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 – 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 don’t have free will? Holding people liable for the consequences of their behavior does demonstrably affect their subsequent 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 subsequent behavior. We don’t 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 harm’s 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.” ‘Tis 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 Let’s 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, Fox’s 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 – 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 wouldn’t 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 modern science 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 humanism 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 Emerson’s 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?

Materialism and Quakerism

As a child, I grew up attending Quaker Meeting. These were usually small groups gathered in someone’s home. Being Quaker was central to who we were as a family and how we lived our lives. I was also curious about the world, it’s beauty and surprises, the mystery of how it worked. We lived with mountain ranges in our back yards and I saw that we are part of the continuous movement of nature, a flow of physical events, one into another. I saw unity in the rising sun and singing bird and believing Quaker.

If I am a naturalist, how would I describe these peculiar people, the Quakers? We are passionate in our determination that each and every person merits our loving concern, and that in each person is an element of goodness to which we can respond. It is our faith that we can each search for what is essential in our life and we are not dissuaded by differences in our words as we speak of the truths we find. This is a personal experience of the individual seeker and it is available to all who seek it. No special training is needed. As this search goes on our Quaker faith is newly created in each of us.

The list goes on but you can see that the essentials of our Quaker faith can be described in the terms we use for the world around us. It is true that the Quaker religion is usually described in nonphysical terms, but we need not be limited to this.

Quakers are often described as seekers. Can materialists be genuine seekers? Certainly. We all live surrounded by people who do not agree with us, but with whom we dearly wish to cooperate. This requires a fundamental openness from each of us. The test of this openness is not in saying, “I don’t know.” It is in being willing to question and to change. Seekers constantly strive to do better. They may hold strongly to their convictions, as Fox did in his day and as many Quakers do today. This may include views held for a life time, but a seeker is still open to change and to learning from others. Materialists, like anyone else, can be seekers.

Frequently, people are puzzled about why I go to Meeting if I don’t agree with most of the people there. Ah, but we do agree! We love the silence and the messages in Meeting. We continually seek better lives. We put great value on the life of a person – any and every person. We try to mend the world. We are bound together in so many ways that no one particular belief is needed to maintain this unity.

I find it easy to cooperate with Friends whose seeking has led them to views that differ from mine. It is a pleasure to sit in Meeting with a Buddhist Quaker on one side of me and an Evangelical Christian Quaker on the other! I would hope that a materialist’s views would be a welcome addition in the spectrum of Quaker belief. As Henry Cadbury said, “It would be a pity if the natural variety in Quakerism were artificially restrained.” (Bacon, 1987)10

We are already admitting people who hold a wide variety of beliefs about the God Within. Is God capable of intervening in our affairs? Does God represent the universe or the principles manifest in the universe? Is God an abstract concept like love, or a word to be taken metaphorically? Is this belief relevant to the life we lead? The unity found in our Meetings today comes from our commitment to each other and to our heritage and our Quaker practices. This does not require our accepting the same beliefs concerning God.

We may not believe in the same God or use the same names for God, yet we worship together. We are in accord on the spirit even if not the letter of our beliefs. Our way of speaking has changed since Fox asked Quakers to consider, “What canst thou say?” but time has not altered our commitment to helping each other in the search for what we have to say. We are lifted by the messages in Meeting and by the silence, speaking from the heart, the core of our being. Are these messages divinely inspired? Do they come by telepathy or synchronicity? Does it matter? Aren’t they valuable in any case? The same is true of all our shared activities. Meetings lose nothing by being a human enterprise, a bit of the rolling along of the universe. It is no less marvelous than if there were divine involvement and no less important in our lives.11

I remain a Quaker in a material world because I am inspired by the lives of those around me and believe we can love each other. I value the history of Quakers and my history among them. During worship the silence is refreshing and the messages stimulating. The efforts to mend the world are often exemplary. I am comfortable as a Quaker and as a secularist; the two perspectives fit together seamlessly. But I am concerned, too. Will Friends welcome secular Quakers into membership? (Cresson, 2002b)

Membership decisions are usually made by individual Monthly Meetings. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Discipline advises Friends to consider whether the applicant participates in the life of the Meeting and is in harmony with the views of other members of the Meeting. Although beliefs common among Friends are mentioned, there is no call for conformity of belief. (1997)12

We are well aware of the danger of applying a doctrinal test for membership but not the equal danger of giving the impression that there is such a test when there isn’t. The brochures that grace the entryways of our Meetinghouses give cause for concern in this regard. Typical is “Quakerism at Moorestown Friends School,” written for parents of prospective students, many of whom are nonQuakers. (Moorestown Friends School, undated) Several sentences begin with the phrases, “‘Quakers believe in–‘”, “The Quaker belief in–”, “A basic tenet of Quakerism is–”, “Since Friends believe that–”, “believing that–”, “their central belief is–”, and “The fundamental principle which Friends stress–”. Six of these seven sentences about what Quakers believe end with references to God or the Inner Light. The reader would be pardoned for assuming that theistic beliefs are expected of new members.

