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No, It’s Not Mission Drift — But It’s Too Controversial! More on Atheism and Social Justice

atheists-united-highway-cleanupYesterday I wrote a piece on organized atheism getting involved in other social justice work, pushing back against the notion that this was “mission drift.” I pointed out that local atheist groups do all kinds of volunteer work and service projects, such as highway cleanups and blood drives. And I asked: If these projects aren’t “mission drift” for atheist groups, 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?

I got a couple of interesting responses. On Facebook, I got this response:

I haven’t given a lot of thought to this, but here’s a difference you don’t mention: blood drives and highway cleanups are entirely uncontroversial, so they easily serve as a goodwill-generating activity. Whereas, say, clinic defense is very controversial, and in all likelihood will generate just as much bad will as good will. Now, that distinction is not one that could plausibly be labeled “mission creep”, but it is a reason that a group might choose to engage in one sort of activity but not the other.

He then commented again:

The question is not whether secularists should or do consider clinic defense controversial, the question is whether it’s controversial among the general public, making it useless as a goodwill-generating tool, insofar as that’s what a group is aiming for.

And here on this blog, I got this comment from freemage (posted as a devil’s advocate, btw, very much not as a position they actually take, but “so that I can then become better-armed with the way to dissect that counter-argument at a later time”):

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).

In other words: The problem with organized atheism getting involved in other social justice work — at least for my Facebook commenter, and I’m guessing for others — isn’t really that it’s mission drift. It’s fine for us to work on non-atheist-specific issues as a form of PR, for community bonding, and simply to do the right thing. The problem is that these social justice issues are controversial. If we’re trying to get good PR, getting involved in these controversial issues might backfire, and might actually drive people away or contribute to the negative opinion people already have of us. What’s more, these other issues are controversial within atheism. Pretty much all atheists agree about clean highways, but not all atheists agree about reproductive rights and the Voting Rights Act. So if we’re trying to do community bonding, getting into these other issues could be divisive.

So here’s my reply.

First of all: If “too much controversy” is really the issue, then people should say that’s the issue, and not keep nattering about “mission drift.” We’ve been fighting the “mission drift” fight for well over a year now. It would have been nice to know that that wasn’t really the issue. It’s frustrating to have to chase moving goalposts.

voting rights act mapSecond: Name me one 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. In the United States, unfortunately, giving a damn about marginalized people is controversial.

If we want to present a better public face to marginalized people, then yes, we risk alienating some racists, sexists, etc. — both outside our groups and within them. But as it is now, we are already alienating marginalized people — by not giving a shit about their issues. I’ve already heard, many many many many times (just yesterday, in fact), that African American atheists get very alienated when they see atheist groups and organizations totally ignoring shitty public education, grinding poverty, systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, racist police and prison policies, the school-to-prison pipeline, the new Jim Crow of the drug war, etc. — and yet working like gangbusters to get the Ten Commandments out of City Halls. And I have heard many many many many women say that they get very alienated when atheist groups and organizations steer clear of reproductive rights, or even hateful misogyny and sexual harassment/ assault within our own communities, because these issues are too “divisive” or “distracting.” I am one of those women.

Who do we care more about alienating?

Which is the greater priority?

The status quo is not neutral. Ignoring “controversial” issues that deeply concern marginalized people is not neutral. It is giving tacit approval to the marginalization. And you can be damn well sure that marginalized people notice this. It may not be “controversial” to the people inside the privilege circle — but it damn well is controversial to the people outside it. As I said yesterday: 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.

Clean highways may be uncontroversial to pretty much everyone. But when organized atheism consistently prioritizes clean highways and Ten Commandments monuments and such, while consistently ignoring the sea of shit that marginalized people swim in every day, it is damn well controversial to us.

As I also said yesterday: I’m not dissing atheist highway cleanups and blood drives and battles against Ten Commandments monuments. 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.

Comments

  1. smhll says

    I’ve already heard, many many many many times (just yesterday, in fact), that African American atheists get very alienated when they see atheist groups and organizations totally ignoring shitty public education, grinding poverty, systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, racist police and prison policies, the school-to-prison pipeline, the new Jim Crow of the drug war, etc. — and yet working like gangbusters to get the Ten Commandments out of City Halls.

    That does put it into perspective to me.

    I would like to think that free thinkers working together to keep shitty public schools from being so shitty would fit well with our mission and be non-controversial. (But I’m acquainted with some of the anti-activism folks.) I would also like to think that keeping poor people from starving or freezing and reshaping the justice system towards fairness would be popular goals. (Eesh, “popular”, not the best criterion to use.)

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    … the question is whether it’s controversial among the general public…

    You mean like not believing in any sort of deity in a society that nearly demands it? That sort of “controversial?”

  3. Peter the Mediocre says

    What’s the mission, anyway? If the mission is to attract people to groups of atheists, and some are working on (for example) clinic defense while others are loudly anti-abortion, people who are interested in atheism can find people they agree with on either side of that issue. My impression is that the political views of atheists aren’t that much different from the rest of society, and certainly aren’t homogeneous. We don’t have a creed or articles of faith, so why can’t atheists be on both sides of a non-religious controversial issue? I’m generally more in agreement with the liberal/progressive side of the issues you mentioned, but I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself.

    I also think the concept of “No such thing as bad publicity” might apply.

    Just my thoughts.

  4. AndrewD says

    Greta,
    As a European, specifically British, I find the ongoing disputes in US atheist circles bizarre. I think one of the problems is the incessant battle with the religious groups which just doesn’t happen to the same extent in Europe. I see this as partly a legacy of previous religious wars (30 years and Second World War) and partly due to the immunisation effect of large state churches. Secondly in Europe we still have mass socialist parties which lead the fight for Social Justice* (OK not well and not always). The failure of mass socialism in the US would be worth a good sociological study. Thirdly, your First Amendment doesn’t exist in Europe, we have learnt from experience that unrestricted free speech can be deleterious to society and have anti hate speech laws which shut down much of the attacks by racists, antifeminists and others, also State Churches are kept under political control any attempt to act like US fundamentalist’s is brought under control. I realise that to most Bloggers at FtB and to the commentators, attacking the First Amendment is sacrilege but I suggest you all consider it a religious idol and I recommend your reconsider it in this light. If you really want social justice, you need a mass political party to fight for it. So, either start one or build one within the Democratic Party .Finally, we do not have a strong Randite movement in Europe, Libertarianism has historically (on the far left ) been Stirnerite anarchism, the right has always been into collective action and would run a mile from Ayn Rand.
    *Yes I am a Labour party activist.

