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Doubt Is Their Co-Pilot

More Americans are shunning traditional religions and turning to upstart faiths such as Universism, whose sole dogma is uncertainty.

November 16, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — It takes a certain amount of audacity to found a religion.

Ford Vox does not look audacious.

A tall, slightly stooped medical student, Vox speaks in a mumble and rarely lifts his eyes. But if he lacks confidence, that only makes him all the more qualified to lead his flock because Vox, 28, has created a religion for people who know only that they know nothing.

Universists might believe in God, or might not. (Personally, Vox thinks he does.)

The only dogma they must accept is uncertainty.

Relinquishing any hope of cosmic truth, Universists worship by wondering how we got here, and why, and what lies ahead.

From his base here in the Bible Belt, Vox has built an online congregation of more than 8,000 in the last two years. They meet in cafes and living rooms across the nation; they join online chats with scientists and theologians; they find profundity in admitting their confusion.

"We want to rework religion from within," Vox said.

It is a surprisingly common impulse these days.

In vast numbers, Americans are turning away from traditional religions. They're not giving up on God, but they are casting aside the rituals and labels they grew up with.

Conventional churches still have enormous pull. There are more than 300,000 Protestant congregations in the United States, and mega-churches can easily attract 8,000 worshipers on any given Sunday.

But the number of Americans who claim no religion has more than doubled in a decade. More than 27 million adults -- nearly one in seven -- reject all religious labels, according to the City University of New York's respected American Religious Identification Survey.

Even among committed Christians, restlessness is growing. Pollster George Barna, who works for Christian ministries, estimates that 20 million Christians have largely forsaken their local church in favor of discussion groups with friends, Bible study with colleagues or spiritual questing online.

"They want less of a programmed process and more of a genuine relationship with God," said Barna, who describes the shift in his new book "Revolution."

Vox hopes to offer one possible path in Universism.

Instead of hierarchy and ritual, his religion offers rambling chats about the meaning of life. Instead of a holy text, members put their faith in the world around them, trying to figure out the universe by studying it.

The go-it-your-own-way philosophy at the heart of Universism troubles Douglas E. Cowan, an expert in emerging religions at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. As he put it: "One guy worshipping a potato in a hotel room in New Jersey is not a religion."

True religion, Cowan said, gives structure and meaning to people's lives and elevates them above the humdrum of their daily chores.

He can't quite see how uncertainty does the trick.

Universists respond that he's missing the point. They're trying to build a religion that lets people find their own structure and meaning. Universists know they're on their own in the great journey of life -- but they take comfort in meeting every few weeks to talk through what they've discovered along the way.

"We need a social structure that doesn't involve other people telling us what to believe," said E. Frank Smith Jr., 61, an early convert.

Vox has felt that way since he was 14 and a camper at a Christian summer program.

One of his counselors specialized in picking out -- and raging against -- the sins alluded to in Top 40 songs. Vox found himself wondering why he should listen to the church when he really preferred listening to Chris Isaak.

That disillusionment grew, and by college Vox had turned away from the Presbyterian church his family attended in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But he wasn't ready to abandon religion altogether.

Vox believes that humans are hard-wired for faith, as some genetic and neurological research suggests.

Also, he was lonely.

Vox missed the sense of community he found in church -- and the feeling of spiritual uplift. He could have joined a book club. But in his senior year of college, he had an epiphany. Hobbled by back pain so severe he sometimes lost the will to live, Vox vowed to give his existence meaning by founding what he dubbed "the world's first rational religion."

Vox spent the next two years exchanging e-mails with other lost souls who helped him sketch the outlines of Universism.

"What if there were a religion that does not presume to declare universal religious truths?" Vox wrote in an online manifesto. "What if there were a religion that demands no blind faith in prophets or their writings?"

Vox wrote tens of thousands of words about this new faith for the faithless. For a guy devoted to doubt, he sounded pretty sure of himself:

"Universism seeks to solve a problem that has riddled mankind throughout history: the endless string of people who claim that they know the Truth and the Way." His religion, he wrote, would "dispel the illusion of certainty that divides humanity into warring camps." It would unite the world.

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