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 logo
In 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.

Now, 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

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

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

  1. 1


    Just wanted to say that I just finished reading “Coming Out Atheist” and it’s really a master piece.
    I absolutely LOVED it.

    Now, back to lurking.

Comments are closed.