Our weekly Ask-An-Atheist Booth creates a lot of interest from people visiting San Diego from other cities and other nations around the world. Where it’s safe to do so, we would love to hear about others doing the same!
- Spend some time learning about booth marketing (or “tabling”) and how to do face-to-face sales. What is your message? What is the demographic of people who will be attending the event or location of your booth? Is the foot traffic mostly tourists or locals? Are they in the area to support a specific cause (such as ‘Earth Day‘ or an art festival) or a religious event? Is the area family oriented or business focused?
- Is your booth more serious or fun? This is a more important question that you may think. Our experience has been that most conversations are light-hearted and we can have fun with things like Flying Spaghetti Monster t-shirts and items that mock the religious, but this will drive away many of the people that you really want to talk to. We often have people who approach our booth with very serious issues – I’ve talked to people who just got out of prison, people who just lost a close family member, and those who have terminal illnesses. These people are getting recruited hard by religion from every direction, and want to hear some kind but honest words about atheist thoughts about death. The last thing you want to do is try to have this conversation under a giant flying spaghetti monster banner, or have volunteers goofing off with other types of religious mockery. On the other hand, there is value to showing that atheists are fun people who are not living in fear and spending their Sundays in an old building full of torture devices (the cross). Having someone dressed up as Flying Spaghetti Monster and posing for selfies with guests could be fun and bring a lot of attention to you cause.
- Create large booth signs that contain a “call to action” such as “ask an atheist”, “join us today”, or “help us make a difference”. Go to Google Images and search for trade show displays to get ideas for signage. For a typical booth with a popup shade, you should have signs that will be easily seen as people approach from each direction. A 4th sign should be large one that hangs inside the back of the booth, so people will see it when they look into the front of the booth. It should explain who you are and what your group does in as few words as possible. Use real photos, full color, and interesting fonts — this is your first impression to thousands of people, don’t make yourself look cheap or disorganized. You are up against churches, who will be using professional marketing materials and have a great deal of marketing and recruitment experience.
- You MUST have literature to hand out. Many people don’t want to talk, they’ll just ask for literature and walk away. They may be shy, or they may be hiding their interest from another person with them that day who is taking a bathroom break. If you are planning your booth for use a particular event or location, be sure to check to see what is allowed. Some events limit the size of materials handed out to business cards, etc. Most locations have strict rules about providing food or drinks that aren’t sealed and pre-packaged, but we don’t suggest that you give out any food or drinks in order to avoid being falsely accused of making people ill. Remember there will be people who would be happy to see you shut down. Don’t make it easy for them. Also, if your organization has a 501c(3), remember that your literature cannot contain political endorsements.
- For those more interested, have a signup sheet where you get their email address, zip code, and a list of any interests they have (Sunday services, volunteering, feed bank work, etc). There is little point in having an ‘outreach’ unless you are adding to your groups’ membership. Most people will not “go our website and sign up there”, regardless of what they tell you. If you have an internet connection, you may be able to do signups directly online at the booth.
- Don’t make too many assumptions about the interest in atheism in your area. We were visited by a man who participated in an As-An-Atheist booth in Oklahoma City, OK, which is a very religious state, and it helped build their 2,000+ member organization. Their group is one of the most active in America!
To be honest, even in very liberal areas of the US it’s not 100% safe to openly identify as an atheist. If you have any ex-Muslims in your group, their lives are at risk, something I was told openly at an Ask-a-Muslim booth. And, to be fair, if you read any Christian groups you will see that some take joy in bragging that they would kill any atheists they saw, if they could get away with it.
- Make sure there are always at least 2 people at the booth, and make sure volunteers aren’t followed to their cars afterwards.
- Remind volunteers that in the event anyone seems to present a danger to the booth, have them use their smartphones to take clear photos and/or video.
- While atheist themed shirts are nice for the booth, be careful of wearing them other places (stores, bars, etc) while alone. Many Christians feel fully justified in breaking any law to harm others who don’t follow their religion. If you have any doubts about Christian hatred, remember that nearly every atheist billboard put up is quickly vandalized. In Oklahoma in September 2014, a man was beheaded for being an atheist.
On the other hand, you’ll likely get a lot of positive feedback. The VAST majority of our contacts in the booth over 4 years are a thumbs up from people passing by, with some coming over to say think you, and a few even dropping a few dollars in the donation box.
Next you’ll need to set up some rules for volunteers. For clarity, we’ll refer to booth visitors as ‘guests’. Have each volunteer sign an agreement something like this:
- I understand the purpose of this booth, the message this group is trying to spread, and the expected types of dialogue. This is not a place to vent anger or insult others. If you do not agree with the philosophy of the group that’s fine, but you may want to bow out of the the booth volunteer position.
- You are a representative of the group. No matter what, stay calm and respectful. Pass the guest off to another volunteer or choose to end the conversation if needed. Never shout or become physical.
- Be passionate, but don’t go overboard. Keep your voice and hand gestures calm. Don’t encroach others’ personal space, and do not touch or hug someone unless you are 100% certain it is a welcome gesture.
- Atheist clothing is good, but avoid anything that is vulgar or just insulting. No costumes, this is an information booth not a circus.
- Make clear to each person that you are expressing your own opinion, you do not speak for all atheists or even those in the booth. This is especially important if you speak about politics, otherwise you may violate the booth’s permit.
