The God Dilemma

by Stephen Cox

An elder gives ministry, saying that in their opinion, a Quaker cannot be an atheist. A recent enquirer says in notices that they are an atheist and are they welcome? Established attenders suggest not using the words God or prayer in an outreach leaflet, because they will be misunderstood.

What is my reaction? At one level, although I keep it to myself, I exercise the sarcasm pedal. We would have little difficulty in seeing Quakers for Trident, or Quakers for Bigger Bankers’ Bonuses as aberrant. Yet when it comes to the fundamental nature of the universe, most things seem to go. I have talked of us as the church with ‘one view on housing benefit and 20,000 views on God’.

Pragmatically, and directly contradicting myself, there are Quakers who are atheists. Some are clerks and elders and serve on nominations committees, making the wheels of the Quaker community turn. Some are personal friends of mine. Atheist Friends are here, already, and they are us. We neither expel people for their views nor insist on much of anything as stated belief when people formally join (and increasingly, people don’t see the need formally to join.)

This goes beyond words – some Quakers may speak of the Trinity, or God, or the Light, or the Word, or the Seed, or the Dao, or the Goddess. (or indeed, ‘the whatever’). But in some sense they see and feel something beyond themselves that they believe in some sense to be true. Some Friends use those words but are explicit that they are only useful ideas and don’t exist as such. Others neither need the words nor the ideas, comfortable in the view that there is nothing beyond.

The phrase non-theist can be unhelpful since it can refer to those who do not see God-or-whatever as a person, those who do not believe God-or-whatever interferes in the universe, or those who don’t believe God-or-whatever exists.

People look in vain for a statement of Quaker beliefs that we all sign up to. In so far as we exist as a community, it is through a mixture of principles and behaviours. Most of us sign up to the majority of them. This is why we can be a nominally Christian, pacifist, membership organisation which includes individuals who are not Christians or not pacifists or who do not believe in membership.

Much pain was spent over twenty years in the debate about Christian and non Christian Friends. But in fact, a Christian who believes the Spirit works in many ways and a Universalist able to tolerate occasional Christian language can have a great deal in common. Both can have the experience of being led, in worship and in meeting for worship for business… both may have experienced that mysterious ‘other’, tested it, and been tested by it. Beyond Majority Rule, written by a Catholic, and many years old, already identified the true divide in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as not Christian/Universalist but those who had experienced ‘the gathered meeting’ and those who didn’t.

In a science fiction world two similar realities can coexist in the same time and place. In one there is a body where people use diverse wordings and explanations for a mystery that is, agreed, within them but also beyond them. They know it personally and also collectively through worship, they consider it helps them in decision making. Verbal ministry arises from a stirring that uses the individual’s experience but goes beyond them, in me, from me and yet more than me. Crucially, they see this dimension as underlying how we as Quakers pick people for jobs, what happens in Meeting for Worship, and how we make decisions – what we do, how we run ourselves and what we are for. Whether adopting same sex marriage or deciding whether to change the meeting house boiler for a biofuel one, we are not alone. However vaguely and inconsistently we see this spiritual dimension, working with it seems to them central to our organisation and purpose, and thus more than a purely personal position.

In another reality, in business meeting a clerk finds a form of words no one will argue with too much. Nominations committees find people for roles. Meeting for worship is silence punctuated by people letting off steam. We aim for coherence through having four or five vague organising principles which cannot be written down or made coherent. These principles, not what caused them to come into being, is seen as the foundation. We seek passion in how strongly we follow social causes. Or, we aim to be a community primarily through mutual care.

York 2009 kept me in the Society not because I agreed with the decision but because I felt again being led as a community. I know wise and sensible Friends who simply don’t understand the difference between these two descriptions given above – or who say it doesn’t matter. And I don’t rigidly know I am right to lean towards one – I just feel pulled towards the first, as I was, inexplicably, drawn out of atheism and into a Quaker meeting, out of political hatred of Christianity and into exploration of faith. But as someone who often questions and worries about even the formulations I largely agree with… could I be wrong, yes. But might it matter to be wrong, also, yes.

To the elder, I share some of your frustrations some of the time. But we are not going to have a Quaker creed or a Quaker Inquisition.

