Towards a Nontheist View of Discernment

Towards a Nontheist View of Discernment

What is discernment for you? A recent piece in The Friend (by Neil Morgan, 9 August issue) titled ‘How nontheists view discernment is giving me a headache’, argues that without the sense of revelation from God, and sense of connection with God, discernment loses its distinctive Quaker quality. So what are nontheists doing? Are they just ‘listening empathically’ to each other? The piece ends with the plea, ‘Could Rhiannon [Grant] or someone from the NFN please explain to me what they are doing when they are discerning – or at least what they think they are doing?’ (This was in a review of Rhiannon’s book Telling the Truth about God. Rhiannon reminds us that she does not self-identify as a nontheist but is a friend of nontheists.) In response, we asked our members to share their views on how nontheists view discernment for publication in this newsletter, identifying writers only by initials. Here are some responses (so far…)

The Nontheist Friends Network is my spiritual home. Born in 1935 I have always been a sceptic about God. My mother was a Grammar-school science teacher, my father a pillar of the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church.

When, as a young child, I asked my mother where God was, she said ‘Oh – up there somewhere’, to which I responded – ‘He cannot be thick, or else he would fall down’. I have never been a ‘believer’ in God or been able to ascribe any significant meaning to the word. My ambitious father sent me to a Quaker boarding-school, simply because he could not find a private Methodist school that he liked.

I went to university, and became Secretary of the Cambridge Humanist Society, under the chairmanship of E M Forster. I regard the world’s religions as among the greatest artistic creations of mankind. I realize that millions have found inspiration in their images of Deity, but I cannot share them. For me, religions resemble great symphonies, inspiring works of sculpture or painting, wise sayings – and they are part of my world, but not supernatural.

And yet I loved my Quaker school and its diverse, cosmopolitan, community. I loved Reading Meeting, which we attended every fortnight. I came to love Quaker ways, and Quaker values. Later, in my sixties and an Attender at Swansea Meeting, I was accepted as a Member, and became a Friend. I came home. [RWE]

I am surprised that Rhiannon Grant’s book gives Neil Morgan a headache. Nontheists have a heart and an awareness of all the rich sensitivities of the human spirit, communicated for instance by poetry, art and music. They also share the characteristic human sense of empathy and compassion towards the feelings of others. They bring all these senses to bear on matters that require discernment – senses that some would call spiritual. [GGS]

I find a quiet place and I think. Not exactly rocket science. I may do this during MfW too. Occasionally I may do some research and read things that may relate to a concern, or I speak to people. This process may take some time, depending on the concern, or it may just be listening to points of view at a meeting for worship for business to compose a minute. Either way it just requires some head space and a time of thought without the intervention of a God figure. I often come to a revelation all on my own. [AK]

I’m listening to what Friends have to say with an open mind and an awareness of my own possible prejudices, being prepared to make up my mind or change my mind according to what I hear. I weigh it all up, using my experience and intelligence, think about ‘what love requires of me’ and I speak my views if I feel it would be helpful. If a decision goes a way I’m not happy with, I accept that this is what Friends wanted and try to accept it with good grace,

I’m certainly not waiting for any kind of divine guidance. [LE]

My late husband called Quaker processes ‘the jewel in the Crown.’ As Assistant then Clerk of my Meeting, I found discernment to be a bright facet of the jewel.

It is hard work, to put oneself aside and listen – really listen to what each Friend says. Then to keep that so important space between each contribution is vital as we begin to ‘take on board’ the many aspects of the item under consideration. This will lead to a moment when the Clerk feels it is right to attempt a minute. The Clerk then needs to be upheld by the quiet, loving support of those present as he or she tries to put into words the sense of the Meeting.

The minute first proposed can then be worked on, if need be, until Friends feel it to be a true reflection of the discernment process that has just taken place. This has been achieved by a group of Friends having mutual respect, care and love for each other and for the furtherance of Quakerism. [AR]

I see discernment as a way of improving the quality of discussion and of eventual decision- making as compared with more common ways of handling group discussions such as committees and voting.

The very fact of meetings (of any kind) implies universal recognition of ‘collective intelligence’ alongside individual points of view. My own experience has left me in no doubt that (a) the outcome of meetings can be influenced by the mood of the meeting and (b) that the mood can be managed. Such management can take the form of, for example, the style of the chair, the meeting conventions and practical aspects such as timing, papers circulated, accommodation and so on.

Quakers have developed a particular style of discussing business matters that is harmonious with Quaker values and therefore, on the whole, observed. The discipline of waiting to be called by the clerk to speak, of avoiding engagement with others who have spoken, of speaking respectfully, of a readiness to be persuaded and of careful recording of the discernments of the meeting by the clerk all lead to a productive interaction between individual views and the collective intelligence which, to me, is the essence of discernment.

