Are We More Than Our Demographics?

One of the things that is intrigu­ing me late­ly is the nature of Quak­er debate.  There are half a dozen seemingly-perennial polit­i­cal issues around which Friends in my cir­cles have very strong opin­ions (these include abor­tion, nuclear pow­er, and the role of Friends in the trou­bles of Israel/Palestine) . We often jus­ti­fy our posi­tions with appeals to our Quak­er faith, but I won­der how often our opin­ions could be more accu­rate­ly pre­dict­ed by our demo­graph­ic profile?


How many of your polit­i­cal posi­tions and social atti­tudes could be accu­rate­ly guessed by a savvy demog­ra­ph­er who knew your date of birth,  postal code,  edu­ca­tion and fam­i­ly income? I’d guess each of us are far more pre­dictable than we’d like to think.If true,  then what role does our reli­gious life actu­al­ly play?

Reli­gious beliefs are also a demo­graph­ic cat­e­go­ry,  grant­ed, but if they only con­firm posi­tions that could be just as actu­al­ly pre­dict­ed by non-spiritual data, then doesn’t that imply that we’ve sim­ply found (or remained in) a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty that con­firms our pre-existing bias­es? Have we cre­at­ed a faith in our own image? And if true, is it real­ly fair to jus­ti­fy our­selves based on appeals to Quak­er values?

The “polit­i­cal” Quak­er writ­ings I’m find­ing most inter­est­ing (because they’re least pre­dictable) are the ones that stop to ask how Quak­er dis­cern­ment fits into the debate. Dis­cern­ment: one could eas­i­ly argue that Quak­er open­ings and tools around it are one of our great­est gifts to human spir­i­tu­al­i­ty.  When we build a wor­ship com­mu­ni­ty based on strict adher­ence to the imme­di­ate prompt­ing of the Holy Spir­it, the first ques­tion becomes fig­ur­ing out what is of-God and what is not.  Is James Nayler, rid­ing Jesus-like into Bris­tol, a prophet or a nut?

When we go deep into the ques­tions,  we may find that the answers are less impor­tant than the care we take to reach them.  Wait­ing for one anoth­er,  hold­ing one another’s hand in love despite dif­fer­ences of opin­ion, can be more impor­tant than being the right-answer ear­ly adopter. How do you step back from easy answers to the thorny ques­tions? How do you poll your­self and that-of-God in your­self to open your eyes and ears for the poten­tial of surprise?

  • Jamie Wrench

    I’m get­ting extreme­ly inter­est­ed — and a lit­tle con­cerned — at the nature of Quak­er debate right now.  At York in 2009 the estab­lish­ment (yes there is one) was wrong-footed by BYM and the result is same-sex mar­riage pro­ceed­ing apace faster than any­one dared con­tem­plate.  This year the estab­lish­ment was back in con­trol. And where exact­ly was the debate about spend­ing £4.25 mil­lion on the large meet­ing house at Friends House?

    • I was speak­ing more to debate on Friends’ phi­los­o­phy. But I agree that the pol­i­cy debates are prob­lem­at­ic. Here in Philadel­phia we spent tons of mon­ey on an over-ambitious and pride-filled ren­o­va­tion of the main office com­plex to be “green,” then prompt­ly fol­lowed the econ­o­my into a free fall requir­ing the fir­ing of half the staff of the build­ing. Large por­tions are now rent­ed out to near­by uni­ver­si­ty (as I under­stand hap­pens in Lon­don). Even now there’s been no self-reflection on this chain of events. One of the fired staffers was the “young adult” (20/30-something) coör­di­na­tor; pret­ty much every Friend under 50 was vocal and unit­ed that this posi­tion couldn’t be cut but it hap­pened any­way. That’s just plain bad process, no mat­ter how prop­er the delib­er­a­tions might have seemed at sessions.