Best Methods for a Campus Atheist Group? December 9, 2008

Best Methods for a Campus Atheist Group?

happycynic wants to start an atheist group at his college.

The atheists he knows are a mixture of militant and not-so-offensive. Some people are agnostics, some are skeptics, some are Pastafarians.

Not everyone has the same agenda. Some want to debate. Some want to actively promote non-theism. Some just a group for the social aspects.

In an email, he asks the question:

Do you have any advice for making a successful atheist student group? How do you get a group of people as diverse as atheists and other skeptics to work together? Advice would be nice 🙂

The first piece of advice: Read the revised and updated Secular Student Alliance Group Running Guide. It’s an excellent resource (I know it’s full of useful advice: I helped edit it).

If you’ve been part of a campus or off-campus atheist group, what did you enjoy about it? What should happycynic be doing?

What would it take for you to become a member of an atheist group?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • We have an Freethought Alliance here at KSU. One of the main things we decided was that it wasn’t just going to be about blasting religion, though we do have some fun with that. Our last meeting for example was about homeopathy (funny, funny stuff). We capped off the night watching a section from Penn and Teller’s Bullshit from Showtime. Don’t make it about religion, let it be about religion if that’s the topic, but there’s plenty of stupid shit out there to make fun of.

  • My personal advice from having run various different kinds of societies including humanist would be to have a variety of activities so there are different events for different people, be regular and reliable and keep in regular contact with your members. You can’t please everyone all the time, but with a variety of events there should be plenty to appeal.Try to be aware of deadlines and exams and don’t overwhelm people with tons of events.

    Finally, and most importantly, make sure people can get involved through offering their ideas, helping with events and hopefully joining the committee! Your members will make the society their own and you will be pleasantly surprised by how it all develops!

    Good luck!

  • I run an affiliate of the Rational Response Squad. I’m pretty damn militant and not afraid of using the “A” word on campus. Not everyone agrees with this – in fact, this year we have someone that vocally disagrees with aggressive atheism on our Board. I’ve told those members that they don’t have to participate in everything the group does and they should never do anything they don’t feel comfortable with.

    You can’t easily pull off calling yourself the “Agnostics, Skeptics, Pastafarians, Militant and Live and Let Live Atheists” because you’d be leaving out the secular humanists. 😉 (FYI – I went with an in-your-face approach because that is what was needed due to some specific dynamics of my particular University. Ideally if those circumstances change the group could change as well. You obviously know what your campus needs more than any of us would.)

    We have a variety of events and it all works out in the end. We generate ‘new’ interest and increase visibility with speakers, most people *love* social events, some just like small group discussions. In terms of sustaining membership, the variety of events is more important than the overall agenda of the group IMO. Why not have an informal meeting with the interested parties and take a poll of what events they would like to see? We start out every academic year with a meeting of the members to see what events they would come out to.

    Try not to get discouraged! It takes a *ton* of work to get a group off the ground and only slightly less to keep it going. You have a huge advantage considering that you already have a group of interested people.

  • SarahH

    The lessons I learned from being involved with the leadership (and just from being a member) of a Secular Humanist group on my campus are:

    1. When having topical discussions, the discussion leader (it’s definitely necessary to have a discussion leader/ref) should outline the topic clearly (ideally in advance, like over e-mail or on facebook) and steadily herd the group back on track when tangents inevitably pop up.

    2. Don’t ever let a discussion or event devolve into religion-bashing, because members who enjoy that sort of thing (or can’t help it) will take that as implicit permission to go off on the subject any time in the future, and it’s very hard to curb once it starts. Make it clear that while it’s not taboo to talk about bad experiences with religion (or criticisms of religion), pure ad homs/insults/etc. won’t be tolerated. Our group lost lots of members who would check us out, get turned off by all the negativity, and just never come back.

    3. Pick one or two really important causes if you’re going to hold events or raise money or host a speaker. Don’t try to cover the whole playing-field.

    4. Finally, have fun with whatever you do, and get to know one another. Play games, go out for drinks, celebrate the end of exams together, etc. Part of the reason many people seek out other atheists/agnostics is just because it can be so comfortable to hang out with friends who don’t lecture or worry or offend, etc. Not everything has to be intense and world-changing and urgent!

    Hope that helps 🙂 Good luck!

  • astrogal

    I’m a member of mine (on one of the most conservative campuses in the nation, yeah!) and we have a nice mix of agnostics, militant atheists, and passive atheists. We also have a Wiccan and a few secular humanists. We meet every Thursday evening. Typically the official meeting is a rather formal debate method on various subjects, not just religion, but on anything from education to the economy to politics. Our president is active in the student government, so it’s a very controlled environment. Afterwards we go to a restaurant nearby and just hang out for a few hours and enjoy the food. 🙂 We do some special events like a Halloween party and inviting the religious groups to a debate once a semester with our “Bring a Believer” event. This semester’s topic was abortion, and we had quite a showing from the 40 Days for Life group.

    Anyway, my suggestion is open it up to anyone (even religious people!) and make sure to keep it from getting heated. It’s a wonderful time to hang out with like-minded people, and I find it a refreshing breath of air in my week.

  • Stephen P

    Not everyone has the same agenda. Some want to debate. Some want to actively promote non-theism. Some just a group for the social aspects.

    Having participated in the running of several organisations of various types (sport, natural history, political) I can say that nearly all such organisations have a majority of members who just want the social aspects, and a (much) smaller group who want to be active in other ways. That is not specific to freethought groups. Indeed it is surely true of churches as well.

    Just accept it. It can be useful to be able to say that your society has, say, 200 members (even if 150 of them do nothing but pay the subscription and turn up to a social event once or twice a year.)

    So have within the society a number of working-groups who specialise in particular areas: organising speakers, organising debates, writing to local newspapers, fund-raising etc. But don’t expect more than 10%-20% of your members to actually participate in a working-group.

    Like Adam I would also be inclined to have a freethought/humanist group which tackles all kinds of nonsense, rather than an atheist group that concentrates purely on religion. (If you have a session on debunking astrology, say, you might even get religious people coming along.) But obviously that depends on the interests of your founder members.

  • rather than an atheist group that concentrates purely on religion

    Why would an atheist group focus on religion? Why not talk about positive ways to live and find meaning in your life and support the community — without God? There is no need for an atheist group to spend time berating or arguing against religion. Do something positive instead.

    The same thing goes for freethought or skeptic groups. It’s time to stop spending all our time debunking stuff and focusing on the negative and start finding ways to be a positive force. I’ve basically quit the whole skeptic movement because it always sounds like a bunch of people who just like to make fun of those who believe in anything and show how smart the skeptics are and how stupid everyone else is.

    I hope this new group avoids that negative, arrogant stance and finds a way to stand for something positive.

  • prachi

    Atheists are like cats- they cannot move in a group. So think outside the box so that not everyone is forced with one agenda.

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