Atheist Quakers III

DSC00272Fear can be Good.

I am happily theist, or at least Protean: that every hair on my head is numbered is valuable, and feels true to me. And David Boulton is bordering on anti-theist: he asserts as a matter of certainty that there is no God, that the promptings of love and truth are simply (not merely) our own evolved primate processes. He has a wonderful turn of phrase, for example “The Republic of Heaven”- that there is no God, no King, does not mean there is no Heaven, nor that we cannot be in it.

So I thought, I am glad he is a member of the Religious Society of Friends, because his extreme position makes room in our Society for others to join too. People like Mark. And there are others like Sarah, who pisses me off a bit, saying that “I was a theist when I was immature, and when you are mature like me you will be non-theist too”, but that is OK because we share these experiences.

And I thought, here am I, the Good Person. I am Eirenic, seeking ways we can come together, in our shared experience of God, or those unconscious processes, whatever it is, and where the words we use to explain our experiences, though different, do not get in the way. And Sarah, though she is polemic, speaking up for Her Side, the process is big enough to cope with our differences, and neither of us can do great DSC00273damage to the Society even though it behoves us to take care to do good.

Then I thought, I have a lot of experience of being excluded. The last picked for the Volleyball team at school, because I was useless (Oh- was that you, too?) The queer, deviant, pervert. Here am I, the Good Person, making sure everyone is included and no-one is cast out, and I am that out of my own experience of being excluded and fear of being excluded again.

My fear produces a constructive and creative and Loving result.

Of course fear can be good. I skid on the wet road, that makes me frightened, I take care not to do it again, I don’t die in a car accident; but it seemed my fear was of everything, and it was merely harmful, merely holding me back; and now that overwhelming fear, the Ache, the Scream, the Desolation, can be part of me which produces life and delight. The grit in the oyster. As long as I don’t take it too personally when someone leaves, for whatever reason.

I have my stories off pat. I was bullied at work. I was right and management was wrong, and these are the facts to demonstrate both assertions. I tell them for my own sake, of course- it was not my fault- because I need to assert that to myself, and another’s guarded assent helps me. If I have self-confidence, I can say “I have had some difficulties, and currently I am on the sick” and not anticipate “Well, you don’t look unfit for work to me” or be hurt by it if it happens.

The faith of an atheist

Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Avenue_bij_ArlesThe problem with the term “faith communities” meaning religious groups is that it implies that secular humanitarian groups like CND or Save the Children are faithless. Faith is not limited to the religious.

And disdain for faith, an anti-theist contempt conflating it with asserting unprovable things like the Flood or creation in six days, is new too, for our language is full of faith: “In good faith”; “a leap of faith”. That faith is something between irrational wishful thinking and something I know definitely from my personal experience. I do not know that everything will be alright, but have faith in myself, my world and other human beings. Faith is different from belief, but closer to “believe in” than “believe that”. I believe when I have proof, but I have faith when I trust.

This faith is practised and tested. I imagine how people will react, from my past experience, and new reactions form part of the evidence for the future. It is separate from dogma, because it is my understanding which I develop, partly from what others tell me, partly from my experience. The humanist might even use the word “God” to mean the traditional attributes of God: because human Love can be an overwhelming force. So God moves from literalism to symbolism and metaphor: mercy pity peace and love in action, the promptings of love and truth in our hearts which can come from an evolved human impulse as a social animal, rather than a personal God who numbers every hair on my head and prompts me and others to act well. God is a symbol of those values, not a supernatural entity which moves us unworthy souls to Good.

I have faith that my constructive actions will bear fruit, and the human society I rely upon will act well. This is belief in things unseen.

This is heavily reliant on David Boulton, whom I have seen speaking at a Sea of Faith conference and a Quaker meeting. It comes from his talk at the Quaker Council for Christian and Interfaith Relations. It seems special pleading to me, an attempt to take religious concepts without religion. But Ian quoted Charles Carter on Sunday, and Sabina happened to have his book from 1971, “On having a sense of all conditions”, so I am reading that. Carter distinguished religious assumptions, things one cannot know, such that God who inspires ministry is the all-powerful creator of the universe, from what he knows from his experience, such as that God is a source of strength urging him towards the Good- which he also knows because those words resonate with the experience of others. Carter had, in world war two, experience of the power of evil.

From this he seeks sensitivity to the condition of each other human being, to reach out with consolation in their distress, and find friendship and consolation from them.


I am endebted to Dr Derrick Whitehouse, possibly the most youthful octogenarian in the county, for my growing understanding of my new identity. I am Protean. I like the word and the concept.

Do Quakers believe in God? Some of us think this is extremely important. We are, they say, the Religious Society of Friends, if we are not Christian we have lost our way. We go to Meeting for Worship, and we purport to make decisions in a state of Worship, seeking God’s will, and if there is no God then that has no meaning.

I took that line in an exchange of emails with David Boulton earlier this century. He is the most uncompromising “Non-theist”, a leading light in the “Sea of Faith” movement, and had just been persuaded to become a member of the Society. He had been an attender for a long time- he thought full membership not appropriate for someone who is quite sure there is no God, but his Monthly Meeting overrode his objections. He is good with words, he coined the phrase “Republic of Heaven”: Heaven still has a meaning, though it has no King.

Quakers generally see the Kingdom of Heaven as an Earthly reality, not just a state after death, and there is a great deal of Biblical support for that view. We are part of the Kingdom if we do God’s will. We have little dogma: “Christianity is not a notion, but a Way”. We do not believe in the Damnation of outsiders- “We know where God is. We know not where God is not,” as I just read here; in fact we reject any walls keeping out the Outsiders, believing all are human with valuable human perspectives.

I found myself getting more and more atheist through 2009, and resisted this. H who is Christocentric objected, and that mattered to me. In February 2010 I admitted to myself that I was functionally atheist, went into an Anglican church, and was brought to my knees by the holiness of the place. Theist and non-theist have reached a dialectical synthesis in the Society in the UK, in what Derrick calls Protean, summed up in the paradox:

There is no God. God exists.

Like a non-theist, I believe there are real experiences which it is useful to call Spiritual, and that the word “God” names a useful concept, part of human reality, even if there is no external Being Who is God. I can have a relationship with a non-existent God, working through that does me good. And- my experiences fit with the reality of God.

I call myself Christian because I seek to follow the Way of Jesus- “Take up your cross and follow me”- known through the words of Jesus and my own experience. Constantine decided that Christianity would be a useful ruling ideology for his empire, and that is not my fault. I do not care if Catholics might call me a very immature and ignorant Christian, if one at all.

I read that “All Quakers are agnostic” and that is not quite it. Agnostic is not-knowing, and my experiences feel like Knowing, though the words do not encapsulate them: I try to make the words as accurate as I can, and then use them as a jumping-off point for greater understanding from immediate experience- perceiving rather than judging. The agnostic is neither atheist or theist, not knowing. The protean is both, whichever fits at the time.

Derrick thinks a majority of Quakers in Britain are this way. On the checklist he has drafted, “I enjoy having these personal protean characteristics” chimes with me. I want to be as flexible as possible in my understanding, to get as much value as I can from seemingly incompatible views- for remorseless, this therefore that deductive reasoning has always made a monster out of religion. There is one, consistent truth- and it is so complex as to be only knowable in the Mind of God.