If the atheist and skeptical movements focus on political and social justice issues, will that constitute mission drift?
Okay. I realize that’s not a very satisfying answer. How about this: Nothing that anyone I know is advocating in this department constitutes mission drift. Sure, there are some ways this could hypothetically happen, if that does ever wind up happening it’d be worth commenting on or even pushing back on… but it doesn’t automatically and by definition constitute that, and the kinds of things that the social-justice crowd are advocating don’t fall into that category at all.
That may not be satisfying, either. Let me spell it out in a little more detail.
Myself, and the other people I know of who are advocating for the atheist and skeptical movements to focus more on social justice issues, are not proposing that these movements change their basic missions in any way. We simply want for these movements to expand the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by focusing part of our attention on issues that these people care about and that are still totally in our wheelhouse. We are basically advocating for two things:
(1) that these movements expand the focus of their existing missions into new areas having to do with politics and social justice, in ways that are consistent with those existing missions and that constitute clear overlap between those missions and these issues;
(2) that the organizations in these movements pay attention to these issues in internal matters, such as hiring and event organizing.
Let’s take #1 first. And let’s look first at skepticism.
The skeptical movement, and the main skeptical organizations, are focused (at least in theory) on doing activism and education around applying rationality, critical thinking skills, the scientific method, and the prioritization of evidence to address testable questions about non-subjective reality. It’s not about advocating for any specific conclusions — it’s about advocating for the methods, and the principles of valuing reality and truth that underlie those methods. In practice, it often doesn’t play out this way — in practice, for instance, the skeptical movements are strongly pro-vaccination and anti-creationism, and are pretty comfortable supporting the one position and opposing the other quite vehemently, and doing so qua skeptics. But yes, at least in theory, you could be a skeptic and a vaccine denialist: there’s no position that constitutes a litmus test for being a skeptic.
So why can’t all that rationality, critical thinking skills, scientific method, and prioritization of evidence be applied to testable claims having to do with social justice?
Testable claims about social justice issues get made all the time. Yes, some social justice questions have to do with basic values that can’t really be settled by methods of rationality… but a whole lot of them don’t. Lots of them are questions about what is and is not factually, testably true. The claim that people have unconscious racial biases which affect our behavior is a testable claim. The claim that children raised in same-sex relationships grow up with deep psychological problems is a testable claim. The claim that people act significantly differently towards infants we think are male and infants we think are female is a testable claim. Proponents of the drug war make testable claims that certain practices and policies have certain results: that zero-tolerance for drug law violations, long sentences for people who break drug laws, significant resources being spent on investigation and enforcement of drug laws, etc., will result in less drug use and fewer negative consequences from drug use. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Why would it constitute mission drift for the skeptical movement to focus attention and research — and the advocacy of rational, evidence-based thinking — on these claims?
In fact, the skeptical movement is already focusing on political and social justice issues: with its focus on global warming denialism, for instance, or its questioning of the value of organic food. Given that this is true, why is there such strong pushback from so many people against the very notion of the skeptical movement focusing on other political and social justice issues, and such fear that this will pull skepticism away from its roots?
And now let’s look at atheism. 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?
Why should the people who are already in the skeptical and atheist movements, the people who have been in the skeptical movements for years, be the ones to decide which topics are core issues for atheism and skepticism, and which ones are on the fringe?
Why is the very idea of expanding the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by focusing on issues that these people care about and that are still very much in our wheelhouse, being viewed with such suspicion and hostility?
Why should the agenda get to be set by the old guard?
Okay. So now let’s take a quick look at #2: asking skeptical and atheist organizations to pay attention to social justice issues in internal matters, such as hiring and event organizing.
This one won’t take long. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Or it should be.
Does it constitute mission drift for skeptical and atheist organizations to adopt fair hiring practices and be equal opportunity employers? To have day care at meetings and conferences? To have student rates for conferences? To have meetings and events near public transportation, as much as possible? To have sign language interpreters at events? To have events at locations that are wheelchair accessible?
How would any of this change the mission of these organizations? Any more than it would change the mission of IBM, or the Audubon Society?
And if it wouldn’t… then why would it be mission drift for skeptical and atheist organizations to adopt affirmative action practices in booking speakers? To oppose the overt harassment and misogyny persistently aimed at women in our communities? To have codes of conduct at conferences?
You might agree with all of these policies, or with none of them, or with some but not others. You might agree with some of them in principle, but have issues with how they’re currently playing out in practice. But why are objections to these policies being presented as “mission drift”?
Why should the people who are already in the skeptical and atheist movements, the people who have been in the skeptical movements for years, be the ones to decide which internal policies are core issues for atheism and skepticism, and which ones are on the fringe?
Why is the very idea of expanding the appeal of atheism and skepticism to demographics we haven’t traditionally attracted, by changing internal policies in ways that these people care about and that are still consistent with our missions, being viewed with such suspicion and hostility?
Why should the agenda get to be set by the old guard?
I know. It’s really one of those questions that answers itself… isn’t it?
Note: Since I’m starting to have issues with writings about controversies and debates within the movement that don’t say who and what exactly they’re responding to: This piece was written in response to Jamy Ian Swiss’s talk at the Orange County Freethought Alliance conference. However, it’s a idea I’ve been thinking about for some time: this talk was simply the catalyst.