One nontheist’s understanding of “the light” of Quakerism

To seek to live in the light is essentially a value, a principle of living, rather than a belief. We need no theology, nor even a particular conception of “the light” as a distinct quality, in order to seek to live by it.

Perhaps it would help me to clarify my point, if I described my own quirky, incomplete, and mostly psychological sense of where “the light” comes from

Human beings, like many creatures, need one another. We are born with a deep need to be held, to be cared for, to be paid attention to. If we are fortunate, our parents fulfill these needs as best they can. In the beginning we are pure need, pure hunger, with no sense or expectation that we have to return anything to those who care for us. At some point we express our delight at being cared for, we smile, and those who care for us return the expression. What a breathtaking experience for a parent, to see our child’s delight expressed for the first time, in seeing our faces!

So we respond, we redouble our efforts in hopes of seeing that smile again, and again. Over time, the child notices: there is a connection between expressing love, and receiving love. A powerful bond is forged between the purely natural human need to be loved, and the initially unformed potential to give love.

This potential emerges naturally out of the experience of being human, but it is not invulnerable. If we are neglected, beaten, humiliated, or otherwise cared for poorly, the potential is likely to be suppressed. Also, while the potential is universal, it is by no means equally distributed among humans at birth. A relative handful of us are born with an especially powerful potential for loving that can survive almost any abuse; a small number are born with sociopathic tendencies in which the potential for loving is deeply buried. (Research shows that some sociopaths are made, and others are born, though it is no easy matter to tell the difference.)

In terms of potential, where we fall along the continuum is a matter of pure genetic and environmental luck. The vast majority of us, I think, fall in the middle and can easily go either way, depending on how we are cared for in our formative years.

This is all just theory of course, and I cannot say beyond any doubt that there is no supernatural source. In fact, even if the theory holds, there still could be a supernatural/divine source. Though I personally see no need for such a source. In either case, this model of “the light” calls attention to a number of imperatives:

  1. We have no business judging anyone for their moral failings. There, but for the grace of…whatever…go I.
  2. When we love more and better, we help to create a world in which others love more and better.
  3. What we believe or profess to believe is of minor importance to increasing the light in the world. What matters is how we care for each other.

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17 Responses to One nontheist’s understanding of “the light” of Quakerism

  1. Judith Salzman March 6, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    I love this. The Friend speaks my mind. The Buddha taught to believe NOTHING what anyone tells us except for things which make sense in our own minds. Living with peace and compassion is what “the light” is about for me. As I struggle with road rage my path becomes more clear and the light will help me change.

    Thank you so much for your lovely words.

  2. James Riemermann March 6, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    Thank you, Judith. It’s good to hear from you.


  3. Ramona June 29, 2011 at 9:39 pm #

    Thank you! Your first paragraph says everything to me! So many times I’m asked, well, what do you believe in if you don’t believe in God? My usual answer is, I believe in “good”, the goodness of people. And I do. But the point really is, I don’t need to believe in anything – instead I live my life according to the principles and practices that work.

  4. B. T. Newberg August 19, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    This is a beautiful piece. I especially like the concluding line: “What we believe or profess to believe is of minor importance to increasing the light in the world. What matters is how we care for each other.”

    That’s precisely how I view my own spirituality. As a Humanist and a Pagan, all my effort gets focused toward developing resonance and responsibility toward other people and our world.

    I found this post by bouncing off another blog and liked it, then noticed you live in my area (I live in Mpls), and then recalled that your name was actually mentioned to me by Thomas Schenk. Small world! Anyway, long story short: good to meet you. 🙂

  5. James Riemermann August 19, 2011 at 10:17 am #

    Thanks, Ramona and B.T.

    B. T., It sure is a small world. The coincidences run deeper than you might have known: I’ve known Tom as my, um, I guess it’s called cousin-in-law, for about 20 years, but I only started learning something about his religious sensibilities a year or two ago on a religious naturalism email list, which I learned about from another nontheist Quaker.

    Nice to meet you, too. I’ll take a look at your humanistic paganism site.

  6. Miriam Yagud February 9, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    Dear James
    I just read this for the first time. I have noticed it again and again as I skimmed through to the discussion posts. I’m glad I stopped to read it as you have helped me to let go of some of my scepticism about “the light”.
    I am currently re reading a little book called “On Kindness” by Adam Philips and Barbara Taylor in which they speak of kindness in similar terms to your take on “the light”
    Thanks again and I look forward to meeting you at Woodbrooke

  7. James Riemermann February 9, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Thank you, Miriam. I’m looking forward to meeting you, too. I’m curious about the book you mention as well.

    I’m personally baffled trying to understand why so many people *fail* to see the natural, human motivations for kindness, and feel a need to look for supernatural sources. There are other, darker motivations as well, of course, but it’s not like kindness doesn’t serve us well. The more people care for each other, the better it is to be a person.

  8. Ryan Blanchard June 24, 2013 at 11:46 am #

    Loved this entry as well. I struggle with the God words like light, worship, etc.. but I can filter them easily enough. Worship especially irks me, as it implies a kind of groveling that I’m not interested in doing. But of all the Quaker terminology, it seems least likely to be discarded. As with most things, it’s a me-problem, not a Quaker problem.

  9. James Riemermann June 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    Ryan, I’m so glad you’ve found this site, and some of my words, helpful. In my earlier years with Friends I had similar difficulties with the word worship, but somehow, without really trying, it just feels to me like something I do, an intransitive verb taking no object, rather than something I have to direct at something. I don’t worship God, I just worship. Like I walk, or reflect, or daydream, or meditate, without specifying or requiring an object. And something in the quality of worship, as I practice it with Friends, is different from any of those other verbs. It’s hard to say just what that difference is.

