The Time I Thought Of Becoming A Quaker

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.

39 thoughts on “The Time I Thought Of Becoming A Quaker”

  1. As far as I know we were never exposed to Quakers here, we had some choice,Catholic, one of the English churches or the Dutch church period. Otherwise you went to hell!! Do not pass go. People never admitted that they were atheist.

  2. My mother went through a phase of trying to convert to Judaism.

    Somewhat opposite of you, I was raised by an atheist and an agnostic and I went through a phase of exploring religions. I’ve been writing my memories and this will be the most difficult part for me because I look back on it and feel incredibly embarassed by some of the things I thought might actually be true.

    I never worried about heaven or hell much. When I was very young I asked my grandfather where we go when we die. He said, “Nowhere. This is it.” Of all the religious stuff, heaven and hell may seem the least real to me. I don’t know what people would have to do to convince me of them. I mean, where are they? We know enough of the world to know that hell isn’t below ground and heaven isn’t in the sky, yet they’ve never been depicted any place else.

  3. I am glad it was a short story. 🙂 Some people have the same story to tell…..but take years and years and years to finally reach the same ending. lol
    Good for you!

  4. Hah! I was raised Quaker and still consider myself such even though I don’t regularly attend any meetings, but seeing it from the outsider perspective it does sound frustrating. Different meetings will vary a lot, but in the meetings I went to, people stand up periodically to speak (briefly) about what they are meditating on. I find more standard protestant services frustrating: there’s always someone talking!

    1. Yeah, I’ve done a bit of research since then and found that the silent meeting I went to isn’t the most common form. I suppose with a bit of guidance I might have adjusted a bit better. Out of curiosity, what did they talk about at the meetings you would go to?

      1. People talk about all sorts of things: a recent event, a poem or song they liked, a story they heard, something that made them happy, something that troubled them, a decision they had made or needed to make, etc. Altogether, it acted to make a group of individuals into a community.

  5. I do not think it reasonable to belong to any institutional doctrine or religion, God the unknowable therefore can not be known by Mankind, if this is true, on the other hand if Man is made in to the image of God this is a clue.

    1. If god is unknowable why think about it?
      If gods exist, I contend man makes them in her image and likeness. This explains why the god of the savage is equally a savage and as we get better gods improve.

      1. One is not thinking about that which is the unknowable, it is a statement that exists as what has been said by someone, how are we getting better? as you are aware the Easter island primitive eventually denuded Easter island of wood to make scaffold to erect the statues, it is reputed this culture collapsed as a result of making Gods.
        In the West and others now follow the quest for progress and getting better is the environment is in a state of collapse, we are told to step up production, this means we are using the environment produce at a increasing rate, the creation of energy such as oil, coal and most resources took millions of years to be created by natural fermentation, we are as a culture blind to the history of the creation of resources, do you think when a person fills their tank they are thinking how this came to be?
        We are savages, its just that we are refined savages, who dress with Italian suits and have the garb that looks cute.

        1. We are savages, its just that we are refined savages, who dress with Italian suits and have the garb that looks cute.

          You answered how we are getting better. we are still savages but at least refined. We no longer kill witches [a few still do though], we no longer have stakes where heretics are burnt alive except in muslim majority countries where they kill for the prophet, no one is burning/banning books [does the RCC still keep an index of banned books?]

          One is not thinking about that which is the unknowable, it is a statement that exists as what has been said by someone

          I can’t get what you mean here.

          1. “One is not thinking about that which is the unknowable, it is a statement that exists as what has been said by someone.”

            This is the most true thing about religions that worship supernaturals. At least the Japanese and North Koreans get to see and hear THEIR gods and their gods’ wardrobes and latest hairstyles, too.

            Anyone whose god is only knowable by word of mouth or pen doesn’t really know he/she exists.

    2. But if god is a man made construct than it is perfectly reasonable to belong to institutional doctrine or religion if you feel that you need to be. Just because it isn’t “true” doesn’t take anything away from it. There is not a separate objective reality from your subjective reality, you are it.
      Sure you may be wrong and change your mind on an issue but then you are just changing your subjective reality again.

      1. If the Universe is infinite, it would not matter what road anyone took, as all possibilities are equal to any other possibility, as we take the road to the greater reality the opposite of what is becomes prominent.

