A Space for Doubt

Author Jeff Rasley first came to Indianpolis’s First Friends Meeting seeking fiscal sponsorship for small-scale development projects in the Basa area of Nepal. His first experience of a Quaker worship service led him to think First Friends might fill another, more personal desire. Photo courtesy of the author.

I have known numerous members of Christian congregations who are “stealth worshipers.” They do not believe in the truth of their denomination’s doctrinal statements, but they continue to find meaning through membership in the faith community of their heritage. While stealth worshipers secretly reject the superstitions and dogma of their inherited religion, they still find meaning in participating in services and practices that express awe and gratitude, and they find meaning in the communal sharing and activities of the organization.

I have given talks and sermons to a number of diverse religious organizations in Indianapolis and Chicago and have heard “confessions” of these stealth worshipers. Many of these folks feel the need to keep their doubt and disbelief about official doctrines to themselves or to share only with trusted comrades.

A profound difference I experienced at Indianapolis First Friends Meeting was that there was no need for stealth. Howard, the atheist; Duffy, the outspoken evangelical-fundamentalist; and Daud, the Muslim, were all very active and beloved members of the meeting.

Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if we felt safe to have the courage of our convictions, or lack of convictions, and to be able to openly express them? Although I do not believe in or agree with some of what is spoken, sung, or prayed under the roof of First Friends, I do feel safe to express a contrary view. And I have never felt forced to mouth words I do not believe, as I did for so many years in Presbyterian services and classes.

Services that contain the elements of traditional Christian worship (the hymns, chants, incense, candles, prayers, sermons, meditative silences, confessions), but do not contain any declarations of faith create a more authentic experience for those of us who value the essential religious response of awe and gratitude but not the doctrines and dogma.

So many religious organizations claim to be welcoming to all, but sooner or later a confession of faith or affirmation of doctrine is usually required for full participation in the community. Doctrinal requirements divide and separate.

When religious services are stripped of doctrinal claims, doubters and skeptics can participate without having to be stealth worshipers. Why not truly welcome everyone into the community, so that anyone can enjoy all that is good about religion: the music, prayer and meditation, hearing a good message, supporting social justice causes, and drinking coffee after worship services?

First Friends, following Quaker tradition, has stripped worship services of any overt or implied requirement of a confession of faith. I wish it would take what I see as the next step, and cease and desist making statements about a God that I do not believe exists. But for me to try to impose my animist-agnosticism on the meeting would be to engage in the same sort of doctrinal intolerance that eventually drove me from the Presbyterian Church. So I participate, try to hear with open mind and heart what doesn’t seem right, and speak my own mind and heart when I feel led. It works.


I was once asked by a fellow Presbyterian what I should say when asked about the resurrection. I was a candidate for the ordained ministry, and this respected elder of the church knew a candidate committee was going to examine me about my beliefs. Bill sidled up beside me during the coffee klatch after services, darted suspicious looks in all directions, and then popped the question about the resurrection. He admitted to me that he didn’t believe in it, and he wondered how an educated and rational fellow like me was going to be able to duck the question. He presumed that I did not believe in Christian myths like the virgin birth and resurrection. He understood that we both had to pretend to believe in these myths in order to hold leadership positions within the Presbyterian denomination. It was sad, silly, and hypocritical.

If questions about the resurrection came up in the class I led at First Friends, there would have been no need for stealth in asking or answering the questions.

Because I went to seminary, I came to know quite a few Christian ministers. As an attorney, I represented several churches and Christian ministers in legal matters. Several ministers of Protestant denominations and two Catholic priests came clean with me about their personal beliefs. I discovered that when they were not “on,” many pastors would admit to the same doubts about the dogmas and superstitions of their churches as I had about mine.

