They Too Are Quakers:
A Survey of 199 Nontheist Friends
David RushReprinted by permission of The Woodbrooke Journal
Eva Koch Research Fellow at
Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre
Ben Pink Dandelion has been generous of time,
ideas, and friendship. I could not have done this work without
his support. Doug Gwyn has facilitated all the many details
of the fellowship, and, along with Rachael Milling, has
helped me to deal with many problems posed by my
distant residence. I am inestimably grateful to my wife, Kitty,
and to Jackie Leach Scully, Oz Cresson, Gil Johnston and
Naomi Rush Olson who each made thorough and helpful
comments, to those who founded the Eva Koch fellowship, to
the Woodbrooke staff, and to the many friends I have made
here, and mostly to the 199 Quakers who have generously
shared their stories with me. I dedicate this project to the two
of them who have died since participating.
This pamphlet was published last year in the
United Kingdom as Number 11 of The Woodbrooke
Journal. With the author's permission and help, it is reprinted here by
the Quaker Universalist Fellowship in order to make it
more easily available to readers on this side of the Atlantic.
As noted in his acknowledgements, Dr. Rush's study,
which includes Quakers in both Britain and the United
States, was written while the author was an Eva Koch
Research Fellow at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in
Birmingham. Woodbrooke does not necessarily endorse the
The British edition was edited by Douglas Gwyn,
"It is an important piece of fresh research on a
growing phenomenon in the liberal branch of Quakerism over
the past several years. . . . The opportunity to hear Quaker
voices speaking their experiences and convictions adds
an important qualitative dimension to the quantitative
sifting David has done from his survey. . . . Certainly this
essay adds to the path-breaking research of Ben Pink
Dandelion (cited by Rush) and hopefully will lead on to future work."
We are grateful to both David Rush and
Woodbrooke for the opportunity to present it to QUF readers.
Rhoda R. Gilman
"Jesus said, `If those who lead you say to you,
`Look, the kingdom is in the sky', then the birds of the sky will
get there first. If they say, `It is in the sea', then the fish will
get there first. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you and it
is outside of you." The Gospel of Thomas c.50
"(George Fox) was not
presenting a teaching
that people were expected to believe or follow, whether
mystical, biblical, or whatever. He was telling them rather to
do something, because what they needed to make them
free and fulfilled as human beings, `perfect' was in them, and
it was in them already without having to imbibe it from
a church or teachings outside." Rex Ambler
"The things of the spirit now most real for us may be
in other areas meditation, work, service for others, sense
of community, moral conviction and the like.
Undoubtedly between these experiences and traditional dogmas,
Christian and Quaker, partial or farfetched parallels may be
found. But loyalty to method rather than to results calls us also
to fresh formulation in appropriate terms,
including psychological, sociological and scientific terms perhaps
more than theological ones. Theology is by no means the
only possible or useful frame of reference."
Henry Joel Cadbury3
"Does this mean, then, that there can never be
any basis whatever for any kind of Quaker unity? Surely not.
It simply means that we do not need doctrinal unity or
faith in a doctrinal Truth. We have outgrown that."
"I have tried to show that Christianity, understood
as a broad cultural stream, can and will continue
without theism. This is because, in the first place Christianity
made a radical departure from pure theism in the early
and in the second place in modern times it is taking
that radical departure to its logical end, which is the abolition
of theism." Lloyd Geering 5
"I am suggesting that we can and should be
uninhibited and eclectic in creating new religious meanings,
practices, and narratives out of the materials available to us.
The poetical theology will fiction and refiction our religion,
tell and retell the old stories. What will make it a theology
will be its use in helping us to see ourselves and our life with
a greater clarity of moral vision, in helping us to be
`easy, going' about the transcience of everything, and in
showing us how to live ardently." Don Cupitt
When the notice of the Eva Koch Fellowship came
across my computer screen in the summer of 2000, I realized
that there was a question that I was strongly called to
answer: "What is the religious experience of nontheist Quakers?"
I applied for, and was grateful to receive, a fellowship for 2001.
Although I worked in a Quaker summer work camp
46 years ago, my wife's and my real immersion in
Quakerism has been at the Friends Meeting at Cambridge,
Mass-achusetts for the past 14 years. This has been a
wonderfully enriching experience: we have been warmly welcomed in
a diverse and stimulating community, have made
many precious friendships, and have been led to explore
the meanings of our individual and corporate lives in
greater depth than ever before.
On the other hand, I was and remain a
nontheist, finding that the only tenable position for me is that
religion is a human creation. I am a retired medical
epidemiologist, and my scientific work has entailed deep skepticism to
dogmatic assertion, those of others, but especially my
own. My attitude towards the inapplicability of the
supernatural to my pursuing a religious life is part of the same
world-view. Thus, I have seriously questioned whether I could
ever truly find a comfortable home in any religion which
has arisen from western monotheism. Possibly Quakerism
would be an exception. The initial impetus for this research was
to help explore that question.*
Pink Dandelion7 and Alistair
Heron8 have found that, on being questioned, a very large minority among
members and attenders in Britain, probably around 30%,
will characterize themselves as Agnostic or Atheist,
and Dandelion observed that there are many others whose
beliefs would not be recognizable by traditional Christians. While
I know of no comparable studies of Friends in
unprogrammed Meetings in the U.S., there are surely similarities there.
(A large-scale study to explore these questions is in the
planning stages.9) What these statistics do not tell us are the
intimate stories of these Quakers' religious lives. Therefore,
this survey aims to explore whether and how these
nontheists have been welcomed into, and benefited from, their lives
in their Quaker meetings. More explicitly, we shall address
the following questions: what was their religious life and
identity before arriving at Quakerism, have they found
satisfaction and welcome in their Meetings and the RSOF, how do
they understand and use religious language, and what
changes in Quakerism would they find welcome?
