Free, single + disengaged

I wish I had an impressive first post for this new version of this blog, now that I’ve migrated to a new host and blog platform, and more importantly, opened a new chapter (if not volume) in my life, free from the oppressive atmosphere of my college and ready to take on the world.

But my plans to do great things, at least in the worlds of eco-anarchism and Quaker ministry, have hit a couple snags.

* * *

The first one is an intellectual thing.

For a while now, maybe two years almost, I haven’t been able to bring myself to believe in the afterlife, and more recently, that a God anything like the traditional conceptions of “Him” actually exists. To me there seems to be enough “oomph,” so to speak, contained within simple reality itself to account for a lot of what people currently attribute to God (e.g. certain happenings in meeting), and most of the remainder seems to me like superstition or wish-fulfillment (e.g. the afterlife).

The whole Quaker nontheism issue is its own can of worms, but here’s the upshot for what I’m talking about right now: once I stopped believing in an ultimate Judgement by a greater power in some afterlife, it was only a matter of time before a certain realization came to me:

I can do whatever the hell I want.

I am not obligated to work (let alone work my ass off) for social justice, peace, revolution, religious renewal, the earth, etc. unless I want to.

I could live a comfortable and normal life, making money, spending time with friends and family, making art, writing music, traveling, having a good time—whatever.

And there would be no eternal personal consequences of that choice.

It’s a pretty liberating thought. At least, it is for someone in whom the fear of God and an obsessively pious mindset were instilled from a very early age. But a scary thought too, because this has been the core of my identity for so long – someone who, whether as a good fundamentalist or as a good Quaker, has been trying very hard to figure out “God’s will” and put it into practice.

I still feel the label “green anarchist Quaker” fits – I still would like to live closer to the earth, am generally against authority, and appreciate the community and practices of the RSoF. And I’m not going to get a corporate job and an SUV tomorrow. But I have, at least for the time being, lost the drive to fight on the front lines of the revolution (or the lambs’ war).

* * *

And I don’t think emotionally I’m even able to right now (which may be the real problem). This is the other snag.

I’ve gone through a lot of traumatic experiences in the past seven or eight years, which I may write about another time. And I haven’t been taking care of my own emotional needs during most of that time – in large part precisely because of this obsessively pious/activist mindset.

Freshman year, for example, I was trying to discover the final truth about Christianity and politics, instead of playing guitar and meeting people. Junior year I was worrying about propagandizing through the school newspaper, instead of being fully present with my amazing girlfriend. Oxford year I was trying to discover the final truth about Quakerism and start a vegan website, instead of seeing England or spending time with my housemates. You get the idea.

Well, fuck that shit. I need a break.

So this is going to be a more informal and personal of a blog than it was on Blogspot, or at least more informal than I was planning on several weeks ago. It’ll be a blog by a person who just happens to be an anti-authoritarian environmentalist and Quaker, rather than a blog focused on ideas or ideology or activism. At least for a good while. I’m trying to stay in the “be here now” spirit (if not the letter) of something Isaac Penington wrote: “be no more than God hath made thee.”

23 Responses to “Free, single + disengaged”

  1. 1 Robert LeRoux Hernandez Jun 17th, 2006

    Wonderful essay which evoked nostalgia for me.

    In the summer of 1970, a couple of months after the Kent State massacre, I started boot camp in Missouri. One day, as the barracks emptied so that 50 guys could fight over a half dozen telephones for fifteen minutes, I happened to be the first one out of the barracks. The drill sergeant was standing by the door. He ordered me to stop. I stood at attention as he placed his finger under the flap of an unbuttoned shirt pocket. He ordered me to give him 20 [pushups]. As I did, all I had been brought up to believe about American democracy flashed before my eyes, and I became an anarchist. A few days later, they changed the targets at firing range from those bull’s eye circles to human shapes. I realized that within a few weeks, the guys on either side of me would be shipping out to Nam, soon to be firing at real humans. They would not want to be there. The people they would be shooting at would not want to be there. I was only in the reserves, so I was spared what was about to happent, but from that moment I was a pacifist. Within a couple of months I filed for CO status. Went through my share of grief as the active duty CO. But it was granted, based largely on my knowledge of Roman Catholic theology, as I had been brought up in that faith. I returned to law school the following year and discovered that the drill sergeant stood at the head of every class in the form of the law professor. When I decided I was not interested in learning how to save the largest corporations millions and millions in taxes, I dropped out again and, convinced that my opposition to the war was becoming so obsessive that I risked getting into trouble, I moved to France. My darkest moment was at the time of the December 1972 Christmas bombings. I recall laying on a cot with my eyes closed, understanding at last that there is no God. I was free to invent myself. Good luck!

