This weekend was one of new things, and one in particular – although not a great leap in itself – was a significant departure from my usual state of being, in that I got me some religion.
Actually that’s a complete misrepresentation.
What actually happened was that, after several years of contemplating the idea, I took myself along to the local Quaker meeting.
Quakerism has an interesting and theologically complex past, and because it’s not heavily invested in having spiritual leaders nor a single ‘truth’, has been participated in and shaped by people with a broad range of beliefs.
The Wikipedia article does a reasonable job discussing the society’s historical connections to the anti-war, women’s rights and anti-slavery movements, but is written from a point of view that leans towards the Christian and mystical. With a little more digging, though, I found that the society has had sub-groups advocating the inclusion of non-mystics, pantheists, skeptics, non-Christians, humanists and athiests for hundreds of years. (And no-one’s been disowned as a heretic for it since 1873!) Indeed, there are modern Quakers writing about this now, and even coming up with some interesting survey results:
“Are there many who would be interested in a religion that does not necessarily involve the supernatural? Yes, there are a great many. There are even members and attenders among us now who are suffering in silence because their views could create discord in their meetings. These closeted Friends need your support.”
“In 1996, Ben Pink Dandelion asked 692 British Friends if they believed in God, and 26% answered ‘No’ or ‘Not sure.’”
I read on the Australian website about some of the shared values held by members (peace, simplicity, integrity, equality and earthcare) and decided to email and ask whether I would be welcome to attend a meeting as a non-Christian and atheist. The national secretary mailed me back to say ‘absolutely’, and so on Sunday (feeling very shy) I went along to the meeting, not knowing what to expect.
And you know what? It was a really good experience. The silent meetings create a welcoming communal space to mediate and reflect, and the people there were gently welcoming without being overwhelming. After the meeting, I stayed for a cup of tea and spoke to a friendly elderly woman about Catholic education, picked up a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged from the book exchange and met an English woman of around my age who cheerfully declared her atheism and told me that no-one there expected me to become anything different from what I already was. (Which is a whole lot of philosophical diversity to pack into twenty minutes, when you think about it.)
I chose to show up simply because I was curious, but I’m very willing to go along again. The people I met were the sort who are interested in practical kindness and social justice (for instance, one woman was collecting old mobile phones to send to an organisation in Indonesia that helps street kids set up small businesses), and I’ve always found that I’m much better at making time to meditate and be centered when I have some sort of structured time for it.
It’s always heartening to find more people out there who are on a path of tolerance, diversity, compassion and non-violence; two thumbs up to the Mount Lawley Quakers for choosing to make their little corner of the world an ethical and thoughtful place.