Atheist groups in less religious areas

Last night I attended a planning meeting for the Secular Student Union at the University of Washington. It’s equivalent to the group I started at Purdue, and also an affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance. What was interesting to me, as a Board member of the SSA, was how little regular members they had attending meetings.

You would think a liberal area like Seattle would produce way more members than an area like West Lafayette, Indiana. And obviously there are many variables that could contribute to this issue – leadership differences, advertising, event planning… But this is a trend I’ve seen talking to lots of student groups across the country. It makes sense when you think about it: When your non-theism is in the majority, or at the very least when no one cares about it, there’s less incentive to have a club.

In Indiana, clubs like the Society of Non-Theists are the one thing people have keeping them sane from the surrounding area. It’s the only place you can be completely open, safe, and accepted. Seattle isn’t a religious area, so there’s no reason to stand on the rooftops shouting about atheism.

Or is there? I personally think so. Yes, community was one of our main goals at SNT, but it wasn’t the only goal. At UW, you may not need a club to find friends, but you can still use it for volunteering, intellectual discussion, and debates about more controversial issues. For example, many people in the area may not be religious, but you can show how important it is to speak up for your secularism. You can have events educating people about the Catholic Church’s stance on condoms, or how some Islamic beliefs interact with free speech.

What do you think? Do secular groups still serve a purpose in less religious areas? Or is our job here already complete?


  1. says

    One of the things I’ve noticed about liberal areas is while there is less direct religion in the way most people would think of it, there is a lot more postmodernist woo based stuff going on. A lot more of the sentence “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” It was the bane of my existence growing up in LA.~Rhaco

  2. says

    I was slightly afraid you’d run into this here in Seattle. I certainly think there is a need for non-theist community here, however you’re no longer part of the minority. You’re with your own kind :-) You are no longer simply Jen The Atheist. You now get to be Jen Anything And Everything You Might Ever Want To Be.

  3. Stephen says

    Don’t forget though that Seattle is home to the Discovery Institute so it isn’t entirely woo-free. Posting this from Kansas – I like to remind those on the coasts that Kansas isn’t the outlier they like to think.

  4. Liz says

    I think it’s akin to anything you felt you were lacking back home. I went to high school in rural Indiana, so a huge part of my identity was wrapped up in Wanting to Escape from Here, and Not Being Like These People. Now (nearly 20 years later–omg really?) I live in a progressive, liberal, crunchy place, and it can be a bit disheartening sometimes. Everybody’s already doing everything, etc. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to summon up the motivation and commitment (to art! to knowledge! to the enlightened life!)I felt when I was “in exile.”

  5. says

    It’s the same way here in MA. Very liberal, religion-questioning environment, but nearly everybody believes in karma, chakras, ghosts, Bigfoot, rei ki, aliens visiting Earth, psychics, or some combination.

  6. LS says

    “less religious,” in my experience here in areas like Seattle/Bellingham is that it means only MOST of the people you meet are religious, and those that are tend to be more welcoming, as opposed to “if you let anybody know, you’re probably going to be verbally harassed.”Just because the area is less religious, doesn’t mean we need secular groups any less. We’ve just barely got our foot in the door, here. If we walk away, it can still close.

  7. jimmyboy99 says

    I live in Jersey (not your Jersey…the original one!) where we have lots of old school, British flavoured religion (which means social etiquette rather than faith, really). But even here you can be just what you want to be. I am unusual in calling myself an atheist – but only because most folks just don’t care at all about religion or non-religion.But I would love to have a secular group to belong to. Something that felt like a social group of some kind. I miss that part of the church experience (though churches make my skin crawl now). But it would seem weird to start a secular group: my friends and neighbours would feel I was making an issue out of nothing – as there is very little religion left to oppose here…Any thoughts or suggestions there anyone?