Do the descriptions in these brochures of the Quaker position on creeds soften the impression that certain beliefs are required? This is where we meet another interesting pattern. Statements that we do not insist on the acceptance of a creed are followed immediately by statements that we believe in the God Within. An example comes from the brochure for parents, quoted above: “Friends have no formal creed; their central belief is the reality of the ‘Inner Light’ or ‘God Within.’” This is common in the literature we prepare for visitors.13 The authors are concerned that simply saying we have no creeds will give the misimpression that there are no core beliefs that are widely and strongly held, that we will take anyone, that beliefs don’t matter. Unfortunately, the qualifying statements address this problem by asserting that we are unified by one particular belief, a belief in God. Then we explain this isn’t a creed because it is not formally stated with one set of words, we don’t ask people to repeat it or swear to it, it is not a do-or-die issue when we consider an application for membership, and we might very well take you even if you don’t believe in God. We are trying to achieve the purpose of creeds, to have a group in which people agree on their beliefs, without the problems of insisting they do this.

There is a real possibility that people will draw the wrong conclusions from our position on creeds, but another remedy is available. Instead of saying “We don’t have creeds, although we hold this particular belief”, we can say “We don’t have creeds, although we are in unity.” Then we can explain that our chief concern is whether we are comfortable and in harmony with each other and work well together, that membership questions involve finding clearness and beliefs are part of this but not all of it, and that when we state our beliefs this does not mean members are expected to hold these beliefs. Rather than agree on one belief but not hold people to it, we can agree to hold on to each other, beliefs and all.

Please know that I am not asking Quakers to stop expressing their beliefs. We just need to make it clear, in our conversations and our literature, that Friends hold a variety of views. This can be expressed in many ways. In the words of Monteverde Monthly Meeting of Friends, “The spiritual values in the Discipline are presented as suggestions rather than commands. It questions or queries rather than giving specific answers. It places upon the individual conscience, rather than upon external authority, the responsibility for the discipline of the spirit.” (1981)

This commitment to one another rather than to a particular belief does not mean that we have to accept just anyone or that we must give up our distinctive Quaker way of life. Admitting materialists will not bring the culture around us flooding into our Society.14 It just means we will look at the person’s entire life rather than whether they accept the concept of the God Within, as central as that has been in Quaker history.

Does it matter what a Quaker believes? Yes, it does and to test our beliefs we should look at our whole lives, not just what we say in reply to certain questions. What matters about the beliefs is not that they are the same as certain standard beliefs but that they are in harmony with Quaker tradition, they are appropriate to the individual holding them and they are the basis for participation in our Meeting and for a good life.

To whom does it matter? First of all to the Quaker who is believing. What matters to the rest of the Meeting is the life of the Quaker who is believing rather than the beliefs themselves. There is a sense in which what you believe doesn’t matter, in that I am going to try to love you whatever you believe. Rather than ask what you be-lieve, many meetings ask whether we can live Quaker lives together. But to say it doesn’t matter to us what you believe is misleading.

Yes, I would be wary of admitting materialists – just as I would be wary of admitting anyone. Before proceeding, we all need to be clear that membership is appropriate. There are certain behaviors that would interfere with this clarity for me, but they are not what you say when asked about your beliefs because saying something doesn’t usually predict what the rest of your behavior will be. (There would be exceptions, as in the case of people who advocate the violation of the human rights of others.) Accepting materialists in our midst need not mean we take people for whom this is an inappropriate step. It need not weaken the Religious Society of Friends. It will mean that we can appeal to a whole new population of potential Quakers. Opening our hearts and our doors to materialists could open the way for new Quakers of many kinds.

Quaker Outreach to Materialists

“What are we doing to invite persons not in membership to attend our meetings for worship and to encourage their continued attendance? How does the Meeting welcome visitors? Are we sensitive to the needs and hesitations of each visitor?” (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997)

How do we answer this query when it is asked with regard to materialists? If a materialist’s life is characteristic of a Quaker, and the applicant is in harmony with the views held by members of the Meeting, should we reach out to this person? Are we ready to accept the measure of Light offered by the materialist?

Jesse Holmes and Henry Cadbury were two Friends who sought answers to these questions. They were colleagues, working together to found the American Friends Service Committee and to promote modern, liberal varieties of Quakerism. (Frost, 2000) Although Holmes and Cadbury would not have agreed with many of my views, they did gave eloquent voice to some of my most cherished concerns. For example, Holmes wrote, “It has not often been, and should never be, that knowledge of truth as revealed to the scientist, is out of place in our galleries. Certainly that vision of what should be which in all ages is the heart of religion, must be based on what is now, or our temple will lack foundation and be no more than a castle in the air. The spirit of the Society of Friends is closely allied to the spirit of the genuine scientists. It involves that intimate relation between ourselves and our world which makes any final statement of it in a formula impossible.I believe a very large and increasing number of the scientists of the world are in unity with the essential Quaker point of view.” (1931)

Jesse Holmes carried this message forward with great energy. He was clerk of the Progressive Friends Meeting (Longwood, PA), and presided over the National Federation of Religious Liberals. He wrote articles and gave addresses. His letter, “To the Scientifically-Minded,” was an effort “to reach the thousands of people worldwide to whom religion, as Harry Emerson Fosdick put it, appears to be ‘intellectually chaotic, ethically confused, organizationally antiquated,’” in the words of the editors of Friends Intelligencer where it was published in 1928 (and reprinted in Friends Journal in 1992.) Friends General Conference distributed 20,000 copies of the letter and it also appeared in Atlantic, Christian Century, and Harper’s. This was a grand effort to bring Quakerism to the attention of those who might not know they would be welcome.15

Of Henry Cadbury and his concern for outreach, Margaret Hope Bacon has written, “(H)e knew himself to be a religious person, and he was becoming aware that there were others like him, within and without the Society of Friends, who felt themselves somehow inadequate because of their inability to experience moments of direct revelation. To reach out to such persons, to help them feel that their inarticulate urges toward moral behavior and social action were as valid an expression of religion as any other, became a goal. He thought ‘the correlation of ethical behavior with theological views was small and unimportant.’ What mattered was the fruit of the religious life.” (1987) (See also Cresson, 2002a.)

