Tag Archives: British Quaker Surveys

Buddhism, Meditation and God

Buddhism, Meditation and God
One of the problems of an individual maintaining a small group website (and we are a small group in terms of both our membership and followers of the website) is that, if no-one else contributes, then it is difficult to steer the line between ‘personalising’ the website (which generally makes it more interesting and readable) and stopping it from becoming that individual’s personal or pet project.

Whilst we have many interesting articles on the website written by speakers at our conferences, and many other members of the network, which should in many cases still be of great interest to anyone interested in nontheism or aspects of religious belief and theology, there are very few ‘live’ contributions in terms of pages or ‘posts’ to the website itself which have not been written by ‘yours truly’.

We do get a fair number of comments on existing pages or posts which very occasionally develop into a ‘conversation’, but it is quite hard to provoke these.

I think ‘provoke’ is definitely the right word, so from time to time, I try to write something provocative in the hope that this will result in numerous comments which might become such a conversation.

Our ‘Aims’ include: being a forum; being ‘a supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation’; ensuring that the RSoF is inclusive rather than exclusive; exploring theological and spiritual diversity whilst being ‘in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.’

So far, my post seems to have little or nothing to do with its title.

Other members of the RoSF criticise both nontheist and universalist Friends as being ‘inclusive of all’ and therefore ’standing for nothing’. How can you accept ‘anyone’ into membership (of the ‘Religious Society’) of ‘any religion or none’, regardless of belief and so on.

The Society has always kept its ‘Meetings for Worship’ open to all (as ‘attenders’) presumably in the hope that something of the practice of silent ‘worship’, its possible benefits and/or the Society’s ‘testimonies’ of ‘good behaviour’ will somehow ‘rub-off’ on those who attend. Some of those who attend (possibly for decades) might eventually become members and perhaps contribute both financially and in ‘service’ more consistently than they might have done as ‘attenders’ and this helps to pay the bills, maintain old buildings and ’keep the show on the road’.

The ‘necessary minimum’ qualification for membership has always been a matter of some argument – what does it mean exactly to be ‘convinced’ (or ‘convicted’ in older language).

Once it (membership) meant to be ‘Christian’, a follower of Christ or a follower of Jesus. But Friends were never followers of the Nicene Creed, often, perhaps justifiably, regarded as heretical by other Christian churches, although they did emphasise the importance of the personal experience (of Christ). However, this ‘personal experience’ (once, after George Fox, to ‘know it experimentally’) was never dependent on declared belief and even held to be available to all, Christian or not.

This ‘open’ position was assisted by the open and varied language used to describe the experience or ‘experiment’. Experience of what? The inner/inward light; ‘Jesus come to teach his people himself’; just ‘the light’; ‘that of God’; ‘the kingdom of heaven’; and a number of other expressions or variants biblical and non-biblical. Coupled with a belief in ‘that of God in everyone’, it is not difficult to see how this was not exclusively christian, though at first it was perhaps assumed (maybe until the middle of the twentieth century) that those who were ‘convinced’ were in effect ‘Christian’.

Whilst, after a number of ’schisms’ especially in America (perhaps after British ‘interference!), some Friends became christian and evangelical (so today we have some (Yearly) Meetings styling themselves as ‘Evangelical Friends Churches’) others including Britain Yearly Meeting set off in another direction, emphasising the ‘unprogrammed’ silent meeting and in some cases tending to become ‘universalist’ and accepting into membership Jews (not surprising); Muslims; Hindus; Sikhs; Buddhists; ‘Others’ and eventually ’nontheists’.

In addition to this, from about the middle of the twentieth century again and perhaps not co-incidentally, some Christians and some ’non-believers’ and latterly, some Friends, found Buddhism and then aspects (including ‘meditation’) from other Eastern religions (including ‘Hinduism’ and Islam/Sufism) of benefit to them in their spiritual seeking.

From being substantially Christian (or at least ‘Jesus following’) unprogrammed ‘liberal’ Friends only needed to be ‘Godly’ (believing in God?) to come into membership. Even this developed further as understandings of ‘God’, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Eastern Christianity and Biblical criticism, changed, so that the question ‘Do you believe in God’ could be answered by ‘It depends what you mean by God (or ‘belief’)’ as well as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. (And even ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ could be interpreted according to different understandings of ‘God’.)

Amongst nontheists, we have in membership of NFN or attending our conferences, sometimes as our keynote speakers, theists, non-theists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, ‘lapsed Anglicans’, Christian Atheists, ‘converts’ to some of these religions or ‘positions’, agnostics, ‘naturalists’ and ‘materialists’ (believing in only the ‘natural’ or ‘material’ world, not some other spiritual or ‘transcendent’ world), ’non-theist theists’ and so on. (See the wikipedia article on ’nontheism’ for further ideas).

