Corralling the apathetic atheists

This afternoon the officers of the Secular Student Union at the University of Washington had a beginning of the quarter planning meeting. We discussed the sorts of events we wanted to plan for the fall quarter, but we had one issue.

Seattle is a little different from the rest of the country. It’s pretty godless already. And the atheists out here don’t tend to care about their atheism, because those who aren’t atheists are fairly benign and private about their religion.

Well, except the Mars Hill Church. We all rally together to sneer at them.

In the Midwest, atheists swarm to atheist meetings because it’s the only bit of sanity they get. It’s the only reprieve from the constant barrage of Christianity. It’s possibly the only chance you have to meet another atheist. Issues of separation of church and state are readily apparent when they’re being violated in your home town.

But in Seattle, most people are apathetic about these things. They’re not confronted with them on a daily basis – it’s easy to giggle at the silliness of religion when you think it’s relegated to other parts of the country and the world. So our club has been tiny recently.

The thing is, we disagree on how to get people interested in our club. Some officers think we need to focus on social events and not be aggressive about religion. But while social events are great, I don’t think it works as a draw in apathetic areas. In very religious areas, social events are your only chance of meeting other atheists and feeling comfortable about speaking your mind. But here, there’s no problem in meeting another godless person. Just walk down the street and say hello.

Maybe this is just the firebrand in me speaking, but I think we need to be more controversial. Not necessarily crazy – but we need to get out there and make it clear that religious privilege is an issue people should care about. That abstinence only education is religiously motivated and has been proven not to work. That the Catholic Church’s stance on condom usage in Africa has killed many people. That we have Christian Dominionists who want to be President. That we have the Discovery Institute itself sitting downtown, spewing its creationist garbage. Not everyone on campus is totally apathetic – they’ve just never been exposed to the reasons why many of us believe religion is a problem.

We’ll see how it pans out. School starts this week, and we’re thinking about letting people trade their souls for a cookie during the activities fair. If cookies don’t attract students, I don’t know what will.


  1. Shaun says

    I agree, a little controversy is needed to get people to think about what they believe (or don’t, in this case). As a group, we atheists need to stay on our toes and keep organized. Because those who favor blurring the lines of church and state, promote failed sex education methods, or wish to discriminate fellow citizens based on sexual orientation *do* organize and if we don’t rise to meet that challenge, we could face serious setbacks on some of those issues.

  2. Eric RoM says

    Meh. Surely you can find some LOCAL thing to get worked up about. That Ohio, or whatever forsaken midwest hellhole, is rife with Xtianist buttinskis isn’t going to motivate very well HERE: we already fought lotsa battles, and won. That’s how we got this way.

    Hell, ask your buddy Dan Savage: he can probably give you a phone book of local issues.

  3. cnjnrs says

    Well, now I really want to move to Seattle. Just how much do you want people in your club? Enough to fly me out??

  4. says

    I agree with Eric RoM; where I come from (NZ) is fairly apathetic too, and it wasn’t until some more localized events happened that I felt the ‘pull’ to advertise my atheism more clearly.

  5. Londo says

    I am what you would call “apathetic atheist”. I have no idea how you would bring me to a meeting. For me, an “atheist” group would be actually a deterrent, one which free food and booze would not necessarily make it welcoming enough.

    On the other hand, I’ve never lived in the US, so may be I’m not your average target audience.

  6. uzza says

    If I still lived there, I’d jump at a chance to go after the Discovery Institute. I take it as personal insult that they located their oozing pustule in my otherwise wonderful town.

  7. Simon says

    I organize events for CFI in DC which -like Seattle- has a lot of godless folks. If you have compelling programming people will come. End of story.

  8. says

    We have this problem in Vancouver. It’s a very secular city and people are either naturally agnostic or apathetic religiously or otherwise.

    When it comes to mobilizing atheists you can try to find local issues to drum up support, what we’ve noticed is that there are plenty of issues, sometimes outside of the main city in the suburbs. The other useful tactic is to find causes aside from religion that the locals get worked up over, for us, there’s a lot of alt-med crap that we focus on.

  9. says

    That’s a funny thing about atheist communities: ultimately they can be self-defeating. On you’ve done the work to reduce religious privilege there’s no need for the group to exist, and people care little about it. My preferred solution is to turn to Humanism and start crafting a values-based community around the core principles that bring Humanists together. That means lots of service work, political activism, life-cycle ceremony etc. I’m convinced this is the only real shot at significant growth and sustainability we have…

  10. Reverse Polarity says

    Count me firmly among the apathetic Seattle atheists.