  6. You sure have interesting stories to tell. I toyed with being a Protestant but it didn’t last longer than three months so I remained catholic until I quit

  7. I spent a summer in the 1960s attending Quaker services in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC, and another summer a couple of years ago participating in meditation at the Zen Center here in Rochester, NY.
    I read books such as William James’ VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE and Aldous Huxley’s THE PERENNIAL PHILOSOPHY, and I wanted to experience the things they were talking about for myself.
    Quakers and Buddhists are very different, but they both believe that if you can clear your mind of trivial desires, resentments and fantasies, you can, in the case of the Quakers, get in touch with the Inner Light or, in the case of the Buddhists, free your mind of illusion and see reality.
    My initial reaction to the Quakers was restlessness and boredom, but then I went into a kind of trance, so that when somebody spoke, it was like a gunshot going off in my ear.
    The Zen Buddhists were much more systematic about meditation than the Quakers. You had to sit in a stable posture (but get up every now and then so you wouldn’t lose circulation in your legs) and systematically count your breaths, in a cycle of 1 to 10—odd numbers inhale, even numbers exhale. When your mind wandered, you were supposed to detach yourself from your thoughts, and become an observer of your own mind.
    Eventually you were supposed to be advance to the point where you just concentrated on the breathing without the counting, and then pure meditation without a focus.
    I found this really hard to do!!
    I would concentrate on my breath for one or two cycles, and then think about what a good job I was doing concentrating on my breath, and then imagine talking to somebody about it, and on and on until I recalled myself.
    I came to realize how little control I had of my thoughts and feelings, which come into my mind unbidden. But if I am separate from my thoughts and feelings, what am I?
    I didn’t continue, even though I could see the value of meditation practice, because I was not, and am not, willing to make the commitment, going perhaps for years, that would be necessary to get something out of it. I have too many things I am interested in to do that.
    Also, there are things about Quakerism and Buddhism I do not accept. The Quakers do not have a hierarchy, but they consist of tightly-knit communities that can be very controlling of the individual members. The Zen Buddhists say that you don’t have to believe their philosophy, just engage in their meditation practice, but a lot of what they do doesn’t make sense unless you believe in reincarnation and other doctrines which I see no reason to accept.
    I don’t deny the value of the Quaker or Buddhist practice. It is just not for me.

  8. I don’t know about being a quaker at all, but I know one thing: faith alone it’s not the reason you go to heaven.

    I’ve been apart for some reasons, so I don’t remember the parts that says strictly this, but it’s said, more than one time, that if someone have faith, it will become fruitful, and this faith will become acts not only of kindness and good, but also love and other virtues.

    So, faith alone ain’t leading anyone to heaven, despite what any Rev. says. Bible also says that salvation is a mystery, and it will not be revealed to anyone in this world. So, if someone comes saying that “Elvis was saved in his deathbed, because God said it to him”, it’s bullshit. It’s that way for that who’s left alive don’t lose it’s faith or motivation, or even suffers, knowing that a beloved one is in hell. This is also said somewhere.

    So, faith, in the end, must lead to that nice person that you certainly know and think “ahh, he/she deserves to be on heaven!”. A bad person can even say that has faith, but does shows the faith?

    “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” Matthew VII, 15-20.

  9. My experience is somewhat different. I was raised pentecostal and in my early thirties, I began to doubt the supernatural. I left my church and became involved with Quakers because I’d heard they aren’t dogmatic. I’ve been with them for 15 years. I still don’t believe in miracles or God, but I do believe in meditation. There is a neurological basis for the value of quieting the constant chatter in our brains. It leads to greater calm and thoughtful behavior, as Buddhists and other mystics have taught for centuries. There’s no magic. Our primitive ancestors were much less addicted to language and noise than we are and our brains work better with less of such activity.

    1. Is it possible to be a Quaker and Atheist at the same time? Although Quakers are less dogmatic, I thought they still require belief in God and are still considered a Christian denomination.

      1. Britain Yearly Meeting has a Nontheist Friends Network that has some unofficial recognition. In the US, nontheist Quakers aren’t as formally organized, but we are involved and do organize workshops, etc. to promote acceptance of unconventional perspectives.

        Quakerism originated as a Christian dissenting body. In Britain, Friends have remained nominally connected to Christian ecumenical relations, which I consider a good thing. However, as with some groups like unitarians, Quakers have quite the spectrum in differing perspectives among its participants.

