USPS Discriminates Against Atheist-Branded Packages?

USPS Discriminates Against Atheist-Branded Packages? March 27, 2013

io9 is reporting on a fascinating little “study” conducted by an Atheist shoe company from Berlin (thanks to Alex Gabriel for the tip). As they describe:

ATHEIST SHOES is a German based-company that, as its name suggests, makes comfy kicks “for people who don’t believe in god(s).” The company regularly ships shoes, like the ones pictured above, to America. When it does, it seals its boxes with tape featuring the company logo, which is stylized as “ATHEIST · ATHEIST · ATHEIST” (see below). But these shipments often run into problems.

The company explains on its website that shoes shipped the U.S. often take longer than they should to arrive, or go missing altogether. “When some of our customers asked us not to use ATHEIST-branded packing tape on their shipments, we started to wonder if the delays were caused by the US Postal Service taking offence at our overt godlessness.”

“So,” the company writes, “we launched an experiment.”

Said experiment, which is recounted in detail in an infographic on the company’s website, saw 178 packages shipped to 89 people in 49 U.S. States. All packages left Berlin on the same day, and each person was sent two packages. The first was sealed with ATHEIST tape, the second with neutral tape. The result? Boxes sealed with ATHEIST tape were ten-times more likely to go missing, and took an average of three days longer to arrive than neutral-wrapped packages.

“Having run a series of control tests in Germany and Europe, which demonstrate no such bias,” the company writes, “the problem appears to be in the USA and is likely explained by the differential handling of packages by the employees of the US Postal Service.” An unsettling find – remember, mail-tampering is a federal offense.

Clearly, this is not a publishable study, but for a shoe company I think it’s rather charming: you have a little comparison group (the package shipped with standard packaging) and a control with packages shipped to other parts of Europe, which don’t show the discrepancy. It seems to demonstrate that there is some difference, at least, between the packages with atheist tape and the packages with plain brown tape. Check out the delightful infographic the company designed to demonstrate the results of their study – it’s quite impressive! Highlights include the fact that 9 atheist-branded packages went missing, as opposed to 1 non-branded, and that atheist-branded packages took, on average, more than 3 days longer to reach their destinations (both statistically significant findings). Whether this represents a systematic anti-atheist bias in the USPS is disputable: I personally think that unlikely. But it’s tough to see why identical items shipped in slightly different packaging should differ so much in delivery times and loss rates.

Personally, I think it highly plausible that some of the disparity observed is due to prejudice against atheists. Despite the tendency of some to overplay the discrimination atheists face in the USA, high levels of distrust are well-documented, and they seem to be focused squarely on the word “atheist”. I can absolutely imagine individual postal workers seeing a package identified boldly as an “ATHEIST” package being treated differently to a simply brown-taped companion. Those who wish to dismiss this hypothesis are bound to provide an alternative theory which accounts for the facts, and I struggle to determine one – any suggestions would be appreciated in the comments.

The article reminded me of the first American Humanist Association Conference I attended, in 2010. Packages from the Humanist Community at Harvard were – well, see for yourself!

Obviously, too much weight should not be place on such a study. Nonetheless, bravo ATHEIST SHOES! It’s cute to see companies seeking to serve their customers better by applying a little of the scientific method, and I’ll certainly think twice before sending anything explicitly branded “atheist” in the mail.

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