12 August 2009

Quakers: a force for good in the world

My thoughts on religion continue to evolve at a steady rate. About 4 years ago I was converted from a wishy-washy sit-on-the-fence agnosticism to hardcore atheism by Richard Dawkins's Channel 4 documentary Root of All Evil? (His book The God Delusion makes similar arguments). I enjoyed the documentary and the book and for several years my stance was basically similar to Dawkins - religion was a piece of shit as far as I was concerned, a brainwashing exercise.

But I've recently been moving away from that view for two main reasons. One is that there is a viciousness and nastiness about the attacks on religious people by some of the hardcore atheists which strikes me as OTT and unnecessary. Dawkins isn't the worst offender here, although sometimes he does go on a bit of a rant: I'm thinking more of Christopher Hitchens, who seems to be on a mission to insult anyone with any religious sensibility whatsoever. When I see that kind of shit going down, it makes me think: do I really want to be in the tent with these guys? Can't we have a bit of tolerance and humility for a change?

The other thing is that there is a left-wing radical side to religion which has been under-reported and under-explored in the media in recent years. They have been preoccupied with Islamic extremists and the reactionary drift of the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict, and I can understand that to some extent - although in both cases the people under discussion are wildly unrepresentative of their respective religions.

But we have heard almost nothing about the Quakers in recent times - and so the revelation that they had decided to perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples was a welcome surprise. (The Guardian covered it in a very nice editorial last week.) At a time when all we seem to hear from Christian representatives is condemnation of gay people (from the Catholics and evangelicals) or hand-wringing equivocation (from the Anglicans), it is really great to see a religious denomination which does not spend all its time picking on the minority, but instead is trying to do some good in the world.

I experienced something of Quaker hospitality first hand in Leicester last month when I went to a meeting for a work project I'm involved with at the Friends Meeting House there. It was a very warm and welcoming atmosphere - a bit like a convalescent home (and I mean that as a compliment rather than an insult). I think I may investigate the Religious Society of Friends further.

BTW, in terms of the issue which religious belief is supposed to centre on - the existence or non-existence of God - my view at the moment is that I really couldn't give a stuff about it. By which I mean that I'm not so much an agnostic as someone who just isn't interested in the question at all. It makes no difference to me either way in my current state of mind. For me, the social significance of religion or non-religion is all-important - and I'm attracted to the Quakers because they seem to be about a positive and caring attitude toward people rather than constantly looking to berate other people for doing 'wrong' things or having the 'wrong' beliefs, which is where hardcore religion and hardcore atheism alike seem to fall down. I've simply got better things to do than play that game anymore.

1 comment:

Van Patten said...

I enjoyed this post. The quakers were almost unquestionably the most welcoming denomination I visited when I was studying religion more than a decade ago.

With a deeply philanthropic and altruistic streak pervading their outlook, they always struck me as one of the most sensible of all the Christian denominations. Those that would condemn homosexuality outright appear to have at best a wildly selective reading of certain aspects of the Bible and at best use certain scriptural quotations to indulge their own neuroses. Even the far more doctrinaire Jehovah's Witnesses found much to admire in the Quaker creed, not least of all their mutually shared pacifism which they said made their doorstep chats far more pleasant than with most other denominations. More of this please, rather than anything about 'Climate change' or Gordon Brown.