Carrying the Society as long as you can

[Apologies to feed or post-by-email readers who received an incomplete draft of this post…]

If you’ve been following this blog for the past few months, you probably recall the entry “A post-Quaker vision of the Society of Friends”. When I wrote that, I was in the opening throes of a period of intellectual reorganization, which I think is mostly done now, at least for the time being.

So I’d like to share the perspective on Quakerism I’ve been coming to, including some reflections on the recent New England Yearly Meeting sessions. (It’s a little long…)

It was about a year ago that I admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in God anymore, and started associating with the nontheist Friends community. But don’t think I’ve been quite in the mainstream of that group, in the following way.

It seems most of them are basically happy with Quakerism as it is, and simply are asking for greater tolerance. I think that description fits many other marginal Quaker subcultures too, like Pagan and polyamorous Friends. At New England YM earlier this month, for example, apparently one of the “Bible half-hours” included a call by the speaker for radical inclusivity, for admitting as Friends anyone who experiences “Spirit,” even Pagans and nontheists. I heard this from Cat Chapin-Bishop (who I was incidentally very happy to finally meet :), who was visibly excited by this news.

I was glad to hear that, but not as much as Cat was. She could tell.

Part of the reason was that, as long as I’m being true to my conscience, I just don’t care that much about whether I’m accepted by any particular organization or not. Being the son of a man who got bodily carried out of at least one church meeting for speaking his mind tends to have that effect, perhaps.

Instead, I’ve been asking myself the opposite question: whether I can accept Quakerism, perceived warts and all.

Quaker religion vs. Quaker wisdom

That’s what I’ve been wrestling with more and more this past year. An article in Shambhala Sun called “Killing the Buddha” pretty much sums up exactly how I feel, if you replace “Buddhist” with “Quaker” and make the tone a notch less militant. In short, the wisdom of Quakerism is trapped within the religion of Quakerism, and we would do well to deconstruct our parochial little society and instead aim to contribute to a less sectarian and more evidence-based spiritual community for the 21st century. Sort of “Quaker Culture vs. Quaker Faith” (discussion) taken to a new level.

And if this is a “hard saying” to be dealing with on an intellectual level, it’s even harder when you add in the social. It’s been difficult to be around Quakers for the past six months, because I keep running into the same dilemma. On the one hand, when I hear someone talking about Christian doctrines, most of which I am convinced are untrue and in some cases immoral, or endorsing other kinds of superstition or dogmatism, I sometimes feel compelled to say something, to “elder” them. (If that sounds presumptuous, take it as a testament to how clear my convictions generally are on these things.) But on the other hand, I usually feel an equal-or-greater compulsion to bite my tongue, because I don’t want to be negative all the time, or “make the community revolve around me,” in the words of a Friend I met at NEYM. Also, I’m very much aware that the journey from faith to unbelief can be a long and painful one, and I’m reluctant to send anyone down that road, even though in my experience there’s light at the end.

Usually on balance, I keep quiet. (In person that is. On the blogosphere I’ve been somewhat less quiet, perhaps because the nonverbal level of communication is so absent. It feels very different to say something critical online than in person…)

But this creates a lot of internal tension, and twice now this has reached the point where I’ve felt I needed to head for the exits. [Edit: see this note below on these two anecdotes.] The first was in May when Cherice Bock gave a lecture at Beacon Hill Friends House, which hit a lot of wonderful notes about social witness and outreach, but also included a lot of good old fashioned christonormativity. I was surprised at how receptive and excited the ostensibly liberal Quaker audience was. The kicker was at the dinner afterwards, when people briefly discussed the resurrection of Jesus with no indications that anyone had a “stop in the mind” against this notion. That night I sent an email to to Boston YAF list saying I needed to suspend my Quaker activities indefinitely.

By summer I had cooled off, and decided to attend New England YM, which was the second “head for the exits” point.

It was wonderful to see people I know and meet new people (including Ethan Mitchell), and I appreciated a lot of the program, including Eden and James Grace’s workshop. But honestly, the level of dogmatic and superstitious thinking was almost intolerable. When one major speaker repeatedly used a Bronze Age metaphor of genital mutilation — “circumcising the foreskin of our hearts” — I cringed. When one committee clerk gave a ringing endorsement of the Richmond Declaration and everyone acted like that was normal, I was shocked. Essentially, this year I was finally disabused of the false impression I had gotten of NEYM when I first became a Quaker, namely, that it is a liberal yearly meeting. In reality, it is very much a half-Orthodox, half-liberal one, as the history would suggest. (And there was also a certain amount of liberal “woo woo” as well, e.g. suggestions that the spirits of our Quaker ancestors could “be here with us,” with no indication that this was meant metaphorically.)

Perhaps for that reason, it seemed right to me, as a participant in the business meeting, that NEYM remain in FUM. But it also felt wrong for me to remain within NEYM, a bit like how I wouldn’t dream of being a member of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Whither post-Quakerism?

Since then I’ve again cooled off a bit, and I’m not doing anything rash. The image that comes to me is the story of Fox telling Penn, “wear your sword as long as you can.”

That is, despite my concerns, a clean break would feel premature. I’ll probably lay down this blog soon, and possibly resign membership by the end of the year. But I’m probably going to keep attending some meetings, commenting on some blogs, writing Quakerpedia articles, and reading Letters, &c. of early Friends. I even have two possible major projects in mind for exploring these kinds of ideas, both of which which I think would be better vehicles than a personal blog: starting a forum-type website and writing a book.

But it’s hard to tell how long this kind of thing will feel like what I should be doing.

Ironically, many of the arguments for staying or leaving are the same as the ones used in the FUM controversy — to what extent must one agree with the groups one belongs to? When should one stay and work for change, and when leave? What about the more quiet or closeted dissidents who draw support from the more visible dissidents? And isn’t “division” something people of goodwill should always avoid?

55 Responses to “Carrying the Society as long as you can”

  1. 1 Cat Chapin-Bishop Aug 26th, 2007

    Hi, Zach,
    I’m saddened, though not surprised, at what you have to say here. I can’t help but hope you’ll keep writing where I can read your thoughts, though. There’s something about your integrity that I find very rich and sustaining, and I will miss it if you leave off, or, say, begin writing only about favorite restaurants or hobbies. I really hope you do keep attending occasional meetings, and commenting on occasional blogs… and that you continue to wear your Quakerism as long as you can.

