As a one-time dabbler in Quakerism (also known as the Religious Society of Friends), I was pleased and surprised to find this blog:

http://www.nontheistfriends.org/

I won't endeavor to summarize Quakerism as I will probably do a poor job of it. A quick Googling will probably do better than I could. Despite its Christian religious roots, I've been drawn to Quaker practices, particularly its testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, and Equality, and its Meetings of quiet contemplation. Though I do not attend Meetings anymore, this blog has made me consider a possible return.

I figured I'd introduce TA to this concept and see what they think.

Tags: nontheism, quakers, religion

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I have a lot of distant, originally Quaker, relatives in Bucks County, doone. It was a very common place for emigrating Quakers to initially settle.
The meeting I attended for a while was very diverse, very liberal, and very inclusive. We had a former United Church of Christ pastor, a couple Buddhists, Deists, vanilla Universalists etc. I never inquired, since I wasn't one at the time, but I'd venture there was at least one atheist.

When it comes to spiritual "truth" there's only one to me: it's all mythology. As long as you can accept that's what I know, don't try to force your conception of morals on others, and accept that science is the only way available to us to understand our universe with any sort of certainty, then I have no problem with you. Whether I'll find such acceptance within the Quakers, I haven't a clue...

I recognize I would be in the minority, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a shot.
There are openly atheist Quakers, but acceptance varies from meeting to meeting. As you know, meetings are autonomous and are the sum of their members, reflecting the individuals.
Fred, you seem to have misunderstood the nature of Quakerism a little. There are no such formal distinctions within liberal Quakers. Some may adopt Steiner principles, some may be Buddhists or Universalists, and some may be several or none of these. They do not form any kind of formal separate entities above and beyond the Society, but are all part of an organic community within it. The Quaker Universalist Group homepage gives a good indication of both their philospophy, and the relation of such groups to the Society - http://www.qug.org.uk/

As to numbers of nontheists within Quakerism, it depends both on how you define Quakerism and how you define nontheism. Nontheists, by definition, are practically exclusively liberal Quakers. In the strict sense of the word, nontheists may actually be the majority within Quakerism, and even in the narrower sense of agnostic and atheist, then they are an increasingly significant number within liberal Friends, especially in Britain, Europe and some parts of America.
So, I have been considering writing a thread on this very topic for quite some time, but it is a very difficult concept to convey clearly and in depth. I am one of the members of the site which Matt has linked to, and have been for some years. The site is not a formally separate or distinct organisation, and neither are any of the other groups referred to in Fred and Matt's posts distinctive or separate from the Society itself, but form part of the diverse and inclusive structure of liberal Quakerism. Nontheist Friends originated from a discussion forum at liberal Quaker gatherings, which resulted in the book "Godless for God's Sake" ed by David Boulton (a prominent British Humanist Quaker), out of which the online discussion group formed. That group is the only nontheist structure, as such.

Quakers, unlike traditional organised, heirarchical religious groups, organise along the lines of local meetings, which are largely autonomous, and are grouped into area meetings, which in turn form regional meetings, known as yearly meetings. It is a grassroots-upward organisation. My yearly meeting is Britain Yearly Meeting, one of the most liberal in the world, despite being the founding organisation of Quakerism. We were the first British religious group to recognise gay marriage as indistinguishable from heterosexual marriage. Liberal Quakers have led the fights for peace, against slavery, for penal reform, for universal education and against environmental destruction, and were involved in setting up many of the prominent justice campaigns around the world e.g. Oxfam, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Shelter, Amnesty International, the Howard League, and Anti-Slavery International. The element missing from the acronym Matt and Doone described is the "C" which makes it SPICE. The "C" stands for community, and reflects the engagement of Quakerism with social justice in the wider world, and the importance of community, as experienced through the local meeting.

The formal name of Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends. Note it is a religious society, not a religion per se, and so, in its liberal form, encompasses many belief strands, and those of no specific belief. Religion in this context is a practice, not a belief, and so is defined by the specific practices and ethics of Quakerism, and not any creed, doctrine or dogma. It has much in common with aspects of Universalism, secular Judaism and the nontheistic schools of Buddhism, though is also very different from them in other regards. It is important to understand that whilst Quakers often use similar language to other religious groups, they may do so in a totally different sense.

Amongst the founding tenets of Quakerism were equality between all members and both sexes, the absence of paid ministers and heirarchy, the primacy of experience over doctrine, a rejection of scriptural authority, silent and unprogrammed "worship", rejection of ritual and idolatry, and a commitment to the seeking of truth. These were extremely radical ideas in that period, and, in some ways, still are. It was founded in 17th century Britain, in which the only framework was a Christian one, but the accumulation of scientific knowledge, the wider understanding of other beliefs and the evolution of wider society have shattered that framework and replaced it with a far more rational, diverse and educated one. Modern liberal Quakerism reflects that.

As Fred points out, there are several different traditions within Quakerism. These fall into four basic groupings. Evangelical Friends International meetings are the most numerous, and are very active in Africa and the Americas. They are exclusively Christian, and many liberal Quakers do not regard them as Quakers, as they have churches, rather than meeting houses, have programmed worship meetings, sing hymns, employ ministers and emphasise scriptural authority. These are all attributes rejected by the founders of Quakerism.

Orthodox Quakerism (confusingly not orthodox in the sense of being true to the founders) is represented by a grouping called Friends United Meetings, which are very active in the USA. They also have some programmed worship, paid ministers and singing at meetings, and so are arguably not really Quakers, but grew out of them. They are also almost exclusively Christian. Some meetings in North America have become unaffiliated from FUM in protest at its anti-gay employment practices.

The "picture postcard" idea of Quakers persists in the Conservative tradition of Quakerism, who hold true to the letter of the teachings of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, and of other early Quakers. They are Christian, scriptural, and hold to the practices of unprogrammed worship, no ministers and, most distinctively, plain dress, giving them a similar appearance to the Amish. They are a very small group (about 7000) and largely concentrated in Ohio and Pennsylvannia. I would, personally, only accept Conservative and Liberal Quakers as being "real" Quakers, though, in my opinion, the Conservatives lack an understanding of the evolving nature of Quakerism, as embodied in the primacy of experience over doctrine. George Fox was a founder, but not some messiah figure to be followed blindly.

Finally, there are the liberal Quakers, who make up the sole organised practice within Britain and Europe, Japan, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. They are also present in the USA and Canada. These meetings are potentially very diverse. They may be made up of Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, Jews, Humanists and Nontheists. I am told there are even some Hindu and Muslim Quakers, but I have never met any. Nontheist, in this context, refers to anyone not holding to the belief in a transcendent, interactive,and personal creator, and so encompasses some Pagans, Deists, Pantheists, Humanists, agnostics and atheists. The diversity and tolerance of belief, lifestyle and social outlook varies from meeting to meeting, but is generally far more liberal than any of the other traditions.

There are attempts to try to unify the different traditions, but it would seem to be an impossible task due to the wide divergence in understandinng of what the fundamental and definitive qualities and tenets of Quakerism are. Convergent Friends are attempting this, but their agenda is one of unifying the Christian Friends, and they have little desire to include non-Christians, if it is possible to pull liberal Christian Friends into such a unified Society without them. Without the diversity, though, Quakerism just becomes an idiosyncratic, Protestant denomination, very similar to the other 35000 or so other such denominations. In my opinion, Quakerism should have much more to offer than that. It is important when discussing Quakerism and engaging with Quakers to know which tradition of Quakerism one is talking about.

Although originally a solely Christian practice, many liberal Quakers believe that this was because that was the only context in which religion and ethics took place in 17th century Britain, and that George Fox taught the primacy of personal experience, and of the search for truth, a search which now leads many to reject theism, and some to embrace a definite atheism. Hence, as a result of that personal search for the truth, each person will arrive at different conclusions, or none. In this tradition, belief is an evolving and individual process, and can not be defined by anyone else. As such, there are many nontheists within liberal Quakers, though many would not choose to label themselves as such, and fewer would label themselves as atheist. Indeed, surveys undertaken by Woodbrooke, the Quaker college in Birmingham, England, indicate that perhaps the majority of liberal Quakers are nontheists in the strict sense. Furthermore, many who identify as Christian, are not so in the sense used by the majority of Christians, but only so in the sense of following the moral and spiritual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, though generally in a critical way. They do not necessarily believe in the divinity of Jesus, the veracity of the Bible, or even in the existence of the traditional theistic god figure (a position shared by some Anglicans, some of whom attend Quaker meetings as well as their own church). Many combine elements of deism and pantheism into their belief. Nontheists, such as myself, who are avowed agnostic atheists, or even gnostic atheists, are a minority, but a growing one. There can be tension between different beliefs within the Society, especially between the more traditionally Christian Friends and the nontheists, but that is part of the positive nature of Quaker practice - our ability to be unified despite those tensions and differences.

Without the theistic trappings, Quakerism becomes a lifestyle, a community and an ethical philosophy. It has some very challenging ways of working, which are certainly not for everyone and can be hard to follow. It can also be a little hard to accept the language of Quakerism, a much of it, such as "the inner light" "meeting for worship" and "that of god in everyone", is phrased in historical, theistic language, though understood in very different ways now. For instance, "the inner light" means to me the power of human reason, and "that of god in everyone" means that we are all born equal, with the right to be treated as such, and with equal potential, and, at best, embodying the qualities which we traditionally attributed to gods e.g justice, compassion, wisdom etc.

My involvement with Quakerism stems from my family background. I grew up in the "1652 country", the area of northern England where Quakerism sprang into existence in 1652, as a result of the preaching of George Fox and his followers. This remains one of the heartlands of liberal Quakerism, and the Society's influence is widespread, if not always obvious and recognised. Many in that area grow up influenced by Quaker ethics, without being aware of it. My family's involvement goes right back to 1652, and my ancestors include several prominent Quakers. Almost every branch of my family tree on my mother's side is Quaker to some degree, and a few on my father's side too, though neither my parents or grandparents are/were members. Although my ancestors were mainly Christians, they would recognise a great deal in my own belief and practice, as it is an evolution of their own, despite the lack of either Christian or theistic elements.
Thanks very much for this post Adrian. There has been a house down the road from me for a number of years that had a sign post indicating some kind of Quaker affiliation (shows how much attention I really paid, ha!). I was always mildly curious about it but not enough to investigate further - it was far enough down my list of priorities to not matter.


But you have piqued my interest, especially since you noted that NZ Quakers are of the liberal kind. Perhaps I shall look further and see what kind of people we have here in Nelson.

EDIT: This the history of the Quakers in my town: http://www.quaker.org.nz/about/quaker-history-in-nelson
@ Matt Coulthurst - As I indicated to Matt Peters, the precise nature of any particular meeting depends, to an extent, on the individuals who comprise it, but New Zealand is certainly in the liberal, unprogrammed tradition. How welcoming they are to non-Christians, to what extent they use "god language" and how comfortable you might feel amongst them is entirely open to question: I have no contacts there. From their website, though, they do acknowledge the non-Christian Friends, and they seem more liberal than Australia, which can have somewhat less liberal tendencies, though, of course, that varies from meeting to meeting as well.
Wow, thanks for this post! Very informative and helpful.

There is a Wikipedia page, mainly written by members of the Nontheist Friends discussion group, which contains the following definition, which may be helpful to those confused by the concept of religious atheists.

 

"A nontheist Friend, or an atheist Quaker, is someone who affiliates with, identifies with, engages in and/or affirms Quaker practices and processes, but who does not accept a belief in a theistic understanding of God, a Supreme Being, the divine, the soul or the supernatural. Like traditional Friends, nontheist Friends are actively
interested in realizing centered peace, simplicity, integrity, community, equality, love, and social justice in the Society of Friends and beyond."  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nontheist_Friend)

Thank you so much for the resource. I was looking at the NZ Friends page and the Wikipedia entry on Quakerism and neither even mention atheism! I'm relieved to find there are other vocal atheist Quakers. I'm in Auckland, NZ btw.

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