Nontheist Friends: Where to from here? A Reply

A first step in discerning our future as nontheists among Friends, is to distinguish between our roles in two very different settings: that is, (a) settings that include a wide variety of theist and nontheist Friends who have come together for many different reasons, and (b) settings in which everyone is there to focus on nontheism among Friends. Here are my thoughts on these two venues:

(a) I suggest the best role for nontheist Friends in general gatherings of Friends is to learn about and strengthen Friends religious diversity, and, in a low-key way, to inform Friends that there is a nontheist option available to Friends and how to get more information about this option. This is especially important for newcomers who don’t know Friends well, and for people with a special personal interest, including those who may be in distress about this issue. Focusing on the religious diversity of Friends, and on how to be a diverse religious community, will benefit Friends in general as well as benefiting nontheist Friends.

(b) I suggest the role of nontheist Friends can be very different in venues where Friends come specifically to delve into topics related to nontheism among Friends. On these occasions, once we have clearly stated our commitment to diversity of Friends’ religious faith, we can focus on expressing our views, leaving to listeners the responsibility of accommodating this to their own views. In this setting, some of us may be led to speak of our long-term vision for the future of nontheist religious views among Friends and to plan for the increased participation of nontheists among Friends.

In my opinion, we have been trying to hold both these events at FGC Gatherings. Our morning workshops have usually been specifically for nontheists, and our afternoon schedule has been a mix of events for nontheists and ones that seek to involve theist Friends (but not very successfully). I think our efforts at FGC Gatherings over the last 25 years have not shown Friends in general that nontheist Friends are committed to religious diversity and that we support Friends we disagree with as we support those we agree with.

I suggest we will be more successful in learning about and strengthening religious diversity among Friends and in our outreach to nontheist Friends and would-be-Friends, if we work for diversity at general gatherings and add some nontheist focused events to our annual schedule. This is the pattern of nontheist Friends in Britain, and of other special interest groups among Friends in the U.S.

Events specifically for nontheist Friends can be national or local. They can last a number of days or just one day. They can address a broad range of concerns or focus on particular aspects of the life of nontheist Friends. For instance, a group of Friends might meet repeatedly to work on outreach to secularists in Quaker colleges, or to develop curricula for children of nontheist Friends, or to study and demonstrate methods of writing statements for approval by a religiously diverse group.

In conclusion, I would like us to mainly focus on religious diversity as our theme when participating in general gatherings, and to hold specialized gatherings that focus on topics of special interest to nontheist Friends.

One Response to Nontheist Friends: Where to from here? A Reply

  1. Victor Thuronyi July 4, 2019 at 5:49 pm #

    I agree with Os Cresson and with Os Cresson’s essay “Theists and nontheists: Friends together”. Building on Os’s comments, a specific suggest for the 2020 FGC gathering is that nontheist friends put together a workshop on how local meetings can be welcoming and inclusive in the dimension of theological diversity (this is not a proposed title, which should be shorter). There is another workshop being offered this year on “Weaving a Welcome” but I think that is focusing more on racial diversity and being welcoming to newcomers in general, which is an important topic but a bit different. The two are overlapping to some extent, but sufficiently distinct that I think there would be room for two workshops on welcoming, from these different orientations. Many of the ideas in Os Cresson’s essay could be usefully explored in such a workshop. As Os has also suggested, perhaps an explicitly theist Friend might be an appropriate co-leader of such a workshop. Especially if that person is well known, such a person might attract theist Friends to participate in the workshop, which would be important for such a workshop to function optimally. A specifically thorny issue that might be wrestled with in such a workshop is beliefs around sexuality. These can be characterized as “theological” even they don’t derive directly from a specific view of God, although those who think that homosexuality is “wrong” tend to think that God has condemned it in some way. The challenge is not to explore what is the “correct” view, but to deal with the question as to whether a local meeting can include people who hold different views, and if so how that can be brought about and managed. My local meeting for example is very supportive of anyone identifying as LGBTQ (as is Baltimore Yearly Meeting, although perhaps some individual BYM members may not be) and someone who is not would have problems voicing a different belief. So this would be an example of the kind of issue that the workshop would address. At least my meeting seems to be much more uniform on political belief than theological beliefs. More generally, the question might be: can a local meeting communicate itself as being welcoming to people with different beliefs (theological or political) and if the message is that we are welcoming, how can we live up to that in practice? I hope that if such a workshop is put together well, it will attract some interest.

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