CPBD 064: Zachary Moore – How to Build Atheist Communities

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 12, 2010 in Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview Dr. Zachary Moore. Among other things, we discuss:

  • Zach’s experience in atheist communities
  • Practical advice on how to build and maintain organized atheist communities

Download CPBD episode 064 with Zachary Moore. Total time is 1:04:44.

Zachary Moore links:

Links for things we discussed:

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Transcript

(Transcript prepared by CastingWords via two anonymous donors. If you’d like to pay for transcripts of past or future episodes, please contact me.)

Luke Muehlhauser: Dr. Zachary Moore is a medical writer in Texas, and I previously interviewed him about biological evolution, but today we are going to talk about his experience building and running atheist communities. Dr. Zach, welcome back to the show.

Zachary Moore: Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be here.

Luke: So, Zach, how did you first become involved with organized atheist communities?

Zachary: Well, I actually spent quite a bit of time as a religious skeptic, as a new apostate, completely oblivious to any idea that there was any sort of organized atheistic anything out there. But once I came to Texas, and I was in a totally different location. I had come down there for work and to pursue some more of my academic career. I was in the situation where the only other person that I really knew was my wife, it was the two of us that came down together. I didn’t have any close friends. The only people I knew were those at work.

I am the type of guy that can generally do pretty well on his own. I am not exactly a lone wolf type, but it is like I don’t mind it so much. So, it was never anything that was, “Oh. I have got to find something to connect with, ” but I just happened to run across… I was on the Internet Infidels discussion board, and somehow it came across, some post, by a fellow who was involved with some of the atheist community here in Dallas.

He mentioned that his group, which was the North Texas Church of Free Thought, his group had actually been invited to come speak at a Baptist Church in town. I read that post, and I was thinking, “What?” Well, first of all that there is a North Texas Church of Free Thought. It is like that sort of rang through my mind, “Well, OK. That is cool. That is interesting.”

But more than that, they had been invited to come, speak to a group of Baptists, a group of Southern Texas Baptists, about what it is like to be an atheist or what it is like to be a freethinker. I thought, “This is incredible.” I said “I cannot pass this up.” I mean the novelty of it, the sheer novelty of it was just amazing.

So, I was like, “Well, I have got to go see it” and so I did, I went. It was part of a Sunday School series that was taught by a man who became a good friend of mine, Kevin Harris, who has been involved in Christian apologetics for a long time. He at the time, when he was a member of that church and still lived in Dallas, he was running a Sunday School Class there, and it was all about Christian apologetics.

He sort of come to grips with the challenges of freethought, and atheism and skepticism, and so he was a very interesting individual. He had run across the Church of Free Thought folks, and invited them to come over. So, I went, and I was in the audience, and all the other sort of Southern Baptist Sunday School goers were there.

I was just listening, and it was kind of like an interview, kind of like a radio interview. Kevin Harris is a radio professional, a really great radio professional. And so he was sort of conducting it like a live in-studio interview asking them basic questions like, “Are you certain that there is no God? How do you go through your life? How do you deal with death? How do you come up with moral systems?” etc, etc, basic stuff, and stuff that the average pew sitting Southern Baptists were interested in.

I was just so entranced by just that scene, that here in Texas of all places, there is a Baptist Church that has invited a Free Thinking Church to come and give this presentation. I was overcome with amazement, so I went and I introduced myself to Kevin Harris. I also introduced myself to the other representatives of the Church of Free Thought. It was Dr. Tim Gorski, one of the founders of the church… who was heavily involved at the time.

So, I introduced myself to both of them and I thought, “These are both really interesting organizations.” So, initially it was not for me, “I want to get involved with an atheist community.” I was just presented with something that really peaked my interest, that really appealed to sort of I guess, the both sides of my competing intellectual struggle to deal with my past Christianity, and also to explore all of these free thinking ideas that I was coming in contact with.

So, I was decided, “Well, the Church of Free Thought meets once a month, but this church, they have their Sunday School program every week. So, three weeks out of the month, I’ll go check out this Sunday School, and the one week in the month in the Church of Free Thought meets, I’ll hang out with them” and I thought, “This is the best of both worlds.”

I wasn’t really casting my hat in with a free thinking group, with an atheist group. I just really loved the interplay. I loved that the fact that there was exchange of ideas, and everyone was open to me. I mean, I was not any sort of a stealth freethinker. I introduced myself to everybody and said, “Oh, yeah. I’m a freethinker. I am not a Christian, but I think what you guys are doing is really interesting, and I would love to be in the audience and be a part of it if possible.”

I was very warmly welcomed by the Southern Baptists. They really appreciated my participation in that Sunday School Class. It is a shame that it has been left to go to seed since Kevin left, but I also got involved with the Church of Free Thought and started attending there regularly, ever since that point. So, that’s sort of my introduction to the world of atheist organizations.

Luke: What has your interaction with the North Texas Church of Free Thought been, since you discovered it?

Zachary: Initially, I just sort of attended regularly, and it was primarily a monthly sort of church service style meeting, and afterwards the church members, the Church of Free Thought members, would get together at a local restaurant, and they would have like a 2-3 hour social time. They would have lunch together and socialize. That was really the bulk of the value there for a lot of them was simply the fact that there were not many places for you to go and socialize with other freethinkers, and sort of say what you felt about religion, about politics, about whatever.

So, being able to have some place like the Church of Free Thought really meant a lot to them, because it was sort of like the one place that they could go and really say whatever opinions they had, without fear of anybody sort of coming down on them or getting ostracized, or anything like that.

So, I became a regular participant. I attended for probably about a year, and then I volunteered my services to give presentations. So, one of the typical things is… instead of there being just like a single sermon, there tended to be guest presentations or volunteer presentations from people in the audience.

