Are atheist clubs dying?

I’m now saying my last goodbyes to the local atheist student group. This is a significant event. I’ve been atheist student groups since 2008.  I first joined the UCLA skeptical group as an undergraduate, and then I participated in the UC Berkeley atheist group for the entirety of my PhD.

As I reflect back on 9 years, how do I justify my participation?  I don’t think I can.  Even when the leadership has been good, I have never felt they produced any sort of effective activism.  I was resigned to using the group just to have a few interesting discussions and meet a few new people.  Even so, I spent a lot of time being dissatisfied or angry with them.  This last semester, I skipped a lot of meetings (since an origami group competes for the same time slot), and I mostly felt it improved my life.

I’m saying goodbye because I intend to graduate before fall semester.  But also, the club is dying.  Right now, there is nobody to lead the group in the fall.  After years of struggling, maybe it will finally disappear.

This is a post where I present no evidence, and instead brazenly generalize my personal experiences.  Our atheist club is dying.  Are all atheist clubs dying?  Clearly not.  I’ve always heard that atheist groups in the southern US are more active than their counterparts on the coasts.  And lots of local non-student atheist organizations are still active as far as I know.  Even so, if the atheist group at UC Berkeley dies, it feels like an indicator of a broader decline, and a herald for the death of other atheist groups that now prosper.

Analysis of a death spiral

Talking to students in the atheist group, I get a different picture.  The reason the club is failing is that they just haven’t had time to advertise.  They’ve all been busy with classwork, and since there was no advertising there aren’t any new people to pick up the burden.  There was also a bureaucratic mishap where they lost official status as a student group for a while.  So on and so forth.  Details!  Every student group has these problems.  The fucking origami group faces the same obstacles.  And yet, of all the student groups I’ve ever participated in, the atheist group has always been the one with issues.

It’s not a problem with the current leadership.  I saw about 8 generations of student leadership.  Some were more effective than others, but they all had difficulties with membership retention and activity organization.  Every leader wants to blame themselves.  I was one of those student leaders back in 2009.  I certainly blamed myself, and then swore off leadership afterwards.  But given what I’ve seen, I think the problems are more systemic, and not the fault of any one person.

If you want a serious discussion of why atheist groups struggle, take a look at a discussion I had in 2014. I concluded that the immediate cause is a lack of institutional memory.  It takes years to learn how to run a student group properly and navigate the bureaucracy, but undergrads never stick around that long.  Most successful student groups manage by passing down knowledge between generations of leadership.  But it requires a certain critical mass to build that infrastructure, and maybe the local atheist group has simply never reached that critical mass.

But then, why doesn’t the student group ever reach critical mass?  Well, perhaps in Berkeley, atheism just isn’t relevant to kids these days.  Maybe they’ve taken a look at the atheist movement from afar, and seen that it doesn’t do anything for them.  Atheism, isn’t that a thing for assholes on YouTube?  Maybe the atheist movement circa 2010 was just a bubble created by a few charismatic leaders, and it collapsed when they all retired, died, and/or it became clear that they were assholes all along.  The atheist group was in a precarious position even in 2010, and it would only take a small cultural shift to push it over the edge.

I don’t fucking know.  Group membership is a black magic.  Just don’t tell me it’s because “organizing atheists is like herding cats”.  That’s not an explanation, it’s a restatement of the thing to be explained.  Take your cliche and fuck off.  Maybe the ultimate cause of death is too many cliches.

Spreading the bitterness

As long as I’m ranting, I’m going to air some grievances about the way the larger atheist community has talked about, and interacted with student groups.  (To be clear, I’m not complaining about individual people, but rather the concepts they represent.)

First, there’s Hemant Mehta.  Back when I was reading his blog, he would cover a lot of news stories about atheist student groups that had performed some impressive publicity stunt.  That’s nice, but it utterly failed at painting an accurate picture of what atheist student groups are like.  When groups are successful, they make the news.  When groups are not successful, they don’t make the news.  Sometimes it’s the same groups, which do well temporarily, and then struggle afterwards.