- Some may walk by and shout something such as “Jesus loves you” or “You’ll all burn in hell soon!”. Do not respond. Shouting matches do not make your group look good, and may get your group banned. Don’t take the bait.
- Don’t hijack the conversations of others unless invited or the guest speaks to you. The guest “belongs” to the first volunteer they talk to until they offer to pass them off.
- Don’t gang up on guests. When an interesting conversation gets going, it looks creepy and intimidating if the booth volunteers all creep in. If there are 4 volunteers already there, that’s enough. Watch for other guests to stop to listen to the 1st conversation, and approach them to start a new one. Imagine walking up to a Christian (or any other) booth and having 10 of them walk out and nearly surround you… CREEPY! It’s no less creepy when atheists do it to others.
- Know the most common questions, and have a quick SIMPLE answer to each of them. Do not go off on a 15 minute sermon or make up some obscure answer on the fly… and NEVER respond to the first question with a question. Guests will often will often walk up and respond to your sign and say, “Ok, does God exist?” If you respond “I don’t know, does he?” you’ll look rude and argumentative. They ‘broke the ice’ by walking up and talking, so you need to be able to give answers… and THEN you can ask questions that begin a better discussion.
- You WILL be photographed often by passing guests, and most will do so without asking permission. These photos could end up anywhere. If you’re not OK with this, you should not volunteer.
- Don’t read books or spend time at the table on your phone, it makes the table seem un-welcome. If you need a break, step away from the booth. Also, don’t turn your back to the crowd or get involved in long conversations with other volunteers at the table. While at the table/booth you should be making eye contact and with potential guests walking by.
- Never put food, trash, water bottles, or personal items on the display table, it looks terrible to booth visitors and adds to the negative image of atheists.
- Obviously, this not a place to be drunk or otherwise impaired. You’ll just make everyone look bad, and possibly have the group’s permission to have a booth revoked.
Not everyone is a good fit as an Atheist booth volunteer.
- Screen out those who have an axe to grind with religious people, and can only speak in an insulting/angry manner, or have general anger management issues.
- Screen out those who don’t agree with the booth’s overall philosophy. Oddly enough, many atheists are against having these types of booths at all, and think atheists should stay in hiding.
- Volunteers should have at least a basic knowledge of atheist concepts, discussion points, and the products and services offered by the booth.
- Volunteers should be answer the top 10 or 20 questions simply and directly in a 1 minute or less (basic marketing skills). A longer explanation is fine if asked for, but you should be creating a dialog, not a monologue.
- Role play with new volunteers for practice and evaluation.
- Use a schedule to make sure there are never less than 2 people at the booth, or more than 6 or 7. When you have too many people at the booth it will seem less inviting, and you’ll also have problems with volunteers ganging around visitors — and that’s a very bad thing to do.
DISCUSSION BOOTH TIPS
Keeping conversations civil:
- Always keep in mind that most religious people are simply good people who are doing what they think is the right thing for socially networking with other good people. Most don’t realize how much damage religion does, or how disgusting the bible really is. Most have been told directly by church leaders that atheists are rapists and thieves. Your booth is a powerful tool for changing those perceptions.
- Conversations stay calmer if you are careful to speak about religion in general, if that’s really what you mean. If you’re talking about religion, use the word religion – don’t substitute a specific religion unless necessary.
- Keep in mind that many people have NEVER in their lives spoken openly and candidly about religion, and their own doubts about their religion. It is not all that unusual for them to cry. Keep it fun and casual, but also realize that this is a serious and emotional talk for many guests.
- You’ll likely talk to religious leaders. Some will identify themselves, some won’t. Some will be good conversations, but remember than almost no one actually converses with them, EVER. You may notice they speak speak in scripted sermons, and don’t listen. You have to learn to work with this, and firmly remind them to acknowledge your points and listen to both sides. You will at times need to break into their script and firmly say: “I’m willing to have a conversation with you, but that means we each talk and the other listens, and we answer each others questions. If you are not going to participate in conversation, then I have to end this now”.
- Remember, he who makes the claim carries the burden of proof. The bible (or Q’oran) is the claim, not the proof.
- Don’t engage people who seem drunk, violent, or mentally unstable. Just wish them well. Photograph them if things start to get ugly, so you’ll have a record for law enforcement and/or to warn other volunteers.
- Watch for people watching the booth from a distance, who may be waiting to follow a volunteer as they leave or cause trouble. If you see someone doing this, try to get their photo without them noticing you doing it so that you can share the photo with other volunteers or police if needed.
- Understand that not everyone can be “out of the closet”. Be careful approaching others in person or on social media that you know from your atheist volunteer work. Don’t assume it’s OK to talk about atheism or mention you saw them at the booth unless you’re sure it’s OK to do so. You don’t want to cause someone to lose a job, lose a client, or start a family fight. Also, it’s not your job to “out” anyone, that is a personal issue.
- You may be approached by news media for an on-camera interview. Some people are better at this than others. Plan for this possibility, and ask volunteers to refer media requests to the designated person. That person should be very familiar with the purpose of the booth and the talking points that need to be covered.
– folding tables and chairs, and pop-up sunshade
– literature/cards to hand out
– signup sheets
– donation jar
– big sign introducing your group (for back of booth)
– side signs that are a call to action and “Ask an Atheist”
– bibles and other reference material, ready to show ‘devout Christians’ what they are supporting
– a white board, easel, and markers to help with discussions