I invited participation in the study during the spring
of 2001 by publishing letters in The Friend, in Friends
Journal, and in several other periodicals likely to be read by
religiously liberal Friends. The letters read, in part, "Several
recent surveys have shown that unprogrammed Quaker
in Britain have attracted many members and
attenders who might variously be described as Agnostics,
Religious Humanists, Non-Realists, Atheists and/or
These people have in common a religious perspective
that depends minimally on a belief in the supernatural. I will
be doing a survey which aims to explore whether and how
their religious needs have been met within the Society of Friends."
I distributed a questionnaire to those who agreed
to participate which had been pretested by about a
dozen volunteers on both sides of the
Atlantic.10 While I had hoped to get at least 50 completed questionnaires, in fact I
received 198, about half from Britain and half from the U.S., with
a smattering from other countries (There were 199
re-spondents: one questionnaire was completed by a
This paper can only report on the Quakers who responded to the survey. This is a volunteer, rather than
a representative, sample; therefore these findings cannot
be used to generalize about the entire body of liberal Friends.
It was surprising that the respondents were
very seasoned Friends (Figure 1). They had been involved
with the RSOF on average 28 years. All but 35
were members, and of the 35 non-members, 18 had been
involved for 10 or more years, and 7 had been members but
then resigned. Thus, this was not a transient group of
young seekers experimenting with Quakerism.
Average Number of Years in Quakerism (N),
by Country and Gender
There were only minimal differences between the
British and American respondents in their demographic
char-acteristics, such as age, gender, duration of
membership, etc., other than that relatively more of the American
Friends live in the suburbs, and relatively more Britons live in
small towns, almost certainly reflecting the patterns of
population distribution in the two countries.
About one in ten respondents were Quakers at birth
or in early childhood. Most others were raised in
affiliated with mainstream Protestant sects, but there
were more than a few whose families were Roman
Catholic, Jewish, fundamentalist, or secular. (Figure
Religious lives before Quakerism
Half of all respondents were not affiliated at all
with formal religion at the time they were drawn to
Quakerism, and most of the others only nominally
(Figure 3). They were asked to describe their religious lives prior to their
Here are a selection of their responses:
Many had yearned for traditional faith, but had
been unable to find it:
"I was aware that many people found strength and comfort from faith in God and, if
Christian, in a savior, Jesus Christ. For many years I
waited hopefully to experience God, and perhaps
Christ, so that I, too, could have the benefits of
faith. Gradually, I have come to think that I
probably lack whatever sense (a sixth sense) is needed
for such an experience."
Most at one time had been immersed in
traditional religion, but found that what was asked of them
became increasingly untenable:
"I attended regularly and taught the older Sunday school children when I was about 18
years; I wasn't happy doing this as I wasn't sure
about the content of what I was teaching. It was at
this time that I was questioning the nature of
belief, virgin birth, holy spirit and that God was
willing to sacrifice his son. I couldn't stand the idea
of missionary work/ proselytising
I was also unhappy at the way so-called Christians in
the church treated and spoke of their vicar, who
was OK as far as I was concerned. They seemed so unchristian.
. Whilst married I did not
practice any religion but increasingly felt the need to
engage in expressing my spirituality in some way. I
was about 32 years old and for some reason was
drawn to the meetinghouse where we lived
The feeling of `beckoning' was so strong that I went
to Meeting for Worship, and as the cliché goes,
knew that I had come home."
"Episcopalian from age 0 to age 50. I was
Senior Warden, sang in choir, taught, and went
regularly. (My husband and I) left together and attended
Our search for the "truth" led us
to Quakerism. We feel there is so much freedom for personal religion/beliefs with the Quakers
than with many other churches/faiths we explored."
"I began going to the Episcopalian Church
I found friendliness and warmth but I could not reconcile myself to the dogma, the ritual, and
the lack of spiritual introspection, questioning
and experiment. At the same time I was learning
Quakers. I eventually decided that Quakers
offered the only viable way forward."
"I was very religious as a child. My family
went every week - both parents are ordained ministers.
I majored in religion and got a Masters of
Divinity and then I stopped attending church at all
for about 5 years until I started going to Meeting."
"I was raised very strict Methodist and
found that I simply couldn't believe it. I
floundered around a while, was a `nothing' for quite a
few years, walked amongst Unitarian/Universalists
for a while until I finally found my `home'."
A few had been deeply scarred by traditional religion:
"13 years as great niece of the founding Anglican priest in a small town church in
(X); current priest attempted to molest me; 37
years as an angry atheist, 11 of which I was married
to an angry atheist Unitarian Universalist
10 years active in peace movement, thus
consorted with more and more Quakers and began, simultaneously to yearn for something `spiritual'."
"Twenty years of being a Lutheran
preacher's kid gave me a cycle of depression that
started Thursday night, deepened into anger by the
end of Sunday's 5th sermon and dissipated into normalcy by Wed. noon
I avoided churches
like the plague and raised my son unchurched on
the grounds that their destructiveness outweighed their benefits. In '72 my husband demanded
I accompany him to a Lutheran service and heard
a sermon on boycotting UNICEF (because) `the sooner those communist kids die, the better
for our boys.' I was reduced to a speechless,
tearful rage and didn't set foot in a church until I
landed on the doorstep of the (X) Meeting
. I found
(X) Friends in the phone book and went.
library and adult ed. readings at (X) Friends have
been unusual in their honesty. The comments of members have helped melt away a lot of the
leftover garbage of my childhood."
There were respondents for whom traditional
religion did not speak to their needs:
"Brought up in orthodox Jewish educational system but had problems with
belief/identity feeling that there are things foisted on us by
social/ institutional interests."
"Very active evangelical, first in Brethren,
then in wider evangelical movement, till in 20s. Thereafter, no religious life till becoming
interested in Quakerism in early 1980s."
