Can my atheist family find community as Elks or Masons?
February 21, 2013 1:14 AM   Subscribe

I have a pretty terrific wife and kid, but we have a kind of hole in our lives socially. We don't have a support network locally and since moving to the 'burbs we've struggled to make new friends. I envy the sense of community my dad got from his "church family." We're atheists, but isn't there some avenue besides church that could provide my family with a similar real world social network? Could joining a fraternal organization be the answer?

My grandfather found a balance and camaraderie in his life from his membership in a fraternal order that served him much like my dad's devotion to his church. It makes me wonder if this is something I should explore myself.

The idea of an extended surrogate family for socializing sounds fantastic, even more so if there was room for my wife and kid. Rituals and speechifying don't hold any great appeal to me, but the idea of getting to know other families through dinners, activities, and community service--in a manner more or less parallel to how church congregations bond--is intensely appealing. And I sure wouldn't mind a friendly lodge where I could tipple a bit from time to time.

As has been discussed before here and here there is also the whole "belief in a higher power" requirement that virtually all of these organizations share. Not sure about that.

Here are my questions:
1) Should I look into my local Masonic Lodge? Or do my preferences point me more toward groups like the Elks?
2) Any atheists in a fraternal order who can relate their experiences? I'd rather not lie about my atheism, but I could choke it down if it was only once. If every spaghetti dinner started with an endless prayer and our charity was petitioning to post the Ten Commandments or some such, I would definitely not be okay with that.
3) Are there other similar organizations I should consider?
posted by DirtyOldTown to Society & Culture (76 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
A few caveats:
-I cannot fake it enough to stomach church or religious services of any kind. Not nondenominational, not Unitarian, not Eastern religion. Nada.
-I know some people find friendships and expand their social circles through their hobbies or charity work as was suggested to someone asking a similar question here. I don't have the kinds of hobbies or charity associations that would serve as likely jumping off points. And finding something that includes my wife and kid is the ideal, so I am loathe to pursue an avenue overly specific to my interests.
-My kid is barely four, so connecting to other people through his school or activities is realistically years away.
-We tried connecting to people we shared ethnic ties with (my wife is Romanian/Hungarian), but a) it always seemed to come back to church and b) we're a bit assimilated for their tastes.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:16 AM on February 21, 2013

Any chance you've served in the military? There are lots of groups like the American Legion and the VFW.... I'm still tied to the US Submarine Veterans because of my father's service.

Consider also Rotary International, one of the many Chamber of Commerce groups or Toastmasters.
posted by easily confused at 2:18 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't really do church services either - tried the Unitarian church which had nice people but I felt like I was an impostor, even though they welcome non-believers.

I joined an atheist group through meetup and met some great people. I don't have kids but some of them do, and there has been meetups that included families. They have a variety of meetings ranging from sitting around at a coffee house, lectures, movies, camping trips and barbecues. If there's no such group around you, you could start one.

I would think almost any fraternal order is going to have religious aspects to it. Either in their ceremonies or possibly even naming your church or religion as a part of the selection process.

Everyone I've known that has been involved with the Elks or Masons has been very church oriented. They were all of my grandfather's generation and are no longer living so maybe things have changed in the past 10 years or so.
posted by Melsky at 2:25 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

Masons, AFAIK, are Christians and you have to be some sort of Christian believer to become one.

What about baseball, soccer, basketball leagues? Your religion doesn't matter in those and it's a great way to meet other parents.
posted by three blind mice at 2:44 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Secular Humanism?
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:04 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Masonry isn't Christian per se, but a lot of its ritual is theistic (the Architect of the Universe, etc.), so I wouldn't go that way if you can't stand any sort of spirituality.
posted by Etrigan at 3:29 AM on February 21, 2013

You don t have to be Christian, but you cannot be an atheist and be a Mason.
posted by entropicamericana at 3:53 AM on February 21, 2013

I understand your plight. Have you tried spending a lot of time at your local park/playground with your kid? We have met a lot of other families that way.
posted by Dansaman at 3:56 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may not find a club that has family activities but maybe you should look at groups that give you and your wife a social circle which you could develop to include your kids?

Sertoma Club "exists for the high and noble purpose of SERvice TO MAnkind by communication of thoughts, ideas and concepts to accelerate human progress in the Health, Education, Freedom and Democracy. The primary focus of SERTOMA is communication...helping people with speech and hearing disabilities."

(Try gardening clubs, toastmasters, search "civic organization list yourtown" for other ideas)

On the other hand, if you have a nature center or museum near by that offers family activities, showing up for those activities on a regular basis may lead you to other families who enjoy those activities . . . just give yourselves some time to observe these other folks and have some interactions with them before you suggest other activities.
posted by jaimystery at 4:00 AM on February 21, 2013

I'm in Rotary - great club, but family activities, at least for my chapter, are an afterthought. Some groups may differ, so check local listings.
posted by randomkeystrike at 4:27 AM on February 21, 2013

Metafilter Meetups could do that if you lived in a populace enough area and promoted family friendly events IRL. I love our local Sydney mob to bits, and would see much more of them but for logistical problems. And many of us have little people, or like them. And they're adults I'd like my kids exposed to. Good people. Consider?
posted by taff at 4:27 AM on February 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do you have a VFW or Lion's Club near you? I don't know if those are widespread outside of my state but that might be one answer. The VFW here is typically made up of old, white dudes but our Lion's Club is a wonderful community oriented organization that is populated by some really great folks and we've met plenty of friends and other families through helping out with it.

