The following is a talk given by James Riemermann at the inaugural conference of the Nontheist Friends Network, Birmingham, UK, March 2012. Scroll to the bottom of the page for a recording of the talk, in three parts on Youtube.
I’m not a Quaker scholar, or really any other kind of scholar. I’m sure there are many here with a much deeper understanding of the makeup of American Quakers, historically and currently, than my own. But I’m going to talk about my own story as an American nontheist Friend, and some context is important in understanding that story.
I’ve worried a little that focusing on my personal experience today–talking about how I fell in love with the Religious Society of Friends over the last 20 years, as pretty much a life-long atheist–might come off a bit self-absorbed. That might be the truth.
But I think that personal experience is at least a starting point for every last one of us. Trying to understand each other’s experience is a central part of our work to make a welcoming home for every last one of us. That means Christians, non-Christian theists, nontheists, and all the subtle variations of our spiritual lives and understandings.
So, in hopes of being just a little bit less self-absorbed, I’ll start by sharing some background on American Quakerism and how nontheism fits into that picture…or how it doesn’t fit.
My understanding is that British Friends have managed to remain a single organization, under British Yearly Meeting. North American Friends have not managed that. I’m intrigued by that difference, and hope to learn from other Friends here this weekend, how that difference and others might affect the experience of nontheist Friends in Britain.
U.S. Friends have gone through several splits over the centuries, and that has had a great impact on how Quakerism looks in the U.S. In the 1820s was the “Great Separation” between Hicksite and Orthodox Friends. My monthly and yearly meeting, though born much later than that separation, remains on the Hicksite side of the division, which is the theologically liberal side. The Orthodox side underwent further divisions, most famously between the Wilburites and Gurneyites.
In the 1890s, Iowa Friends Joel and Hannah Bean and some of their supporters, were resistant to the wave of Christian revivalism that was sweeping Iowa Yearly Meeting and the country. In connection with that resistance, at some point they were judged by Iowa Yearly Meeting to be doctrinally incorrect, and removed from the rolls of the meeting. They settled in California, and became the core of what would be become known as “Beanite” Friends.
Friends in the U.S. today now comprise five or more distinct organizations, depending on how one counts. In most of these organizations, my understanding is that it would be quite nearly impossible to be an openly nontheist member. The key word, I think, is “openly.” I very much doubt there is a single yearly meeting of Friends in the United States without a substantial number of long-time Friends who, mostly silently, sometimes in painful isolation, go to meeting not for love of God, but for love of the community, and the ways of Friends.
Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International, which between them encompass the vast majority of Friends worldwide, mostly in Africa and Latin America, are mostly pastoral. This means they have pastors who give sermons rather than silent, unprogrammed worship, or in some cases, in addition to silent worship. My understanding, which is not from direct experience attending such meetings, is that the idea of openly nontheist Friends is almost unimaginable within most of these meetings. Phillip Gulley, a pastor within Friends United Meeting, has been nearly defrocked for publishing books like “If Grace is True” and “If the Church were Christian,” books which challenge Christian orthodoxy in significant ways. He is certainly, however, a theist and a Christian in his own way.
There are also three separate yearly meetings of Conservative Friends, in Ohio, North Carolina, and Iowa. Conservative meetings are strictly unprogrammed, with fairly strong Christian identities. Yet my understanding is that they are often quite a bit more theologically diverse and liberal on the ground than their books of discipline–the equivalent of our Faith and Practice–would suggest. I know of at least one active, openly nontheist Friend from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and I doubt he is the only one.
My branch is Friends General Conference, which I’ll refer to as FGC. FGC is arguably the most theologically diverse branch of North American Friends, and includes well under half of North American Quakers. There are also Western Independent Friends, historically distinct, but in my understanding, philosophically very similar to FGC Friends. These are non-affiliated yearly meetings which have historic connections to the “Beanite” split. My understanding is that they are at least as openly diverse and theologically liberal as FGC.
As I said earlier, I feel confident that all of these branches include Friends who might consider themselves something like nontheists. It is primarily within Friends General Conference and Western Independent Friends, however, where one finds open, self-described nontheist Friends.
The annual week-long Gathering of Friends General Conference had the first explicitly named nontheist Friends workshop we know of in 1976, and then not again until 1996. Since then there has been such a workshop, sometimes two, almost every year, which pretty much always has more applicants than openings. That means maybe 20-50 people in one or two workshops, and many more who requested the workshop, but didn’t get in because of lack of space.
