The Convert Series: Rebecca Burley -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Tamelonie Thomas.

Rebecca is a Quaker living in Atlanta with her wife, two dogs, and cat. She is an aspiring children’s librarian.

Hi, Rebecca! Can you tell me a little bit about your religious background growing up?

I grew up super fundamentalist, like, almost Quiverfull, and am now an atheist Quaker. My wife and I were married under the care of our Quaker meeting a few weeks ago, and if a few years ago, someone had told me I’d have a religious wedding ceremony, I would have laughed at them, but now I can’t imagine having done it any other way.

I grew up in a Christian tradition that taught that people are broken and worthless and that it’s only God’s love that makes us good. I think people are good. I don’t think we need a Deity to make us that way.

It took me a while to find my worldview after becoming an atheist. There were a few years of “Okay, I don’t believe in God. Now what?” A lot of atheist writing didn’t inspire me or offer good answers to those questions. It wasn’t until I started researching Quakerism that the pieces really started to fall into place and my worldview as an atheist took shape. The basis of Quakerism is that there is that of the Light in everyone. (What the Light is is up to the individual. For some, the Light is the Christian God, for others it’s simply the capacity for goodness and compassion in everyone.) And I really loved that. There is goodness in me naturally. It doesn’t take a God to make me good. It doesn’t take a God to make me worthy of love. It doesn’t take a God to make me want to help people. Those things are a natural part of me and it’s my responsibility to bring those qualities out in myself and to help people find those qualities in themselves.

Knowing that my good qualities are an inherent part of me and not something I only have because of God has been a relief as well as a responsibility. It can be easy to let those qualities become hidden under selfishness and anger, so I have to take care of them and foster them. They are my responsibility.

Can you tell me a bit about when you first learned that there were spiritual/non-religious options other than the tradition you were raised in?

I don’t remember when I first heard about atheism. I always knew there were people who didn’t believe in God, and I always knew they were The Enemy. The first atheists I met were probably in high school, kids who I realize now as an adult were rebelling for the sake of rebelling, not because they were giving any great thought to theology and philosophy. I remember getting into debates with them, working so hard to convince them that God was real while also being envious of their non-belief, the freedom they must have felt from it. I was always jealous of atheists, though it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I took it on for myself.

There was a period of time in my late teens and early twenties when a lot of awful things happened to my family. For several years we had a streak of one person a year ending up in the ICU and none of us knowing if they would wake up the next day — illness, overdose, car accidents, a different person each year. The comments and “encouragement” I saw in cards and Facebook posts were horrifying. “Can you imagine how much worse it could have been if God wasn’t watching over you?” “Satan tries his hardest to knock us down, but we have to get right back up!”

I realized during that time that I didn’t see the world as a battlefield for cosmic forces. Satan was not attacking my family and God was not fighting back for us. I was very angry for a couple of years. Angry at religious and the awful lies I had been told for so long. I’ve leveled out a lot in the past few years. I’m not bothered so much at the idea of God or whether or not people believe in one, but I do still get angry about the lies believers tell, the lies I believed for so long, about gender and sexuality and morality, that you constantly have to be pleasing to God and that only God makes you worthy as a person.

So how did you become a Quaker?

After I got over the initial thrill of being an atheist (because it was thrilling, finally feeling that freedom I’d always been told I’d find in Christ, but never did), I started missing parts of religion, mainly the community and ritual. There’s so much value to be found in ritual; it can be very grounding and comforting. I tried out a few gay-affirming congregations, and I tried a couple of Unitarian Universalist churches, but the services felt really cheesy to me. My journey to Quakerism honestly started when I remembered reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond and figuring that if the Quakers were burned as witches, I would probably like them.

I went to a few meetings sporadically over the year or so and really loved them. I loved how the meetings were open and affirming and solemn. The Atlanta Friends Meeting has unprogrammed worship, which means that we sit in silence for an hour and if someone feels led to give a message, they speak. I was worried at first that this might mean speaking in tongues, but it doesn’t. At least not that I’ve ever experienced. Sometimes we can have whole meeting with no one saying a word, and sometimes there will be meetings where it seems there was more speaking than silence.

It wasn’t until I started seriously dating my wife that I started going regularly. She grew up in a similar Christian environment as me and went through a lot of the same hurt from it that I did, though her faith in God is still very strong. We started talking about what we wanted for our future family, what kind of community we wanted our kids to be brought up in, what we wanted them to learn about faith and religion. I mentioned that I’d gone to AFM a few times before, and she said she’d gone to some Quaker meetings when she lived in Philly. So we decided to try it together. Our first meeting together was like finding the puzzle piece that completed our relationship. We knew where we wanted to go and what we wanted to be together.

My favorite thing about Quakerism is that it is a place for doubt, but it’s not a sorrowful doubt: it’s a joyful doubt. When I was a Christian, it was ingrained in me that the answer to every question is in the Bible. It was okay to have doubts and ask questions, just so long as you got your answers from the Bible and took them as the final word. With Quakerism, it’s perfectly okay if you questions are never answered, if your doubts are never assuaged. Maybe every god is out there, maybe no god is out there, but either way, we have each other, we have this community, and we can work together to be the source of strength and stability we each need.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again