Also, I know your child is only four but if s/he is interested in sports, go for it. Our local soccer league has a team for four year olds and though I grew up in this town and know everyone, sports have been where I have met "my people", so to speak. I get beyond excited for the constant running around of soccer, baseball, and basketball seasons for my son because the activity is great for him AND mom gets to hang out with all her pals.
posted by youandiandaflame at 5:04 AM on February 21, 2013

I'd second Melsky's suggestion that you look for a secular or nontheist group via Meetup - I used to occasionally attend one in the South that was very welcoming and familial, and which had a number of members with kids who were also treated as part of the group. They didn't have a lodge per se, but they had regular dinners at restaurants around town, parties at members' houses (though I never made it to one with the bouncy castle that had been promised) - and tippling was definitely an activity you could engage in with them.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:04 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Our town has a man made small lake, which is surrounded by social clubs, most of which don't seem to revolve around boating, although many have docks. Most have small waterfront grounds with a social space and bar, like a small VFW hall, and many have playgrounds. Most are not hoitly toity "yacht club" types. Something like that might be a good fit.
posted by Occula at 5:15 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came in to suggest both MetaFilter meetups and Rotary. My perspective on Rotary is not as a member (though I probably will be one someday) but as the child of one. (So, what follows has less to do with the service aspects of Rotary, which I am uninvolved in, but more to do with the relationships one can build through it.)

My dad is really involved in Rotary, and has been all my life. It's not automatically a family thing, but you can easily make it one. I grew up occasionally going to my dad's club meetings (and my mom's, once she joined when I was in grade school). But Dad got involved beyond the club level, helping out with district and regional projects, and going to district, regional, and international conferences. Whenever possible, my parents brought me and my sisters along. Often we were the only children of our age around (my parents were younger than most Rotarians at their level of involvement). But that was great! I loved it. Here were all these adults, from places all over the world, and they had conversations with me, and, especially as I got into my middle school and high school years, they became my friends as well as my parents'. We went to Rotary meetings in California, in St. Louis, in Calgary, in Glasgow, in France, in Denmark, in Spain; next year my dad is running the International Convention, so I'm going to go with my parents to Sydney, Australia! Many of my family's closest friends are friends we've met through these regional and international Rotary meetings. Because of Rotary, I know that I can go to Finland, or Turkey, or Brazil, and meet with people I've known since I was a little girl. And my parents, as members, can attend any club meeting, wherever they are, and make new friends.

Even if you never got involved beyond the level of your club, it will bring you into contact with people you wouldn't have otherwise met, both members and people you would encounter during service projects. And week after week, the club will be there; it's something you can count on.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:19 AM on February 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

I am a Mason and currently serve as Master (president) of my lodge. All of the United States Grand Lodges require that a man profess a belief in God in order to be made a Mason. Christianity is *not* a requirement to be a Mason. The first solid record of a Jewish man being made a Mason occurred in 1723 in England. That was more than 100 years before a Jewish man could hold public office or vote in England.

In my own lodge, I have members who are Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Muslim, Jewish etc., etc. With an emphasis, I should say, on the "etc."

To original question, I have to say that if you are an atheist, you would have to seriously misrepresent yourself in order to become a Mason. And every Masonic meeting begins and ends with prayer. So, not the Masons.

Rotary International is a very fine organization that does much good. You might enjoy them. Or, possibly, the Lions. Most Elks Lodges, I am given to understand, are centered around running a private bar. If you like that kind of thing --- and the darts tournements etc. -- perhaps you could look into them. I'm not sure about their theistic requirements.
posted by driley at 5:33 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am the junior past master of a Masonic lodge. No atheist can be a Mason. Whether or not you believe in God is the first question on the application. Every meeting begins and closes with prayer. There is a lot of ritual work. A Bible is on the altar in the middle of the lodge room. So, Masons are not an option for you unless you want to be actively lying on a regular basis.

I am also a Rotarian. We really don't have any family activities. It is a service organization for community leaders. Are you a community leader? We also begin our meetings with prayer and the keynote feature of every meeting is a talk or speech. I don't know if that is "speechifying" to you.

I do not envy your situation. Unfortunately, your chosen creed doesn't really lend itself to the sort of communal activities you are seeking. It looks like there are something like Atheist Family Clubs on Meetup, but they don't appear to get much traffic. The Miami area club has a meeting set for next Tuesday and three people are going to be attending. Your family could go out to dinner and have the same size of meeting.

I don't know about the theological belief requirements of the Elks and other such fraternal bodies.
posted by Tanizaki at 5:37 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have a Moose International Family Fraternity nearby?
posted by audi alteram partem at 5:41 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know "community theatre" got mentioned in the thread you linked, but I'll note that you can be involved in theatre and not perform at all - there's room for unskilled labor ("paint that thing!") and skilled labor ("build this other thing!") on the tech side, plus backstage work during the show, and there's things like being an usher and even just typing up and collating programs. The groups I work with include entire families, and they are usually fairly tolerant of different beliefs and lack of belief. Also, in the "good for kids" department, I'll note that much of my problem solving skills and ability to work under a deadline can be traced to my years doing theatre when I was a kid.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:12 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

You should at least consider the Unitarian Universalists. It all depends on what your local UU's are like but it's mostly about community and service, not deity.

