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.