Quakers and belief

What does it mean to believe?

I believe the Earth goes round the Sun. I believe in Milanković cycles, regular changes in the Earth’s orbit which affect its climate. Such rational, scientific belief involves trust in my community, in scientists who calculate such things in ways I do not know. It can be wrong, as Newton was wrong about gravity. Trying to distort religious belief to be like scientific belief leads people astray: the Flood did not cause the Grand Canyon.

I do not believe in Astrology, but observe that a magazine astrology column can give a little pleasure or something to think about. An empathetic practitioner, with a vast range of ideas related to planets, signs and sesquiquadrates, could see what spoke to their client and possibly give insight into character.

I believe in Hamlet, though the play is not historical: it portrays lifelike humans.

I have moral beliefs, which I have learned through instruction, example, experience, study and discussion. This year I intend to keep my promises better, having disliked breaking an undertaking. I also intend to promise, or not, more thoughtfully.

What does it mean to learn, and what do I need to know? As a member of a social species I need to know how to interact with other people, and how to be a member of the society that meets my needs. Much of that knowledge may be innate: babies recognise the patterns of a face. I understand others because we have things in common: I feel joy in service, and observe others do so too.

I learn through art. I contemplate images, my feelings resonating with them, so come to understand situations I have not experienced.

I learn the tradition of Christianity by reading and listening, then hone my understanding by talking about it. There is a rigid creed with nothing between Jesus’ birth and his passion, and gospels giving differing accounts of his life and afterlife. Jesus tells fictional parables, some disturbingly amoral, such as the Unjust Steward. I contemplate the mad Gadarene (or Gerasene), clothed and in his right mind after an encounter with Jesus, which may also be fictional. I find value in the Bible, Christian tradition and Christian writings, for learning how to live.

Then I learn spirituality by sitting in Quaker stillness for an hour most weeks over twenty years. I encounter unconscious processes and unravel the inner conflicts created by old trauma. I experience being given spoken ministry, and also speaking when I might have been wiser to stay seated. I know love for these people, sitting with me. I believe that meeting for worship and the business method have value. Quakers report doing different things during meeting: behind the still faces, a person might be praying, or counting breaths, or hearing God within them speak.

It is not true to say that you can believe anything and be a Quaker, even a Quaker in Britain Yearly Meeting. I believe meeting for worship has value, and that there is a wide range of appropriate things to do in the hour. Others have narrower understandings- “Thee should not have been thinking”.

Then Quakers have different metaphysical understandings of what underpins our experiences, In the Letter to the Governor of Barbados George Fox describes fairly conventional Protestant beliefs, including that Christ’s death was the propitiation for the sins of the world. We are rooted in Christianity, and many British Quakers have a radical Christian understanding of “that of God” in us. It is the Holy Spirit, which other Christians believe comes into us in Baptism and Confirmation, and we believe needs no ritual, because it is in everyone.

I might try to put into words my spiritual experience, for example, all my senses come alive, I see “Heaven in a wild flower”, usually there is a feeling of Joy with this experience, I am in the present moment not ruminating of past or future. That comes from my own experience. It feels distinct, now, from how I am at different times. My experience is evidence for my account of it, but not evidence for the metaphysical belief in God or Spirit. To say that Spirit causes such experiences goes beyond the experience itself. The experience feels like a blessing, but I could not say that Something blessed me.

I don’t believe in an Eternal Creator. I believe I am an evolved animal in a material universe, and there is no separate spiritual reality beyond baryonic matter. But the word “God” signifying particular experiences which I see in others or I share has value and meaning to me.

I would hope Quaker metaphysical beliefs would enhance our community and our practice of worship. We have a shared practice and way of life, not a shared belief system. Possibly the only belief required of someone joining us for the first time is that our practice may benefit them. Rather than asking what they believe, I would ask whether they are oriented towards growing in love in the community.

Might we have to expel someone for their belief? Only if we discerned that the belief was harming the community unbearably, perhaps because it was dogmatically held, and the person thought others should agree. We do not expel a Friend lightly.

My commitment to the community and the worship ranks, for me, above my atheist materialist beliefs. Therefore I hope that even if the Christian revelation of the Eternal Creator is true, I will not harm the worshipping community with my beliefs.

If Quakers honestly attempt to conform their beliefs to their experience, and are open to changing them, I hope those attracted to our spiritual practices will not believe anything that the community would discern to be harmful. Spiritual experience is beyond words, so I cannot produce a description in words precisely fitting my own experiences, though it is worthwhile trying to. When I do, I find similarities to others’ experiences.

We have some shared moral beliefs. We are pacifist. But we have a variety of understandings of that, and some Quakers joined the armed forces in the second world war. We have not yet reached agreement on assisted dying, and perhaps do not need to. Our moral beliefs change: when some Quakers owned and traded slaves, others began to say this was wrong.