Hemant Mehta was a chair of the SSA, so surely knew he was painting a biased picture of atheist groups.  He basically told me as much.  Still, there was very little done to counteract the bias.  It felt like an elaborate coverup, a way to exaggerate the success of the atheist movement, by denying the decay within.  It was a source of perpetual disappointment, as my local group could never live up to the common narrative.  It was gaslighting on a massive scale, convincing student leaders that their problems are unique, and therefore their own fault.

Second, there’s Greta Christina.  I was pissed off at her several years ago, when she tried to give general advice to atheist student groups.  Something about how social justice volunteer projects would help revitalize student groups.  I think she doesn’t know shit.  Seriously, she is locally-based but she didn’t interact with us at all before trying to give advice.  It’s about fitting things into a narrative, and dismissing experiences that don’t fit.  That’s not okay even in the name of social justice.  And in the mean time, she was perpetuating the media bias towards successful student groups.

By the way, here’s why that advice wouldn’t work.  The group is incapable of any volunteer project whatsoever, social justice or otherwise.  Through 8 generations of leadership, there were some that attempted such things, but none which succeeded.  Also, the membership does not, as a whole, support social justice, including the leadership.  Yes, that is a bad situation, but it is a true situation, and the advice is impossible.  Greta suggested that if this is true, then the group should die.  Yes, thank you, we are working on that.

Third, there are the local non-student organizations.  Our relationship mostly consists of them being disappointed by us.  They’re interested in collaborating, but don’t realize that they’d have to do 100% of the work.  They tried advertising events to us, but gave up because undergrads aren’t willing to navigate public transit.  They want to reach out to students as a source of younger members, but students just don’t care.

I feel sorry about that.  But also, I’m not sure I like them that much.  In the last seven years, there was just one time that a representative attended our group meeting.  He came to argue that the 9/11 cross was an important issue, and that’s why they were spending money to litigate it.  And is this who baby atheist activists are supposed to grow up to be?

Silver lining for cynics

How do I justify being sad about the death of an atheist group?  I can’t.  Maybe its death is a good thing.  There just wasn’t enough unifying interest for people to agree on any actions of importance.

Oh, come to think of it, there was one unifying theme: assholes.  Basically every year there is at least one asshole who seems to dominate the conversation.  I’m probably going to share this post with atheist club friends, but I think they don’t care because a lot of them were doing it deliberately.  I’ve made friends with these people anyway–I like to think I have acquired the skill of befriending assholes.  This has made me question whether I am a good person.

Have I mentioned that the group does not, in general, support social justice?  Even if they could get their act together, I’m not convinced that they would actually do something good for society.  For a while they debated whether to support Bill Maher, and right now they have mixed opinions about Milo Yiannopolous.  They want to get Sam Harris as a speaker, which is a totally reasonable thing for an atheist club to want, but also ugh.

Greta was probably right.  The group doesn’t deserve to live.  We should rejoice at its death.  Rejoice!  And I hope that other atheist clubs die too.

You know what really makes me sad?  Not the death of a group, but the death of a person.  I’m sad about Kevin Gorman, who was one of the student leaders in 2010.  To be honest, he was one of the aforementioned assholes, but he was also one of the greatest things to ever come out of the group.  Kevin Gorman went on to become a feminist activist, addressing gender bias in Wikipedia.  (It figures he became a productive activist by leaving organized atheism.)  I only ran into him a few times after he graduated, but he always had sensible things to say about activism.  He made me feel like everything would go well, as long as he was fighting for us.  Then he died, in 2016.

This rant might look silly later on if it turns out the group is just suffering a temporary setback, and it comes back kicking in the fall.  I am venting 9 years of accumulated bitterness, I give myself permission to say silly things.


