Nontheist Quakers

episode 49 nontheist quakers

Sam Barnett-Cormack calls in to talk about nontheist Quakers. Sam is one. This has been requested by a few listeners.

Micah is currently moving cross-country to be co-pastor (with his wife) at Berkeley Friends Church, so everybody wish him well. He’ll be back when things settle a little.


Mackenzie: Hi. Welcome back to Quaker Faith and Podcast. This is Mackenzie, your host. Micah is not with us right now. He has just accepted a new post as a co-pastor at Berkeley Friends Church in California so he is in the middle of a cross country move.

Mackenzie: And we have a guest today of Sam Barnett-Cormack … I hope I said that correctly … from the UK.

Sam: Hi, yep, yep. You got that right. Hello, everyone.

Mackenzie: We’ve been asked several times to have an episode about specifically about nontheist friends because we mention them from time to time but neither Micah nor I is one anymore. And Sam is a very vocal nontheist friend online so I asked him to join us.

Sam: Glad to be here.

Mackenzie: So, I guess we’ll just start with how do you define nontheism?

Sam: Well, there’s two ways for me to answer that. One is the really broad way that I see it as an analytical category and the other is to talk about what I actually feel or believe or however you want to phrase it. Obviously, that fits into the analytical category I would use. And I say analytical category because I don’t ever want to tell someone what label they should be using.

Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sam: But sometimes it’s useful when you’re looking at the huge range of beliefs among friends to be able to categorize just for that purpose of looking at the differences. So, in the broad sense, it comes down to how I learnt from a rather eccentric religious education teacher the idea of what theism is. And there are a few different definitions out there. But I’ve always stuck with the one that I learned at school because it makes sense to me and seems quite useful.

Sam: And it’s the idea that being a theistic God or Gods, and a God is theistic if they have identity. They are a being. They have preferences, wants, desires. And they are willing and able to act directly in our world. So, I would categorize a view of God or whatever label you want to use as non-theistic if it doesn’t meet all of those criteria.

Mackenzie: I know this has been a point where we have discovered that we label things differently. I used to call myself pantheist and I know that you would say that that is a nontheist way of thinking and I would think of it pantheist one.

Sam: I’ve spoken to pantheist friends who I would categorize their belief as nontheistic and also I would categorize as theistic. So, you know, pantheism is this idea that everything is God, to put it simply. And then, the question there just becomes whether this Geshtalt entity of everything has a personality of its own that we can only, as the parts of that great thing, see part of.

Sam: So, for me, a theistic pantheist would believe that this universe God has a personality of its own independent of any of us and has things it wants to see happen and is able to affect things within itself. Whereas, a nontheist pantheist would see there being no independent personality of the Geshtalt might see it as a completely impersonal being that incorporates everything.

Sam: And there’s a lot of fuzzy edges here and it can be very hard to talk about some things without, especially in Quaker experience, without ascribing the idea of will to the divine.

Mackenzie: Especially when we get into things like business method.

Sam: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the simplest way of explaining business method is we are seeking to know the will of God so we can carry it out. It’s a little a sticky when you don’t believe that God has a will but different people make sense of it in different ways. I think the common experience the vast majority of nontheist friends based on those I’ve spoken to and things I’ve read would say that there is something when we have our business meetings that is guiding us. The question of whether that’s will on the part of this thing that’s guiding us, it’s more difficult to say. It’s most easy to think of it as will but I personally think of it more as wisdom that when we make this connection with one another and with the divine, we gain access to a wisdom that’s beyond what any of us has on our own and that helps guide us to a course of action that is right.

Sam: And sometimes, I’ve found that it seems that its idea of what’s right might be different from ours and we might not be aware of that difference. So, we think our objective is one thing and we meet together, we gather in the silence, and wait to be guided, and this wisdom shows us a course to take. And it turns out that this wasn’t a good course toward the objective that we thought we had but it did work out incredibly well for an objective that we might not have considered that produces good results.

Mackenzie: Okay. Something that stuck out to me when you were talking is when you were talking about guiding and to me, guiding, being as it’s … I mean, it’s a verb with a direct object so it makes me think that’s something that to me seems like it is an exercise of will. So, to me, it’s weird to think of there being a noun which guides but does not have will. Does that make sense?

