Atheism, Religion

She That Is Not With Me is Against Me

I’m a feminist.

I follow a variety of feminist blogs. One of those is Blag Hag, the blog of feminist atheist Jen McCreight. Jen is the mastermind who brought us the idea of the boobquake. With chops like that, I don’t take issue lightly.

Getting Women to Leave Religion

But recently Jen put up a summary of a talk she gave here in Minnesota. It was about:

The intersection of atheism and feminism, what we can do to get more women to leave religion, and how to make the atheist movement more welcoming to women.

Jen then goes on to talk about how, when discussing bringing more women into a group, it’d be nice if male members’ first priority wasn’t expanding the dating pool.

And she’s right.

But wait, wait, let’s rewind here. Before the dating pool thing… what was that talk about again?

  • How to make the atheist movement more welcoming to women. Okay, being welcoming is always good. But wait, what was that other part—
  • The intersection of atheism and feminism. That’s an interesting topic. Lots of dedicated feminists leave religion because of gender stereotypes in their Christian upbringing. Of course, lots of other feminists are goddess-worshippers or plain vanilla Christians who just don’t like men mistreating women. But actually I meant…
  • How to get more women to leave religion. Yeah, that part.

The only way I can interpret this is working to convince women to leave religion who might otherwise not. There are a lot of ways you could potentially do this. You could put up pro-atheism advertisements. You could talk to your friends and family about why you think they should leave their religion. You could even approach people on the street, ask them about their beliefs and present your own atheistic point of view and its advantages. These methods are well tested and can provoke a surprising number of people to question their beliefs and consider your own.

There’s even a word for this method. It’s called proselytizing.

Photo credit: "Shouldn't Have to Sell Your Soul" by Martin Sharman

That’s Just Bad Management

This post really isn’t aimed at Jen. It’s aimed at anyone out there who leads any group or organization—directly or indirectly. Maybe you’re a board member or maybe just a dedicated volunteer (or a well known blogger). If you are active in any movement, you probably influence the policy of your branch of it in some way.

There’s a good way to run it, and many bad ways. Let’s look at what exactly proselytization accomplishes.

  1. You pick up some converts, especially if you use outrageous language. There’s no doubt that shock value grabs more attention (Fuck Saint Patrick had twice as many hits as any other post I’ve done). Even without shock value, your proselytizing will get a few recruits. The problem however is….
  2. You get the least effective recruits. Ideally, new members to an organization are enthusiastic, know why they’re there, and have ideas and energy. That is not the kind of recruit you get from proselytizing. If an ad or a two minute conversation can get someone to try out a whole new worldview, what you have is an unconfident, possibly even confused person. They probably would’ve gone to someone else’s meeting just as quickly as yours. When someone is looking for a sense of purpose, any cause will do.
  3. You’re mostly preaching to the choir. You would think that conversion efforts would bring in new people, and in one sense they do. But they also polarize people. Anyone who doesn’t already agree with you will see your efforts as intrusive, even rude. They will pull back. This means the primary result of ideological recruitment is to rally the people who already agree with you. The “new members” you get were already on the bandwagon before you did anything. Or they were close.

Of course, the biggest result of proselytization—or any recruitment effort that people feel is intrusive—is taking a reputation hit. Most people see it as annoying and dirty.

Photo credit: "Color of Emotion" by Evan Leeson

Luckily there is a better way.

Just Say What You Do

This is the big secret to gaining members for a movement. You don’t have to tell women to leave religion, because there are millions of women already interested in leaving their religion.

This is also true of switching from skiing to snowboarding, trying spicier food, or building electric cars. You don’t have to approach skiiers, spice-cowards, or the mechanically inept. There’s an endless stream of people out there already tempted to do exactly what you’re doing.

So how do you get the word out without proselytizing?

You just say what you do and why—at every opportunity. Someone at a party asks you what you do? Instead of replying with your boring job, try, “I write about how women don’t need God to be happy.” Ask your members to do the same, with their own spin on it.

By talking about your passions, the people who are interested will naturally separate out. By focusing on your own personal story, you’ll avoid leaving anyone feeling judged. You’ll hear a whole lot of “Wait, can I get the web address for that thing you were talking about?”

As a bonus, you get to feel good that you connected people with things that actually matter to them. The numbers will grow as if by magic, and everyone will be in awe of how awesome you are.

Of course, no one has to take my advice. I’m just a guy with a blog and some nonprofit leadership experience. But the other option is to learn the lessons the hard way (how I learned them)—by fucking up. You can preach at people and tell them their way is wrong, and the best and brightest among them will ignore you and walk away. You can pick up a few sheep this way, while risking your credibility. That is a valid way to learn how not to lead a movement, but it’s also a damn costly one.

