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

Quakers and the Environment: Three Options

Quakers live in and are part of the environment. Since the early days they followed the conventional practice of separating their faith from the world around them. Later, with the growth of the environmental movement, a second option emerged, that of spiritualizing nature. Then, with the development of nontheism among Friends, naturalizing religion became an option. Now, Friends have three dramatically different ways to relate their faith and the environment. Here is a brief look at these three options.


Separating phenomena into two realms was the original way Friends handled their relationship with the environment. Different languages and methods were used for different kinds of truth. This was the grand accommodation that science made with religion to protect itself from charges of atheism. Also, scientists from many faiths could work together. Those following this approach were greatly involved with the world of nature (as with William Penn and Kathleen Lonsdale) or less involved (as with George Fox and Rufus Jones).

In the separation of the two realms, the most important aspects of being human, such as truth and purpose and meaning, were assigned to the realm of religion. Science was restricted to lower, animal phenomena. Sensory knowledge and reason were viewed as insufficient by themselves. A good life was possible only through a relationship with the Divine.

This option endured for centuries but it gradually weakened. Science began to provide explanations that supplanted those of religion. Questioning that served well in the study of the environment and was extended to the religious realm.

Religious concepts and institutions adjusted to these changes. People began to speak of God as a metaphor rather than an entity or power that intervened in human affairs. As it became harder to hold everyone to the same doctrine, membership practices began to emphasize participation in the community rather than the acceptance of particular beliefs. Unity was based on love and commitment rather than agreement.

In science, environmentalists began to study our place in the web of ecological relationships, and the disastrous changes that we can cause. Like other movements for social change, the environmental movement looked to the religious communities for allies. Friends answered the call and added a testimony for environmental justice and an earth restored.


Quaker environmentalists needed a religious perspective that accepted humanity’s place in the environment. Concern for the environment was a religious imperative and a religious approach was needed to discern appropriate action. These Friends began to speak of God within all the world. They combined the two realms by spiritualizing nature. This is called Deep Ecology or eco-spirituality.

This was reflected in a minute passed by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1988: “The world is God’s creation. How we treat the earth and all its creatures is basic to our relationship with God, and of fundamental religious concern to the Society of Friends. We unite in urging individual Friends and monthly meetings to seek Divine Guidance in considering the limitations and actions this concern requires of us.”

The Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (now called Quaker Earthcare Witness) is an eloquent advocate for this approach: “FCUN is a spiritually-centered organization…FCUN goals (are) to strengthen and deepen our spiritual unity with nature…FCUN encourages Friends to explore the spiritual roots of humanity’s relationship to the Earth…(W)e support informed, spirit-led action on all environmental issues.”

This is a bridge between science and religion built in religions terms. Unfortunately, it often denies essential features of science such as that physical events are only caused by other physical events and that they occur in orderly, cause and effect relationships. This makes it easy for religious people to be involved in the environmental movement, but it creates difficulties in the relations with scientists. It can lead to religious certainty on questions of science, even questions scientists are not certain about. Eco-spiritualists are sometimes supportive of science (as shown in the October 2004 issue of Friends Journal that was dedicated to the environment), but they can be harshly critical of science and a world view based on science (as in the workshops and book by Mary Coelho).

There was a problem: if nature is God, how could it be a deterministic physical system and nothing more as science suggests? The eco-spiritualists looked to science itself for evidence that something more than purely naturalistic explanations are needed. They found this in the Uncertainty Principle (events are unpredictable at the quantum level); chaos theory (sudden changes are unpredictable); the interconnectedness of all phenomena (cause and effect only explains simple relations and nature is inherently beyond human understanding); the Anthropic Principle (the environment is so unusual it could not have developed by natural processes); the view of the whole as greater than the sum of its parts (reductionistic explanations fail); the effect of the observer (we can not explain events we are a part of); synchronicity (coincidence as evidence of another type of causation); and action at a distance (quantum events reflected in events where no connection is possible). In these and other ways, the eco-spiritualists demonstrated the limits of the naturalist’s approach.

The second option found fertile ground in Quakerism: the Quaker tradition of God in each person easily extended to the view that God was in everything and yet still transcendent; mysticism could be described as the feeling of unity with all nature; Quakers traditionally looked for Divine guidance and knowledge in addition to reason; and Quakers had a positive history with science and with the world they sought to mend.