    You have hit some very valid points. I am apathetic for exactly the reasons you state. As an atheist, I don’t feel the least threatened in Seattle. We are puzzled by most of the religious nonsense we see happening in other parts of the country. If anyone were to suggest abstinence-only education or creationism here, they’d be laughed right off the school board. It isn’t a total atheist utopia, but it is about as atheist-friendly as you could reasonably expect in a largely christian country.

    I’ve never attended an atheist event in my life, even though I’ve been an atheist since before you were born. I have no idea what I’d do at such an event. I’ve just never had an urgent desire to go to one. Nearly all of my friends and acquaintances know I’m an atheist, but nobody cares, and probably half of them are as well.

    I completely agree that a mere social event won’t draw many in. At nearly every social event of any kind I’ve attended in the last 20 years, probably half the people in the room were atheists or agnostics. People with outspoken religious views are a rarity around here. You are completely correct in stating that I don’t need to go to an atheist social event to meet other atheists. They’re everywhere around here.

    I’m not sure I can be much help. I don’t really know what would draw me in to an atheist meeting. Ethan might be on to something. Although Seattle itself is largely godless, there are religious kooks elsewhere in the state. Seattle is somewhat of a progressive island in an otherwise more conservative state. The eastern half of the state probably holds political views more similar to Idaho than Seattle. Or perhaps start following the ramblings of pastor Ken Hutcherson. He’s occasionally good for rallying the troops when he gets extra-crazy. Even then, he makes me laugh more than he makes me mad.

    Good luck!

  11. says

    Hutcherson hasn’t been heard from in a couple years. I presume it’s because of the cancer. I participated in an event around him, but 6 years ago.

    I am an apathetic Seattle atheist. I don’t know what to do around here. I don’t attend UW, so I dunno what it’d be like to organize on campus. Is it different with students?

  12. benjaminsa says

    Being a controversial or not is a herding cats problem. You are going to frighten away some, and attract others whatever you decide (yeah diversity). But isn’t your problem, basically, that religion isn’t a problem in Seattle? Tone doesn’t change that.
    The issues you mentioned: sex ed, condoms, and insane GOP candidates, those are all great causes, but they are for the most part not local problems. Students interested in ground work activism would probably do far better joining a climate change group, or something similar. The only reason I would join an atheist group in Seattle would be social. Sorry.

  13. aurophobia says

    Has anyone recently done a thorough survey of the school districts in Washington State (or even just Seattle) to see what kind of coverage they have for comprehensive sex education in the public school districts? If any of them are abstinence only, you can bet it’s because of religion in those communities. There’s an important issue you can act on.

    You could also make giant banner signs and hold them up in Red Square with godless slogans and pass out fliers about evolution, contradictions in the Bible, etc. I remember some fanatical Christians doing that a few years back. It’d be nice to use their tactic for godlessness.

    And don’t worry if part of the group wants controversy while the others want to focus on the social side. Firebrands and diplomats are both very important.

  14. says

    I would hope that more atheists would want to be involved in some kind of group activity during a major election year. The Sky Fairy adherents are pumping out their absurdity en masse.

  15. Simon says

    I’m sorry but I’m not sure I agree with the notion that an atheist group needs to be located in a place that is less secular in order to be successful. I can think of plenty of places that have very secular populaces as well as very well successful local groups…Norway and Britain come to mind in Europe for example.

    Any of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have no problem getting huge crowds in any of the big coastal cities of the US. Other speakers will also get a good size crowd in these cities and this has been demonstrated time and time again.

    But even right in Seattle, there are plenty of speakers that talk about subject matter that would be of great interest to the atheist/secular community all the time and they speak at Town Hall which is not a small venue (Steven Pinker pretty soon as it happens):

    My own opinion is that secular people living in bigger cities for entertainment are not apathetic to these ideas but rather have more options for what to do with our time.

  16. Simon says

    Er, meant to say:

    My own opinion is that secular people living in bigger cities for entertainment are not apathetic to these ideas but rather have more options for what to do with our time.

  17. 98 says

    If there are insufficient local problems you might consider trying to organize missionaries to go to less fortunate parts of the country?

  18. says

    A tactic with survival value for religious organsisms is claiming that people cannot be good without belonging to a religion. People pretty much universally want to do good in the world (even those quite unable to see that they’re consumed by hate — but that’s a whole other can of worms), so if they can be persuaded religion helps them to do good, that’s a powerful draw. Ultimately, if atheism is to compete, it will have to organize charity events, blood drives, bake sales, coffee hours… it has to be both known and unremarkable that atheist groups do this community stuff just as religious groups do. There’s a place for firebrands —religions sure have them— but religion doesn’t spread itself on controversy alone, and atheism can’t either.

  19. hoverFrog says

    Sounds like you need an enemy. Someone or something to rally against. This is your stick.

    Sounds like you need a mission. Someone or something to rally around. This is your carrot.