  10. I was raised Catholic, became pentacostal, attended an evangelical church and finally decided I was a Quaker at heart. The Religious Society of Friends is a large tent and provides a great environment for one’s spiritual journey. If you are consciously on a spiritual journey, Quaker worhsip gives you an opportunity to quiet your self and allow your soul to help you discover where you are on your spiritual journey. If you are not consciously aware that you are on a spiritual journey it will not appeal to you any more than any other religious or feel good organization. But I do believe that we are all on a spiritual journey whether we are aware of it or not and it’s always better to know where the train you are on is going and what landmarks to look for and appreciate along the way.

  11. My wife is a Quaker, and we regularly attend an unprogrammed meeting. I certainly agree that “There is no pleasure in thinking about yourself or God”; indeed, that’s how I can tell whether I am really gathered into the meeting. If I’m thinking about myself, or God, or anything at all, I know I’m doing it wrong. The key thing for me is to be physically still. For the first few moments, I’m concentrating on stillness. I breathe, I blink, but I don’t move my hands, feet, head, or eyes. Once I am still, my internal monologue quiets down. The longer I’m in that state of inward silence, the more aware I am of my surroundings and the less disturbing I find them.

    I always keep my eyes open during this exercise. I’m not at all sure that it is possible to be perfectly still and awake with one’s eyes closed.

    When I speak out of the silence, it is because there is some thought preying on my mind that is keeping me from being still. So for example, at meeting a few weeks ago I was thinking of a small child of my acquaintance who began her life in an orphanage in Siberia. Conditions at the orphanage were not good when she was adopted, and are probably bad for the children there today. I wasn’t going to be able to quiet my mind with the mental image of her and her fellows not having enough food, enough affection, enough medical care. So I said the phrase, “A prayer for the orphans of the world.” Then I could let that concern go until I was in a position to do something about it, and could spend the rest of our hour together in peace and stillness.

    Of course, it is possible to be still by oneself. Many people ask what the point is of sharing stillness with others. Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about this in the nineteenth century, “The Meeting.” A non-Quaker acquaintance of his had asked him why he sought God in a room full of silent people when he could go out in the forest and see the hand of the Creator in the trees and plants and animals and sky. “‘What part or lot have you’ he said, ‘in these dull rites of drowsy-head? Is silence worship? Seek it where it soothes with dreams the summer air!'” To which Whittier replied that “nature is not solitude,” but that it offers us continual distractions, demands, and temptations; that in the meetinghouse he finds “a silence multiplied by these still forms on either side,” and that, in that silence, “the world that time and sense have known falls off and leaves us God alone.”

    Sorry to go on at such length!

  12. Robert, very interesting reading. Had a different experience with the Quakers Nontheist Friends Group, but you may appreciate. I looked into the foundations of Quakerism and found they were originally founded in the search for Truth… what ever that is. I am a Nontheist now, a breed of Atheism to be sure, but a most sincere search and research into the truths that comprise the Truth. Somehow the NFG and I got connected for the last 2-3 years, and I asked about what they perceived the Truth was at first. A very common practice for me. One member replied, there is no such thing as the Truth. Another told of how an elder indicated, also, there is no such thing as “The Truth”. And yet according to my research Quakers were founded on the principles of a sincere search for the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth?

    Anyway, stayed the communication out of curiosity, as they were getting into morality, and the meaning of life, and many more most interesting subjects, mostly from an absence of a deities premise. It has been most interesting to read and share.

    I have also found an interesting trait even in the Nontheist members. They also insist on including in the NFG the concept of “silence”. More closer to silence is golden, and as comments went back and forth across the internet, some sharing became a little more obtuse, pointed, and then there was silence on both sides.

    It might be months, or days before the communication would start back up, but it was like a breathing moment, for all included.

    I am thinking such a trait is other than to be excluded from any organizations tools of communication. I am currently part of an Atheist Book Club and interesting enough a book was suggested by one of the leaders of the NFG, is about the Quakers struggle, but more importantly the concept of silence. I am curious if the Book Club will check it out. Again, the concept of silence in particular.

    I am also a member of FFRF, and several other Atheist organizations, and have seen them be more than obtrusive in their fundamental. moderate and progressive stages of development during shared time/meetings and not sure if Silence avoids having it’s appropriate moment/s.