"In 1997, the Unitarian Universalist Association surveyed more than 8,000 active UUs and found that humanists — a category that includes agnostics and atheists — constituted 46 percent of the membership. How many identify as atheists? The most recent nationwide survey to ask that question was conducted in 1987 by the UUA Commission on Appraisal, which found that 7 percent of Unitarian Universalists picked "atheist" over other options, including "humanist." Going back even further, 21 percent of Unitarian Universalists in 1979 said that the concept of God is irrelevant or harmful, down from 30 percent in 1967. According to a 2001 report in The Christian Century, a study by Ohio University professor James Casebolt found that 18 percent of Unitarian Universalists whom he polled in Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania considered themselves atheists. By comparison, a 2002 City University of New York study found that just 0.4 percent of all Americans say they're atheists." (Link)
posted by rocketpup at 6:25 AM on February 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

We got lots of the same benefits of church-going by joining and helping to organize a homeschooling group when our son was young. He has maintained his core group of friends from those years, as have we, even though we no longer meet weekly.
Now we contra dance and get the same sort of sense of camaraderie. There are people with young children who are part of our group and who attend certain dances with them (not all venue's are as child friendly as others). There is a sub-set of people from within the dance community with whom we do other sorts of activities - attend theatre mostly, and hiking but other small groups do all sorts of things.
There's even an article floating around out there about why can't church be more like contra dance.
posted by jvilter at 6:26 AM on February 21, 2013

Yeah, the Masons aren't a good fit for reasons mentioned here and in the previous discussions you linked to. (But for the record it does bear repeating - other than in Scandanavia and Iceland, Freemasonry is not exclusive to Christians until you get to the Knights Templar degrees -- and some people get into semantic hair-splitting there too.)

But setting the Masons aside, getting active with some kind of local group is definitely worth pursuing; it really does help you to meet a cross-section of community you wouldn't get to know otherwise.

The Lions have already been mentioned, and don't appear to list a 'belief in a supreme being' requirement for membership on their website. There are also the Kiwanis who don't seem to list that requirement either.
posted by usonian at 6:27 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

UU churches vary widely in how "churchy" they are - so if you tried one and found it too full of God talk, try another one. Also, you're more likely to meet atheists at a UU church than almost anywhere else.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:38 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are you in the Chicago area? Maybe check out the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. I'll also second the Unitarian Universalist recommendation.
posted by quietshout at 6:48 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could do activities with the Unitarian church and never go to their services. I used to go to their random dinner parties - they were the best - you sign up on a board and as soon as their are 4 families or couples or singles signed up, you are invited to a dinner party and you meet at least three new people, talk about books or art or science. And odds are that they will all be atheists.

The other option is to get involved with your local food co-op or community garden or farmers market. And bond around food and cooking and potlucks.
posted by cda at 6:53 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could also check your local YMCA -- they often have family activities, day camps, and the like, which could at least be a jumping off place for getting to know folks and finding more social realms. (yes, there's a C in there, but not usually slathered over their activities.)
posted by acm at 6:57 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks, everybody. A few things:

-I never served in the military. So no veterans groups.
-I gather the Masons are out.
-I'd still live to hear from someone about how serious the less ritualized groups are about the higher power thing, particularly the Moose and Elks.
-Anything is possible but based on genetics, my son is about as likely to play sports as he is to sprout wings and join a choir of angels.
-I won't rule out the explicitly service based groups, like the Rotary or Lions, but the extended group of friends with a Lodge who drink and have potluck model sounds more my speed.
-I will consider the atheist/humanist groups, but I tend to resist defining myself by what I don't believe.
-I did a ton of theater as a kid, but my job makes committing to a strict rehearsal schedule nigh-on impossible.
-I will grudgingly look into the Unitarians. I had been opposed but reasonable, pleasant sounding people here have made a good case.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:58 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing the distinct possibility of UU - actual church service.

Try volunteering at a museum? The big museum here has a TON of people and a TON of events.

posted by Jacen at 6:58 AM on February 21, 2013

This may or may not be up your alley, but we're members of a country club and it's great for socializing. All clubs are different, of course, but ours has lots of events like special dinners, dances, parties, tournaments, etc. We can go there for meals or just to hang out any time, they have a super nice gym we can use, there are rooms you can reserve for your own parties. It's pretty low key, not stuffy at all. Less expensive than you might think (they have several levels of membership, but even the lowest level gets you in to the social events). We're in our 30s and are definitely on the younger end of the spectrum, but we don't feel out of place, and I think you'd probably find the same thing in most of the organizations we're discussing. The one missing piece is that there's not really a focus on what I'd call community service. Sure, there are charity dinners, charity tournaments, and so on. But I don't recall any specifically organized community service stuff.
posted by primethyme at 7:08 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, and also, our club has a TON of stuff for kids. I forgot to mention it because we don't have kids and don't partake, but it's really a huge thing there.
posted by primethyme at 7:09 AM on February 21, 2013

I have a friend who recently joined the local Moose lodge, but only for the cheap drinks and Thursday night karaoke. Yearly dues are about $40, and members pay a reduced rate for drinks. He doesn't go to a single meeting, doesn't attend any fraternal or philanthropic activities, just drinks and sings on the cheap.

