#FtBCon: Mission Creep (with text)


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My talk for FtBConscience! Hooray!

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Full text of my speech below the fold. It doesn’t contain any of the verbal burrs or slight tangents I took but it’s largely intact. I hope some kind soul is good enough to transcribe the Q&A portion, but if not, I’ll do so myself eventually. Richard Carrier asked a question about libertarianism, and I was forced to answer honestly rather than hedging. I’m sure I’ll incur some wrath!


I’m going to wholesale steal an anecdote before I begin, and I hope she does not mind: Carrie Poppy of Oh No Ross and Carrie told a story at Women In Secularism 2, about her former boss fretting about her organization falling into mission creep any time legitimate and impacting concerns outside of the text of their core mission were brought up at meetings. Her retort was, “YOU’RE the mission creep!”

I’ve come to realize over the past few years that our skeptical and atheist communities have a problem with change. Not that individuals don’t agitate for change, or that we are unwilling to adopt new strategies or incorporate new ideas — on the contrary. The problem our communities face is that there are several fragmented factions at play, each wanting to effect different sorts of change within our movements. One side wants to pull in a particular direction, fighting for or against a political ideology, while the other wants to pull the community in the polar opposite direction. And these directions are always political, even when not identified as such. Our problem with change is that the people agitating for it are pulling in different directions; we are politicking with one another. We are locked in a perpetual tug-of-war for the heart of the movement itself.

Skepticism as a method of thinking leads in generally one direction and not its opposite, whenever you apply it in determining the most appropriate position on any sliding-scale or binary choice. In the tug-of-war between religion and atheism, scientifically minded skepticism is the steadfast ally of us heathens. When you take that very same skepticism and apply it to a number of other societal constructs like prejudice and bigotry, or like political ideologies borne of wishful thinking and the multitudes of cognitive biases to which we humans are vulnerable, you will find that skepticism is the steadfast ally of one side over the other in those fights as well. If you form your moral and political ideologies based on the best available evidence, you pretty much always land on one side of the scale. Part of the problem here is that we may not always have all the data to make the best, most rational, most skeptical conclusions. And when people fail to come to the same conclusions over topics unrelated to the “core mission”, new rifts are borne, where both sides believe the other to have done skepticism wrong, and our movements fracture and splinter and fight with one another interminably.

In many ways, these secular communities of ours are defined by their tenuous common grounds — we generally find common cause with one another over what we believe most everyone else is wrong about. Online atheist communities define themselves as those people who are right about the question of whether or not there’s a god; online skeptical communities who claim to “fight the fakers” define themselves as right about questions like homeopathy or psychic powers or astrology or Bigfoot. Atheists don’t necessarily become atheist out of a healthy skeptical inquiry into religion, though. Some atheists might simply hate any god that could allow injustices to themselves or their loved ones, or to hate people who hurt /others/ in a god’s name. And they might adopt the name “atheist” without actually taking a stance on God’s existence, out of defiance. Likewise, some skeptics are likely to believe in a deity without sufficient evidence, refusing to apply their rationality and demands for repeatable science to their religion. Already, this early in my narrative, we’ve developed an intersection where great fights break out; where “Great Rifts” are borne.

And there are more.

In order to give you a better idea of why I’ve come to the conclusions I have in my thesis, let me take you through the story of how I became what I am today.

I grew up a Catholic in northern New Brunswick, in a town heavily populated by French Catholicism. I was not MUCH of a Catholic, mind you, but my parents — liberal though they were — still insisted that I say my prayers at night; that I go to church about once a month (when they themselves could be bothered to go); that I attend Sunday School regularly; that I be confirmed.

I believed in the usual gamut of nonsense, as well — my father being interested in Star Trek, and (as far as I know) believing in the movie Communion as a true story, I likewise believed that aliens were visiting us. I believed in Bigfoot. I believed in psychic powers, astrology, x-ray glasses advertised in the backs of comic books. I believed in the stereotypical family unit of a mom, a dad, and two kids (a brother and sister), the white picket fence and a dog to guard it — because it was our family unit; the family unit of most of my neighborhood, and the aberrations stood out like sore thumbs. I believed that men were breadwinners and women were homemakers, just like TV told me. I believed that hard work was rewarded and that misdeeds were punished. I was a fairly credulous kid, and I absorbed every bit of nonsense society threw at me and, though it started to get hard to do near the end, I tried to incorporate it all into my philosophy.

