe in and have experienced that spark of divinity within themselves need to be reminded that it is there when they are overcome with the human pressures of life. A church can provide this reminder. Annemarie provided a good example of why collective reinforcement of Unity beliefs is necessary, especially when faced with situations which make it difficult to follow the philosophy.

I remember one time, it was after I had taken a lot of classes, I came away ten feet high. There is such an inner high, an awesomeness. You feel like you can conquer the whole world and nothing is ever going to affect you. And I came home and I asked one of my teenage boys to take out the garbage. He said to me, "Quit giving me all this crap and take out your own garbage." And I just had learned to conquer everything in a peaceful way, and so I think I took about a two hour walk to really figure out what to do about it because the children never really talked back and it was such a shock.

Furthermore, a church which reminds people that they have the right to make their own decisions and that they can control their own lives serves as a reinforcement of individualistic beliefs in the face of other organizations which are trying to control them. There are so many organizations which do try to control people's lives — work, government, etc. — that they gravitate to an organization which reminds them that they are in control. Individualists keep going back because they need this belief to be reinforced.

Another argument for the need for a church for individualists is that just because a person is an individualist and wants to make his or her own decisions doesn't mean he or she wants to be alone. Patricia explains this in her own words:

Interviewer: So you'd rather just go on your own personal journey?
Patricia: Yeah, but that sounds kind of lonely. It's not, I know, because we're all alone. I don't have any trouble hooking up with people anywhere I go. . . . I don't want to go it on my own. I need structure in some areas, especially this idea of prayer meditation and who God is to me. The concept of God is kind of new. So I know I need to be around, but I want to be picky and choosy about who I'm listening to. I don't want to go every Sunday and go to classes and hear pabulum, pre-mixed stuff. I want someone who comes from the gut and tells it like it is, even telling you the hard things you don't want to know. But then I know I can choose, so I'm in the best of all places. It's real exciting for me right now.

Unity grows, therefore, partly because it is an arena in which people can collectively reinforce their individualistic beliefs. For the most part, Unity is good at appealing to American individualism while presenting its message. The church holds fast to a few central theological tenets and gives individuals the freedom to choose how, or if, they will practice them. The power of prayer, for example, is central to Unity's message. In presenting the issue of prayer in a children's sermon, Rev. Barrette once asked, "What is the right way to pray?" He asked the children if it was okay to pray standing on your head or while you were dancing, or if you had to have your eyes closed, or if prayer worked better if you yelled or whispered. In the end he told them that God doesn't care how you do it, as long as it comes from your heart. "The right way to pray is whatever is right for you," he said (Feb. 9, 1997). With this sort of appeal, Unity participants can still claim the ability to make choices for themselves while at the same time adhering to the central messages of the movement.

The attitude with which Unity approaches the delivery of its message is aligned with the desire of Unity participants to respect other religions as well to respect the choices of other people. Annemarie exemplified this notion when she said, "I would never say to somebody, 'This is the only way you are going to get to God' because there again, it's an individual matter. It's whatever is closest to your nature."

Glenn Mosley, the executive director of the Association of Unity Churches, said part of Unity's strength is its tendency to encourage people to think for themselves.

I think there are enough people in the world who are determined to do their own thing. Most of the people in Unity have come from somewhere else. Many of them probably did it as children and didn't have any choice because they were taken. And they may have even changed two or three times as an adult to other denominations. I quit going to the Baptist church when I was ten and I started going to churches again when I was 13. When I was 16 I found Unity and I never went anywhere else again. I think people do tend to do that. They stop and think, and then they look and search. And when they find what it is, they know what it is. I think that for one thing the masses of people have helped Unity to grow because there are people who do think for themselves and want to be encouraged to do that, and they want to be supported in learning how to think for themselves creatively and constructively.

The question, then, is how does the growth of Unity fit with the secularization paradigm theories, such as Bellah et al.'s, which claim that unchecked individualism sacrifices religious tradition and therefore society by not providing a pattern for life. Several arguments can be made. First, perhaps the individualism which exists within Unity is not unchecked. The selfish, egoistic individualism which concerns Bellah et al. and others is checked by each person's perception of their connection to the divine in every other person. If people truly act from what they think is their divine nature, rather than their human nature, the act should not be selfish but should benefit the divinity of all humanity. Of course, it could be argued that there is no divine center which is connected to others or to God, and that people are making decisions based on their own self-interest and attributing it to divine will as a form of justification. But if a person actually believes they have a divine center, and that everyone else has a divine center which is connected to theirs, this belief should prompt them to act for the benefit of the collective, regardless of whether or not it is true.

