When I was a teen, there is nothing I would have loved more than to be in a secular youth group. I wasn’t in a religious youth group, but from what I’ve heard, I didn’t miss much besides purity culture, bad Christian rock music, and suppressed teen hormones.
But what if there was a youth group for teens, without all that? A group that is instead led by the teens themselves, where they’re free to be who they are and explore their identities and values while actually having fun? Well, I’ve got good news: there is. And if you’re a teen in LA, you’re welcome to join Evolve Youth Group, whether you’re religious or not.
An offshoot of California’s Atheists United, Evolve was founded in 2021 by student Bella Harris and facilitator Evan Clark. Evan is an award-winning humanist community organizer with over 14 years of experience tinkering with secular communities. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently Executive Director of Atheists United, North American Coordinator for Young Humanists International, and California State Director for American Atheists.
I’m so excited to share with you what Bella and Evan had to say about Evolve and how it’s making a positive impact for secular youth in LA.
Can you tell me a little bit about Evolve?
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.”
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.
A secular youth group is born
What made you decide to launch Evolve?
I just recognized there was a lack of this type of group. There just aren’t really any that I know of. There are tons of youth groups and things that unify teens with their peers, but none that are geared for nonreligious, atheist, or secular kids. It just seemed unfair to have to be, label, or identify yourself as religious to keep up with your friends and have the community that youth groups provide.
It’s funny to me; when I first reached out to a lot of my friends about starting a “youth group,” when Evan and I were just beginning to put Evolve together, many of my friends immediately said “no” because of the ecclesiastical connotation, and—let’s face it—often creepy/cringey image that comes from the word “youth group” itself. Many excluded themselves before even knowing what we were about, because they don’t see themselves as someone a “youth group” would apply to.
It wasn’t until I explained to them that the youth group was secular that they began to consider it, because the secularism of the youth group releases the pressures and awkward nature of what we think the majority of youth groups look like.
One in three young people today do not identify as religious, yet they have few welcoming, secular spaces where they explore deep questions about who they are, what they believe, and what they want to do with their lives. This uniquely secular generation deserves peer-centric spaces where their inherent curiosity is encouraged, not challenged.
By youth, for youth
What sets Evolve apart from similar groups?
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.
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.
What’s something you’re hoping Evolve can achieve in the future?
We’re hoping to have more regular meetings and work out a monthly schedule so that people can pick and choose what they attend as they please. We are still very new and building and figuring it all out, but we hope to have a core group of people here and even expand into other parts of the country, especially in areas where groups such as Evolve, are more needed. Los Angeles is already pretty diverse in terms of ideas and people, but out of the city or even the state, in most places you won’t find this type of thing. So it would have more impact in a place like that, where kids don’t have the same opportunities we have here.
Our vision includes consistent weekly or monthly events where students can do deeper dives on the topics that they’re most curious about. High school is one of the most exciting, awkward, challenging times for many. We believe every students deserves a safe space where they can be themselves while asking the biggest questions facing youth today.
I also had the chance to chat with an anonymous member of Evolve about their own experience in the group and what it means to them.
What has been your favorite event with Evolve?
My favorite event with Evolve so far has been the scavenger hunt at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We went around looking for details on graves and inside mausoleums throughout the park. It was part history lesson, part game!
How does Evolve compare with other extracurriculars or groups you’re in?
Evolve has created a team that brings together different kinds of people who can enjoy a variety of activities. People are super open-minded and everyone gets along really well. Having spent so much time inside due to COVID, it’s been nice to expand my friend group and get into the real world.
What do you wish more people knew about Evolve?
I wish people would know that Evolve is really accepting and is a great group to find new friends from all over Los Angeles.