Frequently Asked Questions
- What do you mean by ‘nontheism’?
- How can you be a member of the Religious Society of Friends and not believe in God?
- What does a nontheist do in Meeting for Worship?
- What does spirituality mean for a nontheist Quaker?
- Isn’t the term ‘NON-theism’ negative?
- Aren’t you trying to turn the Religious Society of Friends into a secular humanitarian Society?
- Why have you formed your own network? Isn’t that being divisive?
(quotes from “Godless for God’s sake” except where stated)
1. What do you mean by ‘nontheism’?
2. How can you be a member of the Religious Society of Friends and not believe in God?
A misconception is to think that, because you do not believe in God, you are not religious. By nature one is religious because one wonders about the human condition. Man is faced with the mystery of the universe and the anxiety of a final death. He knows that he will never understand the one nor accept the other. I am pretty sure that Quakers do not pretend to know either but they have a beautiful expression to gift-wrap that ignorance: ‘that of God in everyone’. The wisdom of Quakers is that they do not elaborate about the precise content of that statement but leave to each individual the task of creating its meaning. For some, of course, it is a statement of fact. For me it is a most fruitful concept that explains everything and nothing, but whose consequences are magnificent, as all testimonies derive from it. (Hubert J Morel-Seytoux)
I am often asked what drew me to, and keeps me in, Quakerism….…. My answer goes something like this: First, the concept of continuing revelation parallels the way a scientist deals with reality: all knowledge is provisional. All our ideas (‘notions’), especially those we cherish most, will and must be challenged, and inevitably, modified, or overthrown. We should expect, and indeed embrace, this provisionality. Second, the concept of God in every person is very resonant for me, and akin to my humanistic conviction that every life is sacred. This is a restatement of the Quaker quest for justice and mercy (expressed, in Judaism as Tikkum Olam, the obligation to repair the world.) Third, I find the commitment by Friends to lead as good lives as possible, while accepting one’s all too human limitations, exhilarating. Fourth, the daily practice of respect and civility has become a beacon in my life: listening with my whole heart and mind, trying not to interrupt, trying to achieve unity: trying not to oppress by words or deeds, especially in business meeting. Where else can one learn these skills? And, finally, there is the blessed silence. (David Rush)
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3. What does a nontheist do in Meeting for Worship?
Years ago, the belief there is ‘that of God in everyone’ was the organizing principle around which all my Quaker understanding revolved. So I see why Friends wonder how you participate in meeting for worship or business meeting, or receive a leading or hold someone in the Light, without believing in God.
Here’s a question I ask in reply. If a nontheist falls into the forest and nobody hears her speak, does anyone know she’s a doubter? Can you tell someone doesn’t believe in God just by watching? People sometimes claim belief in God is a required basis for morality, but it’s perfectly obvious there are heinous criminals who are believers, who in fact commit atrocities in the name of God, while on the other hand there are nontheistic people who lead saintly lives. Early Friends had the wisdom, much of the time, to concern themselves with orthopraxy, right practice, rather than with orthodoxy, right belief. From my point of view, if a group of people are agreed on building a perfect city, it doesn’t matter how they explain their inspiration and vision. They can agree on building materials, the layout, a timeline, and other details, and along the way, they can have wonderful conversation about different interpretations of who or what is guiding them, how and why they are guided, and all the other delightful thoughts we have about what on earth is going on here, anyway. In other words, we can build the city together whether we think we were called to do so by God, or whether we imagine we came up with the idea out of our own heads. (Robin Alpern)
Still, ‘worship’ does not, for me, require a God-object: I go into it as into a stream – maybe a public bath, because one definitely needs others in the meeting space – where my perspectives, anxieties, and desires can be floated away, possibly to be replaced by something deeper and better. Similarly, Meeting for Business is a venue for trying to sense the desires of others, and what would be best for us as a community. But seeing that the God-idea works brilliantly for some, sustaining and supporting them in lives of great beauty and integrity, I’m happy to encourage it in you, provided you don’t assert that is must be true for me. (Kitty Rush)
What do I do in Meeting for Worship? Probably, like everyone, it is a mixture of things. I try to focus on and ‘hold in the light’ the other persons present. I also try to hold in the light other persons with whom I have had recent contact and, in the case of any difficult interactions, I try to understand what went wrong and what I may have done or said to cause difficulties. I find that reflecting on the things for which I am thankful comes naturally and without effort – some might call this prayer of thanksgiving. I usually find myself meditating on some of the deeper issues of my life. The experience of a ‘gathered Meeting’ occurs occasionally and is rewarding, even exhilarating. (Wilmer Stratton)
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4. What does spirituality mean for a nontheist Quaker?
