Thoughts after Meeting.

So, as most of you know, I’m a Quaker. (And not of the Oats or Oil variety, although briefly in grade … 8? people called me Oats. Since I made the mistake of mentioning my affiliation.)

Growing up Quaker is pretty amorphous, really – the single point of spiritual instruction from which everything else flows in my own Quaker experience is that there is that of God in every one – and if you’d like, you can say Spirit or ‘the Light’ or ‘the Universe’ or ‘that which is most true when you put all the bullshit down’ …  There are many older Friends and southern Friends who identify as Christian, but I can’t claim that, although I’m not anti-.  The most A-HAH! I’ve gotten from religious texts have been from the Hindi mythic space - through a Western reader’s eyes, of course. That’s mainly about the poetry, I imagine, but the Hindu texts seem more interested in the how and the science than other mythologies, even if they call the ideas things like Shiva and Shakti and Night of Brahmin. I’m also influenced by Buddhist thought as filtered through stoned raised-Christian hippies.

When it comes to it, though, the centre of my actual *faith* is entirely experiential and not at all textual or traditional. There’s a particular toothsome homecoming magic, an overwhelming feeling both incredibly quiet and completely outside of one’s logical brain, that I recognize as being a good place in which to check myself before I wreck myself. That space is an incredibly important part of who I am – full stop. It touches something bigger than just me and my own ego space, and is where the clearest perception of ‘what the hell is going on around here’ lives for me.

Listening, I know others touch the same well, although through different faith and practise methods. So I see myself as a person of faith, and not that different than any other person of faith, even though I’m beginning to understand how I’m not a “theist”.

(Amusingly, I hadn’t really believed in Theists and was baffled by the concept of “A Personal God”. Which, as a concept, is badly named. I mean, of COURSE god is personal, I’d think, like love, or preference in jean cut. You couldn’t have someone else’s experience of god now, could you? It’s as personal as sex toys!
The rush of sex is pretty universal, even if not universally experienced or enjoyed – but sex isn’t a PERSON. That’s hilarious. 
I see god as pretty similar, so it sort of blew my mind to realize that sane people did believe in a dude. I just saw personification of things like sex or god as a way of learning something in metaphor; and god makes a great thing to personify, because it is paradoxical but of a set. Most of our sets are more discrete. You draw the lines of definition such that there’s no paradox. Something’s either  A or NOT-A. But a human can contain multitudes and paradoxes and be both A and NOT-A. So, personification is a particularly efficient way to make a paradox understandable.
I was A-Theists. Heh.
And actually, I’m realizing, the reason I still construe myself as a person of faith is because I believe in sets that contain paradoxes. A and NOT-A is logic-fail. It’s also true sometimes for any useful construction of A. )

For a very long time, though, I decided meeting wasn’t for me. Quakers are pacifists, and in the Canadian meetings I attended of an often highly educated white middle class who weren’t particularly radical. There was something of anger and id that I wasn’t seeing addressed at meeting but whose presence I could feel in the undercurrents of things unsaid. Holding people in the light is all very well, but what if what you really want to do is punch them right in the nose? How does a Quaker cope with his or her passions?

Not being passionate didn’t seem to be the correct response for me. Early Quakers were passionate, rude, and sometimes angry. Plus, unlike early Quakers, I knew there were situations where violence would be my answer. Rape was the important consideration; I knew for my own ability to cope and heal that committing to defending myself, even if it meant breaking somebody’s nose into shards, was very important.

But last year, I thought it was time to get back. If there’s one thing a Quaker upbringing can do, it can make the world of spiritual and theological discussion less painful and fraught. I never had to lose God the Father or wondered where the hell he went, and I never watched the Quake organization betray me from a place of authority.  There isn’t, really, a heirarchy of Quaker authority – what with consensus based processing, what you’re mainly doing is dealing with people.

When you’re a Quaker kid, you’re told to play nicely, don’t fuck with people, and listen really hard: other than that, it’s pretty much on you to figure out where the answers are. So I wanted to pass that to my kids. They could end up Quaker or Muslim or Nihilist, and if it’s coming from listening to the quiet truths in them, then it’s true and they need room for that.

Meeting, however, has been best for me, of everyone. Returning has been important.

Here’s the thing I’d missed considering, with the thought of a singular path to truth.

 When you’re in a Gathered Meeting, sometimes you touch the resonance, and sometimes you don’t. But if you’re really struggling with something and give it to the meeting, sometimes someone else will minister ‘to your condition’. Whether you frame that as silently constructed poetry (ie: the magic is in the interpretation and is therefore strictly naturalist), or whether you frame it as the gathered meeting actively addressing the members (ie: there’s something going on where information is being shared between people and the resonant space and therefore you are actively being addressed, as in silent conversation, from a place which is more clear and true) – well, unlike going it alone, if you’re too fucked up to get centred or find quiet, well? Someone else might be able to help, to hear, and to speak the words you need.

