Are we still necessary?

by David Boulton
It’s the first week in a new year. In ten weeks’ time we hold our annual conference at Woodbrooke – forty rooms booked, but barely a dozen takers so far, and that after several weeks of advertising in The Friend. Panic. What have we done wrong? Chosen the wrong theme, the wrong speakers, the wrong time of year? Have Friends just lost interest in nontheist perspectives? Once the future, are we now yesterday’s men and women?
Well, we’ve been here before – like this time last year, and this time the year before. On each occasion the bookings started coming in once Christmas and the New Year were out of the way, and we had a good conference of forty or so. Not the eighty or a hundred that we got when we started six or seven years ago, but a respectable number. Our panic then proved premature.
But there is something interesting going on that we have to face up to.
The membership of our Nontheist Friends Network is dipping year by year, but the number of Friends who self-identify as nontheists is steadily rising. Don’t take my word for that: look at the series of decennial British Quaker Surveys by Ben Pink Dandelion and his team. They show that the 3.4% of British Friends designated as ‘atheists’ in 1990 had more than doubled to 7% in 2003, then more than doubled again to 14.5% in 2013. Moreover, many more who would not choose the word ‘atheist’ to describe themselves could hardly be described as conventional theists. 43% of Friends and attenders in the 2013 survey felt ‘unable to profess belief in God’, and a wopping 80% chose to describe the Quaker business method as ‘seeking the sense of the meeting’ rather than ‘seeking the will of God’.
It is possible, of course, that this ‘direction of travel’ which has caused so much concern in some quarters of the Society and was denounced by Derek Guiton in his book A Man that Looks on Glass, may have slowed up in the last two or three years. But the fact remains that there are clearly many, many more nontheist Friends in our Society than the fewer-than-a-hundred who have joined the Nontheist Friends Network. Does this matter? I don’t think it does – but maybe it should give us pause to consider whether our Network is really necessary any longer. My sense is that, despite the conservative backlash here and there, most meetings have come to terms with and been open to a nontheist presence. We have become more inclusive, less belief-oriented, more concerned with human relations in the world we know than with the metaphysics of transcendent religion. Does that mean we’ve done our job? Or should we be doing it differently? Answers please – at Woodbrooke on March 24 to 26.

David Boulton’s latest book is Through a Glass Darkly: a Defence of Quaker Nontheism, available from the Quaker Bookshop, Euston Road, London at £7 plus £2.50 postage and packing. ‘A nuanced, thoughtful book,’ according to the editor of The Friend, (December 16 2016) , ‘a book about language, identity, ownership and belonging’.