Sam: It makes sense but perhaps if one were to think of it as guide rails or even a sat-nav.

Mackenzie: For the Americans, that’s GPS.

Sam: It doesn’t mesh entirely with what I was saying about the goal not being what you thought the goal was but set that bit aside to think of it this way. If you’ve got a sat-nav, you tell it where you want to go, and it guides you there.

Mackenzie: There was that time that my mother’s GPS didn’t realize that they were on the surface level and not on the highway above and told them to turn left and they turned left onto a bike path and went through a tiny, tiny tunnel that was supposed to be for bicycles.

Sam: Yep, yep. I was once with someone who was following one of these and it told them to take the next right and it didn’t bother to tell them that what appeared to be the next right was a one-way street. Yep. Turned right into a one-way street into an oncoming bus. Fortunately, there were parking spaces they could pull into and it sorted out, but it was disconcerting.

Sam: So, you can think of the spirit in that sense as a sat-nav that is somehow smart enough to sometimes know where you should be going rather than you want to go which let’s face it, with the way some of these online companies are going now, might not be so far off from reality.

Mackenzie: I know. When I wake up, my phone is like it’s going to take you this long to get to meeting. And I’m like okay. What’s cool is it knows where I go. It knows I go to the meeting house on Sunday mornings and this is what time I’m going to have to leave. There’s some traffic on Georgia Avenue.

Sam: Yeah. I know. I was volunteering at something this evening and my role there is mostly to manage the spreadsheet with member’s details and record who’s been which weeks and so on. And the person who mostly runs the event had recently got a tablet to use because their laptop was getting a bit messy. And I’d never seen this feature before but I opened up Google Drive to get at the spreadsheet and what I wanted came up first with a little note under it saying you usually open this at about this time.

Mackenzie: Oh my. Okay, then.

Sam: Which is helpful but a little disconcerting. So, yeah, maybe the increasingly autonomous smart web isn’t that bad an analogy for how I see the spirit. I hadn’t thought of that until this conversation but it kind of works.

Mackenzie: Well, I think you’ve noticed probably by now that I’m fond of using sci-fi analogies. I think I referred to the Ood brain from Doctor Who in a conversation with you recently.

Sam: Yeah, yeah. And there are some elements to that that do match how I see the divine because fundamentally, the way I see it and the way I feel that all of these different ideas, we as Quakers, have can work together is whatever God divine spirit see, whatever it is, is fundamentally beyond our comprehension. So, each of us will find someway of relating to it that works for us and helps us to connect but the really important thing about how I see the divine is in that word connect. I don’t know if it’s something that is, by and large, entirely internal to us. I know it’s always there in me but it could be something entirely external to me that just always has that presence in me which would be a more traditional way of thinking about it.

Mackenzie: More of an antenna receiver sort of.

Sam: Yeah. Whatever it is though, I know that it is always there. I know that I can always reach it if I can find the stillness. But when I gather together with other friends and we are all doing that together whether it’s in a typical meeting for worship or in a meeting for worship for business or in a decently run committee meeting, I can feel that whatever it is in each of us is connecting and our ability to perceive it and benefit from it becomes greater because of that sharing and that’s what’s so fundamentally important to me about Quaker worship practices.

Mackenzie: I think this conversation means I’m going to use the antenna receiver thing more because it just occurred to me that that sounds like getting a whole bunch together and amplifying the signal.

Sam: Yep. Yep. The analogy works perfectly well. And that’s the beauty of it all, of course, is there are so many analogies we can use that fit some or all of different people’s experience. But the analogies aren’t the reality. Whatever the reality is, is so far beyond us that the only time we’ll understand it is possibly after death if something happens. That’s something I’m completely agnostic on. Maybe that will allow us to understand it. Maybe if there’s anything to the Dharmic religion’s idea of enlightenment or ascending to a different level of consciousness. Maybe that will allow us to get closer to understanding it but as we are now, all we’ve got is analogies, is metaphors. Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors can be wonderful things but when you start mistaking the metaphor for the reality, that’s when you end up with too much certainty and with inferring things from the analogy that aren’t part of the fundamentals of it.

Mackenzie: I think mixing up metaphor versus reality is … So, for me, that was what was actually making me continue to identify as atheist or nontheist when I first came to friends because I had grown up with the Sistine Chapel ceiling version of theology. You’ve got God as an old man. He’s up on a cloud, that long beard, that whole thing. And I couldn’t believe in that. It was like no, that doesn’t make sense. I can’t believe that.

Mackenzie: But the idea that … Like the pantheist idea that everything, that God is a force that infuses all of creation, that was something that fit much better for me and I was a lot more comfortable with that sort of idea than with the old guy father thing.

Sam: Yeah.

Mackenzie: And at some point, I said … Well, I had left the meeting that I had been going to because of personal stuff, but I started going to Micah’s thing and I was like is it okay if I come here when I’m not a Christian? And he’s like yeah, as long as you’re cool with the fact that we’re going to be reading a Bible. I’m like okay, sure.

Mackenzie: But then, he ended up explaining to me that theologians don’t talk about God as being the old cloud man. That’s a metaphor and there are a whole ton of metaphors out there and you don’t have to believe in the old guy on the cloud in order to say that you believe in God. And I was like oh.

Sam: Yeah. And I have to say that among Christian friends, at least within the liberal Quaker world, I struggle to think if I have ever known anyone that I’ve spoken to enough to get an idea of how they really think about God who has actually been within 10 miles of the big beard in the sky model. So, one of the strengths are the fact that we accept nontheists where we do is that the people who are struggling with those traditional stereotyped understandings can have a space where they know they’re not expected to see things that way because they’re not expected to see things in any way.

Sam: And I think there are some Christian friends I know who welcome nontheists largely because of the hope that they will come to see things in a way that works for them but are still broadly Christian. And I’m glad that they welcome nontheists. I’m not sure that I’m glad that that’s the reason. But as long as they don’t mind that it doesn’t always work, that’s fine.

Mackenzie: I think there’s certainly a … and I don’t know if it was in your hearing, but I know that I’ve said before that my feeling is that when you first come to friends or to whatever … If you’re going from no faith at all to picking one, whether it’s friends or something else, that you don’t want to just end up staying in the same place. The point of coming to a faith community is supposed to be that there’s supposed to be growth and change over time. So, if you come in and just say well, the thing that I already believe is fine and this is it and it never needs to change, and I don’t want anybody to try to influence any sort of change, then that seems like what’s the point. Does that makes sense?

Sam: Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that’s been said to me a few times by not the most heavily Christian essentialist Quakers but people who are heavily in that direction that they feel like part of the definition of Quakerism should be Christianity have said to me that I should wear my nontheism as long as I can, with obviously the reference to Penn’s sword.

Mackenzie: Which isn’t actually Penn’s.

Sam: It’s however hypocritive it is, it’s quite a nice little parable but I sat with this and reflected the first time it happened and said suddenly, as long as you’ll wear your theism, Christianity, whatever, as long as you can. As long as we’re all open to the idea that our experience of the divine could change us in ways that we cannot imagine, then it’s all fine. I’ve known several people who came to Quakers as nontheists of one stripe or another and who then became much more Christian, very interested, in the figure of Christ, sometimes even going as far as to start subscribe to relatively conventional Christian theology about the subject of the atonement and the importance of the risen Christ and so on and so forth.

Mackenzie: I was going to say the substutionary tone which is pretty recent but then it occurs to me, it’s a couple of decades older than [inaudible 00:20:09]. And so …

Sam: It’s relatively conventional in a lot of the Christian world now.

Mackenzie: You have to believe in Jehovahism.

Sam: But I’ve also known people who’ve made the opposite journey who have come into Quakers being relatively conventional Christians but there’s been something that’s drawn them to Quakers whether it has been our affirmation of non-heterosexuality. I know one friend who told me that they came to Quakers because they wanted a Christian community where they could live openly and honestly. Or whether it’s because they felt the need for some sort of more personal spirituality and they felt that having a preacher or particularly having a designated priesthood doesn’t make sense to them anymore and they want to experience Christianity another way.

Sam: But then, from that process, have developed a different understanding of God. Most of those people I’ve known have kept using the word God but then when you start talking to them about it, they don’t mean anything by it that most people would imagine adhering the word God. And that understanding they have that’s developed has become more nontheistic.

Mackenzie: Okay. And I wonder whether they would call it nontheistic or if they wouldn’t?

Sam: I’ve known some who did use the label and some who didn’t so it’s yeah. And this is the thing, when we’re talking about these labels and people using it to identify themselves, all of them are a shorthand and everyone’s got a slightly different version of the shorthand. There are plenty of Christian Quakers out there who if they explained their beliefs to someone from a relatively evangelical or relatively conservative, theologically speaking, church, the person would say that’s not Christian.

Mackenzie: Right. And that’s a lot of what’s been said about Catholics and about Episcopalians … well, your Anglicans. But actually, I don’t know if you saw, there was a recent Friend’s Journal article by Lauren Brownley who is a Quaker who lives, I don’t know, 10 minutes from me. And she said that she was visiting in Ramala, in Palestine, with a bunch of folks who turned out … the rest of them were Evangelicals. She was the only Quaker in the group.

Mackenzie: And then, they got to Ramala Friend’s School and that’s when the Evangelicals found out that Quakers aren’t exactly like them when it comes to Christianity and they had a little quiz with her. And they asked well, do you believe in an omniscient God? And she’s like well, I don’t not believe in one. And they kept asking her questions about theology that were very orthodox and very … the particulars of theology that you find in something like a creed and she would just say well, I don’t not believe in that. And they’re like what makes you Christian? And she said it’s Jesus. I know the story of Jesus and I’m interested in the story and I’m following things he said, and that’s what makes me Christian is that. And there was the ending of it was that they asked her something about how her faith plays out and before she could answer, one of the other Evangelicals said justice. At which point, they had intuited it. And then, all of the other Evangelicals went oh, okay, we’re on the same page.

Sam: Hmm. Yeah. And with that idea of the defining point of Christianity, the idea of learning from or following Christ, if that were to come to inception, I could almost, almost, call myself a Christian.

Mackenzie: And lots of people call themselves Christian atheists because they …

Sam: Absolutely. Atheist and nontheist Christianity is so many people think of it as a contradiction in terms but there is a considerable community out there.

Mackenzie: There’s [crosstalk 00:24:49] Bible like Thomas Jefferson, for anyone who is not aware, wrote a … He made a version of the Bible back in the 1700s where the miracles aren’t there and the idea of Jesus being divine isn’t there. It’s more about the sayings and teaching of Jesus which I guess could almost be a reverse engineering of what scholars call the Q-source which is the theoretical source of all of the lessons Jesus gives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that don’t show up in the much shorter Mark.

Sam: Yeah. And I think that there is a lot of great stuff in the teachings of Jesus and there’s some stuff that jars with me and that I struggle with and I wonder … everything else is so good and there’s this bit that isn’t for me. And you start to think well, maybe that was a later interpolation. Maybe this has been misrepresented.

Mackenzie: Or is there some whole thing that you’re missing, right?

Sam: Yeah.

Mackenzie: I know that the … This is one that Micah and I have had a conversation about that where I think he and I were disagreeing because … but I know one of the things he has a fault with is Jesus talking about divorce, right? And my view on it is well, in that culture and that time, women could never be the ones who requested divorce. Only men. Men could divorce their wives but women couldn’t divorce their husbands. And women couldn’t own property and so, if a man divorced his wife, he was abandoning her to poverty. If she had children to take care of her, growing children, to take her in then she could survive but otherwise, she was going to be begging and possibly homeless.

Mackenzie: And so, Jesus saying no, you can’t just divorce your wife all willy-nilly. Well, to me, that’s talking about spousal abandonment.

Sam: Yeah. No, I can completely see that viewpoint. And one of the things that we have to remember is, as I see it, no matter how inspired something is, it still has to be considered in its context and in its time. And the thing to do with these things that are from such a different context is to try and look at the underlying what’s driving them? What are they trying to change about their context? What direction does that point you in?

Sam: The biggest thing that would stop me saying, in those terms, the idea that a Christian is someone who tries to follow and learn from Jesus. The biggest thing that would stop me saying that if we have that definition of a Christian is there’s just nothing particularly special about Jesus for me in that I find similar inspiration in a lot of sources, some sacred, some not. So, I don’t privilege the idea of Jesus of Nazareth as a particular teacher. But he is a teacher and a valuable teacher but the thing that helps us with that context is what the early friends were saying is opening our hearts to the spirit that gave forth the scripture rather than just looking at the text.

