Reflections on a Decade of Nontheism Workshops

In 1996, Bowen Alpern, Glenn Mallison and I designed and presented a workshop called “Nontheism Among Friends” at the Friends General Conference Gathering. Since then, various people have led the workshop and offshoots from it. I have led seven so far. This year, I was particularly aware of some ways the culture of the Religious Society of Friends, as I know it, has shifted, due in some small measure to these workshops.

When we first offered the workshop in 1996, we didn’t know if anyone would come. We didn’t know if it would cause trouble: a rift, even an eventual schism. We now know that a large segment of our Society is interested in the sort of questioning and exploring the workshop offers. The workshops have consistently filled to overflowing, such that it has become necessary to offer more than one at a time. In addition to creating space for larger numbers of attenders, offering multiple workshops has allowed us to respond to the frequent request for more focused (or “advanced”) workshops for Friends who have already taken part in the introductory workshop. It is understood that there will be fewer workshops than usual in 2006, but thereafter it would be best to provide more than one nontheism workshop.

Far from causing a rift, the workshop has supported many, many Friends to participate more fully in their Meetings. Some have felt clear to request membership after years or even decades of attendance; others have offered vocal ministry or volunteered to serve on committees for the first time. Several have facilitated a conversation on nontheism in their Monthly, Quarterly or Yearly Meeting, thus bringing this very important topic out of the closet. Theistic Quakers have reported that the workshop helped them become clearer about their own faith, and more committed to it. Friends have worked together to find bridges across our theological differences.

Instead of marginalizing nontheistic Friends, the workshops have helped Friends to recognize there is a spectrum of belief. I now hear people say “I am a theist”, where formerly, they may have had no sense of that as a distinct element of their religious life. Instead of theists being regarded as “normal” and nontheists as “other”, there is a growing awareness we are all Quakers, with different views.

Workshop participants have had profound discussions of faith that were rarely taking place elsewhere in the Society. Modern Quakers tend to shy away from talking about beliefs and faith, but nontheists almost necessarily spend time inquiring into our interpretations and concepts, because we know they differ from the norm. In the online conversation that grew out of our workshops, there is lively, original and profound sharing about spiritual life. Participants have discussed every imaginable aspect of the relationship between humanity and divinity. This vitality spills over into the Society at large, encouraging all of us to feel safer discussing theology and philosophy.

Changes in the culture must lead to changes in the workshop. Up until now, we have usually welcomed part-time and drop-in participants. We felt that this “safe space” was so new and rare, we wanted to make sure not to turn anyone away. However, there now are more and more opportunities for Friends to engage in nontheistic conversation and community. It may be time to restrict the workshop to full-time participants, in order not to keep breaking the integrity of the group.

In the early years, the first day or even first two days were devoted to lengthy introductions. Again, because this dialogue was so novel, Friends had a great deal to share about how they had come to an interest in or commitment to nontheistic Quakerism. However, the spiritual journey and experience of nontheistic Friends is more familiar now. This year, for the first time, we broke into smaller groups to share introductions. Perhaps the personal journey of individuals will continue to take less priority in future workshops. This, and the restriction to full-timers, will especially make sense when there are at least two workshops (introductory and advanced), and when the workshops are complemented, as they often are at the Gathering, by interest groups, informal conversation hours, shared meals, etc.

It may now be possible to focus more on the spiritual life of the workshop. At least two of this year’s attenders remarked that they felt the workshop was not sufficiently spiritual. (One does wonder a little why these two Friends didn’t choose the workshop on Nontheistic Spirituality, but perhaps it was already full.) I think the original workshop was developed, in part, in reaction to a sense of being excluded from the Religious Society of Friends. Participants needed to make up for years of silence on this subject. Although there has often been a deep sense of community and love in the workshops, there also has been a lot of talking. The discussion may be more intellectual or philosophical than some would wish. As the feeling of being included and even welcomed grows among nontheistic Friends, I think it may be best to work more at grounding the workshops more deeply. It might be good, for instance, to spend a full hour, at least once, in silent worship and reflection together, followed by worship sharing about the experience. Having finally begun to find our voice, we can more readily choose to be still and listen.

I do not wish to exaggerate the change that has come about in our Society. Each time a nontheist workshop is held, especially in a new venue, such as Pendle Hill, a Yearly Meeting, or Woodbrooke in England, there are attenders who profess never to have heard of nontheism among Friends, or never to have spoken of their own nontheism. Each time there are some who ask if it is possible to be a Quaker without a traditional belief in God, who want to know how people can live ethical lives without theism, or who wonder what nontheists do in Meeting for Worship. There is clearly still a place for the introductory workshop. And although some ask if we haven’t done this enough now, there are still many Friends concerned with these issues who need a safe place to explore.

Meanwhile, many Friends want to move beyond the basic questions. They want to delve more deeply into such queries as, If religious life is not about belief in God, what is it? How do theistic and nontheistic Friends share a religious life? Do we need to modify our advancement literature to reflect an openness to nontheistic members; do we even need to minute our openness? This, again, suggests it is helpful to have more than one workshop per Gathering.

