Saturday, December 31, 2022

Youth Groups Without Dogma

In a recent article for OnlySky, Rebeka Kohlhepp introduces us to Evolve Youth Group, which is described as [a]n offshoot of California’s Atheists United." In the article she shares from her interview of Bella Harris and facilitator Evan Clark, who co-founded the group in 2021. This is a 'secular' youth group, so let's see how each of the founders describe it.

Midjourney AI 2022
"We’re a nonreligious-based youth group — a group that provides a safe space for nonreligious teens that want to have some sort of community, but don’t want to be part of a church. Evolve is really an organization that exists to give kids a place to do some of the things youth groups do, like community service, fun outings, or just hanging out and having something to identify with, outside of the boundaries of 'religion' and 'atheism.'"

Evan: "Evolve Youth Group is a place for curious and dynamic high school students to bravely explore new ideas and learn about the world in a safe and inclusive community. We organize communicable and social events where youth can explore fellowship, identity, and ethics, as youth."

Very cool, and I like it. I also would just like to note that they are essentially describing the youth group of the Unitarian Universalist congregation where I'm a member. The youth program at Beacon UU in Summit, New Jersey doesn't have a proselytizing agenda, nor is any sacred scripture or set curriculum used. When my son was in high school he was an active participant, and they gathered to sing, discuss their lives, and have fun. It was a welcome escape from their regular high school routine and an opportunity to be themselves. 

As someone who spent around two decades in evangelical circles, I know how hard it can be for exvangelicals to believe that such a youth group exists in a 'church' setting. And yet, it does. Also, while I'm sure that other UU youth groups also don't participate in purity culture (we're more this-world affirming, emphasizing consent and responsibility), it's always possible that others have more of that "UU woo woo" I've heard atheists complain about from time to time. 

Weirdly, Bella and Evan don't seem to be entirely on the same page about how Evolve Youth Group is unique. In answer to the question, "What sets Evolve apart from similar groups," here's how each responded.

Bella: There aren’t really any similar groups. We are similar to a religious youth group in that we do activities and hangouts, but we don’t have any agenda or push any ideas on anyone. You don’t even have to be nonreligious or an atheist.

Evan: While amazing institutions like Ethical Culture Society, Camp Quest, Unitarian Universalists, and the Satanic Temple have developed incredible youth programs over the past 100 years, we found an underwhelming amount of programs that directly targeted atheist or agnostic high school students. Not only that, most programs are adult-led, class style programs. We’re wildly focused on keeping our program youth-led.

So, the way I read that, Bella doesn't think there are any other groups that are non-religious and which also welcome people who aren't 'nonreligious or an atheist." Meanwhile, Evan acknowledges that such exist, but that there haven't been enough "that directly targeted atheist or agnostic high school students." It sounds like they are saying two very different things. Meanwhile, I agree with Evan that many are probably adult-led and have a class format, but I have no experience of such, as the UU youth groups in my part of the country are mostly student-led and are not classes.

What I'm saying is that a lot of the time the atheist movement is reinventing the wheel and calling it something new, and this is one of those instances. I'm all for non-dogmatic youth groups, whether affiliated with Atheists United, Ethical Culture, the UUA, or whatever else. I definitely could have benefited greatly from such a group in my youth. Let's just not pretend that it's a new concept, because it definitely isn't.