“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. [Read more...]

Issue Organizations Versus Community Groups — At Last, A Legitimate Question About Atheism, Social Justice, and “Mission Drift”

So in these conversations about organized atheism getting more involved in other social justice issues — and whether this (a) constitutes mission drift and/or (b) would be too controversial — there’s a point that some people seem to be legitimately confused about, and I think it’s worth clearing up. This comment from John Horstman expresses it, as does the Twitter conversation I had recently with @SecularOutpost. (There’s also been a lot of dodging, goalpost-moving, ignoring of points that have already been made repeatedly, and other less than stellar behavior — but we’ll get into that another time, if I have the energy.)

The point of clarification: It’s important to make a distinction between what community-based groups are doing, and what issues-based organizations are doing.

To be very clear: Both of these kinds of groups can, and should, focus more on social justice, intersectionality, issues that are of greater concern to marginalized people. But I think they should do it in different ways.

ffrf logoIn organized atheism, there are issues-based organizations, and there are community-based groups. There are organizations that exist to work on specific issues — church/state separation, unfair religious privilege, religious intrusion into people’s private lives, ways that religion harms people, changing people’s opinions of atheists, etc. (Example: The Freedom From Religion Foundation filing lawsuits keeping religion out of, among other things, public schools.)

And there are groups and organizations (usually local) that exist to build atheist communities: to provide the social support, practical support, companionship, sense of meaning and purpose, etc. that many people get from religion.

So when we talk about getting organized atheism more involved in other social justice issues, we’re kind of talking about two different things here.

When it comes to issues-based organizations, I agree that they 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 of religious schools that sucks money from public schools, abstinence-only sex education, 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. There’s no reason issues-based atheist organizations shouldn’t be working on them.

Example: Should the FFRF file lawsuits about sexist discrimination in the workplace? Probably not. That’s not in their mission. But should they file lawsuits about abstinence-only sex education in public schools? Why the hell not? It’s an issue of church/state separation: abstinence-only sex education is entirely religion-based, in direct violation of the best evidence-based practices, with at best a thin veneer of pretense that it’s not (much like intelligent design being taught in the public schools). And it’s an issue that particularly concerns women, and that particularly concerns poor people (disproportionately people of color) who rely on public schools.

What’s more, issues-based atheist organizations 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 if they’re doing billboards or other campaigns to put a positive face on atheism, they sure as heck can make sure that a good number of those faces are women and people of color.

atheists-united-highway-cleanupNow, when we’re talking about community-based groups? That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Local community groups are already, very often, engaged in projects that don’t have anything specifically to do with atheism. They’re already engaged in off-topic projects like highway cleanups, blood drives, picnics, pub nights, and so on. Some of this work is done to create a positive public face of atheism, and to counter the myths and bigotry against us. And some of it is done to build community: to strengthen social bonds, to create a sense of common meaning and purpose, etc.

If they can do highway cleanups and blood drives and other community-and-PR-building events that are off-topic, they bloody well can do social justice work that’s off-topic.

If community-based groups want to create a positive public face of atheism? They can do projects that present a positive face to marginalized people: working on reproductive rights, racist police and drug policies, bullying of LGBTQ kids and teenagers, underfunded public schools, domestic violence, systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, etc.

And if community-based groups want to build community, strengthen social bonds, create a sense of common meaning and purpose, etc.? They can do projects that are of particular meaning to marginalized people, and that make it clear that they matter in our communities, and that make our communities matter more to them. See above.

It makes no sense to argue that this is mission drift. And if you think it’s too controversial, remember — not doing this is also controversial, among marginalized people. Marginalized people are already staying away from organized atheism — because they think, with justification, that we don’t give a shit about their issues. The status quo is not neutral.

As I said yesterday, and the day before: 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.

Other posts on this topic:
Does Social Justice Activism Mean Mission Drift for Atheism and Skepticism?
Atheist Highway Cleanups, and Some Further Thoughts On “Mission Drift”
No, It’s Not Mission Drift — But It’s Too Controversial! More on Atheism and Social Justice

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.

Greta’s Interview with Black FreeThinkers!

Black FreeThinkers logo

I did a very cool, fun, interesting interview the other day with Kim Veal on the Black FreeThinkers radio show and podcast. The excuse, of course, was to discuss my new book, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. But we talked about a lot of things, related to coming out and not. We talked about how coming out as an atheist is different for people in different cultures and situations; whether arguments with religious believers are productive or divisive; how to get atheism more involved in other social justice issues (and why); building atheist communities; whether coming out atheist is easier or harder than coming out LGBTQ; how coming out can be liberating; and lots more. Plus we giggled a fair amount. Check it out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that actually leads me back to my original question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greta Christina and Alex Gabriel Yak About Sexual Identity, Secularity, and Politics

Alex Gabriel: I’ve tended to observe that people who march under the banner of humanism in the states lean somewhat more strongly to the left than humanists in Britain. I’m not sure why that is, but – in my experience, anyway – it’s more of a countercultural identity, [with] more immediate openness to class concerns in politics, feminism and that kind of thing.

I’ve found that humanists in the UK are first of all a little less well defined. You find people under the humanist banner everywhere politically, but as far as major organisations, I think that the British Humanist Association – the people that run it, and I’ve met quite a few of them, I would place more in the political centre than people I know at African Americans for Humanism or the American Humanist Association.

Greta Christina: I’m not sure why that is, but it’s interesting.

That’s a good question. Because this is me, and this is what I do, I’m going to speculate and pull speculative conclusions totally out of my ass – so, therefore, this is a provisional guess – but I think that to some extent [it’s] because being a nonbeliever in Britain is more normal, it’s more ordinary, it’s more common anyway.

Being a nonbeliever in the states is oppositional, and there’s no way around that. It’s a little different if you live in New York City or some place like that, but even then you have to contend with the rest of the country. And so I wonder if because of that, right now at least in the United States, we have a situation where in order to reject religion you have to be willing to question the religious right, for one thing.

Certainly in the United States, religion and conservative politics are very much welded together. One of the reasons why I’m engaged in atheist activism is that I do see it as a crowbar: when people become atheists, they do tend to become more liberal, more progressive. I think that may not always be true. I think that if atheism does become more common in the United States, then in a few decades that tendency of atheists, humanists, just any nonbeliever…

So I don’t think that humanists are more progressive: just ‘nonbelievers’ in the States tend to be more progressive, because the kind of personality that gets you questioning religion is also perhaps the kind of personality that gets you questioning other conventions about politics and society and so on. I think it’s possible that in a few decades that won’t be true.

*****

In which Alex Gabriel and I have a conversation about sexual identity, secularity, and politics.

Here’s the deal. When I was writing Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Alex Gabriel (of the Godlessness In Theory blog) was deeply involved in the process. He did two rounds of very thorough copy editing on the book, and I made numerous changes both small and large based on our conversations. (He’s a first-rate copy editor, by the way: I don’t know if he’s hiring himself out for that, but if he is, I can’t recommend him highly enough. UPDATE: Yes, Alex is hiring himself out as a copy editor. And I can’t recommend him highly enough. Seriously. Hire him.)

Anyway, when we were going over the book together, a number of topics came up where we said, “That’s an interesting topic, we should really talk about that more sometime.” How non-religious people name ourselves; whether sexual orientation is fluid depending on culture and awareness of possibilities; political differences between humanism and atheism; whether the phrase “coming out” was a cultural appropriation of LGBT language; whether the “born this way” narrative of the LGBT movement makes bisexuals even more invisible; and more.

This is that conversation. (Or the first of those conversations, anyway. Next time we’ll get into assimilationism and the Oxford comma.)

If you prefer to read than to watch the video, Alex has the conversation transcribed on his blog. Enjoy!

*****

Oh, and once again, here is ordering information for Coming Out Atheist in all three formats — print, ebook, and audiobook.

Coming Out Atheist cover 150Ebook edition:

The Kindle edition is available on Amazon. (That’s the link for Amazon US, btw — it’s available in other regions as well.)

The Nook edition is available at Barnes & Noble.

The Smashwords edition is available on Smashwords. Right now, it’s only available on Smashwords in epub format: I’m working to make it available in other formats.

All ebook editions and formats cost just $9.99.

Print edition:

The print edition is now available through Powell’s Books.

The print edition is also available at Amazon. However, be advised (if you haven’t been already) that seriously abusive labor practices have been reported at Amazon warehouses. Please bear that in mind when you’re deciding where to buy my book — or indeed, where to buy anything. (For the records: Powell’s employees are unionized.) Again, that’s the link for Amazon US — it’s available in other regions as well.

The print edition is $17.95 USD. It is being published by Pitchstone Publishing.

Wholesale sales of the print edition:

Bookstores and other retailers can get the book from Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and other standard wholesale distributors. It can also be purchased directly from the publisher, Pitchstone Publishing.

Audiobook edition:

The audiobook version is available on Audible.

The audiobook is also available through Amazon.

The audiobook is also available through iTunes.

And yes, I did the recording for it!

“We have had some success, although we sure as hell need more”: Greta’s Interview with Black Skeptics

Black Skeptics: In the book you stress the value of engaging in debates about religion with believers to encourage questioning and coming out. However, as you acknowledge, debating the validity of religious belief is only one part of the equation. For example, the vast majority of LGBTQ people of color and straight people of color are faith-aligned/identified precisely because mainstream America is racially segregated, faith (for many) is a form of cultural “home space” and social welfare resources in communities of color are extremely impacted. What further “intersectional” steps need to be taken to promote humanistic communities beyond just “coming out”?

Greta Christina: I’m surprised to hear you say that — I don’t think I did stress the value of debating with believers all that much. I mention in the book, but I don’t give it much space, and I mostly mention it because I actually advise against having those debates while you’re in process of coming out to people. I think that’s the wrong time for those debates. It is true that I think debating believers can be useful and valuable: a lot of atheists rag on other atheists for getting into those debates, insisting that they never work and are always a waste of time, so I think they deserve defending. And it can be difficult to draw a clear line between simply explaining your atheism, and explaining why you think religion is bunk. That’s one of the main reasons I talk about the topic at all. But it’s certainly not something I think everyone should do, I don’t think it’s a moral imperative or anything, and I think lots of other forms of activism are valuable.

So, with that being cleared up. The answer to your main question: Yes, for lots of people of color, faith is a home: it’s where people get social services, social support, a sense of identity and continuity and stability and history, and more. (It does seem that it can be a toxic home — that’s one of the takeaways I got from Candace Gorham’s book, “The Ebony Exodus Project,” I kept being struck throughout the book by how so many black women found their churches unsupportive and actually undermining. But it’s still a home.) So one of the biggest intersectional steps that godless communities can take is to make atheism a safer place to land for these folks. We need to look at what people of color are getting from their faith communities, and do more in our own communities to provide it. It wouldn’t suck if we did more to make some of these needs less necessary while we’re at it: to do political work on poverty and safety nets and institutional racism and so on. And no, that’s not “mission drift”: if local atheist communities can do blood drives and roadside cleanups and so on, there’s no reason they can’t do this sort of political work, too. And we need to be willing to take a hard look at the ways that we actually make our spaces unwelcoming: not just with racism of omission (e.g., failing to recognize what these folks need and provide it), but with more overt racism of commission. And all this actually does go back to the question of debates about religion: there’s not much point — strategically, poltically, or indeed morally — in arguing people out of religion if we don’t provide them a safe place to land if we succeed.

***

Coming Out Atheist cover 150Thus begins my interview with Black Skeptics. We talk about assorted issues with intersectionality: what intersectional steps humanist communities need to take, how we can shift the leadership of our organizations, whether atheist feminists need to focus more on ways that women of color are marginalized (hint — yes), how to prioritize our issues and get others interested in our priorities, and more. And, of course, we talk about my new book, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why — and how coming out fits into these intersectional interviews. Smart, thoughtful questions that really made me think carefully. (And they call the book “timely and insightful,” which makes me happy.) Enjoy!

Some Thoughts on Intention and Magic

“I didn’t intend you hurt you. I am so sorry. Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, but I can see that I failed to do it, and in fact I did something that hurt you. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless. I am really sorry. Please let me know if I can do anything to undo the damage or to make things better. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

“I didn’t intend to hurt you. So why are you being so mean to me about it? Here’s what I meant to do — I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. I was tired/ harried/ uninformed/ careless — so it’s not fair or right for you to tell me how I hurt you and why you’re angry about it. Let me tell you, at length, how your criticism is hurting my feelings, and how you should have expressed it differently.”

These are not the same statements.

Notice the lack of apology in the second statement. Note the lack of any concern being expressed for the damage that was done. Note how the hurt feelings of the one who did the injury are being made a higher priority than the injury itself. Note the lack of any expressed intention to change the behavior.

It’s often said in social justice circles that intention is not magic. This is true, although it’s somewhat oversimplified (as pithy slogans often are). Intention is not magic, it doesn’t make injury go away — but it’s also not trivial. I, for one, am a lot more willing to forgive an unintentional injury than an intentional one. If someone steps on my foot by accident, I’m going to be a lot less pissed off than if they stepped on my foot with premeditation and malice.

But in order for me to forgive an unintentional injury, I need to believe that the person who injured me actually gives a damn about it. I need to believe that they feel genuine remorse for the harm they did, and a genuine intention to do better in the future. They don’t need to pour dirt on their heads and chant “Mea Culpa” a thousand times (although if they hurt me very deeply, I need to see some proportional concern about that). What I need to hear is, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I understand that I did anyway, and I care about that and feel bad about it. I’ll work to do better in the future.”

If, on the other hand, someone does an injury — and they don’t show any concern for the harm they’ve done or any interest in changing their behavior — then I have to assume that they very likely will do it again. And that demolishes any “get out of jail free” card they might have gotten for the “unintentional” part. Morally, the whole point of saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you” isn’t to rationalize and deflect responsibility and make yourself feel less bad. Morally, the point is to convey regret for the injury, and an intention to do better in the future. If it doesn’t convey that, then “I didn’t mean to hurt you” isn’t about making the injured person feel better — it’s about making the person who did the injury feel better. And that’s totally bass-ackwards.

In fact — and here’s the kicker — if someone is making the second statement, I have to seriously doubt whether the harm they did was, in fact, unintentional.

If someone responds to “You hurt me” with “Why are you being so mean to me? I meant to do something good, so the fact that I actually hurt you is irrelevant. It’s not right for you to tell me why you’re angry. Let me tell you how your criticism is hurting my feelings,” I think it’s very likely that they they’ve had this conversation before. Especially when it comes to social justice stuff. I think that if someone is getting defensive about their slut-shaming language, or is getting pissy about the word “cisgender,” the chances are very good that they have had (or at least have seen) this conversation before — and are choosing to ignore it. And that means that the hurt is intentional. That means they know that what they’re doing is hurtful, and are choosing to do it anyway.

Intention is not trivial. Good intentions do have power. But in order for good intentions to have power, they have to signal concern for the hurt that was done, and a willingness to make things right, and a commitment to do better. Without that, intention is more than just not magic. It’s bullshit.

I’ve Been Misquoted by American Conservative Magazine!

This must be some sort of career benchmark. I’ve been misquoted by American Conservative magazine!

American Conservative did an article about American Atheists being booted from having a booth at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference), after initially being told they could have one. In their article, they had this to say:

If their soft-pedaling had won them supporters, American Atheists might have had a new problem on their hands. Although the many conservatives are uncomfortable with atheists, it’s not clear that the atheist movement is necessarily much more comfortable with conservatives. When Edwina Rogers, who had previously worked for Senator Trent Lott and President George W. Bush, was tapped as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of America, Greta Christina, a popular atheist writer, called it “a disaster” and “unacceptable,” and resigned her membership in the SCA.

Um… yeah. Not so much.

Here is my reply to American Conservative, which I’ve written to them both as a letter to the editor and as a comment in the article.

*****

Dear Sir or Madam:

You recently quoted me in an article, “Conservative Atheists Speak Up About CPAC Shunning.” However, your quotation is highly misrepresentative of the actual position I took — in fact, it’s almost the exact opposite. In your article, you stated:

“Although the many conservatives are uncomfortable with atheists, it’s not clear that the atheist movement is necessarily much more comfortable with conservatives. When Edwina Rogers, who had previously worked for Senator Trent Lott and President George W. Bush, was tapped as Executive Director of the Secular Coalition of America, Greta Christina, a popular atheist writer, called it ‘a disaster’ and ‘unacceptable,’ and resigned her membership in the SCA.”

I did refer to Rogers’ appointment as a “disaster” and “unacceptable,” and I did resign my membership in the SCA as a result of it. But this was not because she was a conservative or a Republican. My opposition had to do with Rogers’ deceptive, manipulative, contemptuous, and insulting responses to questions about her appointment. Her conservative politics were cause for serious concern about whether she shared the values of most people in the atheist community and could effectively represent us. But I specifically stated in the article you linked to that I was willing to be proven wrong about this. I said, quote, “Maybe this is one of those ‘only Nixon can go to China’ things. Maybe a Republican could be uniquely effective at pitching secularism to Congress, and to America. The people who hired her aren’t idiots. This is worth considering. Keep an open mind.” I opposed her appointment because of her evasion, spin, and outright falsehoods in response to questions about her record — evasion, spin, and outright falsehoods aimed at the very community she was appointed to represent.

To state that I opposed Rogers’ appointment solely because she was a conservative is a serious misrepresentation of my views. I would very much appreciate a correction. If and when you issue one, please let me know. Thank you.

*****

Am now holding my breath for that correction. After I recover from the utter shock of American Conservative misquoting a progressive atheist in order to fit their narrative.

Secular Meditation: “If you can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day…”

clock in hand“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” -Zen proverb

Almost as soon as I started meditating, I started hearing this proverb. It pops into my mind now and then: usually when I’m struggling with (or simply looking at) how to find time to practice every day, in a life that’s both overly packed and highly irregular.

Part of me gets it. And part of me thinks it’s totally classist, elitist, tone-deaf bullshit.

Part of me gets it. If my life is so packed with activity that I can’t find even twenty minutes to just sit still, then that’s a sign that I need to start scaling back. It’s a sign that the balance between activity and stillness in my life has gone haywire. It’s a sign that I’m taking on too much, and that I need to start saying “No” more often to more people. What’s more, if I’m telling myself that I don’t have time to meditate that day, it’s often a sign that there’s something I’m trying to avoid: some emotion or memory or anxiety that I’m furiously shoving into a corner with all my frenetic activity and that I know is going to start rising up the minute I sit down and start quietly focusing my awareness on my breath. And of course, there’s the little matter of priorities. If I can find time to dick around on Facebook or watch reruns of “Modern Family,” I can find time to meditate. For me, a big part of the point of meditation is to wean my brain off of needing constant stimulation and activity and input — so it’s worth looking at how much of the busy-ness of my life is legitimate and valuable, and how much is just generating noise to feed my sensation-junkie brain and distract me from uncomfortable truths that might come up in the silence.

So yes. Part of me gets this proverb, and resonates with it strongly.

gas station at nightBut part of me finds this proverb intensely irritating. There are an awful lot of people for whom a busy, action-packed life isn’t a luxury or a privilege, or even a choice. If you’re too busy to meditate for twenty minutes a day because you’re working one job at Wal-Mart and another at the gas station and you’re trying to get your car repaired and your laundry done and your kids to school, and you think this meditation thing might bring a modicum of calm to your life but you seriously have no idea how you’re going to find twenty spare minutes in your day to do it… is it really going to help for some smug Zen jackalope to tell you that (a) there’s something wrong with you because you don’t have twenty minutes of downtime in your day, and (b) the cure for what’s wrong with you is to find an hour of downtime in your day? With the implication of (b) being to loop around to (a) — that the lack of downtime in your life means there’s something wrong with you?

Fuck. That. Noise.

And even for me, who doesn’t work at the gas station or Wal-Mart… sure, there are plenty of times when “I don’t have twenty minutes a day to meditate” is crap, but there are some times when it’s legitimate. When I was in the final stages of finishing my upcoming book (“Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why”), pretty much everything other than the book got shoved onto the back burner. There were days when I didn’t shower, days when I didn’t leave the house, days when I didn’t see or even speak to another human being other than Ingrid, days when I took five minutes to make breakfast and another five to make lunch and ate at my computer. I got to the gym once in two months. Every spare minute that I had went into the book. What’s more, I was very socially isolated and in need of human contact (see above re: days when I didn’t leave the house): if I had twenty minutes to spare, I wanted to fill it with conversation or touch, not the sound of my own breath. It was a weird paradox: my ability to set aside distractions and stay single-mindedly focused on the book was very much aided by my meditation practice, but there were days when the practice was, itself, a distraction. I did keep it up (a freaking miracle, IMO), but there were a few days when I skipped it, and other days when I just did it for a few minutes, or crammed it in during stretches of enforced downtime. (On a bus? In a doctor’s waiting room? A fine time to squeeze in some focused awareness!)

And I did not need some long-dead Zen monk with no clue about the publishing industry scolding me for doing my meditation wrong.

(I also have an intense allergic reaction to writing about meditation that scolds people for doing it wrong. There’s a reason that almost all of my writing on this topic has been in the first person. A topic for another post, perhaps.)

I think my reaction to this proverb is so strong because the rightness of it is so right — and the wrongness is so wrong. There’s an important kernel of truth in there, and it’s one that I need to accept if I’m going to continue with this practice. If I let myself blow this off because life is hard, I’ll miss out on all the ways that it makes my life better. But there’s also a cluelessness in there, an out-of-touchness with human reality, that I not only can’t accept but don’t want to.

Not sure how I’m going to resolve this. For right now, for myself: If I’m thinking that I can’t sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day because I’m too busy, I try to take an honest look at what “too busy” means. And if “too busy” means “I’ve taken a careful look at my priorities and values, and today, twenty minutes of meditation just isn’t on that list”… then I meditate for ten minutes. Or five. During my full court press to finish the book, I found that even a five-minute meditation helped a lot in quieting my mind and restoring my focus… and it definitely helped me keep meditation as a near-daily habit, which I’ve resumed more fully now that the book is complete. If, on the other hand, “too busy” means “I can’t meditate, I have to blog about the Pope/ get my travel schedule into my calendar/ get my nails done/ fix people’s opinions on Facebook”… then yeah, okay. If I can’t meditate for twenty minutes a day because of all that, then I need to find a way to meditate for twenty minutes a day.

And if I can’t find a way to do that, then it wouldn’t be a bad idea to sit for an hour.