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

Powell House Nontheism Among Friends

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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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.


10 responses to “Powell House Nontheism Among Friends”

  1. You write: “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.”

    This isn’t quite accurate. Dan’s case established that for the government to condition the conscientious objector exemption only on persons who believed in a supreme being (which is what the statute required) would violate the Non-establishment Clause of the US Constitution.

    Therefore, the court held that the CO exemption could not be denied to a person solely because he didn’t believe in a supreme being, as long as what he did believe in played the same role in his life as a supreme being did for a believer.

    The court therefore didn’t (and wasn’t competent to) conclude whether religion required a belief in God; it simply decided that the Constitution couldn’t condition a benefit on such a belief.

  2. Thank you for the correction, Paul.

  3. Robin, the workshops are important and the reports are, too – they let people who were not there participate. Eventually more people will probably read the report than were at the workshop! Nontheism matters to those who are seeking support of the sort usually found in a religion, but who are seeking in the absence of God.

    Thank you for reminding us of the plight of nontheists in prisons possibly without access to religious support. I would add hospitals and schools.

    Your efforts are important and appreciated.


  4. Robin, thank you for an interesting posting. I never knew there was room within RSOF for nonthesitic people — where can I look for more information on this topic?

  5. Paul L made the excellent point, “Therefore, the [U.s> Supreme] court held that the CO [conscientious objector] exemption could not be denied to a person solely because he didn’t believe in a supreme being, as long as what he did believe in played the same role in his life as a supreme being did for a believer.”

    This comment shows that all the debate about which of the views of theists or non-theists is correct is just so much artificial blather and amounts to an idle exercise in semantics and ego. This type of debate seeks estrangement instead of engagement and confrontation instead of communication. It is unspiritual, unholy and against the basic beliefs and aspirations of all of the world’s authentic religions.

  6. Dear Peter,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. To an extent, I agree with you that some of the conversation is about semantics. The way you frame your observation seems to me to come from estrangement and confrontation, and I feel treated in a way that is unspiritual and unholy. However, that may just be an artifact of the written word and our not knowing one another. I trust you have written in the intention of laboring together in love, and I’m glad to do so.

    I’m not sure you took the time to read the report. There was no debate about whose views are correct. We did try to share honestly and compassionately with one another. To the best of my knowledge, we all, theists and nontheists alike, parted friends.

    The reason we hold these workshops is that, although some of the differences between nontheists and theists may be purely semantic, people don’t always behave as if they are. So nontheistic Friends have received behavior ranging from having their views disrespected, to being refused membership, to being accused of spiritual parasitism, to being isolated or even disowned. The workshop is an opportunity to work through some of these issues.

    Much of the poor treatment of nontheistic Friends stems from false assumptions made by others. When we gather to talk about our different theologies, we’ve found we usually come away with greater respect and appreciation for each other. To me, Peter, your comment reflects an automatic assumption that nontheistic Friends must be out to tear apart the Religious Society of Friends. In the decade I’ve been in dialogue with nontheistic Quakers, it has almost always been apparent that they regarded themselves first as Quaker, and secondarily as nontheists. They have attended the workshop not to drive a wedge into our Society, but to learn how they can be more fully a part of it.

    In friendship,
    Robin Alpern

  7. Many thanks, Robin, for this report. I like knowing of nontheist workshops and events, and what they were like.

    I especially liked the “icebreakers.” Fabulous! I think I will use them if I ever offer another nontheism workshop.


  8. Hello Ron

    It seems that you are a tad defensive about your nontheism. Perhaps the reason that nontheists, atheists, secular humanists, etc attract poor treatment (if that is indeed the case) is that they do not just claim to disbelieve in a discrete Divinity that others refer to as God or Allah or Brahman but usually they take the additional step of promoting themselves to the position just vacated by God as they argue for the supremacy of reason, logic and science.

    As I have said before there few, if any religionists, other than fundamentalists, who actually do believe in a discrete God, so there should be no poor treatment directed at those who claim that there is no discrete God by the majority of religionists because they would agree with that proposition.

    But nontheist usually do not stop with the simple assertion that there is no discrete God. They often go on to ridicule the views of those who do believe in a discrete God by comparing that belief to a belief in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or any of a long list of fictional characters. Of course, these nontheists do not understand that the fictional characters cited are symbols of human love in specific circumstances.

    Not content with engaging those who believe in a discrete Divinity, nontheists are also prone to targeting theists who have a more cosmic viewpoint of Divinity by claiming that a cosmic Divinity is merely a placeholder for the unknown and that when science, i.e. the intellect, reason and logic of the nontheists have succeeded in ferreting out all the secrets of the universe, then there will be no need for a belief in any kind of Divinity, discrete or cosmic.