This coming year is a rare disappointment for us. A proposal by one of our most experienced workshop leaders was turned down for the gathering this July. I don’t particularly know how that decision was made, but it absolutely doesn’t mean that nontheist Friends activities are no longer welcome at FGC. Every year there are far more proposals than room for workshops, and sometimes long-time, popular workshops are turned down just to make room for new workshops, which might prove to be popular in the future.
Also, Nontheist Friends constitute a designated “affinity group” at the Gathering, which means we are given a reserved room for afternoon activities, and space for a flyer in the welcoming packet where we announce those activities. Those afternoon activities sometimes have two, three, or even four times as many attenders as our typical workshop.
So, by and large, the organization of Friends General Conference has been very open to nontheist Friends, but there is definitely some controversy at Gathering about our visible, vocal presence. At one of our afternoon sessions, we often explicitly invite theists to ask questions and raise concerns. Most of these sessions have been very friendly, but sometimes a Friend will show up who thinks we have no business in Quakerism, and will jump down our throats.
Also, when we gather for meals, a Friend across the table might ask what workshop I’m taking, and I will tell him or her. Most of the time it goes just fine. Occasionally, though, I get a shocked and disappointed look, and the conversation can be chilly or challenging. It’s a challenge worth meeting, though. Dealing with such a Friend gracefully, I think, is some of what it takes to help folks understand that nontheists can be good Friends.
There is also a nontheist Friends web site at nontheistfriends.org, and a usually very active nontheist Friends email discussion list. While there are substantially more US than UK Friends on the list, it is international, and very much open to everyone here. If you’re interested, please sign up on the web site, or give me a card with your name and email address.
So, enough about WE Americans. Let’s move on to ME, American.
Unlike most nontheist Friends I’ve met, I’ve never really been a believer, not even as a child. I’m the son of an agnostic Jewish refugee father, and of a mother whose religion took the form of mental illness. I spent a few pleasant years as a child at a Unitarian church, even sang in the choir, but I never thought of myself as religious. If anyone had told me in my 20s that, a decade or so later, I would fall in love with a Friends Meeting and become a dedicated and deeply involved Quaker, I would have laughed it off without a thought. I’ve always been intrigued by the philosophical or existential threads in some religious writings, but the “beliefs” part of it never made any sense to me, and still doesn’t. The community part of religion, which has turned out to be the most compelling to me of all…well, I’m not sure I was quite aware of its existence as a young man.
In 1990, I met my wife, Ann, who had come to Quakerism after rejecting the Catholicism of her childhood. I decided to tag along to the meeting where she had been a member for several years.
Right off the bat I was drawn to the practice of silent worship. I barely grasped the importance of the communal part of that silence, though I could tell it was quite different from sitting silent by myself. As a sometimes poet, I found compelling language and images rising in my mind with an unusual frequency in the midst of worship. This made me panic, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember them long enough to write them down. I started bringing a notebook, and some of my fondest poems were born in worship during my first year at meeting. Here’s one of those:
All our threads spindle upward
together, a yarn immeasurable
and tenuous as prayer into
swirl of sky like breathing
marble. Immaculate. And human misery
finds its forgotten heart; tears
fall like magnesium fire
in dark water. The drowning
flame murders us. Shhhh:
Your eternally open mouth
is a garden for birds. They weave
nests of sweet grass behind your eyes.
Their wings flutter alive the illusion
of vision, the world you think
you know. You swear, it is all
there: stone, wood, flesh,
the cruel architecture of time.
Trust your breath.
The world is a resonance of wings.
I discovered a problem with bringing a notebook to meeting, though. The more addicted I got to these images, epiphanies and insights, the more I tended to resent it when someone spoke, especially if what they said seemed silly or disagreeable to me. They were interrupting MY silence. Anyway, I found that worship doesn’t work so well in a spirit of resentment, so I gave up the notebook. Over time I’ve gotten to the point where I welcome and value most of the messages I hear in worship. Sometimes I value the ones I disagree with even more than those I agree with.
From the beginning and to this day, I’m not a person who loves to be part of a group. I don’t like to be the center of attention. I don’t like to have things expected of me. I particularly don’t like to conform my thoughts or decisions to what any person or group expects of me. My early involvement with Friends was on my own terms, and although I’ve moved somewhat away from that early tendency, it’s still very much part of who I am.
I’m not ashamed of that, though it is sometimes an uncomfortable way to be. I hear a lot of criticism of “individualism” in Quaker circles. Such criticism touches on something important, I think, but it misses the mark. A Quakerism, or a culture, that does not wholeheartedly honor the value and distinctiveness of the individual, cannot create community of much depth or genuineness. Building community and unity of a sort is absolutely central to being a Quaker, or a human, but that unity is in dynamic relationship, not in stasis. We can and must listen to and learn from one another, even allow ourselves to be changed if that is how spirit moves us. But that doesn’t mean sacrificing our various world views and adopting a readymade theology that doesn’t make sense to us.
