Universism’s new leader aims to go nationwide

An upstart religion called Universism, founded in Birmingham by a UAB medical student, has named a new leader who hopes to spread the neo-Deist movement nationwide.

Todd Stricker, 25, has been named executive director of the non-profit organization and said he hopes to launch a new branch in Chicago.

UAB medical student Ford Vox started Universism in 2003, saying that Christianity, Islam and to a lesser extent other world religions are harmful because they attempt to impose their own version of moral certainty on others. Through the Internet, Universism recruited 8,000 atheists, deists, freethinkers and others who rally around the notion that no universal religious truth exists and that the meaning of existence must be determined by each individual.

Stricker said he met Vox when they both showed up at an opposition rally to support the removal of a granite monument of the Ten Commandments placed in the state judicial building by former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.

“I met him in Montgomery at a protest of the Roy Moore rally,” Stricker said. “He was holding a sign that said `Osama Bin Laden hates the separation of church and state.'”

They immediately hit it off.

Stricker had been attending meetings of a Birmingham atheists group, but found them too hardline. Vox advocated forming groups that stressed a sense of community.

“I see the value in taking a more moderate position,” Stricker said.

Stricker moved to Birmingham from Chicago in 2002 when his fiancee, Jeanine Mauro, came to Alabama on assignment from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

She’s a Catholic. “She gets a lot out of it,” Stricker said. “I see the value. I see what it does for her.”

He wants Universism to be the basis of civic activism and benevolence, kind of like a church with social outreach and activities, but without the dogma. “Religious community can offer a lot of positives,” Stricker said.

Born and raised in Chicago, Stricker said he has been working full-time since he was 17. He works as a project manager for a woodworking company in Moody. But he plans to return to Chicago and base Universism there. He plans to launch a group similar to the Birmingham group he took part in, meeting at coffee shops and other venues.

“We’ve got a really strong group in Birmingham that can fly under its own power,” Stricker said.

“I like the idea of making Chicago our base of operations,” said Vox, who plans to graduate medical school and begin his residency next year. “We’ll be more of a national force from that location.”

Panel discussions:

Other Universist groups have popped up in various cities, sponsoring showings of documentaries and panel discussions.

“They’re united around the fact they disbelieve in the God of the Bible,” said Russell Moore, dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who took part in a panel discussion organized by Universists in Louisville, Ky., on Aug. 23. “A movement united around what members do not believe is not going to grow.”

Part of the idea behind Universism is offering an alternative to what Universists feel are outdated models of theology that people don’t really believe in, Stricker said.

“Liberal Christianity is more of a problem for us than fundamentalist Christianity,” he said. “They’re trying to make it acceptable to be a Christian. If you’re going to pick and choose from the Bible, what’s to say you can’t use the myriad of other sources and make them just as authoritative?”

By having meetings that celebrate individual freedom and responsibility, Universism hopes to meet people’s spiritual needs while being intellectually honest, Stricker said.

“The concept of spirituality is deeply entwined with mental health,” Stricker said. “There’s a confusion that comes with liberal Christianity. There’s bound to be conflict and confusion about what to do to be a good Christian. We’ve based it almost entirely on the individual. It’s up to you; you don’t have to turn to anybody else or follow any example you don’t desire.”

Universism, which has a Web site at www.universist.org, was formed as a non-profit organization and has spun off another called Hands on Humanity, to provide low-cost medication and medical equipment, Stricker said. “We have a lot of people with compassion who want to help,” he said.

The point is that people can do good works without a religious motivation or dogma, he said. “Almost everybody lives with a grain of uncertainty,” Stricker said. “I’d like them to be able to embrace it.”

Moore, of Southern Seminary, said Universism faces an uphill battle. “Church is a community united around a common storyline and revelation,” Moore said. “It’s hard to mimic that sense of community without the storyline and revelation.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Birmingham News, USA
Sep. 9, 2005
Greg Garrison

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday September 10, 2005.
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