What is Nontheism?
‘Godless for God’s Sake – Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism, by 27 Quaker Nontheists’, Edited by David Boulton, is a collection of essays which demonstrate the rich variety of nontheist Quaker experience. Below are some extracts from the essays. These are followed by extracts from other sources which reflect on liberal Quaker beliefs – click here to jump to these.
(For 2017 re-prints, see this post.)
- There is no one answer, no unified or official ‘nontheist Quaker view’ – any more than there is one official theist Quaker view. (p.5, David Boulton)
- Nontheism … is …the absence of any belief in a deity or deities, in the existence of God (where ‘existence’ is understood in a realist, objective sense), and especially belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler. (p.6, David Boulton)
- Some Quaker nontheists have wholly abandoned ‘God language’ and hope for a progressive relinquishment of such language within the Society. Some choose not to use the word ‘God’ themselves but are happy to ‘translate’ it when it is used by other Friends in written or spoken ministry or in conversation. Some have no problem using traditional Quaker Godspeak – ‘God’, ‘that of God’, ‘the Spirit’, ‘the divine’, ‘the inner light’ – understanding these hallowed and resonant terms metaphorically, symbolically, poetically, instrumentally, signifying the sum of our human values, the imagined embodiment of our human ideals, the focus of our ultimate concern: no more, but, gloriously, no less than all that makes up the wholly human spirit. (p.7-8, David Boulton)
- …I use the word ‘nontheistic’ primarily because ‘atheist’ has such negative associations. ‘Atheist’ actually means without, not necessarily against, God. Since I don’t know if God exists, and since some good has been done as a result of belief in God, I am not opposed to God. But whereas some Friends might interpret feelings of rightness or wonder or love as caused by God, I would be likely to interpret them as arising from simple human mechanics and dynamics. (p.19, Robin Alpern)
- I was (am) not a Christian. I did (do) not see any reason to believe in any God outside the laws of nature and the workings of the (endlessly complicated) human mind. (p.27, Philip Gross)
- ‘For artists, making isn’t making up; in whatever terms you choose, it is relationship. If I say God is a metaphor, I don’t mean a figure in an allegory, made to stand for the thing we know it stands for. I mean an image, found or ‘given’, with a deep life of its own, with resonances as yet undisclosed, maybe inexhaustible. This is actually very everyday. All our grandmothers knew that sleeping on a problem often finds an answer. You don’t have to believe in mystic forces to know you can surprise yourself in your dreams, or be a paid-up Jungian to say that there is far more than one ego’s experience somewhere down there in us all. (p.28, Philip Gross)
- ‘We move. Sometimes we are moved and sometimes it results from our earlier movements. Some movements are private, only noticeable to the person moving. Some barely feel like motion. Talking and remembering are notions, as are sensing and experiencing.
Motions are physical events caused by other physical events. We are part of the ebb and flow of the universe. All is in motion, nothing stands still. Suns rise, birds sing, and poets write. The universe rolls along.This is enough for naturalists who assume nothing exists but events we observe or reasonably infer from observations. (p.37, Os Cresson)
- A common theist critique of nontheism is that disbelief in ‘something more’ reflects the arrogant assumption that what humans can see and measure is the be-all and end-all of reality. On the contrary, no reasonable nontheist – atheist, agnostic, humanist, naturalist – believes that human knowledge encompasses all of reality, or even comes close. It is the scientific worldview that utterly depends on a keen, rigorous and critical distinction between what we know, and what we do not know. What we can observe, examine, grasp, measure – that is what human beings can know. The rest we cannot know. A claim to knowledge of a realm beyond the one we live in, on the other hand, could be described as arrogance. If in fact there is some divine realm apart from the world we live in, all we can honestly say about that realm is that we do not know it, because we do not live in it. We live in the physical world. A world which, once again, contains enough mystery to keep us in awe forever. (p.48-49, James T Dooley Riemermann)
- When the most thoughtful believers speak to me of God, it almost always comes through to me as a heightened awareness of relationship. Grammatically, God is a being, an entity, but what Friends tend to describe as God seems more like an event, an encounter, that occurs when a self-aware individual becomes intensely aware of relationship – with another human being, with a community of Friends, with the complex web of beings and resources that sustain life on earth, with the sun that feeds energy to that web, with the entire cosmos out of which emerged absolutely everything we value. What a breathtaking moment is that encounter! Here I am, living my life as if I were a single soul, a person, a mind mysteriously sprung from a physical body. And in an instant it dawns on me that I am not just myself. On the contrary, the energy of the universe flows through me, and at my death will pass through me me and back into everything that exists! My God! This is no metaphor, there is nothing magical or supernatural about it, nor is it something more out there with which I can occasionally commune. Rather, it is the essential, undeniable, literal, constant reality of being human in the real world. We are part of everything, and it is all linked together. (p.50-51, James T Dooley Riemermann)
- In his interesting paper ‘Quaker Diversity’, the full text of which can be found on the Articles & Links page, Paul Bates discusses nontheism as follows:
Nontheism differs from theism in asserting that the visible world is the only real world that we will ever experience and that ‘God’ is a mythical projection or personification of our own desires to construct value, meaning and dignity in our life here on earth.
