List of Discussion Meeting Topics
Discussion is essential to a good group dynamic - besides making the group interactive, it allows you to develop your ideas and blow off steam. On occasion you'll want to have a meeting devoted fully or partially to discussing a particular secular-related topic; these can be good introductions for potential members or curious outsiders.
Some of these topics have links to videos or suggestions for collaborations.
We also have discussion packets, which are much more in-depth guides for guiding a conversation on a set topic.
For ideas regarding political topics, or more background information for discussions / debates (including secular stances and legal precedents!), check out the Model Secular Policy Guide for Legislatures.
- Indoctrination: Should religious indoctrination of children be considered child abuse? Should public policy discourage indoctrination? Do you feel obligated to stop indoctrination when you see it? Can a secular family also indoctrinate their children in nontheism?
- Criticism of Religion: Should we be outwardly critical of religion? Should we keep our criticisms to ourselves? Or even not be critical at all? Will outward criticism hurt or help the movement?
- The Problem of Evil: If a god exists who is all-powerful and all-loving, why is there evil in the world? Is a “greater good” argument (God must create evil to fulfill an unknown greater good) sufficient to justify evil? What have your experiences been like when bringing up the problem of evil to a religious person? Are there some religions where this problem does not exist? How do we deal with evil in the world as nontheists? You can read more about the problem of evil in this brochure by August Berkshire.
- Jesus, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and Other Prophets as Historical Figures: Do you think prophets from various religions really existed in some form, or were they totally made up? What evidence is there for a historical Jesus, meaning he may have existed but not necessarily as a form of God? Does it make a difference whether there is historical evidence or not? Is Christopher Hitchens correct in this statement [video] about a lack of evidence for Jesus existing historically?
- Your Mind on God: Is religion correlated with psychological traits like happiness and intelligence? What do these traits actually mean, and can we really measure them? Is the research suggesting correlations good science or sensationalism?
- New Religions: Many recently created religions are putting on engaging campaigns (see Church of Scientology, LDS/Mormons). Are their methods for gaining new membership working? With new religions capturing younger audiences, will older religions fade out? Check out this commercial that is actually for scientology - which you wouldn’t guess from the content!
- Is Faith Reasonable?: If you were previously religious, did you find a way to justify your faith with reason? Can faith be reasonable if an individual benefits from having faith? Is there perhaps a fundamental difference in how the religious and nonreligious understand “reason.”
- Biblical and Religious Morality: How do religious people justify their morality? Do they actually have a consistent moral view? What kinds of morals do the bible and other religious texts teach? What are the consequences of being immoral in different religions? What are the consequences of being moral, but not religious? Are religions conceptions of morality “fair” by secular standards? How can we show people that we can be good without gods? Check out this talk by August Berkshire (on the SSA Speakers Bureau!) about morality with and without god.
- Cult vs. Religion: How can you tell the difference? Can a cult start as a religion, and vice versa? Have you known someone who followed a cult? Is there a more distinct difference between cults and religions in first world countries than elsewhere?
- Fundamentalism: Can only religious people be fundamentalists? Is fundamentalism harmful? If so, who does fundamentalism harm? Should we be concerned with religious fundamentalism? Should we intervene? If your roommate was a fundamentalist of any religion, how would you communicate with her/him?
- God and Sex: Why is God so interested in sex? How has sexual repression been used as a controlling tactic for religions throughout history? Is it still that way today? Do Christians who have sex before marriage have cognitive dissonance about it? Will the next big religion encourage sex to make people happy - or is sexual repression too effective as a tool to guilt people into religion? Are humans naturally monogamous or is that a religious idea?
- Baha’i and Unitarian Universalism: Both relatively new, feel-good religions. Will they eventually be mainstream? How do they compare to older faiths? Do you know students on campus who belong to either of these religions? If so, what do they think about their religion compared to older ones? Is Unitarian Universalism just a step to secularism or just a religion for spiritual nontheists? This is a good conversation to have with members from those churches present to answer questions.
