The Case Against the United Religions Initiative

By Lee Penn


This is a summary of the reasons why Christians should oppose the United Religions Initiative (URI).

Conditions of use:

This story is an extract from a book-length manuscript by me titled "False Dawn, Real Darkness: the Millennial Delusions of the United Religions and the New Age Movement." You may re-distribute this story by hard copy or electronically, and you may abridge or quote from this story - IF you give credit to Lee Penn as the author, and IF you include - in the body or as a footnote - the following statement:

"An earlier version of this story appeared in "The United Religions Initiative - A Bridge Back to Gnosticism", published in December 1998 by the New Oxford Review. You may order the complete story from the Review, or subscribe to the Review, by calling (510) 526-5374, or by writing to the New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706. Additionally, it also has been published as part of "The United Religions Initiative: Foundations for a World Religion" (Part 1), published in May 1999 by the Journal of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Vol. 22:4-23:1. The information in this extract is a small portion of the information printed in the SCP Journal. You may order the complete story from the Journal, or subscribe to the Journal, by calling (510) 540-0300, or by writing to the Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Post Office Box 4308, Berkeley, CA 94704, or by visiting the SCP web site,"


The United Religions Initiative (URI), founded in 1995 by Episcopal Bishop William Swing, intends to create a spiritual equivalent of the United Nations, encompassing all religions and all spiritual movements. The stated goals of the URI include peace among religions, social justice, and preservation of the environment. Bishop Swing says, "The nature of the United Religions would be to focus on: 1) the whole human family; 2) the whole health of our planet; and 3) the whole realm of living species, and to offer the unique gifts of religions." (1) The URI has attracted some support among liberal Protestants, dissident Catholics, and leaders of the state-approved churches in China. The Vatican and Evangelical Protestants oppose the URI. Numerous leaders of Asian religions support the URI, including the Dalai Lama. The URI hopes to transform itself from the United Religions Initiative to the United Religions (UR) in June 2000, when the Charter of the UR is signed. By that time, the URI hopes to have the support of 60 million people worldwide.

The URI is becoming active worldwide, and has some friends and funding sources in high places - including George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator, and Richard Blum, the wealthy husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein. URI allies include the star-studded State of the World Forum, and the Earth Council - headed by Maurice Strong, a wealthy Canadian advocate of world government. However, URI activities receive little coverage in the press, and financial problems forced the URI to reduce the size of its 1999 summit conference by half from the size of its 1997 and 1998 conferences. If the URI is to meet its stated objectives and timetable, the URI's allies will need to come forward quickly with cash, friendly media coverage, and other support.

Despite the stated goals of the URI - which seem benign at first glance - there are many reasons why Christians should oppose the movement.

URI leaders and their allies repeatedly equate evangelism to manipulative "proselytizing" and violence. If the URI vision prevails, Christian evangelism based on the unique and saving identity, mission, and acts of Christ would be ruled out. As Bishop Swing says, "there will have to be a godly cease-fire, a temporary truce where the absolute exclusive claims of each [religion] will be honored but an agreed upon neutrality will be exercised in terms of proselytizing, condemning, murdering, or dominating. These will not be tolerated in the United Religions zone"(2) - the whole world. URI leaders say "proselytizing" is the work of "fundamentalists," and URI board member Paul Chafee says, "We can't afford fundamentalists in a world this small."(3)

Despite the URI's repeated and insistent denials that it intends to start a New Religion, URI documents, URI worship ceremonies, and the writings of New Age supporters of the URI point in that very direction. Lex orandi, lex credendi - the law of praying is the law of believing. At the 1995 interfaith service that launched the URI, "holy water from the Ganges, the Amazon, the Red Sea, the River Jordan, and other sacred streams" (4) was mixed in a single "bowl of unity" on the altar of Grace Cathedral.(5) During the service, Bishop Swing made the meaning of the ritual clear. The San Francisco Chronicle reported: " 'As these sacred waters find confluence here,' said Episcopal Bishop William Swing, 'may the city that chartered the nations of the world bring together the religions of the world'."(6)