Of course, there are Friends who disagree. Chuck Fager, in his usual boisterous way, would gladly expel Cadbury from the Quaker pantheon, or at least give his wings a good clipping.16 The challenge for Quaker materialists is to find ways to live effectively with Friends of all persuasions.

My view is that a specific program of outreach to materialists is needed. If materialists are qualified to become Quakers, then we should make a special effort to inform them of this because most of the Quaker literature they read will leave them with doubts. We should reach out to support materialists who are already members of Meetings as well as others who might like to join. This would be an opportunity for all Friends to deepen their understanding of what makes a Quaker. Our Religious Society would broaden its appeal and find a fresh approach to the issue of diversity of belief among Friends.

So, how do we proceed? First of all, we need to be clear about what we are asking Friends to consider. The issue is not whether secular religious views are correct or whether we agree with them. The issue before us is the appropriateness of granting membership to an otherwise qualified person who is a materialist (or atheist or secular humanist or ethical culturalist and so on.) If the Meeting is comfortable with this, the next question is whether the members want to publicize this fact.

We are not asking people to change their fundamental religious beliefs. Secular Quakers are happy to participate in the life of a Meeting with Friends who hold a variety of views. It is a joy to worship with powerful and contrasting points of view finding harmony in the silence and the messages. We need not hide nor apologize. For example, I encourage Friends to deliver Christocentric messages in Meeting. Part of the rejuvenation we seek for our Society will come from members who find sustenance in our Christian roots. This is a good way to create a vibrant modern Quakerism and I support it. It is not the only way and these are not the only roots that have anchored the Religious Society of Friends. Let us be careful to leave no one behind, not the evangelical Christian, nor the Christian universalist, nor the secular humanist, nor anyone else who is living the life of a Quaker. We are all needed.

This outreach need not turn Friends away from their heritage. It could strengthen the historic Quaker commitment to finding God in all people, even in those who do not believe in God. There are materialists who seek to become actively and wholeheartedly Quaker, to embrace the Quaker traditions. We are asking to join the Religious Society of Friends as it exists today in its multiple forms.

Over the years, Friends have gradually opened their Society in response to changes in the culture and to new insights by individual members. Beliefs that were once required have become optional. In some Meetings, members are no longer expected to agree that Jesus was the son of God and performed miracles or that scriptures were divinely inspired. There are Yearly Meetings that have replaced a single statement of belief with a collection of examples of what Friends have believed. In some Meetings, members do not have to be Christian. It is appropriate that we take the next step and consider whether they have to believe in God.

To assist in this discussion, materialists will have to present a comprehensive world view that functions as religion does in the lives of believers. In Daniel Seeger’s words, the task of the materialist is “envisioning a viable basis for human spiritual, social and material flourishing on a foundation of materialism, science and rationality (and) upbuilding a coherent and inspiring vision of human life, one capable of eliciting spiritual enthusiasm through its nobility and attractiveness, one which holds up for people a vision of their best possibilities.” (2000)

There are many places to look for inspiration in this upbuilding. Materialistic world views were developed about 2,500 years ago in India (the Lokayata school) and in Greece (by Democritus, Epicurus, and others). Siddhartha Gautama built a religion focused on every day life, even if this was considerably modified by subsequent Buddhists. Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke and Hume all had significant elements of humanism, empiricism, and materialism in their philosophies. John Dewey’s religious perspective avoided all reference to the supernatural. B. F. Skinner produced what may be the most comprehensive statement of a materialist philosophy as applied to human behavior. Finally, of course, we draw from various tributaries of the sweet, still river of Quaker thought.17

As we build up a naturalistic version of Quakerism, it is important not to undermine the views of others. We are better served by making positive statements. Fox told Penn to wear his sword as long as he could. We will all lay down our old beliefs when the time comes. Our goal is not the conversion of immaterialists, but the development of a secular Quaker option among Friends. We seek cooperation among the varied strands of Quakerism, rather than competition.

Central to any outreach will be the task of talking to people who do not agree with us. Our hearts go out to families and Meetings in which there is discord on religious issues. Here are some ways of talking that can help in these situations, ways that lead toward harmony and unity when people disagree:

To speak well we must first listen well, relying on the Quaker art in the uses of silence. While listening, it helps to have our own definitions of the words we hear, ones that allow us to respond smoothly without balking at terminology that is not ours. As we do in Meeting, we must discern whether the moment has arrived to speak.

