Advices and Queries for Nontheists
Gryff and Peter
Peter Williams and Gryff Jamieson-Ballard, Victoria Regional Meeting
In the 378 responses to the 2014 Australian Quaker Survey, when asked “Do you believe in God” 62% of Australian Quakers answered yes, 13% no, and 25% were unsure or unable to answer (1). Of those who answered yes, when asked which terms they used to describe God, only 17% said “a being”; the most common descriptors chosen were “the inward Light” (65%), “Love” (62%), “a life force” (55%), “a spirit” (45%), or “a creative spirit” (40%), and 18% described God as “a human construct”. Thus there is a great diversity of views and understanding of the word “God” among Australian Quakers. In the same survey, 13% of Attenders who had not applied for Membership gave as one of the reasons that their beliefs were not congruent with Quaker beliefs, including that they were atheists (2).
There has been a long tradition of non-theism within the Quaker community (3,4) and in Britain there is an active Non-theist Friends Network which holds regular conferences and posts articles online. This has led to ongoing discussion about the language Quakers use (5). However there have also been critics of the term Nontheist Quakerism who warn that it can be a contradiction in terms (6).
When asked in the 2014 survey “What do you read to nurture your spiritual life?”, the source most frequently nominated by Australian Quakers was our Advices and Queries (77%). In the Introduction to that document, which has evolved over many years from original British sources, it is noted that “Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning; some do not”, however the constant use of the word “God” throughout the text (33 times in the 47 entries) may make it difficult to access for those Friends who espouse a nontheist approach to Quakerism. If the reader does not have a clear understanding of what the word is meant to convey the reader is left to create their own translation and interpretation, which is not a good model for clear communication, and may lead to feelings of exclusion. Other Christian writers have also called for more spiritually inclusive language in their church’s life (7).
In Britain, Young Friends attempted a new take on Advices and Queries. In Living our beliefs young Friends made a book that “tackles similar topics to Quaker Faith and Practice but .. (is) .. shorter, more accessible and more concise” (8). One of the 17 or so chapters is “Advices and queries as compiled by young Quakers” (pp.79-81) created at a junior yearly meeting in 2015. This version reduces 42 Advices and Queries (some 12 pages) to 42 simple statements (2 pages). One example is A&Q 4 which is reduced to just four words “Remember our Christian heritage”, compared with the original – 73 words with five references to Jesus and two to God. These 42 contain one reference to the word “God” compared to some 37 in the original. The one reference to God is in A&Q 17: “Everyone thinks of God differently; don’t be judgemental” (9).
As nontheists, we have found that while we treasure the Australian Advices and Queries for the wisdom they contain, we constantly have to overlook or translate much of its religious language that does not speak clearly to us, and we wonder if many other Australian Friends have the same experience. Consequently, we have attempted to produce two revised versions that try to retain the essence and meaning of the text without the use of language that may be unfamiliar and offputting to some who find many religious terms either confusing and unhelpful or needing clearer definitions to be understood. The first of these versions – Advices and Queries for Nontheist Quakers – keeps as closely as possible to the original wording, and retains much of the religious language although avoiding the term God throughout. The second version – Advices and Queries for Humanist Quakers – is a more significant revision that replaces words such as God, Spirit, Divine, prayer and worship with language that is likely to be more acceptable to and understood by Humanist Friends. These versions are interesting to compare:
Advices and Queries:
- Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.
Advices and Queries for Nontheist Quakers:
- Let the teachings of Christ provide guidance for the whole of your life. Are you open to the healing power of love? Cherish the spirit of compassion within you so that it may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.
Advices and Queries for Humanist Quakers:
- Let the teachings of the ancient philosophers or the great religions provide guidance for the whole of your life. Are you open to the healing power of compassion? Cherish the compassion within you so that it may grow in you and guide you. Let your contemplations and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure life however you experience it. Remember that personal growth and doing what you can, is not a notion but a life-stance.
We do not propose these new versions as replacements for the current publication, but they could be alternatives that nontheist Friends would find easier to read and understand and they might be helpful in stimulating reconsideration and discussion of the wording and meaning of our current Advices and Queries by all Australian Friends.
