Our concern today is the future of nontheism among Friends and the future of Friends in general. It is not surprising that nontheist Friends are evaluating our work since 20 years have passed since we began holding regular Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering workshops. Social movements often need to be reformed after a generation, even when they have been successful.
Nontheist Friends (NTFs) have been asking to be included among Friends. We have been knocking on the meetinghouse door, even nailing statements to it. I would like us to consider an alternative approach. Let’s assume nontheists are included and go on from there. Let’s simply be Quakers doing outreach to nontheists and to theists who are interested in this outreach.
Because time is limited I am only writing about FGC Friends, leaving for other occasions the important discussion of theist and nontheist Friends in other portions of the Religious Society of Friends (RSoFs). Among Friends, the term “nontheist” refers to a person whose beliefs, experiences or approach to life do not include God, or at least not some particular definition of God. This is an umbrella term that can combine with other more specific descriptors. Thus, there are atheist nontheists, agnostic nontheists, even theist nontheists (e.g. rejecting God as a personality, or accepting God as nature and nothing else). Another detail: the numbers at the end of paragraphs are formed from the page in a printed copy, followed by the number of the paragraph on that page. You may refer to the paragraph numbers when commenting on this paper. [1.3]
I would like us to consider three topics. These are: (1) the current condition of theists and nontheists among FGC Friends, (2) what the Religious Society of Friends can be, and (3) how to get there from here.
The current condition of theists and nontheists among FGC Friends.
There is good news and bad news about the current condition of theists and nontheists among FGC Friends. During the last 20 years our condition has improved markedly. There have been workshops at FGC, Pendle Hill and in other venues, our website and email discussion groups, books and articles, and there was a great debate one year at the FGC Gathering. Recently I have begun to see nontheist Friends mentioned when a writer lists varieties of Quakers. We are accepted as one of the streams that make up contemporary Quakerism. Before, we were closeted, and now we are in the open. [1.5]
Theists have found many ways to accommodate nontheists who are practicing as Friends in their meetings and organizations. We are near enough to God, or are on another path up the same mountain, or are doing God’s will even when we don’t invoke God. Or theists may simply notice that Quaker practice can be accompanied by many different faiths. For Quakers, words about our faith have always been suspect. There is a preference for getting on with being faithful, letting our lives speak. These, then, are some of the ways theist Friends have justified the inclusion of nontheists among Friends. [1.6]
This is all good news, and there is much of it, but there is also bad news, and it is news NTFs have not collectively acknowledged and addressed (although, importantly, many Friends have done so in their individual lives). [2.1]
Unfortunately, we haven’t been doing our homework, or not nearly enough of it. We don’t write reviews of important new books and articles, even ones that are about nontheist Quakers. [Endnote 1] We have not published much writing and there have been few posts on our website. We have done little to make a bibliography of the writings of the NTFs who have gone before us. [Endnote 2] [2.2]
There is more bad news: Friends often fall into the habit of keeping peace in our meetings by not talking about our differences. We have imported into our meetings the political correctness we have learned in society at large. This reticence goes beyond nontheism. For instance, too often Christian Quakers feel they cannot speak in as strongly Christian terms as they would like. We think being diverse means not imposing our views on each other. [2.3]
NTFs as a group have not focused on learning how theist and nontheist Friends speak with each other in religiously diverse communities. Nor have we studied how to write for approval by a diverse community (as in meeting brochures and organization mission statements). We haven’t worked on the effect of our presence as nontheists on the membership practices of a meeting. Or the effect on other Quaker practices such as how we come to a sense of the meeting as we conduct business while worshiping. We haven’t studied the implications for the relation of faith and action, and the question of how to take faith-based action in a religiously diverse meeting. [2.4]
We have not organized our responses to questions that always come up when theists consider accepting nontheists, and we have not written a manual for newcomers. [Endnote 3] We haven’t studied child rearing for nontheist parents in a theist society. We haven’t looked at First Day School for children who may be theist or nontheist or undecided, and whose parents may care passionately about this topic. [2.5]