  8. lomifeh says

    It still servers a purpose, just not the same purpose. In an area where ones religion, or lack of, is not an issue the group purpose changes. It may be now more along the lines of say a secular humanist society (just an example) versus a place where there is more of a siege or safe harbor mentality. In e end though it is what you make it.Edit : you’ll find in most coastal cities a similar attitude. Most people don’t really care. It’s amazing how much more tolerant people become when you have a million or so around you.

  9. says

    Greta Christina put it nicely in her Ask An Atheist spot (check it out… when she said, “It’s part of our job to provide a safe place for people to come out to.”I had that experience. Culturally, we may be more secular, but a kid about to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses and lose their entire family and social support network sure could use a group of people to just crash-land into. I’ve made friends, but I’ve also met people I actually, seriously look up to and will strive to keep around. Had they not all been in the same place, reaching out to me, I could have really floundered. Maybe even turned back for a few years.

  10. says

    Just because an area is less ‘religious’ doesn’t necessarily mean that there are more like-minded individuals. I wouldn’t have a lot in common with an apatheist, nor with a new-age spiritualist, though neither are part of an organised religion. I quite like being in the company of people who are just as passionate about reason and discovering the truth as I am.

  11. SpencerDub says

    I’ve noticed something similar at Whitman. We’re in Eastern Washington, which is fairly religious, but the college itself is quite full of god-hatin’ lib’rulls. The meetings of our Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics club, though, are quite small.

  12. says

    I think we should take a stand against woo and not just against fundamentalist religion. Also, even if the USA was totally secular, we’d still have to deal with religious extremists from other parts of the world, such as the Islamic Middle East. So there will always be a need for skeptic groups, even in places where atheism is the norm, because atheists can be gullible about certain issues too. Merely not believing in God is far from enough to make a person enlightened. In fact, it can hinder people into thinking they are all right if they swallow absurdities like homeopathy or astrology.

  13. Bobby says

    There are more atheists here, so it may be less important to be out and proud. But there are also more atheist groups here who are activists. Enjoy the northwest and udub.

  14. says

    I’m one of those stuck in one of the more religious areas where opening up has its risks. (Not so many for me, I don’t think, but friends with families and more sensitive jobs certainly.)Anyway, its very nice to have a group to help keep you sane. I’ve been much happier since finding a freethinker group to be involved in.But I would really love to see more of the society at large be more rational. You know, passing fewer irrational laws, fomenting less bigotry, actually looking at rational solutions to society’s problems. Seems to me the only way for that to happen is for more of us to actually band together and stand up for ourselves. So I would really like to see more activity. Especially in areas where there is less risk involved.

  15. says

    I’ll second those who see a need for secular/skeptical communities in not-as-religious areas in order to fight woo. Since I moved to San Francisco last May, I haven’t had to deal with many religious people but I’m presented with homeopathy, chiropracty, and other new-agey stuff every day.

  16. Kaleberg says

    I’m based about 50 miles west of you, and there are a few atheist groups out here. A friend of ours is in some free thinkers group or another and finds it a lot of fun, but it’s a much older crowd.Judging from 19th century children’s books, atheism was much more mainstream last century. There’s usually an atheist or two in every series, and they were considered to be part of every town. Religion just wasn’t as politicized back then. My guess is that the current attitude stemmed from the Cold War and fears about godless communism. Isn’t that when they added god to the Pledge of Allegiance?