It helps to limit our assertions as much as possible. You may have noticed that all a materialist needs to claim is that a deterministic analysis is useful, not that the universe is necessarily deterministic. Henry Cadbury was famous for avoiding broad claims on religious matters. When he acknowledged not having mystical experiences, rather than denying that these existed, he ascribed his lack to moral or temperamental defects or a lack of practice or just that he called the experiences something else. (1936/2001)

Respond to what the speaker is responding to, rather than the particular form of the response. Let your guide be the context from which the other person speaks. The burden of translation should be on the listeners rather than the speakers. If we each use our own faith vocabulary and translate what others are saying, conversations can continue unimpeded by religious differences.

Respond as if the concepts were your own. For instance, the injunction to love one another because there is God Within can be taken as a request to love one another as if there were a God Within, something a materialist can do easily. It is important that other people’s beliefs work for them, not that they agree with what works for you. They can live very competently and yet accompany this with an amazing assortment of beliefs. Respond to the competence. Learn from everyone.

Put your emphasis on the goals of the dialogue. Avoid hot button words that interfere with these goals. Seek unity in common purposes, loving one another and worshiping together even as you talk differently. When there are strongly opposed views within a group, it can help to only discuss what you agree on, rather than what divides you. The results can be surprising.

It is good to remind ourselves that our views are formed by the circumstances of our lives. I am an atheist, son of a pantheist who was the son of a high Episcopalian. If my father had not intervened in this series, what would I be?! We are primates, only about 600 generations removed from the Stone Age, and primitive in many ways. Under these circumstances, no wonder old views are firmly entrenched.

When discussing these matters, it is important for materialists to acknowledge that most Friends believe in the God Within. It is my fervent wish to show love for each person, when we disagree and when we agree, and to show this so obviously that no one misses the point.

Above all, I try to help people as they search, and rarely go beyond this to express my own views, and almost never criticize what other people are saying. This is my intention, in any case. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes my most urgent task is to remain calm.

These, then, have been some ways to facilitate the conversations we will have in a program of outreach to materialists. Now let’s consider the actual steps in such a program.

Materialists could contact other materialists, both those who are accepted by their Meetings and those who are isolated. They could circulate a series of queries about materialism to promote discussion. There are many people who might have something to contribute in the preparation of classes, workshops and courses. It would be useful to have a dictionary with secular translations and interpretations of the traditional vocabulary of religion and psychology. A survey of Quaker literature could be done to find support for and criticism of the materialist’s position.

Several types of minutes could be requested from Friends Meetings. These represent an increasing commitment on the part of the Meeting. A minute of introduction when traveling among Friends would be a simple request. The minute could also mention the member’s project of outreach to secularists. On the subject of membership, a minute could declare that the Meeting accepts members with a variety of personal views. The Meeting could make this more specific by stating that no particular beliefs regarding God and spirituality are required of applicants for membership. Finally, a minute could support a campaign of outreach to materialists.

A good place to contact Quakers and nonQuakers, materialists and immaterialists is in the context of social action. Materialists offer a suite of new approaches in the search for alternatives to violence, the development of new educational methods, the design of cultures, and many other areas. Environmentalists will be particularly interested because, for the materialist, the environment is much more than just a magnificent setting. In the environment we find the origin of our behavior as well as our species. This contrasts with the eco-spirituality approach common among Friends today that emphasizes the relationship of God to Nature.18 This is an effective way to promote Quaker action on the environment but it is not the only way. Materialism provides the basis for a new environmentalism as well as a new Quakerism.

We need to express our materialism with many voices, in art and literature and drama as well as religion and philosophy and social activism. We need to draw people from many traditions, with a variety of skills and styles.

Perhaps the best way a materialist can help Quakers become comfortable with secular members or attenders in their meeting is for this person to be a good example of a Quaker and a materialist. We need people who are known to be materialists and who are active in their Meetings, benefiting from relationships with others whatever their beliefs and being of some benefit to them, comfortable speaking publicly about their views when asked but not insistent. People learn to understand and trust those whose lives are admirable even when their views are unusual.

Isaac Penington yearned for diversity in the gathering of Friends. His words urge us on: “And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning, and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master. For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him–walking sweetly and harmoniously together in the midst of different practices.” (1681, 1995)

I think we are ready to welcome materialists, atheists, and secular humanists into the Religious Society of Friends. The test is whether we can cooperate, whether we respect and are comfortable with and in harmony with each other’s views. It is not necessary or desirable that we hold the same views. If one of us can reach out to a particular faith community, then we can all reach out through that person. This does not mean we all hold the same views, but that we welcome the interest of these people in our Friends meeting. Let us be an open society and confident in our openness. Does this mean changing Quakerism? No, not in its essentials. It would mean a broadening of our membership and a deepening of our relevance to the contemporary world.

Neither your Quakerism nor my Quakerism nor that of George Fox is the only Quakerism. The essentials are in the lives we lead as Quakers, not in anything we can say. Let us take seriously and without exception the suggestion of old that we avoid creeds. Let us accept a variety of names for God and languages for our fundamental beliefs, including the language of the materialist.

Materialists are people who are capable of everything other people are capable of. Many would become Quakers if we would but reach out to them. I ask you to consider whether there is room among Friends for those whose faith arises from the world of the senses and no other. Will we invite them to the gathering?


