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’.

6 thoughts on “Are we still necessary?”

  1. As usual, David Boulton addresses the issues for nontheism/the network honestly. I speak as one of the original members of the network when I was fairly new to Quakers and still wondering whether it was the right “fit” for me. Now I am much more confident that I am in the right place and no longer need such “handholding” as the network provided me with in my earlier days. I continue to be a happy atheist in my Quaker meeting, “concerned with human relations in the world we know”, content to be a fellow traveller in the movement, a secular Quaker. No-body gives me grief about this and my meeting is happy to accept my commitment to its activities and organisation.

    Perhaps its not a network of nontheists we need now but some framework within which the voice of secular Quakers can be heard?


  2. In response to David Boulton’s 10/1 question, the non-theist strand of Quakerism is more necessary than ever, because of its international perceptions. Given the threats to human lives and systems of human “order” that are now posed by theistic belief systems (Christian and Muslim in particular), there is a desperate need to “think our way through” to an over-arching view of humanity which can accommodate those beliefs, recognizing them as honourable world-views generated by humans in an unrelenting drive to understand the human condition.

    Internationally, we need to rediscover the primal view of all “dignity and worth of all human persons” that informed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by “the peoples of the United Nations” at San Francisco in 1945. In my view, the Quaker Non-Theist perception is an important growth-point for this crucial universal perception.

    I am an 81-year member of Swansea Quaker Meeting, having attended a Quaker School (Leighton Park) in the early-1950s… But it is wrong to create, as the Annual Meeting of the Network, such a huge hurdle against attendance as the March Woodbrooke Conference. I would love to attend, but the cost and effort of doing so is quite simply too much for me – no wonder attendances are falling!


  3. In response to concerns about attendance at the annual conference, I would observe that as a new 81-yr-old NFN Member I find the formula extremely unattractive. For domestic reasons, I am simply not free to stay overnight away from Swansea – an alternative might be (as chosen by “LIBERTY”) to hold a short-ish Saturday pm meeting in London – say, 2.30/5.30 – and enable attenders to avoid the costs of any overnight stay, anywhere. There are very few UK residents of the country which would be excluded by that formula, but London is the only venue which could offer that ease of access… I accept that travel costs might be higher (though there would be no peak-time rail travel, and tickets could be booked well in advance) – you could encourage people to bring lunch-packs with them and offer free (or cheap) tea/coffee from 1.00 pm onwards, to encourage attenders to meet each other before the meeting where timetables allow before 2.30… There would be no full lectures or seminars – but that is not the real point of such a meeting – “meeting kindred spirits” would be the essence of the occasion.. Just a thought.


    1. I’m very glad Roger did manage to attend the full weekend at Woodbrooke last weekend (2019) but wonder what others now feel about his comment on meeting in London (or elsewhere?) for the day.


  4. Dear Michael (our clerk – ed.), I did click the link on “leave a comment” but it seemed more aimed at arranging meetings so I thought I would write direct. I found David’s article on whether we still need a non-theist network interesting.

    I have been debating whether to sign up for the conference this year and have so far hesitated. Many reasons, I am not sure whether the subjects outlined are really going to say anything new for me, I also wonder whether AM’s could organise some sort of “Woodbroke on the Road” which may cover these subjects. The weekends are reasonably costly when one adds in trainfare as well. In my own case I shall have to travel up to Birmingham this year for a course I need to take for a Quaker role, I would also like to come to another conference this year at Woodbrooke. Many will be hoping to attend BYM later this year and that costs a lot! So I do wonder if cost is not a deterrent to many?

    I feel there is a need or a want for a Non-theist Group. But it could possibly take the form of a vibrant website (I love the NTN and enjoy the articles) with book reviews, news of various experiences etc. Possibly we don’t need to have a yearly conference? Maybe also one has to accept that people will join for a while because they are exploring their own spiritual path and maybe don’t feel a need to keep on their membership. I think David is right and there is more acceptance nowadays of those who hold different positions from the traditional Christian or Quaker path within the Society of Friends. A while ago my husband was talking to someone who said that he identified as a Quaker only, not a Christian Quaker (he was from another culture) or a Hindu or Buddhist Quaker for example. Just “a Quaker”. I bought this forward for discussion at our Meeting and it was very interesting to see how people self identified.

    Anyway, just some thoughts. But I hope that whatever happens about the conference this year, the NTN will not disappear altogether.

    In Friendship, Susan (Farley)


  5. Friends, I’m looking for reading matter on spirituality for nontheist Quakers. I’ve just been attending an online Woodbrooke course on spirituality but have found the concepts and language difficult to comprehend from a nontheist perspective. Ant suggestions?


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