A few thoughts on “herding cats”

It is often said that atheists, skeptics, humanists, free-thinkers, etc are not “joiners” and that to get together groups of them to agree on something is akin to herding cats. And in many ways this stereotype is true.

But thinking about this idea brought to mind three questions in my mind:

1) What is the purpose of atheist, skeptical, free-thought groups?

2) What is the “best” model for the groups?

3) What is the end objective of these groups, and is there a “best” way to achieve those goals?

Now I am a member of a number of these types of groups, and I have my own reasons for joining, but perhaps I’m an anomaly. So I wanted to put a few of my thoughts on these ideas out, and see if others had their own ideas to add, or have some reason  that my reasons are wrong…

Now some of these ideas will be more specific towards atheist groups and some will be more toward skeptical groups, but I tend to lump them together because most people who are one are also the other. If you’re one of the two groups, and not the other, then ignore the ones that don’t apply to you…

And please keep in mind, I am not attempting to give a definitive answer on these questions, I am just putting my own thoughts out there, and hoping others who are much smarter than me can fill in the blanks.

1) What is the purpose of atheist, skeptical, free-thought groups?

I’ve heard many times that some former believers feel that they have lost a sense of community when they left their previous delusion, sorry I mean faith. So there is the idea of getting back a community which was lost.

I never felt a part of a church community myself (even though I went to church for many years), because I felt like an outsider looking in at something that made no sense to me. One of the things I enjoy about some of the groups I am part of is the idea of being part of a group where I’m not an outsider. The ability to hang out with very smart people and talk about science, secularism, skepticism, etc without it devolving into a tirade about how their beliefs are not based on reality and how I’m close-minded and hell-bound is something I enjoy (although debates with people about their delusional beliefs can be fun at times too).

Some of the groups formed around the idea of spreading information to the public (or fighting against misinformation). People like James Randi having been working for decades to fight scam artists like Uri Geller and Peter Popoff, and from that work has sprung up organizations like the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Other groups have a more broad goal of making change (politically, socially, etc) and fighting for equal rights. Organizations like the Secular Coalition for America and the Council for Secular Humanism seem, to be focused on fighting for the rights of non-religious in the public arena where large groups can do what individuals can not.

2) What is the “best” model for the groups?

So while keeping in mind that there are many possible reasons for these groups to exist (not just the reasons I listed), is there a “best” model?

There are some people who are just unwilling to join any group (or uninterested in joining), so for them, no group is ideal. They may argue that individuals can do a better job at certain goals than groups, and they feel no need for a community of like minded people. Although I believe most people in this category I know of feel that groups are good for some people, just not for them.

Other prefer to join or start small local groups. I was recently at a lunch/anniversary celebration for a small local Humanist group, which during the lunch they repeatedly made the point that they believed they were better off as a local group not beholden to any of the large national level organizations.

And still others prefer large national or international organizations such as the Center For Inquiry, feeling that these larger groups provide the type of impact that smaller groups just can not manage, as well as an easier way to have a single unified message to put forward.

3) What is the end objective of these groups, and is there a “best” way to achieve those goals?

Now this question seems to be the same as #1, but it’s not really, as least for certain types of groups. For the small organization that is just a place to meet and talk with like minded individuals, perhaps it is the same as #1, but for the larger organizations,, #1 is just touching the surface. For instance, with a large atheist organization that is trying to influence public perception and public policy, is the end objective to be treated the same as believers, or should it be to spread atheism? For skeptical groups, should the end result be to inform people on specific cases or topics, or shoudl the goal be as broad as teaching critical thinking skills to everybody?

And once you know what the end objective is, is your group/organization really the best way to acheive that? And assuming you’ve got the right set-up, what is the best way to interect with the public (i.e. the Eugenie Scott approach vs the PZ Myers approach), or is there not even a single “best” way?


Now I know I have raised more questions than I have even attempted to answer, but I really don’t have the answers, I just know that somebody should be thinking about them (and I assume there are a great many people already doing so).

As I was finishing this post up, I came across the following video which seemed appropriate to the discussion:


About Rodibidably

Jeff Randall is a frequent volunteer for free-thought organizations, including the Center For Inquiry – DC. Having been blogging since January 2008, he decided that a community of bloggers would be an interesting new experience (or at the very least a fun way to annoy his friends into reading his posts more frequently). Since finding out about about the existence of, and then joining, the atheist/skeptic community in 2007 he has been committed to community activism, critical thinking in all aspects of life, science, reason, and a fostering a secular society.
This entry was posted in Debate, Psychology, Religion, Science, Skepticism. Bookmark the permalink.

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