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

God Circle



  1. Circle 1 = God
  2. Circle 2 = the natural world
  3. Circle 1 minus Circle 2 = the supernatural world
  4. Circle 3 = mental life
  5. Circle 4 = consciousness
  6. Circle three minus circle 2 = the unconscious
  7. By definition, what exists is natural. Therefore, there is no supernatural.
  8. If God is everything that is natural, and nothing that is supernatural, then there is no distinction between nature and God. To name one is to name the other.
  9. I don’t need another word for nature.
  10. Note that I and my thoughts are the smallest circle. But I am in them all.


19 responses to “God Circle”

  1. Hi, James–

    Overall, I like this image.

    …I don’t know about other Quakers (and non-Quakers) who, like me, believe in God, but for myself, if asked to draw a series of circles to represent Everything, I might have the same circles and leave out the word “Supernatural.” Personally, I don’t equate God with being supernatural, and neither do I equate God with nature. At the same time, I sense an understanding of why many do equate God and nature.

    I wonder if my resistance to naming something as ‘supernatural” is similar to a nontheist’s resistance to naming something “God.” Lots of baggage and (mis)interpretations are out there about what the supernatural (and/or God) is or isn’t.

    Visual representations of concepts, like what you offer here, help me think in new ways. Thanks for giving me something to think about!

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  2. Thanks, Zach, Liz. It’s a trifle, but putting it out there seemed to scratch some itch I had.

    I included the outside circle of the supernatural not because I accept it (I don’t–see point 7), but because it seemed to help demonstrate the problematical nature of conceptions of God. If God exists, then God belongs to the set called “everything.” If this God created everything, you’ve got a bootstrap problem.

    As I responded to someone on the nontheist Friends listserv:

    The drawing tries to clearly formulate what strike me as murky, nebulous conceptions of a panentheistic sort of God that encompasses and infuses everything. Then the text tries to deconstruct that conception.

    I can understand the more traditional notion of God as a being that created the universe and continues to guide it–it’s a perfectly coherent and honest theory for which I see no convincing evidence. The more panentheistic understanding tends to be immune to questions of evidence, because no one can understand it.

  3. James,

    The strictest, most intellectually rigorous notions of God don’t, I think, describe Him (or whatever) as “a” being. He is generally thought of as Being, or Being Itself, or necessary existence, or something like that (albeit Being with some elements of personality). Doing so prevents us from thinking of God as some kind of super-person. It also gets around the bootstrapping problem. The problem of where a necessary existence came from isn’t a problem–it just is, that’s what necessary existence means. Of course, imagining what that is like is difficult, or perhaps I should say impossible, for beings such as ourselves trapped in a world of impermanence. That’s what makes the supernatural world supernatural–it’s not something like that natural world but invisible, a world of invisible angels and demons and ghosts, but rather a realm totally beyond our experience. Whether such a realm exists is another matter, but such a conception avoids, I think, some of the common criticisms leveled against the ideas of “God” and the “supernatural.”


  4. David,

    Good to hear from you.

    I’m not sure I understand what is stricter or more intellectually rigorous about these notions. They are more in line with contemporary theology, certainly, but that doesn’t make them any more coherent. Saying that God was there before physical reality was there, doesn’t solve anything–it’s just a paradoxical assertion. An interesting thought, but essentially pulled out of a theological hat.

    As you say yourself, the conception depends on a realm totally beyond our experience. So what is the value or justification for positing a realm which is totally beyond our experience? Particularly in Quakerism, in which direct, personal experience of God is considered foundational?

    And as long as this God is considered immanent as well as transcendent–not only beyond but in all things–it seems to me that you still have the bootstrap problem, where God not only created being, but is being.

  5. I don’t know if you’ve read or are interested in philosophy, but this reminds me of Spinoza’s “God or Nature”.

  6. GVH,

    I have a shallow grasp and an enormous respect for Spinoza. My central difference is, I don’t know what the value is of hanging on to nominal belief in God when you’ve removed its personality and identified it with nature.

    One strong possibility was, he hung on to nominal belief in God to avoid persecution. Or perhaps it was just too much of a leap for him to comfortably make. In any case, his was an enormously gutsy philosophical move.

    I’ve also got a strong pessimistic streak that I don’t see in Spinoza. I believe in the good of life, mostly in the nurturing of relatiionship, but any philosophical or religious understanding worth its salt has to look suffering dead in the eye and grapple with it, without explaining it away.

