#KnitABrick Knits the Secular Community Together in Response to Hobby Lobby: Guest Post from Amanda Metskas

This is a guest post from Amanda K. Metskas, President of the Secular Coalition for America.

When I learned to knit more than 10 years ago, I never envisioned it would be relevant in my professional life. But with the results of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, now I am knitting to make a difference.

The #KnitABrick campaign came to us at the Secular Coalition for America in a staff meeting as we were brainstorming ways to raise awareness. We wanted to encourage people to do something productive, and since Hobby Lobby is a chain of craft stores, we soon had the idea to encourage “secular craftivism.” You can join us on our Facebook event, and craft and mail bricks to our office.

Secular craftivism includes buying your craft supplies somewhere other than Hobby Lobby and putting your needles and yarn to use to make a statement about real religious freedom: health care shouldn’t be based on an employer’s religious beliefs. We needed a clever hashtag to get attention for our campaign on social media and with that, #KnitABrick was born.

Since, our little campaign has burgeoned into a real movement. We’ve been mentioned in the Washington Post and the National Review, among other publications. People have responded in droves with bricks pouring into our office from all over the world – from places as far away as South Korea and Switzerland.

It has been incredibly touching and exciting to see who is sending in the bricks and why. We’ve gotten heartfelt letters from women and men all over the globe about why reproductive rights and true religious freedom are important to them and their partners.

We’ve gotten bricks knitted by 9-year-old boys. The Secular Coalition for Rhode Island came together and sent us 30 bricks. We’ve received bricks that are quilted, crocheted, and made from yarn that is every color in the rainbow. We’ve gotten bricks from people who learned to knit just so they could #KnitABrick, and we’ve gotten bricks with amazing detail work from expert craftivists.

It has gotten so that our favorite time of day at the office is when the mail arrives and we open up the packages of bricks—we’ve had days where we received more than 75 at a time. And as of yesterday we’ve officially surpassed our first goal of 400 bricks.

People of the less fibre-arts-oriented persuasion have been sponsoring bricks – including 11 awesome people who sponsored me to knit a brick for $100 each, and many more who sponsored interns and staff members to knit bricks for $10 or $25.

Our campaign goes until August 5th, 2014, which happens to be my birthday. For my birthday, please make me #KnitABrick for you. We’ll post a picture with your brick to our Facebook event.

Once we have the bricks in, we’re going to invite people to our office to seam them together – we’re joining as a secular community to rebuild the wall of separation between church and state, one knitted brick at a time.

Some people may say this is silly, and that knitting is not going to change anything, but they are wrong. It’s easy to feel powerless and disillusioned as we browse Facebook and feel outraged about problems that seem beyond our ability to influence. The #KnitABrick campaign is a way to creatively come together and fight that feeling of powerlessness. This campaign concretely demonstrates the ability of regular people all over this country to come together and send a message to our government.

So join us – #KnitABrick, sponsor a brick, share your #KnitABrick story online. You can knit the secular community together with your craftivism. Send bricks to 1012 14th St. NW, Suite 205, Washington, DC 20005.

Amanda Metskas #Knitabrick 1

#knitabrick map 1

#knitabrick map 2

Amanda K. Metskas is the President of the Secular Coalition for America and currently serves as the acting chief executive, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Coalition on an interim basis. Metskas has served on the Secular Coalition Board of Directors since 2009, including in roles as Vice President (2013) and President beginning in January of 2014. Metskas has served as the Executive Director of Camp Quest, one of the Secular Coalition’s voting member organizations, and Vice President of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio. In 2009, Metskas co-authored “Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief”, with Dale McGowan, Molleen Matsumura and Jan Devor. She holds an M.A. in political science from The Ohio State University, and a B.A. in international relations and psychology from Brown University.

Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court, and the Toxic Notion of Corporate Personhood

Do you remember back in 2008, when Sarah Palin was asked which Supreme Court decisions she didn’t agree with other than Roe v. Wade, and she couldn’t think of any? I remember it became sort of a game among some of us: as ordinary citizens who were not running for the second highest public office in the country, how many Supreme Court decisions could we think of that we didn’t agree with? I came up with about half a dozen right off the top of my head. Dred Scott, obviously. Plessy v. Ferguson. Bowers v. Hardwick. Bush v. Gore. (Chime in with your own in the comments!)