Many explored Eastern religion or other
nontraditional spiritual paths on their journey to Quakerism.
"Mainly `High' Anglican to age (about) 21:
then increasingly in non-Christian and
non-religious philosophies; attended a Sikh Gurdwara for
(about) 5 yrs, otherwise my `religious' life was outside
any organized religion until I felt `drawn' to Friends
at (about) age 40."
"Childhood: pious R.C. (Roman Catholic), studied for priesthood in two schools.
adulthood: Buddhist, practiced meditation regularly; non-theistic; discovered
Quakerism, attended worship for about two years. In
my thirties, tried Christianity again for a couple
of years. Back to Quakerism and Buddhism in late thirties. Now practice meditation with
another Quaker weekly and attend Meeting for
Worship on most first-days."
"Years of membership of different
meditation and spirituality groups followed and about 15
years ago I attended my first Quaker Meeting. For
many years I searched for a philosophy of life that
could satisfy my longing to know the truth behind
the mystery of life.
Quakerism with its lack of
dogma and creed gives me the freedom I need. I no
longer expect to find the truth but feel that somehow
it is in the search itself
God for me is now just
a metaphor for the big mystery of life."
Personal tragedy was often involved in looking for
a path other than traditional theistic religion:
"My religious life is still in despair about
my family destroyed in the Holocaust. I feel
emptiness no religious life. I respect Quakers because
of their creed of non-violence."
"After a series of losses
actively searching out a site for religious practice, as I
tried to figure out `the meaning' of
I found the conventional churches, with
their creeds, untenable (I could not say the
Apostles' Creed, because I did not believe those things).
But I found the Quakers marvelousno sermons,
time to reflect, multiple thoughtful messages, an
I felt I had come home, a site for searching, without the dogma."
Some of the respondents stressed less the
alienation they experienced in the past, than the exhilaration they
could find in Quakerism:
"In Quaker Universalism I find the freedom
for my mind to roam, explore, and seek
the defining is not nearly so important as the
seeking. Who is to say what or who God is? Yet how can
we not try?"
From reading through each questionnaire, I judged
that about a quarter of the respondents had a strong
religious faith and/or belief in God at some time in their adult
lives before they became Quakers (the sample included
several ex-clergymen) (Figure 4). The rest had never as adults
felt much in the way of deep faith or belief in God before
they became Quakers.
Participation in Quaker Life
Almost all the respondents participate intensively
in Quakerism. For the most part they worship every
week (Figure 5), attend business meeting every month
(Figure 6), and serve on and have been clerks of many committees
in their local, Quarterly, and Yearly Meetings
(Figure 7). Thus, they are deeply involved in Quakerism, as well as
Figure 8 presents the ways in which some of
the respondents categorized their current religious beliefs.
Two thirds identified with one of the explicitly
non-theist categories offered (Figure 9). The others ticked
"Universalist" only, or preferred not to categorize themselves.
Almost all the respondents felt deeply enriched by,
and concerned for, their Meetings and the RSOF, even if
there was occasional ambivalence or outright displeasure.
One reported "The decision-making methods are the most
truly a participative democracy of any I've ever seen.
Quaker process WORKS and is tried and true for centuries
now. The unstructured silent worship is sometimes
inspiring, always centering and calming
There is room for me in
the Society. I am accepted, listened to, appreciated outside
my own Meeting. My confidence in discerning and then
speaking insights from my own experience has matured me
and benefited me personally and professionally. Right now,
only the dilution of rigidified (unQuakerly) behaviors found
in my own meeting in the wider Quaker world keeps me in.
I need the weekly community, even if it frustrates and
I asked each person how he or she understood
and used the following terms: "God," "The Spirit," "the
inner light," "that of God in every person," "the kingdom of
God," "Jesus," "Christ," "the divine," "the sacred," "holy,"
"faith," and "prayer." (If I were to repeat this survey I would
drop several terms that proved to be redundant, but include
"worship", "leading", and "the gathered meeting",
which might be helpful in understanding different
theological perspectives among Quakers.)
Figure 10 presents the frequency of ways of
under-standing the word "God". I found most responses to be
A large number of respondents (~53) thought of
God as, in one sense or another, Spirit, with a description
that often includes vital energy or creative force.
"The sacred source indwelling all that is,
both transcendent (and so unknowable) and immanent (of experience)."
"The more one defines, the more one gets it wrong
The transcendent mystery that
illumines the inner person with altruism, love and beauty."
"In my view `God' is a metaphor people use
to express their belief that the world is powerful.
This `power' includes us being powerful and hence
the spirit in you is shared by me and potentially by
"I'm agnostic about the reality of
`That'. Naturally I find anthropomorphic metaphors unhelpful Father, Mother, etc, even
quasi-human qualities like love, mercy and
prefer maximally abstract terms: the One, Truth
(Sat), or wholly negative ones like Emptiness
Having said that, I think I'm fluent enough in
`God-language' to be able to hear and understand
it when it's used by Friends in ministry, in terms meaningful to me, without needing to translate
it consciously, like someone reasonably at home in a foreign language."
"The power that initiated the universe and
has maintained the evolutionary stream. The Bible
has it wrong. Man made God in his own image. For me God is the integrating force in the
universe keeping atoms and planets and stars and
galaxies in their orbits. When we use such expressions
as `it is in God's hands'
I recognize that, in so
far as God is in us, we are God's hands."
"I avoid using the word because in the
orthodox Christian faith `God' is described in
anthro-pomorphic terms as human, male, father.
I prefer Gandhi's word `Presence'."
ring about an omnipotent, omniscient, creator of
the universe, including mankind, and often, a
being who loves and cares for humans. God is
usually spoken of as a Father-God but sometimes as
a Mother-Goddess. I usually hear of a Higher
Power, above and beyond humans, sometimes as permeating the universe, including humans,
and from Quakers I hear of a God within us.
