Report from Nontheistic Friends’ Workshop at FGC 1976

Friends General Conference, Ithaca, New York, June, 1976

The fifteen to twenty of us who joined this workshop did so out of the need to share ideas with others who are searching for an authentic personal religious framework. The lack of an adequate religious vocabulary which could be used as an alternative to traditional concepts has led to mistaken assumptions about individual non-traditional beliefs, thus hindering dialogue and real communication among Friends. Some of us, for example, are uncomfortable with the attribution of human characteristics to God (anthropomorphism) and do not believe in divine intervention in natural events. Collective beliefs do not always satisfy individual needs or conform to individual experiences. We seek new perspectives beyond traditional religious forms and concepts. Hoping to further the Friendly concern about continuing revelation, we hope that the vocal ministry and First Day school curriculum can give positive recognition to the feelings of this minority.

We began the workshop by sharing our struggles with words, concepts, and beliefs. We felt immediate relief that we could air our a-typical religious ideas and our fears about disclosing these in our Meetings. We discussed the reasons we came to the workshop and felt immediate trust and an exciting recognition of “soul mates”. Through discussion in pairs, in small groups and in the workshop as a whole, we became a support group, giving each other credibility, courage and stimulation. We helped each other think through our own positions. We exchanged experiences, examined vocabulary, searched for similarities and acknowledged differences. An important part of our process was the writing of this statement of our workshop experience using group writing techniques, for this led to critical examination of our thoughts in order to share them with other Friends.

Our group consisted of Friends of all ages ranging from young people in their teens to retired, older Friends. In imaginative ways, all shared an eagerness to explore beyond traditional religious and Christian concepts for creative answers to life’s mysteries. We share a respect and concern for all human beings. We shared an admiration for the history of Quaker altruism and, a desire to be part of our own Meeting “families”. Welcoming diversity, we were stimulated in our own thinking by listening to the beliefs of others. It is exciting to share these beliefs, but it is even more exciting to sense that we all had experienced important values and feelings that can not be adequately expressed intellectually. For us these values have given truth and meaning and zest to everyday life and an experience of religion as a growing, evolving concept.

The tradition of Friends’ respect for the individual as autonomous and responsible is an important shared feeling. We are a seeking group, as Friends have been for 300 years. We might be seeking from a different source but our actions in the world for the improvement of the human condition often finds non-theist side by side with Friends of all persuasions. Why do we belong to the Religious Society of Friends? In part because we feel the need to seek from within a loving and traditionally tolerant, gathered community.

We found in our group that we were representative of a rainbow of beliefs which exists within the larger Society of Friends. This spectrum included theists who define God as a spirit or presence which intervenes and guides in a personal way. Most were non-theists who, while believing in something universal beyond our biological selves which exists in everyone, do not believe in an external directing spirit. There were seekers and questioners looking for new definitions of God free of human characteristics or not wanting to use the term God at all. Some of us explored life-energy as an evolutionary process existing in all of us and giving meaning to life. Some of us identified ourselves simply as “non-believers”.

By listening to other’s expressions of their feelings and beliefs and by following our own guiding and strengthening “inner sources” we can develop our innate potential and experience personal growth. To continue to grow we feel a need to express our minority beliefs more openly and an obligation to listen to ourselves and others on a level which allows us to work together.

Recognizing that there are energies and ideas that may well be part of a new spiritual consciousness in the making, we want to develop an awareness of our diversity and a respect for it through responsibly shared dialogue. We hope for sensitivity and trust in our Meetings which allow us to grow in a community of seekers despite our differences. Unable to accept traditional theology, we are skeptical about substituting new concepts lest they become yet another theological system, but we felt it important to share the thoughts that sprang from this workshop with old and new Friends, young Friends and those who are considering becoming Friends. We believe Quakerism can accommodate this minority, and find part of its vital creativity in the process.

NOTE: The author of this report is “Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends”. The workshop was led by Robert Morgan (1916-1993), a Friend from Pittsburgh PA.

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