  17. says

    “But it would seem weird to start a secular group: my friends and neighbours would feel I was making an issue out of nothing – as there is very little religion left to oppose here…”That is EXACTLY the kind of reaction I seem to get all too often now that I’ve moved from Indiana to California when I talk about my experiences with Purdue Non-Theists. They seem to think that such a group is fine, and maybe even needed, in horribly backwards places like the midwest, but who would need to bother with such a thing here?Honestly, I thought I’d be thrilled to be in a more liberal area, but my feelings are mixed on that. I feel like places like this can be tolerant to the point of absurdity, and that supports a kind of wishy-washy “I don’t have any firm opinions [or at least I don’t express them] kind of mindset at times. I feel like in the midwest, there was more pressure to take a stand one way or the other. Obviously these are generalizations… there are wishy-washy people everywhere, in fact I think they’re usually the majority… I just feel like this culture supports it more, and that’s not entirely a good thing. Sure, it’s obviously more pleasant to live with than under an oppressive culture/religion. The problem is, it still gives religion too much goddamn credit and leeway. When you aren’t surrounded by religion screwing with your life, it is easy to think that religion is harmless, and conversation stops. If we lived in a world where EVERYONE was non-religious, I’d be fine not talking about it. But for now, anything that makes religion seem more benign/warm and cuddly makes me decidedly uneasy.To answer your question… I don’t really know the best way to deal with this, but I think I might have better luck with a generally skeptical group, rather than a strictly atheist one. LA may be lacking in the religious culture of the midwest, but it is thoroughly steeped in alternative medicine and other woo. I feel that that is a place I would be able to find a platform that more people (particularly in the science-y circles I run in) could understand the need for. Religion could then be addressed under the umbrella of general support for creative thinking.I have no idea if that would be helpful, but it’s my best idea for now.

  18. says

    I just moved to LA, and the number of chiropractors, naturopaths, and other alt-med or generally woo-y practitioners within WALKING DISTANCE of my apartment makes me so sad and angry. The whole world needs more critical thinking–particularly directed towards subjects that we have allowed particular privilege, like religion, but also towards all views/subcultures/dogmas/etc that have become insulated from and resistent to reason and evidence. Life is hard, and it is often SO MUCH EASIER, or more comforting, to believe in lies or half truths than to have our views challenged. Deep reflection is uncomfortable. And a certain amount of irrationality on a personal level can and must be tolerated, because we’re human and it’s just how we’re wired. However, acknowledging this fact means we HAVE to continuously work to prevent these small irrationalities from developing into reinforced systems of thought and institutions that ultimately warp our societies through collective delusion.

  19. CummingsMailbox says

    I agree. A secondary function is helping non-believers also see that there is not ony a worldview that agrees with them…but (since many don’t know) show them also that their worldview doesn’t leave them spinning in a vacuum…that a framework for ethics, morality, public discourse and meaning in life…exists in humanism.

  20. jimmyboy99 says

    Yeah – that’s a fair point. There is a bit of ‘alternative medicine’ and the like which is tolerated by most, used by some. Can’t remember which of them it was, but one of the big name atheists pointed out that there is no more such a thing as ‘alternative medicine’ as there is alternative mathematics, or alternative physics/biology/chemistry.Exactly.I wonder if I might contact the British Humanists and see if they have anything here… They are generally sceptical I think.Thanks for your comment.

  21. jimmyboy99 says

    I do wonder whether the way forward with these folks is a dual strategy: one – of grass roots opposition. And secondly to get their practices incorporated into the mainstream where possible. So Chiropractic is a great example: there is much there that could be subject to clinical trial and brought inside without too much damage to egos. It’s a much friendlier approach (and I suspect therefore, more likely to succeed) then direct opposition.Astrology and homeopathy present a bigger challenge I accept!

  22. Menno says

    Well here in the roughly secular Netherlands, we just do not have the need for secular/atheist groups. There are some that I know of, but mostly concerned with church/state separation on the national level. Which has been taken care off quite well. Our campus sports some religious groups, but those are mostly fringe groups. No atheist groups needed: Atheism is the norm. Plus atheists only share one negatively defined characteristic. That is not a strong base for unification when that characteristic is in the majority. I do understand the need to speak to like-minded people. It’s just that when everyone is an Atheist, it is very unlikely that these will be like-minded.

  23. Rollingforest says

    Maybe the atheist groups in nonreligious areas could have use computer video hookup to have virtual meetings with atheist groups in religious areas in order to give them ideas and support.

  24. says

    The UK does have a growing set of ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ groups which seems to fit a bit better here than a specifically atheist group. And if you’re not already listening to the Pod Delusion you should give it a go; it’ll make you feel a bit more connected to UK skepticism generally even without finding anyone locally.

