Report on the Nontheist Friends interest group at New England Yearly Meeting

I was reluctant at first about hosting the Nontheist Friends interest group at New England Yearly Meeting this year, because I’m not very well-versed in the experience of other nontheist Friends — I haven’t even read Godless for God’s Sake yet — and I’m not sure I agree with most nontheist Friends about the wisdom of remaining with our Religious Society. But I realized that the people who showed up were the real stars anyway, and I just had to kick things off.

The 7 pm business meeting ran long dealing with the FUM issue, so at 9 pm only my pal Zeke was in the room. But people kept trickling in until there were nine of us. I had expected somewhere between five to ten, since there was a big uptick in Tuesday night interest groups this year — we were “competing” with 13 other group meeting on such topics as John Woolman College (which I was bummed to miss), a NEYM Women’s Retreat, Rise Up Singing, and a slew of movie and photo showings.

After a little introduction, we went around saying our names, meetings, and what we mean (or meant, or thought others meant) by the word “God.” Most said they didn’t use the word, though one said explicitly that he came as an interested theist. I wrote most of the associations up on the chalkboard, and after we all had a turn I asked the group what they wanted to do for the rest of the time. I was prepared to talk about the history if they wanted, both in terms of “roots” and “flowers”, but felt (correctly, it turned out) that they might prefer talking about our own experiences and questions.

Thus we embarked on a group discussion for the remainder of the time, which of course is difficult to recreate. (My apologies to anyone present who I don’t represent well enough below.)

The main question that one Friend seemed to have was, Why would a nontheist be a Friend, or join any religious group at all? Another Friend, who was raised by Quaker parents and is currently an atheist, said there’s a difference between “why would such a person join?” and “why wouldn’t such a person leave?” I took him to be saying that once you’re a part of the community, you’re a part in multiple ways, and one difference isn’t going to destroy that bond. I also responded by saying that there’s a good argument for seeing Quakerism as not primarily about our beliefs, but about our experiences and practices, and that to many it is evident that nontheists can indeed participate in the life of a Quaker meeting as much as anyone else. I also referenced Robin Alpern’s essay “Why not join the Unitarians?”

There was a moment at one point where the “interested theist” Friend expressed some misgivings about his certainty of God’s existence, but then said that he was in his nineties, and without much time to engage in speculation — and he won’t have to wait long to find out firsthand anyway. He ended by saying, “I wouldn’t be surprised either way.”

“One way it’s hard to be surprised,” joked another, and we had a little laugh.

Another laugh was when we realized there were three people who all had held a certain yearly meeting office. “So this is what that job does to you!” someone said.

We also talked a little about the ambiguity of all this terminology. A moderate theist could be seen as a nontheist (and vice versa) depending on the definition of God at hand. For some “nontheist” might seem like just a euphemism for “atheist,” but I explained that most Friends who identify as nontheist mean it in a more “big tent” way, to include also agnostics, naturalists who still use the term “God” as a metaphor, and people with more liberalized conceptions of God. At this point I passed around a few copies of James Riemermann’s “What is a nontheist?”, which explains this point of view.

After this, one Friend who identified at first as agnostic then said he probably was more of a nontheist-leaning-agnostic. For him, a key part of why he felt he could not affirm particular religious beliefs and traditions was because of the arbitrariness of our births — Christianity makes more sense than Buddhism to people raised in the West, but that is simply due to acculturation, and doesn’t indicate any special rightness of the religion itself. How did I get to be the lucky one born into the right culture? he asked. I explained how I feel as though I could call myself a theist if I wanted to, since I do believe that reality transcends the self-created worlds in our heads. And that in doing so I don’t think I would be outside the liberal Quaker mainstream in terms of conceptions of God, but I feel more honest simply speaking of “reality” (and “love,” and many other concrete terms) instead of the impossible word “God”. Earlier one Friend had said something similar — preferring to use more specific alternative words.

I also passed around a “Resources” handout, which included URLs for the Nontheist Friends website and email list; David Rush’s survey of 199 nontheist Friends; the blogs Mind on Fire, Reaching for the Light, and my The Seed Lifting Up; and the Sea of Faith Network for at least a peek beyond the Quaker hedge. It also introduced the aforementioned book, which QuakerBooks of FGC may be out of for the moment, but they should be getting more, and in the meantime there’s the UK Quaker Bookshop. I had meant to print out some of the more personal stories from the site, but I ended up having less time to prepare than I expected.

On the way out, most of the small number of historical handouts I had printed (which we didn’t talk about) were taken, including the excerpts from the trial of James Nayler (1656), Jesse Holmes’s outreach letter “To the scientifically minded” (1928), and the statement from the first FGC workshop (1976).

We broke up a little prematurely when one Friend had to go, which often happens with interest groups, so I didn’t get a chance to take stock of what had happened for us at the end, or to nudge us towards some more challenging issues. But I’m happy with how it went.

[Cross-posted to the Nontheist Friends website]

18 Responses to “Report on the Nontheist Friends interest group at New England Yearly Meeting”

  1. 1 forrest Aug 13th, 2007

    I don’t know whether you read my group-blog blat about ‘nontheism’ in the Friends movement (
    but there it is if you want…

    To me, this sounds like you’re asserting your right to disbelieve in gravity. Okay, but please stay away from high drop-offs… I know I can’t make God “visible”–or gravity either–but as there are things I can say about how gravity operates, there are things people know about how God operates.

    That historical focus on “belief” in orthodox doctrines–a human political power-play–has corrupted & confused the issue.

    But we theists are talking about something more fundamental to the existence of the universe than “matter” or “energy.” Because it is fundamental to our own existence, in which your “reality” is nothing but a collection of stage-props. We are talking about something bigger & more complex than ourselves; and so we can’t always be accurate & precise at the same time. We can’t “prove” but we can (sometimes) “see”, and so we find your demonstrations that “there’s nothing there” quite beside the point.

    It’s like you keep saying how much you like being doctors–but you haven’t been to medical school, and don’t see the need; and you wonder why we’re so “intolerant” of your diagnoses…

  2. 2 john Aug 14th, 2007

    Hi Zach a very though outline and listing of sources. Especially your mention of the Sea of Faith network which I have dipped in and out of for years and whose many writers from Cupitt to Armstrong and Geering etc I have on my bookshelves! I see many Nontheist Friends honestly trying to make sense of what God means for them and for right living and not hiding behind the comfort of tradition.Its interesting to see that how and what language used to describe God as changed over time and how it changes in the Bible reflecting that theological journey. Forrest above appears to be arguing for a view of God that is transcendent(out there) and based on experience. Yet accepts that this is not provable or expressible( can’t be accurate or precise).

    Then why bother to fight with others about a definition that is” human political powerplay” unless we are scratching at some of the oldest debates in Christianity. These where the nature of God was fought over through questions about the humanity or divinity of Jesus or was the correct Christian life based on faith or works. These in turn were part of a wider debate on the structures, leadership and practices of the early church. I am deeply interested in this period before Constantine standardised and imposed Christianity as the state religion and its evolution from a Jewish sect.

    Its clear to me that debates on what God is or is not has to be linked to the practices of Quakers and to the principles of living as a Quaker. So for me I am less interested in saying whether me or Zach or Forrest have the correct view of God but asking what do we do to improve social justice, promote stewardship of the planet, build and practice personal integrity, seek out new spirtual growth, practice religious tolerance etc.

    This is not a simple divide .Evangelicals often have a strong commitment to working with poor and outcast yet who would disown me despite the fact that I have worked to support marginal social groups all my life. Liberals tolerant and open to the light yet who would find my interest of remaining rooted in the Christian tradition and from a bible base a eldering matter.

  3. 3 Pam Aug 14th, 2007

    Forrest -

    I don’t understand this at all.

    I get that you see something I don’t, but it’s not at all like pretending to be a doctor, or whatever.

    And gravity, well, as you point out, things fall when you drop them. If there was something as patently obvious “proving” the existence of God, it wouldn’t be an issue, would it?

    I wish I knew more about what it is you see and experience that makes this so obvious to you, and what Zach (or I) is saying so silly.