As a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, I was counseled by other ordained ministers to “tell them what they want to hear,” rather than what I really thought and believed, in order to pass the required examinations about my beliefs. I was co-valedictorian of my seminary class, won awards for accomplishments in ancient Greek and Hebrew, and was highly recommended by the psychologist who performed personality tests for our presbytery. But I felt forced to part ways with the Presbyterian Church as a result of the ordination examinations.

I had not followed the advice of my pastoral mentors to “tell them what they want to hear.” So, during my oral examination, a committee member was justified in her exclamation, “Why, you seem more like a Buddhist than a Calvinist!” What non-Calvinistic blasphemies and devilry might have been unleashed within a Presbyterian Church had I been allowed to lead a congregation in chanting, Om mani padme hum (“the jewel is in the lotus”), instead of the Apostles’ Creed!


Older members of the Basa village community performed a traditional “earth dance” in 2011, led by a dancer flourishing a yak tail. Photo courtesy of the author.

It makes sense to me to imagine that everything in the world has Spirit. My animistic friends in the Basa area of Nepal tell me that even rocks have Spirit. And it’s true that rocks and all inanimate things are composed of subatomic particles, which have motion and change over time. Is that Spirit?

Regardless of what beliefs one might hold about a possible reality beyond rational proof, surely we can all agree that it is good that our world exists and (unless one is suffering unbearable pain) to be alive in this awesome universe is good. And it is good to share gladness, and sadness, with others. Didn’t George Fox and the founding Quakers discover in the teachings of Jesus that we all share this earth and are all connected in each others’ pain and gladness? Isn’t that the plain and simple meaning of the divine spark in all?

Unfortunately, many of those who have claimed to be followers of Jesus have been unable to resist the temptation to move beyond the primal response of awe, gratitude, and connectedness to create divisive doctrines and belief mandates.

Some Christian and Jewish friends that have trekked with me in Nepal find it amusing that local Hindus actually believe paying homage to Ganesh will bring success in business or on a test in school. Ganesh’s father, Shiva, cut off his son’s head and replaced it with that of an elephant. Ganesh’s usual mode of transportation is to ride a mouse. How successful can that guy with the big ears and trunk riding a mouse be at securing a contract desired by a Hindu performing pujah in that temple!?

Yet, believing the walls of Jericho fell down because the Ark of the Covenant was paraded around for seven days is expected of a good Jew. Christians are to accept that Saul and his companions were blinded by a light on the Damascus Road, but that only Saul heard the voice of Jesus. Considering that hallucinations are a typical symptom of schizophrenia, Christians ought to be careful before laughing at the myths of other religions.

If we can discipline ourselves to respond to the great and fundamental questions of philosophy and theology with a sense of awe and gratitude and then admit our ignorance and inability to answer the unanswerable, then, in my experience, the Quaker understanding of God within all is easier to accept. The response of awe and gratitude is the creative source of beautiful art, literature, temple and cathedral architecture, the worshipful attitude of St. Francis, and the mindfulness of Thich Nhat Hanh. The schismatic and doctrinaire demands of authoritarian religious (and political) regimes have the opposite effect. They divide and conquer.


I first came to the Quakers at First Friends with an ulterior motive (to find fiscal sponsorship for a development project in Nepal). But instead of turning me away, the meeting responded like the Good Samaritan. By treating me as a Friend and listening to my entreaty for Basa Village, these Hoosier Quakers reached halfway round the world to help provide for others in need. And that is how I knew that Quakers were and are followers of Christ.

Jeff Rasley

Jeff Rasley is a retired attorney who serves on the boards of six nonprofit organizations. He has taught classes at Butler and Marian Universities about culturally sensitive development in agrarian communities. He is a regular attender of Indianapolis (Ind.) First Friends Meeting.