NTFs have not reached out to other religious naturalists and to the wider secular movement (which is very active these days). We have not even done this in Quaker schools. NTFs as a group haven’t reached out to Quaker organizations that may be struggling to serve both theists and nontheists. Individuals have done some of what we have not done as a group, but we haven’t collected the stories of these efforts so as to make them available to others. [2.6]
We have held few meetings for NTFs as a whole other than during the FGC Gatherings and online. At FGC we have generally failed in our effort to involve theist Friends in our events. Year after year the same people lead our FGC workshops and serve on the NTFs Planning Group. The Planning Group does little but plan for the FGC Gathering (mainly the workshop, afternoon program, literature tables, and an evening interest group session). We have tried to have the function of an organization without the structure, but one result has been a lack of leadership. [2.7]
Finally, there are three fundamental paradoxes that our group is not addressing. (1) NTFs call attention to a particular set of religious beliefs (or experiences and approaches) while we assert that religious belief doesn’t matter, at least not in a lot of the ways Quakers have thought it does matter. This seems to be contrary to some Friends’ traditions such as tracing Quaker testimonies to specific religious beliefs. [2.8]
(2) Calling attention to our nontheism risks setting us apart from some theist Friends. This emphasis on a particular set of beliefs stands out: we are the only FGC Affinity Group organized around religious belief. [Endnote 4] The test of how we are doing is not just what we say, but also how other Friends respond. There are many ways to be a nontheist among Friends, many ways to balance the various concerns of everyone involved. [3.1]
(3) Perhaps surprisingly, there is no such thing as nontheist Quakerism. All the questions raised by the presence of NTFs among Friends are simply examples of more general questions about the effect of being religiously diverse Friends communities. The issues raised are not specific to nontheism, which is a proper field of study but is not unique to Quakers (such as when we look at nontheism’s implications for ethics, or at the rights of nontheists in traditionally theist societies). Thus, nontheist Quakerism is two fields: a Quaker one about how to be diverse, and a nontheist one about how to be human as part of a natural world and nothing else. [3.2]
In sum, in my opinion we NTFs are not doing our homework, are not cooperating with theists, and are not addressing contradictions inherent in our approach.
What the Religious Society of Friends can be.
Let us imagine what the RSoFs can be; that is, how we would like to live as Quakers.
I envision a Society in which Friends warmly embrace each other, differences and all. I see each of us speaking in our own religious language, speaking of what is nearest our hearts. This means shifting from a concern about not giving offense to a concern about not taking offense. [Endnote 5] [3.5]
Let us be an example of a religion that accepts people for whom religion is about lives rather than the supernatural. But we do not want a Society limited to these people: let us be an example of love and cooperation between naturalists and supernaturalists. [3.6]
I see Friends uniting in common purposes and practices, while giving each other the latitude to hold our own beliefs about all this. We can all worship together. Questions of membership can be decided through a clearness process that looks at how the community and the applicant are together, how they are practicing as Friends. This shift of focus away from details of belief will allow our meetings to be as diverse as the communities from which we draw our members. [3.7]
Let us make clear that we are committed to all Friends, whatever their accompanying beliefs, experiences and approaches. Until a loving, trusting community has been established, speaking bluntly about nontheism risks misunderstandings and the breakdown of the relationship. [3.8]
Let us be an example of unity amid religious diversity within our meeting communities, and our yearly meetings, and in our relations with Friends of other traditions than our own, and in organizations that draw on a variety of Friends. Let us also be an example of unity in our relations with people of other religions and world views. [3.9]
Let us represent the heart of the early Quaker message, rather than features of the message that resulted from their particular time and place. For example, let us ask each other what canst thou say, without requiring that we say particular things in particular ways. Let us do as the early Friends did when they said they were joining in silence to wait upon the Lord. And then let our lives speak in many voices. [4.0]
How to get there from here.
How can we live as we would like to see Quakers live, while addressing the current condition of NTFs?
