How to interact with theists in your group
This article is broken into 3 sections:
1. Theists at your meetings,
2. Problematic theists at your meetings, and
3. Problematic group members relating to theists at your meetings
Many SSA affiliates often encounter theists at their group's meetings and events. Some groups encourage such attendance and some don't. Often, theists who attend regularly can help make discussions more interesting and lively; however there are a few ways they can negatively impact the group. There are several different ways your group can handle theists in positive or negative ways.
Theists at your meetings:
If your group enjoys having theists attend regularly and/or even has a few as members of the group, it can be a great way to liven up discussions, presentations, etc. It is okay to still talk about subjects that would seem "hostile" or uncomfortable to theists in the audience; they know (or should know) that they are at a meeting of mostly atheists so they should not be suprised when such subjects come up. Theists can often contribute to discussions positively, whether talking on their faith specifically or not. However, you might have one or several members of your group that are openly hostile to anyone of a religious persuasion. If this is the case, then you, as a leader, should keep an eye on potential issues that might arise from such an interaction.
Problematic group members at your meetings:
As a leader, you should always do your best to keep discussions civil between different sides of a debate/argument. If a particular non-theistic group member becomes problematic, then you or another leader might have to take him/her off to the side to talk the issue over privately. You never want to have a group member feel disenfranchised for any reason; after all, one of the points of your group is to help provide community to non-theists and make them feel welcome and secure. Ask them what their issue is and try to resolve it satisfactorily for the whole group. If one member feels a certain way, chances are there are a least a few others who also feel that way. This is not to say you should cater to a single attitude, rather the group should be open to hearing many points of view on an issue. If your group enjoys having a few theists attend or enjoys working with theistic groups in discussions, panels, service trips, etc, then you might have to make clear to your member that she/he cannot be openly hostile (for no decent reason) at your meetings.
Problematic theists at your meetings:
The other side of the coin is how to deal with problematic theists in a group setting. This can be a bit more problematic because it can sometimes depend on the group's dynamic and the overall makeup of the group. If a Christian, or any other theist, sees your student group as an opportunity to preach and convert, then you should step in immediately. Many non-theists are uncomfortable with this to start with, and some have a past with religion that would not grant a good reaction to such attempts. Theists who do this often do have good intentions and just don't understand that it is an inappropriate place and time to do so. If it is a discussion format, the moderator can simply step in and point out that preaching is not a welcome part of the discussion format. If it continues, then a leader can take the theist off to the side to reinforce privately that your group is not somewhere they can gain converts. If it continues over time and talking fails to affect the theist's actions, then it might be time to nicely ask the individual to leave the group. Your group is meant for non-theists to feel safe, and you as a leader should do your best to make it feel welcoming. If there is any individual that threatens this atmosphere, then action should be taken as soon as possible.
If you are interested in ways to positively engage with theists and attract some to your group, there are a few ways to go about this. First, go over our Cooperating with Religious Groups and Other Ideological Incompatibles resource. You can bring in a speaker on interfaith and its importantance; such as some of the speakers on our Speakers Bureau like Chris Stedman, Jon Weyer, or Adam Lee. Your group can reach out to religius groups such as Muslim Student Associaton or Cru to try to hold joint events. Other ideas can include Ask an Atheist panels, service projects, and more. Or you can hold events that might be of interest to theists and advertise in such a way that they would see it. Your group can be very successful at reaching out and engaging theists while still maintaining its identity as a community for non-theists.