The gatheredness of the meeting matters. And it doesn’t always happen. When it does, though, it’s quite helpful.

This all sort of pulled into focus to me yesterday and this morning. I happen to be writing a novel with “no person is an island” as a theme, and yet was surprised to find that in my life.  

The “worship group” we’ve been attending only meets once a month in Burnaby, but I like them a lot. It’s also nice to stand around talking with people with whom I share a common language.


  1. Actually: I should say, I knew that literalists existed in every major religion. So that there were real “Theists”. I just thought they were the minority; there were some, of the fundamentalist vein, who had no connection to the homecoming magic space, and there were others for whom focus on a personified diety just made it easier to get there. My Grandfather, probably the Christian I knew best, certainly saw Jesus as a literal personification of god, but didn’t see god as a Dude in a Sombrero, or anything like that.

    In my high school pool playing days we used to talk about “pulling the pool finger”. There’s a sort of an awesome, make-all-the-shots headspace you can get into. The zone. We wanted to find a way to get into that zone without the randomness that seemed to happen naturally – sometimes you got it, sometimes not. We figured we could be like hockey players who always put the same sock on first and joked about trying to train ourselves to associate getting in the zone with pulling a particular finger. So I still think of those sorts of things as a particular person’s way to get in.

  2. This is interesting to me because I’m pretty much as atheist as you can get. Not only is there no God, but there are no gods, no fairies, no supernatural beings or effects of any kind, in the Universe I very firmly believe I inhabit.

    It seems to me that your religion is pretty thoroughly bleached of supernatural claims of any sort, leaving me wondering whether our two religions are actually different in effect. Am I moved to act in any way differently than you are? At the moment I don’t see it.

    Perhaps our differences are only changes of coordinates, due to the fact that all the passionately religious people I’ve ever dealt with believed in a Literal Dude, who made rules that you had to follow because He (always He) was in charge. When, as an adult, I first started meeting people who didn’t believe in a God-person (a better term, I think, than Personal God, which is too vulnerable to the ambiguity you mention), but said they did believe in God, I sort of classified them as closet atheists who were trying to get along.

    Is there, in fact, anything in the Universe you believe in, that isn’t in the one I believe in?

    Yours captchally,
    Baltimore Seaton

  3. I’m not a strict naturalist. I am only a methodical naturalist. This means I feel there are things in the universe that I don’t believe can be rigorously interrogated by naturalist (ie: scientific) methods. I am also of the belief there is a wealth of non-determinist phenomena – you cannot always ensure the same set of input will produce the same output. I ALSO think that P != NP.


    So, it makes sense to me that god is often personified for easy use – because humans don’t produce the same output with the same set of inputs. Psychology is studied phenomenologically, is a “soft” science: I essentially believe there are aspects of the universe which can only be scientifically evaluated phenomenologically.

    So, let’s pretend I’m talking about love – which I’m not, I should be clear, but it’s an easy metaphor. People experience love, and hard science says pair bonding and certain endorphin chains. What I’m suggesting is that I believe that love could exist without people to feel it; that endorphins are a structural adaptation to something that exists. Only instead of love, let’s call it, what, consciousness? Brains engage more than our meatspace? Sure. Go with that.

    So I may not be strictly “super”natural in the WooWoo sense, but allowing that I have experiences which situate consciousness both in and out of meatspace opens me up to the possibility of a lot of WooWoo.

    Which I will admit to believing some of, mainly via experience – which indeed is not constant, and I could not prove. Don’t really care, though – I spent lots of years questioning my own experience because I could not prove it. The only real difference between me and your Standard Painful to Cope With Religious Folks is that I don’t expect anyone else to have my experiences, and therefore why would they believe them?

    Anyway. To sum up. I am different from strict naturalists because I don’t believe the scientific method can explicate all truth in the universe. More importantly, most importantly, I have experiences I credit as valid and real even though I cannot prove them to anyone else. Because of not being able to find proof or show others, or construct any sort of mechanism or hypothesis that would be testable, I wouldn’t claim my spiritual faith and practise is bleached of “supernatural” claims, when we’re using that to mean outside the naturalist method of observation.

    Many atheists, but not all atheists, are strict naturalists – the idea that transcendental experience contains real external information would be ridiculous to the extreme. However, some atheists accept transcendental experience, and would probably be very comfortable Buddists, and are A-Theist.

    A good Atheist friend of mine would agree with me that people have experiences that are true – that I would categorize as WooWoo – but believes sometime science will catch up and determine the method there. From my own (limited) explorations, I have doubts there: therefore, I define myself as faith based, because from a strict naturalist’s perspective, I am!

    And Fonda

  4. – Oh, and as to Quakerism –

    Quakers sit in a silent circle and ministry happens when someone is moved to speak. We often get a bit shaky when authentically moved to speak (like talking about something really emotional any other time in your life), which is why the nickname Quaker. Really, the religion’s called “The Religious Society of Friends”.

    Strict naturalist atheist Quakers could very well exist and be welcome, although they may be made uncomfortable with the WooWoo the rest of us spout. (There are certainly atheist Quakers.)

    A strict naturalist Quaker would receive ministry to their condition in gathered meeting as two things: a product of their own interpretation (as with poetry), coincidence/recall bias, and maybe a third – the idea that many middle class educated lefty political (mainly white in Canada) people probably have similar concerns and so will be talking about similar stuff. A strict naturalist Quaker would feel that the gathering of a gathered meeting is just taking silence to hear those thoughts we normally drown with noise.

    However, I will receive ministry to my condition in a meeting with the feeling that the meeting had taken my silent offering of my condition and was speaking to ME, even if no one in the room is conscious of doing so. (Mainly because I’ve ministered and had no clue what I was yattering about, and had someone come up to me afterward in tears.) I believe a gathered meeting is the creation of something bigger than the quakes in the circle. So: non-strict-naturalist. Frankly, group hysteria could easily “explain” it, only I’ve done that too. *g*

  5. This is probably the wrong medium for this discussion, but I will respond to some points and hope to be forgiven for blathering on somebody else’s blog.

    I suspect your characterization of “strict naturalist” is so strict that you would be hard-pressed to find any, even among the most hard-boiled atheists. Your ascribed statement, “… the scientific method can explicate all truth in the universe …” would probably be held by almost nobody. All reasonably well-educated mathematicians are aware of Gödel’s proof that all formal systems contain unprovable truths; this kicks a big hole in “strict naturalism” as you have formulated it, and quantum mechanics, in which I fervently “believe”, kicks another. It also guarantees that identical starting conditions can have a variety of results, and chaos theory then assures us that that variety can be very disparate indeed. None of this, of course, has any bearing on the existence of the supernatural, unless you consider quantum phenomena to be so weird that they automatically qualify.

    As for the special nature of consciousness, I suspect my opinions match with yours, at some level, more than either of us would be comfortable with. I would say that what happens in our brains is one possible implementation of consciousness; we haven’t (I believe) encountered any others, but the nature of consciousness per se transcends, in a way, any imaginable implementation. That is, I would expect a sentient computer could (and perhaps must) “experience” consciousness in a way that was analogous to my own experience, even though the implementation was completely different.

    I have close Quaker friends and have been to meeting, and have heard and been moved by ministry (though I was not myself moved to speak, nor would it have been proper for me to do so even if I had been so moved). I have often wished I could find a congregation of atheist Quakers; to me as an outsider the concept is not oxymoronic.

    On the other side: I expect my “explanations” of your spiritual experiences would just infuriate you.

    — And Fogg (I knew a George Fogg, whom, now that I think of it, might have been a Friend.)

  6. No, I’m not at all offended! I’m not sure why I would be?

    Even explanations of experiences I’ve had that you might be able to explain: I wouldn’t be infuriated, because you’d have to go a very long way to find a (scientific) explanation I hadn’t already considered fairly intently. Unfortunately, I found all of those explanations curiouser and curiouser – more and more complex. So they generally don’t seem likely, useful, or particularly practical to my OWN experience, although I can see their likelihood, utility, and practicality for others, and for policing that which is sold to people. For me, a sense of overall unity in various parts of the Universe and a sense that this reality is sort of the trick of a particular vantage point that requires matter plus energy to be dancing in a forward ticking time sequence, well, that’s actually a pretty simple explanation for why I sometimes might know things or why I’ve experienced certain things and why I don’t know and can’t experience others. Vantage.

    I should say I think I confused you – it isn’t true that all strict (ontological/metaphysical) naturalists also believe in a strictly deterministic universe! I did mean to set those out as seperate, also P!=NP. I had two scientific mentors from university who I didn’t speak to about matters of philosophy but were convinced that in time we would understand it all to be deterministic. Which I don’t think even slightly possible because of my own construction of my vantage place. Anyway, intersecting but not identical philosophies.

    On Quakers – as long as you were attending a non-programmed meeting (anything in Canada and in much of the Northern States), you would be welcome as an Atheist! So would your authentic ministry. There are as many “types” of Quakers as there are Quakers: Jewish, Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Jedi… It’s the real joy of Quakerism that you DON’T need to be surrounded by people of similar understanding; that all
    understandings add fuel for thought and reflection. “Spokes on a wheel” is how it’s said. I think, since Quakers are an unruly bunch, you’d likely find Atheist Quakes who experienced differently than you on certain things and Pagan Quakes who experienced similarly than you on others.

    The only real protocols are a) Open Listening and b) No Arguing. (( And, as I learned at camp as a teenager, you shouldn’t giggle at someone talking about the Lord Christ Jesus, even if he sounded like one of those Sunday Morning Preachers on TV… ))

    On Strict Naturalists – I promise they exist. Whereas I have very little experience with people who would even consider God to be a Person, and so found the whole thing deeply bizarre, I’ve had a wealth of experience with metaphysical naturalists. (Wikipedia actually has a pretty good overview but doesn’t call it “strict” anymore.) I suppose that’s why I’m so careful in my definitions.

    Anyway, I’ve been roundly told off a bunch of times, so I always feel the need not to trick anyone into thinking we’re on more of the same page than we are. My first five discussions with atheists were ontological naturalist atheists, although Dawkins with all his meme-ishness doesn’t appear to be.

    As someone with math, do you know the NP complete problems – how they all come back to Traveling Salesman? I draw a line around experiential “super”natural or transcendental experience similarly and say they are all of a piece; of course our small brains, when confronting a Really Big Thing That Cannot Be Translated Easily Into Math, will come up with different metaphor. And will see different things, too – like the old story about the blind monks with the elephant. So I judge by my own horribly personal rule – IF the person is trying to sell me The One True Way, they’re probably not talking to the experiential, but rather to the rule-based, and while that is all well and fine, it doesn’t speak to what interests me. Because it’s culture. I’m no anthropologist.

    Anyway, for me, then, listening to people talk about their experience with whatever outside themselves or their basic five senses (as per my own interpretation of gathered meeting), encompasses people who see this as atheist, people who see it as Buddhist, and people who see it as wee fairies. I don’t really care how they’re defining the mechanism – the mechanism or metaphor is like a favorite sex toy. It’s personal. The “orgasm”, to me, is what’s *interesting*.

  7. Here, from Wikipedia:

    “Metaphysical naturalism (also known as ontological naturalism or philosophical naturalism), characterizes any worldview in which reality is such that there is nothing but the natural things, forces, and causes of the kind that the natural sciences study, i.e. the things, forces and causes which are required in order to understand our physical environment and which have mechanical properties amenable to mathematical modeling. Metaphysical naturalism entails that all concepts related to consciousness or to the mind refer to entities which are reducible to or supervene on such natural things, forces and causes. More specifically metaphysical naturalism rejects the objective existence of any supernatural thing, force or cause, such as are described in humanity’s various religions and mythological accounts. In this view, all “supernatural” things are ultimately explainable purely in terms of natural things. It is not merely a view about what science studies now, but it can also emphasize what science will encompass in the future. Metaphysical naturalism is a monistic and not a dualistic view of reality.”

    – My main issue with this is that I think even if you couldmodel that which is currently attributed to the “supernatural”, religions and mythological accounts got there first. And whether it is spinners or chanters or healers or shaman or witch doctors or hippies or whatever, people out there have been confronting and touching something REAL with mystic pursuit, and don’t really need a natural explanation, any more than they need a lab coat to describe the biological mechanism of love. The musician who writes of love can, better than the lab coat, make a person feel “in love” at will. So whether the scientists get there or not? Meh, I don’t care.

  8. Hey! ACW – Re: Consciousness, I’ve found (if you haven’t read it) reference to a book called “The Emporer’s New Mind” by a man named Penrose in my current reading material that sources both Godel and the concept of consciousness being quantum.

    The book I’m reading also fairly represents those who I’m more likely to know – the syllogism used in refutation is that he’s making the argument ‘Quantum effects are mysterious and consciousness is mysterious therefore quantum effects are consciousness’.

    The standard I’m meeting is shown a couple of pages later in my book here – that “we’ve all seen bodies without minds, but only mystics, psychics, and psychotics see minds without bodies”. I accept that criticism, and so align myself as a person of faith – “I’m right, you’re wrong” is the source of most suffering caused by religion, so I’m happy to accept my alignment mystics/psychics/psychotics. Other than personal preference for the way my own brain perceives, I really have no good reason not to. So that’s why I’m of faith.

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