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.
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?
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.