    This confrontational and dismissive nature of most nontheists is what attracts the ‘poor treatment’ that you mention. Granted that poor treatment is not acceptable, but it is understandable. Moreover, to complain about poor treatment is often an excuse by nontheists to avoid responsibility for their own less than gracious behaviour as outlined above.

    Granted some theists will attack the beliefs of nontheists because the nontheist view threatens their own, crude level of spiritual understanding but these types of attacks are probably in the minority and are easily dismissed as grounded in fear and insecurity. And yes, some nontheists will attacke the beliefs of theists also from fear and insecurity but the majority of nontheist pronouncements seems to be grounded in egoism with a prideful attachment to their ability to think and reason.

    Let’s look at this nontheist attachment to intellect, reason and logic a bit more. First, most of the nontheist arguments that I have encountered are sadly lacking in both reason and logic and are easily defeated logically by any first year undergraduate. The nontheist arguments definitely lack any logical rigour and are more often just their biases set out in what is taken by them to be logical form. In short, nontheists who espouse reason and logic are either loath or unable to apply that reason and logic to their own views.

    Second, such nontheists forget that there are other learning styles besides the linearity or logic and other world views besides logical positivism, behaviourism or even cognitivism. These nontheists are not capable of understanding the validity of alternative world views such as constructionism, design based research methods, or the Gaia hypothesis. They do not or cannot recognize the validity of other non-verbal, non linear learning styles such as kinesthetic, which is the dominant learning style involved with Hatha Yoga or the auditory learning style for which we are grateful to such figures as Beethoven and Bach for developing to such a high degree.

    Third, the logic and reason so beloved by nontheists is not, by its very nature, capable of knowing or presenting That which is beyond nature and beyond space and time. Logic and reason are dependent upon a world view that sees a universe of separate objects all in competition with one another for survival and ease. This viewpoint is further overlain by the imposition of linearity of their concept of time. Science is doomed to forever recognizing relationships between separate objects even though those separate objects are not separate at all. It is a bit like continually rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic without once recognizing the unseaworthiness of the vessel in which one sails, i.e. nontheism, atheism, or secular humanism.

    Fourth, reason and logic are dependent upon the five senses which as we know have very narrow thresholds and exclude much of the universe from their consideration. Also, these senses are subject to failure. Think of colour blindness or hearing loss as just two examples.

    There is a case for reason and logic but not one that can take a person to God. Reason and logic can, if used properly and rigorously take one to the threshold of spiritual enlightenment but it cannot take one over the threshold into nospace, notime, and interconnection, the home of God. In Hinduism, for example, there is a spiritual path known as Jnana Yoga. This is an intellectual path and consists largely of using reason and logic to eliminate from consideration that which is not God. This process is referred to ‘Neti. Neti.’ or ‘Not this. Not that.’ At the same time that one is practicing Jnana Yoga, one is also making the consciousness more and more subtle, in other words, developing and expanding one’s intuitive faculties. It is these intuitive facultes that, in the end, will take one over the threshold of spiritual enlightenment to know God directly.

    It is interesting to note, that the ‘discoveries’ in the outer reaches of theoretical physics, the quantum world, have always confirmed the pronouncements in the world’s scriptures and have never found conflict in them. This quantum world is intuition at work.

    Finally, nontheism in full flower without fear or ego is exactly the same as the most profound depths of all authentic religions. Quantum science is practical mysticism, and only one of many paths to the top of the mountain.

  9. Dear Peter,

    When someone takes a stand, it’s simple to accuse of her of being defensive in order to undermine her views. It’s also easy to blame the problems of people in an oppressed group on themselves, to avoid inquiring into the source of any poor behavior on their part.

    I would be the last to claim that any nontheists I know are saints. However, if you care to read other writings posted on this site, I think you will find few of the flaws you describe above.

    From the sound of it, you have felt offended by nontheistic folks quite a bit. I regret that has happened to you.

    You clearly have given a lot of thought to relations between theistic and nontheistic people. What makes you so interested?


  10. Thank you so much for this report. Bob Morgan was my grandfather, and I knew he was an atheist, but I had no idea he had run a nontheism workshop at FGC. I’ve been an atheist since I was a teenager, but I still feel very strongly about other aspects of Quakerism, such as equality and pacifism. I think it says something about the power of Quaker ideas that it’s possible to participate without having theistic beliefs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *