“It’s Hard”: The Crux (Apparently) of the Atheism, Social Justice, and “Mission Drift” Question

And now — I think — we get to the crux of it.

The goalposts have been moving and moving. But I strongly suspect that this is it, the crux of the objection to organized atheism getting involved in other social change issues:

It’s hard.

atheists-united-highway-cleanupWhen I argued that the “mission drift” objection made no sense — plenty of social justice issues are clearly within the missions of atheist organizations, and many atheist community groups already do projects (like highway cleanups) that have nothing to do with atheism — another objection was presented: It’s too controversial. It might drive people away from atheism or reinforce their negative opinions of us. It might keep some atheists from getting involved, or even drive some atheists who are already involved away.

Then when I argued that the “too controversial” objection made no sense — the status quo is not neutral, not doing social justice work is already controversial among marginalized people and is already keeping many away from organized atheism — the goalposts moved again. We had a brief detour into a sincere point of confusion and clarification, sorting out what kinds of social justice projects would be appropriate for community-building groups versus issues-based organizations. But we also had this:

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.

And this:

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.

And this:

I agree with your premise, Greta, but I know that I have a hard enough time getting my atheist group to participate in something as simple as a roadside cleanup that I have been hesitant to expand the types of activities my group does. I think it is important for atheists to get involved in many social issues, but as it is so difficult to organize atheists I sometimes wonder if we can really be a cohesive force for positive change.

And this:

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 this, which pretty much sums it all up:

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.

(To be fair and clear, at least some of the people saying these things are on board with the basic idea, and are just frustrated and stymied on how to do it.)

I have a few specific responses to the more specific of these objections. Not all groups have these organizing problems. Clinic defense isn’t the only form of social justice activism — and in any case, maybe your group would be more active generally, or wouldn’t just be made up of a few dozen gray-haired attendees, if it got more involved in social justice issues. Even a wobbly group should be able to take on one or two little social justice projects without killing the group — and not doing so already constitutes screwing things up. And, of course: Accessible to whom? Isn’t that exactly the point here — that we can’t keep making organized atheism accessible to privileged people at the expense of making it accessible to marginalized people?

But none of that gets to the crux of these objections, and the theme they have in common: Working on social justice is hard.

To which I reply:

Yes. It is hard.

And I want to take a look, for a moment, at why it’s hard.

the end of god talk anthony pinn coverFrom a purely logistical or resource standpoint, is it really that much harder, or indeed any harder at all? If you’re doing a book club and you’re all reading and discussing Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, is it that much harder to read and discuss The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology? If you’re doing a “send an atheist to church” fundraiser for Heifer International, is it that much harder to do one for the National Network of Abortion Funds? If you’re inviting a visiting speaker to speak to your group, is it that much harder to ask African-American groups to co-sponsor the speaker, or simply invite an African-American speaker, or both?

Why are these social justice events more difficult? Are they more difficult, solely and entirely, because they are about social justice? Are they more difficult because they make people re-think our views about social justice? Are they more difficult because they make us uncomfortable? Are they more difficult because they make us more conscious of our own privileges? Are they more difficult because we have to take the risk of making a misstep and saying or doing the wrong thing, and getting called on it? Are they more difficult because they drag our unconscious biases up into our consciousness, where we have to notice them and do something?

Take a wild guess as to what I think the answer is.

So it’s hard. Yes. It’s hard for me, too. It’s hard to speak up about uncomfortable, sensitive topics. It’s hard to take the extra time to think outside your usual circles. It’s hard to take a risk and invite a speaker you’re less familiar with, instead of the ones that everyone you know already knows and likes. It’s hard to hear about all the ways that your successes came, not from your own hard work and talent, but from the luck of the draw. It’s hard to hear about the truly shitty lives some people lead — and to accept that the just world fallacy is bullshit, and that they didn’t bring it on themselves. It’s hard to tell people you like and respect and get along with that they’re doing something wrong. It’s hard to listen — really, really listen — when people you like and respect and get along with are telling you that you’re doing something wrong. It’s hard to hold back on that reflexively defensive reaction, and stop and sit with the squirmy uncomfortable feeling you get when you’ve screwed something up, and apologize for it. It’s hard to change.

Yes. It’s hard.

Is that really your answer? “Yes, this is worth doing, but it’s hard”?