But cracks started to form. I began questioning religion around the time of my Confirmation. My next-door neighbor was an older gentleman, a sweet and mild-mannered man, a devout Catholic, and was involved in the ceremonies around my confirmation fairly heavily, helping my parents with the planning and the party and the rehearsals. He tried to impress upon me how important a step this was. I didn’t get the candles, I didn’t get the pomp, and I definitely didn’t get what it was I was being asked to do. In fact, I was totally put out by the idea that I, a thirteen year old boy, who was far more interested in playing Nintendo than affirming the supernatural, was being asked to promise to believe something forever. Even at that tender age, I was keenly aware that everything could change at a moment’s notice.

So for the confirmation ceremony, I “phoned it in”, doing exactly what people asked of me, going through the motions and wondering how long it would all take so I could get back home to play the copy of Megaman 3 that I had rented that weekend. And then, I decided to try to find out what was lighting the fire in the grown-ups’ bellies over all this religion stuff.

When I got home, I did the unthinkable, for any religious person — I started reading the Bible. I put aside my Hardy Boys and my Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, I put aside even Megaman (which was a huge deal for me even at the time — I so identify Megaman with this episode in my life that I’ve since gotten a tattoo of him on my shoulder!). And I snuck a copy of the Holy Bible into my room where I read it late into the night every night for however long it took to complete. I promised myself over and over, as the narratives failed to capture me and I tired of it so quickly, that I would give it all a fair hearing and judge it only once I’d gotten to the end. I thought it was all familiar, where the more pleasant stories had been whitewashed and repackaged for children over the ages, but the stories took on a decidedly different timbre in their full verse.

When I got to the end, I really felt like I had missed something. A lot of somethings, actually. I felt like I had just read a bunch of loosely collated fables, pastiched together with interstitial “life lessons” that didn’t really follow from the stories they were tied to. I had read a lot of unbelievable claims, a lot of stories that I had recognized as stories from other sources. I read some terrible morals, like offering your daughters to be used by townsfolk for unspecified horrors in order to save perfect strangers — which, even that young, I figured had to do with sex, and without the daughters’ consent. I read that there was an “old covenant” that this New Testament was a supplement to — a sort of prequel. I vaguely hoped it would make things make more sense later, but I got the sense that the New Testament couldn’t stand on its own. I kept that fact in the back of my mind for later.

So I resigned myself to the idea that my parents, my classmates, my teachers and my townsfolk were all wrong about just about everything. I had figured that if they were wrong about the existence of God, the most important statement one could make about this universe, surely everything else was to be questioned as well! I continued to grow and learn and question, I frequently read whole swathes of random passages from our Funk & Wagnell’s multi-volume Encyclopedia, I questioned everything that everyone else believed.

And I felt like I had absolutely nobody to talk to about what was happening in my head. I felt isolated. I felt like I had to “pass” as Christian. I put on airs of being a Christian, wearing a plain silver crucifix, hoping that was enough to camouflage what was going on in my head. I justified wearing it, mentally, because I really liked the Castlevania game series — a game that used what scattered religious iconography it could slip past the censors at Nintendo of America. The cross was used as a smart bomb that killed all the enemies on screen; and there was a throwing weapon that was originally a cross-shaped boomerang but whose graphics had been altered to avoid the overt parallel. I was amused that I was wearing an icon that to me represented a video game I liked, but to everyone else a symbol of their devout faith. I was definitely an atheist at this point in my life, though I didn’t yet know the word.

And I read the New Testament again, with a vague hope that something might trigger some sort of — heh — revelation. And it was just as inscrutable the second time.

I saw mention of Leviathan, and Behemoth, and I recognized the names as bosses and summons in Final Fantasy 2 for the SNES. That actually struck a sort of chord with me, because in the same game, one of the most important summons was Odin, which I recognized from Norse mythology. And all of these mythologies couldn’t be RIGHT simultaneously, but damned if they couldn’t all be WRONG.

