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