  5. tychabrahe says

    Be careful, Greta. Jen McCreight was thinking this way when she came up with Atheism+, and a bunch of people who were offended that being atheist didn’t give them free license to be misogynistic twits got all riled up about it.

  6. Peter the Mediocre says

    @Ibis3

    My example was probably poorly chosen, although now and then I see a secular anti-abortion argument. In any event, if there are atheists on only one side of an issue, it’s not going to drive away the people who might be interested, so for our purposes it’s no more controversial than the ten commandments displays.

  7. says

    It seems to me like “mission drift” refers to a variety of different problems related to expanding the scope of a social movement, and “too much controversy” has *always* been among them. And I wish you would take it a little more seriously as a real problem that can occur–at least in some contexts.

    For instance, I’ve long been involved in atheist university student groups, and they’ve always been horribly disorganized. The leaders can barely put together a talk or social event, much less something like a highway cleanup, much much less something like fighting racist drug policies. Now, obviously this is a problem of extremely limited resources, but note that controversy itself costs additional resources. There would be arguments, leaders would burnout, some regulars would be alienated, most members lack experience fighting racism and would do it improperly despite positive intent, and the project wouldn’t happen in any case.

    The more feasible option, in this context, is to announce, “Hey, this pro-choice student group is having a protest, anyone want to join me in joining them?” But if this is the option we take, then we’ve pretty much conceded the point on mission drift. Instead of using the atheist movement to fight for abortion rights, we’ve decided that the pro-choice movement does it better.

    Here on the internet it’s different. It doesn’t cost any extra to write about atheism and racism and sexism all on the same blogs.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Picking up trash along an adopted road (something I do ~quarterly with the local Humanist Society) is also fairly pleasant – maybe a bit chilly or sweaty at some times of year, but basically a casual walk with intelligent conversation.

    Clinic defense (something I have 16 years of experience doing) is often quite stressful – often confrontational, both depressing and angering, requiring discipline, thick skin, courage, communications skills, dealing with cops, all sorts of challenges.

    Of the mostly gray-haired few dozen attendees at our usual HS meetings, about one dozen turn out for road clean-up – but I can think only a small few who might handle escort duty for very long, and none who would enjoy it.

  9. screechymonkey says

    I’d like to take a closer look as this “exemption” from mission drift for issues like church/state separation that are “related directly to atheism itself.”

    If “related directly” means that it logically flows from atheism, then the “dictionary atheist” crowd would correctly dispute that. You can be an atheist and yet not believe in church/state separation, or at least not as it is currently interpreted in U.S. law (in the case of U.S.-based atheist organizations). I’m sure S.E. Cupp and others of her ilk would fall into this category, and Richard Dawkins has expressed confusion similar to AndrewD’s @5 at the fights over Christmas displays, the Pledge of Allegiance, etc., though I don’t recall whether he substantively disagrees or just thinks it’s a poor use of resources.

    Now, that’s probably too narrow an interpretation of “related directly.” Perhaps that’s supposed to mean something like “issues that tend to be of concern to atheists, or in which religious views play a substantial role.” But then it’s hard to see how issues like abortion don’t qualify. Yes, as David Silverman was so eager to point out, there are secular arguments against choice, but so what? There are secular arguments against church-state separation, too. The anti-choice arguments are substantially dominated by religious sentiments, and atheists tend to be very strongly pro-choice.

    I don’t see any solution here other than to let a thousand flowers bloom. Some organizations will do vanilla “atheists are good people” PR work and consciousness-raising. Some will work on church-state and related legal issues. Some will take on other social justice causes. Not every atheist is going to be on board with the agenda of every atheist organization.

    Or perhaps I should have said, “continue” to let a thousand flowers bloom. The approaches of the prominent New Atheists were really quite different, as the “Four Horsemen” discussed during their videotaped roundtable. Dawkins is pretty much just interested in the empirical question of whether or not God exists and the arguments on that subject. Hitchens — though not exactly anyone’s ideal of a social justice warrior — took a much broader view and was primarily interested in the effects of religion, hence his book’s subtitle “Why Religion Poisons Everything.”

  10. says

    Where did you get the notion that the intelligent design anti-abortion position was a non-religious controversial issue?

    Yeah, I would go farther than that and ask, “Since when has women’s rights, reproductive rights, equal pay, education of any kind, misogyny, or **anything else** on the long list of ‘controversial’ topics now been driven, at least in part by religion, or its unfortunately social consequences.” I mean seriously – the idea that men are “better” than women, and are just there to be pursued comes from whose long standing traditions exactly? Virtually 100% of the people rabidly against women’s health issues are from *which* side of the fence, with respect to religion, and what silly assed defense do they use for their position most often? And, on, and on, and on. Hell, even environmentalism is, on at least a pretty large part of the scale, dominionist idiots, who think god wouldn’t let us hurt the planet, vs. sane people, who recognize that we are already hurting people by not bloody doing the things we need to now, never mind 50 years ago, when we should have bloody started.

    Imho, the people who think these things are not “atheist” issues, regardless of what ever fictional controversy might exist around them… well, maybe they are not in actual fact on our side at all, and as PZ recently posted on the same subject, we should stop trying to fix the rift between us.

  11. Seven of Mine, formerly piegasm says

    The status quo is not neutral.

    I think this is the major stumbling block; getting people to understand that there are vast swaths of our society already feeling alienated because atheist groups are silent on certain subjects. They’re afraid that advocating too much for X position will alienate Y group, never realizing that they’ll also gain the support of Z group. The end result is a wash, not a net loss…unless, of course, you have trouble with the notion of Z group as people but don’t want to actually say out loud that, given the choice between keeping Y group and gaining Z group, you’ll pick Y group.

  12. Greta Christina says

    My impression is that the political views of atheists aren’t that much different from the rest of society, and certainly aren’t homogeneous.

    Peter the Mediocre @ #4: You’re mistaken. According to the Secular Census, political views of atheists skew very differently from those of the rest of society, and while not homogeneous, there are some issues on which there is near-unanimous consensus. (Abortion rights and same-sex marriage are among them.)

    But even on issues where there isn’t near-unanimous consensus among atheists: So what? I think you missed the entire point of this article — which is that the status quo is not neutral. If we continue to only focus on issues that are non-controversial (or at least non-controversial among people already involved in organized atheism), we will alienate marginalized people for whom the more “controversial” issues are of vital interest. We are already alienating these folks. Ignoring their issues because they’re too “controversial” is, itself, controversial — among the folks whose issues are being ignored. So the question is: Do we care? When we’re putting a good public face on atheism, do we care about presenting that face to people who don’t look like the people already in our groups?

  13. Greta Christina says

    For instance, I’ve long been involved in atheist university student groups, and they’ve always been horribly disorganized. The leaders can barely put together a talk or social event, much less something like a highway cleanup, much much less something like fighting racist drug policies. Now, obviously this is a problem of extremely limited resources, but note that controversy itself costs additional resources. There would be arguments, leaders would burnout, some regulars would be alienated, most members lack experience fighting racism and would do it improperly despite positive intent, and the project wouldn’t happen in any case.

    miller @ #10: Your experience is not universal. I’ve spent years speaking at both student and local groups and getting involved with them, and they vary hugely. Some are very disorganized, to the point where they can’t manage even a single event; others are well-oiled, tightly-calibrated organizing machines, with multiple arms; most others are in between. So it makes no sense to insist that groups can’t organize around controversial issues because they can’t organize at all. Clearly, many of them can.

    And again, I will make the point that seems to be evading many people: The status quo is not neutral. Avoiding “controversial” issues that strongly affect marginalized people IS controversial. It’s very alienating to folks in those groups. What you’re basically saying is that groups should prioritize harmony among the existing members, at the expense of drawing in new members from more diverse and more marginalized demographics. Think carefully. Is that really what you want to be saying?

  14. Greta Christina says

    Picking up trash along an adopted road (something I do ~quarterly with the local Humanist Society) is also fairly pleasant – maybe a bit chilly or sweaty at some times of year, but basically a casual walk with intelligent conversation.

    Clinic defense (something I have 16 years of experience doing) is often quite stressful – often confrontational, both depressing and angering, requiring discipline, thick skin, courage, communications skills, dealing with cops, all sorts of challenges.

    Pierce R. Butler @ #11: So get your group to do something other than clinic defense. That’s just one example. Do political and/or fundraising work around underfunded public schools; racist police and drug policies; abstinence only sex education; reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act; lots lots lots lots more options. Throw a fundraiser party or something. Those are fun.

    Of the mostly gray-haired few dozen attendees at our usual HS meetings, about one dozen turn out for road clean-up – but I can think only a small few who might handle escort duty for very long, and none who would enjoy it.

    Perhaps if your group got more involved in social justice issues, it wouldn’t just be made up of a few dozen gray-haired attendees. That’s kind of the point here.

  15. says

    @Greta #16
    Yes, I agree that it’s extremely context-dependent. That was my point. In fact, I hope that anyone who feels that “controversial” service projects should be avoided in atheist groups carefully examines their own context, and consider whether they might be overgeneralizing based on a specific personal experience.

    I strongly agreed with your essay on why social justice activism is not “mission drift” for atheism, and I have been citing it repeatedly. However, I have never considered the takeaway message to be that expanding the scope of the atheism movement is entirely beneficial, and comes with zero drawbacks in every context. In some contexts, trying to expand the scope of a group will kill the group rather than help social justice. Or they could screw it up, because they don’t have the social justice experience. And if some individual activists prefer to work within a more specific social justice movement, rather than mucking around giving 101 to other atheists, that seems pretty reasonable to me.

  16. llewelly says

    This is why I made the moral argument yestarday.

    There is a moral reason to support clinic defense. Therefor, it doesn’t matter if it is controversial; saving lives is more important.

    There is a moral reason to support the release of non-violent drug offenders. Therefor, it doesn’t matter if it is controversial; getting harmless people out of prison is more important.

    I could go on, but the point is that morality trumps controversy.

    Atheist groups should strive to support not merely that which is popular, and will win them acclaim, but also those things which are unpopular, but moral.

  17. Schlumbumbi says

    “Controversial” is just a weasel word for “political”.

    Some activities are considered political, others as non-political. Blood drives and cleaning up the streets have no political implications of any kind, because they are serving an indiscriminate “greater good”.

    However, if your aim is to get political actions going, you better make sure they’re actually in line with the atheist/skeptic agenda. If you don’t, if you think you can mobilise the people in your movement for purposes which they don’t care for, or even oppose, you will inevitably alienate that demographic with your actions. Do this several times on a number of different topics, and you’ve successfully clustered the entire movement.

    It’s not really a surprise the big organisations don’t want to go there.
    They’re simply not dumb enough to trash the work of decades for a set of questionable identity politics.

  18. Kevin Kehres says

    However, if your aim is to get political actions going, you better make sure they’re actually in line with the atheist/skeptic agenda.

    That that agenda would be? And where do we receive this agenda and from whom? Is it anything like the gay agenda? Cuz I totally missed getting that one. My e-mail tubes must have been clogged that day.

    —-

    The point is that there is no such thing as “the atheist/skeptic agenda”. There are atheists who are interested in social justice issues as a matter of personal philosophy/ethics/politics. Those who are probably need to do a slightly better job at distinguishing themselves from those who are only interested in keeping prayer out of schools, etc. Which is also a totally legitimate use of time; to barricade one small place in a child’s life from the demon-haunted world.

    We’re not a monolith. To the point where I won’t even use the word “skeptic” to define myself; because it’s become associated with the type of person who makes fun of Bigfoot hunters but considers speaking at skeptical events to be more of a guy thing. And who totes wants to just ignore the whole “god isn’t there” question. I call them Bigfoot Skeptics — or BSers for short. Their agenda is not my agenda, big time.