Maybe the biggest change in this decade is the development of the email listserv.
The first known nontheism workshop at the Gathering actually took place in 1976, when Robert Morgan led a “Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends”. There was no follow-up to this workshop that we know of. Likewise, the earliest “Nontheism Among Friends” had little or no follow-up, though there were attempts at newletters and a listserv. These didn’t last, and so at each Gathering we had to make a fresh start at creating community and conversation. The listserv that grew out of the 2003 workshop has flourished, however. This has made it possible to develop deep and lasting relationships, pursue the discussion well beyond what can take place in one short week at the Gathering, and reach out to Friends all around the world. In turn, this growing network of support and challenge has birthed a sourcebook on nontheistic Quakerism to be published in 2006, a gift to the Religious Society of Friends, and all who are impassioned by the religious life.

I look forward to what the next decade will bring. And I thank Friends General Conference for helping to create a home for these good Friends.

Robin Alpern
August 2005

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5 Responses to Reflections on a Decade of Nontheism Workshops

  1. Liz Opp April 7, 2007 at 4:53 pm #

    Hello to Robin A and others…

    I enjoyed reading the history and positive impact of workshops for nontheist Friends, but I’m confused why this letter from 2005 is reprinted now (30 March 2007). My best guess is because there’s been a fair amount of chatter every now and then on Quaker blogs about the “spectrum of belief” that may or may not exist among Friends who are writing about “convergent Quakerism,” but a word of introduction to the reprint would have taken the guesswork out of my own imagination.

    That said, I do think it’s important for Liberal Friends and others to live lovingly into these very big questions about what it means to be Quaker and what it is that binds us together, if we no longer share a belief in a Divine Principle.

    Blessings,
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  2. James Riemermann April 7, 2007 at 6:56 pm #

    Liz,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    My sense around your last point is that these questions — “what it means to be Quaker and what it is that binds us together” — are neither more nor less important because we do not share a belief in a divine principle. My sense is that the meaning of Quakerism, the thing that binds us together, has never been shared belief in a divine principle. At the time of Quakerism’s birth, the whole Christian world, as well as the Muslim and Jewish world, shared belief in a divine principle, or something like that. There was nothing particularly distinctive about such belief. The distinctions were elsewhere.

    Beyond that, I’m not going to say here my sense of what made Quakers Quakers, either then or now, first because I don’t think there is any simple or binding answer, and second because I don’t find it to be all that important a question, or even helpful. I find that a great focus on determining what makes Quakers distinctive is mostly a hindrance to living in community as Quakers. That question, it seems to me, is essentially about drawing boundaries between us and everyone else, and I think our focus should be about erasing boundaries between human beings. Interestingly, the latter is the aspect of Jesus’s ministry that speaks to me most powerfully.

    There are very good reasons to study the early Quakers, but not in order to determine what kind of Quakers we should be (which is to say, what kind of human beings we should be). We need to figure that out for ourselves, with our hearts, our minds, our brothers, and our sisters.

    I also think — and even a cursory reading of Quaker history bears this out — that the notion of a golden age of Quakerism (or Christianity) when we all walked in unity, is a myth. There was never such an age.

  3. RichardW April 8, 2007 at 10:45 am #

    Hello Robin, I have read your post and found it to be quite interesting.
    But I must admit that as a theistic Quaker I really don’t understand non-Theistic Quakers. They are sort of an enigma to me.
    As I understand it the Quaker faith is based upon–at least in liberal circles–waiting in silence to listen for God’s still small voice. (I say “as I understand it” because I am a relatively new Quaker.) If a Quaker does not believe in God then what is the point of sitting in silence? Whom (or what) are you waiting to hear from? And what is the Inner Light in your opinion? As I said I find non-theism puzzling. (I feel the same way about my Unitarian friends who are secular humanists. I wonder what is their point in going to church.) I mean, if you don’t believe in God why bother doing the religious thing at all?
    I also wonder why non-theists just don’t be Buddhists since Buddhism has no real concept of God.
    Mind you, I am sincere in asking these questions. I am not trying to be flippant.
    I truly am just curious.

  4. Robin Alpern April 8, 2007 at 1:55 pm #

    Dear Liz,

    Yes, I could have put a word of introduction. I’m not sure we had this website when I wrote the article; at any rate I didn’t think of posting it then. Recently, some other conversations on this site reminded me that I had already written a personal overview of movement in this area, and I just wanted to have this piece available on the website. Thanks for your encouragement!

    Love,
    Robin

  5. Robin Alpern April 8, 2007 at 2:38 pm #

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for the excellent questions. They deserve a lot of discussion.

    For the moment, I will say simply that, in my view, organized religion has conflated belief in God with our innate craving to feel connected with the universe. Nothing (except perhaps the Church) says that you have to believe in God to enjoy stillness or to know the wisdom of reflecting deeply and openly in hopes of receiving fresh perspective, courage or upliftment. You don’t have to believe in God to revere life, to love community, to believe in working out differences peaceably.

    I very much appreciate your curiosity. Wondering about one another’s journey is an important way for all of us to move forward. You might like to read an essay I wrote that directly addresses some of your questions; it’s called Why Not Join the Unitarians? and is posted under “Formal Essays” on this website. Also on the website under “Books” you can find info about “Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism” in which 27 nontheistic Friends have done their best to speak to some of the issues you raise.

    I do hope, Richard, that some of these writings or your further conversations with Friends will help clear up your puzzlement. One reason I wrote the report to which you’ve replied is to emphasize that nontheists are not some kind of interloper, but an integral, contributing part of the Religious Society of Friends. The more all of us appreciate and welcome each other here, the more blessed our community.

    Love,
    Robin

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