Social psychology of groups: How can we get nonbelievers to join our groups?


Science of GivingBrittany Shoots-Reinhard has a PhD in social psychology with a specialization in attitudes and persuasion, and judgment and decision making. She is also Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network coordinator.

While there is no doubt that the Internet is one of the best tools of the secular movement, it does have a downside in that local communities might be neglected as atheists interact with each other online. One of the challenges we face as a movement is getting people involved in service, activism, and community-building in real life. This is easy for religious groups, which require or encourage attendance at weekly services, but more difficult for atheists, particularly with resistance to “churchiness” and organization. In addition to making atheism more visible and acceptable, having a tribe has some psychological benefits for individuals, too. Keeping these in mind can both grow our movement at the grassroots level and minimize the happiness gap between believers and nonbelievers

Flagstaff FreethinkersHumans appear to have a need to belong, or a fundamental motivation to have some minimum level of friendship in their lives (e.g., Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Forming quality bonds produces positive emotions; a lack of them is associated with depression, loneliness, and lowered well-being. Even the threat of loss of close relationships will produce anxiety (e.g., Leary, 1990). Inadequate support can lead to health problems. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and her husband have a program of research on the effects of stress and relationships on health. Not meeting our need to belong depresses the immune system and exacerbates stress (e.g., Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser, 1987; Kiecolt-Glaser, Garner, et al., 1984). Social interaction and support is a likely explanation for the link between happiness and religiosity, so local groups serve a very important function in the well-being of their members.

This is not to say that one must go to a weekly meeting of atheists to be happy. Like any motivation, our need to belong can be met in a variety of ways. It can be satisfied by one or two good friends, a work or social group, family, or even a larger group. Numbers of friends are not nearly as important as relationship stability, supportiveness, mutual concern, and opportunities for interaction (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). As a result of the substitutability of relationships, other factors have to be considered when predicting what type of groups we might join.

When people are choosing groups (or groups are recruiting members), they focus on mutual goals (e.g., Moreland & Levine, 1982). Those of us who belong to humanist, atheist, or skeptic groups have goals in common with those groups. The goals of various groups may or may not overlap, which can be seen in a lot of the debate over inclusion or exclusion of various topics at secular conferences. The narrowing of focus is actually a sign of increased involvement as groups tailor their goals to their groups and new groups form. The groups that people are involved in can hint at their goals. For example, groups that are members of Foundation Beyond Belief’s Beyond Belief Network or Humanist Giving programs are signaling that community service and charity are among their goals.

In addition to goals, people also consider whether they are similar to other members in other ways. People are more likely to identify with (and participate in) a group whose members are similar to them. Over time, this often results in homogeneity (Hogg & Hains, 1996) in terms of race or gender. Without realizing it, groups may be unwelcoming to minority groups because of the lack of diversity in their membership (in this context I mean minority relative to the group, so men could feel unwelcome in a parents group, although atheism as a movement has tended to have white men as the majority). From the group’s perspective, they are not doing anything to discourage minorities, but the minorities assume that they do not belong. Thus, the only way to achieve diversity is to make it a priority (Jehn, Northcraft & Neale, 1999). It will not happen on its own; in fact, it’s more likely for a group to become less diverse over time (Hogg & Hains, 1996). So groups like Black Nonbelievers and Secular Woman serve an important purpose in bridging the gap between nonbelievers and the larger atheist movement. Similarly, making diversity of speakers a priority is likely to increase attendance at meetings and conferences.

To attract new members to our groups, then, we need to be cognizant of our goals and how well we’re communicating them. Considering the perceptions of potential members is also important. A pub meetup with an active community service schedule might need to emphasize that in their description because it’s less expected. A group with a Facebook page with lots of anti-religious jokes should not be surprised if they struggle with interfaith partnerships. A group of mainly men who want to get more women involved might invite some women to speak and publicize their anti-harassment policy. It may make sense in some cases to start subgroups for certain types of activities or demographics to attract unaffiliated nonbelievers. Anecdotally, many people I’ve talked to were involved in smaller special interest groups (e.g., parenting, women, racial minority, or activity based) before becoming members of larger local and national groups. So rather than being resistant to new groups or splitting into smaller groups, we should recognize the opportunity they provide for growth.


Baumeister, R.F., & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

Hogg, M. A., & Hains, S. C. (1996). Intergroup relations and group solidarity: Effects of group identification and social beliefs on depersonalized attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 295-309.

Jehn, K.A., Northcraft, G.B., & Neale, M.A. (1999). Why differences make a difference: A field study of diversity, conflict, and performance in workgroups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 741-763.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1987). Psychosocial moderators of immune function. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 9, 16-20.

Leary, M.R. (1990). Responses to social exclusion: Social anxiety, jealousy, loneliness, depression, and low self-esteem. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 9, 221-229.