Yesterday 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.
Second: 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.