Dangerous Baggage

Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri

Advices & Queries

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Stereotyping is used frequently and this is probably a good thing in many cases. To really make sense of a world with the colossal amount of information and situations that ours bombards us with requires us to simplify, to summarise, to label.

When someone says that they are a Humanist, a Muslim, an American, a Quaker, most would quite instinctively conclude a few things about that person. The straightforward judgements that we make in these simplistic assumptions are wonderfully telling about us individually but may also manifest themselves dangerously when acted upon or used to exert social influence.

Whilst it seems that stereotyping, at least on some level, is something we can’t survive without, it is also something we must be wary of personally. Your job for instance, isn’t just a one sentence description it’s a whole way of life that you know intimately – but you would probably be well advised to avoid discussing in any real detail on social occasions. There are, however, some things that merit further investigation, stripping away the summaries and delving deep into the details – perhaps to further your career, because you are genuinely interested or because you really, actually care. For some, learning about the electronics of their music amplifier is a keen interest, for others learning the latin names of all the plants in their garden fascinates them, for others still watching several football matches every week and discussing players’ performances in depth is a virtual necessity.

For me, this week, it was finding out what the hell a Quaker is.

As part of an extended invite to my local humanist group I attended a meeting intended as an introduction to Quakerism. I’m glad I accepted.

The majority of the meeting was a simple presentation by a superbly personable man named Geoffrey Durham. An obviously intelligent and outwardly passionate individual; this man has a career in stage and theatrical performance (so a very good public speaker) and the other love of his life is Quakerism.

I will attempt to do this impassioned man the justice he deserves by avoiding paraphrasing his descriptions of the Quaker way. He spent a lot of time and effort emphasising that, how and why the Quaker faith is simply not something that can be explained in a tag line, in a single sentence or indeed in a single evening. The importance placed on individuality, on information and discovery and on intellect and positivity was such a refreshing insight into a religious faith. Geoffrey took care to mention that although Quakerism has Christian roots he knows Buddhist-Quakers and non-theist-Quakers (I note that he didn’t say atheist-Quakers – the reason for that I may never get to ask him).

The really heartening statement that some Quakers adhere to their Christian roots and disagree with him, whilst others disagree with them, really helped hit home what this faith is all about. Geoffrey’s description of what he called God was particularly uplifting and although my first reaction was to think it a shame that he referred to such a decisively real, albeit subjective, experience as God, I soon had second thoughts on that. Such a personal experience is his and his alone, describing events that are his and in no way imposing them on me is both satisfying and admirable in a faith based meeting and a presentation by a Christian-Quaker.

My main point of contention arose during the Q&A session towards the end of the meeting when one of the audience members spoke about the recent piece in the Guardian “The Quakers: a religion Richard Dawkins could sign up to”. Geoffrey stated, quite confidently, something along the lines of, Richard Dawkins and/or his ‘followers’ are basically fundamentalists, arrogant, always right, the sort of people with which there is no argument. Now, I could very easily continue with some more details and counter-arguments (any scientist or atheist reading this right now will surely have met this stance before from a believer) and possibly one day should I meet Geoffrey again I may well take issue with his view. For now though I remain satisfied that my limited knowledge of Quakerism and of Geoffrey himself leads me to the conclusion that such a debate would be intelligent, respectful and well-informed whilst possibly fierce and certainly emotionally involved – with someone that would be able to defend his position strongly. A debate well worth having.

And I think that’s the point I’d like to come away with and emphasise above all.

If you want to know about Quakerism I’d recommend reading a book by a Quaker (and yes I bought Geoffrey’s book and am very much looking forward to reading it) or better still going to a meeting. It is all quite involved and you won’t find any simple one word answers (though maybe you’ll find some questions you’d not thought of asking). Above all though this is indeed a faith with which Richard Dawkins would probably not begrudge spending time, they are open to reason and debate whilst respecting the personal and subjective perspective.

I do hope I haven’t done Geoffrey an injustice in anything I’ve said here. If all believers were as open to reason, engaged by discussion, passionate about language and above all as dedicated to humour as he, then the world would most certainly be a better place.


Written by matthaughton

October 11, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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