This has worked well for 30 years. Friends became active environmentalists. They found this approach enjoyable, even thrilling, and it presented a view of science that attracted many who had been repelled by it before.

Today, the second option is the state of the art of Quakers and science. It is widely accepted in Quaker environmental organizations, Friends General Conference workshops, and in Quaker writing on the environment. Quaker scientists have objected to this version of science but they have not organized themselves to present an alternative. This may be because there are so many other outlets for activist scientists and because the division of realms is traditional in science (as it is in politics).


Recently, a third option has become available to Quakers, that of uniting their faith and the environment by naturalizing religion instead of spiritualizing nature. This assumes human behavior, including religious behavior, is a series of physical events and nothing more. This is a bridge built in science’s terms.

This option is available because Quaker nontheists have gradually emerged in the Religious Society of Friends. At first they were quiet, emphasizing metaphor and translation instead of objecting to theistic concepts. They found support in many aspects of modern liberal Quakerism which tolerated doctrinal diversity and welcomed nonmystics and nonChristians. The books of Discipline were guides rather than rules and the sections on belief were largely personal statements by individuals. Practice was emphasized over beliefs, harmony over agreement.

After 1976 some Quaker nontheists started to take a more open approach, discussing their views in public and in explicit terms. They asked Friends to accept a variety of religious language, letting speakers speak and listeners translate, responding to the purpose of what was said instead of the form in which it was said. They sought ways to live with doctrinal diversity rather pushing their own point of view. They suggested that theistic and nontheistic Friends can worship together, respond to leadings, engage in discernment, and participate in the search for a sense of the meeting —  all while they explain what they are doing differently.

Meanwhile, there had been changes in science that supported this third option. Some psychology came to view behavior as a natural event controlled by the surrounding environment. There were advances in the study of the physiology, genetics and evolution of behavior. Scientists made efforts to show their love of nature and their humane ethics. All this made it easier to find natural answers to the questions addressed by religion.


Religion for the nontheist environmentalist is a combination of ethical standards (common purposes of individuals and communities) and practices that help us hold to these standards. The functions of religion are accomplished even when these are described in naturalistic terms. Religion need not involve the supernatural.

The religion of a naturalist is a religion of daily life. This provides common ground for cooperation between people of different faiths. Religious naturalists explain our problems in the language used to explain the action that will be taken to solve them. Results can be observed and the naturalists held accountable and their efforts improved. The environment acts in their lives as God does in the lives of theists. This opens new ways to reach out to people who are secular and have rejected religion.

People accepting the third option have an easy time relating to scientists but can have difficulties with their co-religionists. Doctrinally open membership practices help as does the tradition of seeking unity as if you agreed, relying on love rather than agreement.

This approach does have disadvantages. Observing and interpreting is more work than speculating. Theists may be antagonistic because their approach may not be as necessary as they thought. Another problem is that building knowledge is easily disturbed by war, prejudice, and other social problems. We are slow to admit error or ignorance and slow to change our views. We favor the views of those we love or are dependent upon. These are some of the obstacles in the path of the naturalist.

The third option fits well with Quakerism (as do the other options). This includes Quakerism being a noncreedal religion, and the emphasis on testimonies, tolerance, practicality, simplicity, and individual experience. The third option is particularly appropriate for those Quakers who have not had mystical experiences and those who see ones actions as independent of ones beliefs.

Even so, Quakers have been leery of nontheists for a long time and they often are puzzled or shocked by the suggestion that behavior is an environmental event and nothing else. Doctrinally open membership is new and not well understood. Many Quaker scientists are theists and don’t apply their science to the full range of human behavior. Spirit based approach dominates in the Quaker environmental movement where nontheism and naturalism is often viewed with skepticism.

Adding the third option will help the Religious Society of Friends. Concern for the environment can unite the various branches of Quakers, and Quakers with those of other faiths and with secularists. Nontheists are experienced in the art of living in a religiously diverse community. By their presence and witness they prompt other Quakers to think about their faith and to seek ways of living with diversity.


All three of the options fit well with Quakerism and all three are present among Friends today. We can get along well if we accept that people have different ways of accommodating religion and science. It is important not to exclude those who are drawn to an option that is not ones own.