At the time, I was doing the Evolution 101 podcast, and I thought, “Well, you know, a couple of these podcasts might make for an interesting presentation here or there.” So, I offered those services to the organizers, and so I did a couple of those. I was fairly comfortable up there and doing public speaking and that.

That is not something that people typically are able to do. They say it is the most commonly cited fear that people have, and that is true. There are a lot of people that really don’t like it.

Luke: Ranked slightly worse than fear of death, or something like that.

Zachary: Right. [laughter] I guess, again because of my background, because I had just come through a graduate program, and I had to defend a thesis in front of a doctoral committee. Once you can get up there and do that, you can talk pretty much anywhere I guess.

Luke: Maybe the evolutionary source of religion is fear of public speaking, rather than fear of death.

Zachary: That could be it. I don’t know.

Luke: [laughs]

Zachary: Anyway, so I had no problems getting up there speaking. I started to do a little bit more and more, and giving other sorts of presentations. And then what actually happened was that one of the main organizers had decided to retire. He and his wife were going to retire, and their dream was to move to Florida. But, the leadership structure of the Church of Free Thought was pretty much divided between two of the organizers who were also the founders.

So, it was two guys, Tim Gorski, as I’ve already mentioned, and another fellow named Mike Sullivan. Tim Gorski was the pastoral director. Mike Sullivan was the executive director.

So, Tim developed most of the content and presentations for the church. Mike Sullivan sort of did the nuts and bolts behind the scenes, kept everything running. Well, Mike was retiring.

He and his wife were retiring, moving to Florida. So, I was asked if I might step in and serve as executive director, in his stead. So, I was happy to do that, because what I’d seen of the Church of Free Thought was that it provided a very valuable service.

I thought it was a very good thing. I thought it was a very unique thing. There’s one in North Texas. There’s also one in Houston. But, aside from those two, there was nothing quite like it out there.

So, I wanted to see that continue. So, I agreed to serve as executive director. That’s sort of how I … I don’t know, rose to prominence, as it were within the North Texas free thinking community. Just by taking on that job and agreeing to do that.

Luke: Then I understand that you are no longer with the North Texas Church of Free Thought. Is that right?

Zachary: That is true. So, at the end of last year, there was a bit of a disagreement, between myself and Tim Gorski, regarding a number of issues. But, the main one were the leadership structure and the way things should operate, whether or not it should be more or less democratic. Tim was always very emphatically assured that a democratically run organization was not what he wanted for the Church of Free Thought. We agreed to part ways. And I and a number of other people started a new organization that is very similar to what the Church of Free thought does.

But, it has a very explicitly democratic organization. It’s member run. Essentially, member owned. Everything that we do is open source, and available for anybody else to make use of or to copy and repurpose for their own needs.

Luke: This is the Fellowship of Freethought.

Zachary: Coming up with a name, that’s always been the age-old question. If you recall the South Park episode that the two-parter about atheism, when Cartman goes to the future, and he’s in this Atheist society. There’s all these wars going around. When everybody sort of gets together and they sort of call a truce, and he’s asking you, “What are you all fighting about?” They say, “We’re fighting about the ultimate question”.
He says, “Well, what’s the ultimate question?” They say, “Well, what do we call ourselves?”

[audio clip of South Park]

[laughter]

Zachary: It does speak a little bit of the truth there, on Matt and Trey’s part. There are so many different organizations, different atheistic, secular, whatever. That’s a whole another thing. What do you call…Do you call yourself an atheist? Or, do you call yourselves agnostics or freethinkers or secular humanists? All this stuff and all these different organizations that… The Center for Inquiry, The American Humanist Association, American Atheists, Atheist Alliance International … all these things. It’s like, “What exactly…What’s the difference here?”

Why would I want to get involved with American Atheists versus the American Humanist Association? For example, what is the real difference between the atheists and the humanists?

I still haven’t figured that one out. But, it’s been important enough that there are people that refuse the label atheist. They say, “No. No. No. I don’t want to be associated with the atheists. I want to be called something else.”

So, yes. The name of the organization that we founded was called the Fellowship of Freethought. We don’t want to lay claim to this Fellowship of Freethought whatever that is.

We don’t want us to be the global overlords of whatever that becomes. Whatever that becomes, we just want to be that in Dallas.

Luke: So, you aren’t going to sue me if I start a Fellowship of Freethought L.A.?

Zachary: No. Absolutely not. In fact, we’ve explicitly made all of our content open source. We have a Creative Commons copyright on everything that we do. So, anybody can… Nobody has to ask our permission, in fact. I mean. It would be nice, but… [laughter] It would be nice, but you don’t have to. You can take what we do and sort of repurpose it and call yourselves, the Fellowship of Freethought Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, whatever.

Luke: What are some of the things you like about the Fellowship of Freethought so far or some of the successes that you’ve had?

Zachary: One of the main successes and this admittedly is a little petty, but this also ties in with the name. So, we called ourselves the Fellowship of Freethought. We did not call ourselves the Church of Free Thought. The Church of Free Thought was the organization that I was previously affiliated with. A lot of people actually had a problem with the C-word. I never did. I’ve never really had a problem with churches.

Part of my apostasy was not… I didn’t have any bad experiences. So, I don’t have any negative feelings in regard to churches. My guess is that that’s probably the source of a lot of people’s aversion to that word.

But, even, back when I was affiliated with them, I would have conversations with people who were atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, whatever.

They would be talking about, “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice to have some place where you could go and meet other people and have shared values and socialize and do all these things. You know? Kind of like a church”.

I would say, “Well, there is this place called the North Texas Church of Free Thought”. “Oh, my God! They’ve made a church of…it’s just the worst! I can’t believe they did that. I would never go to something like that”. [laughter]

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had that conversation. It’s just that people seem to be wanting that, but they have a real aversion to buying into the name itself. Again, I don’t have a problem with it personally.