And — very importantly, so important that I would rank it as one of the most disastrous events in our country’s history, with profound and far-reaching toxic effects touching every aspect of everyone’s lives on a day-to-day basis — Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, in which the Court determined that corporations are legally people, with constitutional rights comparable to those of actual people.

the-corporation-book coverIt’s been pointed out, by many people before me, that if for-profit corporations really were human beings, they would be sociopaths. Their primary motivation is entirely self-serving — in fact, they’re legally required to prioritize maximizing profit over all other concerns. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his Citizens United dissent, “Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires.” And it’s been pointed out, by many people before me, that corporate personhood tips the balance of power in the U.S. — since corporations have Constitutional rights that actual people have, and they have enormous amounts of wealth that most actual people don’t, they can effectively control the entire political process. Corporate personhood doesn’t just tip the balance of power. It plants a giant Godzilla foot on one side of the balance of power. It crushes the entire scale of justice. Again, to quote Justice Stevens’ Citizens United dissent: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

And now, corporations don’t just have the right to donate as much money to political campaigns as they want to, thus entirely controlling the political process, because money equals free speech and corporations are people with the right to free speech.

They now have the right to religious freedom. With the Hobby Lobby decision, corporations don’t have to obey the law and cover birth control in their health insurance plans, if the corporation’s religious beliefs oppose it.

“The corporation’s religious beliefs.” Roll that phrase over in your head a few times.

Now, here’s the thing. An actual individual person’s right to religious freedom mostly just affects their own actions. They can wear a cross, avoid pork and shellfish, pray to Mecca five times a day. Their religious freedom doesn’t give them the right to control other people’s actions. The only exception I can think of is a parent’s rights to determine their children’s religious upbringing — and even that has limits in most states. It’s true that actual religious organizations, such as churches or synagogues or religious schools, have some rights to control what their employees and participants in their programs can do: they can hire and fire on the basis of religious ideology, demand that students adhere to a religious moral code, etc. But religious organizations have special limits and responsibilities. They can’t endorse political candidates, for one thing (not if they want to stay tax-exempt). And very importantly, they’re expected to have religion as their primary motivation — not the maximization of profit.

But a corporation’s “right” to religious freedom doesn’t only affect their own practices. A corporation’s “right” to religious freedom gives them the right to control, not only their own decisions, but the decisions of the people who work for them. The owners of Hobby Lobby now not only have the right to choose for themselves whether to use birth control — they have the right to make that decision for their employees. The Hobby Lobby decision essentially gives corporations the same rights as religious organizations — with none of the special limits or responsibilities.

You might argue that people don’t have to work for Hobby Lobby if they don’t like their policies. You might argue that Hobby Lobby employees can pay for their own birth control, separate from the health insurance provided by their employers. The problem with that is that we have a shitty economy, in which huge numbers of people are financially unstable and insecure at best. We have an antiquated health insurance system in which health care is tied, for absurd reasons rooted in obsolete historical quirks, to employment. We have a country in which “take this job and shove it” is, for huge numbers of people, simply not an option. And we have all this, again, largely because of laws and policies controlled by corporate money.

Lt. Angela Banks draws blood from a mannequin during training for antilogous blood transfusionThere are religions that permit, and even demand, discrimination on the basis of race. Can corporations now fire black employees, or refuse to serve black customers, if they claim that it’s part of their religion? There are religions that permit, and even demand, segregation by gender. Can corporations now fire women, or refuse to serve women customers, or demand that women employees and customers work and shop separately from men, if they claim that it’s part of their religion? Can corporations now fire employees, or refuse to serve customers, based on their religion — or lack thereof? As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “Would the exemption… extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]… Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.”

Corporations in the United States have nearly unlimited power. And with today’s Hobby Lobby ruling, corporations now have the rights of individuals, and the rights of religious organizations, and the rights of… well, of corporations. Plus they have massive wealth. And because they control the political process, they have the power to keep expanding that power. (If you think the Supreme Court is beyond the reach of corporations — think about who appoints and approves them.) They have nearly unlimited power. They have the power to keep expanding that power. And they are required by law to maximize their self-interest over all other concerns.

Does that seem like a good idea?

There is a serious movement happening to amend the Constitution and overturn corporate personhood. Please support Move to Amend and Wolf PAC: sign their petitions, support the organizations, and spread the word. And obviously: Boycott Hobby Lobby.

New Game: Social Justice Autocorrect!

I need a break from horribleness. Let’s play a game! Let’s play Social Justice Autocorrect!

Do you ever find that your assorted autocorrect thingies (phone, word processing, blogging software) don’t recognize social justice terminology? Do they come up with amusing autocorrect suggestions?