RPGs on consoles had previously spurred interest in Greek and Norse mythology for me, and so I was already fairly well-versed with regard to Odin. Seeing those supernatural creatures together, in the same video game, performing the same function, suggested to me that they were in the same category — mythology. These great beasts involved in God’s own story, supposedly shaping the land that we live upon today — they were mythology. And so was God. That was a seismic shift in how I thought about religion. My parents, my classmates, they all believed in a religion the same way as the Greeks or the Norse did.

For a while, I believed in karma, fulfilling that “Just World” cognitive bias we all seem to have — genuinely believing that what goes around, comes around. Only that was quickly undercut by the prevalence of good people with bad things happening to them, and decidedly bad people getting away with their misdeeds and even reaping huge benefits. “Why do good things happen to bad people?” I asked, where others might ask the inverse. I realized that karma wasn’t real, no more than the idea of a heaven or hell. The upshot of that revelation was that I also learned that the only justice to be had is that which happens here, on Earth, in our lifetimes. If nobody challenged the bad, it would fester, and it would get worse.

Sometime later, my parents took me aside one day, when I was 14 or 15, and asked me if our Catholic neighbor had ever tried to touch me inappropriately. I was shocked, and disturbed, and though the answer was an uncategorical “no”, I demanded to know where this had come from. I had thought my neighbor to be a dottering old man and ridiculously pious and a generally good person, and I was gobsmacked that they were talking about him this way. It turns out their fears were predicated on having discovered that he was gay.

Please note that they did not discover him to be a pedophile — they discovered him to be homosexual. He liked men his age. And he loved one man in particular, apparently.

I was incensed that they’d treat him with such contempt and prejudice. But, like my religious sentiments, I bottled that up too.

In high school, I learned that at least one of the folks in my circle of friends was gay. He was not officially out, though he was treated horribly because he wore his difference on his sleeve. As far as I knew then, and as far as I know today, the majority of the kids at my school were Catholic, because that was practically the only game in town. So I attributed a lot of that cultural bias against homosexuality to the religious upbringing that generally taught lessons that my father echoed at me, that homosexuality was sinful and wrong.

I wanted to find out why there was so much hatred of homosexuality amongst Christians. I had access to the internet via my dial-up modem, and the internet was quickly becoming my go-to source for information about everything I had kept bottled up to that point. I quickly discovered a Usenet group related to religious discussion, wherein I read that the book I was looking for — that religious folks kept pointing to as damning gays — was called Leviticus. And that book wasn’t in that New Testament, it was actually in the older one. It had become time to read, at least part, of the prequel.

I brought up Alta Vista and began searching for that Old Testament. Within it, amongst other *proscriptions*, I read that shellfish was an abomination in the eyes of our Lord.

I, a young New Brunswicker, living in Maritimes Canada where half our food was from the sea, who’d developed a taste for lobster and shrimp and crab in an area where it was as common to see fishermen selling their catch from the back of the truck as it might be to see fruit vendors in other geographical locations — discovered that according to the mythology by which my parents raised me, one of my favorite foods, introduced to me by them, was an abomination.

At that point I was already convinced that my parents were mostly wrong about everything to do with religion, but this pretty much sealed the deal on the thought that they didn’t actually KNOW the religion they believed. They were prejudiced against gays because of a line in a book they had apparently never read, because they ignored the line practically on the same page about seafood.

So I took it upon myself to start forming my own philosophy. I recognized the tilts in my own playing field with regard to being an atheist in a predominantly religious town, and I extrapolated those out into a sense of what it feels like to be gay, to be completely unable to express natural biological and emotional desires for fear of being ostracized or murdered. I definitely didn’t get the scope of the pain that a gay person might feel, but I certainly empathized with them then. I was thus introduced to the concept of privilege, before I learned that sociologists actually used that word in exactly that sense. I learned that there were ways in which a person who “passes” as “normal” might actually be disadvantaged, especially if people discover that they’re NOT normal.

I discovered that while I thought my upbringing was multicultural with a few dark-skinned folks in my school, I had no idea what kinds of prejudices they endured just for being different. I learned that my entire world was lily-white, from my teachers to my close friends to everything I saw on television (except perhaps where there was a blatantly-calculated multicultural team in cartoons, like on Captain Planet). I discovered that I didn’t really understand that whole communities and whole cultures could live side by side with precious little bleed-through between them. This despite being Acadian; despite being raised mostly English in a predominantly French region. I didn’t realize just how segregated my part of the city was until I returned many years later and merchants and townsfolk in those same areas spoke French first by default, instead of English as they always had while I was growing up.