I’ve not even mentioned Unitarians (‘Quakers with hymns’) who have perhaps gone further in welcoming ‘Pagans’, ‘Traditional religions’ and so on. Some individual Friends may also attend Unitarian services (to sing?), Anglican or Methodist services, or retain some of their practice of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. (a number of Anglicans being in joint membership for example), whilst others come to Friends and drop their former religious belief or practice. In this way, and at this time, the RoSF welcomes all to attend its meetings and often to become members according to an individual’s inclinations and the ‘discernment’ of their local and Area Meeting.

NFN, I believe, welcomes this ‘unity in diversity’ with fluid boundaries and a feeling that this is in accordance with and not at variance with Friends’ practice through the ages.

At this point (not quite finished my labouring) I will turn to the bible:
Mark 3:28-29 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
Luke 12:10 10 “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

or in the non-canonical (and clearly heretical) Gospel of Thomas:
44. Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven.”

I last used these quotations in the post “Theism vs Non-Theism” or Quaker Spirit? in June 2018 where I commented: In the end then, what Friends think, believe or experience of the ‘spirit’ might be a matter of some significance.

aSo, what do we then, as Friends, whether identifying as ‘non theists’ or not, have to say about the ‘Spirit’. (See the above post for some discussion of this).

It is, quite often, asked ‘what do nontheists do in Meeting for Worship?’ Some Friends who have been quakers all their lives from long established quaker families like to refer just to ‘Meeting’ so that the possible question ‘what are you worshipping’ is not asked.

Surveys have shown that Friends, including non theist Friends, do many different things in Meeting for Worship. Perhaps we worship, venerate, adore, pray, reflect, think, meditate, contemplate, sleep, snore, rest, sit quietly, dream, minister or all of these, none of these and some I haven’t thought of. Is there some ‘core’ to the practice (of ‘silent worship’) that we all agree on or partake of in some measure. Is it ‘communion’ or communing. How does it sometimes come to be ‘diagnosed’ as a ‘gathered’ meeting?

Friends have different experiences and understandings (not to mention misunderstandings or misconceptions) about what ‘meditation’ might be. (There are of course quite a number of different meditation or ‘meditative’ practices). Is Buddhist (or other) ‘silent worship’ (meditation) of some use or benefit to non-Buddhist Friends? Is (not) meeting for worship in part a special kind of ‘Christian’ meditation? (Please don’t just say ‘No’. Research the topic!). Is ‘Experiment with Light’ a genuine reflection of some early Friends’ practices and whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is it useful to (all of?) us as a conjunct to or preparation for Meeting?

Some nontheist Friends (materialists or naturalists perhaps) are distinctly unhappy with the idea, notion, concept or word ‘divine’. Other self-identified nontheists are quite happy with the idea of the ‘divine presence’. Is that the same as the Spirit (Holy Ghost or otherwise)?

Can I, at this point, say, in short? Perhaps not. Enough. Have I provoked sufficiently?

If not, why don’t we have a conference (or other event) on ‘The Spirit without God’. (or would ‘The Spirit, with or without God’ be better?).

(Answers, replies, comments, expressions of disgust etc. here please – below –  rather than on a postcard).

July Newsletter and Questionnaire

The NFN July Newsletter (4 August 2018), which NFN members and others on our mailing list should have received by email a few days ago, has been uploaded to the website today. (See Newsletters under Articles).

The Newsletter has numerous interesting articles and reviews and includes a questionnaire which aims to compare “the viewpoints of different people who attend Quaker meetings and their attitudes towards religion and spirituality“.

Anyone attending any Quaker meeting is invited to complete the questionnaire (ignoring question 5 if appropriate) and send it to Patrick Cremona at the email address given. The article and questionnaire from the Newsletter are reproduced in full here:

Research questions for nontheist Friends
Patrick Cremona, currently finishing a masters in Magazine Journalism at Cardiff University, has written to seek our help in answering questions about aspects of our Quakerism. He writes:

“The piece that I am currently working on is part of a series of articles exploring spirituality in the twenty-first century, which will form my major project for my masters, and will also hopefully be pitched to other outlets once it is finished. This idea for this particular feature was inspired by both the Simon Jenkins article you linked [on the NFN website]and a conversation with a (non-religious) friend of mine who has recently started attending Quaker meetings. Its aim is to explore ideas of religion, theism and spirituality, and the differences between them, with specific reference to Quaker meetings. While I found the aforementioned Jenkins article interesting, it didn’t include quotes from Quakers and this is where my article would differ. Rather than being an opinion piece, I would be looking at comparing the viewpoints of different people who attend Quaker meetings and their attitudes towards religion and spirituality… I aim to conduct thorough research on the topic, and I am planning on attending a Quaker meeting in Cardiff in the near future.”

Patrick has sent us a questionnaire and readers are invited to respond to him via <patrick.cremona@hotmail.co.uk>.

