In 1996, Bowen Alpern, Glenn Mallison and I designed and presented a workshop called “Nontheism Among Friends” at the Friends General Conference Gathering. Since then, various people have led the workshop and offshoots from it. I have led seven so far. This year, I was particularly aware of some ways the culture of the Religious Society of Friends, as I know it, has shifted, due in some small measure to these workshops.
When we first offered the workshop in 1996, we didn’t know if anyone would come. We didn’t know if it would cause trouble: a rift, even an eventual schism. We now know that a large segment of our Society is interested in the sort of questioning and exploring the workshop offers. The workshops have consistently filled to overflowing, such that it has become necessary to offer more than one at a time. In addition to creating space for larger numbers of attenders, offering multiple workshops has allowed us to respond to the frequent request for more focused (or advanced) workshops for Friends who have already taken part in the introductory workshop. It is understood that there will be fewer workshops than usual in 2006, but thereafter it would be best to provide more than one nontheism workshop.
Far from causing a rift, the workshop has supported many, many Friends to participate more fully in their Meetings. Some have felt clear to request membership after years or even decades of attendance; others have offered vocal ministry or volunteered to serve on committees for the first time. Several have facilitated a conversation on nontheism in their Monthly, Quarterly or Yearly Meeting, thus bringing this very important topic out of the closet. Theistic Quakers have reported that the workshop helped them become clearer about their own faith, and more committed to it. Friends have worked together to find bridges across our theological differences.
Instead of marginalizing nontheistic Friends, the workshops have helped Friends to recognize there is a spectrum of belief. I now hear people say I am a theist, where formerly, they may have had no sense of that as a distinct element of their religious life. Instead of theists being regarded as normal and nontheists as other, there is a growing awareness we are all Quakers, with different views.
Workshop participants have had profound discussions of faith that were rarely taking place elsewhere in the Society. Modern Quakers tend to shy away from talking about beliefs and faith, but nontheists almost necessarily spend time inquiring into our interpretations and concepts, because we know they differ from the norm. In the online conversation that grew out of our workshops, there is lively, original and profound sharing about spiritual life. Participants have discussed every imaginable aspect of the relationship between humanity and divinity. This vitality spills over into the Society at large, encouraging all of us to feel safer discussing theology and philosophy.
Changes in the culture must lead to changes in the workshop. Up until now, we have usually welcomed part-time and drop-in participants. We felt that this safe space was so new and rare, we wanted to make sure not to turn anyone away. However, there now are more and more opportunities for Friends to engage in nontheistic conversation and community. It may be time to restrict the workshop to full-time participants, in order not to keep breaking the integrity of the group.
In the early years, the first day or even first two days were devoted to lengthy introductions. Again, because this dialogue was so novel, Friends had a great deal to share about how they had come to an interest in or commitment to nontheistic Quakerism. However, the spiritual journey and experience of nontheistic Friends is more familiar now. This year, for the first time, we broke into smaller groups to share introductions. Perhaps the personal journey of individuals will continue to take less priority in future workshops. This, and the restriction to full-timers, will especially make sense when there are at least two workshops (introductory and advanced), and when the workshops are complemented, as they often are at the Gathering, by interest groups, informal conversation hours, shared meals, etc.
It may now be possible to focus more on the spiritual life of the workshop. At least two of this year’s attenders remarked that they felt the workshop was not sufficiently spiritual. (One does wonder a little why these two Friends didn’t choose the workshop on Nontheistic Spirituality, but perhaps it was already full.) I think the original workshop was developed, in part, in reaction to a sense of being excluded from the Religious Society of Friends. Participants needed to make up for years of silence on this subject. Although there has often been a deep sense of community and love in the workshops, there also has been a lot of talking. The discussion may be more intellectual or philosophical than some would wish. As the feeling of being included and even welcomed grows among nontheistic Friends, I think it may be best to work more at grounding the workshops more deeply. It might be good, for instance, to spend a full hour, at least once, in silent worship and reflection together, followed by worship sharing about the experience. Having finally begun to find our voice, we can more readily choose to be still and listen.
I do not wish to exaggerate the change that has come about in our Society. Each time a nontheist workshop is held, especially in a new venue, such as Pendle Hill, a Yearly Meeting, or Woodbrooke in England, there are attenders who profess never to have heard of nontheism among Friends, or never to have spoken of their own nontheism. Each time there are some who ask if it is possible to be a Quaker without a traditional belief in God, who want to know how people can live ethical lives without theism, or who wonder what nontheists do in Meeting for Worship. There is clearly still a place for the introductory workshop. And although some ask if we haven’t done this enough now, there are still many Friends concerned with these issues who need a safe place to explore.
Meanwhile, many Friends want to move beyond the basic questions. They want to delve more deeply into such queries as, If religious life is not about belief in God, what is it? How do theistic and nontheistic Friends share a religious life? Do we need to modify our advancement literature to reflect an openness to nontheistic members; do we even need to minute our openness? This, again, suggests it is helpful to have more than one workshop per Gathering.
Maybe the biggest change in this decade is the development of the email listserv.
The first known nontheism workshop at the Gathering actually took place in 1976, when Robert Morgan led a Workshop for Non-Theistic Friends. There was no follow-up to this workshop that we know of. Likewise, the earliest Nontheism Among Friends had little or no follow-up, though there were attempts at newletters and a listserv. These didn’t last, and so at each Gathering we had to make a fresh start at creating community and conversation. The listserv that grew out of the 2003 workshop has flourished, however. This has made it possible to develop deep and lasting relationships, pursue the discussion well beyond what can take place in one short week at the Gathering, and reach out to Friends all around the world. In turn, this growing network of support and challenge has birthed a sourcebook on nontheistic Quakerism to be published in 2006, a gift to the Religious Society of Friends, and all who are impassioned by the religious life.
I look forward to what the next decade will bring. And I thank Friends General Conference for helping to create a home for these good Friends.