A first step in discerning our future as nontheists among Friends, is to distinguish between our roles in two very different settings: that is, (a) settings that include a wide variety of theist and nontheist Friends who have come together for many different reasons, and (b) settings in which everyone is there to focus on nontheism among Friends. Here are my thoughts on these two venues:
(a) I suggest the best role for nontheist Friends in general gatherings of Friends is to learn about and strengthen Friends religious diversity, and, in a low-key way, to inform Friends that there is a nontheist option available to Friends and how to get more information about this option. This is especially important for newcomers who don’t know Friends well, and for people with a special personal interest, including those who may be in distress about this issue. Focusing on the religious diversity of Friends, and on how to be a diverse religious community, will benefit Friends in general as well as benefiting nontheist Friends.
(b) I suggest the role of nontheist Friends can be very different in venues where Friends come specifically to delve into topics related to nontheism among Friends. On these occasions, once we have clearly stated our commitment to diversity of Friends’ religious faith, we can focus on expressing our views, leaving to listeners the responsibility of accommodating this to their own views. In this setting, some of us may be led to speak of our long-term vision for the future of nontheist religious views among Friends and to plan for the increased participation of nontheists among Friends.
In my opinion, we have been trying to hold both these events at FGC Gatherings. Our morning workshops have usually been specifically for nontheists, and our afternoon schedule has been a mix of events for nontheists and ones that seek to involve theist Friends (but not very successfully). I think our efforts at FGC Gatherings over the last 25 years have not shown Friends in general that nontheist Friends are committed to religious diversity and that we support Friends we disagree with as we support those we agree with.
I suggest we will be more successful in learning about and strengthening religious diversity among Friends and in our outreach to nontheist Friends and would-be-Friends, if we work for diversity at general gatherings and add some nontheist focused events to our annual schedule. This is the pattern of nontheist Friends in Britain, and of other special interest groups among Friends in the U.S.
Events specifically for nontheist Friends can be national or local. They can last a number of days or just one day. They can address a broad range of concerns or focus on particular aspects of the life of nontheist Friends. For instance, a group of Friends might meet repeatedly to work on outreach to secularists in Quaker colleges, or to develop curricula for children of nontheist Friends, or to study and demonstrate methods of writing statements for approval by a religiously diverse group.
In conclusion, I would like us to mainly focus on religious diversity as our theme when participating in general gatherings, and to hold specialized gatherings that focus on topics of special interest to nontheist Friends.