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Cooperating with Religious Groups & Other Ideological Incompatibles

There are a number of activities on which you'll want to cooperate with religious or other non-aligned groups. It's challenging enough to work with other groups who are generally allied with you; working with "the other side" brings unique problems and misconceptions to the fore. For this reason, consider some ideas for working with religious groups on campus:


  1. Figure out your purpose in working with them. Is this for service, discussion, understanding, or even just for variety?
  2. Don't have plans to (de)convert the other side. Don't expect to change lives.
  3. Try to begin through a personal connection - speak to a friend or friend of a friend in the other group, someone who can vouch for your trustworthiness. You can also approach them in person at an activities fair or other event. Cold emails may work, but are less personable.
  4. Come at them as an ambassador, with an open mind. Focus on the positive reasons for working together, and let them (honestly) know what your positions are.
  5. Keep in mind that not all groups are approachable. Don't let this discourage you from others!
Gettin' Along
  1. Find common ground on which to collaborate. A sit-down meeting with members of both sides may help foster this. From this discussion, create a list of things to work on together. Along with this, let them know why you're doing this; this will clear the air and get everyone's priorities in line.
    1. How is as important as why - if you want to have a shocking or combative debate, and they think it will be friendly, that disconnect can lead to confusion and anger later on.
  2. Your biggest initial challenge will be hesitance from both sides. If things are working, the inter-group dynamic will shift as you work together. Get things moving by attending each other's meetings, as well as arranging pre-event get-togethers at planning meetings and social events.
  3. There are some activities which make for great collaboration. Generally, these are events which either depend on the contrast between your positions (debates, interfaith discussions), or which focus on your common goals in spite of your differences (service projects, religious tolerance panels, peace protests, actions on religious freedom and separation of church & state).
    1. One unusual but effective activity is atheist bible study, where people from both sides read and examine bible passages.
  4. Never mock or make personal judgements about those you disagree with; you can make your points respectfully and dispassionately.
Sharing Responsibility & Credit
  1. Try to split tasks and work down the middle, within reason and each group's capabilities (i.e., don't expect a small group to contribute more members or funds than they have).
  2. On the other hand, there are other situations where responsibilities need to be divided based on other criteria. The group that comes first with the idea may pay more to get a speaker and rent the hall, with the other group working more on promotion and advertising.
  3. At the event itself, make sure all groups are in the spotlight - after all, that's why they want to cooperate! This can mean sharing a table outside the event, as well as sharing or splitting introductions.
  4. Be sure to thank people from both groups publicly before major events or speakers.
Dealing with Potential Conflicts
  1. A good leader should identify conflict early, and head it off where possible.The best way to avoid conflict is open communication and sharing of knowledge. If you're making a poster or flyer, let them see it and comment on it before printing hundreds of copies.
  2. If members of the other group are hostile, but realize that you can't do much about them unless their behavior is outright illegal. Rely on their leaders and other members to self-discipline, but be honest if you feel unwelcome or discriminated against.
  3. Within your own group, there may well be opposition and uncooperativeness. Some of this may be inescapable. Nonetheless, motivate your members by emphasizing the benefits of interaction, such as improved image, or accomplishment of particular goals.
  4. If someone within your group is disruptive, they don't have to participate. As a leader, don't be reticent to stick up for the "other side" where necessary; this may mean making one of your members to apologize to someone they've offended.
  5. Keep in mind what your group's priorities and needs are; if collaboration isn't working because of misaligned or conflicting priorities, there may be another group that will work.
Regular Collaborations
  1. Good interactions lead to good interactions. Don't necessarily go into it with the intention of building coalitions, but small relationships can grow!
  2. Meet the new leaders of the other group before the year is up, and give them your contact info. Try to maintain relationships with the officers of the other group from year to year.

Amye Broyles spoke about including theists in your group at the 2013 Annual SSA Conference in Ohio. Watch it here:

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