  1. says

    “What’s the point of an atheist club—do the members just sit around, talking about how they don’t believe in God?”
    That’s a fairly common misconception Xtians (and other religionists) have about atheists, and atheism in general. But if you’ve described this particular atheist club accurately… the ‘misconception’ I stated above would appear to be directly applicable to said club.
    “The reason the club is failing is that they just haven’t had time to advertise.”—So, this club doesn’t let anybody know that it exists.
    “…there was one unifying theme: assholes. Basically every year there is at least one asshole who seems to dominate the conversation.”—So, this club’s most prominent members go out of their way to be jerks to people.
    “Our relationship [with ‘local non-student organizations’] mostly consists of them being disappointed by us.”—So, this club doesn’t work with anybody else for common goals.
    “The group is incapable of any volunteer project whatsoever…”—So, this club not only doesn’t work with other people, it doesn’t even do anything on its own.
    To sum up: This is a club that prospective members aren’t likely to hear about in the first place (no advertising). Those few who do manage to learn about it, and attend a meeting to check it out, will probably be treated like shit by the club’s leaders (assholes dominating the conversation). And the club doesn’t serve any purpose that would make it worthwhile for members to put up with the abuse (no volunteer projects).
    Since you were a member of this club for 9 years, I have to assume this club had some redeeming features that made it worth your time and energy… but given the bad points you’ve stated here, I equally have to say that I can’t imagine what those redeeming features might be.

  2. says

    Hmm, well for all the club’s failings they certainly didn’t just sit around talking about how they don’t believe in God. I’ve never known an atheist group of any sort to do that. The group has always been discussion-based but there are like a million different things that could be discussed.

    It’s not like the group has never advertised itself. Rather, they have to acquire and retain enough new members to make up for membership turnover. Turnover for undergrads is incredibly fast, like a year to a year and a half. If each generation of students only manages to advertise enough to replace 80% of its membership, then the group is unsustainable.

    I would not describe the “assholes” in the group as going out of their way to be jerks to people. They were mostly just loud and belligerent.

  3. says

    “Also, the membership does not, as a whole, support social justice, including the leadership. Yes, that is a bad situation, but it is a true situation, and the advice is impossible. Greta suggested that if this is true, then the group should die. Yes, thank you, we are working on that.”

    I know I cannot speak for others, but I ended up leaving atheist groups* because of membership not supporting social justice. I’m in that boat of atheism is not really relevant if it doesn’t bother combating the crap morality of religions. Worse, some people would give off a vibe that would, unfortunately, seem to justify theists who will say that atheism is just another religion where people have elevated themselves up to the role of a god. There were also a number of white men who seemed to gripe a bit about how they have less privilege in the world for being atheists. If they were there for any social justice at all, it seemed to be for solely their own “justice.” Those type of people just ruined the experience. And then I started seeing that attitude in national organizations, like David Silverman going to CPAC to represent American Atheists. That largely killed my interest in being involved, though I’ve been trying to be involved with the local humanist group, hoping that they’ll be more to my liking as a group…just haven’t had a lot of free time lately… 🙁

    * As a note, these are community groups I am referring to and not campus groups. I am just a handful of years too old to have been in college when atheist groups were popping up on a bunch of campuses and I don’t know if my alma mater ever formed one, though I know the “rival” college did.

  4. says

    @Leo Buzalsky,
    My long-standing critique of humanism is that it basically refers to the same people, but with a focus on their loftier (and unfulfilled) ideals. Most students I’ve met would identify as humanists when asked.

    Many of them would nominally be in favor of social justice too. But somehow it doesn’t shine through. It felt like people just took social progressivism for granted as a secular value, or else they used it whenever it seemed to serve the atheist agenda. And well that doesn’t generate a critical mass of interest.

  5. DanDare says

    Good time for some design ideas for something new.

    If there was a group about atheism, humanism, social justice what should it do?

    I would think it should have a purpose of developing the ability to walk the walk.
    Its constant practice target should be the place where it is, the campus and possibly the surrounding locale.
    It could start with an external management. Over time members get recruited to continue management after they leave uni.
    The group should document its deliberation about issues and actions. It should have some formal introspection about how it thinks about such things and what the principles are.
    I might see if I can start such a beast at my daughters Uni here in Oz and see what happens.

  6. says

    Well I’m still busy rejoicing at the death of atheist groups everywhere, so I’m probably not the right person to ask…

    I think the atheist movement should have tried to integrate with social justice. Not just to advocate for other social justice causes, but to see itself as a social justice cause. Of course, that would require sweeping changes in the whole movement and it basically won’t happen.

    Wait, did you just say you want to start a student group at your daughter’s university? Um, you should leave that up to the students. Start a non-student group if you want to.

