Nontheism Among Friends
Powell House, NYYM
January 26-28, 2007
report by Robin Alpern
The Nontheism Among Friends workshop was originally designed and led by Bowen Alpern (Scarsdale Meeting), the late Glenn Mallison (Ithaca Meeting), and myself (Scarsdale Meeting), at the Friends General Conference Gathering in 1996. Twenty years previously, Robert Morgan (PYM) had led a Workshop for Nontheistic Friends at the FGC Gathering; so far there has been no trace of any follow-up. The 1996 workshop was taken up by other leaders, and has been offered ever since at the Gathering. Many Friends have led similar conferences at Woodbrooke Study Center in England, Pendle Hill, and at their Monthly and Yearly Meetings.
Joan Lukas (Cambridge Meeting, NEYM) and I, having both led the workshop twice or more, joined together to offer it for the first time at Powell House. Buffy Curtis (Sandwich Meeting, NEYM) served as our elder. Twenty-one other Friends attended. Judging by the written evaluations and the overall sense of engagement and satisfaction, the conference was successful. This is my personal report, reflecting my own experience.
We began Friday evening with icebreakers. We asked attenders to form a line reflecting how long they had been involved in the Religious Society of Friends; the range was from one year of attendance to over 40 years of membership. Then we asked Friends to take places along the other axis, relative to how deeply they are involved. All four quadrants of the grid were well represented. (A couple of Friends felt they had to move to the next room to indicate just how active they are!). Next we invited Friends to form a line depending on how theistic or nontheistic they are, and then to indicate on the other axis, how far out of the closet they are! Again, we observed a full spectrum.
The composition of our conference was typical of nontheist workshops, and consistent with the findings of David Rush, who published They Too Are Quakers: A Survey of 199 Nontheist Friends in The Woodbrooke Journal, No. 11, Winter 2002. Friend Rush found a large proportion of Quaker nontheists has had a long, strong involvement in the Religious Society of Friends. Meanwhile, the workshop almost always draws one or two theistic folks who are simply interested in the issues.
I was inspired to bring ministry to our opening session. I shared a parable told by Nityananda Baba, a leader in the Siddha Yoga tradition, about a famous Hebrew scholar who, when explaining the Kabbalistic teachings, causes the whole room to be filled with light and burst into flames. Surely the label and description of our religious lives are less important than our being afire!
I also spoke about the Biblical story of the doubter who prayed Help thou my unbelief, which had been echoing for me all week. I had had spasms of terror, that instead of leading innocent Friends to damnation, I ought to be praying fervently for salvation. This I identified ruefully, and with no disrespect to believers, as a nontheist’s dark night of the soul, when she believes in God. The fear of God does not make God so. At this time, I am nontheist, because I find I can no other.
I observed that our conference was attended only by white Friends and invited us to consider what we are missing, without the participation of Friends of Color.
In the introductions we learned that exploring nontheism within the RSoF is a fairly new journey for most of the participants. People expressed surprise, and in some cases relief, to learn Quaker nontheism could be a topic of discussion. While some felt welcomed and supported in their meetings, others felt nontheism was a barrier. A few Friends described themselves as having been atheist for many years. Several Friends said they were still seeking clarity in their beliefs about God.
I encouraged those who were seeking because of a love of growth and diversity to enjoy the rich and full sharing of the conference. Those who are searching because they dont have answers are encouraged to listen for new understanding. And those who are seeking because they fear to know and express what they know, are warmly invited to stand for their truth.
We spent Saturday morning sharing how we are faring as nontheistic Friends, or as theistic Friends among nontheists. I reflected that my own experience at this time is characterized by four creative tensions. One is that I feel great joy, a deep sense of delight in life, occasionally brimming over, such that I feel truly at one with all. Alongside that is the awareness that people who believe passionately in God may in fact have some deep aliveness and truth I could be missing. I try to remain genuinely open to greater life in the spirit.
