More Americans are shunning traditional religions and turning to upstart faiths such as Universism, whose sole dogma is uncertainty.
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.
“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.”
Skeptics point out that Vox demands certainty about his own concept of truth — namely, that it doesn’t exist. Russell D. Moore, dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, dismisses Universism as a bleak “parody of a church.”
He adds: “It’s very hard to create a sense of community around a nonbelief.”
Universism also faces competition in recruiting the faithless, as several secular groups have stepped up their public profiles this year.
The American Humanist Assn., which has 7,500 members, is running a national ad campaign to persuade the public that atheists can be ethical, even patriotic. The Secular Coalition for America hired its first lobbyist to promote the separation of church and state. The Brights, an atheist civil rights group, has signed up 18,000 members.
Vox supports those efforts, but he doubts atheists will ever win the masses. They’re too political. They don’t inspire wonder. And in much of America, they’re viewed as vaguely disreputable.
That’s where Universism has an edge, nonbeliever James Underdown said with a hint of envy.
“You can tell someone you’re a Universist and they won’t know what the heck that is, but at least you’re not a dirty atheist,” said Underdown, who directs the Center for Inquiry-West, a Los Angeles institute for freethinkers
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.
There are Universist groups in San Diego and in Denton, Texas, in Salem, Ore., Columbus, Ohio, and Rochester, N.Y. The Los Angeles-Orange County group is holding a bonfire and “big questions” discussion on a Corona del Mar beach this Sunday.
“The process of ordination is just having a nice chat with me,” Stricker said. Worship itself is just as informal.
Because Vox and Stricker disdain religious authority, they’re reluctant to set rules, aside from a few meek suggestions that meetings start with a reading of a thought-provoking text (“or maybe a guitar version of ‘Kumbaya,’ ” Stricker said).
On a recent evening, 22 members of the Birmingham congregation gathered in a lounge at the Safari Cup coffee shop with little agenda but to talk.
John Earwood, a 60-year-old architect, worked the crowd, trying to promote a word he had coined: “afideist,” meaning without faith.
Buster George, 52, a nuclear engineer, introduced his teenage daughter Rachel. “It ought to be illegal to take anyone to church until they turn 18 and can think for themselves,” she said by way of explaining her interest in Universism. Her dad beamed.
The room crackled with intense orations on God, creation and eternal life. But it’s a bit hard for Universists to sustain a good debate. Defending your own view, after all, makes you sound as though you’re sure you’re right. And in a religion dedicated to uncertainty, no one wants to be accused of that.
So meetings can devolve into a series of provocative statements without retort.
After Vox called the group to order, the conversation swung from abstinence to Woody Allen, from existentialism to Terri Schiavo and then to the poverty exposed by Hurricane Katrina.
“People are poor because they don’t want to work,” one woman asserted.
There was an uncomfortable silence.
“Well, sometimes,” a young man said, diplomatically. The conversation veered into the war on drugs.
After a meandering hour, Stricker redirected the group by reading a passage from a Tom Robbins novel that struck him as hilariously insightful. No one had much comment, so they settled down to a guest lecture on Albert Schweitzer, the missionary physician who rejected much of his church’s dogma but promoted an ethic of love he said came straight from Jesus.
Kathleen White sat on the edge of her seat, her face rapt. An accountant in Huntsville, Ala., White, 36, came across Universism while trolling online.
Though she still believes in God the creator, White rejects much of her church’s teachings: “A lot of what I was taught doesn’t have proof to back it up, like life after death and heaven and hell,” she said. “I don’t want to take that all on faith.”
She drove two hours to commune with strangers she figured would understand her struggle. But as she listened to an inconclusive discussion of morality, the downside of Universism struck her.
“Do y’all have any firm beliefs about anything at all?” she asked.
“Our only firm belief is that we’re uncertain about everything,” Earwood replied.
White looked unsettled.
“I don’t think it will be enough to keep me coming back,” she said. “It’s kind of frustrating.”