‘There is no God’ at New England Yearly Meeting

Two days at a big Quaker gathering couldn’t have come at a better time.

I went mostly to see old and new friends. But I had low hopes for the actual quakerizing. I’ve been a bit unexcited about Quakers lately.

But I went to New England Yearly Meeting anyway, for the weekend at least, to see some people I like.

I was heartened when the keynote by Lloyd Lee Wilson was better and less exclusionary than I expected. I was heartened even more by the following period of worship. [Note: we atheist Quakers must find a new word for this.] One Friend spoke, deeply and movingly, but very simply, of oceanic heavings that are going on below us, signaling a new continent that we are approaching.

But the real suprises came in a meeting on Sunday morning.

  • A Friend spoke about her difficulty in believing in God, and how she has been helped by adapting a Buddhist breathing meditation such that she would alternately breathe the words “There is a God” and “There is no God.”
  • Another Friend said (I think this was the gist) that she has no problem believing in God in a meeting for worship, but that what she has trouble with is believing that despite all the “insanity” in the world, God is in control of it all. If I recall correctly, however, she seemed to be reaffirming that “he” is in control, rather than simply expressing her doubts about this.
  • Another Friend said that the issue is not whether there is a God, but why we hide from him. He added to this the thought that despite there having been 200 or so genocides since history began, God somehow intended them, and that they all somehow work out for the good, and we simply cannot comprehend the mysteries of this divine orchestration.
  • Another Friend sang an improvised song, which I think went like this: There is a God/His love surrounds me/There is no God/Our love surrounds us
  • Lastly, I think, another Friends said, twice, “It doesn’t matter whether there is a God,” because (clumsy paraphrase) our experience in gathered meetings and the love of our community is sufficient in itself.

* * *

To be sure, the theists are the majority in NEYM.

And some of them are more conservative than I realized: I was surprised to hear such hardline versions of theism coming from the mouths of liberal Quakers: that God is controlling all events, including genocide, and presumably child abuse and rape and factory farms – all as part of his master plan, all for good reasons that we puny humans simply cannot comprehend.

And even the atheist sentiment above is pretty tame – no one simply said “There is no God” and stopped there.

But what shocked me was how moderate (if not weak) was the reaction against this unexpected flowering of the ultimate heresy.

I mean, I didn’t hear anything that sounded like a straightforward rebuttal until a meeting many hours later, when a Friend said bluntly “God simply exists.”

I’d like to expand on the last post (the long anti-theistic quote from Bakunin) at a later date. I realize it is pretty vitriolic and ‘un-Quakerly,’ but I think it’s good for Friends to hear harsh words from non-Quakers sometimes. Because we’re so ignored by the mainstream culture, we rarely have the chance to see how we appear to other thinking people. (Try reading these bits of Catholic and Protestant anti-Quakeriana.)

11 Responses to “‘There is no God’ at New England Yearly Meeting”

  1. 1 Thee, Hannah Aug 10th, 2006

    minor point: I don’t have a problem with the term “worship”, I’m just not worshipping God. I’m worshipping being together with my f/Friends, a la the “there is no God/our love surrounds us” half of the sing-song.

    I have to admit that, in small personal matters, I tend to be of the ‘that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ mindset. However, I also have to think that if God (we’ll pretend there is one, just for the sake of this theory) is using that to teach humankind some kind of lesson, it’s not working because He keeps having to repeat it. Which reinforces my belief that He doesn’t exist because I cannot picture Him being so unimaginative and such a slow learner (at least humans have the semi-excuse of starting over with a new generation every 25 years). And even if I believed in God, I hope I would never believe that He had some divine plan for child rapes and genocide, which I believe to be the worst form of complacency and moral laziness.

    Sorry, I’m not entirely sure where I mean to go with this. I think periodic criticism is good, though. Nobody can exist in a vacuum. I don’t want to be hounded all the time but I think everyone should be challenged occasionally so that they keep track of themselves in the greater scheme of things.

  2. 2 Pam Aug 12th, 2006


    I don’t have a problem with the word “worship” either. I have somehow let go of the idea that it’s an up-down relationship wtih a god, and find it more a state of being - an openness to the other souls in the room, perhaps?

    I also actually don’t have a problem with the word “God” - I think that there is something that made us come up with the concept, but, again, I don’t think it was a god. Neither do I think it was all good (aside from awe and love, which abut my concept of “god”, I believe that fear and tribalism had a heck of a lot to do with it!)

    thanks for the post!


  3. 3 zach Aug 13th, 2006

    I see your point — I guess theism/nontheism is only half of my concern about the word “worship” — even before becoming an atheist I didn’t think it made sense, because “worship” meant, I thought, “giving worth” to something, as most churchgoers do when they sing songs like “Name Above All Names”, “Praise Him, Praise Him”, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul”, and so on, and I don’t think “giving worth” to God is traditionally what Quakers have been doing in meeting (and I dare say few modern ones too).

    Personally I think a better nontheist-friendly name for what first generation Quaker meetings were would be “meeting for contemplation”. But that might not be an apt name for most Quaker meetings, because people are doing such a range of different things in meeting (that is, beyond just the form of contemplation that I think early Friends were doing).

    “I think everyone should be challeneged occasionally so that they keep track of themselves in the greater scheme of things.” — Yes, that’s exactly what I think we could use a little more of. How would we answer those two anti-Quaker links I posted at the end? One shouldn’t waste too much time in arguing, but having to formulate a respectable reply to those articles would force us to figure out more of where we stand in the greater scheme of things.

  4. 4 James Riemermann Aug 13th, 2006

    Zach, nice to see you commenting on the nontheist Friends blog.

    In my early days among Quakers I was reluctant to use the word worship to describe what I did. I didn’t have any problem with other people calling it that, but it didn’t work for me.

    Somehow, though, I’ve gotten comfortable with engaging in worship, though my sense of what I’m doing hasn’t changed a great deal. It certainly has nothing to do with adoring the creator of the universe — if I found myself in conversation with said creator, I’d be more likely to deliver a kick in the shins than adoration.

    But as long as I’m not hiding my godless views within my community, as long as I’m keeping that relationship honest, I find it easier over time to use some of the old language in new ways.

    My own worship has to do with cultivating as deep a sense of relationship as possible. Relationship with my community, relationship with all living creatures, relationship with the universe out of which all that life mysteriously emerge. And while the word worship doesn’t really capture all that, most of the replacement phrases are even worse. So I’d just as soon use the word, and when opportunities arise, talk about what I mean by it, and ask other Friends what they mean.

  5. 5 zach Aug 14th, 2006

    I think a part of my discomfort with the word “worship” is that it seems like we use it because we inherited it from mainstream Christianity (i.e. that’s what most Christians are doing on Sunday morning), more than because we decided it was the most appropriate word on independent grounds. Though as I said to “Hannah”, part of it isn’t about theism/nontheism at all, more about some feelings about the nature of Quaker meditation, which I may start posting about this month or next.

    I think we may not be too far apart as far as the word “God” goes – I can envision a day (probably very far) in the future where humanity can start using the word “God” again in a positive way, after it has been cleansed of its negative meanings, and at that point it will simply be a shorthand for the good in the (natural) universe, or something to that effect. Right now though I feel uncomfortable using it, because I don’t think if I used it in that way that anyone would understand it that way (as the recent post on James’s post talks about at the end). There was some theologian in the 50s who suggested that we need to stop using the word “God” for a generation – which in practical terms of course isn’t going to happen, but the sentiment behind it isn’t too far from where I’m at.

  6. 6 zach Aug 14th, 2006

    Hi James, how funny that there’s a comment from you waiting right after I finish a post on that post of yours… Well, I’m outnumbered 1 to 3 on the “worship” issue, but I think I can stand aside ;-) I’m not nearly as uncomfortable with the word “worship” as I am with (e.g.) “God”, but I do feel it would be more consistent to do away with theistically-connoted terminology like that… then again, where does one stop? Part of me would like to see a radically de-Christianized (de-religionized?) society of Friends, doing away with words like “worship” and “minister/ministry” and practices like meeting on Sunday mornings, but this is probably too drastic to be the way forward for the existing RSoF. Which is why I sometimes have designs of starting a little naturalist-friendly, Quaker-inspired meditation group (meeting?) one of these days…

  7. 7 James Riemermann Aug 14th, 2006

    It is funny, but not quite coincidental. I got an email that you had posted on the nontheist Friends site, then followed the link in your name to this site.

    Myself, I very much value the full range of diversity of belief in my meeting, and that diversity might well fade away if we started discouraging people from using the religious words that mean the most to them. I also love the e-mail list discussions of more like-minded nontheist Friends, but by and large I learn and expand myself more among a more diverse group, like that of my home meeting. I prefer a Quakerism where *all* of us can express our sense of the truth without feeling like aliens, in the language that feels most genuine to us. Speaking of God (usually) doesn’t feel genuine to me, but it clearly does for a majority of Friends. I don’t want to take that away.

  8. 8 zach Aug 14th, 2006

    (Yes, but I don’t think you knew I was in the middle of a separate post about your post, beyond the comment you saw…)

    Yes — I don’t want to take that away from anyone either, in the sense of making anyone who uses Christian or other religious language feel unwelcome. Not so much because of the desire to preserve diversity — there will always be diversity, no matter what words we use — but out of the golden rule, as well as personal affection for a good number of theist and Christian Quakers.

    I do however want to challenge such people in a friendly way, even a vigorous way at times, and try to convince them.

    Partly because I think that all things being equal, a naturalist outlook instead of a supernaturalist one is a good thing for a person’s spirituality, because I think it makes a person a little more likely to be present in the here and now — not that there aren’t many exceptions of course.

    But also because I see a connection between the preferential use of Christian concepts by most liberal Christian/Quaker folk — which in itself is often unobjectionable — and the use of the same concepts by more conservative Christian folk, which is very often objectionable. I resonated with Peter’s post on Quaker Pagan where he expresses his frustration at liberal Christian “complacency” about “fundamentalist Christian bigotry” — as much if not more than at fundamentalism itself.

  9. 9 a girl named Cat Aug 14th, 2006

    Hello all.
    I wish I had started reading this blog (and many others) earlier because a) there are so many discussions that I wish I had been able to jump into at the beginning, and b) because (to my mind) it is astounding and amazing (surprising) to find adult Friends who feel comfortable discussing their (Non/A)Theism. The surprise obviously is based on my own assumptions about adult Quakers (and how they all believe in God) and not entirely in reality, since here we all are. I think my mistaken assumptions were influenced by my transition from being a member of the YF community to that of being a YAF. A major shift that I noticed when I moved from Young Friends (in NEYM) to Young Adult Friends was the shift from those who were born quakers to convinced Quakers. And as I noticed how much more discussion there was of God and Spirit in YAFs, I started feeling more and more of the minority (and realizing that YFs who didn’t believe in God were not moving into YAFs as I had).

    Some points on YFs which I find really interesting: Zach I don’t remember in which post you were discussing this but I think it’s definitely the case that children born into liberal quakerism do grow up with very little (if any) Bible literacy. I think it’s possible that retreats that I went to had perhaps a Bible passage maybe discussed (you’ll notice the many qualifiers I use), but my strongest memory of discussing the Bible is certainly that of sitting in my room with my mother after she had told me the whole Adam and Eve and Garden of Eden story and her summing up the Tree of Knowledge bit by saying “it’s sort of like God told them ‘Don’t think of a purple elephant’, and then kicked them out when they did” (She then challenged me to not think of a purple elephant). Clearly I was raised (as a Quaker) in a family with unshakeable faith. ;-)

    While that story is a little tangential, it still illustrates an important point: while in YFs, it would have felt entirely normal to know that everyone in the room had had a similarly “lax” or non-existent Bible training (and many more stories like mine). I remember having discussions with quaker peers where there was not a single Christian there, just Jewish quakers, Pagan quakers, Atheist quakers, Buddhist quakers etc…. I think a lot of us, especially those born quaker (which in YFs and younger groups is the majority) thought of it more as a social/cultural/(perhaps even) ethnic group. It influenced how we saw the world and who we associated with, but not necessarily what we believed in terms of God. (You’ll notice perhaps that I’m slightly fast and loose with the upper case Q in Quaker, I’m just trying to make a distinction between an active identity of Quaker with a more passive one, or perhaps an active identity of Quaker spirituality with a nonexistent or passive one, it’s still up in the air and since I believe that most people don’t become active participants in their beliefs until they start questioning where their family’s beliefs come from, I think most young quakers don’t necessarily have a Quaker identity. Or that is to say, I certainly didn’t as a child.)

    I’d also agree that those children born into liberal (unprogrammed) quaker families truly don’t know about the wide, wide gulf between their beliefs and those in almost the entire rest of the Quaker world. My answer now is DRASTICALLY different from my answer 8 years ago about what Quakers believe… The existence of Evangelical Quakers was something that I had no knowledge of until possibly my Junior year of High School and the FUM personnel policy completely smacked me in the face with confusion, (expectations of utopian Quakerism take a while to shake). Bible literacy is something that I’m on the fence about. Considering that I don’t believe in any God or Christ, and don’t know if I ever have, I don’t feel as though I missed much by not reading religious texts, however I often consider how different my understanding of others would be if I had been trained with the Bible in mind. There’s part of me that knows that in order to be a more convincing (and understanding) individual/Quaker I would do well to read the Bible, and a larger part of me (bolstered by my own laziness) that doesn’t want to necessarily “subject” (though that word may seem harsh) myself to it.

    By now I’m feeling that this post/comment may be slightly rambling (though I hope y’all will take into account that I’ve never previously been one for blogging) so I won’t go into some other interesting things I also noticed about that particular Meeting for Worship, but will just end by saying again “Hello all”.

    ~a girl named Cat

  10. 10 Amanda Aug 19th, 2006

    Zach, maybe you and I can find some time to talk about this, maybe over a beer after the gathering tomorrow, without the distraction of Quakering. I find myself theologically (ha!) in a place much like yours, but unable to articulate it the same way. Maybe out of fear, maybe out of affinity, I am not sure. But I want to talk about it. There was a fascinating workshop at NEYM about how to pray to a God who might not be the traditional GOD. It didn’t achieve much but it sparked off intense thought and soul-searching, at least as far as my participation is concerned. I was a traditionalist Catholic, and then an atheist until I decided I was a suffering human in need of the opiate of the masses if anyone was, and then I found Quakerism. And I’m totally confused.

    Also using arithmetic as anti-spam is so mean to us Verbal SAT types.

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