- Williams PG and Hampton, JM. (2016). Results from the First National Survey of Quaker Belief and Practice in Australia and Comparison with the 2013 British Survey. Quaker Studies 21(1): 95-119.
- Williams PG and Thomson L. (2018). Ready for Membership? Voices from the 2014 Australian Quaker Survey. Quaker Studies 23(1):83-107.
- Cressin, O. (2014) Quaker and Naturalist Too. Iowa City: Morning Walk Press.
- Boulton, D (ed). (2009). Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism. Dent: Dales Historical Monographs.
- Rowlands, H (ed). (2017). God, words and us. Quakers in conversation about religious difference. London: Quaker Books.
- Anderson, P. (2012). Is “Nontheist Quakerism” a Contradiction of Terms? Quaker Religious Thought 118: Article 2. Available at: https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/qrt/vol118/iss1/2
- Vosper, G. (2008). With or Without God. Why the way we live is more important than what we believe. Toronto: Harper Collins.
- Graham, R. and Young Quakers (eds) (2018). Living our beliefs. An exploration of the faith and practice of Quakers. London: Quaker Books. Available at:
- Bending, T. (2019). Quaker ‘Advices and Queries’ for Nontheists. Available at: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2019/08/26/quaker-advices-and-queries-for-nontheists/
The Paradox of Power
The Paradox of Power by Brendan Caulfield-James | 6 Dec, 2020 Brendan Caulfield-James, Victoria Regional Meeting The greatest achievement of humanity is not its works of art, science or technology, but the recognition of its own...Read More
Joseph and Hannah May and family were central to the growth of Quakers in South Australia.
Cathy Davies. New South Wales Regional Meeting. Joseph and Hannah May, their five sons and...Read More
Studying to Create God in Our Own Image?
Ivan Himmelhoch, Victoria Regional Meeting It is always profoundly humbling to visit a person in a hospice at the end stage of their life’s journey. Such encounters have also made me reflect very deeply as to why that...Read More
Hi Peter Williams and Gryff Jamieson-Ballard, In a recent Kabbalah book I read “God is no thing. (Not nothing) And I really appreciated the concept. I relate it to the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Apparently, as I learned in seminary in 1975, the concept of what we call God was originally YHVH and is actually the breath, breathing out and breathing in, which was unpronounceable. Some may say Al-aha or other names, but I see it as important that we don’t see It as an idol.
PS. Hope to see you both in Castelmaine in the near future. The Kabbalah book was Kabbalah New Perspectives by Moshe Idel
I’ve read the two documents, A & Q for Non-theists and Humanists. The first line in both is intriguing, and perhaps you can offer some advice. The A & Q (Humanist) says, ‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your minds’, while the A & Q (Non-theists) has ‘heart’ rather than ‘mind’. So, which is it?–heart or mind?
My next question is related to my first: ‘Why does one leave out ‘minds’ and the other’ hearts’ and omit juxtaposing them? Traditionally, ‘hearts and minds’ signifies the whole person. I’m puzzled by the omission.
And my final question is technical but no less important: ‘Is the reference to ‘minds’ based on (scientific) Materialism? I ask this because I suspect it actually is. And, if that is case, then why is it that a growing number of atheist scientist-philosophers, like the well-known David Chalmers (ex-ANU), cast considerable doubt on the proposition that matter gives rise to consciousness? Please note that ‘mind’ is not of itself consciousness but a ‘part’ (so to speak) of consciousness.
Thank you Peter and Gryff for this careful and thought provoking article. I have difficulty with categories of ‘theist’ and ‘non theist’- each of those labels covers a range of beliefs and ideas, which, as you mentioned, the responses to the survey indicate.
I like your idea of an alternative version to, rather than a replacement of, the wonderful Advices and Queries and appreciate your suggestions. Undertaking this process could lead to dynamic discussions within our Society and some fresh interpretations of the important ideas in our Quaker tradition.
It reminds me of the fact that we have different translations of the Bible and that other denominations have changed words in traditional hymns, for example ‘humankind’ replacing ‘mankind’.