The Humanist Membership Gap: Ideas on Effectively Reaching Out to New Nontheists

By Mike Steiner

According to various recent surveys, nontheists comprise about 15% of Americans, equivalent to over 35 million people. But when we combine the membership of major humanist and atheist organizations, that number is less than 50,000. Why is there such a discrepancy? One likely reason is that nontheists are notorious for being non-joiners (the old saw about herding cats comes to mind). But another likely reason (and one we might actually be able to do something about) is that nontheistic groups need to be more effective in their outreach.

Here are some guidelines that might be useful for local humanist and atheist chapters:

1. Make people want to join. The independent nature of nontheists is important to remember when planning outreach. Nontheists balk at being required or told what to do, so don’t take that approach! We should provide interesting activities to draw new people in, have a friendly, informal atmosphere to make the activities enjoyable, and only use a “soft sell” to solicit membership and donations. In other words, give members and potential members something they will value, and they’ll want to give something in return. You can’t force people to join, but you can make it very easy for new people to become members or donate.  

2. Focus on growing attendance before growing membership. Some nontheists like to remain independent, whereas others like being part of a community of likeminded people. Making activities open to both members and non-members will accommodate both types. Don’t think time and effort spent on non-members is wasted. With every person we reach, we can provide resources and information to, and they might mention something about us to their friends. In other words, they might not be interested in becoming members themselves, but they might tell others who will become members.

3. Reach new people through social media. When announcing activities, it’s sometimes difficult to reach new people. We all can fall into a rut of seeing the same (although interesting) people month after month. One easy way of reaching new people is to use You create a group, then create events and people can RSVP for them which the organizer can use to estimate attendance. There’s also a way for participants to rate an event after attending and message boards for post-event discussion. My local humanist group, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix (, has meetings twice a month, and through an informal count of hands, we see a few new faces every meeting who found us through Facebook and Twitter can also be useful. Even off-the-wall ideas like placing small ads announcing upcoming activities in local newspapers might be worthwhile

4. Find out if there are other like-minded groups locally. If your group is a humanist group, look for skeptical or atheist groups. For example, in the Phoenix area, there’s a humanist group, an atheist group, a libertarian atheist group, a skeptic group, and a nonbelievers group. Join some other groups or at least attend their events. You might find some new friends, or at least some new experiences to share with your group.

5. Ask for suggestions for new and interesting activities, and feedback on past activities. You can create a formal paper survey, or having suggestion cards by the door. Don’t expect every group to have the same kinds of activities. Every local group has unique interests, ideas, and preferences, so be open to trying new things. Make our activities fit the people, not the other way around. Sometimes a few people are interested in some unique activity, but we’d have no way of knowing unless we ask! Who would have expected a group to have a few people interested in, say, skydiving, geocaching, or opera? If a few members want to do something, help them make it happen! They’ll have great stories to tell afterwards, and other people might be inspired to try it.

Some specific ideas for activities are lectures, potlucks, holiday gatherings (winter solstice, HumanLight, Darwin Day, National Day of Reason), hiking, biking, camping, golf, bowling, movie nights, happy hour, book discussions, or visits to museums or other local historic places. If your group is small, you can meet at a member’s home  or you can choose some local restaurant with a banquet room. A centrally-located restaurant with great food helps a lot! Having your own building makes it much easier to organize some types of events, but be prepared to invest a lot of time and money to get it running and maintaining it!

Another thing we can do is get more positive media attention for nontheists. We can participate in local events that might draw people interested in our ideas. A perfect example is the outreach skeptics do at Dragon Con ( Another idea is to participate in parades—HSGP  is planning to have members participate in 2011’s Veteran’s Day parade in Phoenix.) When doing this, be sure to call local newspapers and tell them you’ll be participating. Doing something a little edgy or controversial definitely helps drum up media attention. Try to maximize your impact—remember, “if the media didn’t cover it, it didn’t happen”.

Mike Steiner is a member of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, the American Humanist Association, and the Secular Coalition for Arizona. He has compiled a list of hundreds of interesting humanist/skeptical/atheist websites at He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.