Report by Robin Alpern
One person attended because of the laughter from the nontheism workshop at the Friends General Conference Gathering. Another came because a fellow Meeting member who attended in 2007 was so impressed. A third signed up because he questioned whether Quakers could be nontheist. A teenager brought her dad.
Zach Alexander (Cambridge MM, NEYM) and I, co-leaders for this weekend, met for the first time at the 2008 FGC Gathering, 5 minutes before we were scheduled to facilitate an interest group together. The interest group went well, and we agreed to pair up again.
We were joined in opening the new year by fifteen Friends who ranged, in terms of theological orientation, from lifelong atheist to inquiring theist. We also represented a spectrum from those who know every acronym in the Quaker alphabet to some who… don’t. Our purpose was to create a safe place to deepen our spiritual lives, and explore nontheism in a Quaker context.
Everyone had an opportunity in our opening sessions to speak about their religious journey. These were times of deep sharing and listening, recognizing aspects of ourselves in one another, and noting differences too; marvelling also at the wide variety of experiences we brought. These stories stood out for many as one of the highlights of the weekend.
After introductions, we began to dig in with discussions of meaning: what is a theist or nontheist, agnostic or atheist? While the workshop is not primarily intellectual, we explored definitions and language to understand our experiences better. Many of us prefer the term “nontheist” as less adversarial than “atheist” and also more inclusive of a range of nontraditional theological stances.
It felt to me like we had cohered as a group by Saturday afternoon. Time to break into small groups for more focused discussion. From a list of topics such as nontheists applying for membership, unity with theist Friends, and teaching First Day School without belief in God, we chose three interest groups: nontheism in the broader culture; language concerns (such as translating “that of God” or “will of God”); or, my own choice, the afterlife. Our lively little group delved into questions and feelings about that apparently inevitable step into death, and how our religious life does or does not offer support. It is my impression early Friends eschewed this topic because they felt it essential to focus on the here and now. With all due respect, I found our small group was like a Quaker dessert bar, where I could enjoy the luxury of revealing my deepest terrors and fondest imaginings about the ongoing journey of the soul.
Small groups led into discussion in the whole group about spirituality. Friends spoke movingly about the importance to them of “connection.” I reminded us the root of “religion” may have meant “to bind again”: to reconnect, without reference to the object of the connection. This seems to me a recognition that humans naturally separate, from our own inward self, from other people, from nature, from whatever is. It is also our nature to reconnect.
Meeting for worship on Sunday was followed by reflections on how we experience meeting. Nontheists necessarily find ourselves confronting the word “worship” and there are as many ways of relating to it as there are people. Some nontheist Friends search for alternative words; some are comfortable using the term “worship” while perhaps understanding it differently from some theistic Friends. Words aside, the meeting felt deep and rich. If not for our particular workshop setting, the meeting would probably have been indistinguishable from those going on elsewhere that morning.
On the other hand, we were challenged by a participant during the workshop to clarify how we are Quaker. It is the premise of the workshop that those who identify as Quakers are accepted as such. Listening to and observing the nontheists among us, I witnessed people who thrive in meeting for worship, participate in business and committees, espouse the values and testimonies of Friends, apply lessons learned from the history of Quakers, seek the company of Quakers in their lives and travels; in other words, these Friends contribute fully and share enthusiastically in all aspects of Quaker life. Indeed, several of the participants at this weekend said they learned a lot about Quakerism.
At the close of the workshop, some participants planned to apply for membership in their Meetings; others expected to arrange discussions about nontheism. One person spoke movingly about having found in the workshop the first safe spiritual space he’d been in for years. A theistic Friend affirmed our religious society has room for nontheists. A nontheist Friend shared that she felt more open to theists.
From the time my father, Glenn Mallison, my husband, Bowen Alpern and I designed this workshop for the FGC Gathering in 1996, I have felt it ought to be offered to teens and young adult Friends, those who often are deep in the process of questioning their inherited religious life. So it was particularly satisfying that my co-leader was a young adult Friend, and that we succeeded in attracting several other young Friends. Four were teens attending their very first adult Powell House conference. Another teenager, hired to do childcare, was able to join our first session, and loved it. I look forward to including more youth, as participants and leaders, in future. It will mean changing some of the design of the workshop, for instance to include more games (we did play an awesome round of Big Wind Blows), more experiential activities and maybe a dance party. Stay tuned!