  7. “the bootstrap problem”?–would be “Why is there anything at all?”

    Sort of like the consciousness problem–where one seems to need a little imaginary man “inside” our head to experience our lives–but then he needs another little man & so on. & somehow, in actuality, the whole series collapses to just us.

    The best I’ve done at making sense of it all is that the ontological argument–despite being logically invalid–must somehow work.

    Consciousness exists because it has to, because the absence of consciousness simply couldn’t have been here to register its nonexistence. And everything else follows from our existence as consciousness. Why?
    “May the Baby Jesus open your mind and shut your mouth!” [mine too, why not?]

  8. Yes, Forrest, I think you’ve nailed it. I agree that the bootstrap problem exists even if we don’t postulate God. Why is there anything at all? I just can’t answer that question, it turns my mind around in circles. But postulating God doesn’t solve it for me, either, just pushes it back a level, without any justification I can see.

    The reality of consciousness strikes me as the most vexing mystery of all, and I can see how that could lead a person to the view that consciousness is integral to creation. It just seems too astonishing to come out of nowhere for no reason.

    But if one accepts the powerful scientific evidence that all conscious creatures on earth evolved from single-celled organisms without consciousness, that seems to be pretty strong evidence that consciousness can emerge naturally. It did, therefore it can. Emergence is as convincing a mechanism as I have seen, but I must confess it doesn’t really satisfy me. The weirdness of consciousness just leaves me stupified. At this point the best I can do is live with my stupefaction.

  9. An entity called “I” wants to know whether there is another entity called “God.” But is the “I” entity really there? If you can locate it, then who is that “you” that did that?

    When Quakers saw (actually felt) beyond the “self-will” and found profound peace and instruction there, they said they were experiencing that spirit referred to as “God” in scriptures. See John 4:24 (“God is a spirit.”) Yahweh was never an entity, rather an unprounounceable (originally) yet fully experienceable mystery that, when experienced, changed lives. You cannot logically explain this, because the act of logic involves “cutting down to size” in order to make things palatably manageable to the intellect, which is of itself an insufficient tool for apprehending these matters. The same intellect, by the way, that manufactures the imaginary “I.” The experience of that Spirit however, shows up the non-existence of the imaginary self, without eradicating “selfhood.” When John Woolman found his “self-will” dead, he noticed that he was still there – and though he didn’t put it this way, I would say he noticed that a conscious intelligence was there: his, but not limited to him.

    So the question is not whether there is a god “out there” or “everywhere”, but rather what makes us think we are separate from whatever there actually is? Geo. Fox was not at all about proving that
    “God exists,” he was calling humans to the felt experience of the divine. Get into that spirit he said, and only then will all the words pointing to that spirit make any sense.

  10. Actually, Dave, it becomes quite apparent to me with just a bit of close attention to the world, that the separate self is an illusion. It also seems quite obvious that it is the central illusion that makes us human. I have no wish to leave it behind, and I don’t think it’s possible to leave it behind, but I do think it’s possible to put it in perspective of the larger world.

    As I recently said elsewhere: The part of religion I see worth preserving is about approaching life in a spirit of love and reverence, about understanding the natural, literal fact that we are nothing in isolation, become ourselves only in relationship with each other and the world, about honoring the powerful mystery of the simple fact that we exist and think and feel, without trying to manufacture reasons or explanations for that mystery.

  11. Your spam-block ate my last attempt to take this up again. (Maybe you can adjust your system so blocked messages remain available to be re-entered, or I may need to just copy everything before sending, next time…)

    Anyway. There are different ways to portray all this, in which the world “outside” is merely a subset of “me”.

    Where you talk about seeing your self “in the perspective of the larger world,” I object that only a mind can see a perspective, so that your “larger world” is not in fact larger but really a mere subset of the various perspectives available to you. Is there a reason to avail yourself of another? Yes, if you do you will find that the mystical perspective is in fact more accurate.

    But why believe me?

  12. Forrest, sorry about the difficulties with the spam blocker. Other than removing this protection, I don’t have the ability to have the system save your text. In some cases clicking the “back” button on your browser *might* work, but I’m not sure. Maybe you tried that and it didn’t work.