There is no pre-defined code of ethics ‘out there’ which we are obliged to live by – the only ethics we have are those principles of conduct which we humans have devised for ourselves over thousands of years of human history.
There are no absolute rules for how human society should be organized or how we should conduct ourselves as individuals. The cosmos does not reveal to us any pre-defined blueprint for how life should be conducted here on earth.
We seek to say ‘yes’ to life by constructing meaning for ourselves as individuals and as societies through our work, in our relationships and by facing suffering with courage and resolve. It is in these ways that we all may contribute to the creation of value and meaning in our own time and place.
Nontheists tend to agree with the liberal understanding of Jesus of Nazareth as a teacher from antiquity who taught a very human sort of religion based on love, tolerance, forgiveness and peace. The doctrines of incarnation, resurrection and ascension are seen as attempts by the early church to raise the human Jesus to the level of a mythical God.
The nontheist sees the work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart more in terms of the spontaneous, natural inner working of the human psyche in which we meditate upon and respond to life as we presently experience it. The nontheist sees God in terms of ‘an inner light’ that is found in every human being. It is ‘that of God in everyone’.
The nontheist sees this life as the only life we will ever experience and is focussed on the living of this life to the full, now, and in accordance with those human principles that make for happiness and dignity for all.
- In ‘Quakers – a very short introduction’ Ben Pink Dandelion explains that Liberal Quakerism is not defined in terms of doctrine but in terms of the form of Quakerism…. its worship and business method, its testimony and values. Belief is plural but also marginal.
- From the BYM Whoosh! epistle: We discern a growing confidence within the Religious Society of Friends that our experience-based religion is increasingly what many people are looking for.
Growing numbers of people have rejected all claims to absolute truth, but are hungry for a path of personal and social transformation. This could be a ‘transition moment’ for British Quakers, as we discover a new radicalism in response to turbulent times.
Do we have the courage to speak with passion and conviction about our spiritual lives? Can we acquire the confidence to find our own words to express the ways in which we understand the divine? Can we encourage others as they reach for the language that is right for them?
- John Macmurray wrote in 1965: The central conviction which distinguishes the Society of Friends is that Christianity cannot be defined in terms of doctrinal beliefs; that what makes us Christians is an attitude of mind and a way of life; and these are compatible with wide variations and with changes of beliefs and opinions…
Faith no longer means the acceptance of an established creed or the assent to an authoritative system of doctrine. It recovers the original meaning of trust and fearless confidence; and this spirit of faith is expressed in a way of living which cares for one another and for the needs of all. (Search for Reality in Religion – John Macmurray, Swarthmore Lecture 1965)
- The English social historian G.M.Trevelyan wrote in his ‘English Social History’ (1944) in his chapter on Restoration England: The finer essence of George Fox’s queer teaching, common to the excited revivalists who were his first disciples, and to the “quiet” Friends of later times was surely this – that Christian qualities matter much more than Christian dogmas. No Church or sect had ever made that its living rule before.
To maintain the Christian quality in the world of business and domestic life, and to maintain it without pretension or hypocrisy, was the great achievement of these extraordinary people. England may well be proud of having produced and perpetuated them. The Puritan pot had boiled over, with much heat and fury; when it had cooled and been poured away, this precious sediment was left at the bottom.