Progressive Quakerism: A Religious Naturalist Perspective

"It has been our cherished purpose to restore the union between religion and life, and to place works of goodness and mercy far above theological speculations and scholastic subtleties of doctrine." Exposition of Sentiments Adopted by the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends, 1853.

In the 1850s, some Quakers began to dramatically shift their religious orientation from a heavenly to an earthly perspective. The Progressive Friends movement was made up of both disowned and dissident Quakers who through involvement in the abolitionist movement had come to regard overthrowing slavery, and other injustices, as their central calling. While it would not be accurate to characterize Progressive Friends as humanists or atheists, yet they are essential precursors to the emergence of theological diversity with Quakerism. Notice the contrast in the above quote: Religion in union with Life elevates works of goodness and mercy. Religion disunited from life is mere theological speculation and scholastic subtlety.

In many respects, Quakerism has become a diverse and ethically-focused religious community.The Progressive Friends movement came to an end in the early 20th Century not because its mission had failed, but because it succeeded in changing the shape of Quakerism, primarily in the Hicksite tradition. Throughout the 20th Century, Quakers have placed themselves directly into the struggle to create a better world for all humankind and, increasingly, into the struggle for our ecological future.

The impulse within Quakerism to emphasize practical living and a universal religious capacity, rather than dogma lies near the origin of Quaker society. In 1678 Robert Barclay wrote in his Apology for True Christian Divinity, "There may be members therefore of this catholic Church both among Heathen, Turks, Jews, and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart...." Barclay's view was extraordinary in the context of the English religious scene.

In the years just before the Society of Friends was formed, Gerrard Winstanley's True Leveller movement advocated a worldwide common treasury that would eliminate poverty. Winstanley wrote powerful tracts which criticized Church and State in terms which were just slightly more emphatic than were the Quakers a few years later. It is considered likely to some historians that Winstanley's ideas had more than a little influence on Quaker views and their tendency to emphasize ethical convictions over theological ideas.

Winstanley has seemed to many to have been in fact wholly naturalistic in his religious convictions. He spoke of God as the voice of "Sweet Reason" and insisted that God was not up in heaven but in our own souls. Quakerism's emphasis on the "Inward Light," which it found in the Bible, shifts the center of religious authority away from a "God Out There" and the words of the Bible towards a universal capacity within each person.

To be a religious naturalist within the Society of Friends is still something of a rarity. Quakers are still part of the religious culture of our world, which is still predominantly supernaturalist and theistic. I have never been attracted to a purely secular religious group, though I understand that they, too, are an important expression of progress in religion. I have also resisted calling myself an atheist, as I do not find theism threatening, in and of itself. It is what people do with their theism that matters, practice before doctrine.

So, what is the practice that matters? Quakers have a long tradition of seeking to end war. We also have a tradition of gender equality, which found one of its greatest exponents in Lucretia Mott, a sympathizer of the Progressive Friends movement. We emphasize participatory governance and order rather than traditional clerical offices. Our historical work in abolishing slavery, once so controversial, today serves to call us to oppose racism in all its dimensions. Quakers have worked to include gay, lesbian, and other sexual minorities. We also have projects that aim to address poverty, ecological degradation, and religious prejudice.

Quakers aren't perfect, but what religious tradition is? As a lifelong seeker for the truth and justice, Quakerism is that community where I find kindred souls and continuing challenges to grow.

Peace! Charley

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Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 4, 2009 at 9:48pm
"Atheism" is not a matter of "finding theism threatening."

Disinterest in God... because one has, for whatever reason, concluded that:
Whatever "theism" is about must ('of course') be less than what a theist necessarily sees to be the foundation of all reality--
doesn't need to be called "atheism" as if that were some kind of shameful thing one was trying to hide behind a euphemism--
but perhaps it should be called "atheism" as a matter of simple accuracy?

It's nice that you feel akin to us and challenged by us... but are you challenged to find out what we "theists" are being so contentious about?--and why we're inclined to think that our 'nontheist' fellows are enjoying the frosting, but have neglected the cake?

It sounds like a difference of language--but comes down to inhabiting a different conceptional world!

The source of religious "authority" is of course, as you say, "inward," but it is not "merely inward," and it is not the kind of "authority" that demands submission. It does demand recognition--but only because "bread alone"--no matter what multitudes we may feed--is not enough to sustain us.
Comment by Charley Earp on 7th mo. 4, 2009 at 10:02pm
Forrest, I hope you extend me the courtesy of respect. Your comment about frosting sounds as if I lack a seriousness about Quakerism.

I once was a theist, for most of my life until about the age 34. I know that "cake" intimately. I did not depart theism easily, it was a lengthy soul-searching period of my life.

I argue for co-existence and mutual regard. Peace!
Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 4, 2009 at 10:50pm
I won't deny either the co-existence or the regard.

My father, who was an atheist, was very much "akin" to me, so much so that we both found it embarrassing. Neither of us would take an oath, for entirely different reasons.

I think there's an awful lot of bad theism going around, so much so that a diet of it could easily make one throw up the whole thing!--My atheist days were full of inner arguments with God, as He'd been presented to me.

I know that you leaving "theism," and remaining away, was a matter of integrity & regard for truth, which I of course respect. Since I consider I've learned a larger truth since I did that myself, respect for me... would seem to imply considering that I might be on to something you haven't already "known intimately."

(I won't even hold a stopwatch while you consider it! That's okay.)

I figure people I have mutual respect for can take disagreement, if it ain't meant to be disagreeable?
Comment by Charley Earp on 7th mo. 4, 2009 at 11:05pm
If your theism is pivotal to your practice and it makes you a better person, I say live into it with all your might!

I expect that you cannot return the favor.

Peace! Charley
Comment by Forrest Curo on 7th mo. 4, 2009 at 11:42pm
Is this a "favor"? Do either of us need to be "a better person"?

Thee is fine with me, but you would have needed a stopwatch to catch me wondering whether you knew anything I didn't.

This isn't about whether I can argue better, or be more reasonable than thou; if you're tired of my nattering I can natter elsewhere, and you might then find it easier to be "a better person."

[I find it much easier to "be a better person" now that I don't need to drive. If someone needed me to, I could, and likely I'd be a worse person while I was doing it. That could be a reason for not driving, but it isn't why I don't.]

I don't consider anyone's belief system, mine included, to make anyone "a better person."

I believe mine, as you believe yours, because I think it corresponds to actuality. I would consider a desire to have you believe anything whatsoever "to make you a better person"--would be an insult. So long as your nontheism continues to be what you actually believe, I insist that you should keep to it "with all your might!"

If this lifetime doesn't do the job, there'll be another one along in a kalpa or two. Dost want I should bug off, meanwhile?
Comment by Charley Earp on 7th mo. 5, 2009 at 3:53am
First of all, I apologize for getting a bit testy. I have had conversations with you in the past that ended unsatisfactorily, so I expected the same this time. You have shown me I was too negative in that expectation.

I consider becoming a person of greater love and compassion as the highest goal of my life, so becoming better at that is what I desire. That goal requires neither theism nor nontheism.

I am really bad at being a loving and compassionate person. I was even worse at it when I was a theist. I don't draw from that perception of mine, any conclusion about the relation of theism to others' abilities to become more loving and compassionate.

I am an agnostic nontheist, somewhat militantly. I don't think we can know if God exists. I suspect God does not exist, but I don't spend a lot of energy on proving the case one way or the other.

Feel free to comment on my blog at any time.


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