The 1998/1999 version of the URI Draft Charter said that we must "rediscover a reverence for all life and respect for the sacredness of the whole of Planet Earth."(7) To get clergy and laity to accept the gradual development of the New Religion, there would be a "URI course to 'retool' both clergy and lay religious leaders in the philosophy of spiritual ecology."(8)

Bishop Swing has said, "The time comes, though, when common language and a common purpose for all religions and spiritual movements must be discerned and agreed upon. Merely respecting and understanding other religions is not enough."(9) If all religions are to have "a common purpose," and the purpose of religion is to worship a god, then Bishop Swing is calling "all religions and spiritual movements" to worship a shared god. If Mikhail Gorbachev's views gain influence, the god of the New Religion will be nature. Gorbachev has said, "I believe in the cosmos. All of us are linked to the cosmos. Look at the sun. If there is no sun, then we cannot exist. So nature is my god. To me, nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals."(10)

The URI's proposed "reverence for all life" does not extend to the lives of the unborn. Although URI documents denounce many of the world's evils, they say nothing against abortion or artificial contraception. This is consistent with the statements by Bishop Swing and other prominent URI supporters, who repeatedly warn about the danger of "overpopulation" and argue the need for "reproductive health."

The URI supports efforts by Hans Küng and others to create a new Global Ethic and a new "Declaration of Human Responsibilities," and supports the push by Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev, founders of Green Cross International, for an Earth Charter. Gorbachev views this proposed Earth Charter as "a kind of Ten Commandments, a 'Sermon on the Mount,' that provides a guide for human behavior toward the environment in the next century and beyond."(11) These proposed codes of ethics and international environmental charters have many ambiguities. Those people who wish to use government power to create a new society according to their liking will be able to exploit these textual loopholes to justify their actions. However, the "Green Cross Earth Charter Philosophy" makes the philosophy and goals of these proposed new treaties clear: "The protection of the Biosphere, as the Common Interest of Humanity, must not be subservient to the rules of state sovereignty, demands of the free market or individual rights."(12)

The URI incorporates and promotes several modern belief systems that have undermined orthodox Christian belief and practice. One of these corrosive ideologies is feminism. Bishop Swing said in 1997 that one reason the URI expanded to include New Age movements (he calls them "modern spiritual movements") is that "If you go with the great religions, you have men only. If you go with modern spiritual movements, you have women as well."(13) Cardinal Ratzinger has replied succinctly to feminism in Salt of the Earth: feminism is an example of an ideology that "traces all existing institutions back to power politics. And this ideology corrupts humanity and also destroys the Church."(14)

Another false belief that the URI promotes is religious relativism, the notion that all religions are equally true and are equally paths to God. In a July 1998 interview with a journalist from the official newspaper for the Lambeth conference (a once-a-decade worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops), Bishop Swing said, "The question is can we stand the generosity of God in that he reveals himself to other people in the world through other symbols and through other stories?"(15) This reduces the historical events of the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection of Christ to the level of "symbols" and "stories," allowing Bishop Swing to equate non-Christian myths to the saving, historical acts of Christ's ministry.

Yet another false belief that the URI fosters is the notion that, as Anglican Bishop Ottley (a URI supporter) says, "the world's agenda is the agenda of the church." (16) Bishop Swing - like other URI supporters - says that a United Religions is what the world demands of believers: "There is going to come a time when the world is just going to insist that religions grow up and begin to talk to each other for the sake of global good and global harmony."(17) The root of the problem may be that URI leaders hold a worldly view of what religion is. URI Vice President William Rankin said, "J. M. Yinger defines religion as 'a system of beliefs and practices by means of which a group of people struggles with ultimate problems of human life. It expresses their refusal to capitulate to death, to give up in the face of frustration, to allow hostility to tear apart their human aspirations.' So far, so good."(18) Yinger's definition reduces religion to psychology and social action - and Rankin does not go beyond it to a God-centered view of religion.