Because I have not experienced these or other concepts
of God, these meanings are abstract, not real, to me."
"To me, the term `god' by itself, refers to
the Abrahamic/patriarchal understanding of the
Divine, and I don't use it all. As a Wiccan, I understand `the god' as the equal polarity to
the Goddess, although I do not see either as
`deities' but rather as representing the necessary
polarity within the Divine, as feminine-like and
"This has become a lazy shorthand for the divine and is profoundly offensive to
feminists, non-theists, etc. I spend a lot of time
translating all these words in my head and for the most
part am not too bothered. This 3-letter word
starting with G is the worst. Those who use
multiple-choice like `God or the Light, or Great Spirit' are at
least trying, but are long-winded and
foolish-sounding. `The Light' would cover most people's
personal meanings and so would `The Muse' but both
are names, and I feel uncomfortable with the
arrogant limiting of something too huge to box in by
any name. I'm stymied."
About 46 Friends understood "God" as "Good", or
saw God as standing for humane values, whether
ethical, spiritual, or both. A few statements follow:
"A symbol for the sum of our spiritual
values. Could be replaced by Good."
"The spirit of good which exists in all men."
"Love is God."
"God is Good. I don't have a concept of a person, but I find `God' a convenient way
of expressing my experience of awe and wonder at
the universe in which I live, and a sense of the source of strength when facing
Worship is a useful concept
if translated as `Worthship'."
There were 44 respondents who essentially rejected
the use of "God language," but could generally translate it
when used by others. A few of their responses are:
"Find the God-concept to be unhelpful in understanding the world or in managing
"I do not believe `God is in charge' and
unless I am quoting I do not use the word myself now
but I respect others' wish to do so."
"Avoid it on principle: no one knows what
"A mythical deity, a pagan tribal `God'."
"I cringe inwardly."
"I accept what `God' seems to mean to the speaker; use it myself only in concepts such
as `will of God' and `that of God'."
"I believe this to be a term which has
meaning to other people but not to me. I try to
understand what is being implied by it, and (to be)
sympathetic to the speaker but I do not expect it to have
any resonance with my personal experience."
"An `All Powerful, All Loving entity'
I now take the view that God is no more than a bit of wishful thinking."
"Currently, my attempt is to restrict my personal usage to god as an
.Though I sometimes use the term
in discussion so as to sustain continuity with the person I'm talking with."
"Nearly all the
terms are not in my
active vocabulary, so they do not arise in my
vocal ministry nor in conversations with others. When
I hear or read them from others, I try to
determine from context and my knowledge (if any) of
the source what they mean to the speaker or
writer, and make appropriate adjustments."
"People use this when they mean something important or want to convey strong feelings.
`God Bless' is `I wish you the very, very, very best'."
"This is a dead metaphor to me. It has no meaning. I try to listen very hard to the context
in which it is used. If someone were to say `God
is commanding us to house the homeless' I would understand them to be saying that it is of
the utmost importance to house the homeless. If someone were to say `my relationship with God
is the most important thing in my life', I would
be pretty stumped. I try to just be with it rather
than to force an understanding."
I felt that 10 of the responses were best classified
as pantheist, in which God is understood as the totality
of everything. Here are two of them:
"I usually avoid use of the term because of
its diverse meanings; hence my auditors can be
easily misled. The best sense of God, I think, is
the entirety of existence, of which you and I are a
part. I think the concept of duality: God and the
Material World, or Spiritual and Physical, is a
"When God is mentioned as `he' and/or when patriarchal, hierarchical, submissive words
are used (e.g., Kingdom of God, Do the will of God)
I get a real turnoff, and can't relate AT ALL. God
to me is personal and female (I'm aware this is
just my vision; but it works for me). I do experience
a real feeling of the presence of the divine. My
belief is that we are all literally part of that divine,
so that in at least one sense, we are all divine,
sharing God's divineness and can tune in to that
divineness if we would only REMEMBER to do so
I categorized 15 of the responses as basically
semantic: that "God" as a term is inadequate or insufficient
or inaccurate. Here are some of them:
"It has too many meanings to be useful."
"They mean little or nothing to me because they have a multitude of different meanings,
the exact are really defined by the user."
"Nothing at all because people attach individual idiosyncratic associations to all
words and images, giving them meanings peculiar to
their own ideologies, albeit ideologies influenced by
the cultures of communities they encounter
believe Quakerism points to beyond words and their meanings, and that Quaker practice
dismantles ideologies of all sorts forever (Amen!)."
"These are all finite words that can mean
such different aspects of the infinite. I try to get
beyond them to the experience we are trying to share
with an author or in conversation or in Meeting.
Rufus Jones was wonderfully skilled in being able to
use any of these terms in the context of things,
people and events rather than in expectation of agreement or some abstract `definition'."
Thus, under the general rubric of "nontheism",
there are many different understandings of the divine. When
asked directly how they understand the term "divine", the
largest number (about 49) don't use the term, 36 referred
to goodness, mercy, or some other quality that
implied inwardness, 31 referred to all, or all of life, and only
15 implied something external to themselves: God,
spiritual reality, etc. Interestingly, many more (51) see the
word "sacred" encompassing all, or all of life, than the
word "divine". However, 49 respondents said they avoided
this term as well. There were a smattering of other responses
for both terms ("useful", "a mystery", "beyond words", or
they gave a definition of the term without implying what it
meant to them).
Essentially none of these Quakers thought of
Jesus as other than a human being (Figure
11). On the other hand, a large majority gave him quite special status, such as
Jewish prophet, wise man, teacher, or rabbi. A
largish minority (37) said they avoid reference to Jesus, or do
not find Jesus to be useful or to have special significance.