If you want more people to sign on to your ideology—whether it’s a religion, atheism, a political movement, whatever—then remember that beliefs are emotional and forcing them is painful. Be gentle, talk about your own, and the right people will show up.

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21 thoughts on “She That Is Not With Me is Against Me

  1. David Salisbury says:

    Yeah me stomach churned when I read that “how to get more women to leave their religion” part. It just seems like an obvious thing that someone would avoid saying (aloud) to gain recruits.

  2. Sunfell says:

    It is much easier on both parties to simply model the desired behavior and answer questions about it. “You just say what you do and why” is a very valid method of doing this. And it has enforced my own low-key versions of enabling people to better themselves. I’m using this same model to talk about how one can lose weight and have a healthier life- and have been asked enough questions about ‘my secret’ that I might write a small book about it. That is my way of ‘saying what I do’ and not being judgmental about it.

    I left religion myself- first the mainstream Christianity, and later, after a lot of soul-searching and insight- Paganism. Oddly enough, I am much happier and able to function as an agnostic than I was as either religious or atheistic. Of course, telling wide-eyed newbies that all their fancy and expensive Pagan books and tools are for nought is not a way to make friends- they have to figure that out for themselves as well.

    And that’s the bottom line: they have to figure it out for themselves- whatever path they choose.

    Thank you for an insightful post.

    • “It is much easier on both parties to simply model the desired behavior and answer questions about it.” That’s a beautiful way of putting it, Sunfell. And welcome to Rogue Priest by the way!

      It’s funny, because I worried that this post would itself seem preachy. But looking at it now, I mostly follow my own advice. Hopefully it came across that way.

  3. I love this. Thanks for sharing. Not only does this apply to religious movements but also, as you mentioned, any movement. I find this in regards to tiny houses. I put it out there and if people are interested, they find me. I get a fair amount of folks who say, “I could never do that.” Which is fine, because tiny houses are probably not for them. This falls very much in line with my “Just do it” mantra.

    Funny, once I got to the end of your message I kinda forgot that it was actually calling out someone who wanted to recruit athiests. I got so excited about the message you were sending.

    • Ha, I hadn’t thought of proselytizing extending to things like the tiny house movement. But yes, anytime you are dealing with a lifestyle philosophy there is a risk of it. It’s funny how that works.

  4. Zack says:

    Excellent point. I know you and I aren’t exactly eye-to-eye on beliefs, but I’m finding we’re similar in other respects.

    Very respectable.

  5. B says:

    You just say what you do and why—at every opportunity. Someone at a party asks you what you do? Instead of replying with your boring job, try, “I write about how women don’t need God to be happy.” Ask your members to do the same, with their own spin on it.

    No, this is proselytising. Being that guy at the party who, when asked what he does, always responds with ‘I’m a Christian who loves the Lord Jesus’ means you will very, very quickly stop getting invitations to parties.

    I doubt that her approach was as simple as the one you’ve given here anyway. Usually when folk discuss the ways for women to leave churches it comes down to offering safe places from religious violence, places for children to come along, talking to women and finding what issues they already have with religion. That sort of thing.

    The atheist ‘movement’ isn’t interesting in deconverting people, as such, we want to make it clear that being a non-theist is perfectly okay and that one need not stay in a religious organisation that no longer matches what you believe. Women, statisticly speaking, are less likely to leave religious organisations to which they belong.

    I don’t *know* what Jen’s speech was about, being as I’m Australian and therefore didn’t make it (that pesky intercontinental peak hour). So I haven’t written about it. Maybe you should have emailed her for the text of her talk, and then criticised that?

    • Thanks for your comment, B. And welcome to Rogue Priest! :)

      That’s fair. I think you have a good point–I would love a transcript of the talk. On the other hand it wouldn’t change the fact that there are aggressive conversion efforts by atheist groups, religious groups, and political groups out there in the world. In nearly every case, taking such an approach is more harmful to the movement than helpful, at least from a long-term perspective. It doesn’t build positive relationships with movement outsiders which is a serious problem from an organizational perspective.

      I would also point out that “I’m a Christian who loves the Lord Jesus” =/= saying what you do. “I write about Christianity and how it can help people” is saying what you do. Or “I run a church that is open to everyone.”

      In general, it’s less off-putting to talk about what you do. If you teach Sunday School to toddlers and kindergarteners, that’s a fact; “There is no God” on the other hand is ripe for debate.

      BTW I did email Jen to let her know about the post and invited her to comment. Maybe we’ll hear from her!

      • B says:

        …it wouldn’t change the fact that there are aggressive conversion efforts by atheist groups…

        I encourage you to name one. Nearly every ‘atheist conversion effort’ spruiked by the media as such is just an outreach program, to get people to come clambering from out of the woodwork. And they have been immensely successful.