Secondly, while Bellah et al. lament the fact that the traditional religious pattern has been sacrificed to individualism, Unity embraces that individualism in order to create a new religious pattern. This argument fits well into the new paradigm of a religious marketplace, with Unity showing structural adaptability as well as acceptance of pluralism to meet the needs of the religious consumer. The spiritual searching of the Fillmores seems to have been the result of the traditional churches' lack of proper symbolic representation of the individual's relationship to democratic American society. Durkheim (1915) perceived this lack when he argued that "the old gods are growing old or already dead, and others are not yet born" (p. 475). The Fillmores seemed to have recognized this decline in practicality and set about to cull through the many religious offerings of the day to create a new amalgam that better responded to society's rationalism, individualism, religious pluralism and demand for experiential proof. In other words, Unity seems to have answered a need or function that was not being fulfilled by traditional religions. Because Unity makes room for individualism and shifts in culture, it attracts individualists into a community and can strengthen those areas where there is agreement. This, in turn, creates communal agreements (at least within the church community) from which society can operate.

Thirdly, contrary to what Bellah et al. say, Unity is a church which does provide a model or pattern for life. It's just not the traditional model. Unity's pattern for life challenged the view of reality commonly accepted in the Calvinism of the 19th century and continues to challenge today's fundamentalism and conservatism. Humankind is intrinsically good rather than evil. Everyone has the Christ spirit within themselves. A person's inner nature is healthy, not sick; prosperous, not poor; joyful rather than depressed. Limitations are the result of concentration on those limitations, and an emphasis on health, prosperity, guidance and joy will cause those attributes to manifest in daily life. This model for life is appealing to many people who left traditional churches in response to a shift in culture which has not been mirrored in traditional religions. This shift in culture is shown by the growth of the New Age movement and Eastern mysticism as well as the widespread popularity of books on non-traditional spirituality. Those who do not hold traditional beliefs are viewed, by themselves and others, as religious individualists because no long-established church teaches these ideas. Unity embraces many of these current "fads" or beliefs, with classes or sales of books in Unity bookstores. Although Unity as an organization may not endorse each idea, the lax organizational structure allows and the flexibility of beliefs encourages study of these concepts. Many people who find Unity discover that they aren't by themselves any more, and it is a relief to them to know that others believe as they do. As one Unity member said, "Unity feels like 'coming home.' Its positive message reflects what I have always believed" (respondent no. 52).

Perhaps people agree with the statement "An individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independently of any churches or synagogues" because they have never heard anything particularly plausible from churches or synagogues. While 52 percent of the Unity respondents agreed to this statement, an even more overwhelming majority agreed with major Unity philosophies: God is individualized in every person (93 percent agree); My thoughts and attitude are of primary significance in determining what happens in my life (95 percent agree); and the use of spiritual principles for physical healing (90 percent) and prosperity (87 percent — asked in Albuquerque only). Although half of these people said beliefs should be arrived at independently of churches and synagogues, more than nine out of ten arrived at the same beliefs. At least three explanations are possible: 1) Unity provides very convincing arguments; 2) Unity is good at making people think they are making their own decisions when they are really just jumping on the bandwagon; or 3) Unity embraces ideas which are readily accepted in secular society and therefore easily transferable to a religious setting. In all probability, the high adherence to Unity beliefs is a result of a combination of these factors. Whatever the reason, however, it is clear that many people are making decisions in their lives based on the Unity philosophy. Although it may not provide meaning for society as a whole, this philosophy certainly provides meaning to the individuals who use it.

Despite the meaning that individuals draw from Unity philosophy, and despite the fact that Unity has been able to sustain a community of individualists, the movement is still subject to Bellah et al.'s concern that a society based on individualism leaves little room for institutions to act as agents of social change in regard to ethical and political issues. Unity's emphasis on individual choice and its relativistic philosophy make it an unlikely catalyst for social change, as traditional churches have been in the past. Although Unity may encourage individuals to participate in social movements as they see fit, the organization itself is not likely to endorse political or social viewpoints because of its strong belief that individuals should choose for themselves.


© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.


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