This would mean clearly demonstrating NTFs’ commitment to Quakers as a whole and our acceptance of theist Friends. Instead of defending the view that NTs can be Quakers, let’s assume we are Friends and start a program of Quaker outreach to nontheists, and to theists who are interested in nontheists. [4.2]
This could be part of a broader effort to work for Friends’ religious diversity. We can reach out to all Friends, not just to Friends who are like us. As a leader of the women’s movement said, “It is not women’s liberation; it is women’s and men’s liberation.” [Endnote 6] NTFs need to create a movement that all Friends can be part of. [4.3]
Including nontheists among Friends can be important to all Friends if it is done as part of the inclusion of people who hold a variety of personal religious beliefs. It is wonderful to see a Friend support the seeking of another Friend, especially when it is not what the supporting Friend is seeking. It is in my interest to have people not like me in the RSoFs, as long as we are a religiously diverse community. Since people of diverse views can be good neighbors, and can be Friends, working for all of us is enough for me. I am happy to leave questions about what sort of views are better for humankind, for history to decide. [4.4]
Theists will be more likely to support our efforts if we are working for a diverse RSoFs rather than promoting a particular view (especially if it is one they do not share). This approach would make it easier to accommodate the threat NTFs present for some TFs. [Endnote 7] Of course, many NTFs do not see a threat in what we are doing, but that may not be the way our efforts affect others. NTFs can sympathize: imagine how we would feel if an organization named “Theist Quakers” started up next door to us, declaring the beauties of theism. [4.5]
I suggest we continue doing what NTFs have been doing, and we do more, but we do it as representatives of Friends in general. For instance, we can contact secular humanist student clubs in Quaker colleges, but do so as Quakers rather than as nontheist Quakers. Whether the people doing the outreach are theists or nontheists isn’t important; that they represent a RSoFs that is diverse and welcomes both theists and nontheists is important. [4.6]
During recent years we have had trouble getting our Nontheism Among Friends workshop accepted. Let’s propose workshops on topics of interest to Friends in general and let’s have theists as co-leaders. Workshops that meet every morning are the heart of the Gathering experience and it is best that our workshop efforts appeal to all, rather than focusing on just one point of view and one that is easily interpreted as antithetical to the views of other Friends. At FGC Gatherings, let’s do our specifically nontheist work during the non-workshop activities: the afternoon program, staffed Drop In Center, literature tables, evening interest group, and our handout in the packet all Gathering attenders receive. Deeper, on-going personal interactions can be arranged if necessary. All this can be done as Quaker outreach to nontheists rather than as nontheist Friends promoting their views. It will also help to have NTFs as active participants in planning FGC Gatherings, and in the selection of workshops. [4.7]
We can work with other Friends by focusing on Friends practices rather than Friends faith. It is the experience of NTFs that we can practice together as Friends even as we differ in the faiths with which we explain these practices. This contrasts with the Friends tradition of citing faith as the source of our practices, but it is in the Friends tradition of focusing on lives rather than the assertions of faith that accompany these lives. [5.1]
NTFs have learned much about being Quakers in religious diverse communities. This is something all Friends need, not just NTFs. For instance, it is not necessary to bite our tongues or only speak in a language we have in common. Political correctness has its place in society at large but we can do better in a loving, trusting community. Instead of trying to be politically correct, we can each listen from the heart and speak from the heart. You speak in your own terms and I listen, open to your meaning without being distracted by your particular words or the theory that accompanies them. I translate into my terms and reply to the heart of what you are saying, speaking in my own terms while you listen with an open heart. For example, you may ask what does God require of us, and I hear you ask what is required of us, or what does the environment require of us, or our highest principles, or neighborly love. [Endnote 8] [5.2]
There are also inclusive ways of writing for the possible approval by a religiously diverse meeting. One way is to allow expressions of particular religious views but only where bracketed by statements of our commitment to being inclusive of Friends of all views. [Endnote 9] [5.3]
Membership practices in religiously inclusive meetings can be based on participation rather than beliefs. There is still a clearness process for both the meeting and the applicant, but the focus is on the practice of being Quaker. Beliefs are how we talk about our practices. [5.4]
