Quakerism’s struggle with the God question deepens

While liberal Quakers have allowed room for non-theists in the last century, the church body, at least in the northern hemisphere, is “increasingly open-minded on the ultimate religious question: whether or not there is a God,” reports The Economist (April 26). Ben Pink Dandelion of the University of Birmingham said part of the reason for this shift is that the appeal of Quakerism’s social values has drawn in many who do not typically hold Christian beliefs. A recent study by Jennifer May Hampton finds that fully 43 percent of British Quakers do not profess a belief in God. The contingent saying they definitely do not believe in God has increased from just three percent in 1990 to 14.5 percent today. The non-theists as well as the God-deniers could also be agnostics and those who believe in an undefined spiritual force. Hampton’s research found that Quakers who eschew conventional belief in God and the Bible are also less committed to the core Quaker teaching of pacifism in all circumstances.

The non-theist Quakers are also less likely to hold positions of leadership or to participate in collaborative decision-making which seeks to find out the will of God. That may change, however, as Quaker meetings are seeking to update their terminology. There are reports that there was an attempt that “ruffled feathers” last year to drop “God” from the meetings’ revised guidelines, though both theists and non-theists deny this was the case. But Dandelion says that secular language is increasingly used to describe what were previously considered spiritual processes. This can be seen in how the traditional Quaker phrase “God in everyone” is often replaced by the expression “Good in everyone,” and how reference to “discerning the will of God” is often changed to “discerning the sense of the meeting” during worship and decision-making.