Friends General Conference

Nurturing faith and Quaker practice

Nontheism Among Friends

Workshop Number: 
Robin Alpern, Elaine Ruscetta
Who may register?: 
Open to All (adult & high school)
Experiential Activities: 
full-time attenders only

We will use activities and discussion to explore Quaker life not centered on belief in God. What is spirituality for nontheist Friends? What are our challenges?  How can all Friends grow from the diversity within Quakerism? All seekers will find a safe space to celebrate and deepen their spiritual lives.

Workshop Description

The goal of this workshop is to provide a safe, loving and inspiring space for exploring the life of nontheist Friends. (Some may prefer terms such as atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secular humanist, pantheist, or other.) All seekers, nontheist or otherwise, are welcome, as long as they are interested in providing a safe space for everyone to share their experiences without fear of judgment or contention. We will not be discussing or debating whether or not God exists, or whether or not one can be a Quaker and a nontheist simultaneously. Instead, we will be examining our past and current theology and challenging ourselves to take responsibility for our present spiritual paths. We intend to support participants in becoming clearer about their relationship to the Religious Society of Friends and also to empower them to take action toward creating greater unity and understanding among theist and nontheist Quakers.

About one-third of our time each day (except Monday) will be divided between presentations by the leaders and worship. The remaining two-thirds will be spent in group participation. The format will vary, depending on our subject, and will include worship sharing, paired sharing, breakout groups, interactive exercises, and whole group discussion. Each day will include at least one activity that gets us up on our feet, although alternatives will be provided for anyone with limited mobility.

Monday will begin with a review of the guidelines and rough overview of the week, followed by icebreaker exercises. The rest of the morning will be devoted to in-depth introductions by each participant. We will ask what specific qualities of the Religious Society of Friends attract nontheist Friends. In past workshops, we have found this session to be deeply moving and connecting, as Friends, both theist and nontheist, share the richness of their various journeys.

On Tuesday, we will broaden our outlook by briefly considering the historical roots of nontheism in the Religious Society of Friends and the resultant diversity of modern Quakerism. We will examine the connection of nontheists to Quakers and explore nontheists' understanding of the traditional theology. We will then transition into a discussion of past and present religious language of Friends. How can we interpret and learn from the messages of friends with theologies that differ from our own?

On Wednesday, we will explore the experience and meaning of Meeting for Worship for nontheist Friends. We will discuss the state of our individual relationships with our monthly meetings and other Quaker communities in which we reside.

On Thursday, we will break into small groups to discuss topics raised so far. Concerns are likely to include meeting for worship; sources of morality, solace and joy; individual understanding of traditional religious language; and support for those discerning whether to apply for membership in the Religious Society of Friends. The content of this day will remain flexible so that we can respond to needs that arise during the week.

On Friday, we will explore challenges nontheist Friends face within our Religious Society. Our intent will be to frame these experiences as opportunities for growth. What gifts does theism offer nontheists? What gifts do nontheists bring to Quakerism? We will look forward to next steps, as individuals and as members of our faith community.

Leader Experience


I have clerked committees since 1990 for my Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings, including designing and leading weekend retreats. During a period of about five years, I took part in rigorous leadership training programs offered by what is now the Landmark Education Corporation. I led seminars for small and large groups, and was promoted to advanced leadership levels. One of the hallmarks of these programs was the intensity of interaction between leader and participants, requiring leaders to have enormous compassion, integrity, humility, humor, and passion, all rolled into one!  In 2002, three other Quakers and I founded a community program in my town on Ending Racism. Our usual format was dialogue. I was asked to serve as the lead facilitator. For four years I designed and led these programs, and expanded them to serve our Quarterly Meeting. Since 1996 I have co-led 9 workshops on nontheism at the FGC Gathering, and three at Powell House, the NYYM conference center (where I have been invited to return in March 2014). I was the principal leader of each workshop except the Gathering workshop in 2004, and I was principal designer of most of them.  In 2012, I helped design a workshop called “What White People Can Do About Racism,” offered through the Center for the Study of White American Culture.  I’ve co-facilitated the workshop half a dozen times, and I’m now assisting in the development of an intermediate level workshop.


  • I co-led “Nontheism Among Friends” workshop at the 2004 FGC Gathering alongside Robin Alpern, Os Cresson, and Joan Lucas
  • I co-led a workshop entitled “Reclaiming Our Understanding of the Divine: Thinking Outside Our Labeled Boxes” at the 2008 FGC Gathering alongside Sally MacEwen and Jim Cain.
  • At various times, I have served as clerk of the SAYMA Young Friends group (1 year), the SAYMA Young Adult Friends group (2 years), and the FGC AYF program (3 years) as well as the interim clerk of the Young Friends Support Committee at my monthly meeting.
  • I have a great deal of training in group facilitation and conflict resolution.
  • I recently led a workshop for a secular group on the mechanisms of Quaker decision-making process and ways to adapt it for secular use.
  • As part of my day job, I lead monthly trainings on Health Education as well as other intermittent trainings throughout the year.