    How you distribute these is your choice but speaking personally I prefer carrots (or cookies) to sticks.

  20. John Horstman says

    Secularism isn’t limited to combating Officially Recognized Religions; someone else suggested combating “alternative” (not-evidence-based) medicine. There are all sorts of New Agey spiritualist things to combat, like the anti-vaccination crowd. Any of them in Seattle? Anyone practicing foot-thumping, cupping, faith/energy-healing, laying-on-hands, acupuncturists or chiropractors claiming effects for which there’s no evidence, etc.? Any “pregnancy crisis centers” to picket or spread warnings about? Global warming denialism? Partner with campus LGBTQetc. or women’s groups on some of their issues that are based in cultural Christianity (as you yourself know all too well, Jen, rape culture and male privilege are everywhere, including in secular communities)? You could always move on to suing the Federal government over “In God We Trust” and the like if you’re out of other issues that impact people in Seattle. You could do projects combating unfounded essentialism in all of the sciences, reminding people that they’re not Discovering Truth™ but instead are constructing models to help conceptualize, describe, and predict processes in the physical world. There are lots of possibilities for secular activism that aren’t direct challenges to overt religion. Drug policy that isn’t based on evidence and harm-reduction?

    Do you guys really have comprehensive sex ed in all the public schools? That’s astounding.

  21. says

    But what do we mean by “local”? Are people in Seattle really interested only in what has a direct impact on them? If so that seems rather pathetic, especially since Seattleites like to think of themselves as cosmopolitan.

  22. scramble says

    Some good suggestions up here-I particularly like John Horstman’s suggestion to start looking at the lingering effects of cultural christianity in your town and state, or to sue the federal government over “in god we trust”. I also dig 98’s suggestion of sending missionaries to other parts of the country! :)

    The main point I see in these suggestions is that athesists in Seatle aren’t spending their days in self-defense mode. Therefore, you guys have the luxury of time that your fellows in the midwest and south do not have, as they are spending all theirs trying to prevent things from getting _worse_. While they’re busy doing that very important work, you guys have an amazing opportunity tag team them, as it were, and take on the work of making things _better_ for your country as a whole!

  23. Simon says

    I really don’t think that’s what would be the deciding factor for the purposes of the Secular Student Union at the University of Washington-or indeed almost any local group. If they hold compelling programming that the local secular community is interested in people will come.

  24. Alex says

    Free food always attracts college students. If you it doesn’t work well enough, increase the free food to pizza. $5 pizzas work.

  25. says

    Try to create a sense of community — actually, strike “sense of”; create a community — not just a social group, but a real community of people who help each other. Start investigating how churches create communities, and experiment with ways that might work for non-theists.

    The problem is overwhelming number of churches and other religious organizations that are always (or usually) seen to be upholding the fabric of society (e.g. being the primary distributors of relief after a disaster) while atheist organizations aren’t even on the radar for most people. I’d like to see the removal of that argument in favor of religion, because really, religion shouldn’t be a part of the package.

  26. jasonlang says

    This is a laundry list of good ideas. Just because they aren’t in your face decrying your immediate sentencing to firey-burney land (And why are they so obsessed with sending people to a nice little town in Norway anyway?) doesn’t mean that other Invisible Sky-Fairies aren’t just as fraudulent.

    If nothing else, campaigning the school, county and state to keep the sciences (and other departments too) well-funded is always an admirable goal.

  27. says

    There is the Mafia method. You there an atheist? You will show up to this meeting or you may meet with an accident involving a harpoon gun, some lubricant and an angry squid. Tell your friends…

    Or we will be seeing you soon…

    Or we can actually do non atheist/skeptic stuff. Like charity work. That would get a lot of people out. Something like “Good for Goodness Sake” where a bunch of us get together and go run a feed the homeless program or a bullying hotline or something we know the religious don’t do.

    I am for the bullying hotline thing.

  28. jflcroft says

    That just pushes the question down the line – what counts as “compelling programming” for people for whom atheism is a given? Not stuff about how God doesn’t exist.

  29. says

    I just finished watching a documentary on Prop 8 and its $22MM in direct funding by the Mormons. It seemed to be a clear case of violating the prohibition on political campaigning through the use of funds designated for a religious non profit organization.
    A really positive goal, particularly given the status of our national debt would be to lobby for the revocation of this status for organizations that violate the law. Aside from the Mormons, I am thinking of the largest landowner in the US and the world, the Catholic Church.
    As a high school student (Bishop Dwenger HS, Ft. Wayne Indiana 20 years ago), we were all told that we could not graduate if we did not perform “community service”. What constituted community service? Protesting at an abortion clinic.
    Pissed off, I showed up and and crossed over (plaid skirt, knee socks and all) to demonstrate on the pro-choice side. The reprimand was severe. I was told that I would still be able to march in my graduation, but would be handed a blank paper instead of diploma. My guidance counselor misrepresented my academic career on her portion of my college apps. and when confronted, accused me of cheating on the SAT.

