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The Absurdity of the ‘Mission Drift’ Argument

Greta Christina has a post about the argument, which I frankly find utterly bizarre, that atheist individuals and organizations should not focus on social justice issues because this would constitute “mission drift.” I think this nails it quite well:

The atheist movement, and the main atheist organizations, are focused (at least in theory) on advocating for the acceptance and civil rights of atheists, advocating for church/state separation, creating communities and support systems for atheists, and opposing the harm done by religion. (With different focuses from different organizations, of course.)

So why would it constitute mission drift for the atheist movement to focus on how religion harms people by undermining social justice? Why would it be mission drift to focus on the harm done by abstinence-only sex education; by the influence of the religious right on reproductive rights; by the influence of the religious right on public education and economic policy; by fraudulent preachers and psychics preying on impoverished communities? Why would it constitute mission drift to work on making our communities and support systems more welcoming to a wider spectrum of people, and to look at ways that these communities might be alienating some populations without intending to? Why would it constitute mission drift to look at ways that advancing acceptance and civil rights for atheists might work differently in different communities and demographics, and to adapt our work accordingly?

And in fact, just like with the skeptical movement, the atheist movement is already doing this. The atheist movement has, for instance, taken on the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage, and has done so with passion and energy. Religious bigotry against gay people, and the myriad ways this bigotry has injured so many people, is one of the most prominent issues for the atheist movement, and has been for years. Given that this is true, why is there such strong pushback from so many people against the very notion of the atheist movement focusing on other political and social justice issues, and such fear that this will pull atheism away from its roots?

And there’s another aspect of this that is important: No one is suggesting that every single atheist individual or organization should do nothing but work on social justice issues. There is already a great deal of division of labor among the various groups and every single one of us involved in activism chooses to focus on certain issues rather than others. I tend to focus on separation of church and state, equality and fighting the theocratic agenda of the religious right (all of which overlap, of course). That I choose to focus my attention there doesn’t mean that I think everyone else should do the same. No one thinks Robert Price should suddenly stop doing Biblical criticism and start writing about gay rights, or that the NCSE should put all its energy into fighting misogyny. Decide for yourself which facet of these issues animate you and motivate you to get involved.

Comments

  1. atheist says

    The subtext: organized atheists want to be part of the world, and most of us want social progress. This makes some “Skeptic”/”Atheist” organizations feel like they are losing control. So they try to regain the control they believe they possessed back when they were marginalized and nobody cared about them.

  2. baal says

    Where is the context for this post?
    PZ, Greta and now you are posting on it. Did I miss a memo from JREF and AA that was launching an anti-etc campaign and based that on a mission drift argument? Or is this FTB (fine a subset of the bloggers) pre-emptively making an argument out of the blue? Due to a overflow of a back channel discussion? Is this fall out from PZ’s bizarre diatribe that skepticism needs to go the way of alchemy?

    “why is there such strong pushback “<–I'm not seeing this up and around.

    Also, I answered Greta's primary question over there that so far as any one (who is not from FTB) is floating the argument, it's a collateral attack on not dealing with feminism (& releated) since discussions of the later are toxic.

    Most of the atheosphere starts with links or references to very specific item, circumstances or instances and that's missing from this discussion.

  3. Anthony K says

    baal, I think the context is recent talks and pieces by Jamy Ian Swiss and Daniel Loxton.

  4. says

    baal –

    As Anthony said, the immediate cause was a talk by Jamy Ian Swiss (which I have not heard). But this is an argument I’ve heard made often by many people and that’s what I am particularly responding to. I’m not going to get involved with the specific battle between PZ, Greta and Jamy. But I think the broader issue of this “mission drift” argument is worth talking about.

  5. says

    Ed, you A-pussers keep missing the point. I know of no one who opposes individual atheists working on social justice issues. Do so as individual citizens, BUT DON’T DO SO AS AN AVOWED ATHEIST. DON’T DO SO AS AN ORGANIZED ATHEIST GROUP. AND ESPECIALLY DON’T DEFINE ATHEISM AS INCLUDING SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUES!

    If the neo-Nazis came out as supporting {whatever}, most people would be against that {whatever} just because neo-Nazis support it. It’s the same with atheism.

    Get smart. Learn to separate issues. Solve individual problems as individuals without harming your causes by injecting irrelevant pejoratives.

    Social justice causes don’t need Neo-Nazism-Plus because the association is counter-productive. Social justice causes don’t need Atheism-Plus for exactly the same reason.

  6. scienceavenger says

    So why would it constitute mission drift for the atheist movement to focus on how religion harms people by undermining social justice?

    Because a lot of atheists (the Objectivist and libertarian wings) don’t believe in social justice. So they object to (perceived) linking of their atheism to it.