    I found myself thinking today about spiritual dry spells–probably after reading the Time Magazine article on Mother Theresa’s doubts about God. While I’m not characterizing your non-theism as a “spiritual dry spell”–you’re not, and I certainly don’t have the insight to do that for you!–I do think that the insight that came to me around why it is important to ride out a dry spell, and not try to plug it up with assumed belief does apply. I can imagine myself, for instance responding to the loss of the sense of reality and relationship with Spirit with a kind of make-believe game. But I also think that all that would teach me to do would be how to pretend to pray.

    Pretending to pray surely drives us farther away from Spirit, not closer. Integrity, truthfulness, a willingness to sit with ambiguity and doubt–those I trust to bring me closer, even if I must travel in the dark.

    Damn. I’m sounding smarmy, I’m afraid. Actually, I think what I’m feeling is something much more like what I feel at rise of meeting, when I look into the eyes of the Friend next to me on the bench, and wordlessly clasp his hand.

    I don’t know what your journey is, Friend, but your integrity in undertaking it makes me feel you my kin.

  2. 2 James Riemermann Aug 26th, 2007


    I didn’t realize how tough it has been for you–I’m sorry.. And there may not be as much difference between our thoughts about nontheism among Quakers as you think. I am very comfortable, in fact delighted, being in community with many Christians and theists, but if the Christian theists in my meeting were the kind who endorsed the Richmond Declaration and believed in literal resurrection and virgin birth and the like, I suspect I would fall out of love with the meeting over time.

  3. 3 Zach Aug 26th, 2007

    Hi Cat,
    Thank you so much for your kind words. It means a lot when people who have different perspectives than mine find what I have to say to still be valuable.

    I think I might’ve created an over-sad impression with this post though. It’s been a difficult time, and “dry spell” isn’t a bad way to put it. But the dryness has less to do with nontheism per se (which has generally been a very positive thing for me), and more to do with the conflict it creates with the wider community. I expect that once I figure out how to best resolve this — start a new offshoot “meeting,” or commit to staying within mainstream Quakerism, or just live my life — the dry spell feeling will go away.

    In any case, I do expect to be a lifelong member of the wider Quaker fellowship (and maybe even the actual organization called the Wider Quaker Fellowship, ha). The question is just how near or how far.

    I appreciate your sympathy. It has been tough. But I’m dealing :)

  4. 4 D Ross Aug 27th, 2007

    Hi Zach,

    received the link to this page forwrded by a friend. Interestingly, having given up on trying to resolve pretty much the same issues within the Tibetan Buddhist community I was a part of, I have begun attending Quaker meetings. Attracted by the seeming simplicity of the ‘practice’ and the (from outside anyhow) openness of mindset. I am aware however, that membership has its requirements. Membership in anything. So I have no intention of ‘becoming’ a Quaker. Been there, done that. No more religious boxes please! Still, I find sitting silently in a circle of ‘friends’ heartwarming. And that is all I am looking for on any given day…

    Peace :)


  5. 5 Angelina Conti Aug 27th, 2007

    Hey Zach, I think I’ve told you before how much I appreciate your voice and perspective, and I’ll be sad if you shutter your blog (How many other anarchist Quaker bloggers are there??) But, if my time with Quakers has taught me nothing else, its to affirm every individual’s journey. So best of luck on your journey, wherever it takes you.

    It’s been really interesting you watch your process the past couple months not knowing you at all. I feel in the midst of a similar stay-or-go dilemma, though I experience the warts as more cultural than theological. (I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m much more tolerant of theological diversity than I am of unacknowledged cultural assumptions and race and class priviledge, but that’s another conversation, and I’m sure the different flavors of NEYM and PYM play into it too. In Philly we like to joke that the Hicksites won.)

  6. 6 Zach Aug 27th, 2007

    Hi Donna!
    Thanks so much for commenting - glad your friend passed on the link. It’s funny, I visited a vipassana meditation center for a couple weeks earlier this year.

    I think I do want to be engaged in some kind of “spiritual” community as a member and investing a lot of myself into it, which is why I think the approach that works for you would work for me. I hope I get a chance to hear more of your thoughts sometime — you have my email.

    Yes Angelica, you did, and I appreciate you saying so again :)
    I do imagine I’ll keep writing online, just perhaps in a form that feels more natural. I hope I’ll get to hear your thoughts as well somehow… perhaps you’ll be commenting on Jeanne’s blog?

  7. 7 Charley Earp Aug 28th, 2007

    Hi Zach,

    I just want to say as one anarchist nontheist Quaker to another, I hope you decide to stay within the RSoF. I have my own occasional desire to try something different after 10 years with Quakers, mostly a fascination with the UUs, due to their much larger relative numbers.

    However, more relevant to your current state, I was involved with a charismatic Christian commune from 1986-1997, and I left when I became an agnostic (and started attending meeting). I recently went to a reunion of the commune, which was a rich and ecstatic time, but in the end, my nontheism trumped my warm fuzzies. I gather that your present feelings about NEYM have something to do with your own Christian past. Staying with NEYM feels like the old life, not the new one, maybe?

    This past Spring, my discontent with my local meeting reached a critical point and I intended to visit various local UU churches, the Ethical Humanists, even another meeting, just to test my sense that I needed a change. Then, at our mid-summer MfB, the walls came down and a major policy change was brought forward which addressed my concerns almost to a tee! Synchronicity, if not miraculous! B^)

    Anyhow, I am interested in your ideas a little more. I do get your idea that dropping certain Quaker trappings could bring out a new style of spiritual community. This task would take intense pioneering labor. I would encourage you to at least maintain some connections to Quakers who are sympathetic.

    peace! Charley

  8. 8 Pam Aug 28th, 2007

    Let me just chime in here and say I really hope you don’t leave Friends as well.

    I’m in the same meeting as James, and find a similar experience, I wonder if you’d consider leaving Quakers if you were here.

    It’s a funny thing about Quakers because we have no central structure, regional differences might be more pronounced.

    I don’t necessarily believe that starting our own “nontheist Friends” splinter would be a bad thing, just that there are so few people it might not be effective, and we might just miss out on things that theist Friends bring to the discussion/search for meaning/whatever.

    And in my opinion we definitely have something that Unitarians lack, spirit, for lack of a better word. I don’t think it’s the creator of the universe, or an intelligence capable of intention, but there’s something beyond cold hard facts (if only more cold hard facts we don’t know, which gives us mystery) and I believe there’s value in being with that. argh, I don’t really know what I’m saying.

  9. 9 Zach Aug 28th, 2007

    Hi Charley,
    Thanks for your kind words. I certainly do intend to maintain connections to many individual Quakers, even in the most “separatist” sort of scenarios organizationally speaking.

    Yes, it might take “intense pioneering labor” to branch off the RSoF, which is daunting. (Assuming I don’t just start using weekends to relax.) But it has been done before. The story of Progressive Friends is a powerful one; they branched off, but within a few generations liberal Quakerism had been reshaped largely in their image.

  10. 10 Zach Aug 28th, 2007

    Believe it or not, I don’t envision starting anything that would be well described as ‘nontheist Friends,’ because that’s still defining ourselves in terms of beliefs. I have the same problem with “Humanism” with a capital H — it’s a nice ideology as ideologies go, but it’s still an ideology. It’s all well and good to say “secular humanism is empiricist and nondogmatic, etc.”, but it’s still defined by a belief, namely, humanism. (What do you do when “new evidence” conflicts with that belief, e.g. when people begin feeling that anthropocentrism is wrong?) In religious language, it still seems like a kind of idolatry.

    I think the world needs a spiritual discourse based on method, not beliefs, even if they happen to be good ones. I imagine nontheists would be the most well-represented, but agnostics would be just as welcome. Even theists who seem to have good grounds for their belief could fit in — e.g. people who have had powerful personal experiences (a problematic but real form of evidence) that they couldn’t explain otherwise, and who exhibit enough intellectual virtue to make it clear they’re not just taking a path of least resistance, etc.

    And you’re right, there’s definitely something different between us and the UUs (both pro and con, IMHO). As I mentioned last month, I’ve been visiting a few UU churches lately (like Charley did), and I probably will blog about it soon.

  11. 11 Zach Aug 28th, 2007

    Also everyone, I want to clarify the two paragraphs about feeling overwhelmed at NEYM and Cherice’s talk, based on a message someone just sent me privately (which I hope to reply to personally soon).

    It’s not at all that I felt or feel like the people involved — the NEYM speakers or Cherice — are uncritical or foolish, nor was assuming that large numbers of people present agreed wholeheartedly with them. I suspect there are few other people in NEYM who are fond of the Richmond Declaration, for example, and I’m certain almost everyone who was at Cherice’s talk has given a lot of thought to whatever they believe in (and I’m sure it was a wide range).

    What bothered me was the feeling of “this is something I feel I should respond to, but can’t.” If a person carries a concern that a certain social/political belief or practice is wrong, virtually the whole community will support them in that leading. It’s what we do. But concerns about the truth of our beliefs are rather less welcome. As someone said at NEYM, when the two Orthodox yearly meetings and the independent meetings joined, there was an understanding that we’d let each other be. As James and I discussed earlier this month, I feel like that kind of tolerance can turn into complacency.

  12. 12 Charley Earp Aug 28th, 2007


    You wrote:

    This comment helps me get your discomfort more clearly. I haven’t considered the import of NEYM lacking any “real” liberal organization within itself. They are entirely outside the Hicksite/Progressive lineage. My own IL YM is solidly Hicksite/Progressive, with Jonathan Plummer, a founder of FGC, a key figure in our founding.

    A progressive friends type organization might be an interesting project within the NEYM context. I wonder if you could find interested friends within the YM that might want to be part of such a project.

    I wonder if your local meeting is as illiberal as the YM?

    peace! Charley

  13. 13 Zach Aug 28th, 2007

    When I attend, I usually go to Friends Meeting at Cambridge, which is as liberal as they come — sort of the mama meeting of many of the liberal meetings in NEYM, though yes, here it’s Beanite/independent style rather than Hicksite. But to me it doesn’t change things that much, because no MM is an island. Even in a Hicksite YM I think I would feel the same way, just a lot less acutely.

    Also, I didn’t mean to be saying NEYM is “illiberal,” in the sense of “intolerant.” I mean, from a certain perspective a half-Orthodox and half-liberal (in the sense of theologically modernist) meeting is MORE liberal (in the sense of free-to-believe-what-you-like) than a vanilla Hicksite meeting. Does that make sense?

  14. 14 Bill Samuel Sep 1st, 2007

    Well if you want “evidence-based spirituality” why don’t you look at the evidence of the source of the power in early Quakerism? The evidence is that it was a radical encounter with Jesus Christ. This may offend your modern rationalism, but there’s no shortage of evidence.

    It seems many want the power of early Quakerism without the substance. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

  15. 15 Richard58 Sep 2nd, 2007

    If I may add my 2 cents worth. As I see it the RSoF is a Christian denomination. It was started by people who were fervent in their Christian faith. (Read anything by George Fox and you will know that to be true.) Granted those of us on the liberal side have become much more inclusive in the past 150+ years or so. It has had, IMHO, both good and bad results. On the good side we get exposed to the wisdom of other religious beliefs. (Or nonbeliefs for that matter.) On the bad side we become a mishmash of everything and have no central core. We become like the Unitarians. Mind you I like the UU’s a lot. But when it comes to spiritual depth they have little to none. They are more like a social club for do-gooders. I was a UU for awhile and talk of God or spirituality was pretty much nonexistant among the parishioners. That is why I left. I wanted a religion where my liberal ideas would be welcome and my belief in God encouraged. I found that in the RSoF.
    To be blunt I would hate to see the Quaker faith as a whole lose our Christian heritage. I am sorry that you are uncomfortable with Christian language but that is who we are. To me it would be like members of a Buddhist group saying that they should just concentrate on Buddhist practices and not talk about what the Buddha said and did. (I actually read just such an article in a Buddhist publication. The author was complaining that many American Buddhists just want to practice meditation and not read or talk about Buddhist writings. He said they were missing the core of Buddhism and were not, strictly speaking, “real” Buddhists.) So I think that we should welcome all people to our meetings but still keep in mind who we are and where our faith comes from. (I hope that all made sense.)

  16. 16 Timothy Travis Sep 2nd, 2007

    “The right of soul privacy seems to me an established principle of Quakerism, that a man shall not be forced to suffer for what at any given time he may be thinking to be truth. We find that the most saintly men have reached the great truths from which they fearlessly uttered by rising from error to glimpses of truth and so on to half truths and finally to the truth. Taken at any early stage of their pursuit of the truth and forced to declare their thought conscientiously they would have fallen under condemnation, but granted what I have called soul privacy they have reached convictions which they could victoriously declare and stand upon. Hopeless as the present state of our Society is I have faith in its future for I believe it is feeling for the truth, and though it has taken its stand on a half truth just now and things are in a crude state, yet God is so wise and so able to bring all things up to better, that I believe he will not forsake a people which has been so faithful in the past and which has possibilities of almost unlimited usefulness in the future.”

    Letter from Rufus Jones to Joel Bean
    October 18, 1898

  17. 17 Zach Sep 2nd, 2007

    Richard and Bill,
    Thanks so much for your comments. I think I’m going to respond with a full (though shorter) post in a moment, since my response was getting a bit long for a comment. I hope you’ll read it in the spirit of dialogue.

    And Richard, as for UUs, I may write a post about them as well soon — I’ve been visiting a few churches and reading the bylaws. (I was going to go to one this morning, but I was out late on a midnight bike ride with friends and overslept.) But for now I will just make a clarification:

    I’m not calling for a UU sort of spiritual mush, which I find about as unsatisfying as you do. And in any case, it would be silly to call for it, because we’re ALREADY like the UUs. I’ve been visiting several UU churches, and I’ve seen no difference in theology – there’s a wide range, and their Christian heritage is as visible as that of liberal Quakers; in some places and times you’ll hear messages from Biblical texts, or recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, and others not. (I’ve heard that they’ve even gotten more Christian/theistic since the 70s.) The only difference is in programming – we do worship/group meditation, they hear a lecture and sing.

    What I’m calling for is not pan-religious mush, but recognizing that ALL religions, far from being “all true,” are in fact all basically false, and that we pretty clearly live in a universe with no deity, no master plan, no karmic justice, no second life after death.

    What we do have is an ability to love, to create beauty, and to seek the truth, all to make our short lives on this earth more meaningful. I think we would do this humble task better if we learned to do it without religion – to bite the bullet and face reality for what it is.

  18. 18 Zach Sep 2nd, 2007

    Timothy, thanks for an interesting quote.

  19. 19 Andrew Sep 2nd, 2007

    Zach, I think these two paragraphs are good in the sense that they really articulate what I heard you say to me at NEYM:

    “What I’m calling for is not pan-religious mush, but recognizing that ALL religions, far from being “all true,” are in fact all basically false, and that we pretty clearly live in a universe with no deity, no master plan, no karmic justice, no second life after death.

    What we do have is an ability to love, to create beauty, and to seek the truth, all to make our short lives on this earth more meaningful. I think we would do this humble task better if we learned to do it without religion – to bite the bullet and face reality for what it is.”

    They are very clear and to the point. I don’t thing I agree with these statements, though. I also wonder how many non-thiest Friends would.

    Take care, Andrew

  20. 20 Richard58 Sep 2nd, 2007

    Zach, I respect your beliefs since they have obviously come about through a lot of soul searching. (Although I disagree with your conclusions.) But I am puzzled as to why you wish to belong to any religious organization if you feel there is no God and no real purpose behind it all. I mean, why not just be a regular secular humanist and just go about your business? What is it that draws you to UU churches and Quaker meetings? I’m just curious.

  21. 21 Cherice Sep 3rd, 2007

    Hey Zach,

    I wasn’t sure if you were *this* Zach when I met you in Boston, but I would have liked to have more time to talk with you about what you mean by nontheist Friend, how you feel about the RSoF, etc. I think I understand this perspective fairly well in that my dad became an atheist when I was 12, but still appreciates Friends practices re: social justice and equality. I understand what he thinks (and probably what you think) about superstitious beliefs, and I try to be wary about such things as well, and think there are definitely things in Christian dogma that are just superstitions, but at the same time, I do think there is a God and Jesus is an important piece of the whole thing.

    At the same time, my ideal vision of Quakerism would be a space that could hold all manner of beliefs and practices: while still holding to a solid foundation, we could encompass those who don’t see the world in the same way but want to share spiritual experience together. That’s really hard to do…but hopefully we can seek the Light together and journey together even if we don’t use the same words. (I agree with you, though, about superstitions that are actually harmful.)

    Anyway, if you want to discuss this more, please email me. I don’t like putting my address out there on the internet, but you can probably find it through Rachel or Holly or someone.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate hearing your perspective.


  22. 22 Kirk Sep 3rd, 2007

    I do like your use of the quote “Wear thy sword as long as thou canst,” which if you examine it points out a couple of incongruities that relate to how you read your situation.

    In what way is your Quakerism a “sword” — something that, though you carry it as ornamentation, you could use to hurt others?

    And, more broadly, to take the implication of the general use of that saying, how is it something that you must endure until you decide you can’t bear it any longer?

    I like these sorts of analogies, which if you examine them and challenge them, can bring out aspects you may be hiding from yourself. But you can’t take them at face value, so to speak. They don’t carry any inherent truth that you are obliged to accept just because you’ve used that analogy to consider it.

    To follow on the two questions above, what are the reasons that you might continue to “wear thy sword,” whatever the painful implications for others and burdens for you?

  23. 23 Zach Sep 3rd, 2007

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks, I rather liked those to paragraphs too :) I do tend to be too wordy sometimes.

    As for your question, I do think some “NTFs” would agree with those sentiments. But many others, probably a majority, don’t – they want to retain the term “religion,” and don’t have any problem with religion in others, so long as it doesn’t take a chauvinistic form (”everyone must be ____”). They don’t really want to change the RSoF that drastically, just be included in it along with everyone else.

    Well, the short answer is that I (along with a lot of other, less radical nontheistic Friends) find what Quakers DO to be very meaningful, despite not believing the traditional explanation of what’s going on. The particular form of group meditation with speaking and listening that we call “worship” is very special, as is Quaker business meeting. So that’s where a lot of the basic attraction comes from. But you’re right, it’s silly for a critic of religion to be in a religious organization, and for that reason I expect I will resign membership sometime soon. But even then I expect I’ll still hang around Quaker circles to some degree.

    As for alternatives, I don’t really feel that drawn to UUs per se – I just felt like I should give them a chance. I do imagine I’ll end up being most directly involved in something that might be described as “secular humanist,” though I don’t like that label being front-and-center (but that’s another story).

  24. 24 Zach Sep 3rd, 2007

    Hi Cherice,
    I do have your email address, at least I think so – I actually emailed you just after I wrote this post, basically apologizing for being somewhat taciturn at the event, and letting you know that I’ve finally gotten around to expressing what I was thinking. (Belated gospel order, perhaps.) Might’ve been a school address.