    I’m inclined to agree with screechymonkey @12 — let a thousand flowers bloom. Because there is no hierarchy of any worth within the atheiosphere, a distributed approach is best. Work on those things that are important to you. Make it your atheist agenda. If it’s worthwhile, others will follow.

  19. John Horstman says

    Note: this is very rambly, I’m thinking out loud. I might even contradict myself all over the place. Also, all of the questions are serious questions; they are not intended simply to try to get anyone to agree with a particular position. As always, feel entirely free to ignore me; I’m not entitled to anyone’s time.

    Is part of the problem perhaps that people involved in atheist groups (or, specifically, the ones objecting) generally also have other groups of which they could be a part if they’re actually interested in working on other issues? (I don’t know if this is even the case – my perspective is that of being in a large, relatively-secular city in the Midwest.) By way of analogy, it’s never really occurred to me to suggest that the women’s rights activist groups I’ve participated in (a campus Planned Parenthood affiliate and 9to5) should also have been doing secular activist work, despite the obvious crossover with most objections being religious in nature, becasue we wanted to have as many people coming together in the context of that one group to work for the specific, if varied, issues of women’s rights. I certainly would have objected to any anti-atheist sentiment that came up in the group, but that wasn’t actually an issue. Does it make any more or less sense to suggest atheist groups should work on other social justice issues? Do those of you who think atheist groups should be tackling other social justice issues think that other social justice groups should be tackling issues of anti-atheist discrimination? If not, why the difference? If so, are you also similarly challenging them? To a certain extent, despite the fact that I am very much on board with feminist activism and anti-racist activism, for example, I’m perplexed by the people who are saying that these issues necessarily should be the focus of atheist groups (beyond making sure the groups aren’t hostile to members of various marginalized populations; I’m well aware that there is pushback against even that minimal baseline, which is absolutely unacceptable).

    Maybe we need to try to game out the pros and cons of both intersectional, broad-scope social justice groups and single-issue (or single-arena?) groups. Do the benefits to having a group that takes definitive stands on a wide rage of issues (necessarily excluding some people who might otherwise be part of it) outweigh the appeal of a broad base? What degree of ideological congruency is necessary for you to want to be part of or work with a group? In my feminist activist groups, should we have been taking a definitive stand on Israeli occupation of Palestine (which *is* a women’s rights issue, or is at least intersectional with various women’s rights issues) or an anti-capitalist stance, for example, alienating a large swath of people who might otherwise have been working with us on activism related to securing access to sexuality education, birth control, abortion, and maternity care or working for pay equity? I guess I’m going perhaps even farther to the other extreme – I *do* see atheist groups doing blood drives or trash clean-up as ‘mission drift’, becasue there are already other groups that work on that, at least in my area, and I work with those groups on the projects that fall within their scope; I don’t see a need for atheist groups specifically to be tackling them. But it’s also the case that I live in an area where being an out atheist doesn’t really carry much stigma or negative consequences (at least not for someone in my particular social positionality): the Blood Center of Wisconsin doesn’t proselytize as part of blood drives, nor does our campus environmentalist group that does trash clean-up, nor does Planned Parenthood, nor 9to5 Wisconsin – I can work with those groups on their core issues as an atheist, even an out one (like many others), without issue. I guess I’m more tempted to see this as a failure of non-atheist groups focusing on social justice issues to be inclusive of atheists (There’s lots of sermonizing at meetings or they’re always held in churches or run by pastors?) than a failure of atheist groups to tackle issues that are outside of the ‘core mission’.

    As with Greta’s examples, if someone is most concerned about grinding poverty, systematic disenfranchisement of Black voters, racist police and prison policies, or the school-to-prison pipeline, it makes complete sense for them to focus their time and energy on those issues and not on removing the Ten Commandments from a courthouse. And that’s fine; those of us with the time and resources to focus on a wider range of issues (and even those of us who just don’t care about Black people, for example) can tackle the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m not really necessarily arguing atheist groups shouldn’t expand their scopes – if you have a social justice issue, I’m likely on board – but, on the other hand, I’m not entirely clear on why they should, given the existence of other groups that are already tackling these issues, and of which concerned atheists can be a part. What, specifically, are people looking for wider activism looking for? Should the FfRF, for example, start tackling racial housing discrimination suits in addition to church-state separation cases? Is this specifically about Dave Silverman’s pro-privilege Libertarian self and American Atheists in general? Are the people crying, “Mission drift!” responding to actual calls to expand the mission of any particular groups, or are they fabricating a controversy that doesn’t actually exist? Are people suggesting an expanded focus merely suggesting that atheists themselves get involved with other social justice groups, and not actually calling for social justice activism from existing atheist groups? Do they just have a problem with people blogging about both atheism and other issues on the same site, or Black people or women or whomever being on the internet at all?

    There’s something (or several somethings) I’m missing here; it’s almost certainly the case that various privileges blinding me to issues I have never faced and thus never considered. It could very well be a function of people looking at groups as community-oriented instead of project-oriented. If that’s the case, disregard everything I’ve said: I do not and never will have any interest in joining an atheist community group, and thus have nothing to say about how they do or should operate. Except, maybe don’t disregard it entirely – maybe the different primary aims of forming “atheist groups” – community versus issue activism – and different perspectives precipitating them are largely responsible for the disconnect and the arguments over “mission drift”? Do we perhaps need explicit statements from various groups – mission statements to combat mission drift! – on what their focuses are, and whether they’re primarily about building a support community for the members or whether they’re primarily about agitating around certain atheism-specific issues (or a mix of both)? Do these statements exist but are being ignored by one ‘side’ or the other? Are there actually any people claiming that it’s not okay for groups focused solely on, say, church-state separation to exist/operate?

    I’ve read through the comment threads on both of these posts (at least until I started composing this comment) and much of this isn’t at all clear to me. Until it is clear (maybe it doesn’t need to be clear to me personally), there’s a good chance that people are to some extent talking past each other.