  1. How long have you been attending Quaker meetings?
  2. What were your original reasons for attending, and what were your views about theism at the time?
  3. To you personally, what are the differences between religion, theism and spirituality?
  4. Have your views regarding religion, spirituality and theism changed over time?
  5. Why did you join the Non-theist Friend network? Has doing so enhanced your experience as a Quaker?
  6. Have you noticed a general trend towards a more non-theist approach amongst Friends in general?
  7. In a world where traditional religion is continuing to steadily decline, in what ways do Quaker meetings offer an alternative form of worship?
  8. Although religion has been declining, spiritual activities and mindfulness practices are in vogue. Do you think a less rigid form of spirituality can replace more structured, organised religion in the twenty-first century, and what are the advantages of this?
  9. What would you say to someone with no religious beliefs who was interested in attending Quaker meetings?

2018 Conference Reports

I have prepared summary reports of the presentations by Linda Murgatroyd, David Boulton and Harvey Gillman here.  (Each runs to 3 or 4 pages). The opening paragraphs below link to those reports (in Word).  Trevor

Linda Murgatroyd’s presentation. (Friday evening 9th March 2018)

Responding to Change.
Under this title, Linda, of Kingston & Wandsworth AM and co-clerk of the Quaker Arts Network, developed an extended metaphor of gardening to explore the growth, development, decline and rejuvenation of different aspects of Quakers in Britain today and in particular used David Holmgren’s 12 design principles for Permaculture to structure a consideration of possible futures for Quakers in Britain.

Notes for her talk have been sent to conference participants but Linda didn’t feel they were in a form that was suitable for publication on the website.

David Parlett has summarised the talk for his article in The Friend as follows:
“Linda adopted a metaphorical approach by considering ways in which we could work towards a desirable position in 2032 by following the 12 principles of permaculture, defined as “thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behaviour in a world of less energy and resources”. She backed this by drawing attention to statistics on trends in religion in Britain and Jennifer Hampton’s British Quaker Survey: examining religious beliefs and practices in the 21st Century.”

Read more here: Summary report of Linda Murgatroyd’s NFN presentation (This is now a pdf edited by Linda replacing earlier Word version).

David Boulton’s presentation. (Saturday morning 10th March 2018)

‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: – What our past tells us about our future
Preview of a talk to an Open Quaker conference, March 10 2032’
David addressed the 2018 NFN conference at Woodbroke with a ‘preview’ of the talk that might be given (by him?) at a Quaker conference on March 10th 2032.
In part this flash forward was looking back at 2005 and the years upto 2018 and beyond to 2032.
He begins ’28 years ago, in 2005’ with a study published then by George Fox University, Oregon, USA predicting that the last British Quaker (probably female) would turn out the lights of the last BYM meeting house in 2032.

Read more here: Summary report of David Boulton’s presentation
(Well, not so much a précis as a butchering of David’s fine writing and talk so, especially if you weren’t there, do read the original attached here in Word format.)

Harvey Gillman’s presentation. (Saturday morning 10th March 2018)

Why should the Religious Society of Friends have a Future?
Taking his turn after Linda and David, Harvey offered us his vision, not at variance with those foreseen by Linda and David but presented in a very different style.

David Parlett has summarised Harvey’s talk for his article in The Friend as follows:
“Later, delegates were stimulated – one might say enraptured – by Harvey Gillman, whose (literally) enthusiastic writings will be well known to readers of The Friend. Harvey declared himself to be an ‘unstructured’ thinker and speaker, and proved the value of this style in suggesting that our future will be the eventual outcome of living always in the here and now. The most important element in our spiritual life should be the ‘WOW factor’; the truly sacred is always ‘This moment, this place, these people’.” (emphasis added here).

Looking at what Harvey has written elsewhere and in the piece that follows that he read to us on Sunday morning, we might imagine him abbreviating this further to WE (or You, Us), HERE, NOW!

Read more here: Summary report of Harvey Gillman’s presentation

On Sunday morning, Michael Wright led a workshop on using ‘God, words and Us’ in local meetings and his notes are now reproduced here:
Michael Wright’s notes  for using God, Words and Us. (Word.docx)

Conference and AGM 9-11 March 2018 at Woodbrooke

The conference is now just 4 weeks away!
I have received a note about the AGM from Gisela Creed our NFN Clerk:

Notice of Annual General Meeting

 To be held on Saturday 10th of March 2018 at 4.30 pm at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre during the NFN annual residential conference.

Draft Agenda
1. Minutes of last Meeting (26/03/2017)
2. Clerk’s report
3. Financial report and accounts
4. Website update
5. Newsletter report
6. Appointment of Steering group and office holders
7. Any other business

Please notify Gisela Creed, clerk, if you would like to raise any further business:
jgcreed (at) btinternet.com (Replace the (at) with the usual @ symbol – no spaces!)

All NFN members are invited to attend the AGM, and Conference attendees who are not NFN members (please join at the Conference!) are welcome to attend the AGM as observers.

We all look forward to the conference and enjoying our stay at Woodbrooke

Trevor (for the Steering Group).

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’.