  4. 4 forrest Aug 14th, 2007

    You might consider this the ultimate in namedropping… except, of course, that some people simply don’t believe me and others already know for themselves, more or less.

    I think I first really recognized it in the early 1980’s, while smoking a joint & reading a Scientific American article on “consciousness.” I didn’t expect to learn anything from the article, and didn’t, but in thinking about what consciousness really is, why it’s so damn hard to pin down, I had what I think is meant by “kensho.” [I sent the author (Douglas Hofstadter) a post card; he responded nicely & visited briefly when he was here some time later. We had a good talk in which he took the example I’d given him, put a new twist in it, and boggled my mind, but life will boggle one’s mind, after all!]

    So when I talk about seeing something that some others don’t, the word “see” is pretty figurative. People sit uncomfortably for years, trying to get it, while my wife got zapped for no obvious reason when she was around ten, pushing her baby brothers on the swings.

    The formative insight of the Quaker movement was that people _could_ contact What-the-Scriptures-Were-About directly, that if you made yourself available It could and would teach you. This was not about clinging to a “belief” about It, nor about calling It “God” or not calling It “God.” Being a Quaker, putting up with the considerable inconvenience and risk that entailed, required some pretty convincing experience.

    It was not an experience limited to ‘atoms & the void,’ or limited to the physical world by any other description. Fox once was briefly oppressed by the idea that “All things come by [means of] nature”, but immediately dismissed this as a “tempation.” Some people’s descriptions were quite conventionally-Christian; others less so; they made considerable effort to communicate what they’d found to people of more orthodox persuasions.

    Like many sorts of insight, it is perfectly obvious to everyone who’s got it and largely unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t. (& it certainly has not rendered me infallible!) It isn’t a matter of proof. I can’t “prove” gravity with a rock, a place to drop, and measuring devices. I can’t prove the existence of Pam the same way, but neither do I doubt it.

  5. 5 Zach Aug 15th, 2007

    I see “kensho” experiences, whether they have anything to do with early Quaker spirituality or not (I’m not sure), as certainly worth exploring, and so do other nontheists. And I see much in the mystical experiences of early Friends that can and should be carried forward into the modern world intelligibly, even if it’s obscured sometimes by their Christian worldview.

    But I don’t see anything in them quite so obscure and circular as how your comments above seem to me. In fact, I don’t hear anything that sounds terribly similar from other theists, who you seem to assume (by using “we” language) share your experience.

    When Fox wanted to help someone experience what he meant by the “light,” he would sometimes ask if the person felt bad when they told a lie, and say “Well, that’s what I’m talking about.” This is much plainer and simpler than “the ground of being” or what not, and for many years now, it no longer seems obvious that these kinds of intuitions must have anything magical or otherworldly about them (however much they might bring us into conflict with the world-as-we-know-it). Do these play a role in your experience of what you call God, or is it all just ineffable?

  6. 6 James Riemermann Aug 15th, 2007

    I have a real hard time following your point as well, Forrest, and part of the problem is that you are concluding that we haven’t had these experiences you have had, without even attempting to describe what those experiences are. And you are basing that conclusion on the fact that we say we don’t believe in God.

    How could you possibly know that we haven’t had those experiences? The closest you’ve come is saying it is “something bigger & more complex than ourselves.” Well, I experience that. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. Believing otherwise is believing that we are the biggest and most complex thing that exists, and that’s simply insane.

    I’ve also heard you claim that this big whatever is not simply natural, but if you don’t describe what you mean by natural or supernatural, the same problem arises. You’re saying we haven’t had the experience of God without saying what that experience is.

    I do believe that different people have radically different experiences, and you may well have had extraordinary mystical experiences that I haven’t had. That’s very likely. But believing in God or not is not an experience; it’s a notion, at best an interpretation of an experience. And interpretation is not experience.

  7. 7 Pam Aug 15th, 2007

    James and Zach.

    Thanks for your words, they help me feel less alone in this, and I’m tending towards feeling alone lately…

    Forest, I think they said it better than I did. I tend to assume that I have had “mystical experiences” (and that sometimes life is just one big mystical experience, really, and the non-mystical moments are the ones that stand out)

    What I *haven’t* experienced is not a sense of transcendence, of some universality, even universal love, or at least bondedness. I certainly have a sense of something larger than myself (which I would call being, the universe, life itself) - as James points out, only the severly mentally ill would not.

    What my mystical experiences have NOT done is give me any reason to believe in Jesus as christians do. Certainly he spoke of some of the things that are reflected in these experiences, but so did many others. And my mystical experiences have never been a burning bush proclaiming “Jesus is LORD” - and I end up wondering (not faceteously) if yours have.

    I tend to assume that folks who, like early quakers, have only been exposed to spirituality as a concept through the Bible and christian language, will interpret their mystical experiences through the Bible and christian language. That doesn’t make God christian (or, paradoxically, even God) - that makes us human, and not able to think in words we don’t yet know.

    So, I believe that early Friends really experienced something, and something we are strongly called to hold onto, or re-discover, and they called that thing Jesus/God because that was the name/concept/worldview they had to process it through. What I question is that the name is more important than the experience, than the real thing, which is, and most likely will always remain, pretty much unnamable.

    So, I get now that you get it’s not about saying, “Lord, Lord” - and yet, you don’t seem to, from my perspective. What if someone hears, and heeds, not Jesus, but the light he was pointing out. Are they truly not a friend? Does something in your experience tell you that recognizinig that light as inherently tied to Jesus is the most important thing?

  8. 8 Zach Aug 15th, 2007

    Hi John,
    Thanks so much for stopping by (and apologies I didn’t see sooner that your comment had been delayed by the spam filter).

    I like what you say here:

    “So for me I am less interested in saying whether me or Zach or Forrest have the correct view of God but asking what do we do to improve social justice, promote stewardship of the planet, build and practice personal integrity, seek out new spirtual growth, practice religious tolerance etc.”

    If I could put this in someone else’s words, “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here make them strangers.”

    The one difference I would have, though it might just be a clarification, depending on how you meant it, is that I’m not sure “religion tolerance” is inherently good, because I think it risks being too complacent or relativistic. The more appropriate concept to me seems “religious (and nonreligious) dialogue,” a bit like how we think of “political dialogue” more than “political tolerance.”

  9. 9 greg Aug 16th, 2007

    this is an interesting discussion, and prompted several parrallel thoughts on my part. i suppose i should should get my own blog or post in a forum or something, but i hope you don’t mind me sharing here…

    there is a quote from satan in a kazantzakis novel about saint francis in which he (the devil) argues that monks trying to live in poverty are in fact living in the greatest wealth (ie, the love of god) and true poverty is ‘renouncing the hope that one day you will see god’. this can be read many ways, but one new interpretation that occured to me is how one’s life can become so dependent on one source of hope that it would be truly devestating to let it go, and it seems it is this attachment to political ideologies, god etc (and fear of their loss), which prompts so much intolerant violence. this also ties into the zen paradox of how if one tries to reach enlightenment, one probably won’t.

    the satanic argument is to displace the centrality of the question of god. what do we need to base our lives on, how much can we do without, how simple or humble can we get? my spirituality is mostly evidence based because once i ‘let go’ (leap of faith?) many things fell away. things (belief in god, anarchist utopia, progress) which might have seemed important just don’t really stress me out these days.

    in a sort of backwards logic, i am in fact theist [often] because it doesn’t contradict my own mystical experiences (so why not?), and because i value traditions, cultural heritage, and connection to one’s ancestors per se. paradoxically, perhaps, a problem i see in my cultural heritage is its tendency to try and cut ties to its history. i think a self-critical, re-inventive engagement with our cultural heritage is an imporant answer to our horrific and ongoing tendency to appropriate traditions and colonize new territories. if we can effectively engage with *where we are* perhaps we can begin to work towards a just multicultural society. our traditions are rich and alive enough to sustain us if we avoid dead dogmatism (the letter killeth, right?). i don’t want to find a new path, i want to lift up the good from the path i’m on. for me, this involves exploring the amazing mysticism and revolutionary love of the christian tradition- i understand that many nontheists are engaged in a similar project, from a different angle.

    this may seem to some like not really ‘true’ faith, but i don’t know… perhaps if i know i don’t ‘require’ it, it is an easy burden to carry.

  10. 10 James Riemermann Aug 16th, 2007

    I’m unclear about your criticism of religious tolerance here, Zach.

    First, it seems to me that some of the most intolerant movements in history as well as contemporary cultures emanate from religion. To be religiously tolerant is, above all else, to resist and fight relgious intolerance. Religious tolerance does NOT mean allowing religious bigotry to continue unchallenged. Tolerance for everything but intolerance.

    While intolerance is probably the greatest cancer in religion, it is not the only one, and perhaps this is what you are getting at. In many religious traditions there is a particularly strong resistance to critical thinking, particularly when thinking which is critical of one’s own tradition. But my understanding of religious tolerance is not about avoiding religious criticism, but avoiding religious oppression and bigotry. I don’t see how that can possibly be anything but a good thing.

    I also wonder what sort of relativism you are criticizing here. Myself, I don’t see how values can be anything but relative, and I don’t know why that is such a problem for so many people. Our values are what we value–it’s that simple. If no sentient beings are around to value anything, there are no values. You can’t get much more relative than that.

    On the other hand, life tends to get better when our values are broader, when they take into account not only what we value as individuals, but what others value. The greatest values are those that try to meet the needs of all, not just ourselves, or those we identify with.

  11. 11 Zach Aug 16th, 2007

    Basically I meant tolerance is good in the sense of not discriminating, but not in the sense of holding religion immune from criticism — which is what people sometimes seem to mean by the phrase.

    I agree values are simply what we value, and in many cases that’s a radically particular thing. But I do think there is some intersubjective (if not objective) basis to at least some of the things we value. There are some things where we shouldn’t say “different strokes for different folks.” Tolerance without dialogue and criticism can turn into complacency in the face of injustice. Of course, one should always proceed with humility.

    And as for truth (which I had more in mind), religions make truth claims, and at least for most forms of monotheism it matters on a cosmic scale whether they’re right or wrong. And they can’t all be right, however politically incorrect it is to say so. (Unless perhaps we mean the most liberal versions of each religion, which are not always very representative.) Here tolerance without dialogue and criticism is literally incoherent.

    To draw a parallel, I think it’s important to tolerate (not make illegal) the practice of all sorts of alternative medicines. But I also think it’s important to be able to say things like, “homeopathy is nonsense.”

  12. 12 James Riemermann Aug 16th, 2007

    It sounds like I agree with you pretty much across the board. But I am nervous when anyone downplays the importance of tolerance, because its inverse seems to me the very heart of evil in human affairs. If tolerance is just a passive thing, saying everything is OK, then it’s much worse than useless. But to my mind tolerance is a fundamental good and calls for action, for opposing every sort of intolerance in word and deed. Those who value tolerance are bound to speak out against intolerance, which orthodox and fundamentalist religion tend to exemplify. Giving religion a free pass on intolerant views and practices is not tolerance.

    And, yes, of course there are shared values. The greatest of these is, inflicting suffering on others is bad. That’s where the Golden Rule comes from.

    I also agree that truth, unlike values, is not relative; in fact I would go a little further and say that the monotheistic religions are almost certainly entirely wrong about God. The more they say, the wronger they are. Religion at its best has some very meaningful things to say about human nature and how to live with each other in the world, but whatever we want to know about reality will have to come from examining reality, not the Bible or the insides of our heads. And we can only go so far down that road–we’ve come a long way, to be sure–before we reach the limits of the knowable. The possibility of a God anything like the gods people have dreamed up, is far beyond those limits.

    Good point about alternative medicine–though I think there is some genuine unexplored medical value mixed in with a great deal of nonsense. I’m not even convinced they should all be legal, and wonder if practitioners should more often be held responsible when someone is harmed by their misinformation.

  13. 13 greg Aug 16th, 2007

    ‘homeopahty is nonsense’

    hunh. i read the article you linked on facebook. what is ’sense’? does ‘nonsense’ open space for irrational experiences in our lives? does labeling those experiences ‘nonsense’ dismiss their truth/validity? (or do they lack truth/validity anyway?)

    i think many of the problems you see in religious dogma are also to be found in enlightenment rationalism. frankly, the number of atrocities and injustices committed in the name of science is equal or more than those committed in the name of religious dogma. the irradication of thousands of cultures has often justified by measuring the ‘value’ of those cultures against contributions to reductive, reproducible, rational ‘progress’, and accompanying intellectual and technological discourses. (a progress which has, of course, laid waste to the balance of global ecosystems. much ‘nonsense’ has contributed importantly to the health of systems we just plain don’t understand. as approximately 90% of world languages will die or become moribund in the next 100 years, i wonder how stable our remaining noetic economies will be. much indigenous thought is of course completely rational, but much would not be recognized as such by the dominant discourses).

    my grandfather was a doctor, one of the early american doctors to visit communist china. he had always been dismissive of acupunture and other chinese medical traditions. at the time, the chemical process of aspirin working in the body was not understood, and a chinese doctor challenged him on why he accepted it. the answer was of course because it works.

    the enlightenment-style solipsistic ‘the conscious analytical mind is the only certainty’ is clearly bogus, but i wonder why people find it compelling? although i completely agree there are values i can’t comprehend as relative, the search for certainties, universals, objectivity, even in what we understand as logical sense, seems to me like just another idol.

  14. 14 Zach Aug 16th, 2007

    Honestly I feel like you’re responding to things I haven’t actually said or endorsed — enlightenment rationalism, “the conscious analytical mind is the only certainty”, etc.

    I care about evidence more than reason (you can reason your way into anything you want), which is why I specifically said “homeopathy” instead of “acupuncture” or “chiropractic” or any other alternative medicine that actually has some evidence to back it up. Acupuncture works, as you point out, even if we don’t fully understand why. My experience (buying, reading, observing others) is that homeopathy does not, especially if you factor in the placebo effect.

    As far as reason goes, I think the irrational is very important, and so is a lot that we don’t yet understand, but that doesn’t mean everything irrational or mysterious is good. I basically agree with an idea I think may originate with Ken Wilbur (though I haven’t read him and am rather doubtful of him otherwise), that we need the rational to purge us of the falsehoods of the pre-rational, but we need the transrational after that. I interpret this to mean re-powering the irrational parts of our mind again, but in such a way as to be integrated with our reason instead of at odds with it. And I see trends in that direction — e.g. psychologists studying the social and emotional after many decades where most everyone was studying cognition. That’s very different from worshiping rationality as an end in itself.

  15. 15 greg Aug 17th, 2007

    well, that sounds much more reasonable (pun intended).

    no, most of what i was responding to was not actually what you said, but rather the ‘age of endarkenment article’ you linked on facebook which explicitly connected homeopathy with wars against non-existant weapons of mass destruction, and enlightenment science with stability. i was totally annoyed at the article, but didn’t take it as something you endorsed until you seemed to reference it here. your clarification fits much better…

    directly regarding homeopathy- i regularly use arnica montana gel on bruises and sports wounds, i swear it works! (*grin*). but seriously, homeopathy is *fun*. i think arnica is the only plant i’ve actually used, but i tend to stay away drugs for all but the most serious ailments because i don’t like the way they interact with my body, and i don’t like the social system around them, and i don’t like the capitalism behind them. there are many ‘untestable’ elements of homeopathy which i find valuable, and not to be dismissed.

  16. 16 James Riemermann Aug 17th, 2007

    I favor an open mind toward alternative medicine, but I don’t see how something could be clearly medically valuable and at the same time untestable. There are most definitely ways to test arnica montana gel (?) or almost any other alternative medication that will give you a good sense of whether it really works or not.

    It’s fine and dandy to use these things on faith, but people are notoriously wishful thinkers and self-reports cannot be trusted.

    The fact is, the testing for a lot (not all) of modern Western medicines in widespread use is not all that rigorous, especially in the lucrative and hard-to-measure area of depression medications. If you look closely at studies you will see strikingly similar success rates between *all treatments for depression*, including placebo treatment. The line between “statistically valid” and “statistically invalid” is a thin one, and very few such medications are valid by a large margin. Psychiatrists, to a far greater degree than is ever acknowledged, are a special sort of faith healer.