  7. sennkestra says

    For what it’s worth, I doubt advertising was the problem – as an atheist freshman at Cal I was very aware that BASS existed, it just…never had anything that made it more appealing than any of the other interest groups on campus (like anime club and queer orgs, in my case), and most students only have time for maybe 1 or 2 clubs at any given time. To be fair, that’s a problem for many student orgs – part of the problem with finding committed/skilled leaders and members for student orgs is always finding committed/skilled leaders that aren’t already committed to something else.

    I also think that Berkeley culture in general made an atheist club feel less…neccessary/attractive for me in general? (Although, to be fair, I’ve never really been strongly interested in other atheist orgs, and already having a nonreligious family probably helped). While I could see it as useful if I needed a place to escape from overwhelming religious influence, that wasn’t the case here – the fact was that at Cal almost all my friends that I met by chance or through other orgs were mostly nonreligious (if not atheist) already. I didn’t need to join a special club to find people like me. And when it comes to the kinds of other topics that come up in atheist spaces (social justice, dealing with religious pressure, science, medicine, etc.) I feel like I could generally find other groups that dealt with those topics more directly and (imo) with more context and more in-depth.

    The “do more activism” advice also seems odd to me because as a student group leader, activist events are the hardest things to get people to go to – in my experience the things that actually get people to stay in orgs are the social connections outside of regular discussion meetings (like going out for boba afterwards, or hanging out on the weekends at street fairs or movie nights, or having lunch with other club members) – lots of new freshmen seek out clubs as a way of finding new friends, and discussion-based meetups (while good for dicsussion) and activist events (which are often hard to get to, at awkward times, and may have accessibility concerns) aren’t so good for getting to know people or making friends.

    (I admittedly have never joined a campus atheist group, but I may be biased against these groups in general because the one time I went to an off-campus godless/atheist group for a discussion night instead of a social or board game night (in this case, an asexuality discussion) I encountered enough strongly held false (and not at all evidence based) assumptions and weird spiritual woo about a/sexuality (which was the last thing I was expecting from that particular group, although maybe I should have known better) that it just reinforced my inclination to not seek out specifically atheist/godless spaces. (As opposed to secular orgs that have some other, additional, more specific purpose).

    While I sort of like the idea of a discussion org based on rational thought and evidence, in my experience many atheist/skeptic type groups and blogs and things rarely have that much more rational thought or real use of fact-checking or evidence – they just have more people who *think* they are above-average in their rationality. Like, I follow a few atheist/skeptic blogs and podcasts because I like their coverage of science news and enjoy in a morbid way the discussion of weird woo beliefs they encounter, but when it comes to things outside of like,medicine and physics, the discussion is often still filled with misconceptions (for example, as a linguistics major, there’s things about language that make me cringe sometimes). So if the main appeal of a group is rational discussion, but they can’t actually supply above-average rational discussion, what’s the point? (An alternative might be social connections or events, but then I can get that from other clubs too)

  8. says

    Are you referring to the Godless Perverts? I believe partly run by Greta Christina? Heh.

    The group has indeed had advertising problems as of late. But today’s advertising problems are because of yesterday’s retention problems.

    I recall over the years a few people who seemed like effective organizers, but then poured that into other groups. They made the right choices, I think.

  9. sennkestra says

    @Siggy lol yes, that’s the one. I know it’s vaguely affiliated with her but I don’t think she was at any of the specific meetings I attended.

    The organizers going for other commitments is also a big part of the reason that there’s never been an active independent ace group on campus – most of the people (including me) who were both interested and had the skills to run one were already devoting their time to other groups. In this case, though, that still worked out in that our involvement with general campus queer groups still helped make better spaces within those groups for ace topics and conversation – I’m not sure if there are many groups on campus that would potentially have those kind of fringe benefits for atheist conversation, though.

  10. says

    There is very little institutional support for atheist groups. There’s the Secular Student Alliance, which is spread far too thin to actually help. There is a new umbrella organization in the SF Bay Area, but the current leadership gives me the impression that they are inconsistent.

    To the extent that these organizations are helpful, it’s mostly with getting speakers, and getting money for speakers. In retrospect, these priorities seem completely misplaced. Getting speakers was a perpetual boondoggle, and even when the events actually happened they were poorly attended.

  11. says

    Oh my goodness! It’s crazy how it’s the same issues, and I haven’t see you since your undergrad years at UCLA! Booking Sam Harris is still an issue. Lack of good leadership, organization, or even strong interest in social justice issues. The non-student orgs are of no help. I remember there were a couple in LA, and I wasn’t impressed with them.

