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Alabama has Twenty-Four Atheist Groups: What’s Up Slacker States?
Alabama has Twenty-Four Atheist Groups: What’s Up Slacker States?
By Blair Scott, Director of Outreach
Did you know that Alabama has twenty-four atheist-friendly groups spanning the entire state? Yes, that’s right, twenty-four atheist-friendly groups who cover universities, towns, and counties as well as a statewide group. In Alabama! Yes! In Alabama!
How do you get twenty-four groups in a state like Alabama? How did Alabama get from a few failed groups to fledgling groups to twenty-four viable and important groups throughout the state?
When I first moved to Alabama after getting out of the Navy, I could not find any groups. In the past there had been a Humanist group and a Freethought group that had become defunct and disbanded. While I considered myself an activist at the time, I was not that inclined to start a group. That was until I wrote a simple letter to the Mobile Register about a proposed Bible class in Mobile County Schools. That letter sparked tons of hateful notes in the paper’s “sound off” section, and tons of response letters that were equally hateful. I hoped I was not the only rational person in Mobile or the state of Alabama and I realized then that I needed the company of like-minded individuals, so I formed the Mobile Area Skeptics & Atheists (MASA) in January of 1999.
The group floundered and struggled to find members. After several conversations I realized that it was the word “atheist” that was scaring people away: they were scared of family members or customers finding out they were part of a group with the word atheist in it. So I changed the name to the Mobile Area Freethought Association (MAFA) and membership began to grow significantly and it was not uncommon to have forty-five people at our monthly dinners.
I moved to Huntsville in December of 2003 and immediately began a new group, the North Alabama Freethought Association (NAFA). For a while, the group’s membership was just my ex-wife and I sitting at a restaurant or bar hoping others would show up. And one by one… they began showing up. Now NAFA is over five hundred strong on their web page, with an average attendance over 40 at the larger regularly scheduled events.
In my capacity volunteering with American Atheists and with my job that had me on the road a lot, I was able to travel all across the United States meeting up with local atheist groups and learning the dynamics of local groups and how best to manage them and run them given those group dynamics. I used those lessons in Alabama as best as I could.
I used Meetup.Com to create the atheist group in Huntsville and found out that if you have a paid account with Meetup that you get to create three Meetup groups. I used my two extra Meetup groups to create new groups in cities that I did not live in where I thought atheists might need to hang out with some like-minded individuals. I started a group in Tuscaloosa and Florence. As membership increased I identified someone locally who would be willing to setup a venue and arrive early with a sign and welcome their fellow atheists. As the groups began to stabilize they would take over as organizers and get their own paid accounts on Meetup. That would free up one of my three groups and I could create a new one in another city.
The next city on my list was Gadsden. Then I branched out and created a group in Chattanooga, TN and Union, KY to help local atheists there. I created groups all across the state of Alabama and a few outside the state. Some of the groups failed, but most of the groups flourished and local leaders stepped up to take them over. We were making slow headway in getting groups going, but damnit we were making headway!
Then a “miracle” happened in 2007: The God Delusion became popular after being released late in 2006. In 2007 it picked up speed and then caused a resurgence of the 2004-released End of Faith and the 2006-released Breaking the Spell. Atheism suddenly became not necessarily mainstream, but recognizable and being talked about more in the media. Dawkins told people, “It’s okay to be an atheist.”
If you track atheist groups across the United States you can see a significant spike (that continues to spike) of new groups beginning in 2007. There were more groups with the word atheist than Freethought, Humanism, Secular Humanism, Bright, etc. Alabama was not immune to this surge of groups and public atheism, especially at the universities where the Secular Student Alliance was able to really get a foothold thanks to the 2007 bump.
The biggest phenomenon I’ve noticed in my travels to groups across the United States and in tracking groups and group dynamics is the significantly greater number of atheist-friendly groups in the South and Midwest compared to the Northeast and West Coast. Even Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would note from the stage during their visits to Alabama that they had bigger audiences down here, “…because you seem to need us more than New Yorkers do” (to quote the Hitch during his last visit to Birmingham).