This came up during a Twitter conversation with Not All Misandrists (@artfulscientist). They were clearly attempting to ask someone to stop mansplaining, but it got turned into “plz stop mans plainsong.” I said that “mans plainsong” was my new favorite autocorrect — and they said that their autocorrect had also turned “dogwhistle” into “doge buster.” (To which I replied, of course, “Who ya gonna call? DOGE BUSTER!”)

So what are your favorite social justice terminology autocorrects? I’ll collect my favorites and repost them. Your time starts… now!

Misogynist Killer Post Compilation

Content note: misogyny, violence against women, murder

I have a deadline coming up, and won’t be able to write about the Elliot Rodger mass murder for a couple/ few days. Many people have been writing excellent things about it. Here are links to just a few, with brief excerpts from each.

Laurie Penny, New Statesman, Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism (this one is an absolute must-read):

Why can we not speak about misogynist extremism – why can we not speak about misogyny at all – even when the language used by Elliot Rodger is everywhere online?

We are told, repeatedly, to ignore it. It’s not real. It’s just “crazy”, lonely guys who we should feel sorry for. But as a mental health activist, I have no time for the language of emotional distress being used to excuse an atrocity, and as a compassionate person I am sick of being told to empathise with the perpetrators of violence any time I try to talk about the victims and survivors. That’s what women are supposed to do. We’re supposed to be infinitely compassionate. We’re supposed to feel sorry for these poor, confused, vengeful individuals. Sometimes we’re allowed to talk about our fear, as long as we don’t get angry. Most of all, we mustn’t get angry.

We have allowed ourselves to believe, for a long time, that the misogynist subcultures flourishing on- and offline in the past half-decade, the vengeful sexism seeding in resentment in a time of rage and austerity, is best ignored. We have allowed ourselves to believe that those fetid currents aren’t really real, that they don’t matter, that they have no relation to “real-world” violence. But if the Isla Vista massacre is the first confirmed incident of an incident of gross and bloody violence directly linked to the culture of ‘Men’s Rights’ activism and Pickup Artist (PUA) ideology, an ideology that preys on lost, angry men, then it cannot be ignored or dismissed any more.

Miri, Brute Reason, Masculinity, Violence, and Bandaid Solutions:

Before you call Rodger “crazy”: it is not actually “crazy” to believe stuff that’s been shoved down your throat from birth.

David Futrelle, We Hunted the Mammoth (formerly Manboobz), Why Elliot Rodger’s misogyny matters:

When a white supremacist murders blacks or Jews, no one doubts that his murders are driven by his hateful, bigoted ideology. When homophobes attack a gay youth, we rightly label this a hate crime.

But when a man filled to overflowing with hatred of women acts upon this hatred and launches a killing spree targeting women, many people find it hard to accept that his violence has anything to do with his misogyny.

(Futrelle also has a transcript of Rodger’s final video, for those (like me) who can’t bear to watch it.)

Ophelia Benson, Butterflies and Wheels, Grandstanding?:

Am I “grandstanding” for instance when I pay a lot of attention – public, blog post and social media attention – to the kidnapping and enslavement of schoolgirls in Nigeria by a violently misogynist group of Islamists? Is that “grandstanding”? Is it grandstanding to make a connection between Boko Haram’s misogynist theocratic views and its actions?

And what is “extremely selfish” about making a connection between misogyny and violence? What is even a little bit selfish about that? I don’t see it; I can’t see it.

Martin Robbins, guest blogging on Butterflies and Wheels, What elephant in what room?:

A man who was part of a community of extremists who hate women, wrote a manifesto about his hate for women, then went to a female sorority house to kill women.

But it definitely wasn’t about his hatred of women. Oh no sir, it was because of his Asperger’s, or some undefined mental illness. It clearly had nothing to do with his hatred of women because he killed men too, on his way to the female sorority house. More men than women in fact if you count them up. And even if it was related to misogyny, we probably shouldn’t talk about it because hey, if we air these sort of views publicly the terrorists win.

The Belle Jar, Elliot Rodger And Men Who Hate Women:

This is what the Men’s Rights Movement teaches its members. Especially vulnerable, lonely young men who have a hard time relating to women. It teaches them that women, and especially feminist women, are to blame for their unhappiness. It teaches them that women lie, and that women are naturally predisposed to cheat, trick and manipulate. It teaches them that men as a social class are dominant over women and that they are entitled to women’s bodies. It teaches them that women who won’t give them what they want deserve some kind of punishment.

We need to talk about this. The media, especially, needs to address this. We live in a culture that constantly devalues women in a million little different ways, and that culture has evolved to include a vast online community of men who take that devaluation to its natural conclusion: brutal, violent hatred of women. And I don’t mean that all these men have been physically violent towards women, but rather that they use violent, degrading, dehumanizing language when discussing women. Whose bodies, just as a reminder, they feel completely entitled to.

PZ Myers, Pharyngula, Well, that explains everything:

The real culprit in all of this is a culture of thriving misogyny, in which women are dehumanized and regarded as grudging dispensers of sex candy, who must be punished if they don’t do their job of servicing men. Elliot Rodger was a spoiled, entitled kid who had his brain poisoned with this attitude. First he learned that women are disposable, then he learned that they were evil for not having sex with him, and then he rationally put together two delusions and acted on them.

And it’s not just MRAs and PUAs that spread that poison. Every politician and media blowhard who bargains away women’s rights, who dismisses efforts to correct economic inequities, or patronizingly decides that they must manage women’s lives for them, is polluting the atmosphere further.

Courtney Caldwell, Skepchick, “Alpha Male” Elliot Rodgers’ Retribution:

Society tells men that if they’re “Nice Guys,” they are entitled to women’s bodies and time. So you can’t be surprised when some men take that as an edict to take what is theirs by violence. You certainly can’t be surprised that men like Elliot Rodger think violence is justified, when Men’s Rights leaders like Paul Elam tell their readers to beat up women:

“I don’t mean subdue them, or deliver an open handed pop on the face to get them to settle down. I mean literally to grab them by the hair and smack their face against the wall till the smugness of beating on someone because you know they won’t fight back drains from their nose with a few million red corpuscles. And then make them clean up the mess.”

Emma Cueto, Bustle, After Elliot Rodger, #YesAllWomen Trends on Twitter as a Response to the “Not All Men” Fools:

It seems lately that no one can have a conversation about misogyny and the problems women (#YesAllWomen) face without someone interrupting with “Not all men!” This is apparently even true on a day when a young man with a long and painfully well-documented history of misogyny predictably turns violent and kills at least six people.

Josh Glasstetter, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog, Shooting Suspect Elliot Rodger’s Misogynistic Posts Point to Motive:

A review of Rodger’s online writing suggests an ideology behind his lust for revenge.

My Email to the Saudi Embassy About Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi

Context: Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and fined more than $250,000 for the “crime” of insulting Islam. Raif founded a website called “Saudi Arabian Liberals” and advocated for a more tolerant Saudi Arabia which respected freedom of religion, belief, and expression, as well as women’s rights. Here is my letter to the Saudi embassy.

TO: info@saudiembassy.net

It is absolutely unacceptable that Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes — for the “crime” of insulting Islam. It is appalling that insulting Islam should be a crime at all. The fact that his punishment is so horrifically severe is purely barbaric. This sort of torture is not only a violation of international law — it is a violation of simple human decency. If Saudi Arabia wants to be respected as a modern state in the international community, it must put an end to this monstrosity at once.

-Greta Christina

Please send your own email to info@saudiembassy.net. Thanks.

Raif Badawi Sentenced to 10 Years and 1,000 Lashes for Insulting Islam

Raif BadawiRaif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and fined more than $250,000 for the “crime” of insulting Islam. Raif founded a website called “Saudi Arabian Liberals” and advocated for a more tolerant Saudi Arabia which respected freedom of religion, belief, and expression, as well as women’s rights.

This is a continuing pattern from the Saudi Arabian government. From Amnesty International: “Raif Badawi is the latest victim to fall prey to the ruthless campaign to silence peaceful activists in Saudi Arabia. The authorities seem determined to crush all forms of dissent through every means at their disposal, including imposing harsh prison sentences and corporal punishment on activists.”

Both CFI and Amnesty International are urging people to contact one or all of the following people to advocate for the Raif’s release.


His Excellency Adel A. Al-Jubeir
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
601 New Hampshire Ave. NW Washington DC 20037
Fax: 1 202 944 5983
Email: info@saudiembassy.net

King and Prime Minister

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud
The Custodian of the two Holy Mosques
Office of His Majesty the King
Royal Court, Riyadh
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: 011 966 1 403 3125

Minister of the Interior

His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud
Ministry of the Interior
P.O. Box 2933, Airport Road, Riyadh 11134
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 403 3125

Minister of Justice

Sheikh Dr Mohammed bin Abdul Kareem Al-Issa
Ministry of Justice
University Street, Riyadh 11137
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Fax: +966 1 401 1741 | +966 1 402 0311

“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.