Quaker Theology #8 Spring-Summer 2003


A Quaker in a Material World: A Materialist Perspective

Osborn Cresson

I am a Quaker and a materialist. That is, the only reality I know is the physical world of cause and effect, and yet Quakers and their practices are fundamental to my life.

People are surprised by this combination of the secular and the Quaker. They ask, can materialism lead to a moral life? Does it explain all phenomena? Does it provide support and comfort? Are materialists respectful of nonmaterialists? Can materialists be genuine seekers? Would admitting materialists loosen the ties that bind our Society? Should we reach out and encourage materialists to consider joining our meetings?

In this essay, we will examine my point of view and how it functions as a religion in my life. Then we will consider its relation to Quakerism and whether it is appropriate to encourage people holding these views to become members of the Religious Society of Friends.

Materialism, from My Point of View

As 24 year old George Fox sat by the fire one morning in the Vale of Belvoir, he wondered if "All things come by Nature." I would reply, "Yes, they do and what a marvelous world it is!"1 I love nature above all else. The world known to our senses and the inferences we draw by reason and intuition are enough for me. Our intimations of the divine, our spiritual natures, our creative insights and the urge to love Ė these all exist and are important, but they are natural phenomena, they are humans responding to their environments.2

All that exists, as far as I know, is a regular, deterministic sequence of physical events. Among these events is behavior in complex interactions with the environment. We know about the environment when it affects behavior. Behavior is a movement of the body that is caused by some change in the environment and that in turn affects the environment in some way. The environment is much more than just a setting. It controls our behavior, as a goad before we act and as reward or punishment afterwards. We change behavior by changing the environments of which it is a function. Since we are part of the environment, our behavior is the environment dancing with itself; we are the dance.

Usually people are not content with so simple a view of the world. Rather than seeking the origin of behavior in the environment, we imagine unseen causal agents. This is creationism. Minds are said to be in control of bodies. We will ourselves to behave. The self is conscious and it plans and makes decisions. But I know of no power that can alter a physical event except another physical event. For me there is no autonomous agent, no god, mind or self.3

Determinists ask us to relinquish the idea that we control our own behavior. Control is shifted to the environment. This may be viewed as a release similar to what we experience in meeting for wor-ship: we are there but not in control. There is no self intervening in the flow of our behavior; it just happens, like the weather. We are as a flowing stream interacting with our surroundings. This stream may reach forward and shape the banks it will flow through, but no one does the reaching and shaping. This no-centeredness, this waiting to respond, is fundamental in the views of Quaker and materialist alike.

We are asked, how can we hold people responsible for their behavior if they donít have free will? Holding people liable for the consequences of their behavior does demonstrably affect their subse-quent behavior. This is true for almost all species, not just ours. It is how we are built and how we have gotten where we are. It works this way whether or not the person believes in free will. In any case, when we "look into the future" this becomes part of the control of our sub-sequent behavior. We donít have free will but we behave as if we did.

Do our lives have meaning without a mind to make choices and a God to look over us? Yes, life has the meaning we give it. If you jump to pull a child out of harmís way, you would certainly do so even after you had come to accept secular views. We get out of bed in the morning, we go to Meeting, we try to live good lives because that is what we have learned to do and we can learn this even when our religious views are of a secular variety. Trying hard to do well makes a difference and that is true whatever we think is the origin of our behavior. The life of someone who believes everything is part of an orderly and physical world can be just as meaningful as the life of someone who believes there is a God that intervenes in human affairs. There are many paths to meaning.

A faith in nature above all else imposes some limits on how we speak. Our concern is with observations and what we say about them, not with other realms never observed and only described in their own vocabularies. This language of the senses is available to help people of all faiths come to terms with the world in which they live.

We translate speculative, otherworldly concepts by describing what we see when we speak these words. For instance, "mind" is behavior that is out of sight inside our skins, observed only by the person behaving. "Consciousness" is talking or thinking about ourselves. When we say "spirituality" we refer to the ultimate essences of life, the core of our being. "God" can be replaced by "good" or "universe" or "truth" or "love." Another option is to simply omit the word: "Walk humbly before thy God" becomes "Walk humbly." If "God" is the subject of the sentence, you can convert it to the reflexive form before rephrasing: "What does God require of us?" becomes "What is required of us?" and "God loves you" becomes "You are loved." ĎTis a gift, indeed, to speak simply.

Each materialist redefines some of the archaic terms and does without others. I give naturalistic definitions to "religion," "worship," "belief," and "faith" as simple descriptions of classes of human behavior and I do without "God" and "spirituality" because these words have been at the center of the resistance to the idea that the universe is entirely physical. If "God" and "spirituality," with new definitions, were central in the expression of my naturalistic views, inevitably people would miss the point. We would be agreeing with each other for the wrong reasons.

That is enough about my point of view.4 Letís turn our attention to the important questions of how such a point of view functions as a religion and whether we want to encourage people holding these views to join our Friends meetings.

Materialism and Religion

For me, religion is about caring effectively for people and for the rest of our world. With the aid of Friends, I seek to help people live the lives that they want and that they benefit from, lives that are healthy and happy and wise and productive. It means shaping environments so that this happens and continues happening after I am gone. Since this is action in the world, there is a science that can help us accomplish this, and materialism is the philosophy of that science. It provides a basis for uniting our aspirations, our spiritual longing, and our search for ethical standards with the world of nature in which they happen and to which they must apply.

