Greta Christina has a good post up about the common defense against broadening the approach of an organization, the plaintive whine against “mission drift”. I’ve never quite grasped the point: if you’re a largely volunteer organization with only a minimal paid organizational structure, as is true for most skeptic and atheist organizations, it’s relatively painless to adapt to meet the desires of your membership — in fact, it ought to be considered necessary to do so.
If you’ve got a significant subset of your membership who are saying they’re really interested in, say, the application of atheism to interior decorating, you might be wondering what the heck that has to do with your ideal of what atheism ought to do, and you might have zero interest in interior decorating yourself, but you should pay attention: somehow these self-selected atheists who are already willing and enthusiastic members of your constituency see a connection. Your apathy is irrelevant; their enthusiasm matters.
Instead of announcing that interior decorating has nothing to do with atheism and your vision will not be sullied with this strange sideshow, you should instead be interested in seeing where this unexpected connection might lead. Tell them, “Cool — let’s form a committee of interested members, and maybe you can pursue this subject further under the umbrella of our larger organization.” It doesn’t mean atheism has been sabotaged, it means it has an avenue for tapping new and interesting ideas.
I’ve given a talk before where I’ve pointed to the American Humanist Association as a model for expanding these interests. Go down to the bottom of that page and look at the row of icons there: they’ve formed special interest groups for legal issues, a feminist caucus, an LGBT council, even a cinema section. It’s an embrace and sponsor approach that really works well to foster greater inclusion and widen the appeal of the movement.
Contrast that with the skeptics: instead, we get representatives angrily shouting at atheists who dare to taint their movement, which has one focus, one methodology, one pure strategy. They could have set up an Atheist SIG (or a Cryptozoology SIG, or Interior Decorating SIG, whatever) within skepticism, coopted that subset of skeptics while simultaneously keeping the overall organization independent of the narrower interests, and grown their movement. As far as I’m concerned, it’s too late for them…maybe an atheist organization will be interested in setting up a skeptics subgroup that will be a happier place for godless critical thinkers.
I see Atheism+ as being part of the same principle: recognizing that not every atheist will be interested in social justice issues, but for those who are…here’s an outlet and a focus for those concerns.
Use mission drift, people! Don’t oppose it, channel it!