  1. This refers to something that happened early in Fox’s life, when he was first walking from village to village visiting with small groups. In his journal he described the incident with great care. It is one of his principle statements on the world of nature: “And one morning, as I was sitting by the fire, a great cloud came over me, and a temptation beset me; but I sat still. And it was said, ‘All things come by nature’; and the elements and stars came over me so that I was in a manner quite clouded with it. But inasmuch as I sat, still and silent, the people in the house perceived nothing. And as I sat still under it and let it alone, a living hope arose in me, and a true voice, which said, ‘There is a living God who made all things.’ And immediately the cloud and temptation vanished away, and life rose over it all, and my heart was glad, and I praised the living God. And after some time, I met with some people who had such a notion that there was no God but that all things came by nature. And I had great dispute with them and overturned them and made some of them confess that there was a living God. Then I saw that it was good that I had gone through that exercise.” (Nickalls, 1997)
  2. People holding views similar to those described here are called materialists, naturalists, secularists, empiricists, positivists, behaviorists, and scientists. In religious terms they may be called atheists, nontheists, agnostics, pantheists, secular humanists, ethical culturalists and many other names indicating that they are skeptical of traditional views.

    The reader may wish to see dictionary definitions of some of these terms: Materialism: “the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications; also that the phenomena of consciousness and will are wholly due to the operation of material agencies”. Naturalism: “a view of the world, and man’s relation to it, in which only the operation of natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces is assumed”. Determinism: “the doctrine that everything that happens is determined by a necessary chain of causation”. Secularism: “the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state”. Secular: “of or belonging to the present or visible world; temporal, worldly”. Religion: “a particular system of faith and worship . . . devotion to some principle, strict fidelity or faithfulness, conscientiousness; pious affection or attachment”. Atheism: “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God”. (The Oxford Universal Dictionary, 1964)

    The phrase, “secular religion,” is not a contradiction when secular refers to the world and religion to the set of ones life. The word, “atheism,” does not appear in this article very often because I prefer to write in positive terms and to address a broad range of issues.

    One other point about definitions: please help people distinguish between materialism the philosophy and materialism as an interest in acquiring possessions. The one does not imply the other.

  3. As B. F. Skinner put it, “(W)e are not justified in assigning to anyone or anything the role of prime mover. Although it is necessary that science confine itself to selected segments in a continuous series of events, it is to the whole series that any interpretation must eventually apply.” (1953)

    Alan Watts wrote about these words, “We are now listening to a man who represents himself as a behavioristically oriented, non-mystical, on-the-whole materialistic, hard-headed scientist. Yet this passage is the purest mysticism, which might have come straight from Mahayana Buddhism. (T)his is the Dharmadhatu doctrine, that the universe is a harmonious system which has no governor, that it is an integrated organism but nobody is in charge of it.” (1963)

    Free will is a creationist concept. It represents an intervention in the physical world. It has an essential place in our views on religion, psychology, education, politics, law, literature, and art. No wonder we balk at being dispossessed of this favorite illusion.

  4. Many arguments are presented against materialism. What about events that are not observed? Scientists respond to this problem by extending the range of their senses, or by interpreting the unknown based on what is known. Also, we always have our own behavior regarding the unknown (including thoughts and feelings that only the person behaving can observe) and this behavior is a physical event that can be observed and understood in relation to the environments in which it occurs and of which it is a function. Finally, faced with that which we cannot explain, we watch and listen and wait. Our ignorance is no reason to presume to limit the physical world or to seek explanations in nonphysical realms or a specially invented terminology.

    What about reductionism, the criticism that science tries to reduce everything to simpler terms? Can an analysis of one level help with another? Every phenomenon is potentially explicable in terms of a more fundamental and fine grained analysis, but we do not have to do this in order to do science. Gregor Mendel studied the inheritance of the characteristics of plants without knowing anything about genes. A science can be developed before its connections with other sciences are work-ed out. If nature is a grand chain of cause and effect, we can study the relationship between any two links before we know about the links that lie between them or on either side. While reductionism is true in principle, it is not necessary in practice.

    It is suggested that there is something about the whole that will never emerge in any description of the parts. Yes, an analysis of the whole is often most appropriate. This said, it is still true that the whole is made up of parts which themselves can be studied, and that the events constituting the whole can be viewed on a smaller scale. There is no case against materialism here.

    Does the presence of the observer disturb the observations? Yes, it can and it is an empirical question whether this is significant. In any case, it is still a physical system we are observing and we are wise to be guided by this materiality. Can we analyze our own analysis? Yes, we can. When some of the events are hidden from view (your thoughts), we deal with what shows (what you say about the thoughts). It is true that the observer behaving is part of the scene. Materialists do not ignore this phenomenon since we treat science as the behavior of scientists. Whether the effect of the observer is significant is an empirical question. There is a science relevant to all behavior, including that of the scientist.

    Do I assert that we are simply machines, thereby missing the most important aspects of human existence? We are machine-like in being a collection of physical parts that show causally determined interrelations with each other and with the surrounding environment. I never cease to be amazed by the glories that have been achieved by purely physical processes. What remains for us to struggle toward is still more stunning but, sadly, we will not get there if we are machine-like and refuse to admit it.

    Some have suggested that the interconnectedness of all events in the universe makes the accurate prediction of events impossible. It is an empirical question whether the flutter of a butterfly in Costa Rica affects the observations I am making in New Jersey. I doubt it does in any significant way, unless it is because I remember the beauties of the forest there.

