How Do You Keep the Atheist Group Momentum Going? November 17, 2008

How Do You Keep the Atheist Group Momentum Going?

Reader Samuel is a leader of the Agnostic & Atheist Student Association (AgASA) at the University of California Davis.

Friday night, Dan Barker — author of Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists — spoke to the group. It was a successful event and Samuel is facing a wonderful problem:

… Through our efforts to advertise the event, we expected maybe about 150 people to show up. However, the 500-seat capacity lecture hall was almost filled on Friday night! We’ll be having our club’s weekly meeting this Thursday, and I’m definitely expecting many more people to show up than usual. I’m expecting the new audience to consist mostly of fellow non-theists, but judging by the unhappy faces I had seen during Barker’s event, I won’t be surprised to see a good number of theists in the meeting, too.

How can I best present this meeting such that this new audience will continue to come to future meetings?

What would you advise Samuel to talk about?

Since the audience will be mostly non-religious, I would suggest discussing what the atheists can do to change stereotypes about them on campus and in the community. That may involve a forum with other religious leaders. That could include publicity “stunts” that explain what atheists think and why they think it. That could involve doing charity work with or without other religious groups. If Christians are present at the meeting, they would be helping both sides by being honest about their own views of atheists: How can any incorrect beliefs be changed? Can they be changed at all? Would the Christians on campus be willing to dialogue about their beliefs?

More than anything, don’t hide your atheism. The others are guests at your meeting.

If they came to be a part of the conversation, include them.

If they came to learn about atheism, enlighten them.

If they came to convert and preach instead of listen, they’re not worth your group’s time.

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  • You could compare evidence based reasoning with faith based reasoning and why people cling to their faith despite a lack of supporting evidence.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say “conflicting evidence” because that might be seen as proof of God’s plan…yes, the lack of evidence for God is proof of God…and then my head exploded.

    Or you could talk about inclusion in charitable works or how a lack of faith doesn’t hold you back from helping others. Even that it helps to view everyone without the lens of religious thinking putting people in denominations.

    I think it is important to let people talk. If they disagree with you then you have an opportunity to find out why. Someone might come up with an argument that you’ve never considered before.

  • Sam(uel)

    Thanks for posting so quickly on this, Hemant!

    I’d welcome any advice my fellow readers may provide.

  • Samuel, Don’t be discouraged if your crowd on Thursday isn’t as large as you anticipate… the Hitchens/Turek debate at VCU brought in 700 with minimal advertising. There was a high amount of interest in the group voiced that night however it later failed to materialize. Hopefully your situation will be different.

    You need to plan a follow-up event if you don’t have one on the calendar already. With many student groups I’ve consistently heard students wondering what’s next on the agenda. If you don’t have one planned, remember it can be as small as a faculty member giving a talk – really just anything to capture that interest.

    Also, don’t forget to have a sign-in sheet at your meeting. I doubt you had the opportunity to get e-mail addresses of your 500 attendees Friday and this is a great chance to do so. Getting their contact information (as opposed to giving them yours) will enable you to keep them informed up upcoming events.

    Finally, if you do have a significant theistic attendance attempting to debate/proselytize at every corner, suggest setting up a meeting at a mutually agreeable time specifically for debate and leave it at that… no need to discourage those who are there to get involved.

  • I agree that discussing what atheists can do to clear up stereotypes is a good idea.

    I would try and remind my fellow atheists, as well as inform the believers, that atheism isn’t so much a group that tries to prove religion to be wrong. It’s more than that.

    It’s really a group of people that try and spread the idea that it’s ok to question your beliefs, and that it’s not good (for oneself or for the future of our culture) to blindly follow teachings that are highly improbable.

  • Lynx

    Though I have no experience with non-online atheist groups I do know a little about activist groups.

    If you have a large number of newcomers there may be general shyness. Try to get them engaged. If they are receptive, ask why they are interested in the group, or if they are from secular circles or this is their first time in a group of “people like them”. Being California, it’s likely many aren’t at all self-conscious about their non-belief, but it doesn’t hurt to create an accepting atmosphere for people who have always been sent the message that atheism was something to be ashamed of.

    My main suggestion is to keep the atmosphere positive. Fundie-bashing can be fun sometimes, but newcomers should see a group that is positive, uplifting, all about lifting atheists out of marginalization and about tearing down stereotypes, not people. If you get any over-eager evangelists try to arrange a later meeting, don’t get bogged down in a debate right then and there, atheists new to the community need to feel that they have a safe place they can go without having to constantly be on the defense.

  • Larry Huffman

    I would say that he should lower his expectations…plan to present for the group he always has, and see what happens.

    To begin with, the group that you currently have showing up deserves the meeting they have come to expect. So change nothing. Let visitors, atheist and theist alike, see and participate in the meeting that you were already planning. Do not prepare a meeting different from normal…especially if you are not going to alter all future meetings. If your organization has merit, it does so based on what you are doing…don’t change that. Growth in numbers is not all that it is cracked up to be if you will also have to start compromising on the content of the meetings. Give what you always have, and if they like it they will stick.

    I know it gets stated over and over, but atheists really are not fond of organizing as atheists. They may join groups that revolve around a specifc issue, such as prop 8 or other rights issues, but not many want an atheist ‘church’. There are political and civil rights organizations to cover most other issues atheists will be involved in.

    If you hold a speaking engagement showcasing a popular atheist author, you will get a huge turnout. For example, I came really close to attending Barker’s event in Santa Barbara. I assure you I would not have joined an organization just because I attended. I am sure many people saw Barker’s itenerary or saw it advertised and wanted to go see him. Do not assume that attendence also means they are willing to join you. They just wanted to hear Barker.

    And…why are you worrying about the content with regards to christians attending? Your club’s title should say it all. Certainly welcome them…be courteous to them…make sure no one picks fights with them. But do not alter the content. Your club is not for them. If they want to learn about atheism by attending then let them attend. Your club is for atheists and agnostics, however…so remember your audience. You are not there to present to christians. I am sure if you went to a christian group they would not say “OK, lets cut down on the bible and jesus talk since we will have an atheist here.”

    It is hard to get atheists to organize, so you need to respect your current base of attendees…keep your meetings as they are. Do not give potential members a meeting that is not indicitive of the normal meetings, otherwise they will only be members until the second meeting.

    I am sure you will get new members from this, but I would not count on too many…and I would not change a thing to attract more. Focus on those who actually want to associate with your group as it currently exists. If the group needs a direction change, take it slow and with your group, do not change for outsiders who may not even join.

  • Beijingrrl

    This might be a good time to define what the goals of your group are for the benefit of long-time members as well as newcomers. If I were coming to your meeting based on having attended the lecture that’s what I’d want to know. Are you a social club, support group, activists, etc? If I were already a member, I’d know the answer to that question, but it’s always good to clarify what direction you see the group going in the future. With a potential surge in membership your group might have more ambitious goals then it did with a smaller number.

    Definitely have yummy snacks. When I was in college, free food was a big draw for a lot of students. I’m only half joking. I worked at the front desk of my dorm my freshman year and if students knew there was going to be something tasty served they’d sign up to go to a lecture on almost anything.

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