Yearly Archives: 2013

A Comment I Posted On “What Would JT Do?”

Last week JT posted An Open Letter To The Defenders Of Phil Robertson, which bothered me enough that I posted the following:

So I’m the person you are insisting doesn’t exist – a completely pro-gay atheist who voted against Proposition 8 and thinks supporting gay marriage is a no-brainer, but who is also kind of horrified at Phil Robertson being fired for his comments.

You are 100% correct that freedom-of-speech only binds the government and does not constrain private actors from punishing people whose speech they don’t like.

But let’s compare and contrast. Freedom of religion *also* only binds the government and does not constraint private actors from punishing people whose religion they don’t like. If someone wants to picket a mosque while waving signs about how all Muslims are dirty terrorists who are going to Hell, Constitutional freedom of religion is a-ok with that. Heck, Constitutional freedom-of-religion is okay with Christian-owned businesses refusing to hire atheist employees or serve atheist customers – it’s only more recent anti-discrimination laws that prevent that.

Point is, there’s a big gap between “constitutional freedom of religion” and “the level of religious tolerance that is necessary to have a remotely civil society.” Some of that gap can be filled in by laws, but a lot of it can’t be. It’s supposed to be filled in by basic human decency and understanding of the principles that made freedom of religion a good idea to begin with.

I think the same is true of freedom of speech. Constitutional freedom-of-speech is a necessary but not sufficient condition to have a “marketplace of ideas” and avoid de facto censorship. But people also have to understand that the correct response to “idea I disagree with” is “counterargument”, not “find some way to punish or financially ruin the person who expresses it.” If you respond with counterargument, then there’s a debate and eventually the people with better ideas win (as is very clearly happening right now with gay marriage). If there’s a norm of trying to punish the people with opposing views, then it doesn’t really matter whether you’re doing it with threats of political oppression, of financial ruin, or of social ostracism, the end result is the same – the group with the most money and popularity wins, any disagreeing ideas never get expressed.

Atheists may one day be the group with the most money and popularity, but that day isn’t today and right now it’s neither moral nor in our self-interest to encourage using greater resources to steamroll opponents. It’s certainly not in gay people’s self-interest either. Why shouldn’t companies owned by Christians fire all gay people on the grounds that they are promoting sin? Right now it’s bcause we have a mutual truce in which we agree businesses should employ people based on their skills and merit rather than to reward their political allies and punish their political opponents. Once you undermine that, gay people are in a pretty precarious position.

So I would turn your own hypothetical scenario in Part 2 of your post back on you. Suppose Robertson had indeed, been a gay rights supporter – or a gay person! – who said on national news he thought everyone should stand up for gay rights. But his company was going for the fundie demographic and decided to fire him for his statement. Would you be so quick to attack everyone who was disappointed in this action, so eager to stand up for the right of companies to fire anyone they disagree with?

I’m an atheist blogger and I work at a Catholic hospital. Employer tolerance for dissenting opinions is *personal* for me. I’m disappointed in the tone of this post and I hope you reconsider.

I can’t tell how many other people have made similar points because none of the three browsers on my computer can successfully load Patheos’ nightmarish comment system more than once in a blue moon. But I hope some other Patheos atheists are saying the same. And I have huge respect for the few voices on the lefty blogosphere, like Ampersand, who have spoken out in favor of restraint.

CORRECTION: Mr. Robertson was suspended rather than fired, and has since been reinstated.