Geoffrey Ballard, Canberra Regional Meeting

This article stems from the workshop looking at the non-traditional Quaker colours, that I co-facilitated with Peter Williams at the 2015 YM Summer School.

We attended a Share and Tell session on Non-Theism at the 2014 YM, our first Yearly Meeting. It was great to be among people who shared a range of views, were open to non-traditional beliefs, and wanted to have a conversation about Quaker beliefs. As a follow-up to that session, Peter volunteered to develop a proposal for a Quaker survey, to find out more about Australian Quakers and what they believe, the final results of which are now available. So now we have some data (that can be found on the Quaker website), none of it at all surprising perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.

I introduced the Summer School with these words:

Almost at the same time as the experience of George Fox and the founding of the Religious Society of Friends, Isaac Newton, in 1665, discovered that light is made up of many colours. Like light, 21st century Quakerism is made up of a spectrum of beliefs (colours).

In religion and science, views have changed since the 17th century. Since Fox and Newton’s views on religion, we have had the religious views of scientist Albert Einstein, and now Stephen Hawking; as well, religious thinkers, from the Christian tradition, like Selby Spong, Don Cupitt, Karen Armstrong, and non-theistic Quaker David Boulton, express various views on current religious thought. Their thinking has evolved.

No doubt there are Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist thinkers as well as Humanists who could add much to this arena.

What do you think and believe? The challenge of the Quaker survey was to think about the “god” word. Is Quakerism Christianity without beliefs? Is it Humanism within a Christian culture? Is Quakerism Humanistic Christianity? Does it matter what Quakers believe? I have heard some Quakers say “no” to the last question.

In essence, 62% of Australian Friends believe in “G/god”, 13% do not, and 25% are uncertain or unable to answer. Of those who believe in “G/god”, most describe this term as The Inward Light, A Life Force or Spirit, and not a being. Those who do not believe in “G/god” have developed a range of alternative words to substitute when traditional religious terms are used. Words are metaphors so it is important that when they are used we understand their common meaning so that we can communicate.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the holy Ghost, Born of the virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into Hell, The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, The holy Catholick Churche, The Comunion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, The resurrection of the body, And the life everlasting. Amen.

From the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Is this the God that George Fox believed in?

Can I make a bold assertion and say that most 21st century Australian Quakers do not believe in this God, and that most people would see Quakers as non-theists if a conversation took place. David Boulton says,

Nontheism … is …the absence of any belief in a deity or deities, in the existence of God (where ‘existence’ is understood in a realist, objective sense), and especially belief in one God as creator and supreme ruler. (p.6, Godless for God’s Sake, edited by David Boulton)

Some Quaker nontheists have wholly abandoned ‘God language’ and hope for a progressive relinquishment of such language within the Society. Some choose not to use the word ‘God’ themselves but are happy to “translate” it when it is used by other Friends in written or spoken ministry or in conversation. Some have no problem using traditional Quaker Godspeak – “God”, “that of God”, “the Spirit”, “the divine”, ‘”the inner light” – understanding these hallowed and resonant terms metaphorically, symbolically, poetically, instrumentally, signifying the sum of our human values, the imagined embodiment of our human ideals, the focus of our ultimate concern: no more, but, gloriously, no less than all that makes up the wholly human spirit. (p.7-8, Godless for God’s Sake, edited by David Boulton)

Unfortunately experience is so hard to put into words. Yet we need to use words to communicate. As my husband pointed out to me: trying to describe beautiful music to another person is almost impossible. It has to be experienced. Yet everyone will experience something different. When I first heard Mimi and Rodolfo express their love for each other in La Boheme, tears came to my eyes. Someone else may be left without any emotional reaction, or a different reaction.

Quakers are experimental and experiential. They don’t accept being told, or behaving according to a formula. Quakers are bit like cats. Ever try herding cats?