    I imagine that Quakerism is heading towards something like what you describe, if it isn’t there already – a community with people who use different kinds of language but who have some kind of Christian core in the middle, as a sort of lingua franca at the very least, though perhaps not firm in the sense of “official.” And to me that sounds like a wonderful kind of religious community, as religious communities go. But I don’t feel like it’s enough to merely be tolerated, and expected to treat that core as off-limits in some sense.

  25. 25 Zach Sep 3rd, 2007

    I basically just meant, continuing to do something which you have intellectual or theoretical concerns about (as Penn did about his sword) until they sink in deep enough that you have clarity to stop. Waiting for clearness instead of rushing ahead, really.

    I might continue to “wear” the RSoF for a number of reasons. One, all the above aside, the people in it are kind of people I want at least a large portion of my friends and contacts to be. Two, until I’ve found or created an alternative sort of spiritual community, it’s either Quakers or nothing, and I prefer the former. Third, I feel like I need to say my peace before I leave. Which is why I may start working on a book or pamphlet eventually.

  26. 26 James Ansley Sep 3rd, 2007

    just out of curiousity, since you cited the article “Killing the Budda”, why are you not investigating Buddhism? It seems like it would provide some of what you yearn for(particularly if practiced in the areligious style that the author of the article recommends).

  27. 27 James Riemermann Sep 3rd, 2007

    Zach & all,

    You write, “I do think some “NTFs” would agree with those sentiments. But many others, probably a majority, don’t – they want to retain the term “religion,” and don’t have any problem with religion in others, so long as it doesn’t take a chauvinistic form (”everyone must be ____”). They don’t really want to change the RSoF that drastically, just be included in it along with everyone else.”

    Of course, Zach did not mean to speak for me or any particular nontheist Friends here. But I find my own perspective kind of lost between the views expressed here.

    Of course, as a minimum, I feel that nontheism has a legitimate place in modern liberal Quakerism, and excluding or denigrating such Friends is unfriendly.

    But I also think our inclusion has a distinct value for the Religious Society of Friends, beyond just being friendly for friendliness’s sake. When we listen closely and respectfully to people whose perspectives are different from our own, we are likely to learn things. I know this happens to me listening to certain thoughtful and wise and caring theists and Christians, and I know many theist and Christian Friends have had similar experiences from me.

    And the conflicting beliefs are not irrelevant to this sort of learning. Of course, there is a literal truth. God the entity presumed to create the universe either exists or does not, regardless of the details of one’s picture of that creator. But beyond that, there is something in nontheism at its best that reminds us all of the limits of our knowledge and vision, and the foolishness of putting notions and beliefs at the center of our religous experienc. And there is something in theism at its best that helps us keep us open to hope and meaning and poetry in a world that tends to undermine these values.

    Magical thinking, superstition, and a literal approach to myths, is not the way. But there are mature and open-hearted ways of believing that don’t involve these vices. I think a strictly nontheistic religious community that excludes such views is going to miss something important. Likewise a strictly theistic religious community.

  28. 28 Zach Sep 3rd, 2007

    James (A.),
    Well, that’s a possibility, but my reading of that article isn’t that he’s proposing a new form of Buddhism, but a universal spiritual discourse/practice/community that would glean whatever truths it can from Buddhism. I’m basically proposing the same thing, just getting there from a Quaker position. He’s called it “a contemplative science“; I like to call it “evidence-based spirituality” (since science can be such a confusing word in this context). But I think we’re both talking about the same thing.

    James (R.),
    I think it’s true that “a strictly nontheistic religious community … is going to miss something important.” I see my position as a little different from that, however, as I wrote in my comment to Pam, though perhaps the practical difference is small.

    I’m proposing that we have strictly evidence-based religion/spiritual communities, where “evidence” means current science as far as it goes, and personal/corporate experience the rest of the way. This frames it in terms of method, instead of beliefs.

    And I think it could indeed include some theists who have had such powerful personal experiences that they “can do no other,” and who exhibit enough intellectual virtue that it doesn’t seem like they’re just being lazy. And some people who identify as Christians because they see Jesus as someone they want to study and emulate, much like one might be an Aristotelian. I think this might be a more fruitful basis on which to dialogue, because the rules of dialogue would be clearer and mutually understood.

  29. 29 Mark Wutka Sep 4th, 2007

    Zach wrote:
    I’m proposing that we have strictly evidence-based religion/spiritual communities, where “evidence” means current science as far as it goes, and personal/corporate experience the rest of the way. This frames it in terms of method, instead of beliefs.

    And I think it could indeed include some theists who have had such powerful personal experiences that they “can do no other,” and who exhibit enough intellectual virtue that it doesn’t seem like they’re just being lazy. And some people who identify as Christians because they see Jesus as someone they want to study and emulate, much like one might be an Aristotelian. I think this might be a more fruitful basis on which to dialogue, because the rules of dialogue would be clearer and mutually understood.

    I am a little curious to see whether anyone suggests that this kind of community would be exclusive, and whether that would somehow be wrong. I also think that the phrase “who exhibit enough intellectual virtue that it doesn’t seem like they’re just being lazy” sounds somewhat elitist and is also sufficiently vague that I imagine it would be hard to gauge without some additional criteria.

    I wish you well in whichever way you decide to go, Zach. And in your travels and interactions with Friends and others, I hope you will remember that many of us out there were once in a place similar to where you are now, and in the course of our lives, took different paths. If our paths diverge soon, perhaps they will cross again some day.
    With love,

  30. 30 Jim Sep 4th, 2007

    This is a truly wonderful thread and I am grateful to you all, especially Zach. I am an extremely spiritual Non-Theist Quaker who feels quite at home in the RSoF.

    I believe what is fundamental to Quakerism is “The right of soul privacy” (love that quote), which encompasses the looking inward for the “Inner Light” where Truth can be found without the corrupting influences of external mandates. And I have personally experienced that that looking inward leads to personal transformation.

    I celebrate the Christian spirituality of my fellow Quakers, and look to validate my personal spiritual journey with both Christian and Non-Theist Quakers.

    I also reject entirely any attempt to impose one’s own inspiration / spirituality on the society as a whole or any one individual. That equates to religious violence:

    “Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.”

    – Thich Nhat Hanh (From the book Interbeing)

    To Bill I would say that anyone who wrote of the things that Zach and I speak of would get a quick one way ticket to being burned at the stake in the 17th century. So the historical written record might be a bit biased. Besides any Quaker who needs to go back to the past for justification, needs to spend more time with their “Inner Light” today. The power of early Quakerism is right here within each of us. Non-Theists and Christians burn equally bright with it.