    Well, other than all of that, hope everything else is okay. Goodbye to atheist clubs and hello to whatever’s next for you!

  12. says

    Ah! Another subject I want to talk about! The U of C Freethinkers died in 2015, and I keep seeing other things die too. Am I just noticing it more or is there a larger trend happening?

    Also, lots of similar frustration with the groups that initially got my hopes up.

  13. says

    Our group was very much onto social justice and feminism. I can’t blame new our members for leaving though, there was lots of talk about far away political things (USA stuff, internet stuff), not everyone finds that fun or interesting. What about our own lives, and the people we care about? What about other fun stuff? (we did have movie nights with pizza, but that isn’t very social)

    We did get a nice video from Zinnia Jones though! 🙂

    But, even though I see value in that video, I don’t think it was valuable to the group itself. Or maybe if our group had done a good mix of different events, it would then add more value, and I’d find it more interesting? But more of the same gets to be too much after a while. I didn’t attend.

    When the group was shutting down I asked a bit about why, and the leaders cited “lack of interest” (and many main members and leadership people were graduating that year), as if that’s just a property of someone else, as if it isn’t also the result of what you offer them.

    And then there was YYC Connects, in person I was basically interviewed for a volunteer position and told I would probably be able to do whatever I wanted to help. Seemed like I’d be accepted. So I emailed my application and got no response. Tried asking a few more times then gave up. They had existed for like a year or so, then a few months later their blog basically died. They were supposed to be about connection but posted stuff more like a newspaper. People sitting around watching your newsfeed doesn’t get them connected to each other!

  14. says

    *very much INTO social justice and feminism. As in, we were feminists. Not “onto”, silly typo.

    Oh ya and HJ Hornbeck (now a blogger here at freethoughtblogs!) was a member, he was previously the leader, though not in the final year(s). Hope he doesn’t take my criticism too harshly! Things were pretty good there for a while. One year we didn’t even stop meeting when summer break came. A bunch of us would meet at a nice downtown restaurant (a balcony, no distracting loudness or music), eat and hang out. Was pretty great.

  15. says

    I still need to blog about my vision for a better way for a group to be 🙂

    The way I’d want it to be (and capable of being the way other different people would want it to be).

  16. says

    @Brian Pansky,

    Which of your blogs should I follow?

    Yeah, it’s really hard to get a sense for whether atheist groups are really dying, because all we have are anecdotes. I think the SSA actually asks its affiliate groups how many members they have every year, but there are a few issues: a) SSA won’t publish that data, b) If they did, I wouldn’t trust them to show anything that would reflect negatively on them, and c) I wouldn’t trust self-reported numbers, since they might be based on something meaningless like Facebook group numbers.

    As far as anecdotes go, well it’s a mix of things. The Berkeley group is dying, but as far as I can tell the UCLA group is still doing fine. Many of my friends from both groups also feel disillusioned, although often for very different reasons. The ones who felt most satisfied with the group were the ones who had modest expectations (such as a space to socialize and vent). A few friends participated in groups after moving to other states, and while these groups weren’t dying many of the same issues were present.

    It’s tempting to suggest (as Greta Christina did) that the problem is not enough social justice, and that they would be solved with more social justice. Well I would certainly prefer that direction, as would many of my friends, but I’m not sure that would really solve member retention problems. As in the U of C example, a social justice focus is no guarantee of success, and may even have drawbacks.

    Maybe a lot of it is random, you know, poisson distributions and so forth. But I think it’s only going to get harder, with atheism become more and more old hat. Most of these students aren’t old enough to remember 9/11, and George Bush was president when they were kids. Atheists supported same-sex marriage but now we have that and what has it done for us lately? I expect student groups to be the very first to fail, because of high turnover and a younger membership.

  17. says

    @17, Siggy

    Which of your blogs should I follow?

    Most of my large posts are going on my wordpress blog these days:

    I usually also share them on my more casual tumblr blog, though.

    But I think it’s only going to get harder, with atheism become more and more old hat.

    Even to me! I’m more into the broader idea of progress towards humanist utopia these days.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *