Avoiding Fundamentalism: A Quaker View

Roy H W Johnston

This was published in the July-August 2008 issue of Humanism Ireland, arising from some questions raised in discussion at earlier meetings of the Humanists attended by the author.

I welcome the publication of Humanism Ireland. I was a member of the earlier all-Ireland Humanist movement in the 1960s, and observed with regret how it was wrecked by the tensions of the ‘troubles’. I subsequently joined the Quakers, feeling the need for a community with shared philosophy, and I found much common Humanist ground. There is need to develop this common ground, and to explore the essentials of the positive aspects of the Christian message, which to my mind the Quakers over the centuries have succeeded in doing, in a mode which is basically Humanist.

In my philosophy, God has a mode of existence, as a force to be reckoned with outside of us, because of a shared belief, among many people in the community, in a common aspiration to perfection, which belief influences human actions. This I suggest is basically a Humanist mode of belief. In other words, I joined a community in whose (Humanist) God I can believe. This I am convinced is basically the same as the early Quaker rejection of Church and State as it emerged in the context of the English republic in the 1640s.

It can perhaps be argued that the ‘Trinity’ emerges naturally in the context of a ‘Humanist theology’ in the form of:

  1. the mystery of the origins of the Universe, as embodied in the precision of the values of the basic physical constants which underpin the complex chemistry of carbon which makes life possible;
  2. the teachings of Jesus, immortalised by the metaphoric Resurrection, still living in the minds of those who follow them;
  3. the collective aspiration to perfection in the minds of the community, which by common consent exercises positive influence on human behaviour.

Thus we have, in effect, a Humanist interpretation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

There is thus much common ground between Humanists and Quakers, and some comparative analysis of the nature of beliefs and practices in the two communities is long overdue. There are also perhaps many parallels between Humanists and the 17th century Seekers who rejected official religion, and from whom the Quakers evolved.

In the current context, the key area needing to be developed is ‘all-Ireland thinking and networking’ and I see many positive starting-points for this. I suggest however that an important area to be avoided is any superior atheistic disparaging of Catholicism or Protestantism. Similarly, blind support for Dawkins is another problem area; he is somewhat of a ‘fundamentalist’ atheist, and to my mind he does as much harm to Humanism as Christian fundamentalists do to the Christian message.

It is important to make the case for total separation of education from religions sects; although there are Quaker schools, these are part of the historic legacy. Quakers however currently tend to support their local schools where they can. Schools should be integrated and serve the local community, under local government control; the VEC (Vocational Education Ccommittee) Community Colleges are the makings of a good model, and the tentative move of the VEC into primary education is to be welcomed.

(I should mention in passing that Quaker schools have tended to be broad-based and inclusive; their evolution into elitist fee-paying mode is a consequence of the historical background, and many Quakers are uncomfortable with the current situation, including the present writer, who had long been advocating the VEC model.)

Critical analysis of Sinn Fein is needed; they need to be reminded pointedly of the Protestant and Dissenting roots of the Republican tradition, and indeed of Tom Paine’s Humanist background. The problem is how to decouple Republican politics from the ‘Catholic Nationalist’ tradition. If they were to do this they would perhaps attract, in political mode, the many dropouts from various religions who question Church-State relations, and who evolve philosophically towards Quakerism or Humanism. After all, were not the early Quakers the ‘anarchist fringe’ of the English republican movement?

The problem of how to introduce geological time-scales and evolution to biblical fundamentalists is indeed difficult, and will depend on long-term reform of the education system, and good science teaching.

Ann James in the first issue gave a good overview of the church-state situation. On the meeting with the Dublin Government she indicated that the Humanist position paper was published; this could be a useful starting-point document for a critical political approach to church-state relations. The Quaker meeting with the Government has been internally minuted but not published. It would be interesting also to explore here the common ground.

The ‘intelligent design’ issue, I suggest, needs to be addressed by means other than ridicule and polemic. The negative ‘atheism’ concept needs to be dropped; after all there are a variety of modes of existence and of belief. What is the nature of ‘existence’ of ‘virtual reality’?

Biblical criticism, I suggest, needs to be approached in the spirit of understanding the Bible as an evolutionary document, dealing with the changing nature of human perceptions of total reality. By ‘total’ I mean not just the physical world, but also the socio-cultural world, in which belief-systems exist and influence human behaviour.

Critical analysis of various religions bodies such as the Iona Institute are welcome. But please spare us abrasive ridicule of trans-substantiation, holy water and the other Catholic rituals, many of which are de facto metaphoric; the many who have dropped out from literal belief in them will not have their crypto-humanism enhanced, and those who have not dropped out will simply be antagonised.

To conclude, I welcome the new all-Ireland Humanist journal, and look forward to it contributing a constructive approach to the development of an inclusive all-Ireland cultural space in which the philosophies of the Enlightenment will be able to thrive, and the traditional theologies to adapt to modernity.