He's never had to pray, but he did say that the lodge is full of religious kitsch from wall to wall. Think black velvet tapestries of children praying while wearing antlers.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:11 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

We're atheists too, and we've found community in a variety of places:

- My daughter's private school, which she started attending at age 5, so not years off for you; I joined the board, so am very involved, but even without that the school hosts a lot of festivals, fund-raisers, work parties, etc. This is good for connecting with families with similar-age children and similar values. It's a Waldorf school so has a lot of community-focused activities, and we've made very good friends.

- The local yacht club, where my daughter now takes sailing lessons. Virtually any country club can offer similar social connections, and they all include children in some events and only adults in others, which is nice for a family. They don't have to be sports focused, just a swimming pool for splashing around in is nice.

- My husband's business, where he's a partner. They host a family event each summer and an adult-only event each December, and we're friends with some of the other partners the rest of the year. We have to make a big effort to make this work, though, as everyone is so incredibly busy. There's no ritual, just dinners and other events together.

- Living on a lake. We bought a house on a lake, and there's a strong community feel here (at least in the summer). One day I was out kayaking and looking at all the nice lawns people have, and was dismayed that ours looked so uninviting by comparison, and that the neighbors had all sorts of friends over, and we didn't. So I hired a landscaper and we've been making changes to make the shoreline more inviting to people (and wildlife) and it has paid us back socially. Now more people stop by and spend time enjoying the lakeshore with us, and this is really important to us. Choosing the right neighborhood and house can be very important for having the right social life for you. If your move to suburbia is harming your family's social welfare, you might reconsider where you are. I realize that's a tall order, but when we moved from a distant location to our current home, our family's happiness was significantly improved, even to the point where our sex life improved.
posted by Capri at 7:37 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

See if there is a CFI (center for inquiry) in your area. There's one in Michigan that hold events and lectures and retreats and is a like a church community without the church or religion. I'm not sure if other ones are as active but it might be worth checking out.
posted by HMSSM at 7:44 AM on February 21, 2013

My husband participates in Rotary. It's a great way to do service work, but not much of a social network beyond business relationships. First, the group is pretty male-centric, as in most of the branches in our area don't admit women as members. There aren't a lot of family-oriented activities planned. The activities they do tend to be of the poker-night/ beer -drinking thing variety. I'm willing to admit this may be because we're in a backwoods corner of the South. Second, he's found that most of the local group membership tends to be very religious and conservative. One reason he hasn't made "friends" there is because he's still in the closet about being a liberal because his group is very vocally Christian conservative. Forget atheism, he's still uncomfortable with talking about voting Democratic with these people.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:49 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know about country clubs... I'm no fan of golf and I am maybe a bit blue collar for that crowd. (I fix dishwashers for a living. I wear a shirt with my name stitched on it.)

There is a CFI in Chicago, but they don't seem that active. And I live about 40 minutes outside of town. The Ethical Humanist Society sounds kinda good, but again with the distance. The hacker thing sounds cool, but maybe too cool for me. I'm no hacker.

There seems to be a lot to recommend the Unitarian Universalists... but I have only recently mellowed enough to refrain from hectoring perfectly nice people should they make the mistake of mentioning religion in my earshot. I can even be pleasant and gracious about other people's faiths these days. But that took YEARS. I don't know that I'm ready for church of any stripe yet.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:53 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know some people who are members of the local Elks club. Apparently there's one question about belief in God or a higher power on the application form, but that is about it as far as religious stuff. There's a very nice cozy private bar and pool tables. No ostentatious religious memorabilia. It's mostly older men who all know each other hanging out and telling stories.
posted by steinwald at 7:53 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might be happy at a liberal Quaker meeting. No clergy, very accepting of people all along the atheist-agnostic-believer spectrum, services consist of sitting quietly with your own thoughts, whatever they may be. Out of meeting, it's all volunteer opportunities and spaghetti dinners just like other church communities. Zero proselytizing, iconography, holiday observance, etc.

Quaker meetings vary a lot from place to place, so YMMV, but worth looking into. It's maybe not the best place if you are looking to engage in a lot of discussion about atheism, but if you are looking for your personal beliefs to not be an issue in a traditional "church community" setting, Society of Friends might work for you.
posted by apparently at 7:54 AM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Anything is possible but based on genetics, my son is about as likely to play sports as he is to sprout wings and join a choir of angels.

As one data point, I am not athletic [theater and band guy in HS], and neither are my parents, wife, or wife's parents.