I respect the reasons why the organizers and founders decided to call it a church. It’s kind of a bold move, kind of a gutsy move. They wanted to sort of stake their claim and make the point that it’s not just the supernatural religious people who should be able to have an organization like this.

Why not call it a church? But, in practical terms, and I don’t know, this may change as the culture changes. But, what it turned out to be, practically, was that most freethinkers and atheists et cetera really have a problem with anything called church [laughter] and stayed away.

The Church of Free Thought was very successful, at the time. They were pulling in like a 100 people or so. But, we’ve done a lot better, as the Fellowship of Freethought. We’ve also been able to make more connections among people who were just sort of interested in atheist organizations for social reasons.

That’s all that they really wanted. Now, we’ve been able to get people involved in charitable outreach, been able to sort of plug them into educational type things.

I guess I should back up, one of the I guess defining characteristics of the Atheist organization landscape, at least here in Dallas Fort Worth, is that there’s three basic types of organizations.

There are purely social clubs. So, they’re just like dinner groups, the meet ups. They just get together, and all they do is have dinner or drinks. Or, maybe they might go out to a club or a dance club or something like that. It’s pure socialization.

There’s a purpose for that, and there’s a very good place for that, but that’s all they do. They don’t really do anything, they just get together and hang out.

Then there’s other groups that are a little bit more activist oriented. For example, there’s prayer before a city council meeting. If they find out about it, they’ll go and protest, write letters, stand out front with signs or something like that and say “This is wrong, this is a conflation of church and state and they should stop this, etc.” So those are activist groups, and there’s this very specific type of person that really likes that.

And then the other type is our group, and our group kind of blends the social aspect with like a family/educational aspect. So it does fit a little bit more like what you would think of a church is, where there’s sort of the three pillars that we try to focus on are education, outreach and socialization.

So, anything that we do either fits into one of those categories, or it blends. So, for example, we’ll go out to the pub and just drink beer on a Friday night or a Saturday night. We’ll do that. We’ll also go pick up trash along the highway, or along the lake, White Rack Lake here in Dallas. We’ll do that, and that’s almost purely outreach. I mean, people get together and they talk while they’re doing it too, but it’s primarily charity.

And then we’ll have just simply educational types of things, like a debate club for example, where we just get together and hash things out, and then we’ll sort of blend. Our biggest blending event is our gathering.

So we have a monthly gathering, we get together, we actually rent out a recreation center here in Dallas. There’s 100 to 120 of us that get together, and we have an hour long program of presentations and music and poetry recitations and other things; announcements, and some official business that we talk about, and then we follow that with a social potluck.

Everybody brings something, some covered dish, some drinks, some salads, desserts, whatever, and sit around for a couple hours just right there and have a nice little pot luck.

And very often during these gatherings, we’ll also have some sort of a charity drive, like a food drive or a clothing drive or there’s a women’s shelter that we support. That, we get toiletries and other things for the women who are victims of domestic abuse, basically, and they need some of the feminine essentials, so we help to provide those.

So that sort of brings all those three things together in one event. It’s been very successful.

Luke: Yeah, just about the only thing I actually miss from church is potluck, so that sounds good to me.

Zachary: Potlucks are the best. They’re the best, sort of like the opening of The Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” So that’s what a pot luck is like.

Luke: Why, do you have food fights?

Zachary: Oh no no no, just some of the things that people like… they bring some of their favorite foods.

Luke: Ah, OK.

Zachary: Some people can have very specific tastes that don’t really translate well to a broad audience. [laughs]

Luke: Yeah. One person loves blood sausage.

Zachary: Ah. I do love blood sausage… I’ve never brought blood sausage to a potluck. I don’t think I would ever do that, but I do love blood sausage.

Luke: So, what’s the member count of the Fellowship for Free Thought right now?

Zachary: It’s difficult to say what our actual membership is. We’ve only been in existence since January. We sort of integrated one existing group. There’s an existing group here in Dallas called the Freethinkers of Dallas, that was organized by Whitney Ford, who’s now active in the Fellowship for Free Thought. Last I heard was on the acting board of directors. Her group had a substantial number of people in it, and then there were also a number of people from the Church of Free Thought who didn’t necessarily leave it behind, but wanted to come over and definitely want to be a part of what we’re doing, also.

So, at the very beginning there was a conflation of two groups, people sort of pouring over from one existing group, and people getting taken up who are already involved in another one. The Freethinkers of Dallas was primarily a social group, it was one of the social dinner groups.

At that time, it was about 300. Now our count is over 500 people that are registered on our meetup site. Our meetup site, I guess, is our primary way of keeping track of people and letting people know what we’re doing.

Simply because it really works. It’s a really great resource for organizing groups. If I were to do it again, we did have the benefit of an existing meetup group that we are able to incorporate, but if I were going to do it again. If I was going to found the Church of Free Thought in Atlanta, I would definitely just start a meetup, because that’s where people tend to go.

We also have just a standard website, FellowshipOfFreeThought.org, that has basic information. It’s not quite as dynamic as meet-up, obviously, it’s more like just like a calling card on the Internet for what we’re doing.

If you measure by the people that attend our gatherings then that’s over 100, which is really fantastic. One of the things that we’re doing, in the process of doing right now, is drafting and approving a set of bylaws. That’s sort of one of the steps that you have to go through; well you don’t have to go through, but then one of the steps that we’re going through as we’re becoming an organization.

According to the bylaws – at least the current draft that we’re working on hasn’t been approved yet – here will actually be a specific definition of membership. Because as I said, we intend to be run democratically, and in order to be run democratically, you have to have people who can vote.

You have to define who can vote and who cannot vote. If you just show up, can you vote on something important? What are the specifications? How involved do you have to be in the organization? That’s one of the things that we’re wrestling with.