So what is the problem? Quakers have meetings for “worship”. Some would call them just meetings, or meetings for silence and stillness, or meetings for contemplation and insight. And when you look on the Australian Quaker website, and start reading the material, a different picture is revealed about Quaker belief, at odds with the results of the Quaker survey. ‘God’ language is used that needs explanation for good communication. Making assumptions can lead to big misunderstandings.

For example, at the end of a press release by the YM Clerk, put out after the 2015 YM, it states:

About Quakers: ………Quakers believe everyone is endowed with something of the divine; and one can strengthen awareness of it and obedience to it by silent worship, mutual support and activity together, and by trying to live according to our testimonies……

I believe this statement is not a true reflection of all Quakers in Australia in 2015. If the statement had said: Most Quaker believe….. then it would have used inclusive language and been accurate.

This is the challenge for 21st century Quakerism. How to describe Quakerism that allows for the many colours of belief, at the same time not denying the historical Christian tradition, but using inclusive language that does not exclude those who are non-theist. Advices and Queries is a very useful tool for meditation and reflection, but for many non-theists it has many roadblocks because of the language used and the assumptions made about modern day Quakers.

It is often said that Quakers believe that there is something of God in everyone. They don’t, you know! Many do, but not all. And that is after a conversation to decide what is your experience or definition of God.

What would George Fox, with a 21st century mindset, say about Quakers now? Would he say, “Of course we believe in God – make it very clear to everyone”. (Which God would that be George?) Or would he be saying. “We are many years past the age of Enlightenment. We have scientific discoveries and understanding about the Universe. Update!” In the recent film The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking says in one of the opening scenes, to Jane, his future wife, that he is a cosmologist. “What’s cosmology?” she asks, and he responds, “Religion for intelligent atheists.”

How do Quakers now present themselves to the world as people of many colours (beliefs)? How do Quakers speak about themselves to each other? How can a theist and non-theist listen and accept each other, without the fear of change and a loss of historical tradition and heritage?

In particular, the current language, especially in written form, is not inclusive of all Quakers today. Diversity can bring strength, but Quakers must drag themselves into the 21st century, and truly represent the makeup of all members.

In 1656 the elders at Balby released Quakers from complete adherence to original writings, (the letter killeth”), as is seen in other religious traditions, and established the principle of continuing revelation”. The challenge is to make the principles and the practice of early Quakers meaningful to us by using language and practices that are relevant in the context of today’s culture.

I am not rejecting the use of religious language. I am asking for relevant and inclusive language.


Children of the Light
Come in all ages and sizes
One shape does not fit all.

Haiku by Margaret Woodward

Further reading

Books and articles

Bolton David (ed) 2009. Godless for God’s sake. Nontheism in contemporary Quakerism. Dales Historical Monographs; Hobsons Farm, Dent UK;

Epstein, Greg M. 2010 Good without God. What a billion nonreligious people do believe. HarperCollins: New York, NY.

Geering, Lloyd 2002  Christianity without God.  Polebridge Pess, California. 

Vosper, Greta 2012. Amen. What prayer can mean in a world beyond belief. HarperCollins: Toronto;

Maguire, Daniel C. 2014 Christianity without God. Moving beyond the dogmas and retrieving the epic moral narrative. State University of New York Press: Albany, NY.

Harris, Sam 2014. Waking Up. A guide to spirituality without religion. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY

Holloway, Richard 1999.  Godless morality.  Canongate Books, Edinburgh.

Cressin, Os 2014. Quaker and naturalist too. Morning Walk Press: Iowa City, IA.

Raymo, Chet 2008. When God is gone everything is holy. The making of a

religious naturalist. Sorin Books: Notre Dame IN.

Rush, David 2002. They Too are Quakers: A survey of 199 nontheist

Friends. Available at

Wright, Michael (2014). Being Quaker now. A different way of being open

for transformation. Available at:


Nontheist Friends

Nontheist Quakers. Nontheist Friends Network for British Quakers of an atheist, agnostic or nontheist persuasion interested in modern theology.

Quaker Universalist Voice. A forum for exploring diverse spiritual paths.

Sea of faith network “Exploring and promoting religious faith as human creation”

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