    Not goin’ Quaker, mind you, but unlike most Theistic organizations, they avoid treating their questioning members like criminals. I respect that a lot.

    Anyway, great to hear your story. And isn’t it nice to be able to share with other like minded people for a change.

    Long live the internet….

    Peace 2013

  13. Interesting bit about the Quakers. Really didn’t know that they meditated formally in services.

    1. We don’t meditate formally in services. We sit in silence and do whatever we want, sometimes I review my week, sometimes I think about the Big Issues of my life, sometimes I use my meditation training. and sometimes I plan the nights menu. The appeal of Quakers is that there are no “right” formal answers.

  14. Thanks for your blog post, it’s very honest and helpful. Frankly, someone should have warned you about the circle thing ahead of time. :/

    It’s not for everyone. I’m glad you found your space.

  15. An interesting discussion. I was brought up a quaker and can’t stand them for their “holier than thou” attitude. Most people who were brought up quakers ( in the UK at least ) aren’t quakers themselves when they grow up.

  16. Dear Robert,
    I have been attracted to Quaker silent worship for exactly the reason you disliked it. One hour out of 168 in a week where I do not have to be a mother, a doctor, a wife, a friend. The phone doesn’t buzz, the emails can be left, and nobody needs me. And I can listen to the radiator pipes, the traffic, the shuffling of feet, or a cough in Meeting. That silence has been for me healing, peace, love, reflection, and comfort. Occasion ministry from Friends has moved me to unexpected tears. It has allowed the sacramental to enter other areas of my life in very unexpected ways.
    As a younger adult without dependents I suspect I would have found the structureless void tedious and boring. Instead, it replenishes me. Silence is so infrequent in our busy, media-filled world, that I find myself cherishing it. Believing in God is not a prerequisite for being an attender but what fills that silence has surprised me.

  17. I am presently seeking out a meeting house for many of the same reasons as John Moorman. I need to find a place where I can sit for 1 hour and seek the inner stillness that resides within me, so I can find the answers to the issues in my life. While meditation is about quieting the mind, Quaker meetings are mean’t for contemplation… con temple, go to temple and think without outside distraction. My grandfather was a member of the Religious Society of Friends and lately I keep stumbling upon reference to or members of the society. I am taking it as a finger pointing me to the path I need to explore.

  18. Very much enjoyed your blog on Quakerism. Always found the Quaker way attractive. Like you I was brought a Catholic – Irish mum! But have been ‘lapsed’ for years. No plan on unlapsing. Thanks

  19. So. Like, I, for a moment thought of becoming a Quaker (for the exact same reasons) typed it in, and feel you answered my conception of what would happen perfectly. Thanks

  20. Thank you so much for the article! I am 16 years old, and I have had a similar way of thinking when it comes to my religion. Just today I considered converting to Quakerism, because Catholicism has been very faith-oriented, when I would rather improve my character and the world in itself. I hear homilies in which the priest says that faith is the only way into heaven, and I don’t believe that. If I was raised Jewish, wouldn’t I die Jewish? How can I pick one religion when I’m not sure about anything? You get what I mean. I still attend mass once a week and lead retreats and such, because my objective in life is to make the world the happiest place I can make it, and I do believe that spending time in church where I demonstrate love to God–or whoever, or it could even be thanks for all the good things in life–does make me a better person, because I can hear scriptures (not all of them I agree with) that help me sort out what is morally good and bad. I don’t believe in Hell, only Heaven, or an afterlife, because I don’t believe in nothingness, but I don’t like to choose one faith. I believe that all religions are possible, therefore I am not atheist. I don’t think anyone knows which belief system is right, and perhaps none of us have knowledge of what the afterlife truly is or how big and complex the galaxy is. I still prefer Christianity, because of all religions, I like the moral code best, but I would love to know if you think Quakerism would be something for me or not.


    1. Thanks for sharing your story, it’s very similar to what I was going through when I was 16. Honestly, I’m not sure what advice I can give you. Quakerism didn’t work for me and now I’m an Atheist, but maybe it’ll work for you. The only thing I can say is to try a few different things with an open mind and see what suits you best. The crucial art is to make up your own mind and believe whatever has the best evidence and morality, not just what you are told to believe.

      Wish you the best of luck,


  21. It is too bad that you did not recognize the value of introspection and meditation. Quakers bridge eastern and western philosophies in this aspect, which is essential for a contemporary spiritual person.

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