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Nontheism among Friends at Powell House – report

“If you think Richard Dawkins is too easy on religion, go down to that end of the room,” I said, indicating the steps up to the bookstore. “And if you…”

“Careful…” someone said.

And I was. There were several believers-in-God present – the exact number depending on your definition – and I didn’t want to make a joke that might be taken the wrong way.

“If you’re, uh… very theistic, go down to the other end,” I finished, indicating the fireplace. “And if you’re somewhere in between, go somewhere in between.”

This was part of an icebreaker at the first night of a retreat on “Nontheism among Friends” (Quakers) I co-facilitated last weekend, at the wonderful Powell House conference center in upstate New York. After everyone distributed themselves along the length of the room, we added a second axis: “If you’re totally closeted, move towards that wall, and if everyone knows exactly what you believe, move towards this wall.”

When we finished, we looked around and realized we had become diffused throughout the entire room. There was a special quality to that silent moment, and then someone said something to the effect of (if I recall), This is a good group, I trust you all.

Just prior to this, my co-facilitator Robin Alpern had led us in a similar exercise, about one’s length and intensity of Quaker involvement, with similarly diffuse results. These were both her idea, as she had used them at a previous version of the same retreat two years ago. I like them because they not only break the social ice (you have to chat with people to decide where to go), but also disrupt the possible assumption that “nontheist Friends,” or “theistic Friends” for that matter, are a monolithic group.

In a similar vein, we spent the first night and morning giving extended introductions, about 10-15 minutes each. The idea was to get to know each other as people, each with our own histories and journeys, before talking about the issues more abstractly.

Which we  began to do after lunch on Saturday.

The first afternoon session we planned as a kind of “orientation” to many of the existing concerns and activities of the NTF community – FGC, publishing, minutes of inclusion [Update: see comments], unity with other Friends, and so on. We probably should’ve started with some basic definitions, however, since that’s what many people wanted to talk about. What is “nontheism”? “Atheism”? What, really, does “God” mean? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but going over some common NTF definitions of nontheism would’ve been a good idea.

After a bit, we broke up into interest groups. The one I went to was “nontheism in the broader culture,” where the younger people among us reported that high school-age people, at least in the northeast, seem pretty ferociously (and unreflectively, they thought) anti-religious. One participant talked a bit about Stuart Kauffman‘s book Reinventing the Sacred, and shortly before we had to return to the larger group, I posed the question of how much people sympathized with the motivations of the “neo-atheists,” i.e. alarm at the creationist movement or militant Islam.

(I can’t actually remember what the other two interest groups were! I think they may have been “unity with theistic Friends” and “language.”)

After dinner, we got physically re-energized by a game of Big Wind Blows (of which I am the master, only being in the middle twice), and had a full-group discussion of nontheism and spirituality. One theme we kept coming back to was spirituality as connection – a sense of connection with the people and the environment around us.

Sunday morning we had a traditional meeting for worship, followed by sharing about what Quaker worship meant for us, and what we were “doing” during the hour of silence.

In the final session, we asked people to share what they might to do as a result of this weekend, and several (three I believe) said they now felt clear to join their local meetings. One person cried (and brought some of us to tears), and a number of others seemed moved. Afterward, Rik’s blog post about his positive experience was good to read as well.


I too found the weekend moving – not so much because of the topic, which after all Robin and I were officially the experts on, but because it was the first time I’ve felt connected (that word again) to a close Quaker community in a long time. I haven’t felt very connected to my local meeting, where I’ve been attending for two years, partly because it’s large and hard to get to know people, and partly because I haven’t tried as hard as I could.

I also find myself wondering if Quaker nontheism is becoming mainstream enough that it’s time for me to focus on other concerns, at least after this summer, when Robin and I will be facilitating a workshop at FGC in Blacksburg. Lately I have felt led to focus more on my professional life and less on Quaker activities; even within Quakerism I have other concerns that may deserve more attention – the accessibility of historical and contemporary information, outreach and growth, class and race, gender and sexuality, and how our practices can better foster community and spiritual growth.

