Gelatogate: To Err is Human, to Forgive Humanist

Gelatogate: To Err is Human, to Forgive Humanist November 22, 2011

Edit: Daniel Fincke of Camels With Hammers has written an exceptionable investigation of the concept of forgiveness and its relationship to this particular case. I don’t agree with all of it, but it is well worth reading.

A young Christian business owner, having agreed to offer a discount to Skepticon attendees, briefly places a sign in the window of his gelateria saying attendees of Skepticon were not welcome in his store, after feeling offended by a mock sermon being delivered by Atheist performer Sam Singleton. The resulting outrage prompted critical comments in the gelateria’s Facebook page, some of which were deleted, ending in the deletion of the Facebook page entirely; critical reviews of the store online, leading to crippled ratings on several sites; multiple blog posts condemning the store owner; an apology posted on the store’s website; a final, more lengthy apology, on r/atheism; and responses, conciliatory and not, to that apology.

This has been dubbed “Gelatogate”.

Those who are angry at the store owner are right to be so. The sign was a clear demonstration of bigotry against a group of people who a already much maligned. Negative attitudes toward atheists are well-documented and unacceptable – distaste for a person or people simply because they do not believe in God is prejudice, pure and simple. That the store owner swiftly removed the sign, that no one was actually turned away, that the apologies were numerous and swift, do not erase the offense. This businessperson, if even for a short while, thought it appropriate to attempt to bar hundreds of people from his store because of their association with a particular religious viewpoint. That is not OK.

Furthermore, this is part of a pattern of discrimination against people like us, who are forthright in their criticism of the harmful aspects of religion. Even the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, frequently criticized by the atheist community itself for its supposed softness toward religious beliefs, was once targeted: materials from our appearance at a national Humanist convention were vandalized with crosses and Christian messages somewhere between San Jose CA and Cambridge, MA. What seem like small, reasonably insignificant acts, contribute to a hostile environment in which nonreligious people are marginalized in American life.

This marginalization is bad for everybody: atheists and Humanists are directly harmed, of course, but this prejudice also tears apart families, strains workplaces, makes dating more difficult (I speak from personal experience!) and diminishes political life. Many engaged, civic-minded atheists feel they cannot run for office, or must keep quiet or even lie about their beliefs, fearing (probably correctly) that honesty would equal political suicide. When cultural prejudice encourages political dishonesty everybody suffers.

So our gelato salesman doesn’t get off the hook for his actions, even though he has profusely and fulsomely apologized. His small act of bigotry is part of a system of oppression (I don’t think this an exaggeration) which he served to reinforce. As such, his actions do concrete harm to people like me, just as it is harmful when gay couples are kicked out of stores and restaurants for kissing. I, myself, will not be buying any of his wares any time soon.

And yet.

Humanism is about more than the promotion and protection of atheism as a legitimate and respected viewpoint. It is also about more than caring for the welfare of Humanists and atheists. In the Humanist view, we must have equal moral concern for gelato-man and his employees as we have for ourselves, even when gelato-man acts like a bigoted idiot. The fact that his business is most certainly suffering, that he has been given a considerable scare, that he has repeatedly and publicly reached out to redress his actions – this should not be ignored when weighing our response.

This is also a great opportunity for consciousness raising. With sensitive outreach, gelato-man may be willing to talk about this experience with others, and discuss what he has learned. His testimony could be a powerful way to convince believers to reconsider their view of atheists, and could help us immensely. A reformed sinner is often a more powerful messenger than a constant choirboy.

As Humanists we should be able to find it in ourselves to recognize that we are all capable of prejudice, and actions taken in the heat of anger or offense. We should think of the times we have acted wrongly – times when we have caused harm to others – through our thoughtlessness and inconsideration. We should recognize attempts to heal a wound, even if we suspect their sincerity, and be gracious toward others when they fall short. We should look to the good which could be salvaged from a harmful action.

As Humanists, we should forgive.

So, Mr. Gelato, I forgive you. Forgiveness does not mean you did nothing wrong. It doesn’t mean you caused no harm. It doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to make this right by working with others in your community to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Others will refuse to forgive – that’s their prerogative.

Just remember: Jesus has no monopoly on the forgiveness of sins.

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