Mmm, smells like scorched earth!

So, there’s a bit of drama going on in atheist circles dubbed “gelatogate.” The Angry Astronomer has a decent, and not very angry, explanation of the deal on his blog; but in brief, here’s the deal:

Christian local businessman pops over to the annual free “Skepticon” conference to see what’s going on. Thinking, understandably so, that it might be all about skepticism on UFOs and ghosts and whatnot (which it somewhat is), he’s treated to a few minutes of Sam Singleton’s parody act of a holy-roller revivalist sermon, not promoting gettin’ saved, but parodying religion and promoting skeptical atheism — and the crowd participating in the parody by, not yelling “amen!,” but rather “goddam!”

So, said Christian businessman runs over to his neighboring gelato and smoothie business and posts a sign reading:

“Skepticon is not welcomed to my Christian business,

where it remains for anywhere between 10 minutes (he says) and two hours (others say), possibly violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The near immediate result? Atheists with access to the Intertubes (purt near ev’rybody), went apoplectic and completely decimated his online rankings on such social media services as Urbanspoon, Yelp, and Google reviews. I mean, decimated. (Although, will taking a store’s ranking down to 1 star, or 5%, or whatever on one of these, really harm a business? Especially in a town that’s not very social media savvy? Meh, doubt it. But it’s still something that would make a struggling businessperson’s stomach turn to water.)

So, he posted an notpology on his Web page: a very thinly veiled “please lay off, m’kay?!” apology. After that made the rounds of critical mockery, he posted an extensive and reasonably sincere-sounding apology over on Reddit, where his infamy across the world was begat. Some atheism/skepticism bigwigs and muckymucks accepted the apology. Others did not. Boy-howdy, did they not. And this is where my opinions on the matter begin….

As this drama played out, plot twist by plot twist, my own views changed somewhat with each new development.

  • Posted the sign: I freaked-the-flip out.
  • I learned he posted it after watching some undeniably inflammatory and reverse-offensive Sam Singleton: I nodded my head sagely and with tee-pee’ed fingers murmuring, “Indeed. Quite understandable, wot!”
  • The notpology: “OMG hes such a lyingjerk!!1!”
  • The full apology: “Ah, good show, old bean!”
  • JT Eberhard’s non-acceptance: “Yeah! Totally! We ride!… whoa… wait a second… Really?”

See, JT Eberhard’s a quickly-growing muckymuck of atheism in his own right. He’s the driving force for the first three years of Skepticon and is a very vocal opponent, and mockerizer, of religion. And nearly all the time I agree with nearly everything he posts (although, I find his frequent use of profanity completely unnecessary and juvanile… but whatchya gonna do). Yet, I’ve decided that in this late stage of this already getting old issue, his approach (the first “non-acceptance” post linked above, and his ironically-titled follow-up: “We Have No Choice But To Invade Gelato Mio” is wrong and likely do to far more harm than good. (But FSM help the person who tries to suggest JT might be wrong about something, unless you already happen to be in his inner-circle of friends. You take your metaphorical life in your hands. But, here goes….)

There is a time and a place and a need for bulldog firebrands. And, in JT’s day job, I rather think his style of take-no-prisoners scorched-earth approach is necessary! As he’s “a campus organizer and high school specialist with the Secular Student Alliance,” I believe he has to work on a daily basis dealing with some absolutely terrible bigotry from people in positions of unquestioned authority toward kids who have little to no defense against the religious intolerance they face. He has to defend students’ rights, legal and ethical, to express their beliefs and even form legally-allowed student clubs and associations which are constantly under attack from school administrators. Atheist students, especially those still in the closet and in much need of vocal and voracious support, need people like JT and his “give no quarter” single-mindedness. And I celebrate him for it!

But, there’s also a need, and a time and a place, for choosing one’s battles, deciding when discretion is the better part of valor, and allowing the “enemy” to slink away with a noggin-bump, instead of nuking them from orbit and then salting the earth for good measure. Yes yes, I know, JT’s actual demands are:

“Tell me bigotry is unacceptable.  Tell me offense is not the same as breathing life into prejudice.  Tell me that punishing somebody for disagreeing with you or thinking your beliefs are silly is immoral.  And tell me you will make a donation that will actually help make the world a better place rather than inviting us to patronize your business for an insignificant discount.”

…and they’re not unreasonable demands, really. (Well, there’s valid debate over whether demanding a struggling small business owner [who is likely in great debt and probably not even paying himself a wage — if the average situation of small business owners is applicable in this guy’s case] make a large personal donation is unreasonable or not. Although, I can see how that 10% discount the guy’s offering might be seen as patronizing and a cynical ploy to simply help his business.)

But it’s not just the demands themselves as much as it’s the inflammatory approach and words JT uses. The demeanor, the tone, the insults, the mockery he uses, feels to me less like a noble battle, and more like curb-stomping the local bully after getting a lucky break and jumping him when his back was turned. And while in the battlefield of protecting students from bigoted school boards and principals and teachers, for the sake of establishing proper laws and rules and making sure they’re enforced, one does not concede the battle until the other side gives unconditional surrender. But in the battlefield of public opinion, media, the general public, that approach does the atheist “movement” far more harm than any possible good.

In the minds of the general public, they see a situation where a local businessman does something, and are shown by the outraged minority that the something was discriminatory and bigoted, we now have the upper hand. We now are seen by many people as having rights and that there is discrimination that goes on, and the general public (including liberal Christians), now have the seed planted in their head that discrimination’s not cool and we’ll call them on it. They themselves may not disagree with the bigotry, but at least they may be thinking about the repercussions of it and may even be questioning the bigotry itself as something they never really thought about before. It’s not a big win, but it’s progress.

Then, the guy apologizes, and the atheist community at-large generally, and publicly, accepts it. What happens? The general public and the liberal Christians have their preconceptions of the angry, religion-hating atheist challenged! We’re shown as reasonable, ethical, diplomatic, and perhaps even calmer and more sane than your average holier-than-thou religious leader and spokesperson who appears on FOX News. Now they’re more willing to listen to what we have to say, to consider our positions, to truly rethink their bigotry and not just the outward acts of discrimination. Now they’re willing to concede issues and work with us in other issues.

But then, what happens when prominent atheist spokespersons demand heads on spikes? (Metaphorically.) The walls redouble in size, the shields go to maximum, and the us-versus-them mentality is reinforced. The general public and the liberal Christian (which, really, by and large, are greatly overlapping Venn Diagram circles), believe their preconceptions are well-founded and continue to ignore our valid complaints and criticisms.

If we let this one bigoted business owner go, probably not having had a real change of heart but just a show of one, what do we really lose? If we accept his sincere-sounding apology and let him off with tail tucked between his legs and a stern “Okay, off with you — but we’ll be watching,” is that really so terrible if it means we gain great PR and the willing and open ear of millions of other people? So he’s not beaten into submission — but will anything we do really, possibly, change his “heart”? Do we seriously think that we can possibly convince this guy he was truly wrong by continuing to berate and insult and bash him and demand things of him? Will that make him, and many like him, watching this, see the light? Have a true conversion?

No, it will not. No amount of continued battle against him will truly change him or others, and will only harden them all to us. But diplomacy, some forgiveness, leniency, will not only be more productive to our cause in the long run and on a wider scale, but may actually do more good in setting this guy on a path to the real and sincere atonement that is currently being demanded at the point of a verbal spear.

*blog post image taken from this lifehacker post: “Venting Frustration Will Only Make Your Anger Worse.”

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