Language practices in religiously diverse Friends meetings: Implications for nontheist Friends

We have been speaking about ways Friends can unite even as we differ in religious belief and experience. What are the implications for nontheist Friends, specifically?

As nontheist Friends, we live in religiously diverse meeting communities. These are the only ones available to us. It would help if language practices appropriate to diverse communities were common in our meetinghouses. This applies to any differences in belief and experience, not just those of theists and nontheists, for instance between Christian and nonChristian Friends, and traditional scientists and ecospiritualists, and even among varieties of nontheists since we vary among ourselves as much as theists do.

Part of our task in a religiously diverse Friends environment is to support Friends who do not hold our views as we support those who do hold our views. This does not mean hiding our views. It means setting up a trusting community in which we each are encouraged to speak as led in our own voices. We can unite in action even when these actions derive from different sources.

I see four goals for nontheist Friends today: to improve our relations with other Friends; to let Friends in general know we are here; to support all Friends who are suffering among Friends because of their religious views; and to help each other learn about nontheist Friends.

Until the trusting community is established, it is best that nontheist Friends reach out quietly. We can make our presence known by simply being useful Friends who happen to be nontheists. Establishing the presence of nontheists among the variety of Friends is particularly important for children and newcomers.

A trusting Friends community can happen anywhere Friends gather. It can be a local meeting, or a yearly meeting. It can be a Friends organization, or a conference to which different sorts of Friends are invited. It can be around you when you participate in religious services in another part of the Quaker tree.

Events organized by nontheist Friends happen in two very different circumstances: those designed for all Friends, and those designed for people with a special interest in nontheist Friends. General settings include our home meetings, diverse Friends organizations (such as QUF, QEW, FCNL, and the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference), and the annual FGC Gathering. Settings specifically for nontheist Friends include our website, our email discussion group, and the conferences and workshops we organize.

It is important to match our behavior to the setting. Among Friends in general we might work on tasks such as these: how we listen, speak, read and write in a religiously diverse group; meeting the special needs of people who don’t know about our language practices such as children and visitors; reaching out to Friends organizations that draw members from different branches of Friends; extending these practices to other types of diversity; and studying the history of religious diversity among Friends.

Settings specific for nontheist Friends and those interested in them are appropriate for studying our lives as nontheists among Friends, including topics such as: relations with other Friends; language practices; the history of nontheist Friends; nontheist definitions of Quaker terms; nontheist interpretations of Friends practices and testimonies; the varieties of nontheist Friends; outreach to children; outreach to nontheists who are not Friends; how nontheist Friends are doing in other parts of the world; and how we can publish more in general Friends publications and in our own.

It will be important to ask ourselves, once again, whether we need an organization, or is it enough to have the function of an organization without the organization? Also, do we need to be an FGC Affinity Group (as we are)? That may inadvertently send a message that is inconsistent with our aim of working for all Friends. (We are the only FGC Affinity Group organized around a particular religious belief.)

We will be more successful if we work on nontheist Friends goals in our own settings, and on general goals in general settings. When we pursue specific nontheist interests in a general setting, we risk compromising our efforts to improve our relations with other Friends. We do not worry about this when we are in a trusting community but, at present for nontheist Friends, the FGC Gathering is not a trusting community in this sense. And yet the only annual meetings of nontheist Friends in the US are held at the FGC Gatherings.

To summarize, here are seven conclusions regarding the implications for nontheist Friends when we seek radically loving relations among all Friends:

1: Nontheist Friends, individually and collectively, can work to establish inclusive, radically loving language practices among Friends in general.

2: It is important for nontheist Friends to support all Friends. We can share purposes and practices even when we talk about them differently. Being clear about this is a prerequisite for unity among Friends.

3: It is important to show Friends in general that there are nontheist Friends and to show something of who we are.

4: It is important for Friends to support any Friends who are suffering because of differences in religious belief and experience. We all need to work for greater acceptance of diversity of religious belief and experience among Friends.

5: All this is relevant in all the settings in which Friends gather: in our home meetings and in Friends organizations, and events where we come together with Friends from other branches of the Religious Society of Friends.

6: It will help to take into account whether an event is organized for Friends in general, or for nontheists and others who are interested nontheism. Let’s work on general aims in general settings, and specific aims in specific settings.

7: Establishing a trusting community at nontheist events is important, too. These events are likely to attract a mix of people: there will be newcomers, and experienced nontheist Friends, and theist Friends who want to learn more about nontheists. And nontheist Friends differ from each other: there is as much variety among nontheist Friends as among theist Friends. Let’s all learn to be Friends together.

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