An earth-bound definition of religion is the only way that Bishop Swing could argue that "The United Religions will not be a rejection of ancient religion but will be found buried in the depths of these religions."(19) If, indeed, United Religions were to be found "buried in the depths" of the Christian Faith, countless early martyrs could have avoided agonizing deaths by burning incense in front of the statue of the Roman Emperor, and today's martyrs in Sudan and China could apostatize with a calm conscience. Maybe martyrs are passé, anyhow; URI Vice President Rankin says that "The United Religions Initiative exists to bring people together from all the religions of the world, to create a world where no one has to die because of God, or for God, any more."(20)

The leaders of the URI do not place their ultimate hope in God or in the saving acts of Christ; they hope for an earthly utopia that the United Religions will help bring into being. In the letter that formally invited delegates to the summer 1997 URI summit conference, Bishop Swing wrote that United Religions would be "a deep new source of hope and healing for people and the earth itself."(21) It would be hard to define a larger earthly dream for a human enterprise. The URI has not extended its mission to the planets and to the stars - yet.

Bishop Swing told the 1997 URI summit conference: "If you have come here because a spirit of colossal energy is being born in the loins of earth, then come here and be a midwife. Assist, in awe, at the birth of new hope."(22) The "new hope" will have the Earth - and not the Virgin Mary - as its mother. The Catholic Church speaks for all orthodox Christians in rejecting such fantasies of a man-made paradise: "The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can be only realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the 'intrinsically perverse' political form of a secular messianism."(23)

The URI made a fateful choice in 1996, expanding its scope beyond the traditional religions to embrace what its leaders call "new spiritual movements" - and what the rest of us call the New Age movement. Bishop Swing still stands by this choice; he told the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco in May 1999 that the three principles agreed upon by the founders of the URI in 1996 were: "1. we will be a grass roots movement; 2. it has to be men and women together; 3. invite religions and spiritual movements together - right from the beginning."(24) Bishop Swing says that the URI will remain open to new spiritual movements and "cults": "Asked how the URI would handle cults, Bishop Swing answered that the United Religions would probably look a little like Alcoholics Anonymous" 'very diffuse.' He added that 'In United Religions, if you can abide by the purpose and principle, then you can get together. Once you open the door, you have to keep it open.' "(25) Several New Age leaders, including Robert Muller, Neale Donald Walsch, and Barbara Marx Hubbard, are active and enthusiastic supporters of the URI.

There's far more substance to the New Age movement and New Age beliefs than astrology, crystals, and psychobabble. Muller, Marx Hubbard, and Walsch support world government and a socialist economy, believe that the Fall was really an ascent into knowledge for humanity, and expect an imminent, apocalyptic social transformation that will lead humanity into the New Age. The problem is not a few "smoking gun" quotes pulled from otherwise-innocent writings; these New Age leaders have provided an arsenal full of smoking guns, all pointed in the same direction. These New Age teachers - and their theosophical mentors - propose a comprehensive anti-Gospel, a modern revival of the Gnostic heresy, and an inversion of Christian morality.

Unfortunately, the New Age movement has friends and customers in high places. The State of the World Forum attracts almost 1,000 VIPs to San Francisco each year, and encourages them to believe that they will shape the emerging "new civilization." The messages offered at the Forum are solidly New Age and collectivist. Many prominent corporations and foundations (from Archer Daniels Midland to CNN, NASDAQ, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund) nevertheless see fit to support the Forum's activities. Each year, the list of these supporters gets longer. Jean Houston, the New Age spiritual adviser to Hillary Clinton, has led workshops at companies such as Kraft, Xerox, General Electric, and Beatrice Foods. Laurance S. Rockefeller and his Fund for the Enhancement of the Human Spirit have funded Matthew Fox,(26) Grace Cathedral,(27) and Barbara Marx Hubbard. Gerald Barney and the Millennium Institute propose that the year 2000 should become the "year zero of the sustainable era," and that "This must be the moment when humans interchange bad and good, unreal and real, and set themselves and Earth on a new course. ... all 5 billion plus of us humans must prepare to die to 20th century ways of thinking and being."(28) Organizations and agencies that have sent representatives to attend Millennium Institute training sessions include "the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the Aerospace Corporation, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the President's Council on Sustainable Development, [and] Arthur Andersen & Co."(29)

The New Age leaders directly associated with the URI - Muller, Walsch, and Marx Hubbard - draw inspiration from Theosophy, an occult movement started in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophy has since had significant influence on the New Age movement in the US and worldwide. Its teachings include praising Lucifer as the bringer of light to humanity, denouncing orthodox Christianity and Judaism as "separative" and "obsolete," and forecasting a coming age of enlightened, spiritual collectivism - after the cleansing of earth to remove the people who do not accept progress.