Luke: The sense I get when I talk to people is that there’s a big demand for this, especially among families with non-believing parents, and it’s a very large unmet need in most places of the country. Do you think that’s true?

Zachary: I think that is absolutely true. The reason for that is because, it’s people in my generation, your generation, really seem to be the first really skeptical generation. At least the one that’s being exposed to more popular skeptical ideas and likes them. One of the things that is interesting, that I mention in my presentation I give, called “The Cat-Herders Dilemma”, is that more than half of all kids who are raised in Christian homes are completely disengaged from their religion once they’re done with high school. This is information from the Barna Research Group.

Luke: Right.

Zachary : He’s a Christian pollster, asking questions about Christians, and according to his own research, 61% of all “spiritually active”, whatever that means, “spiritually active teens” are disengaged from anything religious after college, and only about 20% maintain their level of spiritual activity.

So take all of the kids that grow up in a basic secular environment and are skeptical from the get-go. Take those, but in addition to those, we are getting hundreds and thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions of former Christians in my generation.

I’m 10 years out of college. So they’re really sort of putting that stuff aside, but what’s more important is they probably now have… they’ve had kids. A lot of people that I know are either having kids, or have kids. The oldest kids out there from my generation are primarily right now in kindergarten.

So, they’ve sort of gone through this whole raising these little infants and toddlers, et cetera, but now they’ve got to go out into the world. Now they’ve got to go send them to school.

Now they’ve got to go interact with all these other kids, and the kids that are being raised in Christian homes, or even in homes that just think that Christianity is a good thing, even if they’re not technically Christian themselves. They’re getting shuttled off into Sunday school, and taken to church, and taken to Vacation Bible School, and all these things that I used to do when I was a kid, too.

But the parents, that the Freethinking parents, are starting to realize, “Hey, wait a minute, I thought I could do all this myself, but now I see that there’s all these resources out there, and there’s all these activities, and things like that, for all these kids. And I want Junior to be as intellectually upright and consistent as I am. I don’t want to fake his Christianity to get him into a Vacation Bible School, even though I think he’d really love it, and all of his friends are there. So what do I do?”

So I think it’s an existential crisis, of sorts, or a parenting crisis of sorts, for people in my generation who are just now having their kids being integrated in with the larger society. So, they’re asking really hard questions about socialization, and what kind of environment are they being exposed to. Do they know any other kids that are from freethinking households?

For the parents, they were probably like me. They’re like, well, you know, I’m a freethinker, but I don’t have to hang out with the freethinkers to make it work. But now they’ve got kids, and they want their kids to have certain freethinking influences, at least that’s what I’m seeing. You’d probably get better answers if you were interviewing somebody with kids. I don’t, but this is just what I’ve observed.

So I think that has really been what’s triggered it, in the past two or three years, is the sort of, onslaught of all the Generation Y freethinkers. They’re having kids now, and they’re trying to figure out, “Hey what the hell do I do?”

I want them to value critical thinking. I want them to value science. I want them to value a broader worldview, and the type of thing that they’ve developed in themselves, but they don’t quite know how to get that across, and they don’t know how to get their kids in contact with other kids that would share the same type of things.

So, that’s what the demand, that’s where that comes from. It’s not just in Dallas, it’s all over the country, so I’ve heard. So I think, there is a real need there. I think one of the biggest tragedies is that, I actually know some people who are freethinkers themselves. They’ve definitely walked away from religion, and for good reason, but they’ve got kids now. They’re not really aware of anything else that’s available for them, or they don’t have anything else close by.

So, they’re basically sending them to Christian preschool and Vacation Bible School, and all this other stuff, because they figure, well, you know, I mean, I don’t agree with all the stuff that’s being taught there, but at least most of it is good, right?

They’re sort of, in my opinion, kind of fooling themselves and shutting their eyes to what could happen. I’m not saying that all these kids are being sent to Sunday School, and being indoctrinated, and brainwashed into being good little Christians. It’s only part of that process to instill Christian values in the kids.

I’m not that worried about it, but I do think that it’s kind of a tragedy to have to make that concession. To have to say, well, there really isn’t anything out there that I like, and I can’t be there for them all the time. They’ve got to socialize at some point.

Luke: Yeah, I think it is a tragedy, especially when you consider that a lot of times these parents are the ones who have broken the cycle, you might say. They’re the ones who first emerged from our superstitious origins in their family line, and then they have nowhere else to put their kids. So they put them in Sunday School to socialize, or Vacation Bible School, where their kid may be susceptible to picking up a lot of the old superstitions.

Zachary: Right, right, right. Yeah.

Luke: So Zach, let’s talk about how do you actually start and run these atheist organizations, or these freethinking organizations, that are so needed by this new generation of skeptics? The first worry that comes to my mind is, how do you pay for the expenses when you can’t tell everyone, “Hey, God wants you to give me 10% of your income?”

Zachary: Well, the good news is that the startup expenses are probably no more than about $500. So, let’s say that you had, you and four buddies who want to do this. You’d only have to kick in about $100 each, in order to make something happen. When I say make something happen, what I mean is, have the first organizational meetings, come up with a name, find a website, build a website, print up some brochures, send out some emails, rent a meetup site. Just by doing that, you’re pretty much there, I mean you’re on your path. There’s really not that much more you need to do. Everything after that is very organic.

But to your question, how do you keep it maintained, how do you sustain it?

Luke: Yeah.

Zachary: The biggest challenge is dealing with people’s psychology, because there are a lot of things that people will not like, just sort of instinctively, because it reminds them of church. In their mind church is a bad thing. So calling it church, you will get people to not come. I mean, that’s pure psychology. Asking for money, passing a collection plate around. All those things are kind of things that people …that rub them the wrong way. They’re like, “Oh, we’re getting together, they’re having a meeting here, and now they’re passing the plate around, and I feel awkward if I don’t do something. This is that weird feeling that I don’t like from church. I don’t want to do this anymore.” So, that type of thing.