In Meeting, I was contemplating Thomas Cranmer’s “Prayer of Humble Access”, which I said routinely as a child. It gained new meaning for me. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” alludes to Matthew 15:21-28. Then we ask to eat Christ’s flesh so that it will make us clean, “and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us”. That mix of unworthiness and access, humility and gratitude for the blessing I find in Meeting spoke to me. I grow in understanding, whatever I believe, or however I put it in words.

Astrology believers

It was bad enough with U taking astrology seriously. Not C as well…

U told me that she had observed similarities of personality according to sun sign. Just, no. I cannot accept that beyond her noticing things which confirmed her theory, and ignoring the things which don’t: and that disappoints me, because I respect her intellect and level-headedness, and also her spirituality: and if she accepts astrology, she is a less persuasive witness for her complementary therapy practices.

C, however. This astrologer had been recommended to her by several people, and he was brilliant. She told him her date and time of birth, as far as she knew, and he made his calculations and cast his chart. Then, as he explained to her the influences of the planets, and the relationships between them, she was amazed by his accuracy. Her history became clearer: he explained to her parts of herself, which had seemed to be in conflict, or wrong. He told her that this was simply who she was. He explained it like archetypes or myths which fitted her experience.

Did he have a computer, to cast the chart? She does not know. He was in America, they talked by Skype. He could, perhaps, have the signs and planets in his head, but it would make sense to use a reference.

How may I value her experience? Possibly, he was cold-reading her. As he talks, and selects which characteristic of which trine to name, he observes her reactions. Often, Rationalists behave as if cold-readers are all con artists, telling lies to make money, peddling psychic woowoo bullshit to exploit the gullible, but this is not necessarily so. He could be an intuitive, who perceives her unconsciously, so that his insights feel like inspirations, like the voice of spirit or muse. C believes he has performed a valuable service. She feels he has explained her to herself. Perhaps he has.

I found myself weeping, and I thought it was that. Indeed, that was the immediate precipitator of it. I told C I was completely miserable, and she asked which part of me was miserable. Oh, that is interesting. A small, child-part of me. Can I look after her? Can I reassure her that I can?

And indeed I was highly irritated with myself for weeping over that, thinking I should be over it by now: it was months ago, I have reframed ways of thinking of it, and while there are reminders of it about, I would prefer not to be so susceptible. Now, though, I think it a symbol, I weep over life. Possibly, weeping over life is cleansing.

Elegant idiocies

The otherbugger will get on your back if he can.
That is all the advice you ever need to give.
If he’s on your back already, it’s TOO LATE!

That was sent on a postcard to the Citizens Advice Bureau where I worked, and it fascinated me. It pictured a world where each human being was locked in war with every other person, seeking advantage, and all comradeship was a lie. Everything we did was worthless: if that really were all the advice we needed to give, it could be given with a poster on the wall, rather than forty-odd people inside, beavering away, thinking they were doing something useful. It fascinated me because it was so far from the truth, yet so coherent and so beautifully expressed.

So I started collecting such phrases.

Don’t compare your sin to my skin.

Here are people of colour firmly in the Kyriarchy, busily oppressing others. “Christians” who believe that gay people, rather than being part of the wonder and diversity of Creation, are sinners who choose to be disgusting, and do not deserve “Civil rights”- in fact the comparison of their campaign to that of Martin Luther King is wicked. I can imagine people repeating that phrase to themselves, thinking how clever they are, making themselves even less open than before to the need and hurt of others: in the words of Neil Peart,

quiet in conscience
calm in their right
confident their ways are best

The evil in the phrase is focused and intensified by the elegance of its expression.

Who would wear a T shirt reading “I hear voices and they don’t like you”? It could not be expressed better, and it is a foul sentiment.

My favourite explanation of Astrology:

As above, so below.

Well, of course it isn’t. The orbit of Neptune does not affect my destiny, at all. The value of Astrology is in being a repository of wisdom about how people are, and a way of bringing these characteristics to mind whose randomness actually enhances its usefulness. In the hands of a skilled practitioner it has value. She says something about me which she thinks may be true, but her choices are constrained by the framework, which means she must be more creative herself. Then the thought sits in me and matures, either attracting or revolting me, and so teaching me. Just possibly, belief in the doctrine may help in this.

And finally, a sentence which is the opposite of elegant, but equally striking, in the circumlocutions half-concealing the basic idea:

Apart from a few comparatively unimportant particulars, the Law of England appears to be almost as near to perfection as can be expected of any human institution.

Wow. We’re so good that if we said it straight out we would risk being accused of self-worshipping blasphemy. One wonders what “comparatively unimportant particulars” the Real Property Commissioners, delivering their first report in 1829, had in mind: perhaps the fact that someone might be executed for stealing something worth less than two weeks’ wages for a skilled artisan, or the rule that no woman could own real property: it was held in trust by her father or husband.