In university, I took a social deviance course during my first year, and was incredibly excited to do so. The description in the syllabus had tipped me off that I was on to something with my present line of reasoning. And I was right to take it — the course did much to open my eyes further. Where previously I bought into the social construct that counterculture was to be shunned, that say “druggies” were bad people or were victims of predatory dealers, that a fried egg was a good analogy for “your brain on drugs”, this social deviance course taught me that people who fell into a drug-related lifestyle were not themselves morally failed, and that people could participate in counterculture for all sorts of reasons, and yet still be functional, contributing members of society. The course discussed frankly many social conventions, including monogamy, heterosexuality and marriage, capitalism and religion and anti-theism, and that there might be reasons outside of personal choice for participating or not participating in any of these — like biology, in some cases, and cultural indoctrination in others. Even where I thought myself suspicious of most of what I was being taught by society, I realized there were big chunks that I still accepted without questioning. And when I applied rational and skeptical thought to each of these, when I examined the actual evidence available for them, they fell apart under scrutiny.

I encountered libertarians for the first time, who’d read Atlas Shrugged and embraced it, and thought I might have common ground with them because many of them were atheist too. The specific selfish capitalist libertarianism Ayn Rand espoused, though, turned me off, and the thousand-page book seemed more like a bible to me than a work of fiction — not that I thought there was much difference between the two, except perhaps the breadth of their respective fandoms.

I took a women’s literature course, and discovered that women were largely unable to write through until modern times without having to disguise themselves, like George Sand, or to prove themselves worthy as writers to a degree that no man was expected to prove, like Jane Austen. I learned that despite being equal to men intellectually, they were largely subjugated to men as the baby-makers, the housewives I previously believed them to be. Culture had impressed into me that women were equal to men, but it had also impressed into me the ways they were supposedly inferior; that they were by necessity given certain roles they had to fulfill. I could no longer presume that any of these entrenched values were founded, and I took a women’s studies course in hopes of discovering why these women were being so disadvantaged despite the (admittedly conflicting) messages of women-being-equal, and women-being-mothers-only.

I learned of feminism for the first time then — of feminist thought, I mean, and some of the ways in which the world’s playing field was tipped against them, and this overturned the only other mention of feminism I’d heard to that point, that being that of Rush Limbaugh. I learned that the fight was ongoing, and that women were still disproportionately disadvantaged, even though women’s suffrage was achieved, and though women were allowed to work, and though women occasionally got high-paying or high-powered jobs, they were still not treated the same way as men in any of those situations. I discovered that religiously-motivated politicians were daily assaulting their reproductive rights and that pay parity was nowhere close to achieved, and that just being a woman, one could expect and would have to deal with all manner of abuse in “civil society”.

And I discovered that many of the reasons women were still an underclass despite being a numeric majority had to do with the fact that men have been the “doers” and the “thinkers” and the “achievers” throughout history, that that history had been written by the victors and elided the women who on their merits should have been included in these lists; even including the religious texts I’d previously rejected, authored by men.

At that point, it dawned on me. *I* had rejected them, but almost everyone else I knew was still religious. At that point, not necessarily Christian, but they believed in SOME holy text, and almost every one of those texts was grossly misogynistic. And even in the cases where people had rejected those beliefs expressly, they were still shaped by the society as a whole.

I had come completely full circle — right back around to where I started this journey, with atheism. The more I examined all the ways one thing influenced another, the more I realized that there were a whole bunch of conventions that needed more scrutiny, and that they all intersected. Where the specific memes that were damaging people in underprivileged positions had gained foothold, they had modified society itself. And those ideas permeated society, and were accepted uncritically by large majorities of our populations. The war we fight is a war of ideas, where the ideas have demonstrable effects on our behaviours toward one another.

Every social justice movement, as you explore it and learn about it, eventually touches on every other social justice movement. In movement feminism, the third wave of feminist thought expressly acknowledged where privilege was interacting and amplifying the pain that black women experienced; it deemphasized the “universal feminine identity” and acknowledged class concerns and intersections with other movements. That wave of feminists intentionally expanded their mission to address black women’s concerns. They thus moved toward common goals.