So in my mind… I can’t really speak to what’s the best way to do this, I can only really speak to the way that we’ve done this at the Fellowship of Freethought. You just have to be upfront about it, maybe joke around about it a little bit, but appeal to their sense of reason.

Look, it costs us a certain amount of money every month to rent this recreation center that everybody loves coming to, everybody loves participating in, but it costs money. So if you can float a few bucks our way, it would help us out, and more then help us out. It would make this continue, because people have to realize if the donations do not come, then this exercise is not sustainable, at least not the way that the Fellowship of Freethought does it.

Now you could maybe sustain a little social group, a little dinner group, where all you have to do is make reservations at a restaurant. That doesn’t really cost anything. You still have to pay for the meetup site, but after that, there’s really nothing else to do. If that’s all you want, then the costs are minimal, but the rewards are also kind of minimal, because you’re not going to get a big investment of time from people.

You’re not going to be able to do the charitable outreach types of things that require a little bit of organization, and require a central banner for everybody to rally around. So you’re going to miss out on a lot. So, people need to understand that.

So at every point that’s possible, when you’re talking with people, when you’re explaining to them why you need money, what it’s going to be used for. All that has to be sort of looped into the conversation.

Every charity, every charitable organization asks for your money. PBS, every year, asks for your money. That’s just a reality. If you’re organizing an atheist organization just because you have funny feelings about churches that used to ask for money…you just need to get over that, because that’s a reality of how these organizations work.

Now the other thing that goes a long way is, having open books. So one of the things that makes people more OK with giving you their money is, having a little bit of more certainty of what it’s going to be used for.

Churches, at least in Texas, don’t have to open their books, at all. So, one of the things that we’re considering right now is actually a 501(c)(3) status. You don’t technically need that to operate as an atheist organization.

Well, it would make donations tax deductible, obviously, and it would also require us to go through a certain process, and keeping our books clean, that people can have some assurances about. The other thing is making it a community participatory type of thing.

Luke: Give people some ownership in the organization, I would imagine.

Zachary: Right, right, right. We haven’t implemented this and, bear in mind, we’re still very new, but one of the things that we’ve discussed and talked about is, actually recognizing those people that do contribute. Let’s say somebody decides they want to subscribe to the Fellowship of Freethought, and they want to pay 30 bucks a month, every month, and they just want that to go to us. It comes straight from their bank to our bank, so they don’t even have to do anything. They don’t have to come, drop money in a shoe box, or anything like that.

Somebody who’s a regular supporter, just like PBS does. I mean, they send you a little tote bag. I’m not saying that we’re going to send out tote bags, but at least in our program, our bulletin, or maybe on our website, if somebody wants to be included, if they want to be anonymous that’s fine, but, we want to recognize those people that are helping the organization to continue.

We don’t charge anybody anything to show up. You can be a mooch every month if you really wanted to. Nobody’s going to say anything, nobody’s going to require you to do anything, but it’s rewarding just to give. I like to support a lot of different freethinking and atheist charities myself.

One of the things that I’ve read, and I don’t know this for sure, I haven’t seen any data. But this is what I’ve heard, is freethinkers and atheists tend to give readily when there is some sort of emergency, or some sort of a one-time need comes up. They’ll open up their pocketbooks much more than your average religious believer.

But the opposite, just regular monthly, weekly giving, like going to church and dropping money in the offering plate. So, regular giving, freethinkers and atheists tend to be pretty bad at, whereas religious believers they tend to be very, very good. Now the problem is that, slow and steady wins the race.

So, if you get tons of people donating 20 bucks a week to their church, that ends up being a pretty substantial annual budget, whereas if you compare that to a bunch of atheists getting together and donating money for a billboard campaign, that happens once every, however many years.

So, it looks really fantastic and we’re like, “Oh wow, we raised $3000 in two months”, but then you can’t do anything. You can’t get any more money out for just standard stuff, regular stuff. That’s also just a part of the psychology of it.

I think part of that does come from the fact that atheists and freethinkers tend to resist this being buying into different organizations, because if they’re donating regularly, then they feel like they’re a part of an organization. And a lot of freethinkers and atheists say, “Well, I don’t have to be part of an organization. That’s not something that’s necessary for me anymore. I can just be an independent thinker.”

Well yeah, you can be an independent thinker, but you’re completely ruining the economic planning of any organization like the Fellowship of Freethought, or like the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is…it’s a fantastic enterprise. I can’t say enough good things about it so far. I’ve been very impressed. But, the only way that works is if you have regular subscribed giving.

So freethinkers have just got to bite the bullet and work a little bit of charity into their budget. I’m not saying 10%, I’m not saying you have to tithe like Christians do, but work some charity into your budget and it will be really rewarding. The other thing, and I say this somewhat facetiously is, do as much outreach to gays and lesbians as possible. [laughs] Because, they do tend to have that disposable income.

Luke: [laughs]

Zachary: That’s just a matter of fact.

Luke: Well we’ve covered some of this already but, let’s say there is a group of friends who have been talking about how they wished there was an organized community like this for nonbelievers, and a few of them want to give it a try and see if it works. What are some of the things that they need to be thinking about? What kinds of research should they do first, what are the steps they need to take to put something like that together?

Zachary: The first thing that I would do is, look around and see what the landscape is, in terms of other organizations. What is out there that is close to you. Is it something like just a little social club? Is it something like an activist organization? Is it something like the Fellowship of Freethought, or is it something else entirely? You need to understand what is out there, because one of the things that I don’t want to encourage, necessarily – I mean, I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world – but I don’t want to encourage people to found a bazillion new little organizations.

