The Daily Show took aim at the Freedom From Religion Foundation that had sent a letter threatening legal action to the owner of a small restaurant Mary’s Gourmet Diner that offered a 15% discount to patrons who prayed before meals. As a result of that letter, the owner of the diner dropped the promotion. The show interviewed Dan Barker, co-president of the FFRF, about why he did this and although he was articulate and clear, he did not come off well.
(This clip aired on December 9, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)
The FFRF has issued a statement explaining their side of the story. There is nothing technically wrong with that statement nor what Barker said on the program. He was right that offering this discount was an example of discrimination against nonbelievers and likely a violation of the Civil Rights Act. But he erred tactically in drawing analogies between this action and much more serious issues like genocide, because one should avoid as much as possible analogies that are too extreme. Doing so makes atheists sound like the religious crazies who say that not being allowed to display nativity scenes on public property is like being the victims of the Holocaust. It is just too over-the-top and invites ridicule.
What about those cases involving bakers, florists, and photographers who refused to provide their services to same-sex couples at weddings? Is Mary’s action similar to those? Yes, in principle. But the response to discriminatory actions should be proportionate to the action. Those were far more serious infringements of rights that deserved to be challenged legally since those businesses were refusing to serve someone based purely on their sexual orientation, and such actions were part of a wider effort to discriminate against members of the LGBT community and deny them basic rights. So too with refusing to serve black people at lunch counters during the civil rights struggle.
That is not the case with atheists currently. There is no similar wider movement to deny atheists basic rights, although there are many random petty infringements. This diner case is not part of the wider church-state separation struggle where even minor encroachments of that separation could be used as a beachhead to further violations. The level of discrimination we face is nowhere close to what the LGBT community faces now and our response to these kinds of petty discriminations should be proportionate.
In this case, a more gentle letter to the owner of Mary’s Gourmet Diner pointing out that her actions might make nonbelievers feel unwelcome may have been a more appropriate measure and could well have had the effect of opening her eyes to the fact that what she may have seen as merely a nudge towards remembering to be thankful for one’s food could be could be perceived as discriminatory towards those who were as thankful but not religious. If she refused to change, then a more serious letter could have been sent. But whatever one does, one should not invoke analogies to horrific events, even if the analogies are technically valid. It is not good tactics.
I also think that one should, as much as possible, ‘punch above one’s weight’ as the saying goes, i.e., take on institutions and people who are more powerful than you, because ordinary people tend to be sympathetic towards the underdog. Workers at McDonald’s fighting for a living wage are more sympathetic than those battling the local bakery who might be struggling to stay in business. Workers battling Walmart for better working conditions are more sympathetic than those fighting the owners of the local hardware store. You have to be careful to position yourself as the sympathetic party in a struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders did this brilliantly with Rosa Parks and choosing to confront Sheriff Bull Connor who they knew in advance would go berserk and do things like unleashing dogs, beating people, and directing fire hoses on women and children.
FFRF was right in principle but made an error in tactics. In this case, Mary (even if she is much more hostile to nonbelievers than she appears) will be seen as the underdog and FFRF will be seen as the bully. Even though Jordan Klepper is an atheist and it is pretty clear that Jon Stewart and much of the cast of that show are skeptics, even they thought that Mary was the sympathetic one and that the FFRF had gone too far in threatening legal action against her.