About a year after I started attending, my wife and I asked for a clearness committee for marriage under the care of the meeting. Some Friends on that committee struggled with my atheism: not directly, but around my unwillingness to use traditional Friends’ language in our vows. That is: “In the presence of God and these our Friends, I take thee to be my wife, promising with Divine assistance to be unto thee a loving and faithful husband as long as we both shall live.”
They’re lovely vows, but coming out of my mouth, they would have been lies. At some point I said, listen, I’ve told you where I am, we’ve told you where we are as a couple. Our vows are not a problem for us, and you need to decide if they are a problem for you. They decided, and we were married under the care of the meeting.
I personally have a hard time understanding why anybody gets married any other way. Quaker weddings are the best.
The real clincher that brought me whole-heartedly into Quakerism came when my wife got pregnant and terribly, gravely ill. A then-undiagnosed auto-immune illness led to pre-eclampsia, toxemia, a terrifying psychotic depression, and very nearly her death, until the pregnancy was terminated to save her life. During those agonizing days and weeks while I was almost living at the hospital, Friends whose names I didn’t know were caring for our daughters, calling special meetings for worship, bringing meals to me, sitting with me while I fell apart.
In the months after that experience, though I still didn’t understand how a person like me could be a Quaker, it dawned on me that, whatever the conflicts and contradictions between us, these are my people.
Within a year, this realization prompted me to ask for a clearness committee for membership. We talked a bit about my atheism on that committee, but there wasn’t the slightest hint that it might be a barrier to being a Friend. I do remember one dear elderly woman on the committee telling me: “You believe in God. You just don’t know it yet.” She was a lovely, generous-hearted woman, and I wasn’t the least bit offended, but I had to say, no, you’re wrong.
Almost a decade later, after I had become more and more known as an “out” atheist, I gave a high school Friend a ride home after a committee meeting. He had learned I was an atheist, and shared that he was as well. He shared that he had often been told that without belief in God a person couldn’t be moral. This was hard for him to hear, and hard for me to hear as well.
I thought: This will not stand. This must be challenged. Young Friends should not have to struggle with such thoughts on their own, in silence. This led me to the idea of starting a discussion group in my meeting called Quakers without God, which I formed in 2002. With a hiatus of a couple of years, we’ve been meeting monthly ever since, sometimes just a handful of us, at times a dozen or more. I didn’t want to damage or wound the community with the group, and for that reason, I spent time with a Christian Friend in our meeting who I had asked to serve as my elder, before moving forward with the first announcement. It read:
Quakers without God: I would like to form a discussion group of f/Friends of all ages whose faith may not extend to God or the supernatural. Are our beliefs irrelevant, or might they contain something of value to our beloved religious community? Are we hiding? Can we speak our truth?
The group has been wonderful. Some of the richest conversations I’ve ever had, were among these Friends, at these gatherings. Sometimes the discussion has been directly related to belief and unbelief; more often it has not. At least as much as the nominal topic of the group, I have valued spending time with a group of people who are comfortable wrestling with ideas, in a vigorous manner that I find is often frowned upon within my meeting. Nobody at Quakers without God has ever said “we’re getting too much in our heads here,” and I’m grateful for that.
I had never heard the term “nontheist” at the time I formed the group, and in a way I’m glad of that. I think that term was chosen, at least partly, because a lot of Friends don’t know what it means. I like that people know what “Quakers without God” means, more or less, even though we don’t quite know what “God” means.
Years after the group was founded, the young Friend who inspired me to launch it told me that, before attending the group, he had never believed he was “a spiritual person.” After hearing from so many clearly spiritual people who came to our gatherings, he learned that he was spiritual in his own way, that one can be spiritual without believing in God.
At the same time I was a bit uncomfortable becoming known as the face of godlessness in my monthly and yearly meeting. For the first year or so I could hardly go to a potluck or other social gathering without having to answer the question: “What do you mean, Quakers without God?” Some who asked were interested in possibly coming to the group, some were merely curious in a friendly way, some were curious in a challenging way, and one or two were seriously troubled by the whole concept. Many of the conversations were rewarding for me and, I think, good for the community. But it did get exhausting sometimes.
Some of that discomfort comes from that fact that my nontheism is not all I am as a person, or as a member of the community. I do work for the meeting, I spend time with Friends for the pure pleasure of their company. I serve on committees for care, support, and clearness, leaving my theological notions behind as necessary to serve the needs of the person for whome the committee was formed. I look forward to a time when the idea of giving a talk about being a nontheist among Friends seems pointless, because nobody thinks taking such a position is impossible or anti-social.
A significant part of the group’s value, I think, accrues to people who never show up. The simple existence of such an item in our announcement sheet, sometimes alongside another announcement for Friends of Jesus, is a comfort for those who feel the sting of unspoken or dishonored difference. I remember the time a young transgendered Friend spoke a message in worship saying, essentially, that reading those two contrasting announcements side-by-side in our announcement sheet made him think, maybe this is the kind of place where someone like me can find a home. That moved me.
At the time I formed Quakers without God, I had never been to the FGC annual gathering, and had no idea there was a national or international organized group of Quaker nontheists that had workshops, a web site, and an email list. I first went to that Gathering in 2004, and attended the Nontheism Among Friends workshop. This was another eye opener for me.
My own meeting had been, not perfectly, but overwhelmingly, supportive and open toward me, and theological diversity was and remains a fundamental characteristic of our community. I learned that others attending the workshop felt similarly about their home meetings, but many had had a terribly difficult time of it. Some were isolated, afraid and reluctant to speak out. Some had been challenged and even insulted again and again.
One long-time Friend who had grown up in a meeting, was read out of membership in that meeting for being an outspoken unbeliever. “Read out of meeting” is a common phrase for “disownment” in the U.S. Bravely, she stayed engaged in the community, and was read back into membership some years later, with a heartfelt apology from the meeting for the admitted mistake of reading her out. This story is in the book “Godless for God’s Sake,” edited by our Friend David Boulton.
Many workshop participants felt deep relief in learning that there are others, there is support, there is hope for Quakerism to become more and more open in its diversity, open though it may already be in many ways. At every such workshop I’ve attended, and the one I co-led, I have seen this profound sense of relief emerge many times.
I came back from this workshop with a new, broader perspective on the significance of nontheism and Friends. Though I was shy about words like “leading” and “ministry,” I could hardly deny having a leading for ministry. I approached our ministry and counsel committee, and requested a clearness committee to explore my leading to “minister to non-theist Friends throughout the Religious Society of Friends who are suffering in meetings less easy with diversity than our own seems to be.” So, a committee of eight Friends was named, mostly long-time, highly respected Friends, most of whom were and are theists, and at least a couple of whom considered themselves Christians.
The strongest potential piece of ministry that came out of our early meetings was, I needed to work on some sort of minute or statement on theological diversity, explicitly naming unbelief as a legitimate thread or pattern in the tapestry of Twin Cities Friends Meeting, and in Quakerism overall. It was important to me that such a document name, but not be about, unbelief. The assumption was that not only unbelievers, but believers of all kinds, needed to be respected, honored, and gratefully listened to for their spiritual insights and experiences.
My further hope was that, if such a minute were approved by my monthly meeting, it could then be shared with our yearly meeting as a testimony of our community, and shared with other yearly meetings around the country. I also thought it might offer some hope, and a sense of legitimacy, to at least a few Godless Friends feeling isolated in meetings where such conversations had not taken place, Friends who might be afraid to make this part of themselves visible.
When I first brought a draft to the committee, we were all surprised to learn that this was not just my ministry, but the ministry of the entire committee as one. Everyone there, Christian, non-Christian theist, and nontheist, committed themselves to bringing such a minute forward, because we all felt it represented who we were as a meeting, and who we wanted to be. We spent many months working together on the statement, consulting with ministry and counsel and the clerk of meeting to discern the best way to bring it into the the meeting. We held a couple of well-attended adult education sessions where the statement was received warmly, although there were some strongly critical comments as well.
Shortly thereafter, more than a year after the first draft, the statement was brought before meeting for business. The meeting did not come to clearness on adopting the statement, but asked ministry and counsel to take up the work and see if a statement could be produced that was acceptable to the meeting. A completely new draft on the topic was brought to meeting for business several years later, but the meeting was not asked for approval. My personal sense was that both statements well reflected the, let’s call it “center of gravity” of the meeting, but enough Friends were troubled by the idea to make approval unlikely. It may well come up again at some point, but however many Friends are easy with the fact of our theological diversity, it is uncertain whether some such statement will clear the bar at some point. I still have hope, but either way, these are still my people.
