Why We Incorporated as a Church
By Harold Wood
Pantheist discussion boards on the Internet these days are rife with debates about whether Pantheism can be considered a “religion” or just a “philosophy,” with vigorous arguments by both proponents and opponents.
Observing these debates, I often find that opponents to the idea that Pantheism can be a religion have a very narrow, Eurocentric view, as if all religion is inherently authoritarian, theist, bigoted, intolerant, and based on a formal creed. That approach to religion is fairly common in the United States, though rare elsewhere in the world. Anyone who has studied even a bit of comparative religion quickly realizes that none of this is universally true. There are many religions that don’t have a god (Buddhism), nor a creed (Hinduism), nor are intolerant (Unitarian- Universalism), nor are authoritarian (Taoism). In most of the world, religion has nothing to do with creeds, beliefs, or theology. As Harvard theologian Harvey Cox says, most religion is simply, “a matter of seasonal rituals, ethical insights, and narratives handed down from generation to generation.” Certainly, Pantheism has all those elements, passed on by scores of artists, poets, scientists, and ordinary people, as we celebrate the turning of the seasons, the wheel of the galaxy, the rejection of anthropocentric ethics, using words, music, songs, and yes, perhaps most of all, the scientific study of Nature.
Another common fallacy is that religion necessitates some kind of highly formal structure. Again, just because that is commonplace in Western culture, that doesn’t mean that it is universal. Hinduism and many indigenous religions around the world do not have a top-down structure; people just spring up to help each other with their spiritual journeys. Even in the United States, there are many religions, especially Unitarian Universalism (UU), that include not only those who attend a church or “fellowship” on Sundays, but those they call “free-range” – they self-identify with UU, but don’t attend church or become members. I don’t think we should consider people like that as not being part of a “religion” just because they don’t attend a church, Synagogue, mosque, or temple, on particular days of the week!
My own journey to Pantheism started in high school. Conventional religion just didn’t do it for me anymore, but I felt a need to set aside some time for religious study and inspiration. I began experimenting with adapting conventional worship services for myself in a Pantheist format, and wrote essays imagining what a Pantheist church might be like. I tried to promote the idea with some friends in college but I didn’t find anyone who was very interested. Then, in
1974, I met Derham Giuliani.
Derham was a well-known “desert rat.” We went on camping trips together in the White and Inyo Mountains of California during the summer of 1974. It was during one of those trips that Derham mentioned that he thought Pantheists ought to have a church of their own. I immediately agreed, and told him that I had long held such an idea. We felt it was just plain wrong that none of the churches in North America that we knew of embraced Pantheism. There, in Silver Canyon of the White Mountains, high above the little town of Big Pine, we resolved we would not wait for someone else to do it, but would immediately commit ourselves to founding such a group.
The entire point of forming the Universal Pantheist Society in 1975 for us was to establish it as a church. We were not attempting to establish it as a religion, because it seemed obvious to us that it already was a religion. Yes, it was a religion defined by its adherents, and eschewed any form of priesthood or authoritarianism, and likewise rejected any single writing (past, present, or future) as sacred scripture. But we understood that religion, from a global perspective, didn’t need any of those things. Religion is simply the heart-felt relationship of human beings to each other, to other life forms, and ultimately to the entire universe; which properly understood are all “sacred” – all divine. We saw no need to proselytize; all we needed was a church to help connect all those people who already understood themselves as Pantheists.
An early first step was to apply for non-profit status as a church to the Internal Revenue Service. We soon discovered that the civil servants running that agency had the same ignorance about the nature of religion as most North Americans, so we had some explaining to do. But ultimately, we prevailed and were incorporated specifically as a “church.”
As the IRS eventually ruled, in their legal-speak, we were accepted as: “an organization described in [Internal Revenue Code] section 170(b)(l)(A)(i) and 509(a)(l).” More about that later. But how did we get that ruling?
First, they wrote to us saying our application was “incomplete in certain respects.” They asked a series of some 13 questions in a detailed three-page letter. Some of the questions related to issues that might pertain to any organization, such as our staff, their qualifications and compensation; our operating facilities, whether fees are charged for services or publications, etc. But there were many questions clearly focused on whether we were a “church.” For example, they asked, “do you perform any sacerdotal functions such as funerals, baptisms, marriages or ordination?” Is there “a recognized creed or form of worship?” Do you have a “definite and distinct ecclesiastical government?” Is there “a formal code of doctrine and discipline?” Do you have “a distinct religious history?” Do you have “a complete organization of ordained ministers ministering to their congregations and selected after completing prescribed courses of study?” Do you have “a literature of your own”? Do you have “established places of worship?” Is there “a regular congregation?” Do you have “regular religious services” and “Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young?” “Please describe your ‘religious services’ in detail, including how these functions are carried out and by whom.”