The followers of any movement with such perverse beliefs should have been summarily rejected from the URI. Instead, the URI has welcomed New Age leaders, followers of Theosophy, into its midst. Since the URI is a young organization and still in its formative stage, the presence of so many prominent New Age leaders within and around the URI is ominous. "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree," and the strong New Age influence ensures that a mature United Religions will be very bent, indeed.

The appeal of the URI and its New Age allies is based on some truths. Killing in the name of God is an abomination. Badly managed economic growth has harmed the natural environment. Many people and societies appear to have placed love of money and comfort above love of God and neighbor. Churches and temples in all faiths are tainted by hypocrisy and bigotry among their adherents. These elements of truth in the URI's critique of current society may draw a wide audience for the rest of the message of the URI and its allies. This would fit with the usual pattern of temptation; a mixture of lies and truth is likely to draw more people away from God than a message that has no prima facie appeal or plausibility. So it has been from the beginning; it was not a rotten, worm-eaten fruit that the serpent offered to Eve. Instead, "when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate." (Gen. 3:6)

As of mid-1999, it is uncertain whether the United Religions Initiative will become a significant worldwide religious movement, or whether it will fade into oblivion, one more of mankind's proud attempts to create spiritual unity on mankind's own terms. Even if the URI itself fails, the wealthy and influential people associated with the New Age and globalist movements are likely to try again to achieve the same utopian goals within the next few years. These people are devoted and persistent, and will not be easily deterred by the failure of one initiative.

By exposing the URI, I also hope to bring to light the social, political, and spiritual agenda of the movements that are associated with the URI now - and the movements that may later follow the trail blazed by the URI. I have paid the URI the compliment of taking its documents, its leaders, and its allies seriously. Those who, like the URI and its allies, have "a mouth speaking great things" (Dan. 7: 8, 20) deserve such scrutiny and exposure.

The URI has utopian goals, unorthodox theology, and an expectation of imminent social and spiritual transformation for the world. In addition, like its globalist and New Age allies, the URI plans to use the millennial fervor associated with the year 2000 to assist in building the movement. Therefore, the URI deserves to be known as a millennial cult - a respectable, well-connected, politically correct millennial cult, but a cult nevertheless. Cultists who set dates for the Second Coming, max out their credit cards, and head for the hills to meet Jesus in the air - the Rapture - do harm primarily to themselves and their families, and are the occasion for some press coverage ridiculing the Church. The cult of United Religions will, if it succeeds, do more damage than any number of Rapture cults could do. A successful United Religions would lead to the spread of irrational New Age beliefs and practices, and would repopulate the "naked public square" of the West with a pantheon of idols. The collectivist "global ethic" fostered by the United Religions and its allies would provide a fig leaf of respectability for further expansion of national and international government power at the expense of individuals, families, and the Church.

Let's give Bishop Swing the last word. On September 11, 1996, he extolled the URI to a meeting of 200 San Francisco Episcopal lay leaders, and said: "We're talking about salvation history here. If I'm wrong, I'm dead wrong."(30) The Bishop has spoken; the case is closed.


NOTE: Internet document citations are based on research done between September 1997 and August 1999. Web citations are accurate as of the time the Web page was printed, but some documents may have been moved to a different Web site since then, or they may have been removed entirely from the Web.

