Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Very Very Very Long Explanation

I am a Quaker. Well, not precisely. I am a radical non-theist Quaker.

Many times a day I find myself explaining this to a variety of people, many of whom follow up my clarification with "You mean like the Quaker Oats guy?" In fact, the vast majority of people at my school are under the perplexing belief that Quakers died out. When I queried one of these people on the reasons behind his assumption, he said "Well, I thought they couldn't have sex." No no, those are Shakers, silly person. But returning to the point, I have increasingly become aware of an extreme ignorance of what is a fundamental part of my life. This lack of knowledge
becomes increasingly more annoying with each passing day, and I want to put a stop to it. Also, many-a-time in posts I wrote for this blog I find myself stating that I see no problem with being a Quaker and an Atheist, and evertime I say it I cringe, because, to someone who knows little about Quakerism, that statement makes me sound like an idiot (atheism in NOT a religion, and saying it works well with a traditional religion is... well.. stupid). So I come here to resolve this issue once and for all, prepare yourselves for a lesson in Quakerism.

Quakerism began in England in the 1700's. It was and still is officially called the Society of Friends... with individual members of the religion called Friends. George Fox is credited with it's founding, and he was intense. He used to come to people's houses to preach to them and tell them that they were going to hell for not following his religion. He once said (doing this from memory) "I am thankful to God for the stubornness he gave me to know when I am right." And he drew a lot of attention. Under the current King of England, there was no freedom of religion, and so the Quakers were forced to flee to the New World. There they played an important role in forming the Underground Railroad, and creating an area where one could worship, or not worship, freely.

The actual religious beliefs of Quakers have greatly evolved over the centuries. It began with the radical notion that God is inside everyone, that he (and later "it" as the deity became, in some practices of the religion, asexual) could be heard by anyone, and that a person did not need the assistance of a priest to hear him. This is referred to as the "Inner Light." The idea is that the light of God is within all people, even the really evil ones. Over time it developed from "God is giving us this light" to "God is the light, and he's in everyone." And today a minority of the religion, at least at my Meeting, dismiss the God part all together.

On a hunch, I looked up Quakerism in Wikipedia, and found an interesting classification of Quakerism. It says that there are two types of Quaker Meetings (a community of Quakers is called a Meeting), Programmed and Unprogrammed. Unprogrammed Meetings exist in the more liberal areas, such as Massachusetts, while the programmed ones inhabit places like the Bible belt. Programmed Meetings consist of the traditional sermon, which I find incredibly hypocritical, and unprogrammed are formed around silent worship.

Says Wikipedia:

Programmed worship arose among Friends in the United States in the 19th century in response to large numbers of converts to Quakerism during the national spiritual revivalism of the time. Worship at a Friends Church resembles a typical Protestant worship service in the United States. Typically there are readings from scripture, hymns, and a sermon from the pastor. A period of silence is also included in most Programmed Friends worship services. Most Friends in the southern and central United States worship in this way.

Since I've grown up in the so-called unprogrammed Meeting, I'll focus on that that. My Meetings are formed entirely of silent worship. Though it is referred to mostly as "expectant waiting." Basically, people are waiting for a leading - a divine message - that will solve a problem they face. I find this notion to be silly, the solution comes on its own when one enters the hour long community-enriched silence, letting each person work out their problems in peace, but religion has always functioned on such repainting of one thing for another. When someone experiences a "leading" during a meeting, he or she may stand up and break the silence to impart whatever they realized onto the rest of the community.

In my Meeting there are usually about 5 speakings - sometimes called ministries - during the hour long period. People talk about all sorts of things, a few of which really stuck in my mind. One member spoke of the silence as an entity of its own, and how we are born of it, and how we return to it upon death. We also get religion oriented messages, though surprisingly, most leadings have almost nothing to do with religion. I remember a man that stood up in the Meetings one day and recalled a phylosophy class he took in college. In one of the meetings of the class, the instructor explained a scenario: "Suppose that you are in a room," he said, "and suppose that there is a big red button, and then suppose that if you press this button, a farmer in Mongolia will die. Would you push the button?" Everyone said no. The instructor continued, "What if you were offered one thousand dollars?" Everyone still said no. "A million?" Maybe one fourth of the class stayed silent, thinking it over. Then the instructor said "What if, if you didn't push the button, 10 other farmers would die?" Mixed responses. Finally, the instructor posed the question, "And what if, if you did not ppush that big, red button, the person you love the most in the whole world would die? What if it was 10 farmers that would die if you pushed the button? One hundred? One thousand? What would you do?" And with that the person speaking at the meeting sat down, and the silence absorbed the Meeting once more.

To end the Meeting someone, usually one of the more respected members (called elders) turns to the person next to them, and shakes their hand. The handshaking will then echo around the room until everyone's hand has been shaken a few times, then the committee-appointed clerk of the Meeting will stand up and read a list of community announcements. After that my Meeting officially ends, though many people go and socialize in the main hall of the adjoining building.

Quakerism, as a decision-making community, is structured much like an anarcho-syndicalist commune. Everything is structured by committee, or syndicate, and all decisions must be made by the committee as a whole, i.e. a consensus must be reached. This reasserts the Quakerly belief in equality, that one voice cannot be drowned by others, even when it is only one person opposed to a decision while another 20 are for it.

I find that Quakerism works much better once you remove God from the equation. Quakerism as a way of life is, for me, ideal. Pacifism is a big part of the Quaker ideology, and has certainly shaped my views of the world, and that certainly has nothing to do with any deity (aside from the "we do this because God tells us to," but again that is replaced with ones own drive to be pacifist). The concept of silence also plays a large part in my life, though I'm sure Seth would disagree. Also, the feeling of belonging in such a powerful way to a community is wonderful.

Reading through the Wikipedia entry, I stumbled upon a statement that echoed precisely what I have been noticing among some people at my Meeting:

Many Quakers feel their faith does not fall into the traditional categories of Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, but rather it is an expression of another way to experience Christianity. Although Quakers throughout most of their history, and in most parts of the world today, have considered Quakerism to be a Christian movement, there are some Friends today (principally in the unprogrammed Meetings of the United States and the United Kingdom) who consider themselves agnostic, universalist, atheist, or who do not accept any religious label.

It's a brilliant concept, isn't it? The possibility that Quakers, at least the radical Massachusetts-type breed, are evolving out of religion. I have already seen the beginnings of it, as noted in my last post, the atmosphere that is being created in my Meeting is "think, be open to knew ideas," and with that on our side the evolution can't be more than 4 or 5 lifetimes away. Perhaps one day a century or three away from now the sun will shine upon a greatly different Quakerism, a Quakerism that doesn't just tolerate atheism, but which is atheist. Now that certainly is a pretty star to aim for.

Thank you for your time.


At 4/14/2006 1:35 AM, Blogger Francois Tremblay said...

By the way, and this is pretty irrelevant, but as an anarchist I can tell you that "anarcho-syndicalism" is a contradiction in terms. Anarchy is the absence of organizational monopoly. If one has to belong to this "committee" to decide anything, then it is an organizational monopoly - the mode of decision (consensus or not) doesn't matter.

At 4/14/2006 8:15 PM, Blogger Aeger said...

But anyone can be on a committee, it just organizes who wants to do what


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