Quaker Universalist Conversations

“Religion, In a Nutshell,” by Winston Davis

Excerpts from a new QUF article

We have just posted Winston Davis’ extended article, “Religion, In a Nutshell,” on the QUF Publications page.

The present post offers some excerpts from the new work and invites blog followers to read the article in full.

Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.

—William Shakespeare,
Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene ii

In Davis’ Introduction, he explains his secular humanistic view:

I don’t think that religion, viewed globally, can be reduced to high-minded ethical conduct.

Ludwig Feuerbach My view of religion has been deeply influenced by the German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). Feuerbach’s “projection theory” of religion, combined with my own study of popular religion, politicized fundamentalism, criminal cults and religious terror, has caused me to recently rethink religion….

I am personally drawn to Quakerism, Buddhism and Unitarianism, and am moved by devout individuals who devote themselves to feeding the hungry, healing the sick and engaging in other humanitarian causes.

But today institutional religion itself falls under my no-fly zone. So too does “spirituality,” the refuge of religious people determined to maintain their bona fides with the cultured despisers of religion.

Although I don’t believe in gods, I don’t call myself an atheist because (a) it is impossible to prove a priori that gods do not exist and because (b) my life doesn’t revolve around the militant atheist’s futile crusade against religion. I prefer to call myself a secular humanist.

Davis’ first four sections introduce and critique Feuerbach’s “projection theory” of religion.

I. Darwin’s Dog: The Evolution of Religion
II. “When You Wish upon a Star”: The Projection Theory of Religion
III. The Theological Reaction to Feuerbach
IV. Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?

He then adds another approach to studying religions in V. From Projecting to Staging Religion.

Instead of talking about projecting religion, scholars in Europe sometimes talk about how religion is staged. This is not just a verbal or stylistic shift. It forces us to investigate exactly how we go about creating churches, gods and religious values.

Like a good movie, a good (“realistic”) religious production needs to have a compelling “sound track” and a broad palette of special effects….

In traditional church architecture, [for example, the] farther one moves towards the front of the church—laid out in the form of a cross—the closer one comes to the divine presence. Although laypersons were given limited access to the stage for the sacraments, the area surrounding the altar was traditionally off-limits to the unordained….

[The] Protestant Reformation radically undermined the traditional way that Christianity was staged. Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers called into question the distinction between congregation and clergy…. The Calvinists destroyed much of the traditional stage-set….

Radical sects like the Quakers went even further, removing altars and baptismal fonts and the hallowed performances associated with them. Today, Friends usually meet in a severely plain room with clear windows that look upon the world outside.

Hertford Meeting Room, by John Hall (2013)
This architectural shift turned “the church” into “a meeting.” It created a religious theater in which members of the audience would face one another. Unlike a secular theater-in-the-round, the un-programmed Quaker meeting has no elevated stage or costumed actors reciting scripted lines. What the Quaker sees before him- or herself is not an altar or the backside of a priest, but just another human being.

The Quaker meeting is therefore perfectly designed for humanistic encounters. It is a “stage” that is ideally suited to bring theists and non-theists together in a non-credal, moral community that combines meditation, democratic-humanistic values and compassionate social activism….

Because it has no “clergy,” whether this moral community thrives or fails, whether the Quaker drama turns out to be convincing or vapid religious theater is the responsibility of each of its actors. Every time someone rises to speak in a meeting, the “believability,” the integrity of the “production” is put to the test.


Davis concludes with three sections that arise out of his personal witness as a compassionate secular humanist.

VI. Monotheism and Violence considers how the historical rise of montheisms exaggerated the basic in-group/out-group character of human tribalism.

Because tribalism is based on the binary logic of inclusion/exclusion, one tribe is, by its very nature, a potential threat to all other tribes. Whenever a religious group is formed, the same thing happens.

What does this have to do with monotheism? As long as a community worships many gods, the differences between in- and out-groups are relatively negotiable. People in polytheistic cultures realize that different people have different gods, and that these gods may have valuable functions….

With the rise of monotheism, the differences between in-groups and out-groups became an unbridgeable chasm between the saved and the damned, the righteous and the infidel. Primitive predation resurfaced, taking the form of holy war and genocide.

VII. A Diplomatic Secularism seeks to frame a form of secular humanism which opens dialog with religious people, rather than confronting them with “militant atheism.”

I believe that the secular humanist should engage believers honestly and diplomatically…. Few believers are converted to humanism or a secular worldview by philosophy or by philosophical critiques of religion….

Reflecting on the the tendency of some to reject religions out of hand, Davis writes:

Opposing religious terror is different from opposing religion itself. Anyone who believes in the dignity of human life has a moral obligation to oppose terrorism….

The truth is that there are real religious movements and real religious texts (including the Bible itself) that do endorse violence and terror. If we want to be realistic about terrorism we need to be realistic about the theology that inspires it….

Much of the religious violence in the world today can be traced back to the incendiary use of theologically untextured texts by pugnacious hoodlums determined to turn scripture into a call to arms. Fortunately, all of the Abrahamic religions have clerics who know how to tone down and overrule bellicose passages of scripture.


In his final section (VIII), Davis gives testimony to the path of Living Without Gods.

Secularism…severs the venerable connection between God, clergy, the state and morality. By doing so, it forces us to deal anew with such pressing, existential questions as:

  • How should I live?
  • If there are no gods, what is the meaning of life?
  • Who can tell me how to live? Where can I find a life-coach…?

People generally make their lives meaningful in two ways

by telling stories about it, and by acting (“existentially”) in the present moment.

We try to make sense of our lives when we tell others who we are, where we have come from, and where we want to go. Writers of fiction create whole novels this way. Novelists, however, tell stories about lives in this world.

Revelators and theologians, on the other hand, try to make life meaningful by telling stories about other worlds or about invisible Beings in those worlds. In other words, life is meaningful to the theologian only when it refers to something beyond itself.

This brings us…to what can be called the existential meaning of life. Life can be made meaningful by telling its story. But, like music, life’s meaning does not depend on fabulation about worlds beyond the world. Like music, life means what life does, and what we do with it….

Who can teach us how to live?

Anyone can be a “life-coach.” All that is needed is experience, wisdom and compassion. Because we can learn from anyone, we should look for as many teachers and guides as possible…!

The Buddha himself—the most secular of all of the founders of the so-called “great religions”—pointed out that a person can’t “attain peace by speculation, tradition, knowledge, ritual or [philosophical] points of view, nor is it attained without the help of any of these things.”

Wooden Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWood_Bodhisattva.jpg from the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279), from the Shanghai Museum, by Photo by Mountain (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.

We encourage you to read Winston Davis’ complete article at “Religion, In a Nutshell.”

(An earlier version of this article was published last year as a blog series entitled “Religion, Briefly Considered.”)

Image Sources

Ludwig Feuerbach,” on the website of Editorial Páginas de Espuma.

Hertford Meeting Room,” by John Hall (2013) Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic. This meeting house was built 1670 and is therefore the oldest purpose-built Quaker meeting house in the world. It has been in continuous use since 1686.

Wooden Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara” from the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279), from the Shanghai Museum, by Photo by Mountain (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.


I am very grateful to Winston Davis for developing this discussion so thoroughly and for sharing what he calls his “diplomatic secularism.” It is so important that we nurture the conversation across all the labels. See the full article here. Blessings,Mike
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