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Atheist Highway Cleanups, and Some Further Thoughts On “Mission Drift”

So I’ve been thinking lately about this question of organized atheism getting involved in other social justice and social change issues. I’ve been thinking about the concern that often gets voiced when this question comes up — namely, that this would result in “mission drift,” and that organized atheism will get so involved in these non-atheist-specific issues, we won’t have the resources to work on, you know, atheism.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And something recently occurred to me.

atheists-united-highway-cleanupLocal atheist groups often do volunteer work and service projects. Highway cleanups. Blood drives. Helping in community gardens. Rebuilding houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That sort of thing.

And I’ve never heard anyone complain that any of this is “mission drift.”

We recognize that these projects are part of the public face of atheism. They’re how we change people’s minds about us. They’re how we push back against the bigotry and myths people hold about us, and show the world that we’re good, caring people with meaning in our lives. They’re part of how we let the public simply know we’re here — including other atheists who don’t know that these groups exist and might be interested in taking part. And they’re part of how we do our own community building. Working on these projects together creates social bonding, and strengthens our communities, and gives them a sense of common purpose.

So if atheist highway cleanups and blood drives and so on aren’t “mission drift,” then why would it be mission drift for atheist groups to work on, say, clinic defense of abortion clinics? Underfunded public schools? Racist police and drug policies? Abstinence only sex education? Reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act?

Some people argue that these other issues don’t have anything to do with atheism, or church/state separation, or the incursion of religion into people’s private lives. In many cases that’s simply not true: voucher programs that fund religious schools at the cost of de-funding public schools is damn well a church/state separation issue. As is abstinence only sex education. Lots of social justice issues intersect with religion, in ways that are both subtle and obvious.

But that actually leads me back to my original question:

What do clean highways and blood banks have to do with atheism?

voting rights act mapWhy would be it “mission drift” for an atheist group to work on reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act — but not to do work on cleaning up a highway?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that clean highways aren’t considered mission drift because the issue is of more concern to white, male, middle-class, college-educated atheists — the people who have traditionally been most involved in organized atheism. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that reproductive rights and voting rights and so on are considered mission drift because these issues are of more concern to women, people of color, poor and working-class people — the people who have traditionally not been as involved in organized atheism. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the “mission” of atheism is being circularly defined as “whatever the people currently in organized atheism say the mission is.” Or “whatever the mission has traditionally been.” It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, when groups are putting a good public face on atheism, they don’t care all that much about presenting that face to people who don’t already look like them.

Would expanding our volunteering and service projects into more social justice-y areas cause us to spread our resources thin? Maybe at first. But doing so would also expand our ranks. It would get more people involved in organized atheism who aren’t currently involved. And that means more resources: more person-power, more money, wider visibility, a greater ability to do alliance work with other groups.

I’m not dissing highway cleanups and blood drives. Not for a second. I think these are wonderful things for atheist groups to be doing. But when we’re looking at opportunities to do volunteer work and service projects, let’s start expanding our ideas of what kinds of projects we might get involved in — and start working on projects that marginalized people care more about.

Similar posts:
Does Social Justice Activism Mean Mission Drift for Atheism and Skepticism?
“We have had some success, although we sure as hell need more”: Greta’s Interview with Black Skeptics

Comments

  1. says

    I would be happy to simply find some other LOCAL atheist, in Wauksha county! I have searched, but of the other 8486 atheist, ( according to the math) that should be here in Waukesha, I’m the only one who come’s out & admit’s it!

  2. Wowbagger, Designated Snarker says

    I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘mission’. As so aptly demonstrated by the anti-feminist/anti-inclusive atheists, some people’s ‘mission’ for atheism includes nothing more than providing them with the means – via blog posts about religious evil/stupidity – to feel better about themselves in comparison.

    Once a few bloggers started holding up a mirror to the failings in the atheist community, it was decided they needed to be reined in.

  3. freemage says

    Unfortunately, I think I can see the counter-argument that would be presented to this post. I know that ‘playing Devil’s advocate’ uninvited is a shitty thing to do, though, so I won’t present it unless given express permission of the author–and if I do, with that permission, it will solely be so that I can then become better-armed with the way to dissect that counter-argument at a later time.

  4. Greta Christina says

    I would be happy to simply find some other LOCAL atheist, in Wauksha county! I have searched, but of the other 8486 atheist, ( according to the math) that should be here in Waukesha, I’m the only one who come’s out & admit’s it!