  20. Greta Christina says

    In some contexts, trying to expand the scope of a group will kill the group rather than help social justice.

    miller @ #18: I suppose there might be some situations where that might be true — such as very, very new groups that are struggling to get going, and where major diversification of projects will spread them way too thin. But even then, they can pay attention to social justice issues in internal matters: who they invite as speakers, how they treat marginalized people when they show up, how they select leadership, etc. And it’s hard to imagine a group being destroyed by taking one just one or two social justice-y projects — unless that group is largely populated by racist sexist asshats. In which case, good riddance.

    Or they could screw it up, because they don’t have the social justice experience.

    We might screw it up, so let’s not even try? I really hope that’s not what you’re saying. Atheist organizing is new to most of us. We still jump in and do it. And this misses the point i keep making — which is that not addressing social justice issues at all, ever, is already a form of screwing it up.

    And if some individual activists prefer to work within a more specific social justice movement, rather than mucking around giving 101 to other atheists, that seems pretty reasonable to me.

    Of course that’s true. I’m not talking here about individuals’ choices about what issues to get involved with. I’m talking about groups’ and organizations’ choices about what issues to get involved with.

  21. Greta Christina says

    However, if your aim is to get political actions going, you better make sure they’re actually in line with the atheist/skeptic agenda. If you don’t, if you think you can mobilise the people in your movement for purposes which they don’t care for, or even oppose, you will inevitably alienate that demographic with your actions.

    Schlumbumbi @ #20: This completely evades the point raised by this piece. In fact, it just begs the question being posed by this piece. That point: Who gets to set the agenda? Who should the agenda be about? Why should the agenda always be set by the kinds of people who have traditionally gotten involved in the movement?

    I keep saying this, and it’s very frustrating to have it apparently ignored: When we ignore social justice issues, WE ARE ALREADY ALIENATING PEOPLE.

    So why are you so worried about alienating the white, middle-class, college-educated, cisgender men who don’t have any interest in social justice and in some cases are actively opposed to it — but you’re not at all worried about alienating African Americans, Hispanics, women, trans people, poor people, working-class and blue-collar people, and other marginalized folks? Why is it that white, middle-class, college-educated, cisgender men not only get to set the agenda, but get to be the ones who matter?

  22. Greta Christina says

    I’m inclined to agree with screechymonkey @12 — let a thousand flowers bloom. Because there is no hierarchy of any worth within the atheiosphere, a distributed approach is best. Work on those things that are important to you. Make it your atheist agenda. If it’s worthwhile, others will follow.

    Kevin Kehres @ #21 (and others making similar points): That works on an individual level — but it doesn’t work on an organizational level, or even the level of local groups. Organizations and local groups need to come to some sort of agreement on which issues they want to pool their energies into.

  23. Kevin Kehres says

    Greta: Seems to me that there are probably a lot of people involved in social justice activism who are atheists, who may even be involved in social justice activism because of their atheism, but go about their business without that atheism being even the slightest bit of their social-justice identity.

    So, if the goal is to forward social justice; then that’s OK. If the goal is to forward social justice as atheists; then that’s not OK. Because you want to be caught in the act of doing something nice in order to change the overall perception of atheists and atheism.

    On one level, it’s like gay rights. All the gay people I know live quiet, normal, non-controversial lives. They pay their taxes, mow their lawns, take their kids to school, and all the rest. But if nobody sees them doing said ordinary things as gay people, then their perception is what someone else plants in their brain — which is most likely to be the leather-clad denizens of The Castro. All of my gay friends (some are downright prudes) are pretty embarrassed by that particular aspect of The Castro; but that’s the very definition of “gay rights” in some circles. Ie, the right to wear a gimp hood and a codpiece (and nothing else) at a street fair.

    Same with atheism. The brain-implant of atheists are tattooed meth-dealing motorcycle riders who will screw anything not upright (and even then), and who live lives of sin because they secretly hate god. It’s important, then, to have non-atheists come face-to-face with real-life social justice advocates as atheists to change the brain implant.

    So, is it a chicken or is it the egg? Do atheists organize around social justice issues in order to be caught doing something nice? Or do they participate in social justice activities as atheists in order to be caught doing something nice? Or do they just participate in social justice activities without the atheist imprimatur? The latter I think is what most people are more-comfortable with. Largely because other groups shy away from involving atheists (or actively bar them, like after those tornadoes). In which case, it’s better to work on social justice issues that you’re interested in and let the whole atheism thing be a secondary feature. Which, to me at least, is more genuine. I’m not interested in social justices issues because I’m an atheist; but because I’m a human being who recognizes himself to be pretty darn privileged and wonders why others can’t be treated with the same dignity. But I see where the fact of my atheism, whenever and wherever it becomes known, changes people’s opinions about atheists and atheism. But I definitely see the potential for backlash if I try to bring the atheist aspect of my identity as the primary feature of what I do — it’s “Ulterior Motive 101″.

    I’m way less concerned about the opinions of those who oppose social justice issues than I am of those who are natural allies. If you’re on the wrong side of my social justice issues; you’re probably going to hold my atheism against me regardless of what I do. So, in for a penny, in for a pound as far as that goes.

    Boy, I hope that made a little bit of sense.

  24. screechymonkey says

    Greta @25:

    That works on an individual level — but it doesn’t work on an organizational level, or even the level of local groups. Organizations and local groups need to come to some sort of agreement on which issues they want to pool their energies into.

    I think I agree with the second sentence but not the first.

    Certainly each organization needs to decide what its issues are — and what they aren’t. Of course, in many instances, an organization’s leadership is going to try to avoid that so that they can try to be all things to all atheists, thus maximizing membership numbers and donations.

    That’s part of what’s been going on over the last few years, as people on different sides pressure leaders to take a stand, and many of the so-called leaders try to avoid it, supposedly in the name of “healing the rifts” etc. I wonder how long they’ll be able to get away with it. These fights have been going on long enough now that I think it’s pretty naive to expect them to go away any time soon. And as you have pointed out multiple times in this thread, choosing not to take a side is not a neutral act.

