August 03, 2009

When to Speak

If you follow any atheists on Twitter, you may have already heard about the situation Jeff Wagg of the James Randi Educational Foundation recently ran into.

ME: I'm wondering how the millions of people like me who don't attend church can take advantage of this offer.

MANAGER: I'm sorry, you can't. It's for people who go to church.

ME: With this promotion, Denny's is encouraging people to go to church. Is that right?

MANAGER: No, it's just a way to bring in more business.

ME: How is this different from offering a discount to white people?

(I'm aware that there are differences between racial discrimination and religious discrimination, and this probably wasn't the wisest thing to say. However, it is what I said. By the way, the manager was apparently Pakistani.)

MANAGER: No one has ever asked these questions before.

CASHIER: This is just a corporate policy.

ME: I see the address for the corporation here. I'll take this up with them.

That's bad enough. It's more than bad enough. However, that wasn't the part of Jeff's post that hurt. That was this:

Now, I must admit, I don't feel comfortable with all this. The entire experience smacks of knee-jerk militant atheism that I fear does more harm than good. But upon analysis, I have to conclude that it isn't. There is no question that Denny's, be it the local corporation or the parent organization, is encouraging people to go to church, supporting churches financially, and requiring non-church goers to pay more than their religious counterparts. And while one could make the libertarian argument that a business should have the right to offer whatever discounts it pleases, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states clearly that this is not the case. They can offer discounts based on many things, but race and religion are not two of those.

Are these the choices that spring to mind? Do harm or give up our rights? Jerk a knee or roll over? Militancy or self-effacement?

If you want to know why we atheists dig in our feet when someone tells us we need to be careful of our message, this is the reason. You can find militant atheists, yes, but you have to look for them. They are not the people who explain why we believe what we believe or the people who point out when a religion gets something demonstrably wrong. Nor are they the people who insist on our right to exist despite the presence of people who would prefer we don't.

That doesn't stop the people who want us gone from pointing to the people who dare to say anything and calling them militant. That doesn't stop fellow atheists from worrying about anger and shushing us. That doesn't stop our friends from telling us that now is maybe not the time--anytime.

You know that kid in school? The shy one with the hunched shoulders and bowed head who wanted everyone to look away? The silent one who did everything possible to avoid answering questions in class? The one who made the teachers frustrated? The one who, thinking back, had to have had a craptastic home life to flinch that hard?

Do you remember those few occasions when that kid spoke? How loud and rough that voice was? How it startled even that kid?

Yeah. There's a bit of that kid in atheism. Among the eloquent voices are those that have been silent under threat. Those voices are bound to be rusty when first used. They're not going to be articulate, however well they may express the raw emotions that have been locked behind closed lips.

So maybe some of them are angry. So what? Is it a problem that some people can't handle anger, even or especially anger they've helped cause, and if it is, is it our problem? Maybe it is if we're being untruthful or unfair, but otherwise?

I don't think so. There's something wrong if we're trying to shut those voices down instead of celebrating that they can finally be used. And there's definitely something wrong if we're starting to wonder whether we should question the situation when someone breaks the law.


Glendon Mellow said...


Stephanie, so forcefully and wonderfully said. Often I feel too in-yer-face to speak up. Usually when challenged by religious employees or friends shoving strange opinions about Darwin into conversation.

Your last three paragraphs are a superior call to verbal arms. Thanks.

Jason Thibeault said...

That flyer looks extraordinarily unprofessional, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was a local decision by the franchise owner. At that, what's with the "AND ENJOY 10% OFF UR BILL" in a different font, in the spaces between two lines, capitalized where the rest isn't, and some txt-speak in the middle?

This does not detract from the message -- if a business explicitly gives discounts to the faithful, they are excluding the unfaithful and encouraging church attendance. It is a form of discrimination. And discrimination must not be brooked silently or people will consider it acceptable -- as they already have for decades. If there is even a shred of truth to Wagg's story, he deserves a clap on the back.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Jeff makes it pretty clear in his post that this is a franchise.

Philip H. said...

I'll happily add my voice to those who say that discrimination, in any form, needs to be stamped out. And this story just shows how little Denny's has learned about excluding groups of customers.

I would also add that the dialogue you posted was, at least in print, civil, even cordial. I detected no hint of explative throwing, no threats to dessicrate a Denny's Apply Strudel, and thus no reason that Denny's shouldn't tkae the threat seriously. I know many atheists will disagree, but tactics matter. And in this case, the tactics, as reported, were probably very effective.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting if someone were to present a church bill for some non-Christian church...just to see if they would pay up, or "misplace" it.

I could be wrong...but I suspect that it isn't religious observance in general that they're encouraging.

I could be wrong.


Stephanie Zvan said...

cicely, I was curious about that myself. Does a mosque count as a church?

Phil, define desecrate. Do you mean like two guys kissing on the front steps? There are good reasons to be very leery of that word, not the least of which is the fact that my continued existence and happiness is desecration by some people's definition.

Will Shetterly said...

I googled, and there's a Church of Atheism. So you're all good. *g*

I was the atheist kid, only I didn't shut up about it. It did make for interesting school days.

Will Shetterly said...

Uh, just to be clear, this is religious discrimination, so taking some action against it seems appropriate. "The Church of Atheism" seems like a fine solution for weddings and such, if people want, but it's not a good solution when people are favoring churches. Some of us think spirituality has to be personal, not communal. (Not speaking for myself there, 'cause I wouldn't dictate anything to anyone when it comes to matters of personal belief.)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Will, I can only imagine how interesting your school days must have been, and not just for that. :)

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Great post. Speaking out as an amystic serves the purpose of reminding people that one world view is not a given - that other points of view are just as reasonable and that theirs does not enjoy a superior status.

