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

Getting Beyond the Words: Nontheist Friends Network at Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering Canterbury 2011

Report by Miriam Yagud

We expected a lot of interest at this Yearly Meeting, in exploring issues raised by nontheist Friends And there was. The nontheist Friends conference at Woodbrooke last February has stimulated a rich and energetic discussion about nontheism and theological diversity among Friends. Some of this has been reflected in the pages of “The Friend” and in discussions in local and area meetings. At this Yearly Meeting a nontheist inspired event took place on five of the seven days of Yearly Meeting attended by about 100 Friends.

The Nontheist Friends Network contribution at Yearly Meeting was a workshop on Sunday, a stall at the groups fair on Wednesday and a picnic gathering on Thursday for Friends who identify as nontheist. Two impromptu nontheist meetings also took place which were independent of NFN; one after a morning meeting for worship and another on Tuesday evening, when two groups of Friends explored nontheism and diversity among Friends.

The Workshop

“Sharing Our Diversity on the Quaker Journey”

Exploring the fact of theological diversity among Friends, how we influence each other, the life of our meetings and the Religious Society of Friends.

Indigo Redfern and I co-facilitated the workshop on Sunday afternoon. 70 People turned up and we let in 50 to a room that really only comfortably held 30. The enthusiasm, depth and quality of the discussions enabled most of us to overcome the cramped conditions.

The workshop began with a 5 minute presentation by Indigo then me describing our differing journey to becoming Friends and how being a theist (Indigo) and a nontheist (me)  sits with our being Quaker.

We then invited those present to divide into smaller groups and to consider four queries and inviting people to share their own journeys and explore themes together. I modified the four queries that Dave Britton used in New York Area Meeting discussion which provided a very sound framework for the discussion. Thanks for these Dave.

There was a very lively debate; a wide diversity of Quaker perspectives shared and explored. Many questions were asked and chewed over quizzically. The room was really buzzing!

“Our words can get in the way of hearing each other” was a comment and a sentiment that was expressed by many Friends. If there was a theme to emerge from this years activities at Yearly Meeting then it was about the limitations of language. In discussions and conversations I participated in, overheard or were reported back this was a recurring theme: That we make assumptions, that we use words sloppily or too carelessly, to attack or silence each other or that have this unintended effect on each other. That we must get behind the words we use, unpack and examine their meaning, what we really are trying to say when we use words like “god”, “religion”, “love”, “spirit”, “light”, “atheist” and so on…..

A few people felt that Indigo and I were “not a real enough Christian” or “not a real enough atheist” This was prompted by the fact that neither of us come from a position of saying that we have “The Truth” or that our way is the right way. I know that there were 2 or 3 participants who felt very strongly that they did have the truth; one of these described himself as an atheist and 2 others as Christian. A couple of people felt they missed out on a chance to have a heated set-to with theists/nontheists.

The overwhelming majority expressed relief that the discussion was not framed as an oppositional debate between theist and nontheists. Indigo and I had set a tone that we hoped would enable people to share their own journey to Quakers if they wished to, in an inclusive atmosphere. The feedback afterwards was positive and warm. It was good to get people talking and listening to each other. More than once, Indigo and I went to intervene in a group only to be waved away by all the participants who were in fact having a passionate engagement, not an argument!

Many people said they had experienced a sense of connection with another Friend with whom they had assumed there to be no common ground. Most people left reluctantly and wanting more. Some asked for a re-run. Unfortunately there were no rooms available during the rest of the week.

Deep Chat

Many Friends identifying as nontheist said they felt buoyed up by the visible presence of nontheists at Yearly Meeting, of sharing their Quaker journey with others in a positive and open discussion. Some long standing attenders said they were going to reconsider applying for membership as a result of their experience this year.

On Wednesday, I had an illuminating discussion with a Catholic priest from Ireland who was an interfaith visitor. He had asked me what the word “nontheist” meant and then said that he considered traditional Christian (and other religions) language hinders our attempts for human solidarity with each other and across cultures, closes rather than opens doors and carries too much difficult baggage. This opinion was expressed by many theist and nontheist Friends in different settings during the week .

Another conversation left me with this interesting query:

What happens when we reject the religious meaning of words such as “god” “spirit” “soul” “divine” etc? Religious words often strive to express the inexpressible or the unknown. They are useful and important metaphors in our language. Once we identify as nontheist do we lose these words or can we use them in new ways? Give them new meanings? Or just by being known as a nontheist and use them, do others hear these words differently when we speak them? Many nontheist Friends say they “reinterpret” the meaning of the words when used by theists. Our words and metaphors are probably much more “elastic” than we think or make of them. There is some important work to be done to explore ways of expressing “the inexpressible” “the unknowable” from a nontheistic perspective. Not surprising that these conversations were with poets whose work is doing just this.

More than one Friend holding a position of central responsibility within Britain Yearly Meeting commented that the development of the Nontheist Friends Network, the discussions that it has stimulated and our contribution at Yearly Meeting is valuable work within the society at the moment.

Nontheists Picnic

The picnic was a small gathering of nontheists. It was an opportunity for people to find out more about the Nontheist Friends Network, nontheist Friend resources and other activities such as the book, Godless for God’s sake and this website. Some Friends would have liked a workshop that was just for nontheist Friends at Yearly Meeting. Some Friends shared current and past difficulties in their local meetings around issues of their nontheism. Everyone said they wanted more opportunities to explore their personal journey with other nontheists, to develop coherence around being nontheist and Quaker. Some felt the lack of this in their local or area meeting.

In response to this request, I have offered to facilitate a workshop at the next nontheist Friends conference at Woodbrooke 2012 on “Exploring our nontheist Quaker journeys”.

Looking Ahead

Yearly Meeting was the second opportunity I’ve had, to experience nontheist Friends and the Nontheist Friends Network within the wider context of the Religious Society of Friends. Yearly Meeting is a fantastically vibrant and exciting experience; so many different kinds of Quakers meet, cross fertilise and explore new ground together. I have learned from this experience:

  • The boldness of nontheist Friends to speak our truth with integrity and with a care and respect for others is helping to create safe spaces for all Friends to share who they are, whatever their outlook on life, the universe and everything. This is an important service we do for the Society. In doing so, we deepen our Quaker practice and what it means to be Quaker in the 21st century.
  • That nontheist Friends enjoy the positive regard and welcome of many within the Society; and that Friends with a wide range of theological perspectives and none, enthusiastically engage with us and our activities, feel enriched by our explorations and want more!
  • Most Friends do not understand the term “nontheist” and are unfamiliar with it. It is a useful term once people understand it as an umbrella term, but is a hindrance too. It does not positively say what we are. It may be more useful and familiar when more nontheist Friends are open and confident about their perspectives and when there is more openness between Friends in local meetings.
  • Nontheist Friends as individuals are a recognised presence among Friends across the UK. Many are open about their perspectives and questions, have the respect of other Friends and hold positions of responsibility at all levels within the Society. But many more nontheists are subdued, silent or isolated.
  • I am convinced that the formation of the Nontheist Friends Network in the UK is a positive and important step for nontheists and for the Religious Society of Friends. It really does meet the needs of many Friends and reflects the interests of a great number of Friends of all perspectives across the Society.
  • Nontheist Friends need a Recognised Interest Group within BYM in order to participate in Yearly Meeting again. It will enable nontheist Friends to work corporately within the Society to (among other things) broaden and deepen the Society’s appreciation and understanding of diversity among Friends and what Quakers are in the modern world. We have an important contribution to make to understanding a Quakercommunity not as dependent on sharing identical or exclusive beliefs, but as one experienced through our sense of connection to each other; our experience of sharing, worship and working together.

Miriam Yagud
Nontheist Friends Network Steering Group
September 2011



12 responses to “Getting Beyond the Words: Nontheist Friends Network at Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering Canterbury 2011”

  1. Would metatheist not be more appropriate?

  2. Hi, Matt. I’m not sure if Miriam will be by to respond or not–perhaps she will–but I’ll offer my thoughts.

    First, I’m not familiar with the word metatheist–I’ve never heard it before. Just now I find web sites using the name but not definitions.

    Just from the structure of the word metatheist, I’d guess that it would not be an appropriate word for the perspective of most nontheists, including those described on this page. Metatheist sounds like a particular sort of theist, whereas nontheist means essentially “not a theist,” though it carries other connotations as well. Some of us comfortably use and understand the word god in a metaphorical sense for purely naturastic aspects of reality, but we pretty consistently don’t believe in the existence of any actual entity that could fairly be described as God.

    Can you clarify what you mean by metatheist, and why you think it would be more appropriate?

  3. Hi James,
    I rather like metatheism, which I would define as ‘relating to’ or ‘beyond’ theism. Nontheist as you say means “not a theist” – not a believer in god – is that not more simply, an atheist?!
    Metatheist would allow me to reject the idea of an individual entity – Creator, Jehovah, God or Whatever but allow me to express my belief in a divine (?)something beyond accepted reality – an unseen very real power (e.g gravity) which can manifest its existence in certain ways (like gravity for example!)
    Hopefully Matt will clarify what he meant but in the meantime, I’ll call myself a Metatheist and see if it fits!

  4. Matt, I haven’t heard this word before. It sounds like a word that may be in use among theologians and academics. I’m an unrepetant populist and tend to prefer words that are in common usage, if only because they’re the ones I commonly use! (tee hee). Among Quakers, I have come to use the term nontheist simply because this is the word that is most commonly used in Friendly circles. I usually say I’m an atheist when asked, otherwise I am simply another of the faceless human masses who is just passing through this space…..

    I have to confess to being impatient with heady conceptualising, even though its something i fall into myself at times. I find myself more and more interested in exploring what people are trying to say when they use particular words, especially power words like “god”, “christ”, “educated”, etc.
    I think a form of words or a word that communicates a positive simple message will emerge from our explorations. I think its helpful to avoid the temptation to react to criticism or conceptualise our experience. That would be in keeping with the Quaker way – Experience over theory = connection over separation.
    Easy to say, I know…..
    Miriam Yagud
    Nailsworth Meeting

  5. Hi, Aileen. The word nontheist as used by Friends definitely encompasses atheists–I consider myself both nontheist and atheist, as do many nontheist Friends I have come to know. But not all–the word nontheist is also intended to encompass folks who do not consider themselves atheists, for whom that word is too strong or has the wrong emphasis. They might embrace an understanding of God that is not theistic: for instance, a God that is not a being who does things or listens to prayers, but perhaps a potential that human beings might contain or aspire to. This is not typical, but in its broadest meaning, nontheist might even encompass Jeffersonian deists, or those who accept the idea of an intelligent God that created but then withdrew from the universe, leaving the laws of nature to govern things. There are also understandings of God in whom “belief” is not a particularly helpful or even coherent attitude: I have dreams, I have aspirations, I have fantasies, I have expectations, these are all important aspects of who I am, but to say I “believe in” these things is misleading.

  6. Hello again,
    Sorry if you have been waiting some time for a reply!

    I came across ‘metatheist’,and ‘transtheist’ online in my various theological searches.

    I take them both to mean ‘beyond theism’ – so by that, beyond the old / typical view of God and belief in Him, but still a believer in something ‘Divine’ or ‘Sacred’ – something we can’t quite put our finger on.

  7. Sorry I’m late to the party – I’ve only just discovered this website, thanks to Wikipedia.

    I too am unconvinced by metatheism. It literally means “beyond god” – which implies there is a god to be beyond.

    However I do accept that “god” is a useful shorthand when using phrases like “that of god in everyone”.

  8. Even later to the party.

    Miriam, you wrote “Once we identify as nontheist do we lose these words or can we use them in new ways? Give them new meanings?”