We noticed several paradoxes in the current efforts of NTFs (that nontheism is wonderful but unimportant, that our efforts tend to set us apart just as we are asking to be included, and that nontheist Quakerism isn’t a useful category in the first place). The solution to these paradoxes is to work on becoming a successfully diverse religious society, and to include outreach to nontheists among other examples of Quaker outreach. Some of the paradoxes will remain, such as calling attention to what separates us while working for unity, but this will be easier to manage if we start with a project all Friends can support. [5.5]
As a practical matter, working for an inclusive RSoFs is a good way to work for NTF goals. This is only true if being inclusive means we each can express our own views, and if nontheism is explicitly included among the diversity of Quaker faiths. [Endnote 10] This approach relies on the happy fact that Quaker practices can be accompanied by a great variety of Quaker faiths. We see this in our own meetings, and we see it as we look across the RSoFs today, and as we look back through Quaker history. [Endnote 11] This approach also relies on the fact that the wider society that surrounds the RSoFs is becoming more nontheist. This will mean that nontheism is gradually viewed more positively and that more nontheists will be interested in the RSoFs. It also means that I can honestly say it is as much in my interest that you are a theist Friend (who is committed to inclusion) as that you are a nontheist Friend. [5.6]
We have been talking about nontheist issues as the goal, with a secondary interest in methods for bringing theist and nontheist Friends together. A more certain path to the goal of including nontheists among Friends, and even to a goal of ultimately having secular views replace supernatural views, is to turn what we have been doing around: let the goal be the practices that support religious diversity among Friends, with nontheist concerns as something that comes along with it. We can be confident of this since the tide is with us. Just as evolutionary biology will replace creationism, naturalism in religion will eventually be established as an alternative to supernaturalism. [6.0]
What are the tasks that NTFs would like to work on collectively in the near future? I suggest there are three main sets of tasks:
(1) Work for an inclusive RSoFs, becoming ever wiser in how to be religiously diverse. This means looking at the implications for every form of Quaker practice including how we speak with each other and how we write for meeting approval. [6.2]
(2) Reach out to newcomers, both within our Quaker communities and outside our Society. This includes people who don’t even know we exist as an alternative, and it includes theists who are not nontheists but want to learn about them and their place in the RSoFs. This involves many special forms of outreach such as to children and their parents, and to college students, and to people in the secular movement, and to nontheists in other religions. People doing outreach are not limited to those holding the same views as the people they are reaching out to. [6.3]
(3) Support writing and workshops and conferences about Quakers and nontheism and religious diversity. Describe Quaker practices in nontheist terms. Study the history of nontheist Friends. This writing will be useful to those working on the other two sets of tasks. [6.4]
Let me be explicit about the changes I am asking for in the RSoFs, and the changes I am asking for in what NTFs are doing. I am asking for the RSoFs to be inclusive of diversity in religious faith. Not just reluctantly, and based on keeping quiet about our views, but explicitly and wisely and joyfully inclusive. An inclusion that is obvious to visitors. This may mean changes in membership practices if membership is meant for people who hold particular beliefs. It may mean changes in how we describe ourselves if it is stated or implied that particular beliefs are favored. I am not asking Friends to change their faiths (unless exclusion is part of that faith). [6.5]
Finally, I offer the following eight changes in what NTFs are doing: (1) Cast NTF work in the context of a concern for all Friends. Before going on to questions specifically about nontheism, NT activists must make it clear that we are working for a RSoFs open to all, not just open to people with whom we agree. I am not asking NTFs to hide their views. In a trusting meeting community NTFs will be able to speak openly about their views. However, as we work to create such a community, there will be limits on how we express our views when speaking to people, such as newcomers and children, who don’t know how we listen and speak with each other in a trusting community. [6.6]
(2) Do our homework. Answer the questions people always ask. Find out what has gone on before us. Study how to speak with each other and how to write for meeting approval. Reach out to secular humanists who might be interested in Quakers, and to Quakers who are interested in these questions. Reach out to Quaker organizations, especially those with some particular concern for nontheists (such as organizations involving scientists). Learn to be a religiously diverse community, and share what we have learned. [6.7]
(3) Work on this with theist Friends. This becomes even more important as militant atheists are drawn to the RSoFs and express their views in ways that tend to drive theists away. [Endnote 12] Cooperation will become easier as NTFs make it clear that we are working for all Friends, not just NTF Friends. [6.8]