    Don’t know where exactly you are, but here’s what a search of atheist Meetup groups within 50 miles of Milwaukee turned up:

    Atheist Community of Milwaukee
    http://www.meetup.com/Atheist-Community-of-Milwaukee/

    Kenosha Area Freethinkers
    http://www.meetup.com/Kenosha-Freethinkers/

    Kenosha Racine Area Freethinkers
    http://www.meetup.com/Kenosha-Racine-Area-Freethinkers-Meetup-KRAFt/

    Hope this helps!

  5. bluebell says

    I think you’re missing a key difference, which is that nobody in an atheist group will ever say, “It goes against my beliefs to have clean highways.” There might be some disagreement about allocation of resources, but there’s not philosophical objection.

    The social justice issues you mention will almost always have a dissenter, even among nonbelievers. And that person is going to feel like they joined a group defined by nonbelief and instead they are having social positions forced upon them.

    Just to be clear – I’m in favor of more social justice work by atheist groups. As you’ve argued before, the dissenters can just deal with it or leave. I don’t need bigots in my movement.

    In short, what’s wrong with mission drift? I would say that committing to certain social positions *does* constitute mission drift in a way that highway cleaning doesn’t. It deviates from the baseline of “we don’t believe in God” and thus narrows the pool of people for whom the mission applies. And that’s a good thing.

  6. says

    This is why the dictionary atheist approach to organization and growing the movement fails completely. If atheism is LACK OF BELIEF and nothing else, then actually atheism has nothing to say about science education or church-state separation. Just like it has nothing to say about feminism or racism. And then there’s no point to having American Atheists or anything else.

    And if lack of belief in gods DOES have real world consequences and philosophical implications that are relevant to church-state separation and science education, then there’s no cogent argument that those same implications can’t relate to social justice.

  7. Greta Christina says

    Unfortunately, I think I can see the counter-argument that would be presented to this post. I know that ‘playing Devil’s advocate’ uninvited is a shitty thing to do, though, so I won’t present it unless given express permission of the author–and if I do, with that permission, it will solely be so that I can then become better-armed with the way to dissect that counter-argument at a later time.

    freemage @ #3: I don’t have a problem with people playing devil’s advocate — as long as they make it clear that they’re playing devil’s advocate and that they don’t in fact support the position they’re presenting and actually oppose it. (Making the argument and then dismantling it is a good approach.) The problem with playing devil’s advocate is when people use it as a shield to cover opinions they actually do hold.

  8. Greta Christina says

    I think you’re missing a key difference, which is that nobody in an atheist group will ever say, “It goes against my beliefs to have clean highways.” There might be some disagreement about allocation of resources, but there’s not philosophical objection.

    The social justice issues you mention will almost always have a dissenter, even among nonbelievers. And that person is going to feel like they joined a group defined by nonbelief and instead they are having social positions forced upon them.

    bluebell @ #5: Well, first of all, if that’s the issue, then people should say that’s the issue, and not keep nattering about “mission drift.”

    Second: I can’t think of a single social justice issue that is of particular interest to African Americans, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ people, working class and poor people, etc. — and that is NOT at least somewhat controversial. Giving a damn about marginalized people is, unfortunately, controversial in the United States. If we want to present a better public face to marginalized people, then yes, we risk alienating some racists, sexists, etc. — both outside the group and within it. But as it is now, we are already alienating marginalized people by not giving a shit about their issues. The status quo is not neutral. So which is the greater priority?

  9. says

    If we want to present a better public face to marginalized people, then yes, we risk alienating some racists, sexists, etc. — both outside the group and within it. But as it is now, we are already alienating marginalized people by not giving a shit about their issues. The status quo is not neutral. So which is the greater priority?

    Exactly. There’s a clear choice: alienate bigots, or alienate the targets of bigotry. I know which side I’m on. Too bad most of the leadership in the atheist/skeptic community seems terribly confused on this issue.

  10. freemage says

    Greta: Yeah, I know what the problem with it is, which is why I go out of my way to both say up front that’s what I’m doing, AND get permission. It’s rude, otherwise.

    That said, it’s already been touched on–the argument would take the following form:

    1: Anti-church/state movements are related directly to atheism itself.
    2: Highway adoption, blood drives and the like are non-controversial PR.

    The argument is then that social justice activism is, in itself, controversial, and thus likely to drive away people already in the movement. As a kicker, it might also stoke additional opposition (that is to say, a pro-life group might ignore a ‘purist’ atheist movement, but would respond more aggressively against a pro-feminist one).

    And just typing it out, I see some rebuttals:

    A: Assumes that a significant portion of the atheist movement as-is opposes the SJ positions in question, and thus would be inclined to leave the movement–this is a ‘fact’ certainly not supported by any evidence; the anti-SJ types seem to be a very loud minority, not a major player.

    B: Assumes that there’s not a way to make up the lost numbers (and more) among the oppressed groups with common cause. Again, citation fucking needed.

    C: It’s also accommodationist nonsense. Since most of the anti-SJ folks gleefully support lawsuits (which always generate a lot of opposition in the communities where they occur), it’s hypocritical to claim that other activities that might create opposition are somehow verbotten.

  11. llewelly says

    The most important reason movement atheism should listen to and support marginalized groups is a moral reason.

    There are numerous recent examples of how anti-abortion laws sometimes kill and imprison women.

    Supporting women in their fight for abortion rights saves lives. THAT is why atheists should support clinic defense of abortion clinics.

    Reinstating the Voting Rights Act enables people to *be citizens* . That is why atheists should support reinstatement of the Voting Rights act.

    Fighting for the release of people imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses releases people of color from prison. That is why atheists should support it.

    These are all moral reasons, and they are far stronger than “it makes atheists look good” or “it attracts marginalized people to atheism” .

  12. drbunsen, le savant fous says

    2: Highway adoption, blood drives and the like are non-controversial PR.

    Wait, we can’t get together to do these things simply because social service is a good unto itself? And being non-churchgoers, we don’t organize such activities around our local church?

  13. says

    I’ll go a step farther: I think social justice activism is central to the mission of atheist activism, because social injustice is highly correlated with religious privilege. As you point out, Greta, many (most?) social justice issues — and especially those related to gender, sexuality, and reproductive autonomy — are damn well issues of secularism versus religious dominance.

    OTOH, I think blood drives and highway cleanups (etc.) are mission drift. To the extent that those activities help normalize atheists to the larger community, or help us build community and morale amongst ourselves, those things may fine and appropriate, but they are no more than ancillary to the core mission of atheist activism. (Mind you, I’m talking about activism; atheist groups that are purely social are fine with me, but they’re not what we’re talking about here, are they?)

    As a local political official (party apparatchik?), I wrestle with the same thing: Many of my Democratic Town Committee members would rather do coat drives and volunteer at the soup kitchens than roll up their sleeves and work on real political activism. Those things are fine — wonderful, in fact — and to the extent they help the townspeople feel more friendly toward us and our goals, they may even be helpful… but I keep trying to convince my members that we don’t need to look for external forms of community service: Electing progressive candidates and supporting progressive policies IS community service.

    In the same way, atheists don’t need to look to farther than social justice activism: Social justice activism IS atheist activism.

  14. Carlos Cabanita says

    Atheists as skeptics that mind social justice have also a duty to deal with ideas that are harmful to the marginalized groups, but the traditional skeptics will never touch. Things like the school to prision pipeline, debunking the neoliberal economics, stupid ideas about the size of the state, police brutality, day to day civil rights and so on.

  15. says

    I’m still of the opinion that being atheist, with respect to the larger religious culture, affects all parts of life whether a particular atheist notices this or not. How can there be mission drift from life?

    Now, maybe they want their chosen atheist organizations to have some boundaries on their missions because they want the organizations to have the same interests as themselves. (Which is really one of those ego-boundary problems, and rather smacks of personal social conservatism where people don’t like anything they are comfortable with to change at all.) That’s all about personal entertainment, then, so what would be the larger social point of such an organization? Just go get coffee with your favorite atheist pals. No need to have a damn tax exempt organization for that, like religions do.

Trackbacks

  1. […] So I’ve been thinking lately about this question of organized atheism getting involved in other social justice and social change issues. I’ve been thinking about the concern that often gets voiced when this question comes up — namely, that this would result in “mission drift,” and that organized atheism will get so involved in these non-atheist-specific issues, we won’t have the resources to work on, you know, atheism. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And something recently occurred to me. Local atheist groups often do volunteer work and service projects. Highway cleanups. Blood drives. Helping in community gardens. Rebuilding houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That sort of thing. [Read more] […]

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