1 Bishop William Swing, "The United Religions Initiative," document issued in April 1996 by the URI; p. 1

2 Bishop William Swing, The Coming United Religions, United Religions Initiative and CoNexus Press, 1998, ISBN 0-9637897-5-9; p. 31

3 Transcribed by Lee Penn from URI-provided tape of URI forum at Grace Cathedral, held on 2/2/97

4 Don Lattin, "Religions of World Celebrated With Prayers to Dozen Deities," San Francisco Chronicle, June 26, 1995, p. A1, front page section

5 Richard Scheinin, "Interfaith ceremony promotes world peace," San Jose Mercury News, June 26, 1995; Internet document, p. 2

6 Don Lattin, "Religions of World Celebrated With Prayers to Dozen Deities," San Francisco Chronicle, June 26, 1995, pp. A1 and A11, front page section

7 United Religions Initiative, "Benchmark Draft Charter," Internet document,, Draft Agenda for Action, III. Ecological Imperatives, Rationale, p. 10

8 United Religions Initiative, "Benchmark Draft Charter," Internet document,, Draft Agenda for Action, III. Ecological Imperatives, Project Ideas, Project 7, p. 11

9 Bishop William Swing, The Coming United Religions, United Religions Initiative and CoNexus Press, 1998, ISBN 0-9637897-5-9; p. 63

10 Fred Matser, "Nature Is My God," an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, Resurgence 184, Internet document,, p. 3

11 Green Cross International, "Interview," Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1997, Internet document,, p. 4

12 The Earth Charter Campaign, "The Earth Charter: The Green Cross Philosophy," Internet document,, p. 5

13 Don Lattin, interview with Bishop William Swing - "Bishop's Idea for a Leap of Faiths," San Francisco Chronicle, June 22, 1997, p. 3/Z1

14 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium - An Interview with Peter Seewald, translated by Adrian Walker, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997, ISBN 0-89870-640-8; p. 165

15 Carol Barnwell, " 'United Religions' is Bishop Swing's goal," The Lambeth Daily, Issue 4, 22 July 1998; Internet document,, p. 1

16 Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations, "Annual Report 1997," Internet document,, p. 2

17 Baxter and Sax, (first names not stated), "Exclusive Interview: Bishop William Swing, Head of the United Religions Organization," Endtime, July/August 1998, Internet document,, p. 11

18 The Center for Progressive Christianity, "President's Report, February 1999," section on the United Religions Initiative by William Rankin, Internet document,, p. 6

19 Bishop William Swing, The Coming United Religions, United Religions Initiative and CoNexus Press, 1998, ISBN 0-9637897-5-9; p. 64

20 The Center for Progressive Christianity, "President's Report, February 1999," section on the United Religions Initiative by William Rankin, Internet document,, p. 8

21 Bishop William Swing, "Invitation Letter," Journal of the United Religions Initiative, issue 3, Summer 1997, p. 3

22 Bishop William Swing, "Opening Address" to the 1997 URI summit conference; Internet document,, p. 2

23 Catechism Of The Catholic Church, Image Books/Doubleday edition, 1995, ISBN 0-385-47967-0, sections 675-676, pp. 193-194

24 Dennis Delman, "For the Sake of the Children, We've Got to Talk," Bishop Swing Tells Commonwealth Club Gathering," Pacific Church News, August/September 1999, p. 25

25 Dennis Delman, "For the Sake of the Children, We've Got to Talk," Bishop Swing Tells Commonwealth Club Gathering," Pacific Church News, August/September 1999, p. 25

26 Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance, Harper San Francisco, 1988, ISBN 0-06-062915-0, p. xi

27 Donor list, Grace Cathedral Magazine, Spring 1995, p. 9; covers donations made to the Cathedral capital campaign as of March 1, 1995; Rockefeller donated at least $10,000, according to this listing.

28 Gerald O. Barney, Global 2000 Revisited: Changing Course, Internet document,, pp. 2-3

29 Millennium Institute, "Threshold 21 Update," December 1997, Vol. 1, no. 1, Internet document,, p. 8

30 From notes taken by Lee Penn of the speech given by Bishop Swing at the 9/11/96 meeting of the San Francisco Deanery for the Episcopal Diocese of California


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