    Others make the point that the apparently chaotic nature of some changes, like a breaking wave, or the uncertain-ty of measuring more than one variable at once at subatomic levels are evidence that human behavior may not be determined and predictable. Uncertainty looks like a measurement prob-lem, to me. I remain skeptical that quantum phenomena some-how enable minds or wills to intervene in physical processes. It would be odd if cause and effect held sway throughout the known universe with the grand exception of human behavior and only some of it, at that. This sounds like another effort to give humans a special place, like suggesting that everything moves around us at the center, or that nature came to be the way it is through the action of some outside power. In the long run we are probably better off not thinking something is a miracle if it is not.

    The assertion is made that the physical constants are so delicately balanced that slightly different values at an earlier stage would have prevented life from forming on Earth. Some unexplained power must have set the initial conditions and must still be operating to keep life on course. This is called the Anthropic Principle, a modern version of the old teleology argument that nature is so complex and beautiful, there must have been a designer at work. I am not convinced that only one path could lead to life as we know it, or that life as we don’t know it wouldn’t have been possible. We may be an unlikely occurrence or a very common one. In any case, I am moved by the apparent miracle of nature, but have found that simple processes are at work and that a religious view based on these processes and nothing else is possible and very pleasant.

    The objective of all these arguments is to disprove the materialist’s position by the force of reason alone. The effort is sincere, but not convincing. It is a desperate attempt to deny that nature moves in orderly ways and that we are no exception. This is the latest in a series of intellectual crises that Carl Sagan called the “Great Demotions.” (1994) We have always resisted giving up our privileged position in nature.

    In any case, we do not need to form an opinion on the merits of materialism. Our main concern is whether we want materialists to join our Meetings.

    For more discussion of a naturalistic variety of Quakerism, see A Conversation Between Zeus and Pan on Quakerism and Atheism and A Tender Concern for Religious Skeptics (Cresson, 2001b & 2002a). Also bibliographies are available of Quaker references to science, nature, and the environment (Cresson, 1995), and atheism, agnosticism, and nontheism (Cresson, 2001a).

  5. In this, as in many other ways, Jesse Holmes has influenced my thinking: “We should substitute a religion based on actual repeatable, describable and testable experience, and which has some connection with the genuine values of life. But is such a religion possible? And is any religion even desirable? Certainly it is even indispensable. The accurate formulating of our ends and of the tested ways of attaining them is the function of philosophy and the sciences. The more difficult task of holding ourselves to the higher loyalties is that of religion. Not the discovery of truth but the patient using of it for the more abundant life is its task.” (Undated)

    It was Holmes’ view that truth is tested by its effect on our lives: “Truth to be of any value – indeed to deserve the name – must so enter into life and conduct as to make some difference, and that difference is the constant test. Every step tests the law of falling bodies. Every meal tests the dietary principles of health; every railroad journey tests the laws of expansion by heat.” (1912)

  6. An important kind of support is to provide an opportunity for the passionate expression of one’s feelings. Can a secular religion do this? I believe so. Consider the many secular contexts in which we feel a great stirring – when admiring a work of art, when loving a child, when discovering something or accomplishing a life goal. Humans feel joy and passionate commitment in many situations. Religious emotion is available to all, even the secularist.

  7. Henry Cadbury rarely spoke of his personal beliefs, but he did say this: “I am interested in better individual and social morality. I should be glad to promote it through my own practice first of all. How I can justify such a wish theologically does not bother me, and I am not in sympathy with those who deprecate morality that is not religiously self-conscious or not motivated by a theistic conviction. I should be willing to let my religion rest very largely on a life of honest thinking, of kindly dealing and of challenging impact upon the social issues and conventions that it comes into contact with.” (1936/2001)

    Cadbury expected opposition to this recasting of religion: “To call the set of a man’s life his religion no doubt seems a great comedown – when you are used to finding it in beliefs or distinctively religious experiences. But he is in my opinion practicing religion as much as the one who skillfully builds the dialectic structure of a well rounded theology or as the man who through public and private devotion lives in that mystical drama of a religious imagination.” (1936/2001)

  8. For instance, this is how Rufus Jones viewed materialism: “‘(The real issue of twentieth century civilization) is between a spiritual interpretation of the universe and a naturalistic, materialistic one. The outstanding heresy of our time is mater-ialism, a theory of the universe which eliminates significance, values, purpose, freedom, personal initiative, the reality of the soul, the transcendence of the spirit, man’s communion and fellowship with a Great Companion.’” (quoted in Moore, 1958)

    Howard Brinton’s view was similar: “The common enemy of all religion today is materialism with its resulting secularism. Science deals with the world of the senses, religion with the world of the spirit where man’s ultimate destiny and the real meaning of his life can be found.” (1957)

    This is what D. Elton Trueblood had to say about a thoroughly naturalistic view of humankind: “If man is merely one of the animals, most of what Friends have stood for is a mistake.” (1953)

  9. It is not widely known that William Penn was a member of this group that did so much to promote scientific knowledge. Nor is it well known that Penn’s “Charter of Privileges,” a fundamental document in the history of human rights, excluded atheists from the protections of citizenship.

