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Is Atheism the New Coca-Cola?

August 3rd, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Since leaving university and stepping down from my positions with the AHS and Leeds Atheist Society I have had quite a bit of free time on my hands, much of which has been spent looking at new ways of developing a national identity for atheists.

I don’t know how many of you will have ever tried looking at how many different groups exist for atheists and the seemingly endless associated groups, humanists, secularists, brights, freethinkers, rationalists, sceptics etc, but there are a lot. Almost every conceivable name and wordplay related to atheism, humanism, secularism etc has been used and there is a group set up. However, the majority of these groups have relatively low numbers and small areas of influence. In fact with the exception of the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society, these groups receive little to no national attention.

I think this is a problem. I think it is perhaps a greater problem, however, that there is no unified group representing all non-religious people. Whilst it is true that no two atheists (and I will use atheist from now on as an umbrella term for anyone who describes themselves as non-religious) have the same desires, ambitions or even world views, they do tend to exhibit broadly similar political and ethical views. These views should be expressed to decision makers, politicians and commercial leaders. Atheists should have a national voice that should be listened to.

Having spent some time with the BHA I can report that they do sterling work in the name of humanism and the NSS, likewise for secularism but they don’t represent enough people. Their image is not attractive to young atheists, for example, and their membership demographics highlight this. There is a need for a unifying brand to be created and heavily marketed. The most difficult thing for atheists to grasp at the moment seems to be the need to start running an organised, national atheist centred organisation that represents everyone, regardless of the name they call themselves. Moreover, this organisation needs to be run like a business.

The more time I spend delving into local and regional groups, and even some of the larger national groups, is the feeling that they are not meant to be attracting new faces, finding new blood. What is more depressing is the fact that the large organisations do not have the resources or, seemingly, the desire to recruit and retain members.

In order to develop the kind of business, the kind of brand that I have alluded to above, requires a rethink of how atheist organisations should approach marketing, recruitment and ultimately their basic business model. People in today’s world are consumers. We consume everything. We should start appreciating this fact and begin to treat members and potential members like customers and potential customers respectively. If atheist organisations approached recruitment like a service brand approaches their customer base I believe they would be far more successful.

These organisations need to start marketing themselves not as a luxury, discretionary purchase such as a large screen TV or an expensive tailor made holiday, but an essential! Once you have started to change people’s minds about how essential their worldview is to their lives then you can start to turn your customers into fans. Brand loyalty is something that the religious organisations have built up and the strength of this loyalty is stronger than that of household names like Coca-Cola and Sky. Atheists should be aiming for that kind of loyalty.

This kind of loyalty can only be developed if atheists stop thinking of themselves as idealists and start thinking of themselves as offering a service, a product.

  1. August 4th, 2009 at 09:01 | #1

    Absolutely but that is the million dollar question and none of the groups or indeed well off individuals have enough spare cash to put out a marketing budget like Coca-Cola. It’s no wonder they are doing so well when they spend $2,000,000,000 a year on it.

    I’m not so sure that the answer is to have a more wide ranging organisation. The NSS represent pretty much anyone who isn’t openly religious and arguably represent some people who actually are religious but still want to keep their religion and their state seperate. If we’re going to reach the new atheist generation maybe we want to go the other way and get more specific.

    I think there are a number of ways to get people to shell out cash. First off if we show people who discriminated the atheist community actually is then people will feel victimised and give money to help stop it. Secondly we need to make people proud of it in the same way that I will at some point start giving to the University of Leeds alumni fund because I’m proud to say I graduated from UoL.

    Finally, as I have previously discussed, I think we should geniunely be providing a service which is an alternative to the kind of community and services that churches provide offering our members a social outlet, the chance to do volunteer work and in general a positive community that they want to belong to.

  2. Dan J Bye
    August 6th, 2009 at 14:08 | #2

    I’ve got lots of things to say in response, but just to point out to Chris that the kind of community activity he is talking about is more or less what Harold Blackham’s vision for the humanist movement was originally. It didn’t happen, because the people who wanted to organise as humanists (mostly) weren’t particularly interested in doing it – at least not under humanist auspices. I don’t get the feeling that’s changed in 40 years.