My son has been an avid sports participant [football, soccer, track, golf, but mostly baseball and hockey] since he was 5 years old. Now 15, he just finished his last year of association hockey. He's leaving hockey next year in favor of Show Choir, so I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but don't write off sports just yet.
posted by chazlarson at 7:54 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rotary requires applicants to be "professionals" or "community leaders" in some sense. If you are not a doctor, lawyer, successful business owner or executive, or something of similar stature, your application may not be successful.
posted by Nomyte at 7:55 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

My mom is an Elk and I went to her lodge once or twice several years ago... I didn't notice any god paraphernalia and they certainly didn't pray (I'm atheist too, so I'd remember that). But I was there for happy hour and a potluck, not a meeting, so that may be different.

I think there were only older kids (~14 yo and older). I'm not a parent, but I'm not sure I'd bring my young kid there. It was smoky and there were lots of people who clearly spent most of every day sitting at the private bar and drinking the cheap drinks. They were mostly retired folks, but Mom lives in Florida so that's true many places. There may be a younger demographic in other areas.
posted by jshort at 7:55 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I can affirm that hockey parents generally are big drinkers, so there's that.
posted by chazlarson at 7:56 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're kinda isolated there. Is there a nursery school that your kid could attend a few hours a week? My granddaughter is a little younger, 3.5, she goes 4 mornings a week and loves it, plus it gives her stay-home-mom a break. It's good for the kid to get an early taste of school and you'll meet other parents. You might also check out story time at the library.

It's winter, when it warms up you will meet people. Go for daily walks with the kid, say hello to everyone.
posted by mareli at 8:02 AM on February 21, 2013

In a year or two, when your kid is actively in an all day school environment I imagine this will get sorted out. Its not just private schools that have lots of activities, even the public ones will too. Getting involved here will put you in touch with other parents that you can socialize and build relationships with. Also as your kid expands their social circle that will necessitate putting you in touch with those kid's parents. Being friendly and socialable will gain you friends and community.

I don't have kids but I've noticed this same pattern with my sister and my sister-in-law. Both of them now have school age kids and this has expanded the pool of adults that they are in contact with.
posted by mmascolino at 8:02 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mr. Sophie is a member of a motorcycle club. Most of his friends come from there and while they definitely don't drink on rides, they do drink at other events. Don't know if you ride, but that is some serious good fraternal fun and families are definitely involved.

The other idea, especially since you said you like a little drink now and then, my brother-in-law is a member of a whisky club. See if there's one of those near you.
posted by Sophie1 at 8:03 AM on February 21, 2013

To contribute another data point, I speak as an atheist in the sense that I do not belong to a religious creed of any kind and have no interest in non-academic discussions of "spiritual matters."

I have had some experience with Unitarian Universalism: a congregation met in a building right next to my high school in Rochester, NY, and Baltimore, where I went to college, has a beautiful old Unitarian church.

I think it is extremely unlikely that I will ever join a UU church. I find UU to be "not a church" only in the sense that they don't put a heavy emphasis on what exactly you believe in. They still focus on "spiritual growth," carry out regular rituals, and do other things I find explicitly religious in nature.
posted by Nomyte at 8:09 AM on February 21, 2013

I've got a number of friends who have joined the local Moose Lodge, and as a result, I've been to a few events and social hours there. The one around here has no religious trappings that I noticed. The worst thing about it is the pervasive smell of cigarette smoke. The friends who have joined are not remotely religious, and not exactly lacking in opportunities for socializing either (in fact, they may have joined because private clubs like these are the last tavern-analogues where you can smoke in Austin). So different lodges may have different vibes.

Actually, I could say exactly the same things about the local Elks Club.
posted by adamrice at 8:10 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't know that I'm isolated (I live in a good-sized suburb in a mess of good-sized suburbs around Chicago), so much as I haven't found my angle for navigating socially here. We got by off of trips to the city to see our old friends for a while, then had the inevitable period of hunkering down and getting all hermit-like when the kid was born. But now we're ready to get social again and we can't seem to find our way.

I'm really envious of all of the ways religious people have to rapidly ingratiate themselves into an existing community. Like Nomyte, I am resistant enough to all of that to be wary even of Unitarians.

Maybe school will be our outlet as mmascolino and others suggest. My kid goes to all-day daycare/preschool right now, but the focus there from parents is on getting the kid out of/into the car and getting the hell out. Maybe when he starts kindergarten, people will be more social.

And if people are telling me the Elks/Moose are essentially drinking/smoking dens that also regularly open themselves to family events, I have to tell you that sounds plenty fine.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:13 AM on February 21, 2013

I wonder if I could get any traction starting a meetup for the Loyal Order of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:27 AM on February 21, 2013 [11 favorites]

I think you probably could get traction starting some kind of family activities meetup, or an athiests/secular humanists meetup, but if you go with FSM specifically, you'll likely be attracting a somewhat younger, less married and sprogging sort of crowd.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:31 AM on February 21, 2013

My wife almost joined the local Moose lodge here in L.A., mostly to gain access to their hall facilities. I don't think there were any religious requirements. I've been several times as a guest, an it seems like a bar, with a hall attached, slightly kitschy decor. The crowd skews older, working class, several generation Mexican-American, pretty down to earth. Just never got around to jumping on board, though we consider it every now and then.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:34 AM on February 21, 2013

Have you tried your physical neighborhood?