So I understand Neil Morgan’s use of the words revelation and connection but I see them applying to the relationship between individual views and collective intelligence rather than to God. [GH]

I have never ever thought that discernment was only possible with a belief in God!
This would mean that only ‘religious’ people could do any good – which is obviously not true.

For me, Quakers are a constant reminder that the fundamental tenets of Quakerism – peace, equality, sustainability, justice and truth – are what we need to keep in mind on a daily basis and that is what the community of Quakers gives me. [MW]

Discernment does not lose its distinctive Quaker quality because one is a non-theist. In meeting I try to think good thoughts and how I can do better with my life – it tempers the bad stuff in the world. I do not sit there worrying about whether it is God, or simply my conscience bringing these thoughts out. But it does. For me Quakers is about what you do, not whether you believe in God or not. [EW]

Neil Morgan (9 August) asks how nontheists regard Quaker discernment, assuming that they necessarily cut ‘God’ out of the equation. I am a member of the Network who does actually believe in God. But what I believe in is not the existence of God but the presence of God, and for me that difference is vital.

For as long as I can remember I have been constantly aware of a presence that is ‘closer than breathing’, very personal, yet not entirely part of myself. It has always been with me, more or less out of eyeshot, and its presence means that I never feel lonely or alone. Not only that, but I also feel that it both guards and guides me. Whatever it may be is reliable and comforting. I call it ‘God’ because I grew up with the word and still find meaningful and useful. But it’s a name, not a definition. I ‘believe in’ it in the etymological sense of credo = cor do (Latin: ‘I give my heart’). I also share in the presence of God corporately, mostly in meeting for worship.

I feel that to speak of God as ‘existing’ is to categorise God as part of the universe, bound by space and time, whereas the presence of God is not an objective reality but a subjective human experience. People may claim they don’t see God as a bearded old man in the sky, yet many still speak as if they do. If God ‘exists’ anywhere, it is in the human heart, not ‘out there’. A literal belief in the externally ‘real’ existence of God seems dangerous and demeaning. The NFN provides me with a respectful and non judgmental forum enabling me to explore my theology more thoroughly than in most other areas of Quaker life. I may not like the word ‘nontheist’, but I treat it as a name, not a definition. After all, I don’t define myself by reference to my own name.

Thus I can understand Quaker discernment as joining with others in listening to and acting on the leadings of God, and as an occasional clerk and elder for many years can attest to its efficacy. [DP]

IF.. You would like to respond to this discussion, or comment further, please email David Parlett, or Comment (‘Leave a reply’) here below. (Initials or name required. Your email address will not be published).

14 thoughts on “Towards a Nontheist View of Discernment”

  1. I was upset by the piece in the Friend. I do not challenge other Quakers about what they mean by discernment and I do not expect to be challenged by others. We each understand it in any way we like.
    I was equally upset by the nonthiest Friend’s response – by the dismissive statement about 12 step Fellowships. I do of course accept that we all have weaknesses and that we help each other up with a loving hand. My upset is not a judgement of them but a statement of how I felt on reading their words. MB


  2. It was and is not intended that any comments in this context should be ‘answered’ by others but as we have not reproduced the article, nor any responses, from The Friend, this could get a bit confusing!
    It’s not clear Martin if ‘the dismissive statement about 12 step Fellowships’ might refer to the statement by Piers in the original article: ‘But the disempowering ‘I am helpless’ AA approach only works for some, and I understand that psychologists don’t recommend it.’
    If so, it may be of interest to read an article such as this: but Piers does say ‘works for some’.

    It is also perhaps important to mention that the article in The Friend was in fact an editorial (and edited) construct by the editor based on two pieces submitted quite separately by the two ‘authors’ and the second was not written as a response to the first though the editing and presentation made it look that way.

    The important thing perhaps is your statement that ‘I do not challenge other Quakers about what they mean by discernment and I do not expect to be challenged by others. We each understand it in any way we like.’

    Finally, if anyone wishes to comment anonymously, they can do so by using initials, anonymous or a pseudonym – I will now attempt to remove my name (Trevor) to check that this works! All that is required is a valid email address which will not be published.


    1. The idea that psychologists don’t recommend the 12 steps is facile. First, the 12 steps are not generally taught in psychology, psychiatry, or psychotherapy courses. They have evolved in parallel, are partly behavioural, and are partly spiritual. Second, the paradox is that by giving up freedom we become free. This echoes many other religious perspectives, such as St Francis prayer. .Thirdly, they are not for everyone. In my view, nothing is.
      There is a good published paper on Quakerism and the 12 steps.
      A more general question is whether a nontheist can accept the 12 steps, as these require placing trust in a god, higher power, or the light. The definition of higher power is left to the individual, so can easily be incorporated in a nontheist perspective. In my case this is similar to the power of the group in a Quaker meeting.