    I think the way things will shake out is that some organizations will gradually, tentatively, adopt these new goals, while others will stay with their traditional roles. And it’ll be up to all of us to decide who gets our support. That’s what I mean by letting a thousand flowers bloom — not that each individual does his or her own thing while the organizations stay ostensibly “neutral,” but that the orgs each stake out their own turf and thrive or not based on what support they can gather.

  25. Greta Christina says

    By way of analogy, it’s never really occurred to me to suggest that the women’s rights activist groups I’ve participated in (a campus Planned Parenthood affiliate and 9to5) should also have been doing secular activist work, despite the obvious crossover with most objections being religious in nature, becasue we wanted to have as many people coming together in the context of that one group to work for the specific, if varied, issues of women’s rights.

    John Horstman @ #22: But one of the main points of intersectionality is that these issues often don’t fall into neat categories. Reproductive rights are a women’s issue — AND an issue of religious intrusion/ church state separation. Voucher funding for religious schools that sucks funding from public schools is an issue for poor people who rely on public schools, disproportionately people of color — AND an issue of church/state separation. Abstinence-only sex education is a women’s issue, AND an issue for poor people who rely on public schools, disproportionately people of color, AND an issue of church/state separation. Same-sex marriage is an LGBT issue, AND an issue of religious intrusion/ church state separation. Rinse, repeat.

    To a certain extent, despite the fact that I am very much on board with feminist activism and anti-racist activism, for example, I’m perplexed by the people who are saying that these issues necessarily should be the focus of atheist groups (beyond making sure the groups aren’t hostile to members of various marginalized populations; I’m well aware that there is pushback against even that minimal baseline, which is absolutely unacceptable).

    But not addressing issues that are of deep concern to them is being hostile to members of various marginalized populations. Especially when groups are already doing projects that are off-topic, like highway cleanup.

    Should the FfRF, for example, start tackling racial housing discrimination suits in addition to church-state separation cases?

    We’re talking about two different issues here — issues-based organizations, and community groups. I agree that issues-based organizations should stay on mission — but they sure as heck can focus more energy on issues already within that mission and that disproportionately affect marginalized people. Reproductive rights, voucher funding, abstinence-only sex ed, same-sex marriage, unregulated religious-based day care centers — these are already in the wheelhouse of church/state separation, unfair religious privilege, religious intrusion into people’s private lives, etc. And they can also work harder on social justice in internal matters: hiring and promotion, treatment of staff and volunteers, policies at conferences, hiring of speakers, how people showing up at meetings get treated, etc.

    And we’re also talking about local community groups — who are already, very often, engaged in off-topic projects like highway cleanups and blood drives. If they can do that, they bloody well can do social justice work that’s off-topic, like racial housing discrimination.

    It could very well be a function of people looking at groups as community-oriented instead of project-oriented. If that’s the case, disregard everything I’ve said: I do not and never will have any interest in joining an atheist community group, and thus have nothing to say about how they do or should operate.

    In this particular conversation, we’re talking about community-oriented groups. We have also had these conversations about project-oriented groups. And again, the appropriate way to handle these issues is different depending on which you’re talking about — see above. But it still can and should be handled.

  26. says

    So why are you so worried about alienating the white, middle-class, college-educated, cisgender men who don’t have any interest in social justice and in some cases are actively opposed to it — but you’re not at all worried about alienating African Americans, Hispanics, women, trans people, poor people, working-class and blue-collar people, and other marginalized folks? Why is it that white, middle-class, college-educated, cisgender men not only get to set the agenda, but get to be the ones who matter?

    Schlumbumbi is a Slymepitter, and is thus committed to having “the atheist/skeptic agenda” equate with “being as horrible as possible to people who are marginalized under the guise of atheism and skepticism”.

    Hence his use of “questionable identity politics” as a fnord in his final sentence. People who use the phrase “identity politics”, I have found, tend to be throwing it around as a set of scare-words to imply illegitimacy on the part of social justice activists.

  27. screechymonkey says

    Kevin @26:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of being “caught looking good.” It’s a question of intersectionality as Greta explains @28.

    Your argument is a little like saying that pro-choice groups shouldn’t promote the election of Democrats because, hey, there’s a Democratic Party to do that, so go join them if that’s what you want to work on, we just do pro-choice here and you know, not 100% of Democrats are pro-choice and not 100% of Republicans are anti-choice, and we don’t want to risk losing a single Republican supporter, so let’s keep those issues separate. That would be a pretty foolish strategy.

  28. Greta Christina says

    Schlumbumbi is a Slymepitter

    Flewellyn @ #29: Can someone else confirm that? Because if it’s so, he’s going to get banned under the “you don’t get to barely walk the line of tolerable behavior here and be an abusive asshole elsewhere” provision of my comment policy.

  29. Greta Christina says

    But I definitely see the potential for backlash if I try to bring the atheist aspect of my identity as the primary feature of what I do — it’s “Ulterior Motive 101″.

    Kevin Kehres @ #26: Nobody says that about atheist groups doing highway cleanups. Or, for that matter, about the Foundation Beyond Belief. Nobody says that atheist groups shouldn’t do these things qua atheists, because we’ll be seen as self-serving. Why would we say it about atheist groups doing social justice work?

    In fact, the very people we’re talking about targeting are saying the exact opposite. Atheist women, POC, etc. are saying that they bloody well want official atheist groups, as atheist groups, to take on our/ their issues — and are saying that the failure to do so makes us/them feel alienated, like this movement isn’t about us and doesn’t care about us and doesn’t seem to even know we exist.

  30. says

    @Greta #28,
    “I suppose there might be some situations where that might be true — such as very, very new groups that are struggling to get going, and where major diversification of projects will spread them way too thin. But even then, they can pay attention to social justice issues in internal matters: who they invite as speakers, how they treat marginalized people when they show up, how they select leadership, etc. And it’s hard to imagine a group being destroyed by taking one just one or two social justice-y projects — unless that group is largely populated by racist sexist asshats. In which case, good riddance.”

    I basically agree, except that student groups are usually well-organized when they’re new. The problems appear when the original founders graduate.

