Presenting the work of Quaker atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who practice Quakerism without supernatural beliefs

What Next for Quaker Nontheism?

Minute and Epistle of the gathering of nontheist Friends at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Britain, Feb 18-20 2011

“There are nontheist Friends… Friends who might be called agnostics, atheists, sceptics, but would nevertheless describe themselves as reverent seekers.”   So began the report of the first formal workshop for nontheist Friends, held in New York State in 1976. A generation later, nontheist Friends are a widely accepted strand in the multi-coloured fabric of theologically diverse liberal Quakerism in both the United States and Britain.

Forty Friends from all over Britain, identifying as nontheists or wishing to explore nontheist perspectives with an open mind, met in Woodbrooke this weekend. Some for whom Woodbrooke rooms were not available were accommodated in the adjacent Fircroft College but another forty  would-be participants were unable to attend because of lack of available beds.

In plenary sessions and small groups, through discussion, worship and creative listening, we explored varieties of Quaker nontheism – atheist, humanist, agnostic, non-supernaturalist. We listened to the words of Friends through the ages, from the 17th to the 21st century, who declared for free thought and free expression within the Society of Friends, thereby laying the foundations on which an authentic nontheist understanding could be built within our beloved Quaker community.

In an informal session with Friends on other Woodbrooke conferences (“Becoming Friends” and “Churches Together”) many of us were able to share our different experiences of what it means to be Quakers today. We shared epilogues and joined together in meeting for worship.

In our business session we addressed the question in the title of our gathering: “What next for Quaker nontheism?”. Acknowledging that the burden of organising and financing our work has tended to fall on isolated individuals, we explored ways in which we might share responsibilities in a more formally organised way.  Recognising the concern among some Friends that open differences can lead to division, we looked to find a way forward that would celebrate and enhance the Society’s diversity of religious opinion. After careful thought and collective discernment we resolved to form a steering group to prepare proposals for a Nontheist Friends Group within BYM.  Six names were brought forward and accepted. The steering group was asked to liaise with Woodbrooks on possible dates for a further gathering  next year to continue our work and explorations.

Finally, we noted the recent statement on the Britain Yearly meeting website, as follows:

“There is a great diversity within the Quakers on conceptions of God, and we use different kinds of language to describe religious experience. Some Quakers have a conception of God which is similar to that of orthodox Christians, and would use similar language. Others are happy to use God-centred language, but would conceive of God in very different terms to the traditional Christian trinity. Some describe themselves as agnostics or humanists or non-theists, and describe their experience in ways that avoid the use of the word God entirely.”

We expressed our appreciation of this public recognition of our diversity. We are all in the Quaker mainstream now.

This Minute was agreed by the 40 participants at the gathering and signed on their behalf by the newly-appointed steering group:

  • Anne Bancroft
  • David Boulton (convenor)
  • Maureen Kinsley
  • Tim Regan
  • Michael Yates
  • Miriam Yagud

February 20th, 2011



6 responses to “What Next for Quaker Nontheism?”

  1. Thank you. I would like to have attended and may be able to do so next year. What I wrestle with is that it seems to me that the belief in something greater and supernatural provides a structure and authority that enable the continuance of the communty. The belief that underpins religious communities provides a short cut to cohesion and continuance.

    Apologies for the alliteration

  2. Thank you Norma for your comment. I take your point that a belief in something greater than ourselves may help provide a community with cohesion and continuity, but don’t see why the “something greater” need be supernatural.The more important question for me is not whether supernaturalism works in the ways you suggest, but whether it meets the test of evidence and experience. I don’t think it does – but I do hope you can join us next year when just such questions will be on the agenda!

  3. What about Quaker Non-theism in Ireland.

    Has it been vocalised are were there any Irish present?

    (I’m from NI, hence my interest.)

  4. As I read this report I said to myself “David Boulton has got to be involved with this…” and so he is. Greetings to you and Anthea!

    I am curious about whether nontheist Quakers in the UK are aware of a movement here in the US called “Convergent Friends.” Their stated mission is to bring the disparate branches of US Quakerism back together, which generally seems to mean bringing more traditional Christianity into liberal unprogrammed meetings. The future of US nontheism may involve addressing this movement. Any comments?

  5. I know from experience that the Quaker Business method works in often surprising yet constructive ways, although it can also be a very slow process.
    However, in recent years I have come to realise that all versions of God(s) are of purely human origin. I am therefor finding it increasingly difficult to attend Meetings for Church Affairs, as Friends appear to be digging their heads deeper into the sand, rather than facing up to the urgent issues of the 21st Century. Am I alone in feeling this?

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