With the Friends I have found my own ‘gift’. It is not the gift of faith, but a practice of peace and service and the spiritual wholeness that comes from mindfulness, from looking within, from an appreciation of every living moment and from my connection with others. I find this gift to be unconnected to the concept of deity. It is, frankly, more than enough in and of itself. (Anne Filiaci)
I say openly, in meeting, at committees, in conversation, that I do not use ‘God language’ and do not ‘pray to God’, ‘worship God’, or ‘trust in God’ as a creator, an intervener, a source of solace. I believe in Light and Spirit, internal to every human being. . . . . . . . . . . . When we talk about spiritual matters, my more theist friends say that our language is different, but that they hear my soul in my poetry and in my being. (Marian Kaplun Shapiro)
I have had numerous experiences as a Quaker that I have felt to be genuine. I have been uplifted by gathering with F/friends in silence. I have been blessed with the opportunity to gather the sense of a meeting through my recent role as clerk, an experience unmatched by any other in my life. I have listened to and appreciated messages, both God-centred and otherwise, in meeting for worship. (Elaine Ruscetta)
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5. Isn’t the term ‘NON-theism’ negative?
Labels are nearly always problematic. Publication of this book was preceded by lively discussion among its principal contributors of what label best describes a Quaker (or a member of any other religious body) who does not believe in the existence of a deity or deities. . . . . . . . . . So, in the absence of agreement on atheist, agnostic, naturalist or humanist, we settled on nontheist. It is not perfect, not least because it defines us negatively as non-believers in this rather than positive believers in that. But nontheist has emerged as the least disliked option! (David Boulton)
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6. Aren’t you trying to turn the Religious Society of Friends into a secular humanitarian Society?
Christian Faith and Practice 1925 Revision Committee stated this:- ‘The ideas of God and man which have been held in the past must be re-expressed in the light of our own experience and further knowledge.’
We are confident that nontheist Friends have a place within the broad spectrum of our creedless Society, knowing that we have much to learn from each other, and trusting that we have something to contribute.(from Minute and Epsitle of 2012 NFN conference)
To become whole, we must regard theological differences as a source of strength. We must value shared commitment above shared belief. We must reach out to those whose beliefs frighten us. We must abandon our fruitless but addictive striving after orthodoxy for the real work of seeking a viable orthopraxy. (Bowen Alpern)
What I heard is what I have lately been practising in my own head: when you hear someone describing their own religious beliefs, or what’s vitally important to them, you ‘translate’ their words into words that relate to your own experience and view. This is not to diminish their words or thoughts, but can help to create a climate of appreciation and mutual respect. (David E Drake)
Quaker testimony states that every individual has a part of ‘God’ – to me part of ‘ultimate truth’. Thus our call to integrity not only asks but insists that we explore the personal truths of each person we encounter. This, of course, includes the views of Quaker nontheists. (Elaine Ruscetta)
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7. Why have you formed your own network? Isn’t that being divisive?
I now realize that I am not alone and it has been a relief to learn of other thoughtful Quakers who find the concept of God unnecessary to their spiritual lives. My journey of searching continues, along with my desire for honesty about my beliefs. I do have a continuing belief in (and believe that there is evidence for) some kind of force or essence that is outside our normal human experience. This may be what others call God. For me it is not a transcendent, all-knowing entity, but is more rooted in the unconscious connectedness between human beings. I am in awe of the great mysteries of life and the universe, but I no longer find the concept of God to be helpful in understanding the mystery. (Wilmer Stratton)
Knowing I am not the only atheist Quaker makes calling the Society of Friends my spiritual home a less lonely and more joyful experience. I feel I belong. (Anita Bower)