Any of the options can be accompanied by a host of other views. For instance, a person can be an environmental activist or a quietist while holding any of the three options. A person can be a technophile or a neoLuddite, and so on.

Friends should be clear on the methods they will use in accommodating faith and science because we will have to address many new issues to which both are relevant such as climate change, stem cell research, genetic modification of foods, and the right to die, to name only a few.

I call on Quaker environmentalists to include naturalistic Friends in their work and in their hearts. Please let visitors who are interested in the environment know there are three options for combining religion and science. I hope Quaker science teachers will tell their students about these options, too.

Let us love those who love the environment above all else, those who have eaten of the tree of knowledge and found it provides an ample diet.


  1. Definitions will be added later. These include those of environment (nature, world, Earth, universe), physical (material, observed, sensory based), and causally determined. Science will be defined as a method for study of environment. There will also be definitions of religion and belief (faith, experience, approach, view). (In this essay the alternate terms in parentheses can be interchanged.)
  2. Note that Elias Hicks limited the claims made by reason, as George Fox had. Quakers valued education highly but this was because of its practical uses. They warned against too much involvement with “notions”.
  3. Eco-spirituality (Deep Ecology) will be defined, with reference to the authors Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, Barry Schwim, John Templeton and Mary Coelho.
  4. Definition of nontheism as any view beyond theism, an umbrella term that combines with other terms like agnostic and atheist, and with positive descriptors like humanist and naturalist. The issue is not just the concept of God but all those concepts defined in terms of God (such as worship) and other religious concepts such as spirituality. Surveys will be mentioned that show the incidence of nontheism among Friends.
  5. References will be added to nonChristian Quakers and proto-nontheists.
  6. There are situations in which a speaker has some responsibility to translate, as when the listeners don’t know how to or don’t know that they are expected to translate, or when one is speaking for Quakers in general or describing the faith of other Quakers, or when speaking in ones own language would prevent vital cooperation.
  7. The nontheist religious alternative is developing in other religions too, e.g. John Dewey, Sea of Faith, nontheistic Christians and Jews, and so on. The U. S. Supreme Court has accepted nontheist religion in considering whether a nontheist can be a conscientious objector to military service, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that if a strongly held personal view functions in a person’s life as religion does in the life of a religious person, then it can be considered as a religion.


4 responses to “Quakers and the Environment: Three Options”

  1. This is a very interesting argument that for me clarifies strands of thought that I have observed without analyzing.

    I’m disturbed, though, that I can’t find the author’s name. How can there be reference and discussion without some attribution?

    1. Hello David Penney,
      The easiest way to find out the name of an author is to click on “Print This Post”. You can also search for the title: the person who posted it will show in the search report.
      Os Cresson

      1. As of now, the author’s name is at the bottom of every post.

  2. This post reminded me that some of you may be interested in a page I set up on Facebook callled Naturalist Friends specifically dedicated to the “third option” mentioned in this article.

    Here is the description. Please log in to Facebook and “like” it if you support its basic message. Also, any discussion would be welcome!

    This is a page for folks who get a deep sense of awe, connection, and meaning from the natural universe. We find this sense of self-determined purpose and fulfillment within a naturalistic and nontheistic context through a conscious connection with the interdependent forces of life. Although we are not necessarily Quakers nor religious, we find that the practices and values of unprogrammed Quakerism are very helpful and fulfilling in feeling “connected”. For example, we can get sustenance for our naturalistic worldview through the Quaker practice of careful listening from the silence, both individually and in a group – listening to our intellectual and moral conscience, to our intuitions, and to whatever our fellow humans and other living beings have to say. We are inspired by the Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Compassion, Equality, and Stewardship and find them to be practical expressions of an ethical life grounded in philosophical naturalism and nurtured through careful listening. These testimonies are solid foundations to build practical action. We welcome both Quakers and non-Quakers. We welcome those who are affiliated with a community of like-minded folks, or are currently independent and solitary. We welcome those who consider themselves religious, or spiritual, or neither. We welcome those with various labels (or none) such as spiritual but not religious, naturalists, deep ecologists, eco-humanists, atheists, agnostics, nontheists, pantheists, eco-atheists, naturalistic pagans, neo-animists, etc. You are welcome here.

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