    While I think mystical experiences can potential broaden one’s perspective, my view is that they are likely just another sort of illusion from the ones we operate under in our normal lives.

    Your objection–that I haven’t really transcended my mind, or something like that–is something I would not only confess, but insist upon. Not just for me, but for everyone, all the time. As I said, the self is the central illusion that makes us human–I can’t get around that, ever, even for a minute. But it matters greatly to remind ourselves when we can that self only exists, only has meaning, in relationship with not-self. It’s no miracle, no magic, but it is a genuine shift of perspective in a simple, human, possible sense.

    I believe you’re telling the truth, Forrest, but I think you misinterpret your own experience. You make massive assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality based on tricks of the mind. That is not a reliable process.

    And your suggestion that the world outside is merely a subset of you sounds merely solipsistic. A more realistic way of viewing this would be, everything you know of the world outside, comes through your senses and your consciousness. All of which are deeply flawed, just like everyone else’s.

  13. Raymond Smullyan refers to the way I tend to understand life as “collective solipsism.”

    Mathematically, you can map anything inside a circle to the outside and vice versa. So inside/outside is almost a fake dichotomy–the difference being that, if I understand you rightly, you would consider it impossible for our thoughts and feelings to influence events in the shared physical world except by muscle power (including using muscles to send information as in speaking or typing) or other mechanical means. Long ago, I believed the same.

    If we are to follow the spirit of science, rather than the ideology of “science,” then we can try different viewpoints as working hypotheses–and see how that changes what we experience. I did that. There proved to be more going on than my former model could account for. You can try the same, or just keep telling me I must be mistaken; that’s up to you.

  14. Smullyan’s phrase goes back to George Orwell, who was characterizing the views of Winston Smith’s torturer in “1984”. There, collective solipsism is the view that reality only exists in the minds of people (plural), as opposed to solipsism, where reality only exists in the the mind of a person (singular). The non-solipsistic view is that reality exists independent of our variously accurate and inaccurate perceptions of it.

    Your phrase above–“the world ‘outside’ is merely a subset of ‘me’”–sounds to me like ordinary, singular solipsism. If it isn’t, can you clarify?

    I think the theory that thoughts can affect the world other than through the physical body is possible, but unproven. There have been thousands of attempts to prove it, but no repeatable successes. My intuition is that there might be some very weak, unreliable forces, akin to sound or light or radio waves, that emanate from the brain and could potentially affect the exterior world.

    But even this would be physical/natural, and probably isn’t what you’re talking about.

  15. James,

    Nice to meet you at the FGC Gathering. Are you familiar with the book “Science Without Bounds”? It is available free on the internet and easily found with a search. I found the book quite interesting in a number of ways one of which was about the physics of it all. Seems related to what you are discussing.

  16. Hi, Jim, good to hear from you. I can’t remember your name, but then I forget almost everything. Are you the Friend I talked to after David Boulton’s book event, by any chance?

    Can you say a little more about the book “Science Without Bounds” in terms of its connection to what I’m talking about here? I’m curious.


  17. I appreciate the attempt at defining God but I am still left very confused as to the difference between a theist and non-theist Quaker.

    I though that the Quaker idea of God was the “inner light” that God is the cumulative goodness of all people. This can be thought to include or exclude the supernatural, depending on if you consider human society and relationships to be natural or supernatural.

    So in the end I can’t see a difference between non-theist Quakers and theist Quakers.

    I do not think the Bible is “the literal word of God” but I respect it as it was created by the goodness (inner light) of people trying to improve their own society, thus in the Quaker definition it written by “God.” I also see it as a strong force for good in the world.

    Does this make me theist or non-theist? I believe in the goodness of other people and I believe that to be God.

  18. Ben, if you’ll forgive this brief excursus into ancient languages, I’d like to point out that the origin of our word “Bible” comes ultimately from the Greek phrase τὰ βιβλία τὰ ἅγια (ta biblia ta hagia), which means “the holy books.”

    The Bible is not a homogenous document expressing only the goodness of its writers. In a number of its books we finds justifications of genocide, slavery, rape, anti-semitism, sexism, xenophobia, and so on.

    Many passages (if not entire books) of the Bible were wriiten by fearful men [sic] who were driven by narrow concerns, petty hates, and self-aggrandizement. Only a selective interpretation would make the Bible one continuous revelation of unfolding Light.

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