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The Absurdity of the ‘Mission Drift’ Argument

The Absurdity of the ‘Mission Drift’ Argument May 9, 2013

Greta Christina has a post about the argument, which I frankly find utterly bizarre, that atheist individuals and organizations should not focus on social justice issues because this would constitute “mission drift.” I think this nails it quite well:

The atheist movement, and the main atheist organizations, are focused (at least in theory) on advocating for the acceptance and civil rights of atheists, advocating for church/state separation, creating communities and support systems for atheists, and opposing the harm done by religion. (With different focuses from different organizations, of course.)

So why would it constitute mission drift for the atheist movement to focus on how religion harms people by undermining social justice? Why would it be mission drift to focus on the harm done by abstinence-only sex education; by the influence of the religious right on reproductive rights; by the influence of the religious right on public education and economic policy; by fraudulent preachers and psychics preying on impoverished communities? Why would it constitute mission drift to work on making our communities and support systems more welcoming to a wider spectrum of people, and to look at ways that these communities might be alienating some populations without intending to? Why would it constitute mission drift to look at ways that advancing acceptance and civil rights for atheists might work differently in different communities and demographics, and to adapt our work accordingly?

And in fact, just like with the skeptical movement, the atheist movement is already doing this. The atheist movement has, for instance, taken on the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage, and has done so with passion and energy. Religious bigotry against gay people, and the myriad ways this bigotry has injured so many people, is one of the most prominent issues for the atheist movement, and has been for years. Given that this is true, why is there such strong pushback from so many people against the very notion of the atheist movement focusing on other political and social justice issues, and such fear that this will pull atheism away from its roots?

And there’s another aspect of this that is important: No one is suggesting that every single atheist individual or organization should do nothing but work on social justice issues. There is already a great deal of division of labor among the various groups and every single one of us involved in activism chooses to focus on certain issues rather than others. I tend to focus on separation of church and state, equality and fighting the theocratic agenda of the religious right (all of which overlap, of course). That I choose to focus my attention there doesn’t mean that I think everyone else should do the same. No one thinks Robert Price should suddenly stop doing Biblical criticism and start writing about gay rights, or that the NCSE should put all its energy into fighting misogyny. Decide for yourself which facet of these issues animate you and motivate you to get involved.


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