  7. says

    From what I can see, organized atheism, in the US (and perhaps even worldwide) is a social justice movement, of a sort: countering the privilege and hegemony of the religious (mainly Christian in the US) on behalf of an oppressed minority (atheists – even if individual atheists aren’t all that oppressed).

    So extending that advocacy to other social justice aspects seems quite sensible, especially since, often as not, religious hegemony is implicated in the oppression of others (GLBT individuals, women, children, ethnic minorities, even religious minorities in some cases).

  8. Dexeron says

    @jenny6833a:

    Wait… so you don’t know of anyone who opposes atheists working on social justice issues… except you oppose atheists working on social justice issues unless we do it in a way you’re comfortable with… because neo-Nazis? What?

    So, assuming you are yourself an atheist, I’m assuming you’re not a part of any atheist groups, or ever publically acknowledge to anyone that you are an atheist – after all, people might think you’re on par with Neo-Nazis or something.

    Firstly, no, that’s absurd. Secondly, intersectionality is important. Some problems are too big for individual people to handle individually. That’s a large part of this whole argument: the value in synergistic combination of effort among otherwise disparate groups.

  9. lofgren says

    Since when has the atheist movement had any kind of top-down, predefined mission anyway?

    Those who argue against atheist groups making a stake in social justice debates – regardless of whether or not there is a clear religious connection to the injustice – are short sighted to the extreme. The more diversity amongst atheist groups, the stronger it is. The more varied our interests, the more likely outsiders are to find a home with us as they find themselves drifting away from religion.

    The comment about Nazis is ridiculous. If the Nazis had spent their time helping people and advocating for diversity and justice instead of waging insane wars and slaughtering millions of innocent people, they wouldn’t have the bad reputation that they have today.

  10. Anthony K says

    Ed, you A-pussers keep missing the point. I know of no one who opposes individual atheists working on social justice issues. Do so as individual citizens, BUT DON’T DO SO AS AN AVOWED ATHEIST. DON’T DO SO AS AN ORGANIZED ATHEIST GROUP. AND ESPECIALLY DON’T DEFINE ATHEISM AS INCLUDING SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUES!

    I’ve specifically cut out all the pages in my copies of The God Delusion and God is Not Great that mention injustice caused attributed to religious beliefs. Social justice is not atheism, Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris!

    Religion should only be opposed because it’s probably untrue! Shout it from the rooftops!

  11. Anthony K says

    Because a lot of atheists (the Objectivist and libertarian wings) don’t believe in social justice. So they object to (perceived) linking of their atheism to it.

    The objectivist and libertarian wings of skepticism are much the same. WE DON’T CARE THAT YOU CANNOT ACCESS MEDICAL CARE, WE ONLY CARE THAT THE MEDICAL CARE YOU CANNOT ACCESS DOES NOT INCLUDE HOMEOPATHY!

  12. TGAP Dad says

    I am old enough to remember the struggle to pass the ERA. It seemed to have a lot of momentum, but stalled short of the necessary limit, with a few states attempting to rescing their approval. One of tha factors contributing to this was that the opposition began tying the ERA to “feminism” (which was contemporary code for “lesbian rights”), abortion/contraception rights, and others. The movement willingly accepted these very worthy kindred causes into their fold. However, in my memory of the day, this siphoned off enough supporters kill the ERA. These other issues of human rights and dignity are certainly worthy, and need to be addressed, but the political strategy of binding together like that could doom them.

    Tink of a Venn diagram where all of the voting public is one circle, and a smaller circle inside represents the atheist rights supporters. Now imagine another circle of feminist supporters. This circle will have some common area with the atheist circle, but will not wholly contain it, there are some people, in both groups, who will not be in the intersection. That is the risk of bringing more to the table: for those people for whom the other movement is unpalatable, you’ve given them a reason to bow out. Now there are some who will bid them good riddance, yet it dooms the goals, putting both out of reach.

    So it is possible to have a situation where both goals may be attainable separately, even simultaneously, but not when bound together.

  13. says

    Ed, you A-pussers keep missing the point. I know of no one who opposes individual atheists working on social justice issues. Do so as individual citizens, BUT DON’T DO SO AS AN AVOWED ATHEIST. DON’T DO SO AS AN ORGANIZED ATHEIST GROUP.

    Screw you.

    I’ll do it as an atheist.
    I’ll do it as a libertarian.
    I’ll do it as a humanist.
    I’ll do it as feminist.
    I’ll do it as person who cares about people.
    I’ll do it as myself.

    Because it’s up to me, not you. Other people are not obliged to conform their philosophies to yours.

  14. eric says

    @14 – but you highlight exactly why ‘mission creep’ is nonsensical to apply in this situation. Nobody is talking about a specific piece of legislation or how to spend the limited budget of a specific group. In those cases, yes, the idea ‘avoid mission creep’ can be strategically valuable. When talking about individuals deciding for themselves where to put their time and effort, the idea makes little sense.

    Jenny’s complaint is basically “I’m upset because you are no longer focusing on what I find important.” Mission creep is when a group or individual realizes “I’m upset because *I* am no longer focusing on what I find important.” They are very, very different things.

  15. Taz says

    TGAP Dad –

    One of the factors contributing to this was that the opposition began tying the ERA to “feminism”

    But that was back in the good old days when such connections required a small dab of reality. Nowadays, every good patriot knows that anything they oppose is evil and automatically supported by the IslamoHomoCommunistFascistFeminaziAtheistSocialist elites.

  16. freemage says

    If the neo-Nazis came out as supporting {whatever}, most people would be against that {whatever} just because neo-Nazis support it. It’s the same with atheism.

    Two questions:

    1: In your analogy, are the neo-Nazis analogous to feminists or atheists?

    2: Regardless of your answer to the first question, how do you justify that abysmally stupid bullshit to yourself?

  17. atheist says

    @scienceavenger – May 9, 2013 at 2:34 pm (UTC -4)

    a lot of atheists (the Objectivist and libertarian wings) don’t believe in social justice. So they object to (perceived) linking of their atheism to it.

    So libertarians/objectivists might find out that they’re in a minority within atheism. To bad they don’t believe in empathy, because this could theoretically make me feel sad for them.

  18. says

    I really don’t see what the point of the atheist movement is if not social justice. Great, you don’t believe in a god. You think you’re right. Whoopity-fucking-do! Nobody cares. When you say, “Oh, and I’m speaking out to try and make the world a better place,” well, then, my friend, welcome, and quit yer bitchin’.

  19. kagekiri says

    @5 jenny:

    If the neo-Nazis came out as supporting {whatever}, most people would be against that {whatever} just because neo-Nazis support it. It’s the same with atheism.

    So because people hate atheism, they’ll hate social justice if we do it as atheists?

    “I hear atheists support feeding the homeless, SHIT, better never do the same thing!

    “I used to support feminism and LGBT rights, but because atheists are doing it while explicitly saying they’re atheists, I’m now a homophobic, transphobic MRA!”

    Yeeeah…no. Should I magically go do things not as a Chinese person, because some racist bigots hate Chinese people? And they’re going to magically hate anything and everything I do as a Chinese person?

    “Fuck chopsticks, Chinese people use em! Fuck video games, that Chinese guy is playing them. Fuck driving, Chinese people have cars!”

    Most bigots aren’t that dumb or simple-minded in their hate, and do we really care if they do make insane decisions like that?

    *sigh*

    You know what? I almost grasp where you’re coming from. I, too, have tried to police my “own people” before. I did it when I was Christian, trying to keep other “worse” Christians from representing us in front of non-believers. I’ve done it as a Chinese person, feeling super bad when I’m with a group of all Chinese people and they decide to be rude and I think it reflects badly on all Chinese people.

    Of course, that’s with bad actions, with hypocrisy, with ungracious and rude actions that are entirely unjustified (like not tipping because you don’t have to do it in Asia *facepalm*).

    But with social justice? You think atheism will taint any drive for social justice, instead of it proving that atheists aren’t the amoral nihilists others accuse us of being? That’s…pretty unhinged.

  20. D. C. Sessions says

    How is making allies not a key element in any movement’s agenda?

    How is PR not a key element in any movement’s agenda? (I’m thinking of the panhandler who turned his collection hats into “vote for your religion’s support for the homeless” — and announced to the reporter, “The atheists are ahead!”)

  21. Michael Heath says

    I’m all for atheists and other secularists creating sub-groups to advocate for certain issues. What I don’t like is when a group representative of all of us project their efforts as representative of the entire group of atheists and secularists when such advocacy is not related.

    For example, I do not like the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State also promoting certain policy outcomes that have nothing to do with the promotion and defense of secularism. Americans United distinguish themselves as the predominant group defending secularists, so I’m not happy when they ally themselves and speak-out on progressive policies that have nothing to do with secularism. That’s in spite of the fact I’m predominately in support of their advocacy on such non-secularist issues. They lose their moral authority when they do so and offend some of the very people I think they have an obligation to represent.

    And this is no small example, Americans United is an organization we can be very proud of when it comes to the quality of their effort when it comes to their core mission, but they come off as hypocrites out to merely better market their themselves when they align themselves on other issues.

  22. says

    “Get smart. Learn to separate issues. Solve individual problems as individuals without harming your causes by injecting irrelevant pejoratives.”

    I just went out on my porch and shouted:

    “I’m an atheist and I FUCKING HATE PREJUDICE!! Stop prejudice, NOW!”

    Will other commenters let me know as soon as prejudice stops happening where they are? Thank you.

  23. sailor1031 says

    Well, this got Godwinned pretty quickly. But WTF? we have a “mission”? from whom? when? where’s our mission statement? and do I have to resign from the Sierra Club to devote myself exclusively to atheist concerns defined for me by someone else?

  24. says

    If I were still an atheist I would almost certainly agree with Michael Heath in #24. It is pretty close to why I eschew all para-church organizations. I can deal, no problem, with fellow Christians who disagree with me theologically. But I don’t want to be part of an organization that is Christian and also advocates for things outside the purview of Christianity. If I want to be a Democrat I’ll join the Democratic party, but I’d never join a group “Christians who are Democrats.”

  25. Abdul Alhazred says

    There is no atheist movement, there is only a fandom masquerading as a movement.

    “Social justice”? That’s some other movement (and that one really is a movement).

  26. Brian Carnell says

    Ed Brayton wrote:

    “As Anthony said, the immediate cause was a talk by Jamy Ian Swiss (which I have not heard).”

    …and from which Greta Christina couldn’t be bothered to quote specifics that she thought were problematic.

    Without the context of exactly what exactly GC’s ideas are in opposition to, it is a bit difficult to understand what precisely she’s objecting to or what her point is.

    Look, if people want to set up an Atheists for Social Justice organization to highlight “how religion harms people by undermining social justice” go for it.

    But GC seems to be arguing for a much more expansive outcome than that.

  27. eric says

    Heath:

    What I don’t like is when a group representative of all of us project their efforts as representative of the entire group of atheists and secularists when such advocacy is not related.

    For example, I do not like the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State also promoting certain policy outcomes that have nothing to do with the promotion and defense of secularism…

    AU is not a group representative of all atheists, and as far as I know they have never represented themselves as representative of all atheists. So using your own criteria, you should really have no complaint if this private, not-claiming-to-represent-all-atheists group, does stuff that doesn’t represent all atheists.

    ***

    Now, secularism…there you may have a point. But after looking on their web page I think your implication (that some of their promoted policies have nothing to do with promotion of secularism) is just untrue. Here they are:

    1. Opposition to vouchers: one outcome of vouchers is that they result in tax money going to unregulated, nonsecular schools. The tie-in is obvious, even if some atheists may like vouchers.

    2. Discrimination in the workplace, military, housing, healthcare etc. Much of both past racial discrimination and present discrimination against gays has been based on or linked to religious belief. It seems pretty “on mission” for AU to work for workplaces and such to have secular hiring and treatment policies, even if these places aren’t, strictly speaking “the state.”

    3. Marriage, reproductive justice, and privacy issues: very clearly its in mission for AU to want the state to not base its marriage, repdroductive, or privacy laws on some set of sectarian, religious concepts of what’s allowed and what isn’t.

    4. Nominations and the Judiciary: here, the conservative atheist is probably a bit SOL. Judges are a package deal, and most of the ones that AU would support due to their defense of separation will likely be liberal. I certainly hope AU supports pro-secular conservative candidates too, when they find them. But I think in comparison to pro-secular liberal candidates, the former may be a bit thin on the ground.

    So, in short, I don’t see any major social policy issue that AU supports which is not reasonably linked back to their primary mission. Certainly there’s gray areas where one could argue that the effect is primary liberal and only secondarily secular, but there’s nothing that really stands out as “wow, that has nothing to do with the separation of church and state. Where’d they pull that from?”

  28. Michael Heath says

    Me earlier:

    What I don’t like is when a group representative of all of us project their efforts as representative of the entire group of atheists and secularists when such advocacy is not related.
    For example, I do not like the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State also promoting certain policy outcomes that have nothing to do with the promotion and defense of secularism…
    [bold here only]

    eric responds:

    AU is not a group representative of all atheists,

    No shit, the head of AU, Barry Lynn, is in fact an ordained minister.

    eric continues:

    . . . as far as I know they have never represented themselves as representative of all atheists.

    I never claimed they did.

    eric continues:

    So using your own criteria, you should really have no complaint if this private, not-claiming-to-represent-all-atheists group, does stuff that doesn’t represent all atheists.

    I don’t think your response deals with my critique, but instead is a reading comprehension failure on your part. Please note what I bold above, i.e., and secularists . . . promoting certain policy outcomes that have nothing to do with the promotion and defense of secularism….

  29. lancifer says

    As scienceavenger said, there are many atheists that are not aligned with the full panoply of progressive goals and values. Atheists are a small enough subset of the general population as it is, I see no advantage in defining the goals of atheist organizations in a way that will make them an even smaller subset.

    If individual atheists wish to align with groups that hold these goals and values there is nothing stopping them from doing so and representing themselves as proud atheists.

    However, it is counterproductive to the main mission of organizing atheists which is providing support and fellowship for nonbelievers and acting as a cohesive force against the continued prejudices and unconstitutional advantage seeking of the religious majority.

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