  10. The full quotation is this: “‘Present-day Quakerism owes a special debt to those interpreters who do justice to more than one of its multiple strands, the mystical, the evangelical, the rational and the social. It would be a pity if the natural variety in Quakerism were artificially restrained. Even unconsciously we are subject to powerful tendencies to conform to a single standard religion as well as in other ideologies and practices. If the role of Quakerism among the denominations is precisely one of enriching the variety and challenging their standards of uniformity, we ought by the same token to welcome variety within our small body.’” (quoted in Bacon, 1987) Can we include a secular strand in this fabric Cadbury would have us weave?

  11. “(Jesus said) that those who do the will of God are one with him, and if we Quaker agnostics cannot put it quite like that–we can nevertheless live the experience.” (Allott, 1989)

  12. This was clearly stated by Friends gathered at the third Friends World Conference at Oxford, England in 1952: “‘The test of membership should not be doctrinal agreement, nor adherence to certain testimonies, but evidence of sincere seeking and striving for the Truth, together with an understanding of the lines along which Friends are seeking Truth.’” (quoted in Kenworthy, 1983)

  13. Another example of pairing a statement on creed with one on our beliefs comes from Haddonfield Friends Meeting: “While Quakers have no prescribed doctrine or creed, we do believe that there is that of God in everyone.” (1998)

    Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting does the same thing and explains why: “Because of our belief in continuing revelation, Quakers are a non-creedal people, i.e., we do not subscribe to efforts to develop a creed, which fixes our beliefs and which becomes a test of membership. The absence of a formal creed, however, sometimes leaves seekers outside our Society puzzled about what makes someone Quaker. Or they may think, ‘Quakers let you believe anything you want.’ It is more accurate to say that Friends hold that each of us can have a direct experience of communion with the Divine, and that our own experience of God is important in the development of our religious belief and practice.” (1999)

    The brochure for parents of prospective students in Moorestown Friends School provides an example that is particularly unsettling for the materialist. On the first page, below the title, is this quotation: “‘Quaker education does not seek to inculcate a particular set of beliefs or doctrines; it seeks to nurture a particular sort of personhood– a person who has ‘Eyes for Invisibles;’ a person who knows deep down that what we see, taste, touch, smell and hear is not all there is to life” The quotation is credited to Samuel D. Caldwell, a past General Secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. (Moorestown Friends School, undated)

    Contrast this to the approach taken by Jesse Holmes: “(Friends) have no common creed, and such unity – of which there is a great deal – as there is among them is merely due to the fact that impartial minds, working on the same conditions, arrive at similar conclusions. However, we demand no unity of opinion, but find interest and stimulus in our many differences. I suppose our largest unity is agreement on the Sermon on the Mount as the ideal for which mankind should constantly strive. This agreement is not at all a blind acceptance of the authority of Jesus, but is rather due to what we regard as a fundamental longing of mankind for a world based on friendliness and good will.” (1928)

    Although Holmes suggests Quakers are in agreement on the Sermon on the Mount, he makes it clear that no unity of opinion on this or any other sermon is demanded, that unity consists of the common purpose of seeking “a world based on friendliness and good will”. Holmes places no limits on his rejection of creeds and he deals with the entire issue in physical, human terms.

  14. In any case, it is not true that materialism is dominant in the culture around us. Most people believe in God. In general they refer to other levels when explaining what they see. Science and the philosophy of science are widely held to be inadequate to explain much of human behavior. The belief in God does not dominate people’s lives as it once did and is not institutionalized in the culture as it was, but people reject a materialist view of the world, of spiritual phenomena, and of their own behavior. People do not turn to science to solve their problems. Even those who advocate a scientific point of view are examples of nonscience, myself included.

    Nor is it true that materialism is responsible for the awful way we treat each other and the rest of nature. We were doing this long before the birth of experimental science and we have continued to do so, with the aid of science, for the same reasons we were doing it before.

    It is true that the effects of technology are complex and often ignored. They must be taken into consideration. It is an important empirical question whether or not technology is appropriate.

  15. Two quotations from Jesse Holmes’ letter, “To the Scientifically-Minded,” are in Notes # 13 and # 17. I am indebted to T. Noel Stern for an article on Holmes in Friends Journal (1992), and to Albert J. Wahl for a biography of this interesting person (1979).

  16. “(W)hile Cadbury’s condition of building religion ‘in the absence of God,’ may have been an honest response to his own inner condition, as a basis for the Quaker movement it is woefully inadequate and many of its effects unfortunate. I am convinced that a Society of Friends that lacked a substantial sense of divine presence and leading would have lost its reason for being and could not be long sustained. In recent years the Cadbury ethos has been in broad retreat within (Friends Gen-eral Conference) circles, swept back by a resurgence of mysti-cal/religious seeking and finding. To be sure, as Cadbury said there are and will continue to be many ‘non-mystics’ among Friends; but they can be supported and carried by the sense of presence in the Society at large. Thus, the religious legacy of Henry Cadbury, an important Quaker force once, seems to be fading rapidly. Perhaps this is just as well.” (Fager, 1987)

