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An Atheist Grapples With Meeting for Worship

By: Evan Sweitzer ‘20, Guest Contributor 6-7-19

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece don’t necessarily reflect, and aren’t necessarily endorsed, by Focus, Friends’ Central School, or its students, staff, and faculty. Focus strives to provide a platform for community members to express their views on issues and policies within Friends’ Central. If you have an opinion you’d like to express, visit, and perhaps it will be published in the next issue of Focus. Friends’ Central School is a Quaker institution, and the values of that great tradition strengthen and define our community. This presents a challenge, however: with a student body that is less than five percent Quaker and a community that celebrates diversity--including diversity of religion and non-religion--does embracing Quaker values require embracing Quaker religious philosophy?

As a student who proudly identifies as an atheist with a strong value system (that is, a “humanist”), I ask that the readers of Focus consider my experience.

There is a lot that I like about Meeting for Worship. The reflective silence. The powerful personal messages. The sense of community. Sometimes I come out refreshed. But I sometimes perceive in Meeting for Worship a message that I know is not intended: the message that Quaker religion is the only path to Quaker values. In the presentation at the beginning of the school year, for example, the faculty seemed to urge us to “Listen for the light of God. If it doesn’t work for you, keep waiting; keep searching. Have patience.” While probably intended to encourage us not to rush the process, this unintentionally sent the message that if God is not with us, we should wait; it did not leave open the possibility of reaching the same insights without God.

It’s tempting to internalize this religious standard, to get frustrated that something is not connecting inside me. It’s tempting to believe that I cannot connect with our shared values because I cannot connect with the religious message.

But while asking Meeting for Worship to make room for my humanist voice, I also respect the voices of people who do arrive at our shared values through religion. The solution is to welcome people to celebrate their individual paths, without suggesting that one path is better than another.

I encourage the Friends’ Central community to acknowledge that Quaker religious philosophy is only one path to the Quaker values that we all share. I know that I am not a failure because I find my values outside of religion. I belong here, and you do too; we hold the values of Quakerism.

Meeting for Worship should speak to all of us, offering a Quaker religious path to students who choose it, but also nourishing students who choose other paths. Our paths are different ways of getting to the same place. Quaker values are the hallmark of a Friends’ Central student; Quaker religious philosophy is not.

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