  2. 2 zach Jun 17th, 2006

    Robert, thank you for your reflections… it\’s inspiring during these darkening times to remember (I\’m pretty young) that it\’s been dark before, and yet there are people who made it through it.

    Kind regards,

  3. 3 Pam Jun 17th, 2006

    Wow, the anti-spam measure almost caught me, but I finally figured it out!

    I’m glad I found you. i had been wondering if you were ever going to post again…

    The “being present” thing - it’s something I”m working on too (just having figured it out, apparently 14 years farter on in my life than you are, but there it is)

    I think for me, in my atheist state, it’s like my best form of prayer. Being so in the moment. And when none of you is anywhere else, that’s nirvana, or christ spirit, or whatever.

    And, i think the realization that there is no afterlife - no authority figure giving you “brownie points” or “demerits” for your actions, your committment becomes much deeper. To do something because it is right, and your heart is in it, is to be radically present



  4. 4 zach Jun 17th, 2006

    And, i think the realization that there is no afterlife - no authority figure giving you “brownie points” or “demerits” for your actions, your committment becomes much deeper. To do something because it is right, and your heart is in it, is to be radically present

    Yes! It’s really just been a day or two since what I described has fully sunk in (I think it took 1. no longer being in a Christian environment and 2. having some time to relax), and while I am feeling less driven, what I’m finding is that I still do feel drawn to many of the same things, but more out of love (e.g.) now instead of duty.


  5. 5 Cat Chapin-Bishop Jun 17th, 2006

    So, Pennington said we should “be no more than God hath made thee,” did he? I like it. Not sure what it means to a non-theist Quaker, but it at least means something to me, a Pagan one…

    I know that it has been a hard and good discipline for me (though I still suck at it!) to learn to at least _try_ not to outrun my leadings. The concept that I do not need to do it all, and that it is actually _right_ to wait in stillness to discover what it is that I am supposed to be doing, has been very important to me. I have always had a little bit of a tendency to push myself into doing to much, to the point of becoming unpleasant to live with… for myself and those around me.

    I know that, for many months, the voice I heard within me during meeting was telling me to “do less. Do less!” I am trying to develop, not faith maybe (’cause I’m not sure I know what that word means) but a basic trust in that voice, and that it will tell me what I really need to do.

    The process of doing less has left me at least a little more of a window to sit down and actually listen for that voice. Which is surely an improvement. And, of course, for both of us, it’s worth remembering that we are part of whatever it is that is sacred in the world, and as worthy of stewardship as any other single thing on earth… Yes?

  6. 6 zach Jun 18th, 2006

    Hi Cat,
    Yes… our liberation is part of the liberation of the world…

    I think a big part of learning what to do and what to put down may lie in not listening to our rational mind so much, which can so easily “lead us astray”, as I think early Friends talked a lot about (though I don’t think we emphasize this much today). Usually in the past I’ve been /thinking/ myself into feeling like I ought to do something, intsead of simply knowing or perceiving or feeling.

    I think for me the Penington passage basically means “be what you are.”

  7. 7 Nathan K Jun 20th, 2006

    I like it… beautiful site, nice post.

  8. 8 Nathan K Jun 20th, 2006

    By the way, you are an atheist. Join the club, deal with it. :-)

  9. 9 Pam Jun 20th, 2006

    Nathan, I’m just not so sure!

    I’m an atheist, and not. I don’t believe in an afterlife, or that anyone planned out and “created” the universe or life or anything.

    And yet, there is something that is beyond my day to day understanding, that is magical. It’s love, energy, truth, right-ness. It feels spiritual, and phrases like “that of God in everyone” and “living up the light granted thee” resonate deeply with me, even though I dont’ believe in “God” or that anyone “granted” us our light.