I mean, if you’re living in a major city, there’s probably one close by that is doing some really fantastic things. So, instead of founding a brand new one that will do something just like it, but have a different name, in my mind, there’s got to be a really compelling reason.

Luke: Or even if there’s one or two things that are different, it still might be most effective to just grow that one organization, I would imagine.

Zachary: Absolutely. Let’s say I moved to Atlanta. If I moved to Atlanta, the first thing I would do is… and I know there is an Atlanta Freethinkers group out there. I’d find whatever they’re doing and try to get involved with them. I think that’s probably the best thing to do. Now granted there are, for major cities, there are usually one or two, right. So that’s a good place to start. It can be kind of a hassle, when you’re in a major city, because you may be not… are not living, in a central location, and maybe they meet 45 minutes away, an hour away, it’s entirely possible.

The Fellowship of Freethought meets right smack in the middle of Dallas, but there are people that drive in from Fort Worth, which is a pretty good drive, to get in there. For the DFW area I could see it making a lot of sense to have something like what the Fellowship of Freethought is in Dallas, but also have that in Fort Worth. So, I think that does make sense.

At any rate, the first thing I would do is to try to figure out what the landscape is, what’s out there, what’s not. If you’re living in a town where there’s just a couple of social groups and you really want to have something like the Fellowship of Freethought, that can sponsor educational activities, and debates, and have family activities, and those types of things.

The first thing that I would do, figure out who does everybody know that would be interested in this. So, try to come up with your potential membership directory before you even do anything. Just get a list of people that you think might be interested, even if you just think they would be interested by the idea. You’ve got to have that potential membership there.

Other people will come, but if you have a core group, especially if you know each other, especially if you’re already somewhat friends with each other, and can trust each other, that is a huge benefit right there.

The next thing is you’ve got to spend a lot of time thinking about what the mission of your organization’s going to be. What’s going to define it? When people talk about your organization, what single sentence or maybe two sentence answer, do you want them to say, if somebody asks them, “Oh, so what’s that organization all about?”

You’ve got to have a one sentence or two sentence thing that people can come back with, you know, a little elevator conversation. What are the values that you have that your friends have, that you want reflected in this organization? Do you want to promote science, or do you want to promote philosophy, or both? Do you want to focus heavily on charity, or do you want to be something for kids, something that’s explicitly a family organization, or everything, all the above?

Is there anything that you don’t want to do? Do you want it to be democratic or not? It doesn’t have to be, but you know, people in this country tend to like it better if it is, unless they’re Objectivists, nothing against Objectivists.

Luke: I have something against Objectivists. [laughs]

Zachary: You know, all these considerations, and that leads up to, what do you call yourselves? Right? If you’re starting a group in Seattle and you call yourselves the Seattle Atheists, are the people that think they’re agnostics going to not come. Are the people that call themselves freethinkers, not going to come? It can be tough, what do you call yourselves… the Seattle Seculars. I mean, it’s fairly broad, I guess. But it doesn’t really have a cache to it. Maybe it does, I don’t know. But these are all things that you’ve got to think about.

For the Fellowship of Freethought, we thought long and hard about this. We had late night meetings and hours and hours and hours of conversation. We got our whiteboards and we whiteboarded it. We brainstormed, we drew diagrams, all that kind of stuff. We came up with, in terms of a orientation label, we preferred freethought.

Because it is fairly broad, but it does imply certain amount of skepticism, scientific approach to things that incorporates, maybe a little bit more philosophy than the average group… would seem to be welcoming of anybody. Whether they’re atheist, agnostics, humanist, whatever.

Luke: And it has that word “free” in it that has a very positive ring for Americans.

Zachary: It does, and that sort of counters the psychological problem. But we took up the word “fellowship” because we’re trying to think of, “What do you call what it is that we want to do? What do you call something that’s kind of like a church but not a church?” Because the social aspect of us, of what we do is very central. The word “fellowship” kind of promotes like an egalitarian…

Luke: Yeah, I think so.

Zachary: …feeling about it. These are all like-minded people, even though they’re from different backgrounds and different social status or whatever. They’re all freethinkers together. They all have a common approach and common respect for these values. That’s we set along. And so once you’ve got a name, once you’ve got values, and organizational mission, that’s really it. So after that, I mean, everything else is just organizational crap, logistics.

Luke: Then you start the meet-up group and you contact everybody and you schedule something and all of that?

Zachary: Absolutely. Then you get together again and you say, “OK, we now have got a name, what’s our logo going to be?” For the Fellowship of Freethought, we wanted something that encapsulated both those ideas, the free thought and the fellowship. What we came up with… it was a bit of a collaboration, although the final logo was done by Whitney Ford. It’s kind of like a pansy look. A pansy is the, I don’t know if it’s the official flower of freethought, but it’s associated with Freethought. Pansies have been used as logos, for freethinking organizations before. So, we took a pansy design and stylized it so the petals are people, sort of coming around together. They’ve got their arms around each other and linked around the little dot in the middle.

Luke: Yeah. It almost looks like a team huddle in sports where you all put your hand in and …

Zachary: Yeah, kind of like that. So it’s a fellowship, its people coming together from all different directions and things like that. But they’re united around the central value, which is freethought that’s denoted by the pansy. But, I mean, all these things as they sort of click together, you’re building an identity. It’s not something that you just sort to have to flip a switch. It’s all these little steps. As these things progress, you sort of look back and you realize, “Oh, wow! This actually is something.”

But the Fellowship of Freethought is an organization that we, basically, invented six months ago. But I kind of talk about it like it’s something real, and that’s how I think about it. This is something real, this is a part from me. If I had to move away, it would still continue, which is fantastic.

And all these steps; building, brand identity … I mean, this is Marketing 101, these are all parts of it. So you’ve got a logo, you’ve got a name. Once you’ve got a name, you can come up with some sort of a website, some sort of a URL, that captures what it is that you want to get across.

