FAITH: Online, every living room is a congregation

unitarian peace march

You won’t find many guys out there as optimistic as Rev. Brian Kiely. Despite flat-lined membership numbers, the Edmonton-based president of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists figures his congregation isn’t leaving, just changing.

“I spent my sabbatical studying life in the digital age and one of the things it convinced me of is that membership numbers are not the way to look at things anymore,” he says. “Our culture has changed so quickly that we’re often sitting with a generation now that has never known not being able to make a telephone call from their car, or anywhere really, and demographically they have a very different understanding of membership.


Rev. Brian Kiely

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘what is church?’ Is Church Sunday morning in a pew, or is it meeting someone with whom you share religious values in a bar? If you’re talking about and sharing those values, it’s all church, when you think about it.”

Kiely sees membership in a faith community much like a lot of other communities: being able to communicate constantly has made it less necessary for members to meet once or twice a week. That doesn’t mean the community isn’t there; it’s just that its structure is much more fluid, and people don’t always formalize their involvement. “The bottom line is that when you try and fit people into a certain model of conformity, that’s a lot harder to do now.”

Unitarianism has about 220,000 official members worldwide; it’s non-dogmatic and liberal, postulating that belief is a matter of individual choice and freedom, not rigid theological certainty. It’s  about as close as a religion gets to agnosticism, which postulates we don’t know the truth about faith, and may never know it, because we have no evidence. Atheism proposes that without any evidence, suggesting something might exist at all is irrational, and that there is no God.

Recent studies, including annual population surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion on Public Life, suggest 20% of the North American population is atheist. That’s up by at least 5% from a decade ago.

Worldwide, Unitarianism is no longer growing officially relative to populations. Kiely notes, however, that the faith receives as much financial support as when its numbers were still growing, suggesting people may not formally register as Unitarians but they still become involved. He points to the online support as evidence.

“There are the people in church, and then there’s the institution itself. I work in a couple of different organizations that cross church boundaries; and there are people who get it and there are others who are still concerned about how many people there are in the seats on Sunday. It’s hard to get rid of that institutional mindset and personally I think that’s because there’s value in ….institutional support.”

Then again, Kiely isn’t your typical man of the cloth. He’s a student both of the cultural and mythological underpinnings of modern faiths and of the cognitive biology that may drive much of why people believe in things. He accepts that there’s nothing rational about believing in things without evidence, but chooses to do so anyway, proposing it may be such a natural coping mechanism that we’ll never be rid of our need to have faith in things.

He’s also convinced that, despite early fears that Internet chat rooms would lead to people being more reclusive, more often than not the young Unitarians he talks to use social networking as just one part of the equation, and still meet up in person.

“It’s just one more way to connect to one another,” he says.