    David Boulton wrote as long ago as 1963 (Tribune 12 April, reprinted in The Honest to God Debate (Robinson and Edwards eds.)):

    “[. . . ] I began to wonder whether it was useful or honest to so stretch the meaning of words as to change their nature altogether and finally render them unserviceable. ‘God’ once meant something clear and definite. So did ‘heaven’ and ‘prayer’ and ‘worship’. Was there any point in my continuing to use the same words, but giving each of them a special, private meaning? Was this not to invite misunderstanding? To say ‘God’ instead of talking about ‘the depth and ground of history’ was certainly to save breath, but did not the word ‘God’ have so many unwelcome associations that the longer term was actually preferable?
    To put the questions is to imply answers. That is why I am no longer concerned to inject new meaning into the word ‘God’. That is why I found my own attempt to be honest-to-God made me cease to apply to myself the label ‘Christian’.”

    Is there not a risk that in giving religious words our own meaning we create an appearance of agreement, while papering over real differences?

  9. Hi David, Welcome to the party!
    You said,
    “Is there not a risk that in giving religious words our own meaning we create an appearance of agreement, while papering over real differences?”


    I do not give new meanings to religious words because they give a wrong impression of me, my experience and understanding. Religious words have deep deep meanings in the public and cultural body. In my view, its preferable to let the evolution of language and meaning come about and help it on its way. I’m quite frustrated with the implied negative of “atheist” and “nontheist” and “humanist” is so restricted. I’d be a “naturalist” if people didn’t assume I wanted to take off my clothes or hunt for plants! I suppose my sense of the universal thrum that we’re all a tiny part of is possibly what others call god and I’m open to that being possible. But despite my control freakery, I’m not interested in trying to pin it down. The urge that some humans have to name all the parts and build a fantastical story about something that in my view, cannot be truly known by humans, and turn it into a dogma seems like an attempt to be “godlike” and this is scary. And no religious story could ever do justice to the “real thing”.

  10. I am mystified by the failure of nontheist Friends to define the meaning of the word they use to describe themselves. In my experience in Britain Yearly Meeting, only a small minority of British Friends would describe themselves as theists (believing in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world). So what is the point of having a Nontheist Friends Network when we’re nearly all non-theists anyway? It does seem to go against the whole basis of Quakerism to set up a grouping within the Society of Friends which describes itself in terms of belief (or non-belief) as this is a manifestation of the very credalism which Quakerism sees as a diversion of the living experience which we share.

    Personally, I feel that the taking unto ourselves of labels instantly becomes divisive – partly because others’ understanding or our label will inevitably be different from our own, and partly because, the moment we put on ourselves a label, we impose a boundary which separates us from those who do not bear the same label.

    For myself, Nontheist means, simply, not a theist. So where does that get us?

    1. Some were ‘late to the party’, this is just 8 (and a half) years later and I thought it would be interesting to comment now and see whether this provokes any further comments.
      I came by this way as a result of putting a post (tonight) on the UK Nontheist Friends Network
      about the history of the NFN (here and in the UK).
      I met Miriam Yagud and James Riemermann at the 2012 conference at Woodbrooke and have been on the NFN (UK) steering group for 7 years I think.

      Reading this comment by John Ward, I might wonder if he has ‘nailed it’ and we should just lay the Network down! We have discussed this many times, most recently at our AGM by Zoom on 9 December 2020 – when it was decided to ‘soldier’ on!

      I think the reason for keeping the (UK) Network going has always been that people turn up and, in effect, say ‘No, no, don’t do that!’ (and we have had some fun conferences at Woodbrooke) but also because of our stated aims (
      which include “The Network’s aim is to provide a forum and supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation.” and it seems, to judge by visitors to and contacts made through our website, that some Friends (and attenders and would be attenders – new recruits to Quakers) still feel the need for or welcome that support.
      So maybe, even in BYM (Britain, not Baltimore – maybe that too!) Jon’s assertion that “we’re nearly all non-theists anyway” isn’t quite true? (It surely isn’t true of Quakers across the world!).

  11. What a fascinating discussion topic. Was particularly intrigued to contrast the first words of the title (Getting beyond the words) with the last words above this contribution (For myself, Nontheist means, simply, not a theist. So where does that get us?).

    For myself, some surfing required to learn more about the discussion. 25yrs involvement and I thought I was the only one having nontheistic thoughts…

    Thanks all

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