    Atheists aren’t necessarily simply in theology, nor are well all by all definitions atheist,




  10. 10 zach Jun 20th, 2006

    Yeah, maybe, and there was awhile where the euphemism “nontheist’ really annoyed me. :)

    But I kind of like it now, as a shorthand way of saying (and perhaps this is similar to what Pam is saying) I’m an atheist but not the sort of old-school rationalist atheist who is reflexively skeptical about everything traditionally considered supernatural. I don’t think, for example, that when charismatic Christians talk about “feeling Jesus” as they do the dishes, or when Quakers talk about being “divinely led”, that it can be taken perfectly literally – but I don’t think it’s all hogwash either. (I’m guessing the middle way probably has a lot to do with our currently poor grasp on how the mind works.)

  11. 11 Robin M. Jun 22nd, 2006

    And I guess I consider myself a theist and more and more a kind of Christian, but I don’t believe in an afterlife either. I think we only get one chance to live and we’d better do the best we can with the life we’ve got. And that’s why it is so awful that some people’s lives have very few chances. And that keeps me focused on making a better world, a place where we can follow God’s will, which I identify with all that is good and right and beautiful in the world, right here and now, but also not to try to do more than my finite body and mind can do. But I think it is God or Spirit that motivates me to the good, that helps me find the strength and courage and serenity to be of service.

  12. 12 h. rene Jun 25th, 2006

    “fuck that shit.” i like it. go zach.

    p.s. i know where you live (positive foreshadowing)

  13. 13 Thee, Hannah Jun 26th, 2006

    Man, sorry it took me so long to find you. Duh.

    Yeah, welcome aboard. I admit I sometimes use “nontheist” because it seems to annoy the theists less. I don’t particularly care whether they’re annoyed or not, they just annoy me less in return. But it’s a rose by any other name, after all.

    What I find liberating is not having to worry about the apparently arbitrary things that go along with trying to save my soul, so I can focus on improving tangibles instead. I never quite feel completely “off the hook”; I still feel like we all have some obligation to work for a collective “betterness”, but to the extent that we are able, not to the exhaustion of our material and spiritual means.

    I didn’t have any reserve when I got out of school, either, or for several years afterwards. I still don’t feel like I have a lot in me but I’m crawling back. I’m with you on the love versus duty bit. I couldn’t do this if I felt like a whip was being cracked over my head.

  14. 14 Sarah Jul 1st, 2006

    Tell me more about the God you don’t believe in? Because from what you’re saying, it’s the same God that I don’t believe in. I don’t know (or particularly care) if there’s an afterlife, and I don’t believe in a God at all like the traditional views of him. I also don’t believe in a Judgment by some ultimate power in an afterlife. Or maybe I do, but it is so far from central to my faith that it never really crosses my mind.

    For me, what you said about not HAVING to do anything hits the nail on the head. In a way, my faith is centered around not believing I have to and yet doing it anyway, which is part of the essence of love, which is what I think God is (because I absolutely believe in God . . . )

    Hey, have you read any Marcus Borg? You’d like him, I think.

  15. 15 Anna D Jul 1st, 2006

    Hello Zach,
    it strikes me that this is the fundamental opposition between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Don’t do things because you fear eternal punishment. Do them because they are right (- because they are also good for you - not in the superficial heavenly brownie points way, but in the sense of aiding your own growth and freedom). Don’t do things out of duty. Do them out of love. And then it doesn’t matter what name you give to God.
    I think the decision you made is a very wise one.

  16. 16 zach Jul 2nd, 2006

    Short answer: Yeah, I think 3/4 of the nontheist issue is just an issue terminology – different Friends are calling the same general thing “God” or something else. I’ll probably make another post or two about this in the next few weeks to clarify where I’m coming from.

    I haven’t read Marcus Borg.

  17. 17 zach Jul 2nd, 2006

    Thank you, Anna.

    I’ll probably post a few posts clarifying this whole paradox in the next few weeks (if I can manage it bringing in the debate in European philosophy about the “God of ontotheology”), but yes, I think it’s mostly a matter of names — I could keep referring to myself as a theist, and I know many people who do, but for various reasons I prefer now to “start from scratch” rather than try to recover the name “God.” A bit like (if the comparison will not seem over the top) the swastika: even though it originally was simply a symbol of good luck, it is probably irremediably tainted by its Nazi associations to be used in that way anymore. In a similar way, I have my doubts whether “God” can be recovered.