One respondent of Jewish origin recalled Jesus as the
justification for childhood harassment. The answers to how "Christ"
was understood were more varied (Figure
12). A large number of respondents (67) avoid using the term, or gave a reply
with negative connotations. Many find the term useful, and
some equate it with traditional Quaker terms such as
"Inward Christ", or the "Inward Light".
The Spirit, and the Inner Light
Only ten respondents thought of the spirit, and
five the inner light, as equivalent to God. By far the largest
group thought of both terms as good, mind, reason,
conscience, aspiration, or some other inward feeling or
characteristic; many, but fewer, mentioned power, mystery,
source, universal mind, or something else that implied
something external to the respondent.
One of the most frequent questions directed
towards nontheistic Friends concerns what is their experience
in meeting for worship. The questionnaire asked what
prayer means to them. Eighteen people left the question blank.
One large group (26% of women but only 13% of
men) gave responses that might be described as meditation,
or attentiveness (n=~38). Here are some examples:
"Meditation, trying to open oneself to the
spirit of the universe."
"Meditation, `holding the light'. Thinking lovingly of others and of situations."
"I don't pray, although a couple of times in
my life I have had powerful moments when praying seemed the most important thing to do. I
don't know what or if I was praying to
some*thing* nor do I know what I expected to happen.
Somehow the conscious act of speaking/ thinking/ concentrating my needs/ wishes was
very powerful, spiritual
but I'm not a
"Prayer is attentiveness (following Simone Weil), an attentiveness that focuses us on the
task of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into being
on this earth."
"Meditative reflection? Buddhist attitude
of goodwill towards self; family; friends;
neighbors; community; country; the world equals
holding people in the light."
Another large group of responses (21 % of women
and 14% of men) described help in transcending the
limitations of self, getting in touch with some thing universal, being
in the light, descriptions of something or experience that
might be described as spiritual (without necessarily the
implication of a supernatural presence) (n=~34).
"Holding other people and situations and, if appropriate, oneself, in a spiritual dimension."
"Communion with truth, love, beauty and ultimate unselfishness."
"Dwelling in the light, meditating,
surrounding with love, unconditionally."
"A way of life and a way of talking to your
inner self. Conversation with oneself/ God calling on
that of God within you and hearing that of God in others, in beauty, in nature. It is ongoing."
"Holding oneself in the light, in
readiness, silent, non-petitionary. Evil weakened and the
good raised up."
Another set of responses suggested that prayer was
a strategy or activity that helped the person to be a
better person, to change behavior, or was a way to express love
in action. (n=15)
"Sincere desire for goodness for oneself or others, with earnest contemplation of whether
or not one can be helpful."
"Prayer is seeking inwardly to find what
love and truth require of me in a particular
situation or at a particular time, and to muster the
strength and determination to respond."
"I regard prayer as a completely
rational activity. It is an expression of caring
and commitment, which brings us into relationship with, for example, people who are suffering
"Focusing the mind on matters of concern
in public or private realm and on sources of inspiration such as God or Christ or what may
be found among human beings, art, literature, etc. The object of prayers is empowerment for
"When I was a kid, I could never understand why I should pray. If God knows everything,
then why do I have to form my thoughts into words since God would know my thoughts? But now
I understand that prayer is not about talking to
God, but about forming those thoughts that are the highest to you into words, putting them closer
to action, ingraining them more into your mind."
Another group uses prayer as help in times of
trouble, without much of a sense that there is an object to
their prayers. (n=15)
"I still wonder about this - but when things REALLY get rough, I find I resort to it."
"Can be helpful, but not by divine inter-vention."
"What I used when I thought there was a
god who heard me, and what I still do although I
know I am talking to myself."
There were a few respondents whose responses I characterized as traditional, more or less. (n= 13)
"Petition and/or praise to God."
"A conversation with God, the inner light,
and within myself. Cognitive dialogue."
"Our attempt to put ourselves in harmony
with divine purpose and allow that power to work
in our life. I am convinced that prayer has an
At any rate I hold in my thoughts persons I
about and for lack of other words I resort to the ones I learned at my mother's knee and ask
for gods blessing on them."
"Attention to spiritual ground of being."
"A means of focusing one's attention (and
will) on being `in resonance' with the Divine
(whether for the purpose of influencing mundane reality
petition prayer, etc. or not). In true Wicca (as
a spirituality, rather than occult technique),
what is called `spells' or `energy working' is
basically the same as `prayer'."
A few responses were neutral, or descriptive. They
did not say much about the respondent's personal attitude
to or use of prayer. (n=8)
"An attempt to communicate with a posited `other'."
"We need a new definition of prayer based
on a new idea of what IS."
"How some people reacquire faith."
The largest group, albeit only about 20 percent
overall (Only 13% of women, but 31% of men, a rate two and
half times as high), gave fairly negative responses. (n=40)
Here are some:
"One-way communication with a square circle."
"'Worship' or `prayer' seems to mean a dialogue
with this mythical God for the purpose of praise, or
more commonly, supplication for miraculous intervention
I therefore find the nonprogrammed
Quaker use of the word "worship" misleading for our
practice. Opening to the Inner Light requires no attitude of
worship or prayer for it to bring us joy and understanding."
"A harmless activity, which can bring great comfort
to those who believe in its efficacy. I don't!"
"Usually selfish, if well intentioned; as a Buddhist I
do not practice it, but recognize its worth for others."
"I have yet to figure out what people are doing
when they pray. Some are asking for favors, but others use
the word to describe something else I haven't yet fathomed."
"Offensive. Tainted with groveling, whining,
demanding extra services from some big parent in the sky."
