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Ask an Atheist Panels

Planning Time4 to 6 weeks
Group Size6+
Staff #3 to 5
Event DateAnytime

Activity Overview:
We all know that there are more than a few stereotypes floating around about the non-religious - we're amoral, we're arrogant nihilists, and we like nothing better than kicking puppies. In order to counter these myths head-on, a number of groups have held "Ask-an-Atheist" panels for audiences to put forth their simple questions and their most misguided imaginings for a (gentle) debunking. This isn't necessarily a recruiting event; although if you hold this as a sort of 'coming out' for your group, it can certainly attract members.

Planning timeframe:
As mentioned, this can very well at the start of the semester, or just after your group forms. For that reason, this should take only four to six weeks to plan, some of which can be done the previous semester. However, you need to heavily promote this to religious groups, so you'll want to keep in mind their schedules (including services, holidays, and meetings) when planning.

You'll need panelists who can intelligently explain atheism, as well as calmly and inoffensively critique religion. These should be group members from your school, so that the audience knows they are regular people. Try and get a diverse array of panelists, both in terms of background and opinion - a trio of white male teens quoting Dawkins will get boring quickly. A forceful moderator who can keep everything flowing smoothly is essential.

Material requirements:
You will need is an auditorium or classroom with an A/V system and a whole bunch of chairs. A banner displaying your group's name on stage will help. If you choose, provide your audience with note cards and pencils at the start for an efficient Q&A session. You might also want to have some of our What is an Atheist brochures (which you can order through SSA on the tabling supplies form).

Your promotion needs to be done (at least in part) by someone who can reach out to the religious community. Don't be afraid to recruit a friendly religious student or chaplain to help! Promotion is the key to getting a large audience. You will want to do other forms of promotion on campus like tabling and chalking. Send out a press release, and use our Press Release Guide.

For more promotion and advertising ideas, see our Group Promotion and Media Relations Guide.

Suggested Walkthrough

  1. Start by identifying possible panelists within your group, and elsewhere on campus. You need diversity, intelligence, and personality on your panel. This includes getting a variety of styles - a brash, tenacious speaker can complement a more moderate, analytic one. This may mean turning away some people (nicely!), but don't put someone on stage who won't help your group.
    1. If there's an "out" atheist amongst your school's faculty or staff, see if they'd be interested. To take this route, you may need to plan more in advance.
  2. Look through your school's religious calendar, or at the schedules for religious groups and chaplaincies. You need to avoid their meetings, services, holidays, and other events so they can come to yours. 
  3. Book the time and place on campus. If it takes a long time to reserve space on campus, be sure to consider that in your planning timeline.
  4. As much as it may hurt to do this, approach the religious. As much as possible, you want them to promote your event for you at their service and meetings - another reason to be cognizant of when they are and plan ahead!
    1. When talking to theists, promote this as interfaith dialogue. Highlight the need for religious tolerance for the non-religious.
    2. Keep in mind that they are your target audience - they will have the best questions, and likely the most entrenched misconceptions. If your audience is mostly atheists, it won't function very well.
    3. If any chaplains or group leaders are particularly interested, it might be possible to get a question from them and quote it on your flyers.
    4. Offer yourselves to other groups - if one group has a particular interest, try and send a few members to their next meeting.
  5. Promote, promote, promote. Be sure to look at the Group Promotion and Media Relations Guide for promotion ideas.
  6. Remind your panelists of their commitment to participate. 
  7. During the event, one possibility is to start with (short) opening statements from your panelists, which can cover their background, how they came to be atheists, and their reasons for rejecting religion. During this time, audience members can write down questions on note cards, from which the moderator can choose. This prevents questions from being asked over and over again, and limits the possibility of interminable audience debate.
  8. At your event, your moderator will have the most important job. They must ensure that everything flows, no-one talks too long or out of turn, and preventing digressions. Some tips:
    1. Audience members may want to debate with panelists or each other - don't let that happen! Make sure they ask questions by keeping a time limit - preferably thirty seconds (moderator may need a stopwatch). Have volunteers hold the microphone, or people will talk forever.
    2. Panelists also have to be kept in line so they don't talk too long or over each other. Have the moderator emphasize them that there will only be two answers to any question.
    3. Tyler Babcock of CFI at Case Western University writes, "Our moderator this year found it helpful to have his laptop with him and an IM session open with members of our organization in the audience. It allowed him to know how things looked from the crowd and helped with spotting people who had questions."
  9. If everything goes well, you will have had an intelligent and mutually respectful discussion, wherein both sides come away knowing more about the other. 
  10. Afterwards, clean up and pack up. Be sure to thank your volunteers, coordinators, panelists, moderator, and religious leaders who got people to come!
  11. This event can easily be repeated. Successive sessions should vary the procedure somewhat - invite other religious groups to bring representatives. We hear that Mormon missionaries are especially game, and generate a lot of questions.

One of our best resources to find out what works and what doesn't is you - our student leaders! If you've employed a strategy that worked well, let us know about it so other groups can also use that idea. If you've learned a lesson of caution about something we suggest, point out the pitfalls. You can email us at organizer@secularstudents.org!

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