Confessions of a Nontheistic Friend

"I have found profit in tracing the word [worship] back to its Old English root, weorthscipe, meaning worthship. In the religious services that have meant the most to me, the leaders have held up that which is of value, that which is of worth—this very life itself, with all its beauty, mystery, and pain.

Therefore, I contend that when a religious service is at its best, when each of us is given reason to pause in reverence and awe at the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, we are being worshipful, wherever we may fall on the theist-atheist continuum . . . regardless of whether our worship has an unwavering object at its center or the ever-changing template of our existence itself."

—"Minister’s Column," by Mark Stringer, from Intercom, May 2002, a monthly newsletter from First Unitarian Church of Des Moines

How we become Friends and why we remain Friends is of interest to me. Have you ever wondered what other Friends believe about God, about an afterlife? Or what other Friends do with the one hour of silence in meeting? I have been interested in my own evolution in all these areas and have thought that any one of these topics would be of great interest to explore with other Friends.

I am a psychiatrist. I tend to dissect and read between the lines. I would like to communicate, as best I can, how I have come to a point in my life where I see myself as a nontheistic Friend: not at one pole or another—theistic or atheistic—but at a place where the question of the existence of God is not an issue. It is not on my mind nor is the question something I debate with others who are on either pole of the spectrum.

I first came to Friends as an 18-year-old high school student in Denver, Colorado, in 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. I was at loggerheads with my father, a retired Army colonel and physician. Becoming increasingly socially conscious, I was also rebellious against nearly everything my father stood for. Friends were a perfect match for my situation.

Having been baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, I had been active in the choir and later as an acolyte. I began to identify with the more radical elements of my church, straying from the massive Episcopal cathedral I grew up in to attend a downtown church that fed and clothed the poor and preached a message of love, forgiveness, and peacemaking. I taunted my parents with how they weren’t living the Gospel in their comfortable church.

I was heading for the ministry when I first began college. I saw myself as a future "Father David"—one who would live according to a radical interpretation of the New Testament, and one who had answers for a troubled world. I now know that I would probably have had a nervous breakdown had I continued in that direction. One evening while studying mathematics in my college library, I came to the very sudden realization that I didn’t believe in God. For the next several days or more I went around in a fog, shaken and overwhelmed. What did this mean? How could I live without God in my life?

As a child, my mother had said prayers with me every night. I had asked God to help me in many moments of distress. My God had been a fatherly male figure—kind, empathic, and powerful. As a teenager, I remember testing my notion of God, asking to see certain acts performed to prove that God existed. Could God close the drapes in my room when I asked? Could God turn on the light? I just wanted a little verification.

As my doubt continued and I shared this with some select friends and family, my mother would let me know that she was praying for me, i.e., that I would return to what she believed. This was never comforting and it seemed to disparage my own struggles and search for what gave me meaning.

Following a tumultuous year as student body president in college and just prior to a summer bicycle tour in the Orient (Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong), I met with the Episcopal bishop of Colorado, who prayed with me at his private altar that I would "find Jesus in Japan." On my travels I sought out English-speaking spiritual people whom I hoped could help me with my questions and struggle. The son of a Buddhist temple master sat with me on a wooden deck outside a meditation hall, with a shaved head and dressed in a long, black Zen Buddhist robe, smoking a cigarette. He told me that if I had been born in Japan, I would be Buddhist and if he were born in the United States, he would be Christian. What he said was so simple and yet so profound: we are all obviously bound by our own geography and culture.

An Anglican minister in Hong Kong took me to the church altar and prayed with me, telling me, "Your doubts are just the cross you will have to bear in this life." I was mortified. Was this the best he had to offer?!

A former girlfriend, who later entered the Congregational ministry, would tell me she couldn’t accept my view of the world. She told me that there was no reason to have any ethical standards without God—that life without God was meaningless. It seemed rather empty to me at the time: that there wasn’t something more basic, some connection that would allow human beings to remain compassionate without a belief in God.

Back at college in Colorado Springs, I began to attend a very small Quaker gathering. The six or so of us who met usually found ourselves in silence for most of the hour. It was a time to stop my usual actions and just sit. I found it restorative. Never was there any pressure to believe anything.

After graduation from college, I attended divinity school at Harvard. I became a regular attender at Cambridge Meeting and took a class on Quakerism taught by Elmer Brown. I was aware that when I attended meeting I could believe anything! I had some Sundays when I counted myself as an atheist, others as agnostic, and perhaps some still as a theist. In this transient student community, attenders of meeting from a variety of religious traditions came and went.

While in medical school in Iowa, I attended Des Moines Valley Meeting only a few times. I also began attending the local Unitarian church just as infrequently and was exposed to a rational approach to religion, which intrigued me.

During my internship following medical school, I met my future wife, who had strong ties to the Methodist Church in Alabama. When we moved to Topeka, Kansas, for my residency at The Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry, we began to search for a church we would both want to attend. I was frankly disappointed by several that we went to, until we found a small preparative meeting that met in the lobby of a Methodist Church at 4 p.m. on Sundays. I became friends with many of the attenders, several of whom were also in the mental health field. Our first spiritual home together was friendly and supportive. Once again, I found no pressure to believe one way or another. When I once considered membership, a clearness committee was formed, with four good friends from meeting coming to my home.

With great anxiety, I recounted my thinking about becoming a Friend, receiving great support from the members present. To their surprise, I decided against membership, even though not all of them were members themselves. I was later told that I had been the first person in this preparative meeting to have had a clearness committee for membership and then decided not to become a member.

After completing my residency and in my early practice years in South Carolina, my wife and I both attended the meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. Later in Albuquerque, my wife became a regular attender at meeting, while I began attending and eventually joined the Unitarian church. I enjoyed the quick and curious intellects of the Unitarians, their comfort with questions in place of answers, as well as the option to become involved in leading services in the absence of the minister. I also taught an ongoing seminar on understanding how families work in light of evolution and family systems theory. My wife wasn’t happy with the split in our attendance, and I occasionally would attend meeting with her.

On our move to Des Moines, I began attending both the Unitarian church and the local meeting. The meeting is only six blocks from our house, and walking to meeting gradually became a regular habit and a method of settling myself into the silence. Again I felt a desire to consolidate our family (now four of us) at one church, and so I became a regular and active attender at Des Moines Valley Meeting.

After several years of thinking about it, I once again toyed with the idea of becoming a member. My anxiety went up each time as I considered why I would want to do this. I was aware that I didn’t believe in a personal God—one who directs, answers, or comforts. I was aware that I didn’t believe I was divinely inspired when I got up to speak in meeting—although I would not speak unless I did indeed feel considerable passion or inspiration to do so. I also became aware that to some degree it didn’t matter what church I joined—that regardless, I would struggle with the message, doctrine, and core beliefs. I am not a pacifist in the sense that I would not fight back to defend myself or others and in fact could not say that I would never serve in the military under any circumstances. I have also studied martial arts for years—for conditioning, the philosophy, and to have a means of effective self-defense for myself and my family.

I became increasingly aware that my wife was close to becoming a member. We decided to ask for a clearness committee for membership together. It was no big deal. My worst fears of some kind of inquisition into what I believed and why I wanted to pursue membership never materialized. We had already become active and attended regularly. I knew what Friends were about and the meeting knew us. The members of the clearness committee greeted us warmly and told us we had already become valuable contributors to the meeting. We were acknowledged as members at the next meeting for business.

After this time, like having a "religious affair," I would sometimes still meander over to the Unitarian church. I have some good friends there and attend if the topic of the sermon or forum is of interest. I have also become enamored with Buddhist meditation and began a regular morning and evening sitting—finding relaxation and greater focus as a result. This regular practice seems to have allowed me to connect more easily with the suffering in the world—my own and that of the families in my psychiatric practice. I no longer needed meeting as the place where I would sit quietly.

So why do I stay in meeting? It is a place to rest, to stop, to become quiet. It is a place from which to observe my mind and let it flow freely, or just focus on my breath to become present in the moment.

Meeting is a place where I can sit in community—sharing the change in seasons, births and deaths, doubts and callings, with a group of people who have not insisted that I believe as they do. In fact, when I have shared my struggles and doubts in the silence of meeting, I am often thanked afterwards for having done so. And, in coming from a Christian background, I am challenged by others who profess a belief in God.

I do not believe in a heaven or hell, in an afterlife of this body, or in a soul that dwells after this life. I do believe that our work, actions, and example in this life will affect others in ways and over time that we may never realize.

My own suffering from seeing the poverty and violence in our world, experiencing the loss of both my parents, sharing the struggles of my family and friends, and from my own disappointments and failures has brought me to a point of connection with all of life. I am not alone. We are in this together.

I do not think of God while sitting in meeting. For me, it is enough to sit with Friends.

David E. Drake

David E. Drake, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, practices psychiatry, teaches, and writes in Des Moines, Iowa, where he is a member of the Des Moines Valley Meeting. His e-mail address is [email protected]