In ten or twenty or fifty years, do you want organized atheism to still be hashing out these issues, with decades of bitterness and rancor behind us? Do you want organized atheism to be considerably smaller and weaker than it could have been, because marginalized people of all varieties still don’t feel welcomed and still don’t participate? Do you want people staying in religion, even though they have real doubts or have rejected God altogether, because they don’t feel like they have anyplace else to go — and don’t feel like atheism is a safe or viable option? Do you want organized atheism struggling to do coalition work with other social change movements, because we don’t have our shit together on Social Justice 101? Do you want organized atheism run almost entirely by racist, sexist asshats, because the folks who give a damn about social justice gave up and moved on to other issues? Do you want organized atheism to be in this lousy place in ten or twenty or fifty years — and then look back and say, “Well, I could have done something about it, but I didn’t, because it was hard”?

Doing social justice is hard. Not doing it is harder.

In a Twitter conversation about this with @SecularOutpost (who, to their credit, seems to have shifted on the subject), they Tweeted, “I’m saying ‘If it aint’ broke, don’t fix it.'” I don’t know how much more clearly to say this: IT IS BROKEN. It is badly broken. Many marginalized people already feel very alienated from organized atheism because their/our issues get ignored, dismissed, trivialized, and worse. As I’ve said more than once in these conversations: The status quo is not neutral. Doing nothing is doing something. Doing things the way we’ve always done them is not a neutral act – it is contributing to the problem. Doing social justice is hard — bu not doing it is harder.

And because this is me, I want to end on an optimistic note.

Yes, this is hard. But it is so worth it.

American Atheists fun timeIn the last few years, I’ve already seen a significant increase in diversity in organized atheism. People have been working on this, and it’s been paying off. And it is SO MUCH MORE FUN now, I can’t even tell you. When you have groups made up of people of all ages and races and and ethnicities and genders and sexual orientations and gender identities and social classes and economic classes and nationalities and geographic locations and former religions and everything else – it’s just more fun. You learn more. You meet people you never would have met – people who are amazing. You hear about books, music, food, art, jokes, that you never would have. You expand your mind. You expand your heart. You have better parties.

And if you care about your atheist agenda, whatever that might be — whether it’s church/state separation, or unfair religious privilege, or the intrusive incursion of religion into people’s private lives, or fighting anti-atheist bigotry, or fighting religiously-inspired brutality, or persuading people out of the mistaken and harmful idea of religion and the supernatural, or simply forming welcoming, supportive, fun atheist communities and giving people a safe place to land when they leave religion — it is worth it. Ask any organizer of any other social justice group: are they more effective when they pay attention to intersectionality, or when they ignore it? If they could go back in time and get the early leaders of their movement to pay more attention to this stuff, would they do that? I can pretty much guarantee you that almost all of them will tell you that this is worth it – and will passionately advise organized atheism to get on it, stat.

This is the right thing to do for ethical reasons. It’s the right thing to do for practical, Machiavellian reasons. Learn from history, and don’t repeat it.

If your group doesn’t have it in you to do something big — do something small. If you don’t have it in you to do clinic defense — take part in the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon. If you don’t have it in you to organize a major conference on atheist intersectionality — bring in a speaker. If you don’t have it in you to do civil disobedience — speak up on the Internet.

But please don’t do nothing, just because doing something is hard.


  1. elephantasy says

    I’ve been following this series with great interest, as the “mission drift” question has come up many times in discussions in my local group. A lot of good ideas are being offered here, and I plan to try them out with the group.

    My group is a community organization (“organization” is probably stretching things), not a college group, in the South. We had a fundraiser and food drive for a food bank, and did so with explicit signage indicating who we are. Donations were sparse, and several people got belligerent. When the signage was taken down, donations increased dramatically. Discussions after the event brought to light significant disagreement about the purpose of the fundraiser. For some (including me), the event is a failure if we have to hide the identity of the group; the point is to improve the image of atheists by being seen as atheists doing good. For others, the point of the event was to raise money for the food bank, and the event is a failure if we fail to do that. Those in the first group note that there are alternative ways of helping the food bank without doing so as an official group event, and nothing stopping groups of members from using one or more of those ways. Those in the second group are not so much interested in being seen as atheists doing good; rather, they are more interested in being atheists doing good without the presence of religious references and proselytizing.

    This was all in the context of doing something that is well-supported by the community at large. We’ve discussed doing something like “send an atheist to church” or “ask an atheist”, and we are extremely reticent to do these things with involvement of the general public (rather than, say, the population of a college, which in this area we expect to be somewhat more open-minded than the general population).

    Now, throw in the possibility of doing something that is strongly OPPOSED by the community at large. Sending an atheist to church to support a food bank? Maybe. Sending an atheist to church to provide funds to help people obtain abortions? I am extremely wary of what the reaction might be, and would be concerned for the safety of the participants. There MUST be ways to raise funds for these causes, and I would like to figure this out, but it isn’t in any way as simple as changing the beneficiary at a public event.

    We are participating in a rally that is in support of secular government; some of the other participating organizations are women’s rights organizations, and pushing back on the draconian measures introduced repeatedly in the state legislature are high on the agenda. I am hoping that we figure out, in the wake of this rally, some way to be more oriented toward social justice. We certainly have people who want to do this, although a minority within the group, which is mostly a social club.

  2. Greta Christina says

    Now, throw in the possibility of doing something that is strongly OPPOSED by the community at large. Sending an atheist to church to support a food bank? Maybe. Sending an atheist to church to provide funds to help people obtain abortions? I am extremely wary of what the reaction might be, and would be concerned for the safety of the participants. There MUST be ways to raise funds for these causes, and I would like to figure this out, but it isn’t in any way as simple as changing the beneficiary at a public event.

    elephantasy @ #1: Yes. It’s hard.

    If you think that particular project/event won’t work, and especially if you think it will put you in danger, then do something else. Fundraise for some other social justice project that won’t endanger the safety of your group; if you want to fundraise for abortion funds, do it in a more private fundraiser rather than a public one. But also rememberl: You’re targeting the marginalized people it will go over well with, and not just the privileged people it won’t. Remember that, no matter what projects you decide to go with.

  3. says

    Thanks for taking the time to reply to various objections, one by one. Perhaps part of my earlier objection could be explained by saying: my local group is so disorganized that I can’t imagine them running a fundraiser of any sort, a cosponsored event of any sort, and least of all a service project of any sort. A social justice service project is unimaginable partly because a service project is unimaginable. I can imagine speakers though, that seems more reasonable.

    Why are these social justice events more difficult? […] Are they more difficult because they drag our unconscious biases up into our consciousness, where we have to notice them and do something?

    Yeah, those are pretty much exactly the reasons. I never claimed that social justice in my local atheist group is difficult for “legitimate” reasons, only that it is difficult. It hardly matters how I feel about it, since I don’t lead, I just complain to the leaders all the time.

  4. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    I don’t have really much to add, but this post is such an amazing post.

  5. screechymonkey says

    miller@3, it doesn’t sound to me like your local group can do anything effectively, whether it involves social justice or not. Or are they somehow surprisingly competent at whatever they think constitutes their “core” functions?


    And it is SO MUCH MORE FUN now

    Yeah, that’s what intrigues me about this discussion. I’ve never been much of a “joiner,” and atheist/secularist organizations don’t have much appeal to me if they’re going to stick to their traditional functions. I just can’t get that charged up about getting together to talk about atheism or complain about religion (I can do that online), or to raise funds for some indisputably nice cause (I can just write a check directly to groups that specialize in that).

    But actually taking on something that matters? That sounds much more appealing. And if the stuff that really matters tends to be “hard” or controversial, so be it.

  6. says

    I think you’re right, but I think it’s a combination of “It’s hard” and “I don’t understand why it’s important”. Which is, unfortunately, a self-reinforcing loop. People think these things are too hard and not important enough, and so they don’t learn about why they’re important, and so they continue to think that they’re too hard and not important enough to work on.

  7. says

    It’s hard does seem like the main thing in my experience. For the variety of reasons that it can be hard. Which means it ends up hard to gather the time and energy to work on a lot. Still, I think our local group has done at least a handful of small things.
    So I do hope I can keep trying, keep pushing to do a little more.

  8. says

    @Screechymonkey #5,
    Yes, that’s right, my local group cannot do anything effectively. They struggle with basic core functions. I never ever see these kinds of disorganized groups described represented on blogs, so sometimes I wonder if it’s just me. But this has been my experience across two student groups over seven years. Thinking about it has pissed me off, so I just wrote about it.

  9. elephantasy says

    @miller #10

    my local group cannot do anything effectively

    That’s a problem in my group, as well, except mine is a community group. Student groups have, it seems, an easier time of it, given that they have ready access to space and facilities, so things like arranging for speakers are straightforward.

    @Greta #2

    You’re targeting the marginalized people it will go over well with, and not just the privileged people it won’t

    I like that formulation, and I think that framing the issue that way will be helpful in my situation.

    A lot of people in my group are, if they are concerned with outreach efforts at all, concerned with influencing people who have significant animosity toward atheists to lose some of that animosity. Our views push a lot of buttons, so the thought was, it would be best to push one button at a time. “Good people, just like you, except we believe in one fewer god.” This approach has, however, alienated some people who might be more activist in the group if we hit the important issues. I am now thinking we should jump right into the social justice topics we said we’d deal with when we were more established. I’ll see how that goes over. But at least I have a better way of explaining the concerns, now.


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