The Fallacy of “You Can Believe Whatever You Want”

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I recently allowed my daughter to choose a hair color and dye her hair.  This is one of the things she can choose because I want her to have as much freedom as is reasonable for her age and maturity.  But it got me thinking about what we can change and what we can’t, and how much of our identity is a choice and how much is something deeper from within us.

When children and youth describe Unitarian Universalism, they often say “we get to believe whatever we want to believe”.  This is not true.  Within Unitarian Universalism, you cannot choose to believe in the superiority of one group of people over another group of people.  You cannot choose to believe that you have a right to treat other people poorly.  You cannot choose to believe that the people have a right to exploit or abuse, or that some people are destined for horrible eternal punishment.

And the kids know that.  It’s not really like a silly UU joke I’ve heard:

The children have all been in their Religious Education class and when they come out to coffee hour their parents ask them: “What did you do today?”.  “Oh, nothing … we talked about cannibals.”  The parents are taken aback.  “Cannibals?  What did you learn about cannibals?”  The kids say breezily “Oh, we learned that we have to make up our own minds about cannibals.”

This is the parody, the misconception that I have to work against.

The problem is, I think, a confusion between two types of freedom:

Freedom to be authentic, versus Freedom to choose

We can choose our hair color, our style, and so many other things.  But then there are things we cannot always choose:

  • We cannot always choose who and how we love
  • We cannot always choose who we will truly feel friendship or kinship with
  • We cannot always choose our passions, our callings
  • We cannot choose the belief or faith that comes from deep within us

We have to have the freedom to discover or discern these things about ourselves, not the freedom to choose them.  I explain this to kids and youth like this sometimes:

I used to think, many years ago when I was your age, that I would like to be a really cool and tough woman.  I wanted to ride a motorcycle and kick butt (they like it when I say butt).  I thought I could just choose to be like that.  But it turned out that I didn’t like to ride motorcycles – I didn’t even like to go fast down hill on my bicycle.  I also found that I was happier reading a book in a coffee shop than I was running around being tough.  So, I thought I could make a choice about how to be, but really I found out I actually needed to be true to who I really was, inside.  I needed to be my authentic self.  And what we believe in can be like that.  We can really, really want to believe in a God.  We can try, but discover that we just can’t.  Or we can really, really want to believe there is no God, but keep finding one in our heart anyway.  When I was growing up I had the freedom to either be a tough motorcycle babe or a geeky coffee-loving reader, whichever one I truly was.  And, as UU’s we also have the freedom to believe what we must believe in our hearts of hearts, but it’s not just an idle choice.  It’s the freedom to be our authentic selves, not to make idle choices.

 

This is why (as is noted in the curriculum Articulating Your Faith) it is not that UU’s believe whatever they want to believe, but rather believe what they must.  We are a tradition of free-minds, hearts, and souls, seeking to grow into our own authentic faith in a community of love, hope, and freedom.

To be true to oneself is a far more challenging proposition than the phrase “believe what you want” can ever represent.

 

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