Informally, hang around outside a lot (yardwork, car repair, exercise, kid playing in front yard, etc) and strike up conversations with others who are out. Borrow a snow-blower or hedge trimmer or something - people like to feel needed and to help others. Offer a beer, see if anyone goes out jogging and bump into them

More formally, invite your neighbors to a neighborhood potluck at your house. If you end up liking these folks, make it into a monthly event or give it a theme or host it as a designated "every third Friday we're doing this; drop by for any or all events". Extend the invitations a few blocks in each direction and make it a bigger thing at a park or close the street off one day a year and host a kids olympics-type event (maybe when the weather is warmer).
posted by CathyG at 8:41 AM on February 21, 2013

Rotary clubs definitely vary in their flavor. I'm not a member, but like ocherdraco, my dad has been heavily involved in Rotary for pretty much my entire life. His club is very family oriented; I grew up going to tons of Rotary events and there were usually tons of other kids around. For his club, while the service aspect is a big part of it, the main draw is getting together to eat and network/socialize once a week. They like to call themselves "the friendliest club in the world", and they work hard to make sure people are welcomed and connected in the community. They also try to bring in interesting speakers, sometimes with a service angle, other times just for educational purposes. The crowd skews towards older, richer, white businessmen, but they can make a fair stab at diversity (my middle-class Asian dad, for example, and he joined when he was quite young), but I've also visited enough other Rotary clubs to know that there's a pretty wide range, so it's worth checking out what the local flavor is like.
posted by Diagonalize at 8:42 AM on February 21, 2013

MrM started going to his local boardgame store when he moved to a new town, and through that attended a lot of games nights which then led to meals out, home gaming sessions and the like. We're moving in together soon and I'll miss having it to go to, so we're hoping to find something similar in our new area.

Boardgames might not be your thing (though if your experience begins and ends at Monopoly, it's worth going to a game night to see how you like it, and find some interesting kids games) but many hobbies end up with a community built around them. I joined an am dram society at university and ended up doing 90% of my socialising with them (there was a LOT of drinking) and some of my best friends 13yrs later were people I met there - there are lots of amateur adult theatrical groups, and if singing/acting isn't your thing you can costume or crew. From what I've heard, people who use allotments tend to bond over common interests too.
posted by mippy at 8:44 AM on February 21, 2013

Sorry, by 'allotment' I mean 'community garden'.
posted by mippy at 8:46 AM on February 21, 2013

Are there volunteer or service organisations around that you could join instead? Get the vibe at open days. I don't know if organisations like the state emergency service or rural fire service exist in America, but religion has never been an issue, and I found them to be very social/ welcoming to newcomers.
posted by insomniax at 8:52 AM on February 21, 2013

Oh! This is completely out of left field, but I see there is a curling club in Chicago. I went to an open house/"Learn to curl" workshop at one near me and hope to join someday when I don't have so many other irons in the fire. The members of the club were all super-nice and said that curling enthusiasts tend to be that way. People who get involved at the tournament level take the competition seriously, but everything I've ever heard about the sport is that spirit of competition is incredibly gracious and good-spirited; I mean, the long-standing tradition is that after every match the winning team buys the losing team a round of drinks.

The club near me is small and cozy, and has its own bar and dining/social area with a big window looking down on the curling sheets, so people who aren't playing can still hang out, and I was given the impression that sort of setup is fairly common. There are youth programs and overall it was just a really nice atmosphere. And the game itself was a lot of fun to play.
posted by usonian at 8:53 AM on February 21, 2013

If you have a good YMCA, those can be magic. Mine has kids' classes, group outings, community dinners twice a month, family nights with activities and bouncy houses, all kinds of things. I have many close friends that I've made from the Y, and my kids are definitely "YMCA kids." Despite the historical C in the name, there is exactly zero religion anywhere, it's about as relevant to their mission as the M is.
posted by KathrynT at 8:55 AM on February 21, 2013

It's a Waldorf school so has a lot of community-focused activities, and we've made very good friends.

Just a note that Waldorf has theist roots in anthroposophy, though the degree to which this matters to you, personally, or to the school community is likely to vary. I'd do some research before considering this a real option.

Do you like speculative fiction? I've found that sci-fi groups and meet-ups tend to have strong community element where adherents are just as likely to be atheists as they are to be religious. The community element is strongest in well-established groups, particularly ones associated with conventions or the SFWA. Though SF tends to attract some . . . interesting personalities. You have to have a high tolerance for weird, basically.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:11 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing UUs. I've been attending social events at my local UU church for the past 6 years and have built a really great "village" without ever once talking about god or religion. When I moved here I joined a covenant group for people in their 20s and 30s (the covenant is showing up; then we'd talk about things like parents, money, jobs, things like that, a different topic every week) and though that covenant group broke up a couple years later, our group of 6 couples has remained close friends and between us we now have 8 kids (and another on the way) which is a totally weird thing to think about, none of these little ones were around when we started meeting, but it's really great because our kids also have a built-in group of friends. Beyond this group, I also go to "circle suppers" which are potlucks/social events, and attend a women's group and a book group, and have met a wide variety of great people this way. I very, very rarely attend a service, and I find that when I do, I tend to tune out the sermon and just kind of meditate / spend time with my own thoughts. I bet other people use the church this way, too.