    Also, I just think that if you look at long term social trends, they’re headed in the opposite direction. Humanism-as-community is as much a victim of what we might call secularisation as the churches are. The demographics of church going are probably not (outside of youth-orientated evangelical churches which mix worship and socialisation in a way that isn’t really open to the non-religious) dramatically different to the demographics of your average traditional humanist group.

    I’m not against it, though it’s not what floats my boat. I know there are others who would advocate the same kind of thing. I just can’t see where the dynamics are that would make it a successful model.

    It’s interesting to note that the NSS is much more focussed on the church/state issue (as distinct from anti-religious disputation) than it used to be, and has been more successful (it its campaigning and hence its recruitment) as a result. The BHA, which sometimes used to be more emphatic about the limits of atheism, has made some remarkable forays into atheist advocacy.

    We’re seeing a clear realignment, but a specifically and narrowly atheist national group has never got off the ground in Britain. Why?


  3. Dan J Bye
    August 9th, 2009 at 22:28 | #3

    So anyway. Norman’s comments.

    There’s some truth in what you say, of course there is. And I’m in sympathy with your intentions and frustrations. But at the same time, I’m not sure you’ve diagnosed the situation entirely correctly.

    Let me start with one of your final comments:

    “Brand loyalty is something that the religious organisations have built up and the strength of this loyalty is stronger than that of household names like Coca-Cola and Sky. Atheists should be aiming for that kind of loyalty.

    This kind of loyalty can only be developed if atheists stop thinking of themselves as idealists and start thinking of themselves as offering a service, a product.”

    The first thing to notice is that your second paragraph does not follow logically from the first.

    Is it actually true that religious organisations have stronger “brand loyalty” than Coca Cola? And how have you measured this? How do the statistics on church attendance etc fit into this picture? When Coca Cola made its “New Coke” mistake (if it was a mistake), its customers demanded old coke back (and got it, because the bottom line is king). When a religious organisation changes, I don’t think the dynamics are the same.

    Have religious organisations stopped being “idealists”; do they now think of themselves as providing a product or a service? It doesn’t seem so. In which case, on your own argument, it doesn’t appear to be true that stronger brand loyalty than Coca Cola requires a “product/service” attitude. Indeed, haven’t marketers started to pick up on the concept of “experience”? So the Coca Cola brand isn’t a product or a service, they’re selling an “experience” in some sense.

    Coca Cola has the advantage of legal protection of its brand – trademark law, etc. Religious still has some legal protections, but perhaps key to its continuing “loyalty” is its ability to influence schooling etc. In other words, “marketing” and “branding” is only part of the story. There isn’t a level playing field.

    I’ve been in the humanist/secularist/rationalist movement since I was a student in the late 1980s; the issues you are raising have been raised regularly since I’ve been involved, and if you look back through history you can see that the same themes arise again and again without ever being resolved. Why are there all these different, differently labelled, organisations? Should they be campaigning or community building, or can they do both? How can they increase membership, especially among the young?

    Today I was reading issues of the “Humanist” (the forerunner of the “New Humanist”) from 1963, that’s 7 years before I was born. There are articles talking about exactly the same kinds of thing. And it’s not so long ago that the RPA, BHA and NSS all shared the same building, right next door to Conway Hall. That didn’t last very long. It’s good to have perspective.

    You mention the brights: “bright” was invented over half a decade ago precisely as a positive-sounding umbrella term for the nonreligious/philosophically naturalistic. In other words, it was, I think pretty much explicitly, a rebranding exercise. Some few people still identify primarily as brights, or organise under that banner, but it’s not made as big an impact as its originators clearly hoped. It got overtaken, of course, by the attention given to the rejuvenated popular promotion of atheism by Dawkins and Dennett (both of whom were early supporters of “bright”) and others.

    “Humanism”, certainly in the UK context, was also explicitly a positive-sounding umbrella term designed to rebrand the non-religious life-stance: the BHA was founded in the 1960s out of a union of the Ethical Union and the Rationalist Press Association (the latter soon withdrew after legal complications).

    “Secularism” was coined with the same intent. Holyoake, in inventing the term in 1851, wanted it to be a positive-sounding rebranding of the progressive non-religious forces of the time.

    “Agnosticism” was also a rebranding of a sort!