    The two problems we all have are: 1) that spirituality is so different from rationality that we must fail whenever we try to explain/describe our private spiritual journey; 2) we all have an urgent desire to share (and often impose) our private spiritual journeys just as we are losing our connection to it.

    Zach, you have so much to offer our community that I hope you continue to struggle on. “They know not what they do”. I believe absolutely that witnessing the folly and beauty of our fellow Quakers with compassion leads to our continuing personal transformation.

  31. 31 Zach Sep 4th, 2007

    Hi Mark,
    I appreciate your well-wishing; I’ve long appreciated your comments online, though often from a distance. And it’s good to be reminded that most Quakers have done at least as much soul-searching as I have.

    I’d be interested in hearing your take on your own question, as well as others’.

    I don’t think the concept of “intellectual virtue” should be seen as elitist, unless we want to see spiritual growth in general as elitist. For what it’s worth, it’s very similar, I think, to what early Friends meant when they said that people’s opinions only had weight if they spoke “in the power,” but not if they were “out of the power.” (If we add in “moral virtue” as well, it’s probably even closer to what they meant.) A few months ago Rich wrote on his blog about this kind of structure — democratic, and yet not.

    It basically just means, How much does John love the truth? Does he have a demonstrated ability to accept even truths that are painful? Does he understand the limits of his own abilities, and is he comfortable admitting them? How well does he listen to and understand points of view different than his own? Does he “think it possible that he may be mistaken” (BYM)? How often in the past has he candidly admitted his mistakes?

    If those questions all have good answers, John’s opinions and accounts of his personal experience should bear more weight. If not, not. Without standards like this, I think discourse and sharing quickly become futile. (Online political flamewars are a good example.)

    In some arenas (e.g. the hard sciences, accounting), intellectual virtue almost ceases to be important, because the facts are so clear that they speak for themselves. But everywhere else, it makes a big difference.

    The most persuasive argument for God, I find, is a believer who really seems to be deeply intellectually honest, and who can conceive of being wrong, as I’ve seen Craig do for example. And I’m happy to be in a community with such people. But not in a community that doesn’t have any expectation like that, where belief in God is acceptable in all cases, as a general rule.

  32. 32 Zach Sep 4th, 2007

    I’m not quite sure what to make of one nontheist Friend comparing another NTF to Christ, but I thank you for your comment, Jim :-D

  33. 33 Mark Wutka Sep 4th, 2007

    Thank you for expanding on your explanation of intellectual virtue. It was different from what I thought you were saying, and what you described it quite valuable. My willingness to accept that I don’t know everything has led me to a greater appreciation of all parts of the bible, for example, not just the ones I was comfortable with. For you, it may lead in a different direction.
    As for my own take on whether what you describe is “exclusive” and whether or not it is a bad thing, my answer would be the same as my view on a Christo-centric Quakerism - you have created a definition of the communities core beliefs and values and people are welcome to join you or not join you as they see fit. I imagine that you would be welcoming to people who maybe didn’t quite fit in with your definition, but wanted to participate in the community anyway. I don’t think that would be a bad thing - you would probably find that you were able to explore your spirituality more deeply because you have gotten past the questions about what the group is or whether it is even appropriate to head in a particular direction. I do not believe that defining a group equates to the religious violence that Jim talks about, as people are free to join or leave the group. This whole discussion is much more difficult when it comes to liberal Quakerism, a discussion of whether there are lines, were lines, should be lines, etc, and I have found that it is often a hurtful discussion and I don’t wish to further that here.
    I hope you don’t take this as trying to enforce my views on you, but that I offer this in language closer to my heart, my greatest wish for you is that you can continue to open yourself to the Light in your heart and do not be afraid to let it guide you - even when the road looks difficult, the Light will give you strength.
    With love,

  34. 34 Jim Sep 5th, 2007

    What I believe is both a beautiful concept and the fundamental element of Quakerism is that we Quakers trust everyone in their own spirituality as they experience it. That experiential spirituality for many is fragile because it is so different from our rational judgment, yet in my experience the two are intertwined. We all use rational props to brace our spirituality. This is why I celebrate when fellow Friends find a need to support their spirituality by conversing with an unseen being or needing to believe one very special man rose from the dead a long time ago to save them from themselves. These are not my rational braces but I understand that need in others and would not dispute their Truth. My spiritual braces are that God is a rational distraction from what is fundamentally exquisite and the world is sane because there are no miracles. And I expect my fellow Friends to celebrate that in me because that is my Truth.

    I believe it is a violent action when anyone tries to impose their own Truth on our inclusive spiritual community (RSoF) or anyone in it. Their Truth inevitably fails at their soul’s border, and I reject all failed Truths forcibly imposed. Personally I have had to struggle mightily to rid myself of other’s imposed Truths, I’ve seen that damage imposed on others and history is full of even worse tales. Whenever we impose failed Truths on others we divide and add an unnecessary element of violence. I believe that includes insisting that the RSoF must be for Christians and/or theists only.

    In the early Christian church there was a dispute between Saint Paul and Saint James. James thought Christianity should be exclusively a Jewish sect for the Jewish people. Clearly all of Christianity’s roots and history were embedded in the Jewish religion. I think Quakerism is at a similar crossroad today.

  35. 35 Zach Sep 5th, 2007

    Mark, and Jim,
    Thank you. It’s touching to read your responses, which seem to come from a deep place.

    I find myself agreeing with both of you. As far as liberal Quakerism goes, I do think it probably should continue be a line-less community, as Jim suggests. I see that as a valuable thing to exist in the universe, and I’m even attracted to it personally sometimes.

    But I’ve been sympathizing more and more with where Mark is coming from, about wanting a community that has clearer lines, a determinate shape. This has to be done with care, but I think it is worth the risk. (I take some comfort in the idea that it softens the borders by having them be mostly about practice and method, which anyone can agree to abide by, rather than belief, which is in many ways something we don’t have choice about.)

    Part of it is feeling like there’s such a thing as too much individualism, or “soul privacy” in Rufus’s terms. Even more of my motives come from outreach – communities that have no clear identity have a harder time doing outreach, because they have a harder time deciding what their message is. Or people aren’t interested because it’s confusing. I’d hate to see the world go down the tubes because too many good people were passive or confusing in sharing their message.