  17. Taking these sources of inspiration in order, apparently there was a fully developed materialist philosophy in India in about the sixth century BC. The followers of Lokayata, which means ‘belonging to the world of sense,’ were called Charvakas, from the name of the founder of the system. Their texts have not survived but it is said that for them all knowledge was based on sensation, only matter existed, and spirit was an effect produced by matter. They denied immortality and the supernatural, sometimes with jests. They rejected rituals and holy texts and advocated the pursuit of pleasure, although prudently. (Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 1924-1927)

    Democritus (c, 470 BC – c. 380 BC) is said to have used his inheritance to travel through the Middle East seeking knowledge. He is famous for the phrase, “Nothing exists, but atoms and the void.” In a long life he wrote 72 books on astronomy, biology, botany, cosmology, embryology, evolution, philosophy, physics, physiology, psychology, religion, and zoology. All that has survived are a few quotations in the works of later authors who were attacking his views. His contemporaries called him the Laughing Philosopher, either because of the value he placed on cheerfulness, or because he laughed at the gods. His materialism was deeply offensive to Plato who said, “All things are full of gods,” and taught that this world is but a shadow of a much more important reality that can not be sensed but only imagined. He told his followers to burn Democritus’ books, which they apparently did. Plato’s approach has been the norm in our culture ever since. We are only now rediscovering materialism. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968)

    Siddhartha Gautama (c, 563 BC – c. 483 BC) called our attention to the world around us: “‘Whether the dogma obtains that the world is eternal, or that the world is not eternal, there still remain birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentations, misery, grief and despair – all the grim facts of human existence – for the extinction of which in the present life I am prescribing.’” It has been noted that, “The Buddha made very few concessions to his fellow Indians’ love of mythmaking, or to the common human desire to dwell on the miraculous and the supernatural. The world as it was seemed enough of a miracle for him, offering, as it did, the one road immediately at hand for attaining the final goal of Nirvana – release from blind appetites and the limiting sense of a ‘separate self.’” Also, “The Oneness of all life is a truth, Buddhism asserts, that can be fully realized only when false notions of a separate self are fully annihilated. When the individual seeker has finally acquired this supreme sense of the Oneness of all life, he has, indeed, reached the bliss of Nirvana. Freed completely of the limiting conditions connected with the sense of a personal ego, he has come to the ‘end of separateness.’” (Ross, 1966)

    John Dewey (1859 – 1952) wrote only one book on religion but it is revealing: “I shall develop another conception of the religious phase of experience, one that separates it from the supernatural and the things that have grown up about it. I shall try to show that these derivations are encumbrances and that what is genuinely religious will undergo an emancipation when it is relieved from them”. (1934)

    I thank Daniel Seeger for pointing me toward Siddhartha Gautama and John Dewey and for many other helpful suggestions.

    B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) wrote on the relation of be-havior and environment, reward, punishment, emotion, the self, thinking, social behavior, government, law, religion, psycho-therapy, economic control, education, and the design of cul-tures (1953), freedom, dignity, values, and alternatives to pun-ishment (1971), and verbal behavior, the problem of knowing, and the philosophy of a science of behavior (1974). This is a partial list from three books and there are seventeen other books and hundreds of articles, all from a materialist’s perspective.

    Turning to the Quakers, a source of inspiration for materialists is Jesse Holmes for whom God was a very human concept: “God means to us just that unifying influence that makes men long for a brotherly world; God is the name of certain common experiences of mankind by which they are bound together into unity.” (1928) As he wrote on another occasion, “(W)e must set on its pedestal the Unknown God whom now we only pretend to worship – whose name is Love – Fair Play – Justice – Righteousness – Brotherhood. We can find him in our hearts.” (1912) A new call for a Quaker humanism is in the pamphlet by David Boulton (1997).

    Another model for materialists is Henry Cadbury who apparently considered himself an agnostic: “Most students wish to know whether I believe in the existence of God, or in immortality. They regard it impossible to leave these matters unsettled. Now for my part I do not find it impossible to leave them open. I can describe myself as no ardent theist or atheist.” (1936/2001) Recently, atheism and agnosticism have been presented to Quaker readers by Stephen Allott (1989; 1994), Robin Alpern (1997), George Amoss, Jr. (1999), Osborn Cresson (2001b, 2002a), Scott Crum (1972), Eric Johnson (1991), John Linton (1979), Thomas Miles (1998), and Kingdon Swayne (1980; 1986; 1987; 1994a; 1994b).

    As to my own efforts, I ask the reader to remember that the imperfections one notices may be due to the limitations of the author, rather than the viewpoint. I am neither poet nor philosopher nor mystic. In time, others will give more artistic, subtle, and inspiring voice to a naturalistic vision of human life.

  18. An example of the ecospirituality approach is the minute on the environment passed by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in January, 1998: “The world is God’s creation. How we treat the earth and all its creatures is basic to our relationship with God, and of fundamental religious concern to the Society of Friends. We unite in urging individual Friends and monthly meetings to seek Divine Guidance in considering the limitations and actions this concern requires of us.” (Environmental Working Group, 2000)

    The Friends Committee on Unity with Nature is an eloquent advocate for the environment and for ecospirituality. Here is how they describe themselves: “FCUN is a spiritually-centered organization– FCUN goals (are) to strengthen and deepen our spiritual unity with nature. FCUN encourages Friends to explore the spiritual roots of humanity’s relationship to the Earth. (W)e support informed, spirit-led action on all environmental issues.” (Friends Committee on Unity with Nature, undated)


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