Theists and Nontheists: Friends Together

During my life as a Friend, I have learned that the relation of Quaker faith and practice is different from what is usually described by Friends. It is often said that Quaker beliefs are the source of Quaker action. That is not the whole story, and the rest of the story has exciting implications for Friends.

First of all, for some Friends the relation of faith and practice runs in the other direction: Quaker beliefs can grow from actions we are impelled to take.

We jump to save a child from traffic, not because of a belief in the sacredness of human life but because in that situation we could do nothing else. We say life is sacred because we find ourselves treating it as such. In this case, our faith in the value of human life explains and justifies our practice.

Whatever the relation of Quaker faith and practice, it is vital that we do not need to hold the same beliefs to join together in action. A common faith is not required for common purposes and practices. Our Quaker practices can be, and are, accompanied by a great variety of different Quaker faiths. We see this in every meeting for worship that we attend, and we see it as we look at Quakerism around the world today, and we see it looking back through our history. Quaker practice is available to all faiths.

The independence of Quaker faith and practice has some surprising implications. I will briefly mention four of them.

Unity. Among Friends, unity can be based on joining together in the traditional Friends practices rather than basing unity on holding the same beliefs. For example, Friends who hold different beliefs worship together. Messages during worship can be valuable regardless of where they come from. A meeting for worship can be a powerful gathering, even when worshiping Friends differ in their religious beliefs.

This doesn’t mean beliefs are unimportant, just that they can be diverse in a united group. It means belief and action stand in a more complex and interesting relation than is usually understood among Friends. Basing unity on common practices means we are free to embrace those with whom we differ. It means I can support you, beliefs and all.

Communication. Another implication is in how we listen and speak with each other and how we join in approving written statements.

When listening, we can translate into own terms and respond to that. I listen to God language and respond to the purpose of the statement, even though God is not part of my response.

When speaking in meeting for worship, Friends can speak from the heart, each in their own religious language, trusting that others will interpret even when their personal religious views differ from the speaker’s. We speak from the heart and listen from the heart in meeting for worship, and we can do the same in all our conversations in the meeting community.

Within our community it is the listener’s responsibility to take no offense. This contrasts with what we do in society at large when we try to avoid giving offense, to be politically correct. In a loving relationship, the emphasis shifts from the speaker to listener, from giving no offense to taking no offense.

There are three important exceptions: one is when your listener doesn’t know about this practice, as with newcomers to the meeting. Then it is our responsibility to let them know that just because a particular religious viewpoint is evident when we speak, this does not mean this is required or expected or preferred of our members. Another exception is when a person is under great strain or has lost control: then it may be necessary for others to avoid giving offense to this person in special need. Finally, in meeting for worship our practice is to avoid contradicting another person’s message. We build on what is said or we go in a new direction. There can be occasions for expressing critical personal reactions to another’s views, but those are special circumstances carefully prepared. Nontheist Friends sometimes have to choose between honestly representing their own views and working for harmony in a religiously diverse community.

In general, in a meeting that is clearly committed to religious diversity, each Friend can speak in her or his own religious language. There need be no fear of giving offense, no biting of tongues. We support each other, and are Friends, whether or not we agree on our religious views. (The test of whether we are being clear is how strangers react. It is not whether we are satisfied that we have made a sufficient effort to tell people of our position.)

Reading is like listening: we can respond to the content of the message rather than to its particular form. It is important to learn from the writings of people we disagree with.

When writing for a religiously diverse group, it helps to include two things: a clear statement of our openness to religious diversity, and personal statements in particular religious languages as examples of our diversity.

Two examples of this way of writing for the approval of a religiously diverse group are the Iowa City Monthly Meeting brochure, and QEW’s “Statement on Unity with Diversity” (see https://www.quakerearthcare.org/article/statement-unity-diversity).

This approach in which Friends are encouraged to speak and write in their own religious terms, while the rest of us interpret into our terms, contrasts with other approaches common among Friends such as not bringing up anything we might disagree on, or agreeing on a few beliefs and only talking about them. (This last is sometimes called seeking the lowest common denominator, but it is really the highest common denominator. The lowest would be something like saying “Ah…!”)

Outreach. The independence of faith and practice has implications for our outreach practices. It affects the materials we write for newcomers, making sure the reader understands our welcome of diversity and their responsibility to interpret what they hear into their own terms. It also affects where we look for new members, since we are not limited to looking for people who agree with us on religious beliefs. And it affects how we welcome newcomers to our meetings, introducing them to diversity and their responsibilities as a listener.

Membership. Our membership decisions in a diverse Quaker meeting can be based on the unity of the applicant and the meeting practicing together as Friends, rather than on agreement about Quaker faith.

I have been speaking of Quaker meetings, but the same is true of religiously diverse Quaker organizations, and families, and friendships.

Additional comments. Our acceptance of religious diversity within the meeting community is rooted in Friends traditions. Consider, for example, our skepticism about “notions,” our avoidance of creeds, our emphasis on each individual as a seeker, and the instruction to “Let your life speak.”

Expertise in religious diversity is especially important for nontheist Friends because many Friends have encountered the New Atheism, popular crusading atheists who reject the religious views of others in particularly dramatic ways. Because of this, nontheist Friends may be suspected of antipathy toward theist Friends. It does not help that we are the only FGC Affinity Group defined in terms of religious belief. In addition, Friends in the U.S. today are aware of our history of schisms over questions of religious belief. This is why a vigorous commitment to religious diversity among Friends is vital to being a nontheist Friend today.

Many Friends meetings and organizations are excellent models of religious diversity. I particularly call your attention to FCNL, FWCC, QEW, and QUF.

There are implications for other differences among Friends: for example, differences in faith other than the theism-nontheism issue, such as differences about Christianity, or about the relation of faith and action. And other beliefs such as whether some sort of group mind is at work during Quaker worship. And differences other than in beliefs, such as in race, gender, sexual orientation, education and class. Listening and speaking from the heart is useful in diverse communities whenever this diversity is reflected in how we speak.

Knowing that our meeting or organization embraces religious diversity means we each can encourage people we do not agree with to join the meeting. Our meeting is stronger when it is diverse and in unity. In such a meeting or organization, we are called to work for all Friends, not just our friends.

Nontheist Friends bring a gift to the Religious Society of Friends, the gift of our experience of unity amid diversity and some special skills in how it is done. This, in turn, can be a gift the Religious Society of Friends offers a religiously divided world.

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