Thus, it seems that the great majority of these nontheistic Friends, particularly the women
respondents, understand prayer in meditative or spiritual ways, ways
that are probably valuable to them in leading their lives and
being more open and generous to others and to the world,
albeit with no external object for their prayer. It would be
important to probe further on the meaning of worship, especially
for those who reject prayer. As with all the other
questions, these responses are generally deeply thoughtful
and considered. They have a quality that seems very "Quakerly".
Comfort with and Welcome in Meeting
While almost all survey participants felt they
were welcomed as persons (Figure 13), about 30%
responded positively to the question " Have you felt uncomfortable
or out of place in then meeting because of your beliefs?"
(Figure 14). This rather high rate led me to explore this issue
in further depth.*
The rate of discomfort was lowest in U.S. males
(17.5% vs. 29% or higher in the other three groups). There
was some variability by yearly meeting. The rate in Britain
Yearly Meeting was 28.9%, and there were striking
differences among the four Northeastern Yearly Meetings from
which most US respondents were drawn: 12.9%
combining Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York Yearly Meetings,
vs. 40% in New England Yearly Meeting. There were only
11 respondents from other than the U.S. and Britain, and
five of them expressed discomfort, a very high rate of
45.4%. Not surprisingly, 16 of 30 (53.3%) of respondents who
felt alone or almost alone in their meetings concerning
their beliefs also felt discomfort, vs. only two of 34 (5.9%)
who felt they were not in the minority. Comparing rate
of discomfort among the various categories of belief, it
was surprising that by far the lowest rate of discomfort
(3/24; 12.5%) was among those who characterized themselves
About 40% of those who did feel uncomfortable
because of their beliefs, when asked what they would like to
see changed in Quakerism, spontaneously specified
greater explicit acceptance and recognition of non-theism in
the RSOF (Figure 16). Among those who did not
report discomfort, the rate of wanting to be formally
recognized and accepted was only about 20%.
Desired changes in RSOF and/or in Meeting
The following are some responses to questions
asking whether there were aspects of their meetings or of the
RSOF that they would like to see changed. Here are some of
Some are very personal, and wish for greater and
more open welcome in the RSOF:
"I'd like to feel there is room for me."
"I would like YM to move towards more
explicit understanding and acceptance of non-theism."
"It feels very sad when I think about it,
and still rather hopeless as long as the few funda-mentalists want to run things. Recently, the
two who had opposed my membership so strongly found a loophole in business meeting to
abolish Ministry & Oversight Committee and replace it
with them as pastoral counselors. There was much resentment when this came out in the
newsletter and now there is nothing like Ministry &
Oversight at all."
"Not because of my beliefs but because I am
a Lesbian and not all meetings accept homo-sexuality."
"I am disturbed by what strike me as
hateful, intolerant statements by
anti-universalist members in Quaker fora such as e-mail lists
and letters to editors of Quaker publications, and frustrated by our inability to deal with them. I
pray for integration of spirit around the issue of
sexist language. I question whether it is really fair
or true to God's Spirit of peace and understanding to say, `This is the language I am comfortable
with, it's my free choice' in a communal context, considering the well-known dominant
linguistic effect to exclude."
"Look to the day I can speak openly even
during meeting without offending. Will ask for a
minute of support for outreach to secularists someday."
"A widespread recognition that people who
do not believe in God can have rich religious
lives that can contribute much to the RSOF."
Some I would call linguistic or theological:
"Language that is not supernatural."
"Revision of Quaker traditional language
and consistent acknowledgement of diversity among Quakers, especially regarding those of us who
do not believe in the supernatural."
"More openness to non-theism, especially
since some Friends have been led to feel that a
return to Christianity will make all the difference
in reviving Quakerism."
"Recognition of post-God spirituality."
"We do not live in George Fox's world, we cannot go back to it, the Society of Friends
must acknowledge this and press on to find a
modern religion that does not need the supernatural."
Several Friends were deeply concerned about
Britain Yearly Meeting's full membership in the Council of
Churches of Britain and Ireland*:
"A recognition by BYM that acceptance of full (rather than associate) membership of CCBI
contrary to the wishes of very many (probably a majority) of its members."
"I resigned as an Elder after the imposition
of Clause 2(b). I am very happy to be a Quaker in
a world-wide context provided evangelical Friends will accept people like me too."
"Disaffiliation from explicit belief in
the formulation `Father, Son, and Holy Ghost'. It baffles me that the bulk of Quakers in UK do
not believe in this, yet are indifferent to BYM's position."
Some ask for formal action by Yearly or local
Meetings on other specific issues of concern:
"I suppose I would like the approaches and practices represented by these groups
(Young Friends General Meeting, Universalists,
Open Letter movement, Seekers) to be more central
in the Society."
"Some mechanism to recognise that, while
in any one Meeting an opinion may be in a
minority, over the whole country that opinion represents
a considerable proportion of the total. I am not suggesting a voting system but a mechanism
to enshrine various ideas in published reports,
etc. The Society is not monolithic."
"We need a much younger presence. Sadly in the ten years I have attended my own meeting
I have seen them come and fall away. I mainly
think because there is a man who quotes from the
EVERY WEEK. When I asked one of the overseers what would happen if I quoted from
The Prophet every week she ignored my question. This man
is an elder and cannot I suppose be eldered. So
people visiting hear him and think they may as well be
at a church."
Some ask for conciliation between theist and
"There seems to be an ongoing struggle
covertly between different kinds of Friends. The three
main groups need to learn to respect each other
and work together lovingly toward that which they
feel to be good peace, justice, stewardship of
the earth, etc."
"A more public acknowledgement of the diversity of belief of Friends which would
welcome non-Christian Friends more actively."
"Not to worry so much about identity and
belief but learn to embrace one another."
"More wide-spread and serious
participation in groups that explore spiritual beliefs
and practices, and a full recognition that spiritual
life does not depend on adherence to supernatural beliefs; letting go of the
self-righteousness surrounding `social action' issues and
activities, less controversy, more genuine spiritual
seeking, less egoism."
