The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)
I would like to see us build an atheist culture that prides honesty, accuracy, and reason. The American Atheists does not seem to share those values, at least some of the time.
They have placed a billboard in Alabama that says of religion, “You know they’re all scams.”
Well, that’s false. It is a clearly recognized and proved falsehood that any person who values truth would reject.
A scam, just like a lie, requires that the perpetrator know that his claims are false and that he makes them anyway – motivated by a desire to con others into providing them with some benefit others would not provide if the speaker reported the truth.
The claim that the American Atheists put on this sign is not only false, it is a derogatory and bigoted falsehood. This statement – that all religious leaders are intentionally providing you with false information to con you out of political, social, and economic power – is structurally no different than a statement that says “All black people are lazy” or “All Jews are greedy.”
To add a touch of irony, the poster also says that the American Atheists have been “telling the truth in 1963″.
Furthermore, the reason that the American Atheists decided to present people with this false and bigoted accusation of all religious leaders is because it hopes to find people who will swallow the statement and provide the organization with greater economic, political, and social power.
Which, ironically, means that the billboard meets the moral definition of a scam. American Atheists is trying to con people into giving it political, economic, and social power feeding it false claims.
Blair Scott, the Alabama State director for American Atheists, tried to defend the sign on the grounds that it generates press.
Blair Scott is the Alabama State Director for American Atheists. He says, “If we had put up a billboard that said atheists dot org, you probably wouldn’t be sitting here. And nobody would be making comments about it.”
Scott’s claims suggest that American Atheists selected the wording to get the group’s name and message in the press.
This raises two questions:
- Does it make sense to understand this choice of words strictly in terms of seeking press, or is some other motivation involved?
- If it was, in fact, motivated by a desire to seek press, is it morally legitimate to do so by making morally objectionable statements comparable to “All black people are lazy” and “All Jews are greedy”?
We can question the first claim by showing that American Atheists generated a great deal of press in New York with a sign that said, “You know it is a myth.” The proposition, “It is a myth” is true and contains no bigoted overgeneralizations. Given this fact, we can ask, “Why did the American Atheists choose a false and discriminatory statement that generates press over a true statement that generates press?” The answer, “Because it generates press”, does not work.
The answer that works is that American Atheists had an interest in making hate-mongering bigoted statements themselves – because it values such statements, perhaps for their own sake.
However, even if it was generated by desire to motivate press reports, we can question the moral legitimacy of making bigoted statements just so that one can get one’s name (or organization’s name) in the press.
Another defense offered for the sign is that it was not meant for those who believed in God. It was meant for those who did, in fact, “know it is a scam”.
“The billboard says you know it’s a scam. Well, if you’re a religious person, you don’t know that so you’re not the intended audience. The intended audience of that billboard, the intended market is our fellow atheists and agnostics and free thinkers who are continuing the charade, continue to go to church, what we call closet atheists.”
However, let us just imagine somebody trying to use this argument in defense of a claim like, “You know that black people are lazy,” or “You know that Jews are greedy.”
The target can easily answer, “I’m not objecting to it on the assumption that it was directed to me. I am objecting to what it says about me to those people it was directed at. The message that this sign tells them amounts to hate-mongering bigotry. It is a call to them to hate people like me by making false and derogatory claims about me and others like me.”
That is legitimate ground for complaint.
I had no objection to the sign, “You know it is a myth.” I have strong objections to a sign that says, “You know it is a scam.” Those objections are based squarely on the fact that “scam” makes a moral statement about others, inviting hatred and condemnation that befits scammers, on people who are innocent of the accusation.
American Atheists should have seen the difference. It does not matter whether American Atheists saw the difference and ignored it, or failed to see a difference any morally sensible person would have seen. Neither option gets American Atheists off the moral hook.