Quakers, from the Viewpoint of a Naturalist

I grew up loving nature and feeling part of it—dirt, bugs, people, and everything. It was, and still is, amazing how the universe simply rolls along, no miracles required. You and I are orderly, physical events, like the weather.

People have always fascinated me. How surprising to see the cousins of apes doing all this! Unfortunately, a naturalistic approach to human behavior left me with a big problem: how to motivate myself when meaning isn’t simply handed to me. The issue wasn’t the existence of God, but of free will. This took ten years to work out. Finally, I saw that it is enough to live meaningfully, behaving as do those who find meaning in other realms. I care just as much as they do and share many of their values and purposes even as I accept that my behavior is the universe dancing with itself, and nothing else.

I also grew up loving Quakers. About once a week we held a meeting for worship that we children called "quiet time." It was in our home or that of neighbors because we lived far from a meetinghouse. Ours was a religion of daily life and I was allowed, even expected, to hold my own views. I was skeptical of the Quaker tradition of reaching beyond the physical to the spiritual and supernatural. This seemed unnecessary, but it was the way others find comfort in a difficult world—it was more of the marvelous diversity around us.

I noticed that Quaker behavior is available to all who would engage in it. This includes those who view it not as based in the supernatural, but as the behavior of an animal that has learned to wait in the silence and to follow leadings and so on. It is still wonderful and worthy of study and imitation.

As I have lived among Friends, certain characteristic Quaker behaviors have become apparent. I look at Quakers from the viewpoint of a naturalist. I see them in terms of observed behavior and the environments in which it occurs, rather than resorting to concepts from other levels beyond sense and reason.

We are passionate in our determination that each and every person merits our tender concern and that in each person is an element of goodness to which we can appeal. We search for what is essential in our lives, and we treasure what each other finds. There is no need for special training to do this.

These commitments affect all aspects of our lives. We wish to live lovingly and to love effectively. We witness to new possibilities in peace and education and human rights, to healthy communities and respect for the rest of nature, to simplicity and honesty and justice. We hope that our lives will speak of what we believe.

We accept people searching for truth and are not dissuaded by differences in the words with which we express the truths we find. We bind ourselves to no creed. Membership is a question of participation in the meeting community rather than how we talk about our faith. We are a diverse community.

Quaker faith is newly created in each of us. The results of our searches are colored by the conditions under which we search, the people involved, and the times. We commit to one another and we hold together as change goes on around and within us.

Collectively we worship, we celebrate in joy and sorrow, and we carry forward the business of the meeting. While worshiping, we try to yield our personal agendas. In the shared silence we wait to respond. The silence leads to messages and common purposes and action in the wider world.

We encourage learning and seek understanding of how nature, including humankind, works and how to mend it when there are problems. We seek to find appropriate ethical standards and to help each other hold to them.

We try to simplify our lives. This includes how we worship and think and relate to people and the rest of the environment.

This, then, is what I have seen Quakers doing. It is usually described in mystical terms, but some Quakers try to stick with what is obvious. Suns rise, birds sing, and Quakers worship. It is so simple.

For many years I was quiet about all this among Friends, not wanting to create a scene and doubting there were others who shared this approach. Even Quaker environmentalists seemed to be spiritualizing nature rather than naturalizing religion. This was one reason I held back from very much involvement in my Quaker meeting. Living as a Quaker was enough.

Then, in June 1992, as I walked into my parents’ home, Mother thrust a copy of that month’s Friends Journal into my hands, saying, "You’ll want to read that!" It was a reprint of Jesse Holmes’ 1928 appeal to scientists who might be interested in Quakers. He wrote, "It is a Society of Friends. Friends claim no authority but owe each other friendliness. . . . Our unity consists, therefore, in having a common purpose, not a common creed. . . . God is . . . the name of certain common experiences of mankind by which they are bound together into unity."

Suddenly I realized there had been naturalistic Quakers in the past and there probably were many of them today. The issue keeping me from Friends became a reason to reach out to them. I shivered at the thought.

This led to a sojourn at Pendle Hill and a search for those who love nature above all else, and who love being Quaker too. It turned out there are many and they are welcome in many meetings. I began to speak up and was sharply criticized a few times, and I began to feel empathy for Friends who are marginalized and to wonder how I could help.

Humankind today is being asked to consider a demotion, one in a series that have taken place during recent centuries. The question facing us is whether religion has to involve the supernatural. For me the experience of being part of the natural world is a religious experience. Atheists and other skeptics can lead good lives, good Quaker lives, and they can function well in our meeting communities. Quaker practices are available to us all, however we speak of them.

Sadly, naturalists who are not Quakers probably don’t know they would be welcome in many meetings. Wouldn’t it be a joy to declare this to the world?! Of course, we wouldn’t want to limit it to one perspective. We could announce our commitment to diversity of all kinds including religious faith and experience. Many sorts of minutes might accomplish this; one is offered in the sidebar.

A minute like this would be an invitation to all who wonder whether their religious experiences are acceptable among Friends. It would say: come and let us worship together and get to know each other. Let us try being Quaker together.

Os Cresson

Os Cresson is a member of Mount Holly (N.J.) Meeting, where he is the recording clerk and a member of the Worship and Ministry Committee. He wrote "A Quaker Family in Afghanistan, 1949-1951," published in Friends Journal in April 2002. He and other Quaker theists and nontheists have a website, http://www.nontheistfriends.org, and an e-mail discussion group that is described on the website. Also, an expanded version of this article can be seen at that site. He is one of the contributors to a forthcoming book of essays, Godless for God's Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism.