Embrace Your Inner Skeptic 7: Some advice on community building

This is the final section of the talk I gave at St. Charles Community College on December 2, 2014.

  1. Amazing news!
  2. Nobody loves a critic
  3. Why skepticism is healthy
  4. What about religion?
  5. Evaluating information in the internet age
  6. Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
  7. Some advice on community building
  8. Q&A

With all that in mind, I also want to say something about social awareness. Managing a group like the Secular Student Alliance is a big challenge. The Campus Crusade for Christ is a massive organization that represents one of the largest religions in the world. To many Christians, participating in a group like this can supposedly influence whether or not you will have eternal happiness. For clubs that promote skepticism and secularism, the rewards are much more abstract.

I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. I think the world would be a better place if everyone followed this principle, and skepticism is one of the best ways to achieve that goal.

But secular groups come and go. One of the biggest risks they run is that they can wind up with a small number of core members who are only talking to other people with the same perspectives and experiences. To be blunt, a lot atheist speakers look like me: middle class white guys.

Practicing skepticism is a good life skill for everybody to have. That’s why, as years go by and secular groups become more and more mainstream in schools like St. Charles Community College, I would love to see even bigger and more varied crowds, and a broader range of speakers. There are a wealth of people coming from different walks of life who talk about atheism: women and members of ethnic minorities; gay atheists and transgender atheists. There are a lot of skeptics from non-western backgrounds, people who used to be Muslim or Hindu. I would love to see more of those people in this auditorium in the future.

People like:

  1. Greta Christina, author: Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why
  2. Heina Dadabhoy, former Muslim
  3. David Tamayo, President of Hispanic American Freethinkers
  4. Jamila Bey, journalist and radio host
  5. Hemant Mehta, “The Friendly Atheist”
  6. Rebecca Hensler, founder of Grief Beyond Belief
  7. Debbie Goddard, director of African Americans for Humanism

The list of great speakers who are non-white and non-male is enormous.

(More sources available at:



This is important, because bringing in diverse speakers means bringing in a diverse membership; and the more members you have, the more different perspectives you will hear. A few minutes ago, I advocated listening to religious fundamentalists to make sure you cover all your bases; surely you can also take even more time to listen to the unique experiences of skeptics who have grown up in an environment different from your own.

A few times during this talk I’ve mentioned negative views of skepticism by people I disagree with. I have to say, though, nothing disappoints me more than hearing a prominent atheist like Sam Harris, who was recently asked in an interview why most atheist activists are male. He replied: “People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women. Atheism doesn’t have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

This is incredibly frustrating to me, because I’ve personally seen a lot of intelligent and enthusiastic women sneered at and dismissed using flimsy justifications just like this one. Women who use the same arguments as men are told they’re too emotional to engage in serious discussion.

Sometimes an entrenched majority might think they’re being skeptical, when really they’re either dismissing or shouting down valid points by people from other backgrounds. When new members run into this, often they’ll conclude that their input isn’t welcome, and they’ll decide to be active in some other group instead. Then, sometime later, the remaining members look around and say “Hey, we’re still mostly a community of middle class white males. I wonder why that is? I guess that proves women and minorities just aren’t as good at logical thinking as we are.”

Skeptics ought to be smarter than that. Skepticism isn’t fostered in an intellectual echo chamber. People’s personal interactions are voluntary, and like many people, I don’t like spending time with anyone who is more interested in patting themselves on the back than listening to others. There is a certain amount of social intelligence that needs to be present along with pure math and science, because communication and mutual support is one of the things that helps people accomplish big projects in the real world.

We should go out of our way to seek involvement from many different types of people. That should be a primary goal for skeptical activists right now.

In conclusion, besides all the great reasons I‘ve already mention to practice skepticism in your everyday life, there’s one last reason to be a skeptic: It’s fun! It exercises the problem solving parts of your brain, it helps you think again about things you already thought were settled… and it turns every bad movie into a comedy goldmine of fuzzy logic. Give it a try, I think you’ll like it!

If you enjoyed this talk, please remember to support the Secular Student Alliance at St. Charles Community College.

Thanks for listening. Any questions?


  1. Woody says

    How can you give advice on community building if you have an empty building in Austin that is always closed? Really what does you organization have to do with Austin?

  2. Conversion Tube says

    Why do you place importance of community building on brick and mortor but disregard everything else this group has done?

    They mostly all live in Austin. Why is this so difficult?

  3. woody says

    They might live in Austin but they barely do anything outside of the show and online, none of it seems very specific to Austin. They certainly haven’t expanded offline activities in the last 5 years. There is a whole world of outreach that has been ignored by the group. Some people like to join a group to meet up and do fun shit. Outside of the bat cruise which is overrun by fans of whoever they pay to be the celebrity host, there is no getting together to do fun shit. That is an entirely valid criticism. Being in Austin makes someone no more connected to the group than being in a submarine in the north Atlantic.

  4. Conversion Tube says

    Sound like you are committing the “Children starving in Africa’ fallacy.

    Do you work for the Onion, this post appears completely fake.

  5. Monocle Smile says

    They still go to dinner after the show every week, they have weekly social meetups at some cafe, and they’re still doing the lecture series, IIRC. Have you been to their website?

  6. corwyn says

    @3 Woody:

    Why did they reject your request to join and do those things that so clearly need doing?

  7. Russell Glasser says

    Okay, I have a few comments. First of all, I banned “Woody” for sock puppeting. I don’t know who he is — although I do have a wild guess — but he’s certainly local enough to have stopped by the building. Yet the email address he is claiming is owned by a well known ESPN Sportscaster who doesn’t live anywhere near Austin. So that combined with the fact that he apparently only registered an account in order to bitch about the group, basically falls on the wrong side of the moderation policy as far as I’m concerned.

    Regardless, I do want to follow up on this part of my talk and discuss community in more detail. So if “Woody” would like to come back and try to have an adult conversation using a real email address, I’ll consider his request.

    When I gave this talk at St. Charles Community College, about 80 people showed up and about 30 of them went to dinner afterwards. The attendees at dinner were clearly very pleased and happy to be meeting so many local atheists, as the club is very small. That is about the same number of people ACA brings to dinner in Austin on a weekly basis. One of my goals in giving talks like this is to connect people with each other in their local area, and I’m hearing from the students that a few new people did show up at the next meeting.

    30 people is not an epic gathering by any means, but everyone tends to have a good time on a regular basis, and I call that a successful social group. Additionally, I’ve spoken to people from several other groups around the country, and I have to conclude that there are very few atheist organizations that are as active or well attended as ours. That may be an indictment of atheist groups in general, since we get nowhere near the number of members as a moderately successful church, even a Unitarian church. Still, even if we could always be doing more, in my opinion we are doing some things right.

    Finally, my use of the term “community” is in no way meant to be limited to local gatherings. I include online groups, I include major events like one-time talks and conventions, and I include remote friendships and a body of blog commenters as communities.

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I include remote friendships and a body of blog commenters as communities.

    <3 you too Russell.

  9. says

    It may not be necessary to add to the dog pile, but I feel a need to correct some of what Woody has to say. First of all, our Board meetings are open to anyone, and our Board meeting notes are published for public viewing. So, if anyone wants to know what we work on for community building or use of the Freethought Library (building), that is available.

    It’s true from a purely outside perspective that ACA hasn’t done a lot in the way of altering or adding events for group meetups. However, that doesn’t mean the group doesn’t have a lot of opportunity for group meetups for anyone interested. As others have noted, ACA hosts a weekly brunch, a weekly dinner, a monthly lecture, an “unofficial, but announced at the lecture” meetup after the lecture, public invited viewing of TAE tapings, public invited viewing of Nonprophets recording at the building, and there have been sporadic efforts at happy hour, different interest nights, and gaming events/meetups that have not maintained, but were tried (and I think the group should get snaps for the offerings at least, even if they don’t fly).

    There is a difference between Library operating hours and the building availability. The Freethought Library hours are sparse, that’s true enough. But that is because it requires that the building be manned during operating hours, and that means a hired hand sits in there and watches the library during that time (ACA *pays* for this, it’s not volunteer—so yeah, we don’t have full time staff engaged, and the hours are limited—understandably). Additionally the building *is* available—that is, can be “open” for events that anyone would like to apply to ACA to use the building for—outside of the Library hours. This requires only that a volunteer (probably a Board member) be available to ensure the building is respected during use. So, “hours of operation” for the library are NOT the only times the building can be in use (and in fact, the Nonprophets use it outside library hours—as indicated above—regularly). Recently our after-lecture meetup venue closed, and this has led to (if anyone would like to read the Board meeting notes from our last meeting) a decision to try using the library for an after-lecture meetup venue and possible party atmosphere.

    It’s true we put a lot of energy into the bat cruise—but again, we pay out for that event, so we have to work to ensure we are putting the association’s funds to good use. That means trying to make sure it’s well attended to cover speaker and boat rental costs. This year, we paid out a little more than we brought in, due, in part, to offering two speakers rather than our usual one speaker. When we have a regular weekly event that happens where we aren’t paying money—just meeting at a restaurant—of course we’re not going to expend as much energy promoting because we aren’t facing potential costs based on attendance. That is just logistically reasonable. Oh, and we have also done the occasional (generally) annual pub crawl.

    I don’t see any suggestions or recommendations in Woody’s comment. I don’t see Woody saying “What I think would work well would be if they had a hiking group,” or whatever he thinks we are missing that we should have. What exactly does Woody mean by “fun shit”? What direction does that give ACA as far as planning a new event or offering? We have tried other things—like craft night—that clearly someone thought would be “fun shit”—and it didn’t garner sufficient support to continue. So, what “fun shit” did Woody want to see? Some specifics would have been nice and perhaps even useful.

    I think, as someone who sits on the Board, that ACA is welcome to ideas about how to increase any efforts that would be good for the local Austin community. And as someone pointed out—with a board of just a handful of people, it would be nice if those who wanted to SEE these events/offerings become realities would actually STEP UP and offer to coordinate that for ACA. Several people splitting volunteer time between real world jobs and families simply can’t be expected to do it all FOR the atheist community in the city of Austin. Considering our sparse resources for man/woman-power, I think we offer a lot of opportunity for people to come out and meetup. Heck, without even trying, a person could just walk up to two atheist meetups each week.

    I also participate in the blood drive, and used to participate in the street cleanup as well. Both efforts still ongoing as far as I’m aware. So, if someone is into community service participation, we have that as well on a monthly and bimonthly basis.

    Not sure what Woody wants to see that isn’t there (because Woody didn’t say), but I don’t think the criticism that we’re negligent is very fair or balanced.

    My two cents, for what it’s worth.

  10. Matzo Ball Soup says

    I live in the Boston area, and I wish our local atheist group(s?) had even half as much stuff going on as the ACA. From having been on the email list for about a year, it looks like the Boston Atheists have a monthly Saturday brunch, and they also promote evening lectures hosted by Boston University’s atheist group (which are always on weeknights — 🙁 ). But that seems to be about it.

  11. Narf says

    Hell, two things a week isn’t bad. There are plenty of groups that do stuff more like once a month.

    My local groups in the Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area of NC) average a bit more than that, but then we have 4 or 5 different meetup groups independently scheduling things all over the place, with a few TFS (Todd Stiefel’s political-action group) events that are cross-posted across the major groups. Triangle Skeptics is essentially an atheist group, too, and they do their own more sciency things.

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