Atheist Quakers?

©2008, Ramona K. Silipo. All rights reserved.

A long-standing quandary within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), which seems more obvious lately, is the growing number of atheists attending meetings, accompanied by a frustrating exchange of thought between Friends who know God and Friends who do not. The very core of the Quaker religion has historically been the Experience of the Presence of God in our Meeting for Worship.

The form of worship is silence, with Friends sitting, usually in a circle, or on facing benches in older meeting houses, waiting for God’s inspiration to speak. Many, if not most, such Meetings for Worship pass entirely in silence. Sometimes a person or several persons stand(s) to give Spoken Ministry, but far from always.

In programmed meetings, in which worship generally resembles a Protestant church service with singing, a sermon and spoken prayer, there is a period of silence during which Friends wait upon the Lord in the same manner as the traditional silent meeting.

Both of these forms of worship are based on the very fact of God’s existence, and our ability to hear the Word of God if we are open to do so. The core of Quaker faith has been this mystical experience.

However, more and more atheists and agnostics lately find their way to Friends’ meetings, and they take advantage of  Friends’ non-judgmental approach to religion.  Because they do not, nor do they want to,  grasp the very core and purpose of  worship,  these self-named “non-theists” do not comprehend how their presence can disrupt the faithful silence of Friends’ worship. (And what is wrong with “atheist?” It’s a perfectly good, accurate word.)

Faithful Friends often cannot fathom what the non-theist wants with a religious community that relies on the word of God. Frequently faithful Friends refrain from questioning the presence of non-theists because they don’t want to risk conflict within the Meeting. (Avoidance of conflict is another issue among Quakers, but it is another, very large, topic.)

The following questions and answers are gathered from various discussions, edited and rewritten for continuity.  These are questions I have asked or would like to ask non-theists, and the thoughts non-theists have expressed. It should be obvious, but in case it isn’t, I am a convinced Friend, that is, a person who would be called a convert in most religions. I experience God not only in meeting but in my daily life. And I wonder what a person who doesn’t believe in God could possibly be doing in a Meeting for Worship that is waiting for God’s word.

Theist (T):
If God is  much more than we can perceive, and if we ask people about the nature of that God, it is likely that we will get the “blind men and the elephant” result. We all possess limited or restricted awareness, based on cultural issues or genetics or even upbringing. Those of us, for example, who did not enjoy a wonderful loving relationship with our fathers, are not likely to see God as a loving father figure.

The “Quaker experience of God” is not the same experience for each person. And that is one of the wonders of God. God appears to each of us in a way that our understanding can take God in. The crucial phrase, though, is, “IT IS THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD THAT INFORMS OUR PRAXIS.” Yes. The experience of God is at the center of Quaker worship.

Question (to non-theist):
Why did you come to the RELIGIOUS Society of Friends? What did/do you want from a religious community?

Non-Theist (NT): Initially, I came out of belief in God, the Creator. When, because of scientific evidence, I stopped believing in God, I found that I still liked the way of the Society of Friends, and wanted to continue with them. Also, you understand, it was not a sudden conversion but a waning of belief. There was no moment when what I did suddenly became incongruous with my beliefs.

(T) replies:
This happened to me. I was a devout Catholic, brought up in the Church, confirmed, a true believer in the Nicene Creed, which we recited every Sunday during Mass. But as I matured, I came to realize that I did not believe this part of the Creed, or, later, that part. And so on. I also did not follow some of Canon Law. I did not consider it to have God’s authority, but men’s.

So my beliefs changed. I accepted only part of the Faith. Rather than remain in the Catholic Church and be a hypocrite, I left that religion and found another one that I could believe in.

Question (to NT):
Why does someone whose no longer believes in the core principles of the RSoF (or any religious organization) stay in that organization?

(NT) replies:

Fellowship with people like me, who have my attitudes of questing mind and acceptance of others who do not agree about everything, but respect each other’s honest thought. Who are interested in others and their understandings. Who are committed to Truth.

Question (to NT):
In Meeting for Worship, I wait upon the Lord (Jesus). But you don’t believe in Jesus, or, as far as I know, in any name of God. What, to you, is worship? What do you do during Meeting for Worship?

(NT) replies:
I do exactly what you do. Like you, I still my mind and turn inward to the Light. Unlike you, I see that Light as my own.

(T):
But I do not turn inward. I turn outward, to connect with my Meeting as a spiritual entity and to experience God as the source of our Unity in Spirit. I hold myself open to the Light, or the Spirit, of God. Turning inward is concerned with self and separateness. Turning outward is concerned with Spirit and connection. These are not the same actions or attitudes at all.

Question (to NT):
Worship is often defined as waiting upon the Lord or seeking the Light of the Spirit. How is it possible to do this if you do not believe in God?

(NT):
I believe in Good. I like the story of the two wolves inside, one good, one bad, fighting. The one that wins is the one you feed. I believe that if I can turn away from the thoughts buzzing in my mind, to my core (if “heart” means a muscle pumping blood), that Core is the same good as your “Light”.

(T):
The wolf story is a Native American story, and I am familiar with it. But it doesn’t speak to my concern here. If you think that your individual Light is the same as the Light of God, the logical extrapolation is not that you do not believe in God, but that you believe that you are God. I’ve of heard humanists accused of elevating humanity to god status, but not of non theists doing that.

Question (to NT):
What do you do during Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of Doing Business? Do you attend? Do you speak? How do you participate in a process of corporate decision making in which you do not believe (i.e. discerning God’s will)?

(NT):
Because my experience is the same as yours, finding a way will open. I (I claim the word) Worship, turn to the Good which is part of me, and seek the Good of the community.

(T):
But your experience is not the same as mine. I experience the presence of God and seek to discern God’s wisdom for the Life of the Meeting, and you do not experience the presence of God. My seeking does not go inward to my ego or personality or intellect, but outward toward God and ultimately toward Unity with my Quaker meeting community.

I do hope that some non theists can and do answer my questions fully themselves. I want to hear from people who really don’t believe in God, especially why they so much want to participate in a religious community. It made me very uncomfortable and made me feel completely two-faced attending Mass when I didn’t accept the same beliefs that the other people there did. No one else knew my thoughts; it was only my personal integrity at risk. I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy, so I left. It was the only honest thing to do.

2 thoughts on “Atheist Quakers?

  1. Reblogged this on Take What You Need, Leave the Rest and commented:
    I too am going through this discernment process. As a Quaker myself, I do not understand why any atheist would want to be Quaker, except for aligning with their political beliefs. If that is so, why not be Unitarian? Quakers have been historically Christian and have believed in God since George Fox paved the way in the 17th century. I think it is a result of weakness in character on the part of Quaker members at a meeting that atheists are included in membership. I seem to be in the minority about that belief here in the UK, where Christianity is weakening considerably across denominations.

  2. Hello –
    I can only comment for myself, but my “non-theism” has to do with beliefs about the Judeo-Christian concept of “God” (Yaweh), not with disbelief in the supernaturality of the Divine. Since my religious belief is not based in the Genesis creation story or in the divinity of Jesus except as perfect obedience to The Light, I don’t believe that Yaweh or Jesus the Christ are what I am communing with during worship or daily guidance. This does not seem particularly inconsistent with what I understand of historical Hicksite Quaker beliefs, but apparently it puts me into the “non-theist” bucket in the minds of many conventionally Christian Friends.

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