    Your piece kind of slips between issues in a way I found a bit difficult to follow. I mean that you talk about marketing “atheism”, and about the need for a unified “atheist” organisation, and about marketing that, and about marketing existing atheist organisations, and I wasn’t sure which you think was the most important thing to do, or if they were all necessary. Marketing an organisation is not the same thing as marketing an idea or a cause, of course.



  4. Dan J Bye
    August 9th, 2009 at 22:52 | #4

    Of course, if we’re adopting a “business” model, it’s not immediately clear that a single brand is a “good” thing at all. There are lots of colas on the market, and actually they’re not just competing with each other, but also with other soft drinks.

    Consider “unified representation”. There was a long period during which the NSS definitely “branded” itself as the “militant wing” of the humanist movement. It was always the most explicitly anti-religious. The BHA tended to present itself as non-religious. The difference reflected arguments going back to the foundation of the secularist movement – further, really, back to the split in Robert Owen’s socialist organisation over whether its speakers should take a religious oath. The NSS followed Bradlaugh’s line, contra Holyoake, that it was necessary to attack religion.

    Nevertheless, there have always been those who have wanted to unite the national organisations into one body. Inefficiency has been cited, as has the bad PR of looking like “splitters”, despite the fact that none of the extant national organisations have their origins in a split from any of the others. But such efforts have, obviously, failed, and show no signs of succeeding in the foreseeable future.

    There are some curiosities about this situation. First of all, theists don’t have unified representation either. Secondly, there is a significant level of multiple membership between the national “atheist” organisations. I’m a member of the NSS, BHA and SPES, and when the Rationalist Association was more of a membership organisation I was a member of that as well. There are quite a few like me. You don’t really get that with religion. Thirdly, we’re seeing a realignment. The NSS these days is much more focussed on church/state relations than it used to be and collectively its members probably wouldn’t see themselves so much as humanism’s “militant wing” these days. The BHA has been talking about atheism, which has taken a lot of people by surprise. Both the NSS and BHA are coalitions, too, which means there are divergent opinions about tactics and ideological stance. The NSS has grown a lot since I first joined, and now contains people who, while unbelievers, think that the NSS’s atheism holds back the cause of secularism – which they frame as non-ideological. This is new; I’d never come across purists of this type until relatively recently. I doubt there were any in the NSS at all in 1989.

    It doesn’t help that you’ve chosen to use “atheist” as your catch-all term for “non-religious”, since “non-religious” is a perfectly good catch-all term for the non-religious! Plenty of non-religious people don’t want to self-identify as atheists, or not primarily as atheists, certainly not in social policy contexts. Right there you have one reason why it’s so difficult to make progress in the direction you want to go in, and it’s interesting to me (as someone who is pro-atheist) that even though you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the marketing of a movement (a movement which may or may not exist), you’ve still picked the A-word in order to talk about it!

    Fundamentally, I don’t think that what you want is achievable. And if it could be achieved, I would oppose it. Let me explain.

    You acknowledge that atheists differ quite a lot, but then you say that nevertheless they tend to have similar political and ethical views. For the sake of argument, I’ll accept that (it’s also likely to be true). But note that immediately you’ve moved away from “representing all non-religious people” to advocating an organisation which would be more or less a left/liberal political party. The NSS exists to campaign for secularism, and the BHA exists to promote the humanist life-stance; both involve some element of representing the views of their members, of course, but it’s really the ideas that are central.

    What you’re proposing appears to be radically different; it would be an organisation which would reflect the socio-political opinions of its members. The BHA and NSS want members who support their aims. Your organisation would support its members’ aims.

    I’m sure the NSS, to pick them, wouldn’t turn down the possibility of mass membership, but first and foremost it exists to promote and defend secularism. I would see this as “in the interests” of the non-religious, but there are plenty of non-religious people who are not secularists, so the “representation” issue is not a simple one. The NSS would be fighting for secularism even if most atheists were against it. It’s about the promotion of ideas, not being the voice of an abstract group of people. When I first got involved people used to say “oh, I agree with you, I’m an atheist too, but I don’t see any need to organise because all the battles have been won”. You still heard that a bit after February 1989. You don’t hear it so much now. The NSS’s credibility is built on its arguments, and on the principles of equality, rights etc, not on how many people it “represents”.

    My point is that your concept of a National Association of Non-Religious Citizens would have a very different purpose than either the NSS or BHA. The NSS represents the cause of secularism, and the BHA claims to represent the views of the section of the population who are in tune with humanist attitudes. Both would claim to be defending the interests, or rights, of unbelievers. But that is different from representing the opinions of atheists.

    This brings us to another point. Which is that you cannot run a representative organisation like a business. You might be able to market it like a business, but it will need a democratic policy making structure, in order to determine the opinions its going to represent. This is where the “consumer” model breaks down, of course. If you sell things, then you can tell what people want by looking a what they buy. Representatives, on the other hand, need to know the views of those they represent. Having “fans” is not sufficient. You’ve got to have an active and engaged membership.

    Thinking of your constituency as primarily “consumers” will be precisely the wrong model.

    However, suppose NANRC gets going. What you would have, effectively, is a sectarian political body of exactly the kind that secularists like me are uncomfortable with when it’s the Christian People’s Alliance or the Islamic Party of Britain. And why would “atheists” organise like that, instead of joining the Liberal party or the Green Party, or the Labour Party, or (taking inspiration from Antony Flew, formerly of this parish) the Conservatives?


  5. August 9th, 2009 at 22:56 | #5

    Hi Dan,

    Always glad to see some discussion on the blog. Thanks for your input.

    The piece as a whole is not a finished piece, as you have pointed out there are some bits which need moving around so that the theme reads a little more fluently. This blog is usually the place where ideas get thrashed out before going any further, so apologies if the content is not quite polished.

    In repsonse to your comments I have to admit sharing your view that there is a vast difference between branding the idea of atheism and branding the service of atheism – both of which need to be addressed more fully.

    In terms of where to go next, I think that the BHA and NSS do excellent jobs in their repective areas of interest and both have moved with the times quite well, particularly over the past 10 years (the time I have been an “active” atheist). I would like to see the BHA being more “humanist” in their activities, i..e focussing on a community and cultural based programme as well as a political one. I would also like to see the infighting between these organisations stop. Having worked quite closely with both organsiations, and others, I can’t help but get the feeling that if their energies were not spent competing but combining their forces the kind of organisation I suggested would not be required.

    Moving on, I have stretched the analogy of brand loyalty pretty far to describe the long term attachement of people to reigiom. This is partly based on churcgh statistics, as 80% describe themselves as belonging to a religion yet less than 12% actually are active participants in that religion. This is where the analogy breaks down as that is saying that 80% would buy coke but only 12% actually do.

    I see you are based at Sheffield Hallam university? If you ever have a chance you should pop up to Leeds Atheist Society at the University of Leeds (unfortunatley, I believe the Sheffield society folded this year) as I am hoping to deliver a number of lectures on this topic. Please feel free to contact me too.

  6. Dan J Bye
    August 9th, 2009 at 23:38 | #6

    Finally, then.

    I started out by indicating that I was in agreement with some of your points. I agree that the movement needs to be better at both recruiting and retaining members. I agree that we need more new blood. And I agree that we need to be better at the marketing and PR side of things.

    I’ve watched the NSS grow over the last decade and a half, and it’s interesting to consider the reasons. Some of it is outside our control. There has been a revival of interest in the debate about religion, which has benefited us, and there have been some dramatic and polarising violent events which have galvanised the otherwise apathetic. And we’ve had a Labour Government which, by encouraging religion in public life, has forced it down the throats of nonreligious people who otherwise would have been able to completely ignore religion. Even those atheists who hypocritically jump through religious hoops to get their children into particular schools are having to engage with something they presumably otherwise wouldn’t.

    The NSS, and presumably the BHA, have recruited off the back of all this, but they have also shown they are capable of making the most of the opportunities. The NSS’s media profile is extraordinarily high now, given where it was in 1989. It’s even been able to celebrate some successes, such as the abolition of blasphemy law, a pipe dream in ’89.

    But the point is, a campaigning organisation markets itself best by campaigning. Members join because they see you doing something that they want doing, or saying something they want to be said.