    I should clarify that I’m perpetually pissed off at the leadership of my local student group, and I think they could do much better at getting women in. But it’s hard for me to complain since I’m unwilling to take leadership, for personal reasons (ie I tried it before, never again). As an observer, I think they need to take baby steps first, and that doing service projects for social justice activism is not the most accessible step. Sure, that’s screwing it up, but that’s not the only thing they’re screwing it up. You’re on the SSA advisory board, surely you should know just how badly disorganized some of these groups are?

  31. Greta Christina says

    As an observer, I think they need to take baby steps first, and that doing service projects for social justice activism is not the most accessible step.

    miller @ #33: And I ask once again: Accessible to whom?

    Why are you prioritizing “accessible to white, middle-class, cisgender men” over “accessible to women, people of color, working class and blue-collar people, trans people, and other marginalized folks”?

    I’m not asking atheist groups to do civil disobedience or organize major conferences on intersectionality the first year they form. But it’s not like every social justice project is hugely difficult or challenging. How hard is it to do a small fundraiser event for Planned Parenthood? How hard is it to contact the black student group and ask if they want to co-sponsor a speaker on the history of humanism in the African American community? How hard is it to organize fun and funny counter-protests when homophobic street preachers show up on campus? (Counter-protests like that were a huge part of what swelled the ranks of the Missouri State University secular group — the group that then went on to organize Skepticon.)

    Would these events really be that much more challenging than other events that less-than-perfectly-organized student groups do? Or would they be “challenging,” solely and entirely, because they are about social justice, and they therefore would make people have to re-think their views about it?

    And anyway, I’m not just writing about student groups here.

  32. Parse says

    Greta @ 31:
    Though Schlumbumbi might not be a slymepitter – at least under that name – whenever they pop up on FreeThoughtBlogs, they’re almost always taking the pit’s perspective.
    One example, from three days ago on Avicenna’s blog, is a bit of a word salad, but seems to be saying that Melody is faking “allegedly Twitter-induced PTSD, or to be a little more precise, her mean-people-said-things-on-Twitter-induced PTSD” (Schlumbumbi’s words, not mine).
    A second example, from April 2nd on Mano Singham’s blog, they respond to a question (in the original post) about what a “hashtag activist” is: “It means that your activism is defined by getting keyboard SJWs to dogpile a particular victim for as long as their attention span lasts. And that’s a pretty spot-on description.”
    I’m only including two examples here (as to hopefully avoid getting trapped up in the spam filter), but you can find all their comments by doing a google search for “Schlumbumbi site:freethoughtblogs.com”

  33. Greta Christina says

    Parse @ #35: That is plenty. Schlumbumbi’s comments about Melody’s PTSD are vile. Banned.

  34. says

    I haven’t read all the comments, so I’m hope I’m not restating otherwise covered material but the unstated premise in all of this is “We shouldn’t disagree with immoral acts/points because the majority of the public agrees with it.” I thought the whole point of the atheist movement was that religion acted in immoral ways and we needed to group together to prevent the immorality of religion being the norm i.e. if religion did nothing but contribute to the good of everyone, there probably wouldn’t need to be an atheist movement…Caving to pressures about the unpopularity of the ideas seems counter-intuitive to the atheist movement (and, in addition, caving to majority pressure (there’s more religious people than irreligious people in the world) would potentially mean abandoning the atheist movement altogether, depending on the way you view it)…

  35. says

    @Greta #33
    The more accessible steps I had in mind were things like putting women in leadership (which in my experience is the single most effective strategy), and instituting stronger moderation so that men don’t talk over the women all the time. Also protests against homophobic preachers are great, precisely because it isn’t controversial within these groups. Seriously, they couldn’t make t-shirts for many years because any proposed t-shirt design was at least slightly controversial.

    What I’m hearing, though, is that you are not interested in talking about these specific groups, and would rather speak more in the general and abstract. Fine.

    What I don’t get is that I thought you were arguing that social justice issues should be fought, not because it’s easy, but because it is right. But when I tell you that in certain contexts, the extra difficulty makes it infeasible, you start arguing that the controversial aspect does not make it the slightest bit more difficult. I don’t buy it. This goes against everything I have learned about feminism and social justice–this stuff *isn’t easy*.

    Like you, I want people to try, despite difficulties. But the idea of my local group trying a controversial service project inspires in me a knee-jerk pessimism. I’m sorry to get this pessimism all over your comment section. Thank you for your thoughtful replies.

  36. Nick Gotts says

    If we want to present a better public face to marginalized people, then yes, we risk alienating some racists, sexists, etc. — both outside our groups and within them. – Greta

    That’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

    AndrewD@5
    As another Brit…

    I see this as partly a legacy of previous religious wars (30 years and Second World War) and partly due to the immunisation effect of large state churches.

    Very unlikely. Most of the decline in religiosity in Europe has been post WWII – which wasn’t in any sense a religious war – and has coincided with the rise of effective welfare systems – far more effective than in the USA. AFAIK, there has been no change in which countries have state churches over the period of the decline. The claim that the existence of state churches promotes atheism is the so-called “supply-side” hypothesis, largely promoted by the American Christian sociologist Rodney Stark – who thinks state churches inhibit competition between denominations; but the decline has happened in countries without state churches – France, the Czech Republic and Estonia in Europe, for example, and beyond Europe in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Here is an article showing the association of the religiosity of countries with levels of income inequality, used as a proxy for socio-economic insecurity – which of course, effective welfare systems reduce. The religious right in the USA are almost certainly quite correct in thinking that welfare systems undermine Christianity.

    Finally, we do not have a strong Randite movement in Europe, Libertarianism has historically (on the far left ) been Stirnerite anarchism

    Classifying Stirnerite anarchism as “far left” is just bizarre. Stirner’s views were remarkably similar to Rand’s, except that Rand thought (to use that word loosely) that a minimalist state was necessary. Have you actually read (or perhaps I should say, tried to read) The Ego and His Own? It’s pretty much devoid of anything that could reasonably be termed political ideas of any kind. On the other hand, Thatcherite conservatism contains a significant right-libertarian streak, as does, for example, the VVD in Netherlands, FPD in Germany, FPO in Austria…

  37. Greta Christina says

    The more accessible steps I had in mind were things like putting women in leadership (which in my experience is the single most effective strategy), and instituting stronger moderation so that men don’t talk over the women all the time.

    miller @ #38: Those are good, too. (Although I wouldn’t phrase it as “putting women in leadership,” since that implies that it’s men’s job to pick the leadership and put people there. I’d phrase it as “encouraging women to step into leadership.”) In any case: I was trying to toss out a few ideas offhand, not make an exhaustive list. But addressing sexism, etc. in internal matters is only one part of the picture.