    This is not quite meant as a dig against psychiatry or faith healing. The mind-body connection is demonstrably real and the medical field should seek effective ways of using it. But real physical effects of medicines and treatments–conventional or alternative–can be tested, and if they can’t for a particular treatment then it’s foolish to put all your eggs in that basket.

  17. 17 Pam Aug 17th, 2007

    Zach, maybe you should start an alternative medicine post, we’re veering a little off track :)

    I have a friend who swears homeopathy cured his lyme disease.

    I’ve never really tried it - aside from using arnica once or twice.

    I agree with James about testing, but I also think it can be hard for testing not to be biased (sometimes)

    It’s interesting what you say about antidepressants, I didn’t quite know that, although I’ve never trusted them. (I know a few people who took them for a short time and went off because it just felt like being cut off from your emotions - underwater or behind glass being the prevalent images) - but I know others who swear by them, who am I to say? I know my mom was on Paxil (or maybe had it in her drawer but was too anxious to actually take it, sadly) at the point she actually finally fell apart.

    Speaking of antidepressants and “faith healing” - I have found that the sense that my shrink thinks I’m that far gone has been qutie discouraging, and I wonder if sometimes being prescribed medication can push one into identifying as a person who needs it (I’ve definitely seen that too)

  18. 18 Zach Aug 17th, 2007

    Yes, we’re perhaps getting off track a little, but a few more thoughts:

    * Perhaps the definition of homeopathy is looser than I thought it was, but my understanding is that most or all of it involves (1) taking substances that cause a given sympton and (2) diluting them massively to the point where there literally is none left and you just have water (or whatever else was used to dilute), but it’s still supposed to be effective because the solution still contains the “memory” of the substance. Perhaps some people do this with arnica montana, but it sounds like we’re talking about arnica gel that isn’t diluted to the point of nothingness (as in this study of its use as a treatment for arthritis), and if so, IMHO it would seem better to call it an herbal remedy rather than a homeopathic one.

    * The Guardian article I posted to Facebook Greg mentions is perhaps a little too simplistic, but I think it makes several important points. I do think there is a certain connection between the more faith-based side of alternative medicine and the intellectual vice that allows a country to be manipulated into war. Both involve a certain tendency to believe things based on charisma or desire instead of on the evidence.

    * One interesting thing I read in A General Theory of Love about alternative medicine and the mind-body connection. If I recall, they at one point say that while the treatments given by traditional doctors are usually more effective, the human element is often worse. There seems to be a risk for allopathic doctors of being hurried and unconcerned with their patients as people, seeing them primarily in terms of their disease. (The term “bedside manner” is perhaps an indication of how incidental this aspect of the clinical encounter is often seen to be.)

    But when you visit an alternative medicine practitioner, you usually get a much stronger sense of concern and emotional support. And according to the authors, because we are emotional and social beings, this makes a very real difference. This is the only favorable way I can interpret the claims of homeopathic doctors that double-blind studies aren’t a good measurement of homeopathy’s effectiveness — that you’re basically paying for a placebo and a sympathetic healer-patient interaction. (A bit like the Eucharist perhaps?)

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  • Judy: In response to Nils, I think we may have met through NYM; I'm in Milwaukee. Anyway, you might want to look at the ...
  • Michael: Friend Zach, I am very grateful to you for sharing your post-Quaker, nontheist quest in this blog--as well as in your...
  • Nils: Zach, I find this idea, of creating a positive alternative to 'magical-thinking' religion, very appealing, even thoug...
  • Kirk: Over and over, I see Quakers as emphasizing process over product, and that's a good thing. But process is much harder to...


  • So his initial message was always the same: give up your dependence on doctrines, rituals, preachers and everything else that is external to you, and find the light within you because that will teach you all you need to know. And you already know what the light is, because it's that that makes you uncomfortable about the things you do wrong. So take note of those uncomfortable feelings, and let 'the light in your conscience' show you what they're all about it. If you allow it to, the light will show you the whole truth of your life, and if you then accept that truth, it will set you free – free from guilt and shame, but also free from the powerful desires that made you act wrongly in the first place.

    Rex Ambler,
    Light to Live By p. 7

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