    Lastly, what about youth? This is something that interests me, but I have more questions than answers. I’ll be 40 next year, which will still make me younger than most people in a room full of active humanists/secularists. Mind you, I do detect a shift. The average age of the NSS council has plummetted in recent years.

    Getting youth involved is good, because youth brings new ideas, energy, and time. And the kind of fearlessness and willingness to do and say certain things which someone with a mortgage and a family often finds difficult (which is not to say that young people don’t often have mortgages and families too). Once you’re into careers, mortgages and families, campaigning is a lot more difficult.

    But the tendency is often to look at the average age of attendees at a typical humanist meeting and conclude that it’s dying out. This would only be true if the people involved literally died and were not replaced, which I guess does sometimes happen.

    But maybe what actually happens is that you get a steady influx of new members of similar age? You wouldn’t look at a pensioners’ action group and say “everyone’s over 60, it’s going to die out”. Humanist groups are often about evening discussions, which may appeal more to older people than to students with assignments to write or middle aged people with families to look after. When my daughter was born three years ago, I found it necessary to drop out of involvement in my local humanist group after something like 13 years on the committee. So maybe different kinds of activities, or meetings on different days, would find different people getting involved. And of course the internet has meant that people can be involved in whole other ways, which may not be actually meeting up in person.

    But youth is not a panacea. I didn’t get the impression you thought it was, I should immediately acknowledge. But sometimes people do talk as though it were.

    I’ve mentioned how familiar the themes are if you look at old humanist magazines. In the 1960s, student groups seemed to be flourishing, certainly in some areas. If I’m remembering correctly, I read in one 1963 issue of ‘New Humanist’ that the Oxford student humanist group had 900 members (not all of them students, mind you), and had achieved a 600 strong audience at one of its events.

    What happened to them? They certainly didn’t all stay in the humanist movement, because by the 1970s, the BHA was struggling somewhat. So far as I can tell, there are only a few around now, in official positions anyway, who joined back then. If you were 20 in 1969, you’re probably coming up for retirement around about nowish. Might we see an influx of baby-boomers? Probably not.

    What is the average lifespan of a university humanist or atheist group?

    Furthermore, demographically the population is ageing anyway, which means that overemphasising youthful marketing messages could well be a serious mistake (maybe not, if older people like youthful marketing too!). I think the problem is one of balance. We tend to see a lot of people after retirement, and some students, but there is a real pinch during the career/family years of the 30s-50s. I suspect the internet is helping, as it makes it easier to stay in touch and do a few things.

    I must say I think the current student humanist/atheist boom is fabulous, and we can’t allow them to vanish as they seemed to do in the 1960s. Which is why people like you need to be listened to. I don’t think you’re right in everything you said, but I do think what you said has to be listened to.

    There were attempts to get a youth group going when I was first starting to get involved in the movement from 1988. There were about a dozen of us who met at Conway Hall to try and kickstart things. But back then there were almost no student groups (I would have to check back to confirm this, but I suspect there were actually none at all), and it all fizzled out. And of that small group, how many of us are still involved? There’s me, who turned out to my suprise to be a committee man; and Matt Cherry, who went to America to work with the Council for Secular Humanism and is now an International Representative for IHEU; and Adrian Bailey, who still seems to be involved. There may be others, but that’s pretty much my generation!

    I have higher hopes for your cohort!


  7. Alex Jones
    September 2nd, 2009 at 11:27 | #7

    The problem with Atheism and why it will never beat Religion is in its own thinking. In effet Atheism promotes the individual above the group-thought of Religion, as such, as the writer of the article has found, individuals become selfish and will not work as a group, hence will not be able to organise against Religion.

    The second problem is that Atheism has nothing to sell, it can never be regarded as a product, for in effect all it is saying is an individual can exist less God and Religion. Atheism sells nothing. Is nothing a sellable commodity? No.

    The third problem for Atheism is that it is a left brain activity, whilst Religion is a right brain activity. The right brain deals with imagination, creativity, motivation and religion. People will die for, feed the hungry, look after animals, be motivated to do good because of the actvities in their right brain, stimulated by Religion. In contrast the left brain from which Atheism stems is cold, calculating and separated, and hence will not inspire anyone to do anything for any cause, including Atheism.

  1. August 9th, 2009 at 19:53 | #1
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