The strongest, healthiest atheist groups, with the most members, the most volunteers, the widest variety of activities, the most visibility, the most staying power of members, the members who seem happiest with the group and most committed to it, tend to be either:
a) Groups that have strong, energetic leaders with good social skills,
and/or b) Groups in conservative areas.
I’m going to say that again: All other things being equal (which of course they never are), the strongest, largest, healthiest, most robust atheist groups in the United States tend to be the ones in conservative areas.
I’m repeating that observation, and stressing it, because of another pattern I’ve noticed: When I talk with members of atheist groups in conservative areas, even when I talk with the leaders of those groups, they often seem surprised that their group is doing so well. They often say things like, “This area is actually pretty conservative. I’m kind of surprised that our group is so large and healthy.”
And I always reply: I am not in the least bit surprised. This surprised me a bit when I first started traveling around the country speaking to atheist groups — but I’ve now seen it over and over and over again. And it now makes perfect sense.
Conservative regions are where atheist communities are needed most. In conservative regions, the social and economic and political life is often built around religion, and religion is deeply woven into it. The places people go to for social support, for political and business networking, just to hang out with friends, are often religious. The places people go to do charitable and social justice work, for themselves and for others, are often religious. Even the entertainment and activities, the things to see and do, are often built around religion. In conservative regions, the religion itself is more likely to be conservative — and thus more likely to be oppressive. There’s a lot more anti-atheist hostility. Atheists are more likely to feel isolated, alienated, like they can never speak their minds or be themselves. Etc., etc., etc.
Conservative regions are where atheist communities are needed most. It’s not in the least bit surprising that that’s where atheist groups tend to be strongest. There are exceptions, of course: there are some very strong atheist communities in some fairly liberal parts of the country (Minneapolis leaps to mind). But as a general trend, this pattern is very striking.
I’m saying this for a couple of reasons. One: I want to make sure atheists in conservative regions don’t assume they’re alone.
I want to make sure atheists in conservative regions know they’re not alone. I want them to Google “Atheists in Arkansas,” “Atheists in Kansas,” “Atheists in Arizona.” I want them to go to Meetup and search for atheist groups in their area. I want them to go looking for communities if they need and want them; I want them to just have the reassurance that these communities exist.
The second reason I’m saying this: I want atheists in conservative regions to start more atheist groups.
I want atheists in conservative regions to know they’re not alone — and I want them to know that starting an atheist group is not a waste of time. If there isn’t an atheist group super-close to them, if the nearest atheist group is in the biggest city in the state and it’s an hour or two drive away — I want them to consider just starting one up.
If you’re a strong, energetic leader with good social skills, and if you think you’d make a good leader of an atheist community, I don’t I want you thinking, “That’s a waste of time. There’s no way an atheist group will take off here. It’s too conservative. It’s too religious.” If you live in a conservative, very religious part of the country — that is exactly the kind of place where atheist communities thrive.
There are other reasons you might decide not to start an atheist group. You may decide that it’s too risky, that you can’t afford the blowback, that you don’t have the time. But please, please, DO NOT assume that it’s a waste of time. If you’re a strong, energetic leader with good social skills, and you’re in a conservative area — you are exactly the right person, in exactly the right place. The community you start stands an excellent chance of surviving, of thriving, and of being awesome.
(Red state/blue state map by Michael Gastner, via Wikimedia Commons.)