(Note: Robin and I will hopefully have a debriefing call next week, and we also will get the evaluations next week. So we may have additional thoughts later this month)


22 responses to “Nontheism among Friends at Powell House – report”

  1. I am still seeking to understand the atheism of nontheist Friends. I understand Albert Camus’ nontheism (his writing is very important to me) and I understand Dawkins’ point in his essay “Unweaving the Rainbow” where he claims there is no right or wrong, nor purpose to Existence.
    What I don’t understand is how Friends could say there is no Meaning to Existence and yet speak of
    “Sunday morning we had a traditional meeting for worship, followed by sharing about what Quaker worship meant for us,”

    If there is no Ultimate Reality to worship, how can Friends “worship”?

    By the way, your retreat sounded intriguing, even if I don’t understand:-)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing of yourself both at the retreat and in this report. It was great connecting with you.

    – rik

  3. Hi Daniel – I sympathize with your perplexity.

    Really though, the word “worship” has been inapt for describing Quaker meeting long before nontheist Friends came on the scene. If you asked 100 liberal Quakers (even theistic ones) what they do in meeting for worship, virtually none of them would use “worship” as a transitive verb. Likely a majority would say something like “listening” – e.g. listening for the “promptings of love and truth” in my heart, and listening to the words of others.

    Most Friends would identify these promptings as coming from God, but one can also identify them as simply a natural part of being human in the world.

    The way nontheism throws Friends’ peculiar usage of the word into starker relief perhaps provides an opportunity to all Friends to consider whether we are speaking plainly, or clinging to the word out of traditionalism.

    One participant at the retreat suggested “silent meeting” as an alternative, which I rather like.

  4. Hi Zach,

    Thanks for your response. Ah, yes the reality of semantics. What is a Friend? Muslim? What does it mean to pray? To worship? How can there be ethical truths if there is no Ultimate Truth?

    I am a retired literature teacher. I am concerned with the denotation of word meanings. If nontheist Friends are “listening” for the “promptings of love and truth” which only takes place as part of evolution and natural selection, I don’t see how they as Friends are different in behavior and outlook from a hard atheist such as Richard Dawkins. Dawkins admitted in an interview that he thinks ethics are relative, and has repeatedly said there is no reality to ideals except in the human brain, etc., yet he, too, holds to some of the values of Friends.

    I don’t see how any of this has to do with “Friends” in the denotation of the word. While Friends have for at least 100 years de-emphasized dogma, Friends have also emphasized a core faith. My own Faith and Practice of Pacific Yearly Meeting states, “The lack of a creed or clear description of Quaker beliefs has sometimes led to the misconception that Friends do not have beliefs or that one can believe anything and be a Friend….Out of lives of reflection, prayer…” etc.

    Prayer has no meaning except as a delusion if materialism is the ultimate truth of existence.
    I don’t mean to sound like I want to exclude nontheists. I think nontheistis are welcome as seekers. But if someone strongly asserts there is no meaning to existence, I remain baffled. Then why go to a religious service?

    Why anyone who agrees with evolutionary atheists such as Dawkins still want to gather as a Friend?

    From an evolutionary point of view, Friend truths such as “loving your enemies” and holding all humans are “created equal,” would seem to be worst sort of illusions. There is no basis in materialistic nature, or history for that matter, for such truths.

    I will keep listening, and seek to hear how nontheist Friends try and combine what to mean seems like totally contradictory worldviews–materialism and one of the most mystical/transcendental of all religions, the Friends.

    By the way so that you can see where I am coming from, here’s my hyphenated self:
    I am a very-liberal-nonfundamentalistic-Christian-in-some-ways-Hicksite-in-some-Gurneyite–unprogrammed-mission-and-evangelistic-but-not-proselytizing-antiwar-anti-abortion-anti-capital-punishment-anti-suicide-pro-environment…Quaker;-)

    Thanks for the dialogue,

    Daniel Wilcox

  5. Daniel,

    For myself, the sticking point I have with what you say is not with the word “meaning” but the word “ultimate.” To say that meaning in life is subjective, is temporary, is an experience of sentient beings, is not to say that it is unreal or unimportant. On the contrary, the temporary meaning we find in our temporary lives is of enormous importance. I think it is all we have. Same goes for our relationships with one another and with the world around us. Not ultimate, but nonetheless real.

    Yes, worship is a problematic word for me, because in common usage it implies worship and praise of something in particular. But among Friends I have gotten accustomed to it in another sense, a sense which is common among theist as well as nontheist Friends. It is a posture of openness to one another and to the world, to everything that is. It is listening. One can take that posture, and find great depth and value in it, without knowing exactly, or even vaguely, what one will encounter. Arguably, it works best without insistence on knowing.