        I think you’re being hopelessly optimistic here. One cannot build a movement by accepting the status quo and just sort of hoping that people will leave it to join you- however interested they are. One has to make it clear to as large an audience as possible that there are alternatives.

        The socialist movements of the early twentieth century weren’t recruited solely by word-of-mouth -sure, word-of-mouth and modern viral campaigning are the best ways to get permanent friends of a movement- but also by poster campaigns, town halls filled with speakers. The labour movement and Christian evangelism both work with posters advertising talks and ad spots.

        • I encourage you to name one.

          I intentionally linked to a very positive bus ad in my post. I did that because I’m actually happy that atheists are able to be open about what they (don’t) believe and I like a lot about the movement. But if you want an example of aggressive, meanspirited bigotry from atheists look no further.

          It could be said that the image is in poor taste, but I’ll skip that part. The important thing to this conversation is that it both (a) implies that all religions behave like radical Islam, which is inaccurate and (b) clearly presents religion as bad and ditching it as good. In other words, it’s a call to action for religious people to reconsider their beliefs, and switch away from them. Is there a way that you can describe that as not a conversion effort?

          I think you’re being hopelessly optimistic here…

          I’m mostly speaking from the perspective of what has been successful for me, and how I’ve seen other fringe movements succeed.

          I built the community around Temple of the River without proselytizing. In the beginning I did think I could go around saying why we’re a better option than other religions and it was a horrible mess that did not help us grow. As soon as we made a firm decision to never proselytize and never put down other belief systems, we began to blossom. In 6 years we went from a handful of people meeting in an attic to a community of hundreds with a beautiful traditional building as our temple space.

      • B says:

        I have to run (job interview), but you do realise that the mean-spirited examples you linked there were never actually campaigns, right?

        • I do, but when an atheist writer uses his atheist blog and a template of actual atheist ads to generate conversion-oriented content, case in point.

          Good luck on the job interview by the way!

    • B says:

      As soon as we made a firm decision to never proselytize and never put down other belief systems, we began to blossom. In 6 years we went from a handful of people meeting in an attic to a community of hundreds with a beautiful traditional building as our temple space.

      For a community that small, for a religion that isn’t focused on mass conversation, that sounds great. But the atheist movement isn’t a ‘fringe’ moment; there are millions of atheists living in London alone. Word of mouth can’t tell all of them that there are safe places, communal spaces, where they can be themselves. An ad campaign can.

      It’s also unfair to claim that there are are ‘aggressive conversion [?] efforts by atheist groups’ and then cite some random blogger as your case in point. Discussing ideas (which are ultimately rejected) in a public space =/= aggressive converion effort.

      And thanks! I think it went well.

      • Your original objection was that an atheist blogger like Jen wouldn’t do something like that. I showed you an example of an atheist blogger doing exactly that. That doesn’t count?

        But really, instead of me pointing out a bunch of examples to you, let’s put it this way.

        If, by unanimous agreement, without any exceptions or missteps, all of the atheists in the world follow a policy of never, ever trying to convince religious people to abandon their religions—then great. They can all hit “like” on this post and move on, because they and I agree that proselytizing is wrong (and counter-productive).

        But if there are some out there who do use conversion language, either by policy or by personal habit, it’d be nice if they could see it actually hurts their own cause. And that there are other ways of doing publicity and raising awareness. The way I suggested is just one.

      • B says:

        If, by unanimous agreement, without any exceptions or missteps, all of the atheists in the world follow a policy of never, ever trying to convince religious people to abandon their religions—then great. They can all hit “like” on this post and move on, because they and I agree that proselytizing is wrong (and counter-productive).

        Oh, I see. You think that any criticism of religion is the same as proselytising. I guess you’re going to stop posting about the problems you have with, say, St Patrick’s Day then? Or with anything else?

        Discussing one’s ideas in a public forum is not the same as proselytising.

  6. This is a valuable post. As an atheist myself (technically an agnostic Humanist, but we’ll let that be), I never feel more embarrassed than when a fellow non-believer shoves anti-God in people’s faces. That’s one of the major reasons I left Christianity in the first place.

  7. It might be useful in this debate to bring up Jonathan Lanman’s distinction between “non-theism” (the lack of belief in the existence of supernatural agents) and “strong atheism” (the moral disapproval of and active stance against such beliefs).

    • Good point Brandon. And let me ask you this—while it’s pretty obvious why “non-theism” sees no need to convert people, does strong atheism necessarily lead to wanting to convert people? Or do you feel that strong atheists can criticize religion without making a call to action for others to abandon religion?

  8. Pingback: Making a Religion Competitive « Rogue Priest

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