Some Philosophical Thoughts on War and Peace:

a Quaker-Humanist comparison

a paper contributed to the September/October 2015 issue of Humanism Ireland, by Roy H W Johnston.

(c) Roy Johnston 2015

(comments to

An attempt to specify some areas of possible philosophical common ground, worth exploring in depth, between the Humanist and Quaker traditions.

Personal Background

I don't want to go into the detail of the family religious background, except that there was a Northern Presbyterian Home-Rule-supportive component pre-1914. My father made his career in Dublin, as a TCD academic from 1913, and I was reared Church of Ireland, being confirmed at the age of about 14. However by the age of 16, in the political aftermath of World War 2, I found myself rejecting it and taking what I now recognise as a basically Humanist position, in the emerging TCD student-left bpolitical context.

I remained consistently with this for some decades, without discovering the existence of organised Humanism in Ireland, until the early 1960s, when I joined the then Irish Humanists. I recollect attending annual conventions in Carrickfergus, one of which was chaired memorably by John Hewitt. It would be of interest if some historian were to analyse the early history of Irish Humanism, focusing on its interaction with the sectarian divisions in the North.

Under the stress of the post-1969 situation in the North, increasingly dominated by problems arising from the B-Specials, and later the 'Provisionals', the Irish Humanists, as they were then, disintegrated; I recollect a meeting in a north Dublin hotel at which two NI Humanist members, of differing religious backgrounds, came to blows. A period in the philosophical wilderness followed.

Discovery of Quakers.

In the 1950s I had been concerned with the problem of the IRA armed campaign in the North, with a view to seeing if it could be brought to an end, and the process somehow politicised. I had offered suggestions to the IRA leadership, and eventually made direct contact with Sean Cronin, then in the leadership of the IRA (he later evolved into a journalistic career in the US as the Irish Times correspondent, after a period interacting with Goulding and Mac Giolla via the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society in the early 1960s).

During the foregoing period in the 1950s I had encountered Erwin Strunz, a Quaker anti-Fascist refugee from Austria. He was associated with a group who had convened a seminar in Drogheda to address the problem of the armed campaign in the North. There were activists from several Northern organisations present, and a solicitor who was advising the IRA leadership, as well as many others. If a record of this event exists, it would be of interest to historians. I had been brought in by Strunz presumably because of my then links with Leftwing activism and concern with seeking non-violent politics.

Thus, when the Irish Humanists collapsed, after a period in the philosophical wilderness it occurred to me, along with my partner Janice, to seek out the Quakers. I had known Joe Haughton, the TCD Quaker environmental scientist, since my 1940s TCD epoch, and he introduced me to the Churchtown meeting, which Janice and I started attending, and subsequently joined. We have been there ever since, and have found it to be a friendly, active and supportive community. It turned out Erwin Strunz was a member.

The foregoing, currently based on memory, perhaps deserves more in-depth historical research, in the context of the need to make known the Quaker tradition of supporting non-violence in activist mode.

A Humanist Philosophical Approach to Theology

The basic Quaker concept is that the aspiration for loving human behaviour (seen as the 'light of God') is in every one of us as an integrated pattern of shared experience, and that it is up to us to spread the teachings of our founder-prophet Jesus as organised humans with shared belief in non-violent human behaviour. In this context however there is no imposed 'creed', though it is within the Christian tradition.

We strive to live our lives according to the Quaker Testimonies to peace and non-violence, truth and simplicity. We oppose all war and seek to prevent conflicts before they emerge; we do not swear oaths; we try to 'live simply that others might simply live'. There is no 'baptism', no 'priests', no 'bishops', no 'pope'; it is basically a democratic structure run by committees.

