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Universists accept life's uncertainties

New religion for those who only know they don't know anything

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

Ford Vox does not look audacious.

A tall, stooped medical student with dark hair that flops down his forehead, Vox mumbles 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 8,500 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.

There are more than 300,000 Protestant congregations in the United States, and mega-churches can attract 8,000 worshippers any given Sunday. But the number of Americans who claim no religion has 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.

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 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. But he wasn't ready to abandon religion.

Vox said he 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 in church and the feeling of spiritual uplift. 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.

"It wasn't arrogance," Vox said. "I'm not a guru. I just feel that a lot of the things people believe in, they should be a lot less certain about."

Now in his final year at the University of Alabama Medical School, Vox became too busy to continue leading his movement. This fall, he turned Universism—and its $2,200 bank account—to his friend Todd Stricker, an office manager who until recently would have described his religion as "nothing."

"I make no claims to be a spiritual leader," said Stricker, 25. "I'm just good at organizing."

Stricker met Vox at a political rally two years ago, when he was new to Alabama and seeking a support system. After long discussions, he decided to try Universism. He now spends much of his free time at his computer, helping people start chapters.

"The process of ordination is just having a nice chat with me," Stricker said.

There are now Universist groups in San Diego and in Denton, Texas; in Salem, Ore.; Columbus, Ohio; Rochester, N.Y.; Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif.