Let me tell you the unusual and slightly strange story of the time I almost became a Quaker. It’s one of those stories which seem fairly normal at the time and from my point of view but seem completely bizarre to other people (I have a lot of these stories).When I was 16 I stopped going to Church. Although I still believed in God at the time, I was completely disillusioned with the Catholic church (for reasons so obvious as to need no elaboration). I thought that perhaps my problem was that I had the misfortune to be born into a religion that didn’t suit me, so the problem could be fixed if I switched denominations. This is where the Quakers stepped in.
Many Protestants denominations believe that faith alone is the rote to Heaven, whereas the Catholic Church believes it is faith and good works. I believed that faith wasn’t important at all, that it was abhorrent that horrible but religious people could go to Heaven. So I was looking for a Church that placed the emphasis on good works. Surely being a good person was all that counted in deciding if you could go to Heaven? (Like most people, my view of religion was shaped by the afterlife. I was determined to avoid Hell and get into Heaven). I also had a strong dislike for the clergy and their sanctimonious hypocrisy in telling people how to live their life. I knew enough about the history of Ireland to know the damage the narrow mindedness of the clergy had done. So even then I would have considered myself secular.
So by chance (I think I saw an article in the newspaper) I heard about the Quakers (or Religious Society Of Friends to use their proper title) and they sounded like what I was looking for. They placed little emphasis on faith, but rather strongly promoted charity and good works. They have little dogma and are relaxed about views of Christianity, allowing space for metaphorical views of Jesus and the afterlife. Quakers have a very positive reputation in Ireland as they did enormously work in running soup kitchens during the Famine and unlike other Protestant missionaries, they didn’t require conversion. Quakers have a proud history of activism (they were active in the Civil Rights marches and opposed slavery) and pacifism (they have consistently opposed all wars). Best of all, they have no churches or clergy. There are no head Quakers to tell the rest what to think, nor are there any vulgar monuments to their wealth and power (like a cathedral). They don’t even have Mass. I thought I had found the religion for me.
As Quakers have a minuscule influence in Ireland, I was surprised that they had a community in my native Galway. So along I went one Sunday (ironically, it was Easter Sunday). Now I probably would have gotten on better had I been warned what would come next. Instead, no sooner than I got there, then the 10 or so people there sit down on chairs in a circle and close their eyes. Not knowing what to do, I copied them. 5 minutes passed. Still everyone was sitting silently, with their eyes closed. 10 minutes passed. Nothing happened. 15 minutes passed. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I stared at my watch. To cut a long and boring story short, we sat in complete silence for an hour. I thought I would go insane from the boredom. At the end I got up and went to the bathroom, not because I needed to go, but because I wanted to do something, anything other than sitting in silence.
What I had experienced was what Quakers have instead of Mass that is mediation circles. They are supposed to reflect on their life and other things. I found it extremely boring, tedious and well, empty. The only thing I learned is how rubbish life is alone. There is no pleasure in thinking about yourself or God; you have to be doing something. Talking, reading, anything that involves other people. After the mediation I was given 2 or 3 books which I read, but none of them told me what I wanted to know. What am I supposed to do during mediation? The mind numbing waste of time proved to be an enormous barrier and stopped me from becoming a Quaker.
I tried to think of a way around the problem. What if I took all the other parts of Quakerism that I liked but not the mediation? So I’d have the no clergy or church and the pacifism and good deeds. I realised that this would be cutting the core out of Quakerism. A religion without some sort of prayer wasn’t a religion. I realised that I was looking for a religion that wasn’t religious. I wanted to be a good person without all the faith nonsense. It was at this point that I discovered those two points were incompatible and I would find no religion that combined both of them. I understood that I would never become part of a religion and although I didn’t know the word, I was a secular humanist. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I became an Atheist.
So, no, Quakerism didn’t hold the answer for me. (Plus it would have been strange being a Protestant in Ireland). There was a lot I liked about them, but at the end of the day, it was still a religion. I preferred instead to just be a good person with a religion telling me to do so, or rewarding me for it. I stilled believed in God, but not the Church (as I liked to phrase it at the time). That concludes the unusual story of the time I thought of becoming a Quaker.