Mackenzie: Yes. I have one friend who said that the way he views the often similar ethics of various faiths is that him, that’s proof of the universality of the spirit and the light. That because of … and that to him is proof of God because God is finding ways to speak through all these different faiths and it would be harder for him to believe in God if the ethics were drastically different across … if there were religions that were like lying is awesome. Cheating is awesome. Because then, the fact that that’s not the case makes him feel like proof that there is a single source that it’s all emanating from.

Sam: Yeah. Yeah. I would agree that there is a single source. I just don’t think that I can personally … Yeah, I can’t personally conclude much about what that source is. It might be … and sometimes, I like to return to, I can’t remember, it’s a quote but in Fox’s writings he talked about turning inward with the spirit and looking inside himself and seeing the capacity for all crimes in himself. And for me, this is where dualism comes into my faith, the idea of good versus evil is that there is in us a, if you will, a divine principle but there is also in us, in a sense, a diabolic principle that we all have an innate capacity for goodness and we all have an innate capacity for great evil. And that’s what being attentive to the spirit helps us with is letting that divine side out and keeping the diabolical side down.

Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I know in Barkley’s apology, he writes about them as being the seed of Christ and the seed of the serpent and the way he talks about them growing and flourishing really is similar to the parable of the two wolves. You’ve got the which wolf wins, we’ll feed. And so, it’s interesting that that same analogy pops up in different cultures as well.

Sam: Yep, yep. Now, I see it as a perfectly plausible hypothesis that there’s this thing in us that, yeah, I’m definitely metaphysical about this. I think there’s something more than the basic physical world we understand and that’s why we can connect in this way when we join and worship together. But that there is something [inaudible 00:32:01].

Mackenzie: Which is nontheist because I know there’s some non material as well.

Sam: There’s some nontheists who are very strictly materialist. There are some who are very metaphysical, more so than me. There are some who are very mystical and it gets a bit new age sometimes.

Mackenzie: [inaudible 00:32:31] because keep in mind that the biggest upsurgance in Quakerism in the US was during the Vietnam War when all the hippies joined.

Sam: We had a similar thing, of course, with a lot of women coming because they’d met Quakers at Green Common and wanted to see what it was all about and I don’t know how many ended up staying. Some found that it was all a bit not political enough for them. They mentioned it would be more political given where they met people but some stayed and it’s part of what gives us this rich tapestry of different backgrounds and different ways people came into the faith.

Sam: But the … how to put this? … whatever it is we have these good and bad, divine and diabolical, these different principles, and this is something that is part of us whether it’s connected to some outside entity with personality or not. And this is another one of the things that you see consistently popping up in different faiths and mythologies where these faiths do have personifications, they often have some degree of dualism or if it gets more complex when you’re into real polytheistic faiths in that there’s more than two and some are a bit good and some are a lot good and some are a bit bad and some are a lot bad.

Sam: But this idea of there being this external good and evil principles is potentially, hypothetically, could just be people’s attempt to understand what’s going on in themselves. Or it could be really looking at an objective reality that there really are these outside entities, I don’t claim to have definite knowledge of this. But it makes sense as a potential explanation that when people have been trying to understand what’s going on inside themselves.

Sam: So, when people have been trying to understand what’s going on around outside them, they might come up with one or more Gods doing various thing to affect the natural world. You’ve got Zeus sending the thunder. You’ve got Poseidon sending the storms. And when they’re trying to understand what’s going on within themselves, they end up doing the same thing. The Greek pantheon is particularly interesting for this once you get onto the minor deities, as well the different minor gods that are associated with Ares and war.

Sam: You have godly personifications of fear and of panic, of chaos and of disorder, and of all the effects that are left in the wake of war when it’s over, all get these personifications. So, I can understand that people would try and personify the things they struggled with in themselves. And then, of course, there’s always the theory that the fact that people believed things makes them true, the Discworld approach.

Mackenzie: Oh, I was going to say American Gods.