Philip H. said...

my continued existence and happiness is desecration by some people's definition.

Sorry to hear that. It always makes my Christian blood boil when I hear others of my faith, or who claim my faith anyway, go on and on about how this person or that person is a dessecration, only to discover that they are basing their judgement on the Old Testament, and Jesus over and over said he was wiping lal that away. But I digress.

My point, and I was trying to be polite about it, is that certain tactics can, no matter how strong their intellectual underpinnings, backfire into characiture and cliche, and actually hurt a cause. This is how I've viewed Crackergate from the beginning. Yes, a strong denounciation of the death threats was needed, but PZ's use of a perfectly good nail to impail a perfectly good Host was too over the top for those making the threats to get. So it probably didn't actually help advance any genda or promote any worldview.

Likewise, someone somewhere reading this might end up thinking "hum, we need to do something to Denny's to bring attention to this." But instead of doing what your poster did, or say calling the local tv station and getting a story aired about how Denny's is STILL discriminating against a class or group of people, those folks would have taken a Denny's pie and . . . well you probably get my point.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, Pliny.

Phil, I recognize and appreciate that you're being polite about this. The thing is, Jeff's is a very reasonable response to a meal costing a dollar more for a non-churchgoer. Complaining to the manager is not a reasonable response to death threats.

In fact, what PZ did in Crackergate was pretty merciful. It had no real-world repercussions. He could have turned over all the threats of violence to the FBI. They have jurisdiction for terroristic threats made electronically. Instead he hurt their feelings. Badly, maybe. Still feelings.

I know you appreciate that I'm fairly polite and reasonable about these things. You may not notice it, but I never forget that it's the people who take a stronger, more "outrageous" stand who give me the space to do this. Without them, it wouldn't matter how nice I am on the subject. I'd be in the same position as the Jews PZ talked about in his cracker-piercing post: different, therefore suspect, therefore game, therefore dead.

I may reach out more than they do, but I can only do that as long as I'm alive and free to speak.

Anonymous said...


Srsly, what fuckwads.

Anonymous said...

That's pretty disgusting. Sure, it's a marketing ploy to try to get more asses in the seats, but it's an asshole marketing ploy, and in a more perfect world, it would empty those seats instead.

Luckily, this atheist hasn't paid full price at a Denny's in many years... but I don't think it counts as striking back when it's been accomplished mostly by flirting with the waitstaff.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Hey, TT. Welcome to the blog.

Mmmm, bacon.

Philip H. said...

I know you appreciate that I'm fairly polite and reasonable about these things. You may not notice it, but I never forget that it's the people who take a stronger, more "outrageous" stand who give me the space to do this. Without them, it wouldn't matter how nice I am on the subject. I'd be in the same position as the Jews PZ talked about in his cracker-piercing post: different, therefore suspect, therefore game, therefore dead.

Wow. Perhaps I've been in too many academic communities in my life, where this sort of freedom is taken for granted. Perhaps its my forgiving nature, where I labor against all evidence to look for good intent. But reading my words my first reaction was that you had personnally been threatened due to your atheism. As in threatened with death. If that's so, I am sorry to have touched a nerve. If not, perhaps you can elaborate, so the simple verbal literalist in me can get where you are going.

apthorpe said...

Quoth Stephanie:

"I know you appreciate that I'm fairly polite and reasonable about these things. You may not notice it, but I never forget that it's the people who take a stronger, more "outrageous" stand who give me the space to do this. Without them, it wouldn't matter how nice I am on the subject."

I think one point that often gets lost in the "polite vs 'militant'" atheist argument is precisely that the uncomfortably-outspoken ones carve out space for the remainder to emerge and be seen, producing a de-closeting effect if you will.

"Isn't Stephanie a darling for not cussing me out on my tacit support of oppressive ignorance and social coercion? How refreshingly civil..."

One chooses how one plays to one's perceived audience and no doubt most of us can dial it up if we want to. Speaking for myself, I'd rather avoid the topic and just blissfully get on with my life, living and letting live.

But then I remember that I'm moving back to Texas sooner than later where armed, violent, ignorant religious people are the norm, the state government is infested with Christian Dominionists, well-funded businessmen are actively destroying public education and secular society and the majority of the State Board of Education believes the earth is 6000 years old.

When I move back, I'm speaking up more, shortly after I get my concealed-carry permit and a .45 automatic. (Sorry Greg, that's how I have to roll...)

Believe me, I don't like offending people but as other posters have said, sometimes one's mere existence is offense enough to some. And being repeatedly admonished to Shut Up, That's Why makes one wonder if life is worth living if it has to be lived coerced into staying silent, civil, and as inoffensive as possible.

Living and letting live is an option denied to many if not most atheists in the US. And if it takes a few uncomfortably-outspoken (read "militant" or "angry") atheists having the gall to call out theists (especially the moderate and liberal ones) in order to open up public discussion and get some recognition for the pervasive discrimination, bias, and even violence directed against us, so be it.

As usual, Your Mileage May Vary. I'd prefer an open dialogue where there's more light than heat. That said, theists should expect more heat as time goes on, not less. Until they start reining in their crazier violent brethren, they will rightfully take crap for being on the same side. The twitchy, quiet kid in the back of the classroom has had quite enough, atheist pancake tax or no.