To the atheist attender I say, I didn’t believe in God when I first turned up to meeting. I don’t think the words matter, and for you, maybe all, or nearly all models for God will always get in the way. But it was my experience in meeting for worship that joined up the dots for me. Listen, wait and trust. It may change your life. Or, I may be deluding myself. All statements I make have a door open to change. Let us not have barriers between us prevent dialogue.

I can’t go along with Karen Armstrong who now claims whether God exists is only the sort of question we ask post the Enlightenment and not important.

Maybe the bridge is how we wait and listen together.

A man's silhouette, reading a book, inside intense light.

Photo: H.Koppdelaney/flickr CC

11 thoughts on “The God Dilemma

  1. Stephen, you concludes your piece with, “Maybe the bridge is how we wait and listen together.” This is where Stephen and I – an atheist Quaker – have common ground. THE SOLID GROUND beneath our feet is where we can meet in a human state and spirit of equality.
    I find meaning and sustenance as a Quaker because of how we meet, wait and listen together. And also through where we could be heading together.
    I understand where we come from; informed by English, Judeo Christian ethics and culture. As I am. From their beginnings, Quakers were inspired to reject (some of the) confining forms and norms of Christian religious creeds, dogmas, theological idolatry and belief systems. We must continue to allow them to fall away. They are atavistic leftovers that continually stand in the way of human unity, acceptance of our earthly existence and unity with the earth. Albert Einstein once said, “The religions of the future will be cosmic, based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity”. I agree with Einstein.

    The religious experience of Meeting for Worship that Liberal Friends share is an invitation to experience the exhilaration and consciousness of our human wholeness and unity of being with, in and of each other, the cosmos and nature. How often do we feel the inadequacy of the language we use to describe these experiences? The words we use are often not fit for purpose. I think partly because so many experiences are beyond words. All things pass. We are all passing through. The words, images and relationships we seek to form out of these experiences are also passing through. Christianity and its religious imagery and meaning is passing through. The Quaker striving to meet and discern out of our experience; to let go, to let the present inform our future, injects the rumble of revolution into meeting for worship. How many of us rise to the rumble?

  2. Personally, I don’t have a problem with Stephen Cox’s view because my position is, as one overseer put it to an Attender, “we shall not ask what you believe. We shall just watch what you do.”
    However, this article it ignores some facts.
    The majority of Quakers in the world are evangelical so any piece on this topic must accept that it refers only to Friends in Britain. Secondly, there really is potential schism here because there are Meetings which pursue an evangelical approach and are unwelcoming to those for whom God is an irrelevance to their Quaker activity. There are also those Meetings where non-religious Friends dominate, and make life uncomfortable for traditionally Christian Quakers.
    Mostly, these conflicts do not get an airing but they surface from time to time: see “Out of step with BYM” on

  3. Dear fFriends,

    just because someone chooses not to believe in God, doesn’t mean our creator isn’t beside you or within you or is going to go away!!

    As a regular quaking quaker, filled with the holy spirit and having had several experiences of the presence of something not of this world (e.g. Angel visitation) and on one extremely powerful occasion in December 2010 the presence of Christ, I have realised that as a Scientist I stopped trying to intellectualise God, and just accepted the presence, opened my heart and said “Lord, I am all yours, make me an instrument of your piece”… and then it happened.

    So Friends, I am a little like Jez, I came to meeting as a Scientist looking for something, and God knocked on the door of my heart and asked to come in.

    The schism is however becoming real although I have to say although I do not yet feel unwelcome as a 2nd coming christian, if the Religious Society of Friends continues the drift and become more secular, atheist and non-christian I will join the exodus leaving the society. I already see many non-Christian friends only using the term Quakers or society of friends, purposely not using Religious Society of Friends.

    Numerically, we in liberal universalist flavour of Quakerism are shrinking, whilst the Christ-centric flavour continues to grow.

    Blessings and happy searching, however don’t forget whilst constantly looking forward, God or an Angel might actually be behind or standing by you, following you around, but unless you are willing to have faith you’ll never know they are there.


  4. We are the RELIGIOUS Society of Friends, whose founders believed that CHRIST came to teach His people Himself, the same founders who strove to restablish the spirit of primitive CHRISTIANITY. We engage in meetings for WORSHIP, waiting for the Spirit of GOD/CHRIST to move us. These things constitute our identity, not just our social concerns, concerns which any group, religious or not, can embrace. I am saddened that a group of people, however nice and well meaning, can change – or move others to change, ignore, or not mention – things that are part and parcel of our SUBSTANCE as Friends. This kind of thing has happened, and is happening in many other churches as well.