  18. 18 Robert LeRoux Hernandez Jul 5th, 2006

    Pam, you seem to draw a distinction between “spirit” and God. I don’t think any form of spiritualism is consistent with atheism, if consistency is a personal goal. I am often troubled by spiritual evocations by people who otherwise seem so down to earth and so close to the mark.

    Nevertheless, I certainly have felt moments of “awe” in nature, have felt serenity which others might call “divine,” have felt passion which seem to transcend the moment. Those emotions, whatever their source, are certainly worthwhile, indeed make life worth living. But God? It strikes me that “God” sucks the divine out of the world. Those deeply felt emotions are transferred to an entity to which we have given a label, and it becomes a commodity like any other (not a divine commodity). I guess it is important to move beyond the “God question,” and figure out, in concrete ways, how to maximize the opportunity to enjoy these and other wonderful experience. This requires a re-examination of present-day social organization and the discovery of viable alternatives. Green anarchism seems the most promising. I’m afraid i don’t have much to say on the “Quaker” aspect of this blog

  19. 19 Pam Jul 5th, 2006

    Robert -

    Thee speaks my mind!

  20. 20 zach Jul 6th, 2006

    Robert, I’m in the middle of a post that will hopefully explain what, for me, the Quaker aspect of this blog has to do with the G@ aspect of it.

    On (a)theism/spiritualism, I think it depends on what we mean by spirit. I’d agree that if a person means by “spirit” something supernatural (i.e. nonnatural), then what they have is God by another name. A lot of New Age religion seems to fall into this category. But I think “spirit” can have naturalistic meanings — probably the philosophical term “emergent property” is a good synonym, though there may be other useful senses of “spirit.” In the end I think all this is psychological — and that is in no way a belittlement of it (quite the opposite).

    In general though, I will say that I am initially suspicious of any spirit language, because even with good intentions it can easily turn into supernaturalism or superstition.

    P.S.: just in case you’re confused by Pam’s comment, it’s something Quakers sometimes say, especially in business meetings, when someone speaks their mind. The “thee” is usually a (ironic?) reference to how early Friends would only use the everday pronoun “thee” to address people, and wouldn’t address their “superiors” with the deferential “you”. (And they used “thee” instead of “thou” because that was the dialect in the north of England.)

  21. 21 James Riemermann Jul 15th, 2006

    Anna, you wrote: “it strikes me that this is the fundamental opposition between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Don’t do things because you fear eternal punishment. Do them because they are right…”

    I agree with the ethic of this statement, but it terribly over-simplifies the vast complexity and depth of what you call the Old Testament, and Jews call the Bible, or Tanakh. It also idealizes Christianity and the New Testament in a way

    The God of love, of doing good for good’s sake, is quite well developed long before Jesus and the New Testament. In fact it was a central foundation for Jesus’s teachings. He said to love God, and love thy neighbor as yourself: all the law and all the prophets hang on these commandments.

    The genius of Jesus is this stripping down of the law to its essence. His core teachings are exceedingly difficult to obey, but almost laughably easy to understand. Live according to the love buried in your heart, underneath all the other garbage, and you can’t make the wrong decision. Following his example, I choose to strip the law down a little further, keeping only the second of his commandmentments.

    Heaven and Hell as motivators for good behavior are far more central to traditional Christianity than they have ever been to Judaism. Jesus clearly held up Heaven and Hell as motivators in the brilliant but flawed Sermon on the Mount. Liberal Christianity is just starting to dispense with the long and ugly Christian tradition of doing good to avoid eternal damnation. On the contrary, most of the Tanakh speaks of death quite openly and clearly as the permanent end of life. Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. Only in a few of the later prophets does the notion of an afterlife emerge, and there it is placed somewhere in the long distant future, when all the dead will rise at once. The Tanakh has a much longer history than the New Testament and expresses the changing views of a people over many centuries.

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  • The Quakers are not so blindly attached to antiquity, as to keep to customs, merely because they are of an ancient date. But they are ready, on conviction, to change, alter, and improve.

    A Portraiture of Quakerism (1806) by Thomas Clarkson

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