Winston Churchill said,

You create your own universe as you go along.

Now, I happen to believe that. My perceptions are not the same as reality, but from within my own brain, and my moods and past experience affect my perceptions. The struggle to make them closer to reality is painful and difficult. However, have a look here at the context. Or here. It seems from the second link that Churchill takes a naive realist position- he knows things exist because he senses them- and from the first, that he believes in Christian doctrine because it gives him comfort, and he wants to believe it. The quote is a straw man. So to quote it out of context is to misrepresent him and to cite him as authority for a belief he derided. And yet a quick Google shows it is often quoted in Law of Attraction sites, without context. Picture: public domain.

Einstein is quoted often as saying,

Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.

Wikiquote disputes the citation. Again, from Google, it is frequently quoted on Law of Attraction sites.

What matters is not who said it, but whether it is true. Perhaps the quote has such value as it has not because he wrote it but because a particular Facebook friend chooses to share it. However imagination is much richer than that. I hated one of my psychiatrists so much that I had revenge fantasies about him. I would be horrified if they happened, but they were a safety valve for my feelings.

“Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” I have seen this attributed to Confucius, but since I cannot find where he is supposed to have said it, your guarantee of its truth or value is either your own experience, or your faith and trust in me.

Quack, quack

What I want, I thought, is a portfolio of quackery, alternative therapy mumbo-jumbo, so that I can exploit the placebo effect, and trusting, susceptible or needy people. My personality would entice and enrapture them, and their need to believe that the time and money they had spent had had a useful purpose would work in my favour. My words would be meaningless, but, By Jove, the money would roll in. Emotional Freedom Technique, there’s a brilliant name, vaguely irritating tapping on random parts of the body while intoning “Personal Growth” messages culled from Facebook. Cranio-sacral therapy, on the other hand, them’s latin words, them are, that sounds proper scientific. A bit of Reiki, a bit of Tarot. Shiatsu massage sounds rather fun. The training is more onerous, but perhaps the same thing works on me: having invested time and money in it, I have a strong interest in believing in it.

The trouble is, I have been brought up discounting feelings and relying too much on intellect, and just not understanding the alternative. I remember hearing about what a US Presidential candidate (possibly Mr Clinton) “felt” about an issue, and being deeply irritated by this: what should matter is what he thinks. And now I hear the same idea echoed in the film The Iron Lady. So I really do have the distaste that Richard Dawkins, say, would have for quacks and pseudo-therapists, and wonder whether, in some future crisis of confidence, I could decide that the placebo effect was enough, and forgive myself for dressing it up in theatrical flummery. With one alternative therapist whom I respect, when she mentioned astrology as if it might have some relevance to reality, I felt a check, a moment to question her perception. And when I read of Body talk, the claims of what is going on, against what the therapist may be observed to be doing, jar. It is placebo and a touch of NLP. I should do NLP undiluted rather than that, it would be more honest. 

Rather than a Healer, I could see myself as an entertainer. I produce my flim-flam with a real sense of drama to it, we are going on a Shamanic journey, lie down between these candles while I Smudge you, and then I will evoke the archetypal animals. Private performances, one to one, must be worth £60 an hour. Or I could find profitable ways of getting oxytocin flowing in my “clients” to induce dependence.

I feel there is more to it than flim-flam, flummery, mumbo-jumbo, but then I do have an interest in feeling that. A pecuniary interest, if I move into Healing and make a go of it, a pecuniary interest which might make me more forgiving of Trusting the Unknowing than Professor Dawkins is. Those comforting untruths which seem to make life easier. My integrity is important to me, I say, as I underpin it with half-conscious lies.

It is such an evenly balanced dilemma for me. If I believed that alternative and complementary therapies were worthless, I would know what to do. If I believed that I had a calling to such creative and beautiful work, I would know what to do. The problem is that these beliefs are at war in me. My confidence being low, the doubt increases, but knowing that does not-


like a particularly strong indicator of the truth of the matter.

Another astrological report

Being still unaware what was in my ascendant, I tried again. This time a search for Astrological Chart brought me to Chaos Astrology. They state,

Everything – from atom to galaxy – is rooted in the same universal and all-pervasive reality. And this reality reveals itself in the purposeful, ordered and meaningful processes of nature, as well as in the deepest recesses of the human mind and spirit.

Fair enough. I have read a little of the wonders of quantum physics and the butterfly effect, and I agree with all that the report says about them, apart from the link to Astrology. “As above, so below”- a beautifully elegant quote, so expressive, and so completely wrongheaded. I love the acronym Great Organising Dynamic, even if I am not sure I agree, and find the expression attractive- even persuasive, had it been about anything else. The report says I belong to God: many Quakers actually put that into practice, but would disagree that God’s Will is expressed in an astrological chart. It states it is up to me: a Jupiter-Sun conjunct (where they appear close together) means optimism and vitality, but I have to realise them in my own life. Here, I begin to see a value in all this. I read good things about myself, feel better because of it, and then am told to go out and make them true. 

From my sun sign, conjuncts, moon sign, and one sesquiquadrate, I have apparently every good quality it is possible to have. I am ambitious with drive, and creative. I have charm and magnetism. I am down to Earth. I am purposeful, focused and efficient with good organisational skills. Quite a lot for me to go out into the World and manifest. I am nurturing, empathetic and sensitive, and Sun conjunct Mars fosters heroism and valour.

There is some good advice: don’t waste energy on painful and unproductive distractions of the past. Well yes. It is not a good thing to do, and I do it, along with most of the population.

Finally it tells me. Leo is my ascendant. But that is just the constellation: there are no planets in it! Perhaps my Ascendant is The Void, and I will attain Enlightenment.

And no mention at all of this great Transit. Had I come here first, I might never have heard of it, and so missed all its opportunities! Is this actionable negligence? There would be some difficulty proving loss.

Updated: here is my chart from astrodienst.

A personal astrological study

What I loathe more than anything about the personal, astrological study I received is its attempt to simulate relationship. In a personal consultation, an astrologer might mention gods and the effects of those gods to a client, and notice (perhaps subconsciously) how the client reacts, and do this more or less exploitatively or lovingly. Done lovingly, it might actually be healing for the client, though an astrologer with an unwise idea of how the client should move might do harm.

But here, I can only see how it can be done exploitatively, with the aim of getting the schmuck to come back for more, and pay more money. What I have is, after all, a series of paragraphs strung together from a word-processing program, automatically, including my name at intervals, and a name for an astrologer who has putatively created this personally for me, and repeatedly refers to herself as “Your Professional Astrologer and friend”. It tells me that there is a major transit, a rare planetary motion, over the next three months, which will mark a decisive turning point in my love life and also my material wealth. However a transit can reinforce weak points, preventing growth and impeding progress, if the subject is not fully aware of their influence. This happened to me, it/”she” says, in 2008, when I was not aware of a transit, missed its opportunities, and this has caused blocks for me ever since. I need a guide I can trust. How wonderful that the universe has brought me to it, so it can guide me through this transit, and I will not suffer in the same way this time!

It says I am a good person, I have some psychic ability, and it will be happy to help me develop this. Whereas, there are of course opportunities for me in work and in love, and it is for me to see them and welcome them and realise them, not to fantasise at my keyboard.

By the way, it refers to this potential lover as “he”. Ha! Oppressive heteronormativity, assuming I am straight. Fail. Epic fail. How can I express my feelings?

It offers me guidance through the transit for the paltry fee of $60. Um. Further random paragraphs from a word processor. Might be worth checking the exchange rate to see if it is worth $60 to me. But then, if the exchange rate reaches £1 = $100, the global financial system will have collapsed, and my internet probably won’t work anyway.

Wikipedia tells me that according to synastry a certain relationship is not even semi-compatible, “as a general guideline”. This angers me. Tell me that any aspect of character, attribute or situation of the people is an issue in a relationship, and I will consider it, but- star sign–!


My friend asked me what star sign I am. Oh, not that rubbish. She asked again, and I told her. “What ascendant?” I have no idea, but am a biddable soul, so went off to look it up. I had done this a few years ago, and received a chart with random lines and symbols on it, and an offer to print this on parchment for a too high fee, and I thought I would get something similar. Then I could tell her my moon-sign and my Saturn-sign, if she wished.

There is value in Astrology. It can prod your thought in unexpected directions. But then so can thumbing through the Bible and picking a verse at random. In fact, that technique works for almost every publication, apart from a porn magazine. To me, astrology might be more useful if I freed these powerful Divine Archetypes from the balls of rock millions of miles away: Pluto changes constellation far too slowly. So, just pluck a major Arcanum from the deck, rather than bother with all this computation.

Astrology is also a good wind-up, best played by two in the joke. Keep asking, and then make comments starting “Leos are…” and nod sagely. Stare blankly at any Rationalist refutation, until it stutters to silence, and then say, “Typical Gemini”.

I put my date of birth into the first website I came across. I should have realised there was more to it when it asked me my employment status, and whether I was single, not in a relationship but in love, in a happy relationship or an unhappy relationship. Still I clicked, and sent off.

The answer said something of numerology. I decided that was rubbish when I first came across it aged 14, and saw that through different combinations of first, middle and last name, or initial letters, I could make most of the number archetypes. Today, I will be a 4, or a 9, or a 2. (It’s Clare Quintessence Flourish, since you ask.)

But the “personal astrological forecast” I received said nothing about my moon sign, and I am none the wiser as to what was or is in the ascendant.