I will also agree with others that some UU churches are more religious or "churchy" than others, so if you try one and don't like it, try another if you can. I have been going to UU churches my entire life and they really do vary in this regard.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:30 AM on February 21, 2013

You've already got a ton of great answers, but I would also like to recommend bowling. My grandfather -- a die-hard curmudgeon who didn't like his neighbor across the street because he was from "the other part of Sicily" -- loved his bowling league and went religiously right till the end (kept his average above 170 even after the knee surgery!).

I went with him once or twice and it was amazing. This guy, who I'd known my whole life as being gruff and stoic, would magically transform into a smiling, laughing social animal. He would fist-bump people when they got a turkey, high-five the old ladies, and generally just have a blast. He made some good friends there and it was definitely the highlight of his week.

Bowling is family friendly, easy for even the non-athletic, and as serious/committed as you want it to be. What could be better?
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 9:36 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here are four ideas:

**ethnic organizations (dinners, movie night, invited speakers, picnic gatherings, softball teams)
**library patron club (book/movie discussion, events for families, movie night, trivia game, family bingo, etc.)
**historical organizations (invited speakers, museum trips, dinners, service projects)
**alumni organizations (travel, view sporting events, networking)

As a contrary word, I have been inside 30+ YMCAs around the country and nearly all of them had a bible on display and at least half of them had a bible verse posted somewhere. These passages were typically mild "golden rule"-esque messages about patience, respect, community, etc. but the book/chapter/verse are cited. If you were being serious about starting arguments with people who mention anything religious within earshot, I'd suggest YMCA might be too "C" for you.
posted by 99percentfake at 9:41 AM on February 21, 2013

Dude. I was you 13 years ago. Moved out to the suburbs with a small kid, didn't know anyone.

1) Enroll your kid in a martial art. Martial arts don't take a lot of athleticism at first. (At four, it's all they can do to pay attention for a half hour anyway.) You will meet the other parents, because you'll be sitting around together watching classes, and seeing each other at competitions. We bonded very closely with a core group of families when my daughter took tae kwon do, and did a lot of stuff together when the kids were young.

2) Try to get to know the other parents at preschool. Depending on the size of the school district, you're probably going to be running into most of these same people for the next 12 years anyway. Maybe you can volunteer to fix or build something at the school? If you have time, maybe you can do a Show & Tell with your tools? I found it easier (as an introvert) to get to know the teachers at my daughter's preschool first, and then branch out into the families.

3) You could be the guy on the block who throws parties/barbecues for the whole neighborhood, or organizes a block party every summer. This can be difficult if that's not your personality, but it certainly brings you together with a group of folks who share a physical location with you.

4) There was a thread recently here about alternatives to the Boy Scouts (since it sounds like you wouldn't be interested in them for the same reasons as you don't want to join the Masons). Your son is getting close to the right age for that stuff. You'd probably meet tons of folks through something like that.

5) There's a science pub in Homewood I've been wanting to check out forever. From what I've read about it, it tends to draw a regular group of people.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:18 AM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Maybe organizing a block party? Becoming a member at the local museum (generally lots of good kids events, too - family days, art activities, special tours). Society for Creative Anachronism? The local nature center might do classes where you could meet other people as well.
posted by PussKillian at 10:19 AM on February 21, 2013

My kid is barely four, so connecting to other people through his school or activities is realistically years away.

Why? Some of the best new acquaintances you can make are people with kids your own age.
If your son is in preschool, make sure you go to all the events (fundraisers/board meetings/etc), find the parents of the kids your son mentions at home and introduce yourself.
Obviously you won't get along with all (most) of them, but almost certainly one of them will invite you over for a bbq or whatever, at which you'll meet their friends, etc.
One of them will do an activity that sparks your interest for sure.

Same thing at the playground. Talk to every parent that shows up. Most of it will, of course, be meaningless chatter, but someone will mention the local parenting listserv or facebook group, which will point you in the right direction for family activities.

I know you asked more specifically about established groups, but it's been my experience that it's better to start with the people and learn to like the activity than to start with the activity and learn to like the people.
posted by madajb at 10:26 AM on February 21, 2013

My kid goes to a preschool targeted primarily at working people who need public assistance for child care. (We don't use public assistance ourselves, but it's actually a nice place, the regular rates are low, and we know some of the teachers there.) So the primary vibe from parents there is "Holy crap, kid, get out of the car I have to go to work now." We've tried to reach out to other parents and are vague friends with a few, but these are mostly working people who don't have time to socialize. I hope we'll be able to bond more once he starts regular elementary school.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:33 AM on February 21, 2013

I think at this point, I will try several options.

I'm going to check in on the Elks, to see what that's like. (I have a friend going along, so that will make it fun either way.) I'm going to try and find another activity for my kid that might help him and us make some friends. (He took some gymnastics classes, but the gym moved before we really got to know anyone, and it's too far away now.) I'm going to try some Meetups (I'll be going to the MeFi meetup in Chicago this weekend.) We'll see. I'm getting the vibe that making a commitment to get out more is really going to be the key factor.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:39 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're in the area that I am guessing you are (based on your description), the Elks are a really great community out there. My folks weren't joiners, but most of my friends' parents did the Elks thing at one time or another, and it was great for them!
posted by like_a_friend at 10:47 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think just keep looking around and something will pop up. Read the bulletin board at the library or bookstore and be open to that stuff. Also, just keep asking anyone who seems promising to come over. We do casual dinners with a few friends and used to cook for them but now we just get takeout to make it easier on everyone.