  6. Good morning James,

    Thanks for responding to my post.

    What I hear you say is that, intellectually, you and other nontheist Friends are convinced there is no objective meaning or purpose to the Cosmos, but that doesn’t keep you from emotionally still experiencing ethics and religion
    (even if they are only subjective concepts and reactions inside your temporary consciousness).

    Is that correct?

    I guess we come from different backgrounds and I have a different frame of reference. Before I became a writing major, I spent two years as an anthropology major, then spent time reading widely in comparative literature and philosophy.

    Maybe because of that scientific and then literary background, I I have trouble with your statement “To say that meaning in life is subjective, is temporary, is an experience of sentient beings, is not to say that it is unreal or unimportant.”

    If there is really no equality, then how is the Quaker concern for equality real? Nature doesn’t operate by equality but by evolution,

    if I weren’t an essentialist, didn’t hold to a transcendental view, I would agree with Stephen J. Gould who said in an interview that humankind is a “fluke” of evolutionary chance, that we probably wouldn’t even show up again if evolution were to re-run.

    I do agree with you that an individual can find subjective significance in his illusions in his brain. Even if “equality” isn’t real, I can still choose to value it and that can be significant to me. But that isn’t the basis for the Friends’ testimonies or worship.

    I don’t think such a view can be reconciled to Friends ethics and religion.
    When John Woolman was attacking the system of slavery he wasn’t claiming to assert his subjective, temporarry experience, he was stating that
    slavery is evil in an essential way and should not be practiced by anyone. He was saying that while
    “Equality” is not observable in nature, all humans are equal and are valued objectively by the Reality ‘behind’ this observable world.

    I deeply admire Albert Camus (in The Rebel, etc.) where he admitted the lack of meaning in the universe, but then self-created his own values. I can understand that.

    I don’t understand the nontheistic idea that there are no real values outside of my own subjective experience yet I can gather together in a religion that has emphasized there are absolute truths.

    Nor by this do I mean, that the holders of ethical truth are more ethical necessarily than materialists. Sometimes the latter have a deeper desire for moral acts than many theists.

    Maybe their becoming intellectually convinced that the cosmos has no objective meaning, then leaves them with only their deep ethical concern, so that despite their denial of any essence, they focus on what is important to them–the ethics that they philosophically deny.
    An agnostic I know forgave a man for stabbing him; I don’t know many theists who would be so forgiving.

    As for “worship” I much more strongly disagree with you (as does any Faith and Practice that I am familiar with) Friends worship is not a “posture of openness to the world, to everything that is.”

    On the contrary, all the Friends worship that I have been involved with over the years from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to Intermountain to Pacific has been a pregnant silent rejection
    of much of what this world is and certainly against much of “that is.”

    I was going to trot out some of the most strking examples besides the “equality” one, but I’m sure you can think of very many.

    Quaker values and testmonies always been to one degree or another extremely against the way of this world and the way of what is.

    I certainly wouldn’t be a Friend if it implied I was open to much of what is observable in the world. Friends worship is about encountering the Ought, not the Is.

    I used to live in the Middle East, and have worked in education and observed much evil so rampant in the ‘isness’ of nature and much human behavior.

    As you can see, at this point, I don’t undestand your view at all, though I am trying to.

    But thanks for dialoguing with me. I appreciate your generous spirit and lucid explanation, even if I totally disagree.

    In the Light,

  7. Daniel,
    I hope to eventually digest your and James’s exchange and perhaps respond, but right now the main response I have to your comment is this –

    Should excluding Richard Dawkins from any possible definition of “Quaker” be a primary goal of defining the word?

    I’m not saying he’s a Quaker. He’s not.

    But the reason he’s not a Quaker is not because he doesn’t believe in God. It’s because he doesn’t believe it’s worthwhile (for himself personally at least) to do what Friends do: to on a regular basis, gather with other people in silence to attend to the inner voice of truth and conscience, in oneself and as expressed by others. He probably agrees with Sam Harris that the way ethics develops is informally, over dinner table conversations. And as for community, he probably finds ordinary forms sufficient for him.