  30. says

    To continue the taxation thought, here is an example of one recent Catholic Church real estate transaction:

    This transaction was $100,000,000. The Federal capital gains tax rate is currently @ 5% (remember all of this land was estate gifts, so in reality, the entire land value would actually have been taxable twice, once as a gift and once as a sale) + the 4% real estate transfer tax in Philly.

    We are basically looking at a range of $9,000,000 to $14,000,000 in lost tax revenue on this parcel alone.

    This is money that could be used to improve schools, research alternative energy, provide healthcare, etc.

  31. TheBrummell says

    As an apathetic atheist, none of the above suggestions are appealing to me in the slightest.

    “Community” is a word I actively avoid – I’m very not interested in being a part of a community. You can tell me I’m already part of a community – the community of atheists, the community of Canadian atheists, the community of science graduate students, whatever. If I do nothing to participate in these communities, am I still a part of them?

    I’m not in Seattle, and I’m not in an area that’s quite so similarly secular, but regardless, I do not feel the need to get organized or join a group or become active or whatever. That’s a big part of my own reasons for describing myself as an atheist (primary is obviously the total lack of belief on my part in god(s) or other supernatural entities); periodic gatherings with people of like-minds are not something I want to do. Emulating the social structure of a church is very much a turn-off for me.

    Call it aggressive apathy, or something. I agree with your goals, but I don’t want to be in the room when you’re planning your strategy.

    This looks like a rather pointless comment, but I view it as speaking for the other apathetics, who have perhaps read this post and these comments and decided “meh” and clicked away. I’m about to do that myself, but perhaps because the zero truncation problem is much on my mind of late I decided to write something.

    Finally, thanks for putting this up – I’m enjoying the blog and there are some very interesting conversations happening here.

  32. Simon says

    I gave some quick examples already: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc would easily get huge crowds. In fact I know that Harris was also at Town Hall Seattle on his last book tour. For a live test go to the upcoming Pinker event that will be in Seattle shortly (also in my original comment) and I’ll wager you that many of the attendees are atheists. This is an event that could easily be hosted by an atheist/humanist group.

    I’m sure a list could be compiled with at least a dozen other secular speakers that have gotten good sized crowds in Seattle and other big American cities and have a good name recognition already as further evidence that Seattle atheists are quite happy to attend interesting lectures by prominent atheists (to give just one form of potential programming).

  33. Simon says

    You attended the AC Grayling event in Seattle for the release of The Good Book correct? Just curious, do you recall the approximate attendance?

    PS CFI DC co-sponsored his DC appearance the next day and it was standing room only :-)

  34. Emmet says

    Interesting conversation. Have been increasing my reading of atheist blogs recently (I’m a Catholic) and find stuff like this fascinating. Seems to me some atheists very much want to be a part of a “movement”, and others have no taste for that at all. “Atheism” is a very broad umbrella.

    Many interesting and thoughtful comments here that I’d like to chew over with the people making them (but am aware that this thread is old already and getting older so conversation is unlikely): this comment at #19 is one of those: “Ultimately, if atheism is to compete, it will have to organize charity events, blood drives, bake sales, coffee hours… it has to be both known and unremarkable that atheist groups do this community stuff just as religious groups do.” Are those activities to be done for the sake of “spreading the word” about “atheism” (or to “compete” with Christianity), or because they are good in themselves, good for humanity/good for the individuals helped?

    And: Could the writer of the blog (or somebody else) enlarge for me on exactly how “the Catholic Church’s stance on condom usage in Africa has killed many people”? That sentence made me chuckle.

  35. LuxEtVeritas says

    You can try several ways to attract people:
    Social: Halloween party–come as your favorite/least favorite deity. Weekly get-togethers to watch something (Dr Who? ?)
    Political: Even in godless Seattle, do you have any politicians that openly admit to being agnostics/atheists? I know some US states have laws not allowing “non-believers” to hold public office. What about Washington state? I don’t know of any politicians in the US who would publicly admit to being agnostics/atheists. Maybe you can help elect somebody or help somebody come out of the closet.
    Events: Discussions/Lectures with interesting people. Dan Savage owes you one. Douglas Adams would have been a great guest speaker. One of the hightlists of my graduate program was all the interesting people who came to campus.
    Social causes. Check out the book “More Than Good Intentions” for programs that have been proven to work. Get people interested in one of the programs. Maybe Seattle has a sister-city in a country that needs assistance. Or there may be local issues that interest people.
    Good luck!

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