I also want my kids to have a sense of community. I think it's important for them to have a lot of adults around who know them and, of course, have friends that they grow up with. I've been dreaming of holding a standing brunch on the first Sunday of the month because I think that would give them some neat memories of people gathering together on a regular basis to hang out.

good luck!
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:35 AM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Join a CSA and go to all the farm events! There's lots around Chicago, I used to work for Sandhill Organics (now Sandhill family farms). All sorts join, and if you get a few neighbors to join in you could get a drop Off site in your 'hood....pick up veg and hang out for beers or coffee once a week?
posted by jrobin276 at 1:22 PM on February 21, 2013

Join a bowling league. Bowling is huge in Chicago. There will be plenty of other people who wear shirts with their names stitched in for work. There are a wide variety of leagues in a town like Chicago, from the rec leagues with younger, more casual bowlers, to the sport leagues of people who take it seriously. It's pretty family friendly -- the kids can hang out and do their homework, play games in the game room, etc. It's a fun activity that can become a skill sport if you're interested in going that direction. And there's plenty of beer and fatty food, if that's your inclination.
posted by slogger at 2:06 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, check out for interesting events. I see a number of "Moms" meetups near your area -- the one near me has been a good source for my wife meeting people -- as well as things like this and this.
posted by fings at 2:45 PM on February 21, 2013

Elk here. You have to profess a belief in "god" (FSM counts) and say you're not a communist at the moment for membership, but the god requirement will probably be eliminated in the next year or two and I think they may have dropped the commie question this year. My lodge skews elderly (Average age 70, median age 72) but we're working hard to change that. We've got a nice non-smoking lodge with a bar and restaurant right on the lake. We provide thousands of dollars in scholarships to high school seniors every year, sponsor a camp for severely disabled kids so their folks can get some relief and we provide televisions and cable service for the local VA hospital.
You can be as involved as much or as little as you'd like. Elks as a group are ageing, which provides an opportunity for young folks to move in and mold the organization into something more suited to the 21st century. Many of the lodges have some great under-utilized amenities, like swimming pools, health clubs, and pool rooms. Your membership admits you to any Elks Lodge in the country. Our lodge is pretty blue collar, with cops and tradesmen in the majority, so you'd fit right in. Really it depends on your lodge, but give it a try! You might find the Elks will work for you. Plus, if you play your cards right, you could be elected "Exalted Ruler" which might get you a little more respect at home, but sure would look great on a resume!
posted by Floydd at 4:23 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thanks, Floydd. That's one of the replies I'd been hoping to see: an honest-to-gawd Elk saying that the God thing isn't something to sweat over and there's some fun to be had. I'm in touch with the guy from my nearest lodge and will be going by next week to check the place out.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 4:53 PM on February 21, 2013

The Bike Church in a bike collective in Santa Cruz. It is so named because it started out on Church Street, but the churchy bike collective idea picked up as a small meme and I know of several others: the Bike Temple in Portland Oregon, the Brockville Bike Ministry, and the bike collective in Davis where I used to live still has "ministers" even though it is no longer called the Bike Church.

My point is that bike collectives are another community thing. A lot of them have a "have a few drinks of beer after shop hours close" culture. Some people bring their kids and their kids are made welcome. There are at least seven bike collectives in Chicago.
posted by aniola at 8:53 PM on February 21, 2013

My grandfather was a member of one of the Moose lodges outside of Chicago for years and every so often we would go to family lodge events (easter egg hunts, community dinners, etc.) While they had these kinds of events once a month or so, for members the main activity was hanging out in the smoky old bar a few times a week.

At the time, however, there was a big push to modernize the organization by turning the lodges into family centers and focusing on philanthropy. Some lodges were more successful at this than others. Today it seems like there can be a big difference from one lodge to the next. Some are still smoky old bars and others are bright community centers with events going on all the time.

I remember at the initiation ceremony (my grandpa got my dad and uncles to join because you were rewarded for signing people up in some way) there was some mention of god, but nothing over-the-top. It was mostly stuff left over from their old rituals. Religion was never a central part of the organization, but at my grandfather's lodge it seemed a given that you were God-fearing/Christian. I remember there being a prayer before we ate, for instance, although again this surely depends on the lodge. Reading Floydd's description of the Elks sounds pretty similar to the Moose.

I think you just have to take all of the opportunities you can to meet other people, whether through work or your kids' schools or activities or community events. At least for most of my blue collar Midwestern family, when I was growing up socializing wasn't really related to organized groups. Nobody in my family was a regular church-goer or particularly involved in a church except for my great grandmother. It seems like everyone just found a few like-minded couples or friends and that opened up their social circle, which in turn got you invited to the BBQs, sporting events, super bowl parties, group vacations, etc. It was at those types of activities that I really remember socializing as a family.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 10:09 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm being initiated as an Elk in my local lodge Wednesday night. If a later reader has a similar question, they may feel free to follow up with me about how it went.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:12 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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