    What I’m hearing, though, is that you are not interested in talking about these specific groups, and would rather speak more in the general and abstract.

    No, I’ll admit, I’m not that interested in hashing out the specific problems you’ve had with your specific groups. But that doesn’t mean I’m speaking in the abstract. It means I’m speaking to problems shared by many groups — not just yours — and to possible solutions that could work for many groups — not just yours.

    What I don’t get is that I thought you were arguing that social justice issues should be fought, not because it’s easy, but because it is right. But when I tell you that in certain contexts, the extra difficulty makes it infeasible, you start arguing that the controversial aspect does not make it the slightest bit more difficult. I don’t buy it. This goes against everything I have learned about feminism and social justice–this stuff *isn’t easy*.

    I’m getting to the “it’s hard” argument tomorrow. My point is not that doing social justice isn’t difficult. My point is that these difficulties are not insurmountable. My point is that starting out with the pessimistic view that it’s difficult and so therefore we shouldn’t even bother to try is self-defeating and out of touch with reality — lots of groups are doing this with significant success.

    And my point is to question what it is, really, that’s hard about social justice. Many social justice action items and projects are not, from a logistical or resource standpoint, any harder or more complicated than any other action items and projects that a group might take on. If you can do a “send an atheist to church” fundraiser for Heifer International, you can do it for Planned Parenthood. If you can invite a visiting speaker, you can ask African-American groups to co-sponsor, or simply invite an African-American speaker, or both. So why is social justice activism more difficult? As I said in my earlier comment: Are these projects “challenging,” solely and entirely, because they are about social justice, and they therefore would make people have to re-think their views about it?

  38. =8)-DX says

    Can’t we just go back to about 4 years ago when I could live in the blissful naive fog that told me social justice issues were noncontroversial issues. Of course atheist movements were going to be for diversity and equality, I mean it wasn’t asif the atheist movement were full of a load of sexist racist homophobic assholes was it?

    I think atheist groups should take diversity and social justice (and science and church-state-separation) to be the standard and let those who disagree or want to teach the controversy separate themselves – they can be (in impact and scope), like the log-cabin republicans.

  39. Holms says

    Parse @ #35: That is plenty. Schlumbumbi’s comments about Melody’s PTSD are vile. Banned.

    Spot on – he may not be a slymepitter, or he may be but is posting under a different name to avoid notice – but it matters little, as he has exactly the same viewpoint as them on all threads relating to e.g. harassment.

  40. Drolfe says

    John @22 said among many others

    Maybe we need to try to game out the pros and cons of both intersectional, broad-scope social justice groups and single-issue (or single-arena?) groups. Do the benefits to having a group that takes definitive stands on a wide rage of issues (necessarily excluding some people who might otherwise be part of it) outweigh the appeal of a broad base?

    My emphasis. And that’s where the issue is determined/fought, the composition of that “broad base”. If the broad base consists of basically white men of the leisure classes, that excludes the actually broader base of women plus people of color and everyone without the time to volunteer or debate on Twitter. We’re all numerate, right? It can’t be just about appealing to members of classes with power as infiltration. That’s not a winning long term strategy if justice is a goal. In politics there is still power in numbers, so going after the bigger fraction is a winner.

    Generally, social justice can include justice for us, atheists, in addition to other oppressed classes. I get that Europeans think it’s weird that some of us have to fear for our jobs or even housing when acting as or coming out as atheists; that atheists are “oppressed” at all. (There’s some books about it.)

  41. says

    Why do you assume that atheists are automatically leftwing? Why do you assume that atheists will automatically be in favour of abortion and against the police and in favour of racial special pleading?

    You are attempting to squeeze atheists into a conformist mould.

    That is ironic.

  42. Greta Christina says

    Why do you assume that atheists are automatically leftwing? Why do you assume that atheists will automatically be in favour of abortion and against the police and in favour of racial special pleading?

    Kit Ingoldby @ #44: You’re not very good at reading for comprehension, are you?

    Of course I understand that. (Although at least in the United States, over 98% of atheists support abortion rights, and over 97% support same-sex marriage.) That’s the entire point of this post, which you seem to have missed. I’ll restate briefly: Supporting issues that matter to women, people of color, poor and working-class people, LGBT people, etc. may be somewhat controversial within atheist groups as well as outside them. But not doing so is already controversial to these marginalized people. Give a choice between alienating women, people of color, poor and working-class people, LGBT people, etc., and alienating sexist, racist, classist, homophobic asshats, I’ll take the latter any day.

    You are attempting to squeeze atheists into a conformist mould.

    Again — wow, not so good with the reading for comprehension. I’m trying to increase the diversity of experiences and perspectives in organized atheism — not decrease it. I’m trying to get organized atheism to not be overwhelmingly made up of straight, white, cisgender, middle-class, college-educated men, which seems like a pretty conformist mold to me. Unless, of course, by “conformist mold” you mean “being baseline decent human beings and not being sexist, racist, classist, homophobic asshats.” In which case — yes. Guilty as charged. Failing to see how that’s a bug and not a feature.

    And “racial special pleading” is a racist dog-whistle that I will not tolerate in my blog. Banned.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Greta Christina has an interesting post addressing the concerns that organized atheism, by picking up social justice issues (instead of just “safe” public outreach like highway clean-up and blood drives) , would be courting controversy and alienating people when you want to attract people. She makes the entirely reasonable point that if the concern is alienating people, atheist are already doing this. Refusing to address issues of racial injustice, sexism, that sort of thing sends a signal to women and people of color that they aren’t welcome in atheist circles. [Read more] […]

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