Practical advice for struggling atheist clubs

Following my bitter retrospective on 9 years of participation in atheist university groups, here are some concrete tips for how you can do better than what we did. They are roughly in order from high priority to low priority.

1. Have a mailing list and a Facebook group. Announce every meeting and event through both channels.  Don’t have more than one.

2. Register your group with the university, and keep it registered every year.

3. Reserve room space for regular meetings. Weekly meetings in the evening are common practice. This must be done far in advance.

4. Know the dates of the activities fairs at your university. You probably need to register for them far in advance, so look it up immediately. The minimum requirement for the activities fair is a large sign and a sign-up sheet for your mailing list.

5. Make a good impression at the first meeting of the year. The first meeting is often the one with the most people, so make sure you know how to run discussions for various group sizes (see below). You may think that it will be exciting to discuss your upcoming plans for the year, but it usually comes across as sharing boring administrative details, so don’t do it unless it’s absolutely necessary. Your main objective is that students should meet each other and make positive social connections. That means that each person should learn, and remember, the name of one or two people who are not in the leadership.

6. Select potential leaders for the next year around the last semester/quarter. Tell them how to do everything on this list, including this thing. Document it in written form, and also give them demonstrations. Give them access to the e-mail list, Facebook group, and all websites. Make sure that if you disappear, the group will run the same as before.

7. Know how to run meetings:

7a. The default discussion structure is to declare a topic, and have people shout out their thoughts. This structure is flawed because it systematically favors the most aggressive people, and primarily men. Furthermore, it does not scale. The amount that each person can speak falls off as 1/N. Actually, it falls off faster than that, because a larger group is likely to have more and more aggressive people. Do not use this structure for more than 10 people.

7b. Consider alternative discussion structures. You could have unstructured discussion, where people just socialize like they would at a restaurant. One way to add a bit of structure is to force a shuffle of seating arrangements halfway through the meeting. You can also strictly moderate the discussion, which mitigates the aggressive people problem but does not solve the scaling problem. For a large group of people, I recommend a small-group structure, in which a topic is declared and people broken into groups of 3-5 (which allows people to make meaningful social connections). At the end, the groups come together to summarize their conclusions.

7c. There are a few non-discussion structures to consider. Movie screenings are one (but make sure you have a way to project the movie). Individual students can make presentations about something they’re passionate about (but make sure that they allow active Q&A throughout the presentation). Board game socials may also work (if you have a space that allows it).

7d. Some people have trouble coming up with topics. I have a list of 30 topic suggestions here. If you want more, then read some blogs or listen to podcasts. Content generators like us are constantly thinking up new topics, as well as tracking interesting news. I recommend trying a few topics that get personal, like people’s experiences leaving religion or growing up without religion. In my experience, leaders rarely pick such topics, but people spontaneously talk about them after meetings, indicating a strong interest.

7e. If reasonably possible, establish a tradition of going to dinner after meetings.

8. For more ideas for how to run meetings, attend meetings of other discussion-based groups. Observe how they structure discussion and how they pick topics.

9. Don’t plan other events if they are too much work for you. It is better to not have events than it is to have events that burn out the leadership.  If anyone complains, assign them the job.

10. If you must have events, here are my recommendations, in order:

10a. Parties. If someone is willing to host house parties, take the opportunity. Take it often.

10b. Social outings. Get ice cream or brunch on the weekend. Or plan a trip to a museum, or street event. If public transit is available, take that as a group.

10c. Outings to other groups. Attend, as a group, one of the non-university meetups in your local area. If they’re hosting an interesting speaker, attend the talk. If you’re in contact with the group, you can also organize lunch together.

10d. Debates or panels between students.  Eh, it’s feasible but a lot of work.

10e. Don’t host speakers. If your group isn’t attending talks hosted by other groups, then why would you take the hard way by hosting your own? Decline all the speakers offered to you by the Secular Student Alliance or whoever. Reject all messaging that tells you to measure the success of your group by its speakers.

If you must host a speaker, there are three things you need: money, venue, and advertising. I do not know how to acquire any of these things, and every speaker event I’ve seen has fallen through, put the group into debt, and/or been poorly attended. Hypothetically, if you get a big name speaker it could advertise your group, but you won’t actually retain members if you don’t have the basics down. Also, many big names are terrible people and I couldn’t in good conscience advise you how to fill their wallets.

11. For more ideas on running events or navigating the university’s bureaucracy, volunteer for leadership in other groups. Let them show you how it works. Once you have all this newfound knowledge that could help the struggling atheist club, withhold it. Never return to the atheist group. Stay with your new group, where your contributions will have greater value.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    If anyone complains, assign them the job.


    You wanna get things done the worst way, by the people least suited for the task?

    This reminds me of an old joke about cowboys who followed that rule in picking who had to cook. The punchline: “Ewwucch! This tastes like shit! … but I like it.”

  2. says

    @Pierce R. Butler,
    The usual failure mode for an event is that it does not happen, or people do not go to it. So it’s a win/win, except that it’s frustrating to the organizer.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Siggy @ # 2 – If I have some leadership in/responsibility for a given group, I prefer not to have either of those outcomes occur for any event with that group’s name on it.

  4. Jenora Feuer says

    Of course, one of the other failure modes for University clubs is that the people who run the club all graduate at the same time, there’s a chaotic transition period where a new group takes over, and then they all graduate together three or four years later (depending on how long the chaos lasted).

    (Yes, I saw this happen from the inside with the SF/gaming club at our University. My first year was the year all the old crowd graduated; I ended up helping take over the next year; and then when I was about to graduate late due to taking a Masters degree as well, I insisted on not being president my last couple of terms while I was still on campus because ‘somebody else needs to learn how to do this’. My understanding from alumni meetings is that things rather fell apart the next year anyway.)

  5. says

    @Jenora Feuer,

    Yes, although in my experience at UC Berkeley and UCLA, leadership turnover was not 3-4 years, but 1 year. I saw 8 generations of leadership over 9 years.

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