On mission drift, and the gap between theory and practice

May 9, 2013

Note: the views expressed below are mine, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, its affiliates, or its employees.

Earlier this week, Greta Christina wrote a thought-provoking blog post on whether it would be "mission drift" for atheist and skeptic organizations to widen the scope of their work and engage in social justice activism.

As you might already be aware, this issue has been at the center of heated discussion in the atheist and skeptic communities since blogger Jen McCreight proposed the concept "Atheism+" in 2012. However, the subject of how broadly formal atheist and skeptic organizations should interpret their missions actually stretches back to their inception in the 1970s. 

That history is important, but in the interest of time, I would like have to leave it aside for now and move on. 

The position put forth by Greta (and that of most Atheism+ advocates) is as follows:

a) atheism and skepticism are philosophically consistent with moving "into new areas having to do with politics and social justice";

b) fighting for social justice is a moral good; therefore,

c) atheist and skeptic organizations should broaden their work to include social justice activism, both internally (hiring, event organizing) and externally (political advocacy).

In theory, I largely agree. I would counter-argue that being an atheist does not necessarily mean a person should or will care about social justice (see: Ayn Rand), whereas humanism and its positive ethical outlook is more closely linked to caring about social justice. However, since it appears Greta essentially equates atheism (or, Atheism+) with humanism, then in substance we agree. 

Furthermore, I view skepticism as a philosophical process in which humans employ reason and science to critically examine any and all claims to knowledge — no sacred cows. You can read more about my views on skepticism here and here. As such, I agree that skepticism can — and, in fact, should — be used to example claims related to social justice. 

Yet, theory aside, I think there are practical reasons atheist and skeptic organizations might hesitate to widen the scope of their work and engage in social justice activism.

Before getting to those reasons, let me clear up a few things.

First, there is no tension between theory and practice internally speaking. For example, atheist and skeptic organizations should practice fair hiring standards, and adopt just harassment policies at their events. Moreover, at their events, atheist and skeptic organizations should try to include speakers who discuss a wide range of issues, including social justice, from atheist and skeptic perspectives. 

Second, some atheist and skeptic organizations already support social justice work. For example, the Center for Inquiry sponsors events like Women in Secularism, programs like African Americans for Humanism, and through its Office of Public Policy advocates for LGBT, women's, and civil rights. So, the question for some atheist and skeptic organizations is not whether to engage in social justice activism at all; it is whether to engage in more social justice activism. 

However, organizations still face practical obstacles in considering this shift. The most obvious one is that most atheist and skeptic organizations have very small staffs and limited resources; widening their scope to include (more) social justice activism would mean spending less time working on issues core to their mission.

In other words, the more time atheist organizations devote to social justice activism, the less time they can devote to keeping religion out of our laws. The more time skeptic organizations devote to social justice activism, the less time they can devote to protecting the public from frauds like Sylvia Browne

To be absolutely clear: I believe social justice activism is philosophically consistent with the missions of atheist and skeptic organizations, that social justice activism is a moral good, and that atheist and skeptic organizations should do more of it. But the truth is that these organizations are already stretched thin trying to focus on core mission goals such as defending separation of church and state, or promoting scientific knowledge and critical thinking. An increase in social justice activism would spread these already thin resources even thinner.

For example, the Center for Inquiry's Office of Public Policy has one full-time staffer (me) and one part-time staffer (Ed Beck). That's it. Our mandate is to advocate for reason, science, and secular values at all levels of government — from Congress to statehouses across the U.S.; from the Obama Administration to foreign governments and the United Nations.

As you can imagine, we work overtime simply trying to keep up with issues that fall within the strict boundaries of religion and government, and science and policy. These include:

  • Protecting the rights to freedom of religion, belief, and expression;
  • Defending reproductive rights and access to reproductive health care;
  • Closing loopholes that allow religious groups receiving taxpayer funds to discriminate against employees and beneficiaries on the basis of religion;
  • Preventing the growth of school voucher programs that divert taxpayer dollars from the public education system to private and religious schools;
  • Informing lawmakers about the scientific consensus on climate change and encouraging appropriate legislative action;
  • Educating policy makers on the lack of evidence for alternative medicine.

We also advocate on social justice issues such as marriage and gender equality (I am told some of our outreach communities also help out at public schools in low-income areas). For having such a small staff, I think we get an impressive amount of work accomplished. But, given our resources, we have to be careful in regards to how many issues we take on. Would it be feasible right now to expand our scope much further? Unfortunately, I don't think so. 

It is worth noting here the Center for Inquiry, at least financially speaking, is the largest atheist/skeptic organization out there. If CFI's resources are limited, what do you think it looks like at other organizations?  

There are at least two other obstacles organizations might consider.

One is that there already exist many organizations working on social justice issues, many of which are experts in the field. In the same way, some might say atheist and skeptic organizations exist for a certain purpose, are experts in their respective fields, and ought to focus on accomplishing their respective missions. Few organizations exist to advocate for secular government, and even less to protect the public from psychics and false medicine. 

There is some merit to this point, but notice that it does not address the proposition that social justice work is important and more of it needs to be done. I would add that atheists and skeptics have valuable voices add to conversations about social justice; these conversations are poorer without them. 

Another obstacle to consider is membership and donations. I imagine many people who give money to atheist groups care deeply about ending the stigma attached to being an atheist, and ending the influence of religion on public life. Atheist groups might then lose financial support if they begin working outside of those goals (again, see: Ayn Rand). The same might be said about skeptic groups which have traditionally focused on investigating extraordinary claims relating to the paranormal. They might lose financial support if they turn their gaze toward social justice issues.

I see some merit to these points, but notice that they do not address the proposition that social justice work is important and more of it needs to be done. I think there is also something to be said for the idea that widening the tent to include social justice work will bring in more donors (though there are limits here to how wide an organization's mission can be without losing its sense of purpose). 

In closing, I think the most compelling obstacle atheist and skeptic organizations face in getting (more) involved in social justice activism is that they do not currently have the resources to ably peform such work without letting work on issues core to their missions fall by the wayside. However, this does not mean atheist and skeptic organizations cannot or should not ably perform such work; it simply means that for it to happen, they need help. More specifically, they need the funds to hire more people.

This is where the atheist and skeptic communities comes in. As someone who tends to think practically and diplomatically, I deeply value my more idealistic colleagues who consistently force me to rethink my positions and perhaps push harder, or into new areas, related to secularism and science. 

But, at some point, the rubber meets the road. Yes, atheist and skeptic organizations need to be convinced to expand their work into new areas such as social justice.

But they also need something much more practical: money.