Friday, June 15, 2007

Why Atheism Is Found Among Friends But Not In Quaker Doctrine

A lot of confusion about this stems from the Christian concept of "faith." In its beginnings, Christianity was (like all other religions of the time) a political religion, based on Jesus's claim to represent God's power over Israel. One "believed in" him and acted accordingly, risking an unpleasant death from the established authorities, or one disbelieved, a choice that Jesus and his followers naturally found inconvenient. Christianity remained politically subversive and risky after Jesus's death, if only by opposing the official cults that were held essential for the Empire's continued success; and while a great many versions of Christianity circulated, the leaders who took control of the movement were naturally people who put a lot of emphasis on group solidarity and enforcing standardized doctrine.

Largely as a result of this legacy, church members have tended to think of "believing" as virtuous and "disbelief" as an offense against God--and that remained the social norm for a long time, until roughly the mid 20th Century in much of this country. Public atheists were outsiders wherever church activities were a major part of community social life. By typical church doctrines, God intended to punish most of the human race forever for various misdeeds--while offering "salvation" (from this alleged fate) only to those who could believe 1) that God would do such a thing and 2) that God wouldn't do it to them if they believed that Jesus died to keep God from doing it to them and 3) that Jesus had in fact died for that purpose. For anyone who couldn't believe, period, that God existed--there was no escape. For churches of Calvinistic flavor, a lifelong atheist was not just a doomed person, but one whom God had always intended to be a hopeless case.

I gather there are still churches where people think this way. A lot of us even grew up in places where other kids thought this was what they probably were supposed to believe, even if they didn't.

Shouldn't Friends meetings welcome these poor, psychically-rumpled refugees from religious bigotry, treat them kindly, make grateful use of their talents and good intentions? Well of course! Are they bad people? Well, no, a bad person would find Quaker process rather boring. (I know I do!)

Are they Quakers? What if they want to be Quakers? What if they study Quaker process until they know, far better than I, the proper Quaker procedure for every occasion?

Are we going to impose a credal test on them?--exclude them from membership unless they're willing to use the "G" word?--or some equivalent description?

Robert Griswold's Pendle Hill pamphlet on 'Creeds and Quakers' (although Friends are not, of course, required to believe it) can be very helpful in sorting these things out. Friends originally, he says, were not people who believed certain doctrines, but people convinced that they were intimately acquainted with, their lives directly under the power of, the God whom those doctrines spoke of. They objected to creeds--certainly as an imposition on spiritual liberty--but not primarily for that reason. Someone could uphold the accepted Christian beliefs--be a "professor [of Christianity]," as George Fox would call him--and lack that intimate acquaintance. If someone wanted to test his spiritual "condition," a creed would give him a false reading, direct his attention to his beliefs rather than to his internal communion with God, which was the real point of it all. (In Quaker theology, it isn't what you know, but Who you know!)

All right, here we are in another century. Early Friends aren't here for us to ask: Who should and who shouldn't belong to our meetings? We aren't sure we'd want Early Friends in our meetings; they were so argumentative and fanatical and impolite! And who we are!--We're people who joined meetings according to the practices and standards of 20th & 21st Century Friends' meetings. Some of us have occasional mystical experience, and beliefs informed by such experience, and even though this makes us odd by contemporary standards, we're tolerated and even respected to some degree. But we don't set the norms. The best instinct of our membership-clearness committees has been to let in everyone who seemed sincere, well-intentioned, sane enough to know what he was getting into and still willing to join.

To me, it seems a clear case of mislabeling. To call someone a "Friend" implies his friendship with God. If we simply admit, "It doesn't mean that anymore," our Society is saying nice things about "being inclusive" but we've taken our real message off the sign.

Our real message? The "gospel". The truth that God is real, good, accessible to everyone--and wields ultimate rule over this world and our fate. I don't require anyone to believe this. But it's a good thing to know, and it's something we can know. How? We ask, wait, be willing to believe Life's reply.


Chris M. said...


I keep coming back to this post without knowing what to say in response. First, I want to say, Oh, yes! And then I want to say, Oh, no!

So instead, I'll just link to something Robin just wrote: click here.

Will we see you and Anne at Yearly Meeting?

-- Chris M.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Forrest -

I just found this thru Zach's blog.

I don't actually necessarily disagree with you on most of this.

However, I identify as a nontheist (atheist/pantheist) for the most part - not because I don't consider myself a "friend of God" (I thought it was Friends of the Light anyway...) - but because I think "God" is a misleading term nowadays.

I think the thing that early Friends were calling God is unmistakabl real. I would call it something else, rightness, love, Light, and am not comfortable with its potential confusion with the guy who made everything in six days, or sent himself to suffer and die so that he wouldn't have to make us suffer for all eternity. That stuff strikes me as pathological, and I find to ally my spirituality in any way with that sort of thinking is to say it nicely, highly problematic.

It's my belief that some nontheist Friends are among the brightest lights, travel most closely with spirit, are highly mystical, to the point where the "christianity" we've been exposed to growing up is problematic in the extreme.

And, the gospels don't say anything, really, about having to believe stuff about Jesus to go to heaven. They say to love each other. I can get with that

forrest said...

"The guy" has been considerably misunderstood. What to do about it? One solution is to ignore or dismiss the Bible altogether, but then we're left with this big gaping hole in our world labled: "Here Be Weird Stuff!"

I can't limit God to "rightness" or "love" or to anything whatsoever confined to the human mind.

If I ever set out to tell about the whole mesh of meaningful coincidence in my life, many people would remember similar events in their own lives. Others would certainly "explain" it all away as pure coincidence. Couldn't I find "plausible" causes for some of these events? Yes. But I stopped trying. Why? Because I could not seriously deny that the hand of God was at work in them.

Fine, you say, but nothing of the sort has happened to you--Or you understand that some incidence of unlikely events is in fact quite probable, and you "know" there couldn't have been anything but chance involved... So while that's how I first came to recognize God, it's not much help for "proving" anything.

The greatest miracle of all is hidden right here, in the very blind spot of the mind's "I". The Bible talks about us being "made in God's image," and that "image" is our very selves. One good metaphor is that in Creation, God fragmented and became us (among other things...)

The Bible is (among other things) a collection of people's efforts to understand... and sometimes it merely shows their efforts to convince themselves that they understand things they don't. Atheists have been valuable critics, willing to point out flaws that Believers were often afraid to mention. Fortunately they weren't right about all of it.

Nancy said...

In my meeting one constantly hears messages laced with "God", "That of God in Everyone", and "The Will of God". This of course pushes the atheist to the margins as much as it would to those gathered if someone prayed for the blessings of the Holy Virgin--which would sent an uncomfortable ripple across the Meeting.

By both my informal Meeting mentor and in a Clearness Committee I have been advised to use the word Non-theist, as Atheist sounds too belligerent or confrontational.

I'm to the point of finding the Quakers in my Meeting to be duplicitous: they proudly claim to have no dogma, but get bent out of shape if one in their midst owns up to being an atheist. "Quaker Atheist? An oxymoron!" one lady said after Meeting one day.

Any ideas for this out there?

forrest said...

Hello, Nancy! I am sorry your Meeting-folks object to that fine old word "atheist". It sounds honest, as in what we used to call "plain speech;" why do so many Quakers act as if we'd ever approved The Testimony of Euphemism?!

The rule at Pendle Hill was: "Speak in your own religious language, and if you're listening to someone else who says things another way, translation is your responsibility."

The only real proof I know of the existence of God-- is like my proof of the existence of "dog", the argument from "There he is!" That kind of evidence is why I'm not an atheist anymore myself.

So what does God look like? As God once told Raymond Smullyan, "I'm a lot more like the experience of seeing than like anything you could see." I had a glimpse of this one day while smoking a joint and reading a Scientific American article on consciousness, by Douglas Hofstadter, a bright, gracious and interesting guy whose definition left out the very thing itself, because all he could talk about were the external manifestations, the signs a person could use to recognize consciousness, but not the consciousness that does the recognizing...

Your experience will undoubtedly differ... but what's experiencing that experience, that's the same. And that's what you need to examine, whatever you call it!

Anonymous said...

I am interested in 'joining' Quakers at a meeting even though I am atheist/nontheist. My interest is via the idea of an inward 'Higher Power' which I am learning to use to overcome the automatic human responses, especially fear - I have suffered from depression since childhood btw and read Susan Jeffers 'Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway' ... I don't believe in a separate G-d (my background tradition is Jewish) but I do believe in good and evil, fighting evil with good - and that each of us has the Higher Power/ Inward Light. Equally, I think we might also have a bit of the devil in our DNA - well I think I do, I am 'guilty' but I find Love is the answer. I love the idea of no rabbis etc. but wonder whether human politics is hiding there nonetheless ... I am a little put off with the iconology of the Cross, perhaps because of Jewish background. Would you want me to come to your meeting?

forrest said...


Of course I'd like you to come to my Meeting! (I think we've got someone very similar already, but why not?!) I'd also like you to connect to what-It-is I call "God," however that might appear to you... If you haven't made that connection, all this stuff about "what I believe" is irrelevant... and afterwards, it's between thee & That, "That" having the last and most relevant word...