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’.

Is Atheism a Religion?

A news item that may interest non-theist Friends from NFN Steering Group member Hugh Rock:

This year’s annual lecture of the Non religion and Secularity Research Network, (NSRN) is titled
‘Is Atheism a Religion’  –  Friday December 2nd, 18.00-20.00

The lecture takes place conveniently round the corner from Friends’ House at the Archaeology G6 Lecture Theatre, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square WC1H OPY

The speakers are Dr Miquel Farias of Coventry University, Professor Christopher Frend, Goldsmiths College, Dr Jonathan Lanman, Queens University Belfast and Dr Lois Lee, Chair and co-founder of the NSRN.

The lecture is free to all comers but booking registration is required at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nsrn-annual-lecture-is-atheism-a-religion-registration-28392936036 (Opens in new window)

For those Friends interested but unable to attend, I will provide a short report on the lecture to be posted on the website.  Hugh

(Some Friends might even be interested in the preceeding event at 4pm! https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ssnb-roundtable-who-cares-about-unbelief-registration-29219178349 Trevor)

Illustrative Post

It was intended that the introductory post be set to always appear at the top but this doesn’t appear to be working at present. This and subsequent posts will appear in reverse chronological order (latest first).

The Network’s Steering Group will meet at Woodbrooke this week on 26-28 September 2016.  If  members of the Network have any suggestions they wish to put to the Steering Group, please use the Contacts page to send your comments.
(Correction: – this meeting took place on Wed-Thur 28-29 September).

Steering Group members can help development of this new site by making/testing the ‘Leave a reply’/Comments feature below or on other pages.

Whether the Home page (first or default loading page) of this new website should be the occasional posts/latest news (as now) or some other page is yet to be decided.

In the beginning

The website of the Non-theist Friends Network in the UK has been maintained at http://www.nontheist-quakers.org.uk for some years and will continue to be so whilst these new experimental pages in wordpress.com are being developed.

It is hoped that members of NFN, our Steering Group (committee if you like) and interested readers will contribute to these posts and web pages at least by way of moderated comments where these are invited. (‘Leave a reply’ or click on ‘Comments’ above and scroll down the new page. Your comment/reply will appear after moderation.).

Website/log of the Non-theist Friends Network in Britain