  36. 36 john comma Sep 7th, 2007
  37. 37 John Helding Sep 8th, 2007


    Just read, sped-read through this thread and a couple of things come up for me primarily from your last post.

    Fully agree with you that a functioning, powerful, rejuvenatable religion/faith community needs ‘lines’ — needs to have some common set of ideas/practices/behaviours that the community in general adheres to. Totally agree with you that without that outreach/evangelism is near impossible and such a faith community is doomed to the Shaker path.

    And to that point also agree, and was feeling this as I read some of that posts, that there is such a thing as too much ’soul privacy.’ Taken to a logical extreme it’s easy to see why a Meeting 1/2 full of quiet pacifists and 1/2 of quiet axe murders — each respecting the soul privacy of the other — probably doesn’t work long term as a faith community. At times in reading this thread, I get the sense that some are suggesting ‘to each her own’ and any belief goes. Moreover, and you seem to do this as well, liberal Quakerism is deemed just such an animal where you can do and believe anything you want and be a Quaker.

    Okay, I just think that’s lazy logic (the last point that is). You can’t just do or believe anything within liberal Quakerism. To support my belief here … here are ten things I will propose you cannot believe/do and be a liberal Quaker:

    1. You can’t believe that sitting in expectant silence is meaningless and without value and therefore in Meeting you can play an accordian at full volume every week of the year.

    2. You can’t believe that violence is the best way to solve the world’s problems and as such hit the person sitting next to you in Meeting (or anywhere else for that matter) to get them to start playing their accordian.

    3. You can’t believe that the ministry of Jesus (key points — love your enemies and power and resources to the meek) is stupid and that instead we should destroy and kill our enemies and push more and more power to the rich.

    4. You can’t believe that all truth has been revealed already and there is no such thing as continuing revelation.

    5. You can’t believe that decisions within the group should be made by majority rule

    6. You can’t believe that any one person’s revelation is right and unquestionable just because they said it was right and unquestionable. And that it is better to do this sort of work (let’s say sitting silently to further the pursuit of Truth) by yourself and not in community.

    7. You can’t believe that its fine to say you believe in being a peaceful, loving, and giving person during Meeting and social hour and then go out and do exactly the opposite the rest of the week.

    8. You can’t believe that there is only one path to enlightenment/salvation/God/ whatever and that anyone not believing in your particular path is therefore below you or sub-human.

    9. You can’t believe that paid ministers are necessary in order to have a Quaker Meeting and that they have special status or authority over the community

    10. You can’t believe that love and beauty and the pursuit of truth are silly and trumped by power and might and means justify the ends

    … and I could go on ….

    Ten things you can’t believe and be a liberal Quaker. A silly list? Well my silly way of saying that I feel we great undervalue the huge lines that exist within liberal Quakerism. In my experience it is anything other than an anything goes faith. Yes there are places where it is not well practiced or fully functioning, but that’s a different issue.

    Guess at the heart of it, I don’t think it is the lack of lines that is the issue. The issue on whether you should or shouldn’t remain a Quaker has to do with seeing the lines that are there (and I’m proposing that they are big and fat ones) and discerning if those lines are of value to you, if within those lines you can be of value and service to others, and within those lines Quakerism can be of meaningful value to the world beyond the Meetinghouse walls.

    I’m tired of the “liberal Quakerism doesn’t stand for anything” argument standing in for what I hear behind the words to be “liberal Quakerism doesn’t stand for what I want it to stand for.” Liberal Quakerism, well practiced, has a well defined and time-tested gestalt. Never going to be a perfect fit with the individual … but nothing is if it involves community.

    But it has a powerful track record, evidence you might say, of being of incredible value to individuals, the community of Friends, and to the world beyond. Simply put (and yes, that could be another item in the list), it works. Question is: is it, will it continue to work with you? Selfishly, I hope so. But of course, and here the privacy thing reigns– that is for you to answer.

  38. 38 Zach Sep 9th, 2007

    Hi John,
    Thank you for your thoughts. I’ve appreciated your comments elsewhere, and I’m glad to see your response to this post/thread.

    I would agree that liberal Quakerism does have plenty of lines, but most of them seem like “dotted lines,” more suggestions than requirements. I think there’s a distinction between “soft security” and “hard security” that runs parallel here — e.g. discouraging people from using a certain door through signage, placement, etc. vs. actually locking it or posting a guard.

    I think the criteria for a “solid line” should be “this could be grounds for disownment.” And honestly, I don’t think many people get or would get disowned in many liberal meetings for violations of your 10 items, except in the most extreme instances.

    For example, someone playing accordion in meeting would obviously be eldered, because that’s a disruption. But I can’t imagine anyone being disowned because it was found out that they didn’t believe meeting was a beneficial thing to attend (#1, 6). A great many younger people raised by Quaker parents don’t attend meeting, in some cases I’m sure because they don’t find it meaningful, and yet the older generation is just happy that its children connected to Quakerism in any way at all.

    By the same token, obviously hitting someone in meeting would be a disruption, but I haven’t heard of any modern disownments in liberal meetings over the peace testimony or any other testimony (#2, 3, 7). There’s informal pressure and shunning of people who believe that some wars are just, but that’s about as far as it goes. Same with people who hold free market views on economics instead of socialistic ones, or who have a conservative theology.

    In any case, even if there are some lines, or if we count these “dotted lines” as lines, it still seems to me to be shapeless in a different way, the way that we mean when we say a bag or a dress is shapeless – not that it literally has no shape, but that its shape doesn’t make sense, doesn’t have much rhyme or reason to it.

    Traditional Christian Quakerism, despite being wrong IMHO, has a logic and a coherency to it. A naturalistic, evidence-based discourse on spirituality and meditation could have a similar degree of logic and consistency. But liberal Quakerism, like liberal religion generally, seems like a grab-bag between the two. The practical effect is basically good in the case of liberal Quakerism I think, but on the theoretical level – which is crucial for outreach, as we talked about – it’s a mess.

  39. 39 Judy Sep 10th, 2007


    On the subject of disownment, I am aware of a midwest FGC affiliated monthly meeting that disowned a member because he sued it on more than one occasion. You don’t seem to doubt that liberal Quaker meetings are quite capable of disowning people who are repeatedly disruptive in MfW or MfB, and cannot otherwise be persuaded to desist from disruptive behavior. I think there is also a lesser potential for disownment where public behavior contrary to the testimonies is a source of embarrassment. Discussions about disowning Nixon come to mind. (He couldn’t technically be disowned by the meetings having those discussion because he didn’t belong to any of them.)

    Beyond those sorts of instances, I really wouldn’t want to belong to a group that would threaten disownment over doctrinal differences. I think the social pressure and shunning that do occur are unfortunate, and applaud the free market economists, political conservatives, oldstyle Christians, and people who aren’t sure that the use of physical force is never a good idea, who stick it out with us nonetheless. They too have wisdom to offer, and are fellow travellers as we seek to find our way. We need to be careful not to indulge ourselves, thinking they are maybe not quite so equal, and I occasionally see hints of that kind of thinking among us. I agree with Angelina Conti that there is too much Quaker blindness to our assumptions of privilege/superiority arising from socioeconomic class, educational level, and probably race as well. And I also appreciate the description you give of “intellectual virtue.”

    Doctrinal differences, whether sociopolitical or “theological” need to be confronted at least occasionally, but with deference and respect by all parties. If some greater understanding by all can be distilled, hallelujah. If not, we wait, and seek to be humble if we can. Unfortunately we are not nearly as good at this as we would like to be. For myself, it would be well for me to keep in mind Jim’s comment that “We all have an urgent need to share (and often impose) our private spritual journeys, just as we are losing our connection to it.”

    As a religious organization there is a coherency within FGC; as a political organization there is less, and that is fine. And it is okay that a substantial number of our young people strike out on their own for several years. Some come back and bring their friends with them. Our dwindling numbers are the result of personal distaste by many and our traditions in general against evangelism. This quirk is not at odds with a coherent stance that all human beings are of equal value, capable of spiritual insight, and the political and international order ought to be so arranged so as to protect life and dignity for all, that we can promote and heighten spiritual insight within the context of silent MfW, that community is important, that we have developed a mode of careful and inclusive decision-making that could probably work well in many settings, eg, that we have a coherent process by which we seek together and try to figure out how to conduct ourselves in the world. This is a message we could communicate if we cared to do so. That what we believe on other subjects can be all over the map is a strength. That we can get very petty and hung-up about what is Quakerly in viewpoint and deportment, thereby driving people away, is not.

    Will local and regional meetings or their national and international counterparts fix the world? Of course not. But Quakers nurtured in those meetings and sharing a given concern have found each other and started organizations which do have an impact, or as indiviudals they have had a positive impact within other non-Quaker organizations.

    Sorry this is such a rant.


  40. 40 Zach Sep 10th, 2007

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments.

    I’m not excited by the prospect of disowning or not admitting people based on (or partly based on) doctrinal beliefs, and I don’t expect to be finished examining it skeptically for some time. But at present, I still feel that more of this than liberal Quakers practice will facilitate having a greater impact in the world. (Yes, we’re influential in our own quiet way, but I simply can’t accept that this is all we’re capable of.)

    And really, the description you gave of the “liberal Quaker message” is quite close to what I would like to see realized. But I don’t think it accurately describes liberal Quakerism. That’s one major school of thought, and probably the better-supported one traditionally speaking.

    But there are a great many Quakers for whom the Testimonies, not the methods, are the core of Quakerism. The idea that some people might be moved to support war (or a given war) is 100%, completely, no-ifs-ands-or-buts compatible with what you described, but would be anathema to many, many liberal Friends. A few months ago I read a Quaker lamenting the fact that a meeting in New England was celebrating its connection to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, which arguably is a declaration of war. He concluded with, “when you’ve given up on our Peace Testimony, you’ve given up period paragraph full stop.”

    And of course, there are those for whom the Christian interpretation of either the methods or testimonies or both is the most central thing.

    Which are precisely the things I had in mind when I said liberal Quakerism is incoherent — we don’t know if it’s a process or a product; a way of knowing and coming know or a collection of things known.

    A sort of revolution to firmly answer that question in support of the former is really what I’m calling for. (And I suppose it could happen under the name “Quakerism,” but I feel like it’d be worth taking the opportunity to rebrand ourselves with a more forward-looking name.)

  41. 41 Zach Sep 10th, 2007

    And it’s not a rant at all! :)

    (By the way, since this is your first time posting here your comments were automatically held for moderation; I’ve approved your second one and deleted the first one.)

  42. 42 Kirk Sep 11th, 2007

    Over and over, I see Quakers as emphasizing process over product, and that’s a good thing. But process is much harder to pin down and pick apart, so it can’t offer very helpful criteria for deciding who’s “with us” and who’s not.

    Product, for instance the Testimonies and how they are played out in a particular historical context, is easier to see and handle. So it becomes, in a sense, the test for whether the underlying process is working.

    It’s a bit like how Friends have used the bible. If someone takes a position that’s not in accord with biblical teachings, then by inference it might not have been arrived at by a process similar to the process that produced the bible. And with that example we can see how hard it is to pin down and pick apart the “product,” never mind the process. (Friends, for the most part, have been aware of the pitfalls of using the bible as if it were a reliable test on matters of faith and practice.)

    I think that there has long been a congruence between free-thinkers and rationalists (as a group) and the Quakers, but free-thinking and rational review are not enough to define a new, revolutionary form of “Quakerism.” It can be part of the mix, in fact it has always been, but for people who imagine they are entirely on the one side of the fence to consider distancing themselves from those who are supposedly on the other side… well, it doesn’t make sense to me.

    Maybe this isn’t what you’re saying, Zach, but it seems to be leading that way. Especially in the extended discussion, I think the proposition you’ve put out has gotten clearer, so that’s good. It needs historical context and forward-looking reality testing to be usefully applied to Quaker faith and practice.

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  • There exists, finally, a somewhat numerous class of honest but timid souls who, too intelligent to take the Christian dogmas seriously, reject them in detail, but have neither the courage nor the strength nor the necessary resolution to summarily renounce them altogether. They abandon to your criticism all the special absurdities of religion, they turn up their noses at all the miracles, but they cling desperately to the principal absurdity; the source of all the others, to the miracle that explains and justifies all the other miracles, the existence of God. Their God is not the vigorous and powerful being, the brutally positive God of theology. It is a nebulous, diaphanous, illusory being that vanishes into nothing at the first attempt to grasp it; it is a mirage, an ignis fatuus that neither warms nor illuminates. And yet they hold fast to it, and believe that, were it to disappear, all would disappear with it. They are uncertain, sickly souls, who have lost their reckoning in the present civilization, belonging to neither the present nor the future, pale phantoms eternally suspended between heaven and earth...

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