      1. Hi Martin, I take your point about AA, and I shouldn’t have used it as example so glibly (though I was under word pressure in the Friend). I have three friends who benefit/have benefited from it, and one has spoken the same as you…about the power of the meeting. And I understand that sense of higher power can be helpful for those suffering. And a Quaker friend who spends time in the Middle East recently told me of the lovely sense there where it feels that all are basking in the same light. And as you say, in the West it’s different paths for different folk. Obviously my understanding of God is a bit primitive…Rhiannon expresses the Quaker notion of inner God well…I suppose that one can even start in a weak relationship with the outer ‘God’ and then progress to strength of an inner absorption?

        But I baulk at ‘giving up freedom to find freedom’, given the way that religions have been used to unify empires, and the way that power/submissiveness gets abused. (And I think it’s true to say that no public health body recommends AA as treatment for addiction and dependency.) I would express what I experienced as that one has to remove self-constructed barriers, especially that of need…you can want/need something so much that it (due to sense of hopelessness or fear of disappointment) can get in the way of getting what you want/need. That was a key insight for me…giving up need to find freedom.

        I suspect that all journeys involve finding a kernel of authentic strength inside and then nurturing it. Words (and notions) will always trip us up. I liked another thing Rhiannon said…that we should remember to take a break to focus on sharing the love and biscuits. I hope this explains my position a little better. PM


    2. Discernment,
      Quakers seem to have appropriated this word: DISCERNMENT in “Quaker speak” as a handy concept to express what is central to Quaker identity and often meaning: “spirit-led” or waiting for “God’s guidance” in decision making.
      And yes , as a non-theist Quaker I can join into that process collectively as part of the meeting or on my own, without experiencing leadings by the “Spirit”, but by listening sensitively to others, , consulting trustworthy information, very importantly getting rid of the ego and then reflecting, waiting patiently for constructive collective inspiration (as in creating an art work) and the right collective decision to emerge and consulting ones feelings, and finally testing what has come up .
      GC 19/08/19


      1. Gisela
        This is just to test the threading and nesting of replies.
        I can ‘Reply’ to your comment but not to Piers’.
        I don’t know if this is because you can’t reply to a reply or because Piers didn’t check ‘Notify me of new comments via email.’ when he posted his reply
        I will and we might then be able to see if you can reply to a reply!


      2. It seems you can’t reply to a reply so ‘nesting’ limited to one level deep. Perhaps WordPress think that makes it simpler to follow the thread??


      3. Gisela said that for her the Quaker process of discernment included “getting rid of the ego” and I like this. It is also consistent with 12 step concept of letting go which I, perhaps unhelpfully, referred to as a paradox. But something that I have learned here is a new understanding of the word discernment and the close association with the 12 steps.
        One of the other commentators suggested that the 12 step model is not supported by the medical establishment. Here is a quote from one of the leading mental health treatment centres in the country:”Addiction treatment at Priory is underpinned by the renowned 12-Step model, which is an abstinence-based approach that was first popularised by the organisation Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The 12-Step model provides a set of guiding principles for the addiction treatment journey, and focuses on your motivation to change your unhealthy thought patterns and addictive behaviours, whilst also drawing upon elements of spirituality within the treatment and recovery process.” Reference:
        The original 12 step model was heavily theist and I sympathise with the Member who pointed out that religious submission can cause great harm. However, the current model is no more, or less, theist than the Quakers. Although the word discernment is not used explicitly, there are a number of relevant terms. One of my favourites is “detaching with love”.
        It is interesting to ask what brings people into a Quaker meeting and an equivalent question is what brings people into a 12 step fellowship. Addiction is all around us in many forms including shopping, eating, gambling, gaming, relationships, substance abuse. Many people are affected by the behaviour of a family member or friend with an addiction and they join Al-Anon, ACA and other supportive 12 steps. While people come into a Quaker meeting for many reasons, one of them is probably consistent with 12 steps: people join the 12 steps when they hit rock bottom and they have nowhere else to turn. The key entry concept is that they cannot resolve the problem themselves and need to find help from something that is greater than themselves, however that is defined.
        The 12 steps encourage meditation and prayer and so it would not be surprising if many people who go through the 12 steps then find Quakers. Equally, there is a role for Quakers in more actively recognising and welcoming those suffering from addiction.
        See also

        Click to access quaker.pdf


    3. Thank you Friends. Those of us not using the word ‘God’ as vital to our devotion to Quakerism and Quaker practice need this site and access to discernment. LB


      1. Thank-you Lisa. Perhaps we’ll see you at the conference? To keep NFN going we also need to recruit some new members to our Steering Group. Anyone who may be interested please let us know or come to the AGM on Sunday Morning 29th March at Friends’ House (Trevor from Steering Group).


    1. Thank you Sarah. I rather like the idea of god being compared to an imaginary number, and, of course, e to the minus i pi is one. Did we invent mathematics or discover it?


  3. Lovely article…my sister-in-law has a perfect mantra on the subject:
    “What weighs us down is not our baggage, but the decision to carry it”

    Peace Profound, Jules


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