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

Identity Creation: Nontheist Quaker

The creation of an identity is often a long process, some of which is conscious and some of which happens through experience. In many ways it is similar to the French art form of bricolage, using found pieces of whatever is around to create a unique piece of artwork. Identity work is constrained by the resources around us and the experiences we have but it takes conscious work to pick some aspects of our lives over others and emphasize them, thus making them more prominent in our identities (Grinnell). I am a Quaker. I have always felt that the values and testimonies of this religion speak to who I am. However, in my freshman year of high school, I realized that I did not believe in god. This created a sense of uncertainty in me. I was unsure if this nonbelief was compatible with Quakerism and I feared losing my master identity. This inner turmoil was resolved when I found out there was a whole group within the liberal Quaker community, called nontheists, that believed just as I did. This reaffirmed and reframed my involvement in Quakerism. The identity work that I did can be understood mainly through master identity, retrospective reinterpretation, aspirational identity, narrative identity construction, altercasting, framing and core self.

Quakerism became my master identity because it dominates the way I think about myself (Conceptualizing). I grew up the daughter of enthusiastically practicing Quakers. The Quaker testimonies of peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity were so ingrained in my upbringing that they are now inseparable from my own values. First, Quakerism became a interactional identity, which is a role taken on in relation to the roles others in the situation fill, because the Quaker values modeled by my parents in their interactions with me dictated how I would act, react, and interact with others. As I got older, Quakerism became a personal identity, which is a assertion about relatively stable personality traits, because many of the personality traits I claim, such as respectfulness, kindness, and honesty, are based on the Quaker testimonies. Over time, the interactional and personal identities I acquired remained stable and unchanging and thus became my master identity by dominating how I thought about myself.

I became a member of my Monthly Meeting (the equivalent of a church group) when I was six years old and at age nine, I began attending bi-monthly Quaker youth conferences. At my Monthly Meeting, which met once a week on Sundays, I learned about Quaker process and about the spiritual aspect of Quakerism. The youth conferences helped me stay connected and active in the Quaker community during a period of my growing up where I feel I might otherwise have gone religionless. This selective interaction of choosing to put myself in a place filled with either adults who cherished me as the future of Quakerism or other Quaker kids who were also learning how to live the religion, helped me maintain Quakerism as my master identity (Constructing). This was a confirmational process whereby all these interactions created self-fulfilling prophecies and helped to solidify my master identity even further (Grinnell).

When I was fifteen years old and a freshman in high school, I went through a period of retrospective reinterpretation, or a change in belief about oneself because of new information, and suspended identity. When I began a more serious investigation into my spiritual beliefs I found that I did not believe in god. Even though I felt for myself that this did not contradict Quakerism at all, I was unsure of how others would react and if my beliefs would be ill received. I did not talk to anyone and it led me to a period of quiet uncertainty. I believed that the institutional identity of a Quaker required a belief in god and because of this I was forced to suspend my master identity as a Quaker (Constructing). Retrospective reinterpretation came when I was forced to reinterpret my identity because of this significant spiritual finding (Constructing). I began to try to find other salient characteristics of myself in hopes of finding a new master identity. This did not work. I engaged in aspirational identity work because as much as I believed that the formulated institutional identity of a Quaker excluded me for not believing in god, I still desperately wanted to be a Quaker and reclaim that as my master identity. I aspired to fit the accepted identity of a Quaker (More).

Finally, after a two and a half year long period of declining participation in both my Monthly Meeting and the Quaker youth conferences, I was able to reclaim my master identity through a process of narrative identity construction, which is the collective process of storytelling and guidance to create identity (Constructing). In my junior year of high school, my father and I attended a workshop at a Quaker Retreat Center called “Nontheism Among Friends”. It was all about being a Quaker while not believing in god. It was extremely affirming to find that there was more elasticity in the narrative of being a Quaker than I thought there was. There is a variety of storylines that are accepted in the narrative of being a Quaker (Constructing). Even though Quakerism began as a religion where all the members believed in god, enough diversity of beliefs currently exists that the institutional identity of a Quaker does not have to include a belief in god. The workshop was based around listening to others tell their stories of finding out they did not believe in god and telling your own story. Everyone was participating in narrative identity construction by collectively creating a template, or formula story, for what details and experiences a typical narrative includes and what it does not (Constructing). I formed a self narrative, which is my own story, by following the formula story, modeling it after other narratives, and listening to what parts of stories were affirmed by other members of the group (More).

Developing my own self narrative allowed me to reclaim my master identity as a Quaker and claim an institutional identity as well. Having a place that I fit into in the Quaker community let me take on the institutional identity of a “nontheist Friend” because I knew that my own narrative fit within the narrative elasticity of Quakerism. With an understanding of my master identity and institutional identity as it relates to the Quaker community, I can begin to take on different situated identities in different Quaker groups and organizations. Situated identities relate to a sense of a role or position in a certain situation (Convergence). All of these situated identities revolve around my experience as a nontheist Friend because it is the most different and salient aspect of my institutional identity. I have situated self-esteem and a situated self-image in every one of these Quaker groups and organizations that I am involved it. This has all contributed to the creation of my renewed identity as not only a Quaker, but a nontheist Quaker. All of my situated identities, images of self, and evaluations of self in these different situations have cumulatively created for me a new core self (Convergence). In most of my situated identities, I have been respected and revered as a young Friend who has put so much time and effort into developing a sense of her own Quaker spirituality. These experiences contribute to high self-esteem and a self-image that reflects the positive views others have of me. Cumulatively, it creates a core self that is proud to be Quaker.