The origin of the Quakers was as a radical democratic organisation, in the context of the nascent English Republic in the 1640s, with Lilburn and others; the English republican army initially ran conventions and elected its officers. (I tend not to mention Cromwell in this context, as he emerged later as a proto-Stalinist dictator, subverting the earlier democratic republican processes and objectives). This was an attempt to supersede the Anglican and Presbyterian church structures, which had promoted policies by violent means, and replace them with non-violent activist service to the community, along the lines suggested by the teachings of Jesus.

Quakers have survived persecution and philosophical controversy for some centuries, and have evolved a stable democratic procedure, with a broad-based inclusive philosophy, which I personally see as being basically Humanist.

For example, I have written an outline of a Humanist definition of the 'Holy Trinity', along the lines of identifying the 'Father' with the mystery of the creation of our current Universe (the 'big bang'), the 'Son' as a metaphor for teachings of the founding Prophet (Jesus in the Christian case, Mohammed for Islam etc), and the 'Holy Spirit' as the shared concept of personal and social morality in the minds of the community.

This concept is common to most if not all religions, and it certainly can be claimed to 'exist', as a valid social construct influencing human behaviour. I have written material along these lines in both Quaker and Humanist publications, without arousing hostile controversy.

Is this perhaps worth exploring further, in more depth, in a friendly philosophical exchange of ideas? Do we perhaps need a scholarly Quaker-Humanist comparative study?

The points of contact between Quaker and Humanist philosophy, to my mind, have much convergence, but the Quaker position would appear to prioritise the promotion of non-violent resolution of conflicts of interest. This deserves scholarly analysis by experts in the history of Humanism: were the key Humanist philosophers actively enagaged in the various anti-war campaigns which occurred over the centuries?. This if it can be deomonstrated would support the convergence process between Humanists and Quakers, and help to strengthen the influence of the existing Quaker lobbying process in support of non-violence at national, EU and UN levels.

Some Possible Links in the Foregoing with Quaker and Humanist History

There is perhaps work to be done in the exploration of the inclusive colonial concept of Irish nationality which emerged initially with Swift and Berkeley in the early 18thC.

(Swift is well-known in this context, but Berkeley tends to be forgotten, despite his name being embedded in a famous American universiiy; his radical economic thinking relevant to the post-colonial transition processes is embedded in his 'Querist', in which he preceded and upstaged Adam Smith as pioneering economist; my father's 1972 edition of Berkeley's 'Querist' with commentaries perhaps deserves resurrection in the current global economic disaster!)

But the question arises: was there Quaker interaction with this process in the then Irish context? There are mentions of contact in Swift, but was this in any depth?

As the 18thC evolved in the republican direction under radical Protestant leadership, while there probably was supportive Quaker business activity, they actively rejected resort to arms, and prior to the coming insurrection Quakers organised a public disarmament process in their community, which it seems was respected by both sides in the subsequent insurrection process.

The subsequent Quaker role in the context of the Famine is widely remembered, but subsequent and current work in the direction of economic rescue initiatives in crisis situations perhaps needs to be explored.

The Humanist activists in the foregoing period deserve comparative analysis; the thinkers of the Enlightenment, Rousseau et al, were influential in the emergence of the processes that led to the French Republic, which had to defend itself against intervention by its surrounding monarchies, leading to an emergent quasi-imperial period under Napoleon. Quaker influence in this period was marginal; was there perhaps equally marginalised Humanist non-violence lobbyig at the time? Did they interact?

A Possible Comparative Philosophical Seminar?

The foregoing outline suggests the need for a tentative conference or seminar to explore Quaker and Humanist common ground, over a range of topics in philosophy, theology, political economiy, and post-colonial studies in general. It will be of interest to see if an appropriate academic focus emerges which takes an interest and is in a position to pull together an event of socio-political and philosophical relevance in the current crisis. If such a centre emerges, the present writer would be interested in supporting it to the best of his ability.


Roy H W Johnston is a semi-retired scientific consultant with an ongoing interest in the history of science and its intraction with politics. He welcomes comments on the foregoing suggestions via e-mail:

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 2013