Community matters: Four exercises to define your group

There are a lot of groups operating in the atheist, humanist, secularist space, but a lot of the community is underserved. These simple exercises can help you decide what sort of group to start or refresh.

The community matters series uses my experience with a range of atheist, humanist, secularist and other community groups, to consider the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world.

These are all exercises that I’ve created with a focus on AHS+ activism, though could be adapted for any sort of community organising. They can be done by an individual or organising committee.

Compass points

There’s a risk in trying to be all things to all people and so failing to develop a clear purpose. This exercise uses four ‘compasses’ to help find your direction.

Focus compass: (From north going clockwise): atheist, secularist, plus, humanist

Activity compass: campaign, learn, philosophy, social

Style compass: fun, amateurs, serious, experts

Approach compass: conciliatory, challenging, principled, safe

These are easier to understand with the visualisation below. The idea is that the compasses force you to think about your approach and the need to pick a direction. You might want to be both an activist group that campaigns, and a philosophy group that discusses books, but those are pulling in two opposite directions.

Rather than, overly defining any of these terms, it is best to use them how you or the group think best.

Forcing yourself, or your organising committee, to decide on only one point per compass would give your group a lot of focus and direction. However, if this is too narrow it might limit appeal or be restricting.

If voting, one idea is to give each participant three votes per compass. They could spread them over a couple of points, or focus on a specific direction. But the odd number will force at least some decision making. You can use the votes to give a general sense of direction, or be very mathematical and average out the exact position on each compass decided by the group, whatever works for you.

Defining your range

For a group to succeed, the broader your location, the narrower your focus should be and vice versa. This can be illustrated with two extremes.

If I wanted to start a meetup group for left wing, atheist, comic book fans in my small town of twenty thousand people, there wouldn’t be enough of them to make a critically sustainable number. A humanist meetup group or secular community with a broad range of family friendly activities might fit well here.

If I wanted to start a group covering all sorts of atheist, humanist, secularist and similar issues across the whole of the UK, then I wouldn’t have anything unique to distinguish myself from larger established national groups, and it wouldn’t be clear what my group is for. A new national group would have to focus on a specific issue or approach.

If you want to do something that is broad both in location and focus, then a group or organisation may not be your best bet. You might want to think instead in terms of an online blog, or community, and your unique selling point.

The secular spectrum

I touched on this in my article on the importance of actively secular spaces. Think about the following spectrum, and where you would like your group to sit.

Actively religious > passively religious > passively nonreligious > actively nonreligious > passively irreligious > actively irreligious.

Depending on context, you might want to change nonreligious to secular, and irreligious to atheist, or antireligious.

See the linked article for more of a discussion on the spectrum and why we shouldn’t overlook the importance and inclusive potential of actively nonreligious, or secular, spaces.

If doing this as a group, set up a table with the different ends representing the spectrum, and allow everyone to place a token before discussing. This works better than marks on a piece of paper as tokens can be moved, and the hands on activity is more engaging. If detail is important to you, you can represent the range as 1-18, and have people vote.

Like this, but that

This exercise is a good one to get your group’s mission or identity to emerge, if you have a lot of different ideas or inspirations. It also helps think about your environment, relationships with different groups, and the type of help or relationship you may want from them.

It works by writing down statements about what you want your group to be, that follow a specific format:

Like [other group or project], but [different focus, location, style etc.]

If you’re doing this as a group, try to get a good range of statements up on a board or on the table and arrange into themes before discussing in detail. Some examples might be:

  • Like Merseyside Skeptics, but in Newcastle
  • Like the National Secular Society, but local to Newcastle
  • Like Humanists UK, but focussed on environmentalism
  • Like Sunday Assembly, but focussed on activism
  • Like Skeptics in the Pub, but more open to families
  • Like the local humanist group, but for younger people

Thanks for reading

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Photo information: Blue and Yellow Board Game, Pixabay

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