For us, fortunately, fellowshipoffreethought.org was available. We also had fofdallas.org was available, so we snapped those up. Another person in our group has experience building websites and designing websites. Whitney helped design. Another founding member, Kip Lewis, helped built it. I challenge you to find any group of freethinkers that does not have some Web professional in it. [laughs] I’ve never met a single group that did not have some sort of an IT person in it, somewhere.

Luke: Yeah.

Zachary: I don’t know whether that’s some sort of a law of nature or what. You shouldn’t have much trouble finding somebody who can build your website. You know, so then you have a website, then it’s even more real than it was. Then you’ve got a URL, you can send it to somebody if you want them to check it out. You can use that URL to build your email addresses, and now everybody has got their email addresses. You sign up for Meetup.com website, which is …it’s not that expensive in the long run, fantastic for organizational purposes. You set up meetings and things that you want to do. If you just want to start off meeting at the pub, start off meeting at the pub. We’ve done plenty of those. You know, dinners, cleaning up trash, all those sorts of things. Those are really easy to do, and especially if you divide the work.

So I guess, the next step to organization, so you’ve got an organization, the identity. Now, you’ve got to come up with sort of like the guts, how do things work. So if you’re going to be doing this with three or more people, then you’ve got to have some sort of a rational distribution of duties and responsibilities.

There probably needs to be somebody who can handle logistics very well, can make arrangements with places; to make reservations, and to figure out how many people could be held by a single place. You don’t want to have a restaurant event at a restaurant that’s too small to hold everybody. You need to have a family person. If you don’t have somebody in your group that has a family, has kids, then at least, somebody that likes kids. [laughs] I guess, or works well with them.

Luke: That would help.

Zachary: Yeah, all those things help. Maybe somebody that is explicitly interested in promoting in social activities. Somebody that’s explicitly interested in promoting charity activities or things like that. We haven’t really gone through like the standard like President, Vice President, Secretary type of thing. Although, of that, sort of standard hierarchy, a Treasurer is very important. If you don’t have a Treasurer, nobody’s going to be keeping track of the money that you bring in. So, make sure you have a good Treasurer, we have a fantastic Treasurer, she’s a CPA. You don’t have to have a CPA, but we do, which is fantastic, and she does a really, really great job.

Luke: I’ve been a member of Toastmasters for a while, which is an international organization that teaches people how to become public speakers. That’s a great way to introduce yourself to how to divide up the labor or the roles, set up meeting, and how to make that work effectively. Because at every meeting, there’s different people who perform different roles in the meeting. Then there are also different officers like the Treasurer and Vice President Education, Vice President Production, that kind of thing. Those trade off maybe every six months or every year. But that’s just a really easy way to observe how that kind of thing can work.
Because if you go on Meetup.com and type “toastmasters” in, you’re going to find one within an hour of where you live and probably much closer. So, for me, anyway, that’s just my little tip on how to introduce yourself to how that might work, if you are not very familiar with that kind of environment.

Zachary: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Anybody that has experience with PTAs or lions clubs. I mean, lions clubs might be a bit older that our demographic but something like that, like these services which…

Luke: I don’t even know what that is, actually.

Zachary: Yeah, it’s kind of like…

Luke: I know it exists but I don’t know what it is.

Zachary: It’s kind of like a rotary club. I don’t know but Rotary club tends to be for the rich folks that don’t have that much to do or the business people. Lions clubs tend to be for the older retired guys who want to keep doing good stuff. But, whatever it is, if you have experience with different organizations, then that’s always a plus. But you do need to have some sort of a distribution, some sort of a…this person is in charge of that task and the other person is in charge of that task. Otherwise, you are going to have all sorts of overlapping things…

All these types of things which can be easily avoided as long as you know when it comes to this, it is this person’s job. When it comes to that it is that person’s job. So that is the first thing you want to do. Now, that all sounds fine and good in principle. The challenge can be when it comes to freethinkers and atheists, agnostics, whatever; there tend to be a lot of people with very strong ideas about stuff.

A lot of sort of…not exactly alpha personalities but very strong personalities. They feel very strongly about certain things. So it can be kind of a challenge to get all those people to work together. The very definition of a freethinker is somebody who does not respect appeals to authority, all right? [laughs] So you’ve got freethinkers and you are trying to put them into an organizational hierarchy where they have to respect authority.

Luke: Oh, oh, you got to herd cats.

Zachary: It does work but in that sort of a system. You just have to be aware that there are going to be people who have very strong ideas about how things work.

Luke: And I guess we’ve talked a bit about this already but what are some of the human resources that are going to be really crucial when building an atheist community.

Zachary: So you’ve got to have as many people integrated and excited about helping as possible so that the best way to do that is to just to get to know them, find out what their talents are, find out what are the things that they like to do and get them plugged in to something that the organization needs.

Or if it is something that the organization doesn’t need right then, maybe it is something that you can add. So, maybe you are having meetings or gatherings like the Fellowship of Freethought and you are just doing them. And then somebody comes along and says, “Hey. I’ve got this really swanky new video camera and would you think it is all right if I just set it up in the corner and recorded the gathering and then posted it up online for other people to watch?” Absolutely!

I mean it is not like it’s a core function that is required for the organization to proceed. You don’t have to have this thing recorded and publicized but it is a really nice thing. It would be great to have a lawyer [laughs] that’s somebody we don’t have yet. It would be good to have a lawyer to have like an actual PR person, somebody that can handle marketing type stuff really well.

It would be great to have a journalist like a newspaper person or a blogger who took us on as a pet project to depict a mode or whatever. It is less important to find specific positions and specific people. It is less important to do that than it is to just have a continuous mindset of trying to get to know the people that come in your community and find places to plug them in because the better plugged in they are, the more ownership they take of it. The more important it is for them to see that it continues.