- Eastern vs Western Religions: What are they? What are some differences? How might Buddhism and the Four Noble Truths work as a means of solving the problem of suffering? This is a good conversation to have with members from those faiths present to answer questions.
Secular, Nontheist and Nonreligious Issues
- Service and Philanthropy: What role does community service play in the secular movement? Should we, as individuals and as a Secular Student Alliance, focus more on service events? What kind of service events would you like to do with your SSA affiliate group? Should we work alongside religious groups when doing philanthropy?
- Firebrand or Diplomat: Which are you? While secular “firebrands” may favor a more passionate, confrontational approach, speaking directly about absurdities and contradictions of religious institutions, “diplomats” prefer a more respectful, more sympathetic, less confrontational approach towards religion and religious beliefs. Is one view better than the other? Do these two views compliment each other? How do we work together within our own movement despite our different approaches?
- Sex and Relationships as a Nonreligious Person: How have nonreligious views affected our views on sex and relationships? Secularists tent to have a greater variety in the types of relationships they have than the religious: why might that be? Is it OK for friends to have sex for recreational purposes? Is it possible to have sex without developing emotional attachments? Are some types of relationships frowned upon even by nonreligious people?
- Not All Atheists Fact-Check: Nontheists frequently criticize the religious for not fact-checking, but we’re guilty too. How can we develop best practices to always check our information? How do you determine if a source is reliable? Check out this video of Hemant Mehta (on the SSA Speakers Bureau!)
- Nontheists as Outcasts: Are nontheists outcasts in American society? What instances of inclusion or exclusion have been significant in your life? What can we do to improve the image of nonreligious people on campus, in America, and around the world?
- What Happens When an Atheist Dies?: If we don’t believe in an afterlife, what exactly happens when we die? Is it scary to think about? How do we come to accept eventual death, or do we even need to accept it? How large of a role do you think the fear of death plays into people’s religious views? Do you think that it prevents people from using their reason and skepticism to the fullest? How do we comfort grieving nontheists? How do we comfort grieving religious individuals? (see: thoughs on death)
- Building Community: Should nontheists be building communities? What does a secular community look like? What are issues that arise within secular communities? Should these communities reflect the activities of religious communities? How can our SSA group create a community that is inclusive? Check out this talk from SSA East 2014.
- Dispelling Myths: “But if you don’t believe in God, why aren’t you raping and killing everyone?” “Where do you get morals?” We’ve heard these and others before. What other myths about nontheists exist? Are these stereotypes significant or only held by a small number of people? Has someone asked you a question related to a stereotype? How did you respond? What can we do as an SSA group to dispel these myths?
- Nihilism and Depression: Are nontheists more likely to be nihilist or suffer from depression? How might a nontheists deal with depression differently than a religious person? If nihilism or depression is an issue for nontheists, how can you help? Is our SSA group inclusive and helpful for people with depression?
- Secular Activism: What does a secular activist do? Do you consider yourself an activist for secular values? Why or why not? Should our SSA group engage in secular activism? What are some activist activities that can be done on campus? Can our group engage in secular activism while also providing opportunities for nonreligious students who aren’t interested in activism?
- Secular Spirituality: Can a secular person be spiritual? Can spirituality be separated from the supernatural? Do you find that you have “spiritual” feelings? How can secularism and nontheism be inclusive of nonreligious people who consider themselves spiritual, and should we? Are “atheist churches” a good idea?
- Humanism: What is humanism? Do you consider yourself a humanist? Should our SSA group encompass humanist values? Are there groups on campus we could partner with for humanism-based events? What will the humanist movement look like in 15 years?
Society and Personal
- Why Are You Nonreligious?: What is your secular story? Did you grow up in a religious household? What led you to nonbelief? Have you come out to your family or to friends you knew while religious? If you never belonged to a religion, how do you think that affects you today?
- Public Education: What do we like about it? What can be improved? Is there enough critical thinking taught in schools? What can we do to promote critical thinking in public education? Hemant Mehta, a math teacher at a public high school, addresses these questions in this video.
