Tag Archives: philosophy of religion

Liberal Quakers and Life after Death

At a conference last week, I got chatting with some colleagues about life after death, and various views on it. (Tasia Scrutton is organising a philosophy of religion conference on death and immortality, hence her interest.) “Quakers don’t have anything to say about that,” I said, and she replied, rightly, that an absence of interest can in itself be interesting.

It also isn’t strictly true that Quakers have never had anything to say. Previous generations of Quakers have often accepted a traditional Christian picture of the world, including life after death. Today, many Quakers outside the liberal tradition would still take that position. Even within Britain Yearly Meeting, the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies make it clear that they take a realist view of this topic. Most Quakers in Britain, though, do not seem to believe in an afterlife, and it doesn’t come up as a topic for discussion: instead, like Christian Aid, we believe in life before death.

Spending some more time with this idea, including during Meeting for Worship, I realised that I actually have a strong intuition against there being any form of life after death. Not only do I not think that any life which may or may not occur after death should affect my actions now (I don’t do things because I want to get into heaven or generate good karma for my next life, and nor do I accept eschatological verification), I actively think it’s unlikely, even impossible, that such a thing exists. Why is that? Quakers not talking about it, or a brief A-level module on all the options, seem unlikely to be enough to produce such a strong intuition.

Part of it comes from my picture of what people are: physical bodies which manifest consciousness through the interactions of cells, electricity, and chemicals. Part of it comes from my picture of what God/dess is like: loving not judging, engaged in the world’s processes not watching them from outside, expressed in manifold ways rather than pinned down to one creed or moment. And perhaps part of it comes from experience or the lack of it: although I have heard many accounts of the sense of someone ‘reappearing’ or ‘visiting’ after their death, when I have had this feeling I has always been clear that it was a psychological event or an act of my (vivid and well-exercised) imagination. I think people continue to influence us after their deaths, through our memories and through the repercussions of actions they took during their lives – but it’s also true that events influence us after they finish, so even a memory in the mind of God is not a ‘life after death’ but a life before death.

I think this position is consistent with other Quaker views I hold, but so could a lot of other views on life after death. Quakers: Do you agree with me? Do you have some other intuition, and if so can you trace where it comes from? Do you have no intuition, or only a rational answer, or one based on experience?

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So what’s your field?

I get asked this fairly often, or a variant of it. What do you teach? What area is your research in? What’s your discipline?

Sometimes I have a fair idea what background people are coming from when they ask me, and I can tailor my answer accordingly. I tell Quakers that I work on ‘Quaker religious language’, for example. The actual situation is more complicated, because my work spans several disciplines as usually recognised. For my MA, I studied at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, which suited me perfectly, and my BA was joint honours (Philosophy and Theology), so I’ve never really settled on one subject.

I can remember, once upon a time, planning that I was going to be a vet. By the time I had a careers session in year 9, I was going to be an archaeologist. (The poor RE teaching taking this session had to ask me how to spell that, because everyone else in the room was going to be a football player or a ballet dancer.) Unfortunately, by a fluke combination of historic school planning and ill health, I was prevented from taking any science A-Levels alongside English, which I would have been stupid not to take since it was my best shot at a top mark. I chose to take English at school, picked the next nearest downstairs classroom and took Religious Studies, and later added Classical Civilisations by distance learning. I fully expected to hate RS, having been punished some years earlier for carefully and thoughtfully colouring the disciples’ robes the wrong colour, but it turned out to be quite interesting.

Like many people on Religious Studies A-Level courses today, I did a module in Philosophy of Religion (the other main one was Hinduism, and one of my course work pieces was about the ordination of women – this theme will reappear). Advised by one of my English teachers (in advice I would not now give to someone else) that English courses were too hard to get into and the best thing to do was to apply for something more obscure and take optional modules in English, I decided not to apply for English at university. I was unable to choose between Philosophy and Religious Studies/Theology, and also dissuaded from taking Women’s Studies because it sounded too trendy and not academic enough (sounds like Media Studies, allegedly, which by the way is also a perfectly good academic discipline).  Not fully realising that a joint honours course would have no room for optional extra modules, I applied for both Philosophy and Theology.

I enjoyed both, and I didn’t even really mind having to learn two completely different referencing systems for my two departments. I did get fed up with the fact that the ‘Introduction to Feminist Philosophy’ module was also the only feminist philosophy module, and that ‘women in Judaism’ was the disposable lecture to be dropped when other topics overran, and that student requests for ‘more female scholars on the reading list’ were met with the objection that this was ‘so twenty years ago’. At the end of my final year, I wrote two dissertations: the Philosophy one was called ‘What is Gender?’ and the Theology one was a history of Jewish feminism.

At this point, it seemed logical to follow the signposts, so I went to Leeds to do an MA Gender, Sexuality and Queer Theory. I got a lot of funny looks. I kept a list of the strange responses I got when I told people what I was studying. It was a brilliant year for me, and confirmed that studying is one of my passions. I couldn’t stay away from religion entirely, either: my MA dissertation was about Christian and Jewish feminists and their uses of language and ritual from other religious traditions.

We’ll skip over a year where I didn’t get PhD funding – it just is very competitive. Once I did start, my PhD project brought together strands from all through my previous work: Wittgenstein, whose thought I’d first encountered in an undergraduate module; philosophy of religion, some of it going back to my A-Level work; Quakers, whom I’d been trying to explain to friends and classmates since primary school; sociological work on religion, often more akin to what I’d been reading on gender than anything I’d read before about religion; language, including insights from English Literature and my own writing practice; feminism, as much in the approach as the content; and added a lot else – like modern Christian theology, which I’d skipped as an undergraduate because the bit before the Reformation was boring, and Quaker Studies (itself almost inherently interdisciplinary, although stronger on historians and sociologists than philosophers or theologians!), which I’d not really encountered as a separate entity previously.

What discipline is my work in? It’s in the interdisciplinary space between Philosophy of Religion, Theology, and Religious Studies, with interests in Quaker Studies and Gender Studies. I know that makes it hard to put me in a box. It makes it hard for me to decide what conferences to attend. It also offers me so much fruitful dialogue between disciplines, so much to learn by bringing tools or information from one sphere into another, and so much richness of reading and research and results, that I can’t see myself settling into any one of them any time soon.