"I would love to pass a minute declaring
we welcome seekers of all theologies including
nontheism. We could rewrite our literature to reflect that welcome. I would love a series
of discussions /worship-sharing on how to include all of us in the RSOF."
Some want more forthrightness from non-theist Friends:
"A greater willingness among Friends who apparently share my view to `stand up and
Discussion and Conclusions
To summarize, the respondents to this survey
were mostly elderly, experienced and involved Quakers.
They usually entered Quakerism after longish absences
from religious practice, and have found a warm personal
and mostly sympathetic religious welcome in their
meetings. While many do not use "God language," others do; most
of the former think of themselves as "bilingual", able
to translate and understand the ministry of theists
in metaphoric ways. All but a very few are patient with
God-centered ministry, but they also want to be free to be
use the language and express the ideas with which they
are comfortable. About a third have felt uncomfortable in
their meetings because of their beliefs, and a third want an
explicit recognition that their beliefs are welcome by their
meetings and the RSOF.
Their stories remind us that these nontheists
are people, not abstract vessels of ideas; they worship
with commitment, but they do not or cannot hold
traditional theistic beliefs. Their stories may help non-theists
to understand that they are part of a large and quite
community, and may help theists clarify the mystery of
who these people who sit beside them on First Days really
are. While some respondents are uncomfortable about
the welcome their beliefs receive, they have nevertheless
found shelter and enrichment in Quakerism.
Given the commitment to and immersion in
Quakerism exhibited by these Friends, can there be any reason to
not welcome them fully into the RSOF? There are Friends
who believe that there is no place for nontheists in the RSOF.
I have been told that membership should be limited to
those who have experienced the "gathered meeting", one with
God's literal presence. Yet, it might be argued, the absence of
creed has been one of the core strengths of Quakerism. It
has allowed evolutionary change in response to
changing religious needs.
I see three possibilities for the future: that the
RSOF goes on as it is, neither welcoming nor disowning
nontheists, leaving things in a state of uncertainty and
disequilibrium, with a somewhat uneasy comfort, since conflict and
hard choices would be deferred; that it welcomes nontheists;
or that it explicitly discourages their presence. This
latter course, in effect disownment, would be, I believe, cruel
and schismatic, and would narrow and rigidify the religious
body left after the shambles. George Fox and his
17th century contemporaries surely believed in a real God. But just
as surely, the founding Quakers were radical and
fearless seekers after their own truth. They believed in
individual revelation, and in fierce commitment to the truth so
revealed. Is one of these legacies more potent than the other?
Might we be able to live in the seeming paradox that both
are legitimate, and both can speak to our current condition?
This project has aroused some hostility on both
sides of the Atlantic. One Friend articulated an explicit
preference for "don't ask, don't tell": he did not mind being in a
for worship with nontheists, as long as they did not
make their presence known. On the other hand, I have
also received encouragement, gratitude, and expressions of
deep relief, both from Friends who were joyful that their
stories and the stories of others like them would now be told,
but also from curious and open-hearted theistic Friends
seeking to explore what could be common to all Quakers. It could
be that we are in the midst of a potentially wrenching
episode in Quakerism; yet I believe Friends' commitment to
truth, and concern for each other and the health of the RSOF
tell us we can deal with our differences openly,
thoughtfully, and with mutual tenderness.
I am humbly grateful that my respondents have
shared their stories. I have become convinced that these
people have fully explained their spirituality, and justified
their rich and valuable presence in the RSOF. They surely
do represent many more than 199 individuals; they are
an important part of the present, and potentially of the
future as well. Their presence is a challenge to the RSOF to
not destroy that which we cherish through divisiveness,
but rather to honestly and openly accept religious diversity,
and to explore how to find unity within that diversity.
1 Quoted in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic
Gospels, Random House, New York, 1979.
2 Truth of the Heart, an anthology of George
Fox, Quaker Books, London, 2001.
3 "The Call to Theologize", in
Friendly Heritage, Silvermine Publishers, Norwalk, CT, 1972.
4 "The Diversity of Truth", in
Truth and Diversity, Proceedings of the 1994/5 Quaker Theology
Seminar, ed. Rex Ambler, QTS, 1995.
5 "Christianity Minus Theism." Presented at the Sea of
Faith (NZ) Conference, 7 October 2000.
6 After God : The Future of
Religion, Nicolson and Weidenfield, London, 1997.
7 Dandelion, Pink. A Sociological Analysis of the Theology
of Quakers: The Silent Revolution, Edwin Mellen
Press, Lewiston NY,1996.
8 Heron, Alistair Caring Conviction
Commitment, Quaker Home Service, London 1992.
9 Dandelion, P. Personal communication.
10 The questionnaire is available as a PDF file from the
author by writing firstname.lastname@example.org
Copy of Original Questionnaire
1 May, 2001
Thank you for agreeing to complete this questionnaire. The aim
of the survey is describe the religious lives and needs of
nontheistic Quakers. It should not take more than an hour of your time.
By nontheistic Quakers, I mean those Friends, members
and attenders, whose religious perspective depends minimally on
the supernatural. Several recent surveys have shown that many
who might variously be described as Nontheists, Agnostics,
Religious Humanists, Non-Realists, Atheists, and/or Post-Christians
have been attracted to Quakerism in Britain, and there is ample
anecdotal evidence of the same trend in unprogrammed Meetings in
If this research is successful, it should illuminate stories that
may have previously been obscure, and may help in
furthering understanding and fostering diversity within the Society of Friends.
To do this project I have been awarded an Eva Koch
Fellowship from Woodbrooke College, the Quaker study center
near Birmingham, England. I am a retired research physician
and professor at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and
my wife and I have been active participants in the Friends Meeting
at Cambridge (Massachusetts) for a dozen years.
All answers will be treated with tenderness and kept
strictly confidential. However, if you are willing to participate in a
followup telephone interview, or wish a copy of the results of this
project, please fill in the contact information at the end.
For those of you getting this questionnaire by e-mail (given
halting typing skills) if it is easy for you, I would be grateful if
you also returned the completed form by e-mail (by using the
"reply" function, or transferring the attachment to Word, answering,
and returning the attachment). If it is not easy, by all means send it
by regular mail.
Part I: Background
A) Today's date:
B) How did you find out about this survey?
O1 The Friend
O2 Friends Journal
O3 Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF) Mailing (USA)
O4 QUF e-mail group
O5 Quaker Universalist Group (QUG) publication (UK)
O6 Sea of Faith Magazine
O7 NE Friend
O8 Quaker-B e-mail news group
O9 Personal contact, or other (please
C) How long have you been a regular participant in the
Society of Friends?
D) During the last year, how often did you attend Meeting
O5 At least monthly
O6 Usually weekly, or more frequently
E) During the last year, how often did you attend
Meeting for Worship for Conduct of Business?
O4 Most months
F) 1) In the past three years, have you served on committees
of your Meeting, or the wider Quaker community (Quarterly
or Yearly Meetings, QUF, FGC, etc)?
O1 Y O2 N.
2) If yes, how many? which ones?
3) Of which of these have you been clerk?
G) 1) In the past three years, have you served on clearness
(in the US, also support) committees?
O1 Y O2 N.
2) If Y, how many? Of how many have you been clerk?
H) In the past three years how many Yearly Meetings
have you attended (in the US, include FGC)? Quaker retreats?
I) 1)Are you a member of the Society of Friends?
O1 Y O2 N.
2) if Y, how many years?
3) How many years were you (have you been) an attender?
K) How old are you?
L) What was the religious identity/affiliation of your family
during your childhood?
O2 Anglican/ Episcopalian
O6 Roman Catholic
O8 Atheist/ Secular
O9 Other (Please explain:
Part II. Meeting characteristics
A) Approximately how many members are there in
B) On a typical First Day, how many people come to worship?
C) How would you characterize your Meeting?
O1 Urban O2 Suburban
O3 Rural, small town, or village
D) With which Yearly Meeting is it affiliated?
Part III. Your religious life
The heart of this survey refers to your religious life, and how it
is supported (or not) by your local Meeting. If you need more
space, please use attached sheets.
A) Which of the following describes your current beliefs
(check/tick all that apply)
1) p Universalist
2) p Nontheist
3) p Agnostic
4) p Atheist
5) p Nonrealist (do not believe in a real God, or
do believe in a nonreal God))
6) p Post-Christian
7) p Religious Humanist
8) p Religious Secularist
9) p Other (Please explain
B) Could you describe your religious life before you
participated in Quakerism (lengths of time, types, frequency of participation)?
C) Given your beliefs, do you feel in the minority in
O1 alone, or almost alone
O2 no, there are at least several others
O3 no, not in minority
O4 don't know
D) Are some or many others in your Meeting aware of
O4 Don't know
E) In what ways, if any, have you discussed your beliefs
with others in your Meeting?
F) Have you felt uncomfortable or out of place in the
Meeting because of your beliefs?
O1 Y O2 N.
If Y, please elaborate
G) 1) Have been welcomed as a person by others in
O1 Y O2 N.
2) Have your beliefs been greeted sympathetically by
others in your Meeting?
O1 Y O2 N.
H) Has the Meeting changed over time in its welcome to you?
O1 Y O2 N.
If Y, please explain
I) Were there turning points in the attitude of the Meeting
O1 Y O2 N.
If Y, could you describe them?
J) Has there been change over time in how you have
felt towards your Meeting?
O1 Y O2 N.
If Y, please explain
K) Were there turning points in your attitude to the Meeting?
O1 Y O2 N.
If Y, could you describe them?
L) Had you participated in any other Meetings before
you settled in your current one (other than for reasons of
moving house or job)?
O1 Y O2 N.
If Y, how many?
M) 1) Are you satisfied with your relationship with your
2) Are you satisfied with your relationship with the Society
N) 1)Are you a member of (an)other religious group(s)?
O1 Y O2 N.
2) if Y, which one(s)
3) Is this (Are these) membership(s) central to you?
O1 Y O2 N.
O) Are there non-Quaker religious or spiritual activities in
which you have participated in the last year? (this would include
formal worship, meditation groups, retreats, etc)
O1 Y O2 N.
If Y, what kinds, and how often?
P) In the UK, do you participate in the Sea of Faith group?
O1 Y O2 N.
Q) 1) Are you a member of the Quaker Universalist Group
O1 Y O2 N.
2) If Y, is this important to your Quaker life?
O1 Y O2 N.
Part IV. What changes would you welcome to further support your religious life?
A) In your Meeting
B) In the Society of Friends
Part V. Religious language
Finally, when the following words arise in your own or in
the ministry of others, or in your reading, what do they mean to
If you have found particular metaphors or formulations that
are helpful to you, please share them. (Use extra sheets if needed)
B) The spirit?
C) The inner light?
D) That of God in every person?
E) The Kingdom of God?
H) The divine?
I) The sacred?
Part VI. Contact and identifying data (voluntary!)
A) Your Preparative (UK) or Monthly (US) Meeting
B) Would you be willing to be interviewed by telephone?
O1 Y O2 N.
(I may not be able to respond to all who agree to be interviewed.)
C) Would you like a copy of the results of this research?
O1 Y O2 N.
D) Your Family Name Given Name(s)
E) Address: House number and street
Town and postal code:
F) E-mail address
G) Phone number
Many thanks for completing this questionnaire!