- Women’s Issues: What issues still exist for women in the U.S. and abroad? How do religion and secularism play into the reality of discrimination and sexism? Can an otherwise “reasonable” person still be considered reasonable if they participate in casual sexism? Is feminism part of the secular movement? How can we be aware of these issues so that we are more welcoming to women as an SSA group? Check out this talk by Amanda Marcotte (On the SSA Speakers Bureau!)
- Under Pressure: Does society put pressures on us? Gender roles, professionalism, body image, sexual orientation, religious pressures, family expectations... Are we pressured into roles, and if so, is that bad? How do we overcome pressures we don't want?
- Ethnicity: How much is racism a part of our society? How can people who don’t deal with discrimination personally be aware of discrimination in the community? Does nontheism necessarily inform someone’s views on ethnicity and race? Should society be completely “color blind” or is some racial or ethnic awareness necessary? Can race be tied to ethnicity and culture? If you were previously religious, do you feel that your views on race have changed since you lost faith? Check out this article by Samuel Jackson about race.
- Being a Minority Atheist: Are there people in your SSA group who are considered minorities? If not, is it because you’re not perceived as welcoming? If so, what is appealing and welcoming about your group? Does the diversity of your SSA group reflect the diversity of your campus? What can we do to be more welcoming to minorities? How can we avoid becoming cliquish and developing an "in-group, out-group" mentality? Check out this discussion about diversity in secular groups.
- Coming Out: Have you done it? Do your friends and family know you are nonreligious? Have you come out to some people but not others? If you have come out, how did you do it? If not, what’s stopping you? How can we benefit from more people coming out as nonreligious? Do the benefits in the long run outweigh the possible stress and discrimination that individuals may face? What kinds of resources for coming out do you know of? What kinds of resources would be helpful for coming out? Check out this talk by Greta Christina about coming out (on the SSA Speakers Bureau!)
- End of Life Traditions: Almost all religious traditions have ceremonies to mark the end of a person’s life. End of life traditions may have even existed before any type of organized religion. Should the secular community have similar ceremonies? What sort of things should they be sure to include, and what to avoid? Do we need to secularize these traditions? How do you feel when attending a religious ceremony?
- Euthanasia and Suicide: Do you think people should be allowed to end their own lives? Should there be restrictions? Should teenagers have the same right to end their life as an elderly person with a painful, untreatable illness? How do these issues affect family and friends? How do we as nontheists treat these issues differently than someone with religious views?
- Death Sentence: Should it be legal to kill someone who killed someone else? If so, in what cases? If not, why not? Is it the responsibility of the state to decide if someone will die? Is the error rate for death sentences significant? Is the death sentence too archaic for modern society?
- Animal Rights: Do non-human animals have the same moral standing as humans? Is veganism necessary for humanism? What do nontheism and veganism have in common? What do religion and veganism have in common? How does human abortion relate to animal rights? Is speciesism a problem? Check out the full discussion guide.
- Gender Roles and Identities: What are gender roles? Should gender roles exist? What are gender identities? How does religion play into gender roles and identities? How about secularism? Do you fit into the “traditional” role or identity of your gender? Is there a false dichotomy in gender identities? If so, how can we raise awareness about it? What can our SSA group do with other groups on campus to raise awareness about this issue? This resource from Planned Parenthood describes gender roles and identities.
- Religious Attire Legislation: Is it OK for the government to tell people they cannot wear religious attire? What if it is for safety and security reasons? Alternatively, is it OK for the government or society to tell people they must wear religious attire, like hijabs? What about public decency laws? Are those religious in nature?
- Contraception, Abstinence, and Family: What roles do contraception, abstinence, and family structures play in today’s society? How does religion influence each of those? How does (or should) secularism influence laws regarding family planning? How large of a role should the government play in these issues?
- Crime, Violence, and the Media: What role does the media play in our perception of crime and violence? Do violent video games affect how people behave? Does environment or genetics play a stronger role in a person’s violent or nonviolent behavior? How does education affect crime rates? When planning this discussion, research updated statistics from trusted sources to have a more informed discussion.
