The author is a cognitive scientist and philosopher, and a member of the Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Seattle
By David Cycleback
It rather boggles the mind that one has to remind Unitarian Universalists that it is okay to think differently, ask questions, question the orthodoxy, read banned books, and listen to different viewpoints. However, here we are with the current UUA.
It rather boggles the mind that one has to remind Unitarian Universalists that one of the biggest and oldest tools of oppression, marginalization and persecution in the history of humankind is top-down dogma. However, here we are with the current UUA.
This is written by a member of one of the “official” marginalized groups who thinks differently, asks questions, questions orthodoxy, reads banned books, listens to different viewpoints, and will tell you that top-down dogma, required one-size-fits-all ways of thinking and methodology are tools of oppression to his marginalized group. In fact, they are standard tools of oppression of UUs in general and people across the board. (Actually, I saw a list of five or six marginalized groups posted by a UU and said, “Hey, I’m two of those!” I admit that I also joked “Where are my reparations?”)
While a longtime academic scholar in cognitive science, philosophy and artifacts studies, I am also Type I bipolar. Type I bipolar is a mental illness, and I’ve exhibited symptoms since I was a little kid. I won’t go through my colorful personal history dealing with the mental illness other than to say that I’ve been on lithium or anti-seizure medications for more than half of my life and have had psychotic episodes throughout my life at least since I was seven years old.
With the help of a loving and supportive family, I have worked hard over the years and become a productive and happy member of society, including having authored seven university textbooks in cognitive science, philosophy and natural science.
While adapting to society’s norms and expectations has been a skill practiced and developed over time, I don’t say that I’ve succeeded in my work as a scholar despite my mental illness but because I think differently than others. I am an original and fiercely independent thinker, one looking at things from different and new viewpoints. Do I consider my thinking differently a curse? Of course not. It’s a gift and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am proud of who I am.
Mental illnesses involve not just thinking differently but literally and neurologically processing sensory information differently than normal. There are many ways for humans to process sensory information (something to which anyone who has had a mystical experience can testify), and the mentally ill do it in valid but different ways.
Schizophrenics, for example, perceive all the normal sensory information but lack the standard methods normal people have to cognitively structure, order and label the information as normal people do. This is the reason they have trouble adapting to society’s norms.
However, as they perceive and experience in a different way, schizophrenics have included great artists, thinkers and mystics. A schizophrenic artist said being schizophrenics is great for painting and writing poetry, but horrible for driving because you are constantly immediately aware of every crack and leaf in the road. Many famous ancient mystics, prophets and aboriginal societies, who processed sensory information in a valid but different way, would be cataloged today as schizophrenic.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have what I call my “bipolar traits.”
- I don’t follow detailed formats or rule lists and chafe at being micromanaged.
- I don’t like group ceremonies or symmetry, don’t think linearly, dislike cliches and crowd following and groupthink.
- I question and analyze orthodoxies and bring fresh views to board meetings, discussion groups and social hour.
- I like variety, am aesthetically attracted to juxtapositions and disorder, am good at working independently, have a wide range of artistic tastes. (A local rock band singer said that I have the most diverse musical taste of anyone she’d ever met.)
- I have an off-beat and provocative sense of humor, like to hear the variety of viewpoints and opinions, love expanding my mind with new ideas and knowledge and art — the last aided by being raised in a family of lifelong learners, where learning as lifestyle and learning as enjoyment was the home culture.
When I was younger, my engineering-professor father said to me, “You have a strange mind.” He followed that up by saying that, as a professor, he meant that as a compliment in that I thought about subjects that never even entered most peoples’ minds and saw topics from unique viewpoints. It didn’t surprise him that I became a philosopher.
I grew up in a completely non-religious family, and, at age 45, my first entry in a Unitarian Universalist congregation around six years ago was a revelation. Not only were the people warm, welcoming, fun and intelligent, but it was a place where people did not have to conform in thought or belief. UU was dogma-free and interfaith, with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. People had different reasons for being there. Some were there for the community, some for spirituality, some for education, some for the music and music programs, some for social justice and volunteering, and many for a combination of those. My personal interests are the spiritual, education and community. It was a place I felt welcome, encouraged and loved.
You might be able to easily guess my favorite UU line: “We don’t have to think alike to love alike.”
