An Encouraging Word to Atheists in Conservative Areas

red state blue state by county credit michael gastner
I spend a lot of time traveling around the U.S., giving talks to atheist groups. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with the people in these groups — especially with the organizers. And I’ve noticed some patterns. With the caveat that these are just my own personal observations and not any kind of careful scientific study, and with the caveat that there are many exceptions to these patterns, I’ve noticed the following.

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.

arkansas map
I’m remembering a conversation at the atheist caucus of Creating Change, the big annual LGBT conference in the U.S. One of the people at the caucus, someone who wasn’t very familiar with organized atheism, said they lived in Arkansas — and they were sure they were the only atheist in Arkansas. In response, the professional atheists at the caucus practically fell over each other to reassure that person: No, you are definitely not the only atheist in Arkansas. Not only are you not the only atheist in Arkansas — there’s an atheist community in Arkansas. There’s probably more than one. And in fact, the atheist groups in Arkansas stand a good chance of being pretty robust.

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.)

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Coming Out Atheist
why are you atheists so angry
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

An Encouraging Word to Atheists in Conservative Areas
Damien Marie AtHope: Axiological Atheist, Anti-theist, Anti-religionist, Secular Humanist. Rationalist, Writer, Artist, Poet, Philosopher, Advocate, and Activist

6 thoughts on “An Encouraging Word to Atheists in Conservative Areas

  1. 1

    Thanks for pointing this out. “Conservative regions are where atheist communities are needed most.” Makes perfect sense.

    Something else strikes me: It’s been said that “persecution causes a religion to flourish”. I don’t know if that’s been scientifically studied, or I only know this from the “Dune” books :-), but it lines up with my experience. If it’s true, what would that mean for American Christians who claim they’re being “persecuted”? Which group is atrophying (Christianity, especially mainline denominations), and which group is growing (“Nones”, “Dones”, atheists, etc.)?

    Continued thanks for your writing, Greta, which has helped me immensely in the past five years — and I hope you are doing well.

  2. 2

    When looking for atheist groups in any given state, a more efficient way than googling might be to start at which is the web site for the Secular Coalition for America. In almost every state, they have formed a state affiliate group, by making a coalition between many of the local independent groups in the state. So you can get a list of links very easily.
    For example, in my state of Arizona, one can look at for a list of the biggest groups, of which there are quite a number. Probably the biggest one for most of the past 15 to 20 years has been the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, which now has grown to the point that we own our own building, where atheist events can be held all week long. Thanks.

  3. 3

    I’m not surprised, either, but I was initially when I first realized that the cutting edge of atheism in the first decade of this century could arguably have been Alabama. I know Blair Scott made much headway down there.

  4. 4 is an excellent way for a wide variety of groups to connect, especially atheist groups. I credit Meetup greatly to the runaway success of Tri-State Freethinkers (Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky.) We also have a strong, committed, dedicated, charismatic leader in our President. Others including myself play key roles in the success of the group. And the area is pretty conservative as the article references. But Meetup is a great tool for organizing and keeping people motivated. Yes, there are fees but for Tri-State Freethinkers the benefits greatly outweigh costs.

  5. 5

    The Corvallis Secular Society (Benton county, Oregon) collapsed due to aging and shrinking membership. There’s not much call for an atheist organization in a county that has a relatively high percentage of atheists. But there is much woo here.

  6. 6

    This is SO true! I started a group in a small town a few years ago (Lakes Area Atheists & Freethinkers in Brainerd, MN), and we’re flourishing! Once people find us, they can’t believe there are so many of us! Even though we’re in a “blue state,” most of the blue is in the Twin Cities area. The rural areas are very red. Your post is very encouraging and really hits the nail on the head. The nod to all of us in conservative country is appreciated. 🙂

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