  10. leslie umans April 4, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    I am a Quaker, but I am not a member of the Religious Society of Friends. I’ve no doubt that I’m convinced, but in becoming a member, I feel as if I disavow the Light that is there in all others — other individuals and other faith communities. Any comment?

  11. James Riemermann April 4, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Hi, Leslie!

    I’m not sure I understand your concern. Do you mean that by becoming a member you somehow set yourself apart from others who are not members? Or something different?

    Membership doesn’t particularly feel that way to me, but it could be seen that way by some. I will say that I know a fair number of Friends who have attended my meeting for years, even decades, without becoming members, and are clearly seen as part of the community, and no one doubts that the light, whatever it’s source, dwells in them. It’s OK to be a Friend without becoming a formal member.

  12. Ryan Blanchard May 15, 2014 at 5:17 pm #


    I’m in a slightly different place than I was a year ago when I commented, and am hoping you might have some words of wisdom for me.

    The meeting that I attend is within the evangelical Northwest Yearly Meeting. As such, the God language is stronger and more prevalent than it likely is in an unprogrammed setting. This would be fine, except as I’ve read through the meeting’s written guidelines and faith and practice, I find that as an atheist, I’m excluded from nearly everything that goes on within the meeting. Speaking in open worship, for example, is only to be done at the spirit’s prompting. All the membership questions imply the existence of the light. On the days where I strongly feel that I should speak, I can’t, because, even if only to myself, I’d be implying the existence of something supernatural, which I will not do. This isn’t a pressure put on me by anyone else, I just can’t get past the feeling that ultimately, my voice is specifically excluded by the guidelines of the meeting.

    At the same time, words like “secular” and “anti-Christian,” which didn’t used to bother me when used by others, now feel like attacks, or an effort to separate the Christian Quaker from others.

    I’ve loved my time within the meeting, but after leaving full of anger for weeks on end, I’m not sure I can go anymore. My wife and kids love it, which makes it harder. It feels like a break up.

    Sage advice?

  13. James Riemermann May 16, 2014 at 8:19 am #


    I feel for you. That sounds like a challenging situation. I hope you find your way through.

    Though I belong to an unprogrammed meeting that is presumably less explicitly Christian than yours, most of what you write reflects struggles I have had in my 20-plus years as an unbeliever among Friends.

    Our Faith and Practice and many other Quaker documents often make assumptions I do not share. That said, it probably makes assumptions that *many* Friends do not quite share, including some theist Friends. I’ve come to think maybe that is too much to expect from such a document, that it make no assertions which contradict our own views. Writing that contradicts no one, I think, has no point of view, and perhaps has no reason to be written. Maybe it is enough that a Faith and Practice generally captures the center of gravity of the meeting, and for those it doesn’t speak for, it might occasionally offer food for thought, or occasionally make some metaphorical sense for people like you and me. What’s more, that “center of gravity” changes over time as people come and go in a meeting. Eventually, new books are written, coming closer to the way our meetings have changed. A study of Quaker history shows this sort of change quite clearly. People like you and me might be playing some small role in all that.

    I also have struggled with the conventional Quaker wisdom about vocal ministry. I think many Friends struggle with it. But I do sometimes speak in worship. There is a metaphorical sense in which I can relate to concepts like “the spirit’s prompting,” but I certainly don’t believe anything supernatural is going on. I do wait for a sense that the message is not just some admirably deep or fancy thoughts I have, but something more humble and genuine that might speak to my fellow Friends.

    The fit is far from perfect for me, but over time I have come to love these people and think of them as *my* people. I think they feel similarly about me. It’s not for everyone, but if there is something in the community that feeds you, I hope you stay open to the possibility that an imperfect fit might still be a fit. And I hope the Friends in your meeting can recognize and value you for who you are, for the distinctive gifts you might bring to the community.


  14. Tara May 23, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    Thank you James,

    I’ve felt great peace reading this as well as your other writing on this site. I attended a Meeting in 2007 and left feeling unwelcome and uncomfortable with the Christianity aspects of RSOF. I believe in peace, love and respect for all living beings, truth, integrity, simplicity/minimalism, listening for internal guidance from the wisdom inside us, and application of that wisdom to daily life.

    Since that time I’ve looked at Sikhism, Stoicism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism and to my fellow atheists for a community of others that share my values and are also seeking wisdom. I am so grateful to have found this site and your contributions to it!!! Thank you for giving me hope that a Meeting of Friends might accept a non-theist like me.

    With kind regards,

    Tara McKenzie

  15. James Riemermann June 1, 2014 at 11:15 am #


    I’m sorry I didn’t see your comment until now.

    I’m so glad to hear you’ve founds some encouragement and comfort on this site, and hope you find a Friends meeting that works for you, as I and many other nontheistic Friends have.


  16. Elizabeth Tylor December 18, 2015 at 10:49 pm #

    I would very much appreciate being included to receive postings on this site. I come from a decades-old Quaker heritage, and love the basic principles, silent worship, peace endeavors, etc. Nevertheless, the logic of existence of an omniscient ethereal being called God escapes me. Therefore, I feel affinity to this new-found group of, perhaps, “Liberal” Quakers.

  17. Rick Brice August 9, 2017 at 5:42 pm #

    I have just discovered this site and am looking forward to exploring it further. This is the first post I have reviewed. I would like to share just two points.

    First, I was introduced to a term several years ago, “Listening in tongues”. It enables me to listen to the intent of the speaker without stumbling over the terminology.

    Second, if you are familiar with the concept of the noosphere, it appears to be a field of collective consciousness where we all connect; from which we receive intuition, inspiration and wisdom; and which may contribute to a belief in deity. For me, this aspect of human experience is the Light, and I find myself prompted to vocal ministry from this ‘sacred’ source.

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