    As a Friend, I disagree. Dinner table conversations (as well as philosophy journals, editorial pages, and the like) are important parts of the way people and communities and societies find meaning and ethics and purpose in life. But without intentional time and space and silence to listen deeply to the best of what is in our hearts, or to listen to others without interrupting or thinking about what we’re going to say next, we miss things.

    So I see him, and most everyone really, the way early Friends saw people – as someone who has access to a more abundant life, but may not pay it enough mind.

  8. David,

    You seem to be saying that subjective equals unreal, and I think that is where we disagree. Experience–the inner reality which forms the absolute bedrock of the Quaker faith–is fundamentally subjective, and is as real as real can be.

    There are a few things I assume without any way to prove them. One is, my thoughts and feelings are real: I genuinely have them, and they determine the quality of my life. Another is, other living beings have thoughts and feelings just as real as my own: they determine the quality of their lives.

    Experience tells me that the way I act makes a difference in the quality of my life and the lives of other beings. Acting with kindness toward others, and caring for the world we share together, makes life better for myself and for others. It increases joy and lessens suffering.

    For me it is just that simple.

    (I’m not trying to define Quakerism here; I’m just trying to express one particular Quaker’s world view. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think a Quaker is one who shows up and takes part. It is my engagement in the Quaker community that makes me a Quaker.)

  9. Good Morning Zach,

    Thanks for the response, though I don’t understand your response since on the one hand you say there is no Spirit, yet later use terms that come from faith in the Spirit of God.

    The central point I was making in responding to the inclusion of Richard Dawkins in your site’s post, is that he very strongly thinks that ethics are relative and that there is no purpose or meaning to Existence.

    Therefore, when you speak of “attending to the inner voice of truth and conscience” these words are illusionary. In a materialistic world where there is no Spirit, where only matter, chance and energy exist, speaking of “truth” in an ethical sense or religious sense is meaningless; it is illusion. And for sure, mystical truth as in Friends faith, trust in equality, etc. is the height of delusion.

    I’ve read a number of Dawkins books. He is very adamant that there is no basis for religious truth–that at bottom in the universe there is no right or wrong or purpose.

    This is a total denial of all that nearly all Friends, and all branches of Friends have held and do hold from John Woolman to Tom Fox, at least as I understand Friends.

    If there is no Truth in Existence, then there is no basis for listening, as you say “deeply to what is in our hearts.”

    For what maybe in your heart is definitely different from what is in the ‘hearts’ of other humans. Most humans don’t think that the Friends peace testimony is true; they think we are deluded by religious ethics–which of course we are if there is no basis for our ethical views but our own imagination.

    If the cosmos is impersonal and purposeless, then there is no “abundant” life.

    I am finding it difficult to understand your explanation.

    Maybe I should ask a question instead of write on and on.

    How do you know that peacemaking is good and not warmaking if there is no basis for “good” and since the vast majority of humankind strongly think war is the answer, even most religious folk including most of the Friends of evangelical meetings?

  10. Hello James,

    I hear you saying subjective doesn’t equal unreal.

    I completely disagree with you not only from the view of Friends, but from a scientific point of view as well. I worked at a mental hospital when drafted in 1967; furthermore I lived in Palestine/Israel, etc.

    Humans’ subjective experience is extremely dangerous and often delusionary.

    As far as Quakerism goes,
    I am not trying to exclude anyone; I’m an inclusivist.

    In my opinion however there is a difference between Quakers who advocate the use of nuclear weapons, advocate committing suicide, etc. and those who trust that the Spirit of Truth and Love says that such acts are evil.

    There is nothing subjective at all when it comes to ethical truth. Just ask John Woolman or Levi Coffin or John HIcks, etc.

    Your statement
    “The Quaker faith is fundamentally subjective”
    has me totally confused.

    I totally disagree. The reason I became a Friend is because Friends are exactly the oppsite–are convinced that ethical truth is objective.

    Maybe I need go into silence now.

  11. First, I don’t make statements from the view of Friends, but from the view of me. You, on the other hand, make statements from the view of you. It’s a little presumptuous for you to say you disagree with me “from the view of Friends.” Presumptuous and not particularly inclusive.