    Someone could for example, take the text of the Anglican or Catholic liturgy, strip it of all reference to God, Jesus, the Divine, afterlife, etc., and still end up with a very nice ceremony of “sharing” which focused on those present, society, etc. It might “feel good”, but it would not be the vehicle of grace – however defined – which it was before.

    That we have watered down and ignored the Christian foundations of our society, so as not to “offend” others or to make all “welcome”, is a sad state of affairs. I did not become a Quaker to do good. I could have joined any number of purely secular organizations for this purpose. I became a Quaker because the Spirit of GOD moved me to do so, and our Quaker ancestors did the same, and no, sorry – the existence of God isn’t just “my opinion”, despite the ability of many to write intellectual treatises that rationalize the non-existence of God, while at the same time waxing poetic about atheist Quakers, non-theistic Quakers, Buddhist-Quakers, or pagan Quakers who combine traditional worship with worshipping “the goddess”, while chanting Navaho prayers in a Finnish sweat lodge to the beat of an Egyptian sistrum.

  5. You say,
    “We would have little difficulty in seeing Quakers for Trident, or Quakers for Bigger Bankers’ Bonuses as aberrant”.
    Actually, you presume too far. I personally know of and have met Quakers in the UK who carry guns to kill animals for sport and people for their job, who work with arms dealers and arms manufacturers.Who have been personally involved in developing unsavory legislation in our country e.g. imprisoning children.
    We Quakers are a very mixed bunch. Maybe thats why we don’t discuss who we are too far…….
    There is a kind of silence kept on a range of matters that the RSofF holds dear. Sadly it has always been thus.

  6. I hear the voice inside me telling me to be the best I can, urging me to look upwards, encouraging me to see the light in others.

    Am I ready to label that voice “God”? No. I label it “Good” until then.

    Will my belief in Good one day become a belief in God? Maybe.

    Does it matter? Maybe not, but:

    Does my extra ‘o’ matter more to others, like Nicholas above, than it does to me? Evidently.

    I will keep on trying to hear the voice. I value it.
    I will keep on trying to hear the voice in the company of Quakers. I value that too.

    I am aware I am not valued by all Quakers. So it goes.

    I am okay with that.

  7. The Becoming Friends study pack quotes David Boulton, a really useful quote which I can summarise as follows: “I can think myself under orders to do what the promptings of Love and Truth require, without needing to sign up to a requirement for a transcendental prompter”. I myself am not a non-theist, but I welcome non-theists while being extra grateful for the remaining theists.

  8. I have on and off over many years considered becoming a Friend. Quakers I have known have a warmth and openness in their beliefs. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough during the second world war to have refused to be conscripted in the armed forces. When I was a social worker in Lewisham I was impressed by their legasy on the Honor Oak estate in setting up a Family Service Unit. My problem is not finding it difficult to believe in a creator but the Christian Church claiming ownership through the claims made in the four Gospels. Jesus was brought up in the Jewish faith and never disowned it.

    • Ken should feel safe exploring further what Quakers actually think and do. Firstly being with us for worship and fellowship is the first step, not everyone feels they have to join, at least for the first 20 years or so! Although peace is of central importance, there were Quakers who were conscripted in the second world war and they were not penalised for agreeing to fight. Quakers sit historically within the Christian tradition but you will find in any meeting a vast variety of views, and freedom to change those views (I joined ‘despite’ this Christian heritage but came to value it enormously). As they say, eight Quakers, nine opinions. Ken you may well know this but other readers may not! in any case best wishes to all

  9. If I wish to join a golf club hoping to play tennis, what happens?

    Isn’t it well known sociologically that if any organisation fails to define itself clearly, if it does not have coherence in its beliefs and purpose, it eventually dies?

    I’m not arguing for a creedal`staement or uniformity of thought, but I am aware of the warnings from many wise Friends about our lack of theological coherence, and especialy from socio-philospohers such as Miroslav Volf about the health of organisations and their survival.

    I say if an atheist wishes to sit with us, fine no problem. But if they wish to take up membership, they should be cautioned that the Society, according to Kate Mellor’s research, is predominantly Christian. This is not an exclusionist stance. Rather, it is loving because we then do honour and justice to the beliefs of that person.

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