Secondly, I often feel nontheism is irrelevant. Most of my daily activities and communications seem to have little to do with belief or nonbelief in God. (Indeed, it has been a struggle to write this report; the subject seems unimportant in the face of the work I have to do raising my family, participating in ending racism, stopping the war in the Middle East, etc.) At the other end of this spectrum is the knowledge that sometimes the ministry of including nontheists has led to longtime attenders joining their meetings. Even bigger, I think humanity will leap forward when we free ourselves from certain oppressions of organized religion and particular unhealthy beliefs about God.
Third, many theistic Friends over the years have made it explicit that they welcome and appreciate nontheists. Meanwhile, others have suggested nontheists are parasites sucking the spiritual force of real Quakers, or they have made other equally intolerant and unfounded criticisms.
Fourth, as a student of the ancient Indian Siddha yoga path, which declares that God dwells within you, as you, I find myself puzzling over whether the truth is that there is no God, or that there is nothing but God!
The afternoon was spent in small groups, where we considered topics suggested by participants, such as relationship to our Monthly Meeting (including our membership status, frequently an issue for nontheist Friends), religious education for children, meeting for worship, the philosophy of Spinoza, finding unity with theistic Friends, and developing a Quaker nontheist cosmology.
There was a truly wonderful growth in community throughout the day, evidenced by animated knots of people deep in discussion during breaks. Participants who had seemed to be particularly needful were being well cared for by others. Still, Joan and I felt the energy flagging by evening. So after supper we cancelled a discussion on challenges faced by nontheists, and replaced it with a rousing game of Big Wind Blows, a more complex version of Musical Chairs. Friends did not hold back, and there was a lot of healing laughter and play. We then settled into Claremont dialogue to share with each other the gifts of nontheist Friends to our Religious Society, and how we are nurtured as nontheists by Quakerism. As is common at these workshops, I found that most people had not thought much about how nontheistic inquiry can enrich Quakerism. Nor did we necessarily recognize how a theistic culture supports us.
Sunday morning, we held meeting for worship, followed with Claremont dialog to share our reflections on it. I noticed, as I usually do during silent worship in the nontheist workshop, that even I feel uneasy at first, wondering if everybody is just mentally reviewing their to-do list. I was opened to feeling how uncomfortable it could be for theists worshiping among nontheists.
One Friend was moved during worship to rise and dance gracefully through our circle. Several people commented afterward how moving it was. Another Friend shared that our prison worship groups already are beleaguered by administrations to prove that they are religious services in the absence of clerics, Scriptures, sermons, etc; how much more so might they be if it became known Quakers could be nontheist.
We took time for another exciting game of Big Wind Blows, during which we were reminded of the historic case in which Friend Dan Seeger won recognition in the Supreme Court that religion is not necessarily defined by belief in God. We shared a wonderful laugh when the leaders called for the game to end, and a participant responded by jumping into the middle of the circle and shouting A big wind blows for everyone who doesnt think the game is over!
We closed with sharing what we had gained from the conference, and future steps. A good suggestion was that the conference be offered as a Senior High program at Powell House. Some Friends wished we had had time to learn more about the history of nontheistic thought among Quakers, some of which is captured in an essay by Os Cresson titled Roots and Flowers of Quaker Nontheism. Others would have liked more opportunity to discuss what, if not God, is at the center for nontheistic Friends. Many felt more fully included in the Religious Society of Friends, and one or two declared an intention to request membership. As is usually the case at this workshop, there were a few who shared that they had been able to come to clarity that they do believe in God.
With the admonition about prison worship groups in my ears, as well as the sense of a certain level of comfortability during our weekend, I exhorted Friends to stand up and speak up. While we, as individuals, may be completely happy and secure in our individual monthly meetings, there are many people who are experiencing religious oppression because of their beliefs or unbelief. We bear some of the responsibility for giving voice to the need to include all who seek sincerely to be Friends.