  25. says

    I’ve never joined or participated in any secular group but being from Canada, I don’t run into religious groups or people almost ever. I don’t feel like an outsider or anything like that and I wear my atheism proudly – and I am NEVER preached to.

  26. says

    I think it’s a mixture of things.It might be that since Washington isn’t a particularly religious state, you’re not going to see a lot of participation in the SSA. You’re the status quo and I think a lot of people are apathetic enough about being non-religious that they’re not going to seek out other like-minded people. My alma mater (UC Santa Cruz) is a pretty non-theistic school and their SSA chapter has about people from what I’ve seen of their website.It could also be that the other campus religious groups are centered around religions that have worship as part of their meetings and non-religious people don’t do the worship thing so they’re not likely to come to meetings unless it’s a special occasion? (I’m speculating here as a Christian.) You might have been a minority at Purdue but if you rounded up all the “Christians” at Purdue that were involved in Christian ministries, I don’t think it would be a large percentage of the student body. I could be wrong.

  27. ProgJohn says

    It could be there are more people who describe themselves as asthiests in relegious areas. Here in the UK few people are actively religious which seems to lead to most of the rest not bothering to think about it, it’s a non-issue. When I talk to people here about religion most fall into the wooly middle ground of being agnostic, “spiritual” or a nominal member of a chuch they never attend.

  28. JM says

    Thirty years ago in Canada, the school day began with prayer and “God Save the Queen”. I asked that my daughter not be required to participate in the prayer, and the teacher made her leave the room during the prayer lest the other students think her non-participation be a breach of discipline. Then she forgot to call her in after the prayer and she stood in the hall waiting. It took a visit to the principle to stop that and the teacher retired after that year.Some of her friends weren’t allowed to come to our house after their parents heard the kids talking about believing in god. She said she didn’t and they were horrified. There were lots of blue-collar folks living in our neighborhood (where grad students can afford to live), but Hamilton isn’t a small town.So, Canada may be much better than most of the US, and it was 30 years ago, but I suspect that there are still pockets of conservatives.

  29. says

    Of course, they serve a purpose. The market penetration of atheism is still low. We need an area in which atheists dominate the population. This way we can prove to the world that atheism is great. Gays and Lesbians have San Francisco and are proud of it. What city in the US is the city of atheism or nontheism? None.Apparently, the revolution is not yet successful. Our atheist comrades still need to work hard to spread atheism.

  30. Mark Madsen says

    Jen – I think there is definitely a purpose, but it may be different. Obviously I echo many people’s comments here about the culture-at-large in Seattle making it much easier on non-theists, I am rarely if ever made to feel like not being a theist is an issue.But the great “glass ceiling” is still political for non-theists. In a number of districts around the Seattle area, one could easily be elected to county, city, or even state offices — those involving districting. State-wide offices or national offices, with the possible exception of Jim McDermott’s seat, are probably not possible for an avowed atheist even now. So there is an advocacy element that is still crucial for social acceptance of non-theism as full partners in our civic conversation, definitely. And heck, I’m at the U.W. and in 25 on-and-off years there, I didn’t even know there was a Secular Student’s Union. So thanks for pointing it out, and welcome to Seattle and our fair campus!Mark Madsenhttp://madsenlab.org

  31. Turk says

    I’m a member of the Secular Student Alliance at UC Santa Cruz, and although Santa Cruz isn’t a religious area, we don’t have too many members. It seems to be that like you said, secularism isn’t a big deal here. You might be atheist or agnostic, but so what? The area’s so liberal that people don’t really feel their beliefs are constrained by the society around them. Also, it seems that many people in the area just don’t care deeply enough about their secularism to join a club.

  32. says

    Atheism, on the other hand, a theory is very calm and self-centered. It does not require the propagation of ideas or refute the other really. Some individual atheists choose to enter the argument to prove their right to rebut the faith of other religions as wrong, but it is rarely the case.

Leave a Reply