I write this in response to the several occasions when I have read or heard religious people; including Friends, express surprised approval that those of us who identify ourselves as non-Christians are capable of ethical behavior. I write in response to the number of times that I have read or heard the suggestion or outright accusation that even if we are somehow capable of leading moral lives, we are actually empty and in danger of falling into error due to our failure to accept God as the foundation of that good behavior, and that without faith, our morality is either unsustainable, meaningless, pathetic or spiritually delusional. I write it also in response to a video in which a popular entertainer expresses bafflement at the idea of a non-religious person who chooses to affiliate herself with the Religious Society of Friends. I’m one of those irritating non-Christians who describes herself variously as a non-Christian, post-Christian, Neo-Pagan or non-theistic Friend. I write this post to both explain myself and offer my friendship despite my philosophical difference.
Is there a God? If you mean is there an Entity that exists apart from His/Her Creation that Intelligently Designed the Cosmos and intelligently oversees its functions? I don't think so. Mine is a collective "God." My definitions are plural and pantheist (or perhaps pan-en-theist) although the "theist" part is probably a misnomer. "Spirit", “Life”, “Connection”, "Energy", or even the Star Wars "Force" is much closer to my meaning than "Creator." I am, therefore, perhaps by definition, a non-theistic person, a freethinker. It isn't that I don't believe in that which is Divine. Indeed, for me, the Cosmos is infused with the Divine. I just reject an anthropomorphic god or tribal, culturally specific, historically rooted god and therefore am uncomfortable with language that trips too closely to this. (I also know that many folks who also reject an anthropomorphic God use the term "God." I'm cool with that.)
It hurts me to hear religious people disparaging non-believers (or believers who choose radically different language). I admire a system of ethics that relies on a faith in human reason and compassion and I make no apologies for it. It looks to me like the great religious thinkers appealed to human reason and compassion as the tools that bring us closest to that which may be called Divine Wisdom and I choose to value their messages above religious, supernatural, and superstitious stories about the messengers. In short, it matters very little to me whether or not Jesus turned water into wine. If his teaching failed to rise to a standard of deep compassion and what Schweitzer called "reverence for life", he could change muskrats into elephants and I'd still have no use for him. I admire and follow him (and all the other leaders and thinkers that people my philosophical bookshelf) because they help me in my own journey toward a deepening philosophical and practical compassion, not because he had magical powers. As for miracles, I maintain that the universe is naturally magnificent and surprising. Life is so incredible that it knocks me on my butt. The distinction between supernatural and natural events that occur outside my expectations eludes me. I’ve given birth three times. Have you ever seen that happen? That shit’s crazy wonderful. I’m sorry, but walking on water just doesn’t much compare.
Do we choose to be good because we are afraid of some angry god? Because we're impressed by miracles? Or are we good because our intellects (and the products of intellect including morality and ethics) teach us that it is more logical, just, and joyful to love than to be hateful? Religious people can be inhumane and cruel in their faith. It isn’t the religion itself that makes them good. People are good because they sense the divinity of Life Itself. They see the sense of justice and kindness as the only reasonable means of promoting a sustainable society.
I am a non-Christian but I am not anti-Christian. I see something profoundly rational about the Christian message of deep compassion and peace. I also see a commonality of compassionate rationalism throughout the world's religions and philosophies. If someone's thoughts and actions are thoughtful, compassionate, and humane, then it seems foolish to me to condemn them because they do not use the same words to describe the spark that inspires that compassion. I'm a spiritual pragmatist that way. I care a good deal less about a person's theology than I do about their actions. Call yourself what you will. If you have a veneration for life, if you work toward peace and justice, if you are humane and loving in your dealings with others, especially those less powerful than yourself, then you and I are on the same team whether you acknowledge it or not.
On the other hand, it hurts me deeply to hear non-theistic people disparaging religious people as fools and worse. I resent the lumping together of religious zealots who judge and kill in the name of God with the people of faith with whom I have shared my life. There are all kinds of fundamentalism. An atheist can be just as fundamentalist as a Christian. Intolerance is ugly regardless of its packaging.
I want to be a Friend because, and this is important, I sense that I already am. If I am to be a hyphenated Friend, it is not because I am describing my foot in two worlds, not as if I am speaking of a fractured spirituality that I am trying to make whole. No. By choosing a hyphenated spirituality, I am merely telling my history. I was reared a Christian and believed one thing with the deepest part of my soul. Then I was a Pagan and believed the same exact thing with the deepest part of my soul but with new metaphors and now I choose to be a Quaker because I wish to be among people who will push me to do better and surround me with love as I go on believing the very same thing I have always believed with the deepest part of my soul.
It is not loyalty to any creed, faith, or dogma that keeps us from being lost. The names we attach to this Mystery are merely noises. It is not contained in holy books or rituals. It is not proved by facts and theories. So what is that holds me accountable if not scientific argument alone and not faith? What holds me accountable, what I experience as primary reality; I do not typically call "God" or "Christ." My own training from seminary and in religious studies precludes this. Sometimes I play with the metaphors of Goddess and Light, of Soul and Spirit and even of Christ, but there are many times when I reject the metaphors of traditional religion entirely as wholly inadequate to the task. There are times when reason, ethics, justice and right relationship are themselves the discipline that holds me true in the same times of weakness when religious people turn to scripture and tradition. I tell you that I am true to the same truths that motivate you. Brush aside words and theories, doctrines and narratives and you and I are children of the same Flesh and Spirit.
How foolishly we strut and arrogantly proclaim our own special knowledge of the truth. We are a newborn species, too primitive in understanding to understand even our own fragile bodies and yet we presume to know the very Heart of the Cosmos? And yet a child knows that whatever this thing is (Christ, Light, Beloved, Buddha, Source, Science, Reason, Love, Father, Mother, All, Nothing) it does not need to be explained. It is does not need us to defend it. It does not need us to define it or write it up in books for people to follow. It is strong enough that the people will follow anyway. We are like moths to its flame and so have we always been. It is only when we dress it up and parade it around that things fall apart. It is only when we try to lead the Light by the Nose that we get lost.
I am not a theist in any traditional sense but I do not think that this matters in the end. It does not prevent me from feeling a depth of kinship with religious folk nor should they be concerned that I choose to make my home with them. My theories and your religion are no more than clumsy attempts to articulate a truth beyond our reach. So what is it? It is just that which is. It does not need a name or a label or a history or tradition for me to know it. It strums and I resonate.