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

Learning to love and accept “Quatheists” (Nontheist Friends) at Powell House

The following is republished from a Jan. 4, 2009 post on the blog “The Click Heard Round The World“.

Quaker Meeting: Welcome All
Quaker Meeting: Welcome All

For three days I have been at the beautiful Powell House Quaker retreat center, up in Old Chatham, New York.  I have been attending a workshop on “nontheist Quakers” led by Robin Alpern and Zach Alexander with about 16 other Quakers from around the northeast area.

I arrived with a good dose of skepticism about the subject, not sure I even agreed with the notion that one could be a nontheist Quaker.  How could you be a Friend if you didn’t even believe in the exstence of God?

I had a lot to learn.

Over the course of the weekend, I heard some very moving, powerful and funny stories from the Quakers here about how they came to Quakerism and how they came to their own stances of atheism or agnosticism.  I have come to understand that the term “Nontheist Quaker” was coined a decade or two ago to encompass the large range of Quakers who did not believe in an anthropomorphized God figure — i.e. atheist Friends who firmly reject the existence of God, or agnostic Friends who maintain that it is impossible to know if God exists or not, or who think of “God” as the greatest good that humanity can achieve, or who may have an overall sense of holiness from humanity and the earth without subscribing to a particular diety.

Light through trees

Hearing the stories of the nontheist Friends here, and reading about the perspectives of many other Quakers from around the United States and Europe, I have realized that their story is really not so far from my own.  And that the way that they view the world, their daily practices, and their commitment to their Meetings tell me that they are indeed Quakers in every sense of the word.

I have been reflecting on my own faith journey — from my Roman Catholic upbringing, to my born again experiences in high school, to my evangelical Christian college years, my belief-less wanderings in the desert of Texas, to my Quaker faith now.  Today I have largely stopped thinking about God as a supernatural “Old bearded man in the sky.”  If I do believe in a diety, it is as a loving and nurturing force in my life that pushes me to live rightly and treat others with respect and love.

My “prayers” if you can call them that, are no longer intercessory, asking God for particular favors or wishes.  The are closer to meditations and reflections that might direct positive energy toward a particular person or situation, but not asking God for some specific outcome.  I don’t believe in a supernatural being that acts in the world in that way.

So I am not so far from nontheism myself, I realized.

This weekend has exposed me to a flavor of Quakerism that prior to this weekend I didn’t even know existed.  Despite my initial misgivings, I think now that Quakerism is a broad enough faith community to include even the atheist and the agnostic.  This gives me a lot of hope for the future.

In a world of people seeking true community, desiring spiritual connection, and eager to do good in this life, I believe that the Quaker message and movement is needed more than ever. It’s encouraging to know that we can accommodate into our fold even those who question the very existence of God.

I’m very thankful for Robin and Zach for gently and considerately facilitating this retreat, to all the participants who shared their very personal and heartfelt stories, and Danielle from Brooklyn Meeting who suggested going to the retreat in the first place.  What an awesome way to start 2009.


3 responses to “Learning to love and accept “Quatheists” (Nontheist Friends) at Powell House”

  1. I too seem to find myself heading in that direction…slowly but surely. It is a bit scary, but it does seem to be the direction I am heading.

  2. I fall under the label of atheist, as I do not feel a belief in a supernatural God, however I have never enjoyed the strong connotations of the label, because of the negative connotations many people associate with it.

    I have always enjoyed hearing other people’s points of view on various issue, and pride myself on being able to emphasise with other opinions which differ from my own, even expounding on them in discussion with my friends, to further explore any given topic.

    This tendency, naturally, extends to theism. Who am I to say what is a correct, or incorrect, spiritual belief? I cannot believe in a God, it seems completely incompatible with my experience, with everything that I am. Therefore, who is to say that someone who believes in a god, or gods, doesn’t also feel just as compelled? I try very hard to ensure that my own beliefs do not impinge on anyone else’s experience, but of course, I am more than willing to consider and discuss my beliefs and feelings whenever it is appropriate and to also consider and discuss other people’s beliefs.

    I am friends with 3 brothers, and their father is a non-denominational youth pastor, amongst other occupations. We frequently engage in discussion on his blog, and over Facebook, because we have extremely differing views on, to be honest, pretty much everything. But we both enjoy the experience, his questions about my thoughts and beliefs, and his views and opinions, mean that I am constantly contemplating my true feelings about any number of things, and so I feel unable to confine myself to societal labels, such as an atheist, a liberal, a socialist, despite holding many beliefs in conjunction with these labels, as I may not fully agree with every aspect of socialism, in it’s many forms and guises, for example. And also, how I feel and what I believe can and will change as I continue to learn, to listen and to reflect.

    I came across non-theist Quakerism while reading up on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and getting side-tracked by many topics related to it, then topics related to those, and so on by furthering degrees of separation. I have, for a long time, been an admirer of Quaker societies, for their altruism, their pacifism, their search for truth.

    Basically, I have come to non-theist Quakerism from a completely different angle, but I agree with this post. I am excited to hear there is a community of people, open to listening and open to sharing.

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