And that is definitely true. Atheist-friendly groups in the South and Midwest tend to be more social and less academic (although many do academic activities, they tend to focus mostly on the social aspect) while groups in the Northeast and West Coast tend to be more academic orientated with a few social-orientated gatherings now and then. The difference seems to be related to the perceived severity of religious influence in one’s area and how that relates to atheism and atheists. If you’re in New York City, Los Angeles, or Seattle, no one likely really cares that much about your atheism. If you’re in Hattiesburg, Macon, Anniston, or Johnson City, everyone seems to care about your atheism. The desire of atheists who live in these religiously oppressive areas to find fellow atheists has spawned a tendency to create more socially-motivated groups. It is the same reason why American Atheists can only get twenty-five people from Seattle to attend a convention in Seattle, but when they go to Des Moines over half the audience is from Iowa.
No matter what region of the United States you live in, I would encourage you to start a group. First, think of a name for your group. Catchy acronyms that are pronounceable as “words” are always easy, especially if they can make easy-to-remember URL’s. Then create a place on the Internet to start generating interest: Facebook is a good place to start. Begin to see how many people are interested in meeting in person and pick a venue and go. Even if it’s only two of you at first, be patient – it will grow. Write letters to your local newspaper that mention your new group. Use available ready-to-go assets like Meetup.Com and Facebook to promote your group and help get the word out. Don’t worry about things like bylaws or boards or if you should go 501(c)3: all those issues are something you can worry about once the group gets big enough – for now just concentrate on getting your fellow atheists in your area to know about the group and start coming and meeting their fellow atheists. Don’t be afraid to use the word atheist in your name. Prior to 2007 we ran into issues with the word atheist scaring people away (and it still will scare a few away), but post-2007 has more people willing to say they are atheist and use the word in public. We need to encourage that, so use the word atheist in your group’s name!
If you use Meetup.Com and once you get settled in and get comfortable using it, seriously consider using your two free groups to start groups in other cities in your state. Help those who can’t help themselves or who are worried about taking the first step. Take the first step for them and then let them finish the marathon on their own.
About a month ago I had the privilege of visiting Parkersburg, WV. Before I showed up I posted on Facebook that I was going to be in the area and wanted to know how many atheists would be willing to meet me for dinner one night. Fourteen atheists showed up for dinner and I asked them, “Did all of you have fun tonight hanging out with each other?” They enthusiastically replied that they had indeed had a ton of fun meeting fellow atheists and getting to talk about the issues that bothered them without offended anyone. So I said, “It was real easy to put this dinner together with a simple post on Facebook. Imagine how much fun you could have if you formed a local group and met more often!” And thus was born the Mid-Ohio Valley Atheists.
Form a group. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s needed.
24 Alabama Groups
Alabama Atheists & Agnostics, University of Alabama: Tuscaloosa
Alabama Freethought Association: Talladega
Auburn Atheists & Agnostics: Auburn
Birmingham Atheists: Birmingham
Darwin's Tavern: Birmingham
DeKalb County Freethinkers: Fort Payne
East Alabama Freethought Association: Auburn
Etowah County Rational Alliance: Gadsden
Humanists of the Shoals: Florence
JSU Freethought Society: Jacksonville
Marshall County Atheists & Agnostics: Arab
Mobile Atheist Community: Mobile
Montgomery Area Freethought Association: Montgomery
North Alabama Freethought Association: Huntsville
Secular Coalition for Alabama: Huntsville
Secular Student Alliance @ University of South Alabama: Mobile
Shoals Atheists: Tuscumbia
Southeast Alabama Freethought Association: Dothan
SW Alabama Secularists: Flomaton
Troy State Secular Association: Montgomery
UAB Secular Student Alliance: Birmingham
UAH Non-Theists: Huntsville
UAH Students for Freethought, Logic, and Reason: Huntsville
West Alabama Freethought Association: Tuscaloosa