And the “killer question” was probably this one: “As you have stated that you follow no systematic creed or belief please state what aside from an appreciation and respect for nature you hope to communicate to your members. Is there no systematic beliefs of any kind which a member must profess in order to be a member?”
You can see that all these questions seem to assume traditional Protestant Christian kind of organization for a church. From the overall tone of this lengthy missive, I believe they expected us to fail their test miserably. The questions seem to be less real “questions” than assertive “arguments” about why we couldn’t possibly be a “church” as we had requested.
But we answered with a detailed four-page letter that responded successfully to each of their questions.
With regard to “sacerdotal functions” we told them that we planned to offer such services to our members as weddings and funerals in the future. [We later adopted a “Sacerdotal Policy” which delineated how such services would operate. Part of that policy asserts “The Society disapproves any celebration, service, or ritual which is focused … on supernatural or occult subjects, or oriented toward a single leader with a dominant personality.”] We told them that our “ecclesiastical” form of government was defined in our bylaws – the typical structure of most non-profit organizations, with a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, etc.
We told them that we “have no formal creed in the sense of a listing of beliefs to which all members must adhere” and that we likewise had “no formal code or doctrine” other than as stated in the by-laws (which guarantees freedom of belief and prevents us from ever prescribing any kind of religious creed.) We quoted our bylaws: “Recognizing that freedom of belief is inherent in the Pantheist tradition, nothing in the purpose of this organization shall ever be utilized to require a particular interpretation of Pantheism or subscription to any particular dogma…”
We explained that we indeed had a “distinct religious history” in the Pantheist tradition, and cited a bibliography which included, among others, a reference to the 1878 publication in two volumes, each hundreds of pages long, by Constance Plumptre titled General sketch of the history of pantheism.
As for “clergy,” we explained that we intended to rely primarily on the use of lay clergy (as common in the Mormon and Catholic churches and other denominations), but planned eventually training and ordination of persons for the limited purpose of performing specific functions of worship and service to our members.
For the question about whether we had “established places of worship” we explained that “since worship is a highly personal affair to Pantheists, established places of worship are within the hearts and minds of the Pantheist, wherever he or she may be.” We explained that we did not envision “the construction of temples or edifices of human construction … as such would be contrary to the Pantheist spirit.”
We did not rule out the possibility of future “religious services,” but envisioned them as consisting of “distribution of literature, formal discussion, congregational singing, musical performances, readings, talks, walks, field trips, slide programs, guest speakers, films, etc.”
With respect to the “killer question” as to whether we had “no systematic beliefs of any kind?” we explained that our position on freedom of belief was similar to that of the Unitarian-Universalist church. But our purpose is fully clarified in our bylaws: “Members of the Society shall consist of those persons who wish to further their own understanding of Pantheism, and through fellowship with others find purposive means of expressing their faith in daily life.”
Moreover, since the purpose of our Society is to unite all Pantheists into a common fellowship, we expected that membership would consist of those who substantially agree with the definitions of “Pantheist” in our bylaws. That definition states that Pantheists are simply “individuals who feel that fundamental religious experience involves an individual relationship with Nature.”
So, no “belief” or “creed” required. In fact – a creed is prohibited! What is relevant instead is religious experience.
We explained this was much more than a mere “appreciation and respect for nature” as the IRS accused us of; “namely the improvement of personal relationship with the Universe as the fundamental religious responsibility we have.” We also expressed our opposition to anthropocentrism, considering humanly-created deities – even of our own species – to be idolatrous.
Our letter went into the mail. We found out a month or so later that we had succeeded in convincing the Internal Revenue Service that we were indeed organized as a “church.”
In our Letter of Determination from the Internal Revenue Service, dated April 27, 1976, we were informed that we are classified as a “a church or a convention or association of churches” as defined in section 170(b)(l)(A) (i). This is the part of the Internal Revenue Code that allows individuals to deduct contributions to churches as a charitable donation. It also included a reference to section 509(a)(1), which is a circuitous cross-reference to “an organization described in section 170(b)(1)(A) (other than in clauses (vii) and (viii)).” The excepted sub-sections apply to certain “private foundations” which do not apply to us.
We consider this determination from the Internal Revenue Service as a significant advancement of public understanding of what a “church” is and can be. A church doesn’t need a creed, it doesn’t need a venal priesthood; it doesn’t even need weekly Sunday services.
The Universal Pantheist Society is a “church” in the eyes of the IRS, and we hope can be seen as such, in a positive way, among our members and among other churches, inter-denominational organizations, and secular societies, even though we reject most of the traditional trappings of conventional Western churches.
Since the Universal Pantheist Society eschews both doctrine and the supernatural, we believe we have established ourselves as a “church” which is ready to embrace the future.
Originally published in Pantheist Vision, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 2018.
Copyright 2018 by Universal Pantheist Society.