Although I apply materialism in daily life, my values and ethics are not inherent in that view. They come from reasoning and intuiting in response to many situations I have seen and heard about during my life. Science, formal and informal, helps me find truth. Religion helps me hold to that truth.5 My Quakerism is largely a blend of what other Quakers have created and the values I have learned, all expressed in naturalistic terms. The Religious Society of Friends is the setting in which I seek my way. I am buoyed up by the companionship of a Meeting for Worship, the struggles to mend the world, and the examples of Quaker lives going on around me. In this religious environment we give each other the support we need to live as best we know how.6

Since the earliest days Friends have been urged to express their faith in action. At one our first gatherings, on the hillside of Firbank Fell, Foxís message, probably shouted out, was: "Let your lives speak!" Many years later, Henry Cadbury was carrying on this tradition when he said to his divinity students, "But to return to my own religion, as nearly as I can tell, it is mainly neither emotional nor rational but expresses itself habitually or occasionally in action.(I)t is nothing I can say now nor in the classroom. It is whether in all our contacts Ė when I am off guard, when personal situations arise, you can conclude that not consciously nor for display I represent the manner of reaction that befits a religious personality in action." (1936/2001) This careful statement does not tell us what sort of action he considered appropriate, but it is clear where he would have us look to find out.

I urge Friends to look for the religion of the materialist in the entire life being lived, not just in statements of belief. Think of all the good lives being lived around the world by people holding different beliefs. Loving concern for a child is beautiful, however we talk about it. People of different religious views love children and in other ways live what you would consider a good life. This includes people whose religious views are secular. Ethics are conventions, the behavior we agree will be acceptable and values are the goals we work for. Materialist and immaterialist alike can live good lives.7

Many people do not find support and comfort in naturalistic views that focus on every day life and nothing else.8 While your way of looking at the world works for you and I wouldnít change that, I am trying to achieve similar results while looking at the world differently. I am comforted by finding my place in nature, by admitting we are an ape that has learned to talk and worry and wonder and worship. I find this marvelous, encouraging, challenging and humbling.

Can we accomplish the goals of our religion without the support of traditional religious formulas? I think so. For example, we can feel the continuity of the generations without believing in immortality; we can strive to imitate Jesus without accepting his divinity and we can participate in a gathered Meeting even though our beliefs differ. There are many ways to teach behavior, besides deriving it from a belief in God or any other particular belief. We follow prescribed codes in dress, in music, in manners, in our dating rituals, in the rules of a game, and so on. Groups can be cohesive even without agreement on beliefs. Many of our Yearly Meetings explicitly state that each Monthly Meeting is expected to establish its own standards for admission, yet the Yearly Meeting retains its cohesion. In a similar way, Monthly Meetings can achieve unity without requiring uniformity of belief among their members. There are many ties binding together the Yearly Meeting, and the same is true for the Monthly Meeting.

The usual reaction to these issues is to separate the realms of religion and science. It is said that religion needs the knowledge science provides and science needs the moral guidance of religion. This separation into religious and scientific spheres of influence was accepted by modernscience from its earliest days (for example, in the charter of the Royal Society of London for Promoting Natural Knowledge).9 It provided the basis for the close relationship of Quakers and science and is central to the discussion among Quakers about religion and science. This division allows science to survive in an age of religion but it asks science to accept its inability to deal with many of the most important questions about human existence, those relating to dignity, worth, ethics, values, the responsibility for our actions and the meaning of our lives. In psychology, as in religion, deterministic science is said to be unable to deal with important topics such as creativity, purpose, and language. We are told that humans have physical, spiritual, mental and emotional aspects each operating on different principles, requiring a different language and a different sort of analysis. It is difficult to find a common language for all of human experience because we have accepted the division of that experience.

Pleasantly, another accommodation of religion and science is possible. Religion can be viewed as the search for an ethical life. Science can support this search. No reference to other realms is needed. Any topic you can think of is, in the end, a person behaving and that is a physical event for which there is a science. Materialists do not ignore topics, they just talk about them differently than most people. The same assumptions and language characterize secular religion and science. There is no separation and no conflict. Through materialism we come into synchrony with the rest of the universe.

In his little pamphlet, Friends and the World of Nature, Theodore Benfey issues this heartfelt plea: "What is missing in hum-anism is a way of harnessing the moral will to the accomplishment of what humanist reason so clearly sees. What we need is to forge a new link between the insights of science and the deeper promptings of the human spirit. And we will not be able to achieve this as long as the material world seems alien to us. The environmental movement is pointing to the closed interconnectedness of our terrestrial spaceship, but it is not yet releasing that love which alone can adequately reverse present trends. What we need is a rebirth of love for matter, becoming friends with the rocks, heeding Emersonís call." (1980)

The link that Benfey seeks between science and the promptings of the human spirit will be found in the recognition that these promptings are events in the material world and not one bit less marvelous because of it. To harness moral will to humanist reason we need a science, not of rocks but of behavior seen in its natural light. The rebirth of the love for matter will come about when loving is seen as an event in the world of matter. Materialism links the world of nature with what has been considered another world, that of morality, spirituality and love.

Are there many ways to accomplish this linkage, many paths to knowledge? Yes, there are different paths to effective behavior. A materialist will sometimes reason about a problem and sometimes move forward in intuitive leaps, but the materialist does not ignore what is known, and makes few claims about the unknown. A materialist can honor your experience, recognize that something wonderful has happened and accept it as transformative in your life, and still speak of it as a physical event. We do not reject the experience; we just offer another way of talking about it. As a materialist I believe all paths lead through the physical universe, but in this universe are people who believe differently and they are supremely important to me. I support people who follow other ways. They are living lives that are as good as mine.

Can a good person lead a good life even without belonging to one particular religion? Of course. Can a good life be led even without accepting our beliefs? Yes, of course. Can a person be a Quaker even without accepting the beliefs another Quaker holds? Yes, this also is possible. Can a materialist be a Quaker?

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