- Abortion: The abortion debate has polarized American society for decades. Is there a moral dilemma around abortion? Should abortion be entirely legal, have some degree of restrictions, or be entirely illegal? What are the consequences of each of those levels of restriction? Is abortion a matter of choice or public health? What does science tell us about the stages of human fetal development? Are our opinions on abortion consistent with other views we hold? What arguments from each side are valid or invalid?
- Separation of Church and State: What is the state of secularism in the United States? Are there other countries with secular laws similar to the U.S.? What are some countries where there is a state religion? Are there instances where a state religion is OK? Should we be fighting to protect the separation of church and state in the U.S.? What are some ways we can advocate for this issue on campus? Check out this talk by Rev. Barry Lynn on the separation of church and state and public schools. (Rev. Barry Lynn is on the SSA Speakers Bureau!)
- The Paranormal: What’s real? What’s not? Why do some people believe in it so strongly, and why is society so fascinated with ghosts and UFOs? What does psychology tell us about people’s belief in the paranormal? What role does the media play in enabling belief in the paranormal? How would you react if you found out a friend believed in ghosts? Check out this TED talk by Michael Shermer, “Why People Believe Weird Things.”
- Conspiracy Theories: Which are your favorites? Why do people like them so much? What ideas that are “acceptable” today will only be held by cranks in the future? Have you ever believed a conspiracy theory? What changed your mind? Do you still find yourself believing in some? Is there a way to convince conspiracy theorists that their ideas are bunk? Is it a problem significant enough for the secular community to focus on?
- Future Evolution: What might the human species look like in 50, 100, 200 years? Will we eventually evolve into another species? Will our environment change drastically? A perfect species would be able to adapt to any environment; if our environment changed rapidly, do you think humans could adapt quickly enough? As humans and other species continue to evolve, will modern religions lose followers? What roles might technology play in our evolution?
- Immortality and Human Engineering: Should we be striving to make humans live forever? How about several-hundred-year life-spans? If this is a goal we should have, what methods are acceptable or not acceptable in reaching it? If it is not a goal we should have, why not? What role does humanism play in engineering longer-living humans? Would religions object? Would this technology only reach rich people? Given the opportunity to live forever, or for a thousand or a million years, would you take it?
- The Moral Limits of Technology: We have the technology to build bombs that can kill millions of people at a time, but should we build them? We are developing technology to select certain gene sequences in order to tailor your children, but should we “play God” in this manner? We are also working on the technology to terraform Mars (and other planets); should we change the environments of other worlds (and even our own) to better suit our species’ needs?
- The Moral Limits of Science: Can science inform morality? Can our own morality inform how we do science? If they are totally separate, in what ways do they coexist? Do you agree with Sam Harris in this video?
- Skepticism: Do some people take skepticism too far or not far enough? Some conspiracy theories consider themselves skeptical, but they seem to only be skeptical of some claims. Some people may be skeptical of everything, not just claims from religion or authority - where should we draw the line? A lot of nontheists still believe things they read on the internet without fact-checking, can they considered skeptics? How can our SSA group encourage skeptical thinking?
- The Theory of Evolution: How does evolution work? We talk about it all the time, but when was the last time we talked about what happens in evolution? What about evolution is unbelievable to some people? Should we worry about non-scientists not understanding evolution? If so, how do we make the theory of evolution approachable to the general population? Was evolution taught in your high school? What can our SSA group do to reach out to students on campus who may have missed out on evolution education in high school? Try having this discussion with the biology club at school. Check out this TEDx talk about evolution.
- Logical Fallacies: What are some common logical fallacies? Do we make logical fallacies more, less, or the same amount as religious people? Should we point out fallacies every time we hear them? Should we avoid bringing them up in an effort to keep the conversation going? Here is a list of a handful of common logical fallacies.
- Homeopathy: Is there really any harm in homeopathic medication as long as it’s labeled (buyer beware)? Is it ethical for doctors to prescribe homeopathic medication at the patient’s request? Is it ethical to use homeopathy as a substitute for medicine? Check out the full discussion guide.