(4) Find more effective leadership. We do not have an organization, partly because that could increase concern about our motives and emphasize our separateness from other Quakers. Leadership has been provided by the NTFs Planning Group (whose members are self-selected), but it does almost nothing but support work at each year’s FGC Gathering. Most of the people who are active in this group are the same people who have been doing it for over 10 years. Finding new leadership may mean forming an organization. [7.1]
(5) We need to look for other opportunities for NTFs to come together in addition to the FGC Gathering. Friends for LGBTQ Concerns benefited when they started holding a mid-winter conference. Another option is to come to the FGC Gathering a few days early, which QUF used to do for their annual meeting. [7.2]
(6) Change our name. “Nontheism Among Friends,” or “Nontheist Friends,” has been the label of many of our workshops and our affinity group and our afternoon series of events at the FGC Gathering. It is also the name of our website and e-mail discussion groups. Sometimes the word “nontheism” or “nontheist” will help focus the outreach, but only if it is in the context of a broader effort, as in “Quaker Outreach to Nontheists.” A recently suggested alternative is “Friends Open to Nontheism.” [Endnote 13] [7.3]
It can help to consider the situations in which the name for an NTF organization can appear. Here are three examples: (1) In presentations we make in our home meetings. There we have a lot of latitude. (2) As the name of the sponsor of events reaching out to nontheists, and to theists interested in the questions raised by the presence of nontheists among Friends. Here we have not yet established a trusting community committed to each other. (3) As the name on a banner across a lobby where we have a display inviting all Friends to stop in, or as a name on a flyer handed out where there are crowds of Friends inviting them to join our movement. If we want all Friends join with us in working for a diverse RSoF that explicitly welcomes nontheists, we need to celebrate all Friends, not just our particular variety of Friends. [7.4]
Thus, there is an ever changing balance of our concern for the expression of our own views and our concern for the effect our words have on our listeners. This can shift dramatically depending on the circumstances. You may be speaking with a Friend with whom you have an open and trusting relationship, and then someone new to Friends joins the conversation. The newcomer may be misled by blunt talk about your views, not realizing that you cherish the presence of other views. [7.5]
Also consider that there are many ways to present your views. For instance, you might explain your position and why it is important, but if your listeners know you well it may be enough to simply offering a few words such as “Of course, some Friends would express themselves differently.” When people speak of humans and animals, I wait for the opportunity to speak of humans and other animals. Once your position is known a slight hint can serve in place of many words; sometimes Friends turn to me expecting a reaction and I just smile. By not objecting I am making a larger point about our commitment to each other. Friends need to learn to adjust our expression of personal views to the requirements of the moment. [7.6]
(7) Another step could be to join a group already working for Quaker religious diversity, such as the Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF). We might find a setting in which to do some or all of our work. At least it’s worth considering. As a group QUF is not an advocate for any particular variety of Quakerism but perhaps they could be an umbrella group for Friends working on specific outreach to Buddhists, Moslems, nontheists, scientists, Latin Americans or whomever. [8.0]
(8) I ask Friends to consider engaging in a clearness process regarding our collective activities as NTFs. Do we need an organization? What are the reasons to have one, or not to have one? What would its mission be, and what tasks would it take on? How would it be organized? [8.1]
A clearness committee could do some of its work by telephone or email, but I expect meeting in person would be necessary. It could seek outside advice. It might set up a larger process to seek further clarity on the issues that rise up. This could lead to a report and recommendations for the NTFs Planning Group. [8.2]
In summary, unity among Friends can be based on practice rather than belief or experience. The goals of NTFs can be met even as we each talk about what we are doing in our own characteristic ways. Working for unity amid the diversity of Friends is a good way to work for nontheism among Friends. To be Friends we do not need to deny our different ways of being Quaker, although there are ways to do this that are more or less supportive of each other in special circumstances. There is a lot more NTFs could be doing as an organized group to bring this approach to Friends, but we lack leadership. It would be wise for us to seek ways to study these issues. [8.3]
All this will be a lot of work, but it is what is required of us as we consider the next step in the history of nontheists among Friends. Happily, many of the nuts and bolts of how to be an inclusive religious community are already known to us. [8.4]
Friends have the opportunity to become an example to the world of how a religious community can be diverse and inclusive. However, we must not do it half-heartedly. It will only happen if we do it explicitly, and wisely, and joyfully. [8.5]
I would like to hear your views on how theist and nontheist Friends can move into their future together. You are invited to send me your comments.