Because then it becomes important to them. It becomes something that they want to help build and nurture and they don’t want it to die so…

Luke: What do you think people should do in terms of advertising? Like if you want to grow the community beyond the people that you know and the people one step away from the people that you know, and the people who just find them at meet-up page and come that way. Do you think there is a place for certain types of advertising?

Zachary: So advertising is tricky. We’ve tried advertising in the past. Church of Freethought was involved in the advertising in the past. My opinion of advertising for organizations for freethinkers and atheists is that most of it, in fact the vast majority of it, is a waste of time. The overall community of people who are actively involved with certain organizations is really small. It is so small that word of mouth is probably still the best way to get an information around. Newspaper advertising…I mean newspapers really aren’t…that is really not the best media.

Luke: Newspapers, that’s the thing with like the big sheets of paper that you flip through?

Zachary: Yeah, I’ve heard about those. I can’t remember the last time I saw one though [laughs] . Probably the best way to get people’s attention is to do things that are interesting that will get the attention of local media. Last year we helped found Camp Quest and so that got a lot of attention. A year before that, the local group expanded together and formed the Coalition of Reason. And we took out the billboard and so that got some media attention.

Luke: Now Zach, there was that study that came out a while ago saying that atheists are the least trusted group in the United States. What do you think on a social level in our communities we can do to respond to that?

Zachary: Honestly, the best thing to do is to not be a closeted atheist. I know that is tough and there’s a very fine line between being sort of out of the closet as an atheist and being in-your-face atheist. And even if you are just discussing atheist related topics or free thought related topics, even if you are mentioning those at the same frequency that Christians mentions Christian related issues, they are still going to think you are talking about it too much.

Luke: Right.

Zachary: [laughs] There is a very fine line and you are going to feel it’s unfair because you are going, “Well, I am not talking any more than they are.” But bear in mind that your average believer or even your average person who just assumes that belief is a good thing. That person is much more used to hearing people talk about things that are related to Christianity or other religions and they are hearing people talk about atheism or freethought related issues. Those things are very unfamiliar. They are not the type of things that people typically think about and even when you talk about them at a general conversation level of frequency, you are going to seem like you are harping on. You are going to seem that’s your one note conversation is atheism, atheism, atheism.

That will change. I am fairly confident. The more people are willing to talk about, the more people are used to hearing people talk about it. Every time that you talk about being a freethinker – and I am not saying that you have to go around saying, “Hey, did you know I am a Freethinker?” You don’t have to do that but just when the opportunity presents itself.

For example, here in Texas, Texas politics is typically a general topic of conversation. Everybody likes ragging on the governor. Well, unless you are a hardcore Republican, people like ragging on the governor. They like ragging on the legislature. So when politics comes up, I get to rag on the state board of education. That is my beef.

Just like everybody else has a beef, that is my beef and I complain about it from a freethinker’s perspective. And it is very clear why I don’t like them or why I think they have been doing bad things. And so that gets across to people and they are like “Oh yeah. How about that?” And so somebody that knows me… knows me from some other function or some other thing that I do… I don’t know like a neighbor.

So he only knows me from my barbecue or whatever. But now he also knows that, “Oh yeah, he is also kind of a freethinker. He is not a religious guy. These are things that matter to him.”

It should be something that you are proud of and it is just sort of a matter factly, “Oh yes, I am a freethinker by the way.”

Luke: I don’t know, I haven’t really gotten much of any negative reaction when I come out as an atheist in front of people because I just say it…I don’t come out and say, “Oh, and by the way, I think religion is stupid and everyone is an idiot if they believe in magical beings” or something like that. Instead just say, if it is relevant to the topic and I’ll say, ” I am an atheist or I am a naturalist” and I just say it as if it was just nothing.” Like saying, “I was from Los Angeles”, just part of what’s about me and I’ll just pass it through the conversation and just keep moving on with the topic and not make a big deal out of it and not be vicious about it certainly.

Zachary: Yeah, yeah. I totally agree.

Luke: Well, Zach it has been a pleasure speaking with you again. Thanks for coming back on the show.

Zachary: It’s been my pleasure also.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

lukeprog September 13, 2010 at 2:13 pm

No comments, really?

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ShaneMcKee September 13, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Hey Luke, I haven’t listened to this yet, but the topic is one that is close to my heart. I set up the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist blog as a half-arsed attempt to prime the pump of the millions of atheists who already attend a church, and who enjoy *that* social milieu. I mean, the infrastructure is often there, with church halls and willing ladies to make buns and all sorts of other things.

What Atheists (well, some anyway) need is a Christianity Compatibility Layer to help them run Christian brain software without compromising their atheistic operating system.

Now, you think *you* have no comments – imagine how lonely my little blogarooney feels! :-) Any comments welcome; tell your friends…

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lukeprog September 13, 2010 at 3:33 pm

heh.

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Tim Gorski December 1, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Zachary Moore’s account here of how he left the NTCOF is seriously deficient and dishonest. The truth is that while he was Executive Director of the NTCOF he usurped the decision-making role of board and behaved, as he apparently represented himself to be to the Dallas Morning News, as “the head” of the church. Then he insisted that another member of the board resign. When he couldn’t have his way he resigned and then obstructed efforts to reorganize the church to create *more* democracy. He ended up with a following which went so far as to say that it wanted to make him “king for life,” one of whom attempted to take $4000 from the church. And then there was the matter of his embarrassing the NTCOF by becoming very intoxicated (while bloviating about sperm competition) at a party hosted by the NTCOF at the 2009 Texas Freethought Convention in San Antonio. Yes, it is as easy – even easier, really – to be good without god(s). But some atheists are not good, not because of their atheism but because of an egoism that puts self-aggrandizement ahead of the struggle to advance the cause of religious skepticism and rationalism.

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