Here is the text of that draft theological diversity statement where it was left. Reading it today I see some of its flaws and feel some embarrassment. Yet I still find it to be important and essentially truthful. It is no longer a statement of mine, nor of the committee that worked together to craft it, because we released it to our meeting. Neither is it a statement of Twin Cities Friends Meeting, because the meeting was not clear to adopt it. Perhaps that means it belongs to nobody. Or perhaps it belongs to anyone who finds that it speaks to them:
Friends have traditionally rejected the use of creeds, largely from a conviction that no statement of belief can accurately describe or reflect divine reality. There is another compelling reason for us to reject creeds. Over time the spiritual and theological diversity among Friends has become far broader and deeper than early Friends could possibly have imagined. Twin Cities Friends Meeting has fully and joyfully embraced as members people who describe themselves as Christians as well as Wiccans, pagans, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and an even greater diversity of Friends who neither claim nor desire a label to describe their distinctive individual views of ultimate reality.
This is the reality of our community. The first purpose of this document is to express our gratitude for that reality, and to explicitly state that differences along the full range of theological belief, including unbelief, are no barrier to membership or to full participation in our beloved religious community.
This is not to say that beliefs, theological or otherwise, are irrelevant to our community, or to the process of becoming a member. On the contrary, one of the great blessings of serving on a clearness committee for membership is the opportunity to better understand the deepest beliefs and spiritual passions of a potential member. What’s more, a discussion of such beliefs might in some cases reveal that an applicant does not feel sufficiently drawn to the ways of Friends, to become a member. The barrier in such cases is not belief per se, but affinity with our way of being together in religious community.
Sometimes in our discussions of spiritual and theological diversity, we are perhaps too eager to search for commonalities, for that which transcends the differences between us. This is a worthy effort, but it should not get in the way of our understanding what those differences are. To love genuinely is not to care for a person despite their individual peculiarities, or to overlook those peculiarities, but to care for them wholly, in full light of those blessed peculiarities. The beauty and richness of human community derives from difference as much as it does from similarity. What could we possibly learn from each other in a world where everyone has the same religious beliefs, political persuasions, family background, or ethnicity?
Similarly, it is not enough to be tolerant of our differences; we need to bring our differences to the surface, rising above our fear of offending or being offended. Speaking in meeting for worship requires discernment, to be sure, but this does not mean that we should withhold a message for fear that others might be made uncomfortable by our theology. We do not rightly discern a leading to speak by reflecting on how friends might receive that message, but reflecting on the quality and power of the impulse to speak, and remaining faithful to spirit as we experience it. There are messages and ways of speaking that may be inappropriate in meeting for worship, but again, we do not make this distinction according to our agreement or disagreement with the message. It is one thing to deliver a message that expresses the light of our faith that we might kindle such a flame in others; it is quite another thing to proclaim ours as the only true light, or to berate others for being faithful to their own light. This means there is a place in our midst for evangelism in the best sense of that word–an evangelism that might be rooted in Jesus, Buddha, God or Goddess, nature, the hunger for scientific knowledge, or simple human love and compassion.
There have been times when I have questioned my connection to my meeting. When I was nominated for a second term on ministry and counsel, a Friend I felt very fond of brought a letter to meeting for business suggesting that I, as an outspoken unbeliever, should never have been made a member, and certainly shouldn’t be on ministry and counsel. The meeting came clearly to my support and named me to the committee, despite the Friend’s concern, but the experience was much harder on me than I would have expected. Despite friendship, connections, and support from so many, I lost some of my confidence that I belonged in the community.
Even now I sometimes worry, against my better judgment, about who among all these people I care for so much, thinks I don’t have any business being here. That’s not how I feel about things, really, but sometimes the feeling sneaks up on me. Am I a pretender, a tourist in Quakerism? The problem is not really in the community, but in me. Still, I will stick with my conviction that giving myself fully to this community is a vulnerable thing to do, but also a crucial thing to do. There are always going to be some who would like to draw a circle around Friends, with us on the outside.
I’m sure the meaning of being a nontheist among Friends is different from nation to nation, from community to community, from person to person, but for me it starts with individual relationships, one on one. If being an openly Nontheist Friend was just about bringing in a set of ideas in hopes of influencing a religion, however true and important I might think those ideas are, I would have lost interest in the subject years ago.
Rather, it is about revealing our true selves to one another, and listening as others reveal their true selves to us. I think this revealing is the most genuine purpose of community, of religion. The fact that our true selves are different in important ways, and that those differences sometimes lead to disagreement and conflict, is a strength in our community, not a weakness. If we all believed the same things, what could we possibly learn from each other?
The love in our communities, if we are lucky enough to have it, is not theological or theoretical. It is not philosophical or right or wrong. It is real, human, messy, and conflicted. If we focus solely on our commonalities, our areas of agreement, there is only so deep we can go. I would like us to go deeper. I think we can handle it.