However, the changes in my institutional identity and label have sometimes lead to altercasting and the problem with disidentification. I have a certain role that I fill being a Nontheist Friend interacting with mostly Bible based or at least god believing Friends and sometimes I am altercasted, or pushed, into a negative role (Grinnell). I am often altercasted as a stereotypical loud, obnoxious, combative atheist who has some rebuttal or rude remark about every statement about god or bible passage read aloud. I am faced with a choice of how to react in these situations. I could participate in disidentification and define my identity as different from other nontheists (Grinnell). Instead, I do not reinforce the stereotype by actively distancing myself from it, I simply act in a way that is not according to it. I grew up without any knowledge of the Bible and so I take every chance I can to learn about it. I like talking to people who have a different view than my own and I respect their beliefs. I never push my beliefs down another person’s throat.

My master identity as a nontheist Quaker is a bricolage of ideas, beliefs, and experiences that has ossified into a concrete and static identity. What I learned through my identity crisis has shaped who I am and framed every experience I will have from here on. Every time I talk about being a nontheist Friend and every new spiritual experience I have with my faith, is framed by the formula story as it adds to my self narrative. Some of the creation of the bricolage was conscious and some of it was not but I chose in the end what aspects of my life to accentuate and turn into my master identity as a nontheist Friend.

References Cited

Hunter, Christopher. (2011). Constructing an Identity at Grinnell College. Handout. In text cited as (Grinnell).

Hunter, Christopher. (2011). Conceptualizing Identities: Four Kinds. Handout. In text cited as (Conceptualizing).

Hunter, Christopher. (2011). Convergence and Divergence in the Chicago and Iowa Schools of Symbolic Interactionism. Handout. In text cited as (Convergence).

Hunter, Christopher. (2011). More Concepts Relevant to the Issue of Constructing and Maintaining Identity. Handout. In text cited as (Constructing).

Hunter, Christopher. (2011). Yet More Ideas About Doing Identity Work. Handout. In text cited as (More).


5 responses to “Identity Creation: Nontheist Quaker”

  1. your ‘bricolage’ sounded similar to an analogy i liked from the blog ‘experimental theology’, which perhaps will resonate with you or some of your readers as well:


    On my bike ride to work today I was trying to think about how this blog might sound to more conservative Christians and how it might appear to the rest of us. This was the analogy I came up with.

    If your faith and doctrine are like a beautiful house, with the clean lines of certainty and the firm foundation of God’s Truth, then letting me into your house would be, I’d expect, quite unsettling. Because I’d always be looking at a wall and saying “Is this a load bearing wall? Let me knock it down to see!” Day in and day out, this is exactly what this blog would feel like. Me trying to knock down every wall in the house. In short, from this vantage point–inside a beautiful house–all my work appears to be inherently destructive, breaking down and tearing up this beautiful building. So of course you’d want me to stop that. You’d want to protect the house.

    But that’s not really the best way to understand this blog. See, I had a nice house once. But a hurricane hit it. From a faith perspective I’m in a post-Katrina situation. All I have left is a bunch of rubble.

    So what I do here, week in and week out, is to try to piece this rubble back together. In any given post you’ll see me holding up two broken pieces of faith and wondering “Do these go together?” Or, because much of what I find in the rubble is broken and beyond repair, you’ll also find me in any given post bulldozing stuff out of the way to clear room for the faith I’m constructing.

    In short, when you read this blog you are watching a person pick through the rubble of his faith, a person trying to find anything useful that has been left behind.

    So if you come here already living in a nice house what I’m doing here is, given your fireside view, going to feel destructive to you. But if you realize I’m actually standing on a heap of rubble hopefully you’ll see that what I’m doing is constructive. I’m building, I’m not tearing down.



  2. Cheers to you, Liberty, for the courage of your struggle, And cheers to the better Quakerism you are helping to build. By better I don’t mean closer to nontheism, particularly, but more open to difference and more focused on who we are as people than our notions about the unknowable.

    Also, to sgl, that’s a fascinating metaphor for radical theological work, the house reduced to rubble. I personally don’t remember ever having such a beautiful house; doubt has always been my constitution, so I think I keep my structures close to the ground on the assumption that none of them are permanent. I try to keep my religion about relationships with living/dying beings in the real world. I don’t know if it’s enough to fulfill me, but I know it’s real, it’s there.

  3. Both Liberty’s reflections on identity and sgl’s rebuilding metaphor are wonderfully imaginative ways of articulating our Quaker nontheist position. Thanks to both!

  4. Very well put, and very helpful. I wish I would have had that level of clarity when I was 15. I realized at around the same age that I didn’t believe in God, and completely withdrew. I was raised evangelical though, we weren’t told much about the nontheists. 24 years later I’m just now finding my way back.

  5. daniel barreau Avatar
    daniel barreau

    Thank you!! I really found this beneficial, most notably the part about elasticity of faith, the metaphor of rubble, and the process of self narative. I myself comfortably sit between traditional and nontheist friends. What I mean is this: I do not believe god is a human like supernatural being, nor do I believe it involves itself in human affairs beyond the degree to which it does any other object. I believe god is really the impersonal but just and educational process buddhists call karma and that the salient characteristics of traditional Friend values are one extremely good path to not only get but also give good karma for the betterment of all of creation.

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