Sam: Well, there’s two good authors there, pick one. It doesn’t really matter. But yeah, the idea that belief alters realty, maybe it does. Maybe all of these figures that people believe in have some objective existence because we’ve given it to them. I’ve never met one, that I know of, but who knows?

Mackenzie: We should absolutely do an episode at some point about the personification of anthromorpozation or whatever the idea of spirits. Because I know that friends do have a history of especially if we talk about the lamb’s war of talking about the spirit of things, like the spirit of jealousy or spirit of war, or just talking about spiritual warfare which requires personifying various evils. But people vary in the extent to which they think of those as just metaphors versus literal and I actually have an idea of who to get on here to talk about that.

Sam: Sounds like it will be fascinating.

Mackenzie: Is there anything else that you wanted to say about nontheism? I think we sort of launched off from your definition without really touching on what your personal particular belief is.

Sam: We’ve covered some of my personal belief in terms of how I experience and understand worship, that connection of the light within us, but I think perhaps a good way to explain more of the fundamentals of my belief would be briefly talk about what I’ve since come to recognize may well have been my first conscious contact with the divine.

Sam: I actually had been visited while I was a student by some missionaries from the Church of Latter Day Saints, Mormons. They seem to have quite an active …

Mackenzie: [inaudible 00:38:55] that come to my …

Sam: Yeah, we have quite an active mission here, it seems. So, we’ve got a lot of Americans and the odd German coming over and …

Mackenzie: In white shirts with black name tags.

Sam: Yeah, yeah. It seems to be their worldwide uniform. But when they visited, I said look, I would love to hear about your faith, your religion, your church because I love learning about these things. I’ve always had a deep interest in different approaches to religion. I said I really don’t think you’re going to get anywhere with me, but I would love to learn. And the ones who were there when I first said this seemed to be completely on board with this. Some of the ones who replaced them when they rotated out were less so.

Sam: But anyway, I had a couple of them, changing who they were, but over a year or so, they kept coming most weeks and talking over things. I went and sat in on one of their chapel services and they invited me to observe the priesthood meeting afterwards. And in between, of course, there was the Sunday School which everyone goes to, just in different groups, based on the point they’ve reached in their studies which I actually really approve of, but that’s a topic for another day.

Mackenzie: Or the fact that it was appointed studies as opposed to [inaudible 00:40:27].

Sam: Yeah. So, I think that there was probably something specific for the children because there was special concerns when you were working with children but it was apart from children being somewhat separate, it was very much to do with the people who ran the classes working together to figure out who should be in what group and what they should be covering. It was a really interesting way of running things. But anyway.

Mackenzie: [inaudible 00:40:56] not to do that sort of thing.

Sam: Where this comes down to the point I’m getting to is the thing they always ask people to do when they’re taking this is to pray and ask God if what the missionaries are teaching is true. And I said look, I can’t pray. It would be dishonest. I don’t believe in something to pray to. But I’ll do the nearest I can, I’ll meditate on it.

Sam: And I did and I had a remarkably profound experience doing so. And I’ve tried a few times to put into words the conviction that settled on me during that but the key point to it really was that yes, what they were teaching was true for them but what all of these other groups everywhere else were teaching was true also. And that the important part, the important goal, of the spiritual journey is finding the truth that fits for you because they’re all just reflections of a greater and unattainable truth. So, that is my goal and my journey. Part of that is learning as much as I can about all these different ways of thinking about things, all these different practices.

Sam: And finding Quakers has been a huge step in this journey for me because it is a supportive space for us to make our individual journeys together and at its best, it’s a space where we can all share our different journeys and try and understand everyone else as they understand themselves without any assumption that everyone has to agree. So maybe this journey towards the best reflection of truth I can find for myself will lead me to a path of more certainty somewhere. I can’t predict that but it has such a huge range of incredibly sincerely held belief in the world, all I can do is take all of those teachings and reflect and seek guidance and see what happens.

Mackenzie: Great, thank you, Sam.

Sam: Thank you.

Mackenzie: It’s been very nice to have you on.

Sam: I’ve enjoyed it. Thank you.

Mackenzie: And I think I might actually like to … We’ll see, maybe we can have you on again some other time to talk about more of the little threads that I think have popped out of this.

Sam: Sure, I’d be glad to.

Mackenzie: You can find us on the web at or on Facebook or Twitter.