- For instance, we NTFs in the U.S. have not published reviews of Dan Seeger’s “Why Do the Unbelievers Rage? The New Atheists and the Universality of the Light.” (Friends Journal 56, no. 1, January 2010, pp. 6–11), Doug Gwyn’s But Who Do You Say I Am: Quakers and Christ Today (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #426, 2014), Ben Pink Dandelion’s Open for Transformation: Being Quaker (London: Quaker Books, 2014), and the entire issue of Quaker Religious Thought titled “Quakers and Theism/Nontheism” (# 118, 2012). All these publications are directly relevant to nontheism in contemporary Quakerism.
- As an example of this effort I recently reviewed articles on nontheism in Friends Journal during the 1960s and 2010s. This is posted on www.nontheistfriends.org. A list of all publications that I know of, from 1962 to 2013, by or about NTFs is in my Quaker and Naturalist Too (Iowa City: Morning Walk Press, 2014), pp. 135-145. The list is incomplete and is not being kept up to date. It also is posted at www.nontheistfriends.org
- Questions Quaker nontheists often hear include: What is the difference between nontheism and atheism? If we don’t hold a common faith what will unite us? If we accept people holding any belief does this mean we would accept everyone who applies? How do NTFs interpret basic Quaker terms such as religion, worship, leading and discernment? How do we come to a sense of the meeting when some of us are seeking God’s will and others are just doing whatever they want? Without God, are Quakers simply social activists? Does this deny Quaker history?
- See the lists of FGC groups at http://www.fgcquaker.org/connect/gathering/programs-and-events/other-gathering-events#groups and http://www.fgcquaker.org/schedule-and-handouts-2016-fgc-gathering
- This was offered in 2009 by Callie Marsh of West Branch Monthly Meeting in Iowa.
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted in Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, NY: Harper Collins, 2015, p. 72.
- This threat can be particularly hard for those who came to Quakers specifically because of their emphasis on a direct experience of God, or for those who have grown up in a Friends community that defined their group in terms of God. They seem to be losing the RSoFs they have loved. It will be easier for some of these Friends if NTFs are obviously working for all Friends.
- For more see my “Listening and Speaking from the Heart” (Friends Journal 59, no. 5, May 2013, p. 5), and an expanded version with an anthology in my Quaker and Naturalist Too, pp. 12-25.
- A useful example is the Statement on Unity with Diversity by the Spiritual Nurturance Committee of Quaker Earthcare Witness (online at http://www.quakerearthcare.org/article/statement-unity-diversity). QEW has found that this general approach to being diverse is useful in relations of Quakers who are theists and nontheists, Christians and nonChristians, and new age eco-spiritualists and environmental scientists.
- This is true for a wide variety of NTF goals. For instance, it is even a good approach if ones goal is a world free of any involvement with the supernatural.
- This is an example of the larger truth that people lead good lives while holding different faiths. Conversely, ones faith does not guarantee good behavior and changing a person’s faith is not an effective way to change the rest of their behavior. This is also why many people emphasize lives instead of talk. Jesus understood that the best way to love God is by loving our neighbors. It is said that when an elderly Quaker was asked what he believed he replied, “Ask my neighbor.”
- At the 2016 FGC Gathering, Friends from Arizona reported several instances of theists leaving their “Experiment with Light” groups because of how they were treated by militant atheists.
- This felicitous phrase was offered by Betsy Baertlein of Iowa City Monthly Meeting.