    Second, you’re paraphrasing me badly, which is especially problematic because you’re putting your paraphrase in quotes. I didn’t say the Quaker faith is fundamentally subjective. I said “Experience–the inner reality which forms the absolute bedrock of the Quaker faith–is fundamentally subjective.” The primary clause is that experience is subjective. The parenthetical clause is that experience forms (not “is” but “forms”) the bedrock of Quakerism. Which of these statements would you deny, and why?

    You write that “Humans’ subjective experience is extremely dangerous and often delusionary.” Saying that human experience is real (an obvious truth–I feel what I feel, and think what I think) is not the same as saying human conceptions and interpretations of experience always reflect the outer world accurately (an obvious falsehood).

    You also write “There is nothing subjective at all when it comes to ethical truth.” Here I think you are confusing truth with goodness, a confusion that abounds in religious discussions where truth is capitalized as if that changed the word’s meaning. Ethics are not about truth but about goodness. Love and compassion are not true or false, they are subjective impulses human beings experience, which we can either follow in our dealings with one another, or not follow. With consequences either way.

    I’m easy with our disagreeing about these philosophical and existential points. What I have difficulty with is your implications about what these disagreements say about my being a Friend. Yes, I conceive the light differently from you, and differently from various dead Quakers. Why is that a problem?

  12. James,

    Sorry for my misunderstanding. I thought you were making statements from the viewpoint of nontheist Friends and the website by that name.

    As for my being “a little presumptuous and not particularly inclusive,” I don’t mean to be presumptuous.

    If an individual is a seeker, seeking Reality–the good, the true, the right, the equal, the loving,
    then it would it makes sense for him to be a Friend.

    But I don’t understand a cllaim that here is no truth, no right, no equality, no love (except in a subjective sense of individual or group preference).

    Is not the essence of Friends the living of ethical truth?

    It has nothing to do with personal or group subjective preferences, but of unviersal truth–as in Publishers of Truth.

    But, of course, individuals/gorups can have a word such as “Friend” mean anything they choose it to mean. I am only following the basic gist of my Faith and Practice and the witness of various Quaker writers.

    I am sorry that I that I made a mistake and paraphrased you with quotes. I thought I had stated your view accurately. I typed in a hurry because my grandmother’s refrigerator is not working and I had to suddenly leave and deal with it. I didn’t edit before I sent off the hurried letter. But that is no excuse for my mistake.

    I have tried to understand why you think that nontheism is compatible with Friends and I have responded with trying to explain why I think they are a philosophical contradiction.

    Next you say,
    “Experience–the inner reality which forms the absolute bedrock of the Quaker faith–is fundamentally subjective.” The primary clause is that experience is subjective. The parenthetical clause is that experience forms (not “is” but “forms”) the bedrock of Quakerism. Which of these statements would you deny, and why?

    If experience is fundamentally subjective, and there is no real basis for thinking that love is eternally real, then it would seem to me that Friends as a movement is an example of the delusion that Dawkins complains about. We live in an indifferent cosmos where survival is the game but Friends speak of loving our enemies. Such seems a very sad delusion.

    I completely disagree with your statement “Love and compassion are not true or false, they are subjective impulses human beings experience…”

    On the contrary, love is eternal truth that one ought to seek to follow even to his death if necessary as in the recent case of Christians loving their enemies in the Middle East, MLK, etc.

    Long after this planet ceases to exist, long after the cosmos grows cold or implodes, long after the human species ceases to exist–
    God Is love.

    Secondly, you said “Ethics are not about truth but about goodness, but I thought it was your view that there is no real goodness, only subjective experience. If all we have is energy, matter, and chance, there is no goodness, except our own illusion.

    I won’t trot out any more “dead Quakers.”:-)

    And lastly you ask me, “I conceive the light differently from you, and differently from various dead Quakers. Why is that a problem?”

    I don’t think it is a problem. I don’t question your conceiving differently.

    Where I greive is that–if I understand you correctly–you don’t think love or goodness are eternally true and real.

    The universe may indeed be an indifferent existence with no purpose or meaning, but that seems the opposite of the Freinds message of love and peace.

    Lastly, I seldom ever feel led to speak in meeting. But here on the web, I tend to be a blabbermouth;-).

    I feel right now that I am not able to communicate to you the reality of love or goodness so I should get out of the way;-)
    and let the Spirit speak.

    God understands you even though I don’t.