Any time, however, that a movement decides that the concerns of another are invalid, it sharpens and personalizes existing resentments, it underscores ideas of conflict between them, and eliminates goodwill between these movements. For instance, a faction of feminists who proclaim themselves to be radical exists, who expressly deny the femininity of trans* women and who deem trans* men to be traitors. They do much to sour the natural intersection between feminists and the trans community. By denying the fight that trans* folks have just in being treated as full and fully-realized human beings, these trans-exclusive radical feminists undercut our natural alliances.

In much the same way, large groups of atheists demand of the so-called luminaries of our supposedly leaderless movement that they “do something about those damned feminists” who are creating mission creep by working on those issues that interest them. They demand that these feminists be cut out of the discourse. They trot out absurd, contrafactual and antiscientific arguments for why feminism is a gross overreach, for why men and women are equal by fiat and that any attempt to tip the playing field back to, you know, LEVEL, are actually attempts to subjugate men to the feminazis’ fascist will.

I strongly feel that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and the whole gamut of prejudice that we evince as human beings is just another sort of “woo” that we need to fight. That this fight, that we atheists face against a predominantly religious society, is but a single axis on a grander intersectional playing field. I believe those of us with functioning senses of empathy and the ability to self-reflect on our cognitive biases would agree.

Since coming to the realization that I’d started with atheism and wrapped around through several social justice movements and kept revisiting atheism time-and-time-again, I’ve discovered a great deal about how each of these axes intersects and interplays, and I’ve discovered whole new axes on this multidimensional playing field that I wasn’t previously aware of. I studied sociology in university, as my minor (against a BA in English, when I thought I would eventually become an English teacher). In my studies, I learned of privilege, and of objectivity, and of analyzing even the conventions in which I am steeped. I have since refined those ideas to the point where I am comfortable talking about them in front of an audience.

But my mission has crept decidedly far beyond where I had started. I learned much of what’s wrong with this world when I became an atheist, and I learned much of what needs fighting when I figured out what a godless universe actually MEANT. I have privilege on a large number of axes, even where I am underprivileged on a few others. I consider it a moral imperative to use that privilege in ways to provide comfort and succour to the folks without those privileges I have; to try to level the playing field as I would hope they would do likewise.

I am proud to adopt the label of “Atheism Plus” in solidarity with others who feel the same way, who felt that atheism alone was not enough common ground. Some say that’s just humanism; fine. Some say that’s divisive; okay, sure, but only in the same way that taking on any label divides you from those who don’t share the label’s ideas, like the label “atheist” divides us from theists.

As I said earlier, there are natural tectonic rifts that form around political differences, but I’m confident that myself and my compatriots are among the most rational, skeptical and yet still empathetic folks fighting for the cause of secularism and skepticism. I am confident that when we misstep, we generally take care to rectify it and learn from the experience. I am confident, thanks to ample evidence of such, that we’re on the side of the proverbial angels.

When PZ Myers first suggested to the Freethought Bloggers that we might have a free, entirely online conference, I was elated. I’ve had to fundraise to make it to conferences to talk with people whose ideas have helped shape me, and surely I mustn’t be the only one who can’t afford to fly out to every big convention every time a new one is announced. In the marketplace where most conventions cost big bucks, this one stood a chance at breaking through the class barriers we’ve inadvertently erected around our movements. We could reach people who had no ability to go to live conventions; we could give people an opportunity to have panels who haven’t gotten to participate in that way before. We could have an entire convention with hardly any actual overhead, short of a couple hundred hours of our volunteers’ time.

We have our own niche in this movement.

I’m proud of this. I’m proud of the fact that we are willing to allow our mission to creep, to address these sorts of concerns and to improve our pluralism in order to bring in fresh ideas and address more issues relevant to our cause. Without growing our scope, we cannot continue to grow our base.

There are obvious shortcomings still — computer-related events that are done without care can be particularly ableist, for instance, without transcriptions available at or soon after the events. But with time, with more volunteers, with space to grow, and with a firm hand to fence away naysayers and those people who would tear us down (without bothering to engage with our ideas), I truly feel that we, as a movement, will flourish.

That can only work, however, if we keep letting our mission creep.

Thank you.

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