Along the way, I studied interfaith theology at seminary, was ordained in interfaith outside of UU, and was exposed to and taught to understand different religious and secular beliefs, philosophies, cultures and psychologies — Islam to secular humanism, Ancient Egyptian philosophy to Christianity. My thesis adviser was Kabbalah and the program director was Hindu. With a Hindu director, you can bet an integral part of our education was the Hindu theory of “There are hundreds of paths up the mountain.”
I have not attended either of the two UU seminaries, but if it’s true that they are currently preaching and requiring allegiance to a single dogma, I would not consider them interfaith. I would recommend other seminaries or schools for interfaith education.
My work in cognitive science and philosophy is the study of minds (human to artificial to non-human animal to theoretical) and the nature and extent of knowledge. I study and appreciate the many ways humans think and process information, from Western logic and science to Eastern and aboriginal mysticism. All are useful to understanding and give unique insights. I encourage people to learn about different ways of thinking, different cultures, experience new types of art, expand their minds
As the mantra of UUA these days is “anti-oppression,” I can tell you that if you want to oppress and disrespect the mentally ill and people who think differently — if you want to “erase their voices” (using a UUA buzzphrase, even though I hate buzzwords) — instill top-down dogma, enforce one-size-fits-all ways of thinking and methodology on everyone, and, on top of that, make sure you shame, bully, call out and censure people for thinking differently, for asking questions, for wanting to and having to do things in their own way and having their own priorities and interests.
Alas, these are all things that current UUA not only condones but endorses. As a member of a marginalized group, do I think top-down dogma and expected mass conformity are oppression of the mentally ill and those who think differently? Yes, 100 percent. Further, I think it’s a tool of oppression against UUs and people in general.
The self-righteous, narrow-minded arrogance of people who say they have the one truth and one way of doing things and that they are going to try to force everyone to follow it, this is one of the oldest and most recurring stories, and embarrassments, of the human species.
And don’t let anyone in the UUA tell you that white male heterosexuals cannot be marginalized. One of the most common causes for marginalization and persecution throughout history is thinking differently and questioning orthodoxy and dogma. I’m pretty sure Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Michael Servetus, Vincent Van Gogh and Galileo didn’t consider their voices “centered” in society.
It also offends me, my senses and intellect that some people in today’s UUA will only consider my viewpoint because I am a member of a marginalized group. All UU voices matter, no matter what their demographic, no matter what their gender or sexuality or race or “privilege.” We all offer important and valuable insights, knowledge and perspectives.
My father was a white heterosexual upper-middle-class male. Some in the UUA would thus label thus him a boogeyman whose voice is to be “decentered” if not completely ignored (and certainly not published or pictured in UU World). He was the most intelligent, insightful, big-picture-seeing person I have ever known, and one who embraced that his son was different from the norm, and encouraged and engaged his son’s different and sometimes “exotic” intellectual interests and hobbies.
As an important side note, one of my dad’s favorite books was Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. I strongly recommend that everyone in the UUA, and many other UUs, read the book.
I am here to tell you that it is not only okay, but good, to think differently, have your own priorities and focuses, ask questions, question dogma and orthodoxy, but also to be open to different viewpoints, be open to having your own views challenged. I encourage it. It’s good for your mental health. If anyone in Unitarian Universalism tells you you cannot ask questions, ask “Why?”
If UU leaders are concerned with ridding the religion of the tools of oppression, they should start by rejecting, not adopting, perhaps the biggest and most insidious tool of oppression in human history — a tool used against genders, races, peoples, cultures, mentally ill and thinkers. That tool is top-down dogma and enforced mass conformity.
If UU leaders are concerned with the mentally ill, and in fact all congregants, they should foster a religion, environment and congregations that welcome differences of opinion, different ways of thinking, people with different ideas. They should welcome and encourage, not shame and bully, those who ask questions.
I end by noting I belong to a congregation that, while there was a bit of a bumpy road at times, is going well and living up to UU traditional values. Congregants have differences of opinions on issues, and they’re treated respectfully and with interest, with opportunities to learn from each other. It is respected and expected that, as UUs, we can and will have different viewpoints, philosophies and opinions on matters. One congregation leader told me, “It would be boring if we all thought alike.”
The congregation has started groups where congregants get together to discuss “hot topics,” in part as forums to be able to express and listen to differences of opinions, and in part as a way to learn how to express, listen to and learn from differences of opinions. I recommend this for all congregations.
Copyright 2019 © David Cycleback