    In the Light,


  13. I probably should leave this alone at this point–I don’t want either of us to get too upset. But once again, I don’t understand your sense that if something isn’t eternal, if it isn’t ultimate, then it isn’t really anything at all. All sorts of real and beautiful things are born, pass through life, then die. Eternity is not the only measure of value.

    You write “I thought it was your view that there is no real goodness, only subjective experience.” No, that’s not it. I think there IS real goodness in subjective experience. I think that’s exactly where everyone finds real goodness: in subjective experience.

    You don’t have to communicate to me the reality of love or goodness, because I already believe in their reality. Not just believe, but know. I know these things the same way I know my wife, my children. I experience love, so do you, so does everyone. That makes it real. It just doesn’t make it eternal.

    in friendship,


  14. James,

    Maybe one reason we don’t understand each other’s view is that I am seeing much of our discussion from the perspective of the original post on the website which spoke of Richard Dawkins.

    Dawkins is an amazing stylist and scientist. But he thinks all religion is a delusion because the universe, according to him, is without meaning or purpose. And ethics are relative.

    Ironically, I agree, think he is right IF one assumes his stark premise. If this is a cosmos without purpose, then all religion including Friends, maybe especially Friends, is so much delusion.

    You said “I don’t understand your sense that if something isn’t eternal, if it isn’t ultimate, then it isn’t really anything at all. All sorts of real and beautiful things are born, pass through life, then die. Eternity is not the only measure of value.”

    No and yes:-)
    If one lives in a purposeless universe, one can still enjoy the swirl of instincts, behaviors, and events. Many humans and animals do. My cat certainly seems to enjoy when I give her some of my smoked salmon. On the other hand, most of my family doesn’t like fish. It’s all about like and dislike and personal/group preferences

    But my oirignal post (and my later explanations) were focused on religion and ethics–which have to do with ‘ought” and Reality. When I speak of “love’ I am not talking about instinct or emoitonal feeling toard my kin but of an objective ethic–the kind that lead Martin Luther King (and lots of dead Quakers) to love their enemies. Such an ethic in my understanding is the height of delusion if there is no basis in Reality for love as a universal ethic.

    For instance, maybe you as a Quaker want to love, but even nice Muslims where I used to live also love their families but they want to and do commit suicide and kill Jews, and Jews want to bomb the Muslimsand do so. Because they reject any universal love for all peoples grounded in God, they dehumanize each other.

    And I know Americans who want to nuke Iran. The situation is very much a survival of my group against your group much as things are in the natural world with elephant seals and sharks, etc. Even among elephan seals no doubt there is instinctive bonding but this is not love in the ethical sense.

    If there is no basis for love as a unverisal ethic in Reality, then it would appear to be delusional.
    The same goes for the ethic of equality, etc.

    As for religious experience, if there is no Reality to encounter, no one to worship, then Friends religion seems very delusional.

    I don’t understand “I think there IS real goodness in subjective experience.”

    Goodness is an ethical term. How can there
    be “real goodness” in any experience if there is no objective goodness at all but our whole existence is one of no purpose.

    In such a case, your real goodness in subjective experience is NOT the real goodness in subjective experience of others.
    Whose to say which is real goodness?

    I was told by many people that it was their view–their real goodness–that I should go and kill Vietnamese, but instead I worked with mentally ill children when I was drafted. That is when I came into contact with Quakers and discovered their universal love and peace ethic.

    But if “goodness” is a subjective term coined by a species who is here by a fluke of evolution, how can there be any “real” goodness in any of our actions?

    Besides, you are speaking of loving your wife and children.

    But I wasn’t speaking of the natural affection that many humans and animals experience instinctively. I was speaking of the love ethic of Friends which is focused on loving those ‘others’ those different than us, those of other groups, indeed enemies who hate our guts.

    Also, I don’t understand your insistence that there is no basis in Reality for love and goodness, but yet
    now state “the reality of love or goodness, because I already believe in their reality.”

    I thought your whole premise was that there is no basis in reality for “love and goodness,” tjhat
    they are subjective feelings.

    Subjective feelings aren’t real; indeed, they are often delusional. Witness that supposedly half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Love is a choice, yet all of these people changed their choice. So much for love, and watch the millions of kids who suffer (as I had to for many years working with them in their suffering)

    For that matter, I know someone who had great subjective feelings of love toward his spouse and thought she loved him, but it turned out that it was only in his subjective experience, because she actually had no love for him, just went through the motions. Delusional.

    “I experience love, so do you, so does everyone. That makes it real.”

    I completely disagree. in the first place, I don’t thnk most people do experience love, even of the kinship kind. Most of my life was spent working with children who were unloved, even abused.

    Secondly, Love as in the Friends isn’t primairly an experience, it’s a an altruistic choice, a moral one.

    I think loving is one of the hardest acts any human attempts to do, and it would be very delusional if this is a purposeless universe.
    For love assumes there is purpose, assumes that humans aren’t accidents of an indifferent universe caught in natural selection but really are valuable persons in and of themselves.

    And your last statement, “That makes it real. It just doesn’t make it eternal.”

    On the contrary, if love is a tempoary feeling in an indfferent world, then Martin Luther King’s love of racists was not real; it was stupid, delusionary, for it got him killed.

    it might have been real for him in his subjective experience, but a bullet showed him otherwise. Instead of fighting for an equality that doesn’t exist in the natural world he could have focused on his own family and group.

    Back to my cat;-) My cat has ‘love’ for me but it isn’t ethical because there is no universal understanding of love for her. She loves me because I feed her, play paperwad with her. But if she saw a better family option she would probably take off as did our previous cat did.

    If she suddenly started loving mice and birds and wanted all animals to be equal–I would think she was either delusioinal or an reincarnation of John Woolman;-)

    Though I don’t understand your view, I do thank you for trying to understand where my faith is.

    And I do hope you will continue to love even if you think it has no basis in objective reality but only your subjective experience.

    In God’s Infinite ocean of light and love,


  15. Daniel, I was going to follow up on the parts of your earlier comments I hadn’t really responded to yet, but I don’t know what I would add to what James has said.

    I’d encourage you to keep ruminating about these things for awhile and post a blog about it…

    Kind regards,

  16. Hi Zach,

    Maybe some of the difference is that I came to the Friends during my C.O. service after I was drafted in 1967. I became a Friend because of reading of Friends faith in the Transcendent and in universal ethics.

    So for me the Friends religion represents all that is totally contrary to nontheism, all that is totally contrary to the materialistic views such as Dawkins.

    But maybe if I try one more example:-)
    I can help you and James see my perspective that some acts and experiences are universally true and good, and some evil.

    Five men’s views of women:
    #1 sees women as “pieces of ass.” (There are so many men I’ve known who have this outlook that it is depressing.)

    #2 thinks polygamy is the way to relate to women. (I’ve known one person who thought this and practiced polygamy in the U.S.. But of course this is very popular in the Middle East. Ben Laden’s father had something like 24 wives.)

    #3 thinks women are to be admired but thinks promiscuous relationships are okay so has sex with more than one person. ( a view that more than one guy has tried to convince me it is true)

    #4 thinks that one woman is ideal but thinks divorce is okay if he changes his mind

    #5 thinks that love with one woman as an equal for life is the truth.

    Now in each of these cases, the man thinks his view is right. In all cases he experiences
    subjectively that his view is right. It is real to him.

    The question is: Is there a true way for a man to relate to a woman? a way that is universally true, not a subjective preference?

    Not according to primate studies; some see a human male as only one type of primate.

    Not according to anthropology which sees ethics as relative. There have been all kinds of men/women relationships in human societies.

    In contrast, my understanding is that
    at least three of these view of ‘love’ are perverted; and only one is the truth with a capital T.

    In the case that there is no universal truth outside of the men’s own subjective views, whose to say?

    I’ve known men of all philosophical views hold to most of these positions.

    Such is one of the main reasons that I think nontheism is incorrect. Holding that there are no universal truths in ethics gives us no basis for standing for truth. Some men treat women as equal, most don’t, Whose to say what is right?

    Our society, and the societies of the Middle East, sure need some universal truth.

    Maybe that helps you to see why I think nontheism is wrong.

    I could have given the same examples against war but I already did refer to those examples in past posts.

    If not, maybe I am the wrong person of faith to try and explain it.

    And, once again, I do understand the position of a person like Dawkins who is a nontheist and sees ethics as relative.

    I don’t understand how any Friend can be an nontheist and see ethics as relative.

    Also, I need to stop writing so much and read more:-)

    In the Light,


  17. I’ve read the original post long after the back-and-forth in the comments has been going on, and I’ve skipped over nearly all of it.

    There is this point, though, that sticks in my craw:

    The so called “minute on inclusion” that you link to, Zach, has *never* been endorsed or approved by the respective monthly meeting. In fact, the meeting is still working, four years later, on crafting a statement that speaks both to the breadth of belief among us and to that which binds us together.

    I have not been in favor of posting on the internet drafts of things like this for the very reason that they get picked up by others and presented as “a done deal.”

    Then again, it’s concerns like these that make me less of a Liberal Friend and more of a Conservative one.

    Thanks for reading me.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  18. Liz,
    You’re right that my wording was a little ambiguous there, but I’m saddened that you seem to be choosing the less charitable way to read that passage.

    I didn’t say (nor do I assume) that particular draft statement has been or necessarily will be approved, and I think anyone who clicked through and read the page would realize that.

    I linked to it because it’s one example of this concern that some NTFs have — namely, that one’s meeting minutes its acceptance of theological diversity — being expressed in a local meeting and wrestled with.


  19. Daniel,
    I’m not sure you do understand the position of “people who think ethics is relative.”

    Because it seems difficult for you to see middle ground between “all moral judgments are bogus” and “there is only one correct moral judgment on any given issue, for all people for all time.”

    I’m not going to spell out the middle ground for you, in part because figuring it out myself is an ongoing process. But I am going to affirm your suggestion that you write less about this for awhile and read more. Which is advice I will take as well.

    And really, speaking just as as liberal Quaker (and a #3 “pervert” according to you), nontheists are far from the only liberal Quakers who think ethics are more situational and relative than you appear comfortable with (and who therefore are perhaps not real Quakers in your view). And conversely, I’m sure there are some nontheistic Friends who would agree with you.

    In other words, this is a concern that you might consider bringing up among liberal Friends generally, not NTFs – have you talked about this in your meetings? Or blogged about it?

    Best regards,

  20. Hi Zach,

    Thanks for responding.

    I think I understand the anthropological view (having majored in it for two years and having had ‘relativity of ethics ‘ drummed into us:-).by our professors and texts. And I understand the philosophical view of many nontheists, having dialogued with them and read their books for 44 years.

    There are a few nontheists such as Michael Shermer of Sceptic Magazine and The Science of Good and Evil who try to argue that there is no meaning or purpose to existence but that there are universal/transcendent ethics. But my question to them, Is where are these ethics at?

    I know where math resides if all humans die or disagree, but where does love or equality exist if all humans die or disagree?

    I think there are shades of gray in some ethical issues, but I do think there are moral absolutes on the key issues. If it is wrong for others to torture, then it is wrong for me to torture. If it wrong for the enemy to kill innocent civlians, then it is wrong for us to kill innocent civilians.

    I do think that slavery, for instance, is always wrong, all of the time everywhere. Now I would agree that some forms of slavery were not as evil as some other kinds.

    But anytime a person makes another person a thing, even very nicely, it is still evil.

    I don’t try and decide who is a ‘real Quaker.’ God loves us all, and God will decide stuff like that.

    Besides, maybe I am not really one;-)

    My only grief and confusion with this whole discussion is what I’ve already said: How can anyone who claims there is no Ultimate Truth or Good be
    a Friend?

    I have no confusion with seekers and doubters.
    We’re all on spiritual journeys.

    But adamant nontheism I don’t understand.

    As for my ethical example, maybe I should have used a different word than ‘perverted’ since that word has such negative connotations. Now that I think about it I wish I would have said ‘distorted.’

    I do think sexuality is a gift for between two people only. For how can a person give himself/herself totally to more than one other person?Basically, it seems to me that sexual relations with more than one person becomes a form of serial polygamy. It breeds inequality and various forms of suffering.

    Aren’t the values of compassion, patience, mercy, peaeemaking, simplicity, equality, purity, community, etc. good for everyone?

    Yes, I have dialogued on ethical concerns with liberal Friends. Indeed, I am a liberal Friend–seeking to follow in the spiritual path of Mott, Livi Coffin, Elias Hicks, etc.

    I feel I have exceeded my leading and so with these closing remarks (unless you ask for further discussion), I will stop trying to explain, and get back to listening only.

    Thanks for the dialogue.

    In the Light,


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