“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)