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Further Thoughts on Gelatogate

I was going to update my previous post, but this got long, so I’m spinning it off into a separate post. Read the other one first if you need more background.

So, the Gelatogate story continues to unfold. The owner of the store has posted a longer apology, and it’s rapidly becoming the subject of the latest all-consuming atheist blogosphere flame war. Here are some of my fellow atheists’ thoughts, in rough order from least to most conciliatory: PZ, JT, Jen and Hemant.

First things first: I realize that it’s hard to apologize. It really means taking a hit to your ego. In general, when someone is willing to do that, I try to accept it graciously, because I want to reward that kind of moral courage and give the person a chance to make things right. In general, when someone apologizes, I’m happy to put the matter behind me and move on.

Not this time.

I only knew the basic facts of this story when I first posted about it. But now I’ve read the store owner’s longer apology, and it made me more upset, not less. Rather than excusing his behavior, I think the full account actually makes the picture even worse. Here’s why:

He didn’t post the sign as a result of Skepticon attendees being rude or unruly in his store. He posted the sign because he went to us and didn’t like what he saw. This is the big one for me. If some belligerent skeptic was in line at the store and was loudly saying, “There is no god!” in front of all the other customers, offending or annoying people and causing them to leave, then I would have completely sympathized with his being upset. I still don’t think it would have justified banning all Skepticon attendees, but I would have understood the motivation behind that angry impulse. (I have to admit, this was my first guess about what had happened. I should have more faith in our community, shouldn’t I?)

But that wasn’t what happened at all. By the owner’s admission, all the Skepticon attendees who went to his store were polite and non-disruptive, but he was curious to know what Skepticon was all about. So he went to see for himself, and evidently he walked into the performance by Sam Singleton, a mock evangelist whose performance is deliberately tailored to look and sound like a religious revival. Let me repeat that: He went to us. And because he was so infuriated by what he saw there, his first instinct by way of response was to go back to his store and put up a sign banning everyone at Skepticon.

That response – the instinctive desire to punish people for expressing a viewpoint you dislike, even when they’re doing it on their own time and in their own place – is what I can’t abide. That can only be explained as bigotry, plain and simple. That’s the same attitude that lies at the root of so much prejudice and hatred in America – that Christians are entitled to express their beliefs and atheists aren’t.

He implied that skepticism of UFOs would have been OK, but skepticism of religion wasn’t. Again by the store owner’s account, he expected Skepticon to be “something involving UFOs”. Because, of course, that would have been just fine! He wouldn’t have objected in the slightest to people mocking or criticizing those other loony beliefs. But when the spotlight of skepticism is turned his way, oh no! How dare you make fun of my special personal convictions!?

This ties into the first point: Christians in America speak as if their beliefs deserve a special protection from criticism, that they should be exempt from the kind of criticism and, yes, mockery that they don’t bat an eye at when it’s directed at other ideas.

The actual content of the apology was fairly thin. Although he offered extravagant “I’m sorry”s, the most specific thing he said in reference to his behavior was “I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their beliefs,” which falls subtly but noticeably short of acknowledging that atheists have the right to criticize and make fun of religion. And then he offers a 10% discount to everyone who patronizes his store this week.

As JT pointed out, this boils down to, “If you’ll come back to my store, I’m willing to make slightly less money off of you!” This is a shabby way to express remorse. Making a donation to Skepticon or a secular or free-speech organization would have been a much better way to express genuine contrition.

Now, the owner did say that he took the sign down after a very short time. Granted. And I also grant that he evidently does regret what he did. But we’d be naive if we didn’t think that dozens of angry online reviews and bad word of mouth played at least some part in that. If we didn’t have that leverage, would he have been so quick to apologize? Unfortunately, there’s no way to be sure.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for an atheist to accept this apology. If you want to be magnanimous, more power to you. I’m also not saying we should organize protests in front of the store or do anything else to actively try to hurt this business. It’s over now, and we might as well move on.

But I don’t think we should forgive and forget, and in particular, I don’t see a compelling reason to take down the bad reviews that were already written. If it were feasible, I’d be happy to sit down with the owner and have a conversation about what happened. But apology or no, I doubt I would patronize this store in the future, and I think other atheists deserve to have the full story so they can make up their own minds.

To put it another way: If this were a trial and I were the judge, I’d sentence him to time served. But I wouldn’t order that the record be sealed.


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