10 thoughts on “A Space for Doubt

  1. this is a beautiful statement about the experience of God’s love being the essence of a religion far more than any mere doctrine could ever be. I recall being advised by a very wise woman in a Quaker meeting that my grasp of any religious idea or study would be without substance in my own life were I to never actually feel that a Divine being cared for my well being and deeply desired that I would turn away from the weaknesses that could drag me down — and towards the ideas and values and people that would lift me up. No doubt many folks find comfort and meaning in the contemplation of a religious doctrine to explain an often confusing world and the foibles of human nature. Those thoughts are, for me at least, animated or brought to a real life, by a spirit that asks us to look outside of our own contemplations towards the needs of others. Like Jeff, I experience this love in time of a silent prayer and in the actions that flow from that communion with spirit.

  2. The Outreach Committee of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association (SAYMA) has confronted the terrifying question asked by visitors and newcomers, “what do Quakers believe?” with the following Welcome statement:

    We welcome all who want to join us in listening deeply to those promptings of what we broadly call Spirit that move our hearts and and move us to do good.

    We welcome people from all faith traditions and encourage them to bring their chosen name and understanding of what we broadly call Spirit.

    We share these messages of Spirit as we are led to do so, enlarging and deepening each other’s awareness of Spirit at work in our hearts and in the world.

    We invite all to share our path of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Environmental Service. Our path is the result of our practice, both individually and in community, of listening, being led, and taking action.

  3. A Friend once counseled me, when speaking to people of other faiths, to ask them about their experience of God/Light/Spirit rather than their dogma. There is often much more room for connection at that level.

  4. Not even the Presbyterians are Calvinist these days. The new Confession (of 1967, I think) announces that Jesus’ love is available to all. According to Calvin, only the Elect are beloved of God, the rest are detested and detestable. So it’s not too late to give the Presbys another try.

  5. I’m amazed at the obvious ethical issues I this essay.
    What difficulty is there in being clear about telling the truth?
    Why is the author or other church leaders or ministers at all unclear about truth vs lying? To appear before an ordination committee or be in a seminary when one cannot truthfully say one adheres to the belief statements is simply living a lie.

    Why do these people not have the courage of their convictions and exit the religious institutions they no longer believe in? What disrespect to basically say “well I enjoy the music or memory of grandma.” People did not go to martyrdom so folks could have a chew and chat church.

    I was an atheist til age 37. Most of my family still is. I totally get this perspective. I’ve also read the biography of George Fox and I cannot imagine what he would say to what is described in this essay. He didn’t walk to the gallows with children for animist agnosticism.

    Tell the truth – join a civic for a group with good deeds.

  6. As a Quaker, and a docent at a historical Quaker site (1680’s), I am often asked what do Quaker’s believe in–this usually follows the question of whether Quakers still exist–I answer that such a question will get as many different answers as people that it is asked of. I mention SPICES as Henry does in his comment above. I explain that different Quaker meetings have different personalities. I explain the history of Chichester Meetinghouse and of Quakers, and how it is more important what a person does Monday to Saturday then what they do on First Day. I usually end by telling them that many of the people asked to check a box for religion who select “spiritual but not religious” are really Quakers but just haven’t discovered that yet.

  7. I’m surprised that Jeff Rasley got as far as he did on the slippery slope of belief before being shot down (but then he is a lawyer). While I agree with many of the thoughts he expresses I find his article and many of the comments to be cloyingly sentimental pro-Quaker half truths. I can say that with feeling because 30-plus years ago I was a newish Friend and in my innocence assumed Quakers would stand up for what was right. Back then Quakers in England were still by and large Christian. But they didn’t. When push came to shove they opted to protect the meeting from disagreement, putting politics before God (define those terms as you wish). So I left. Four years ago I went back but the welcome was not of ‘prodigal son’ proportions. When they had a session for selected people to talk about their spiritual journeys guess who was not invited to contribute?
    I only tell this story because I get tired of sanctimonious Quaker claptrap. Believe it or not Friends are no less hypocritical and cowardly than Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists. etc, etc… What we all share are human frailties. These extend into our spiritual lives as well as our secular lives, so let’s give up on pious one-upmanship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on Friendsjournal.org may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.