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.
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.
- 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….
- 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.
- 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.
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.