Update on Church Vandalism Fundraising

Update on Church Vandalism Fundraising June 19, 2011

Hermant Mehta of Friendly Atheist has ended his atheist fundraiser to help two churches that were defaced by Flying Spaghetti Monster graffiti.  Both churches were able to do cleanup with their usual maintenance staffs, so Mehta donated the money raised, as promised, to the Foundation Beyond Belief.  I donated to his fund, and posted his fundraising widget on the blog, to allow other atheists to donate, but I was a little uncomfortable making a donation to a religious group; I never contribute to the collection while at Mass with my boyfriend.

I tried to balance my contribution with a matching donation to the ACLU and made sure to keep up the phone calls to my NYS Senator for the imminent gay marriage vote.  But Darksmiles did some research and found that one of the churches took a pray-away-the-gay stance on homosexuality and argued that even a donation earmarked only for repair made atheists complicit in the church’s abusive practices.  Darksmiles wrote:

It sounds like the point is moot in this case, but if it ever comes up again, I don’t think you should feel comfortable making the same choice again, Leah. I think most people have become so used to bible-based discrimination that they can’t recognize how awful it is anymore – after all it is hard to live day in and day out with the knowledge that many of your friends and neighbors have some truly evil thoughts in their hearts.

Take “pray-away-the-gay” programs and conflation of innocent sexual practices with “sin” on most Sundays and replace it with “cleanse-your-blood-of-Jewishness” and anti-Jewish sermons most Sundays and set it against a backdrop of widespread anti-Jewish social stigma and legal discrimination. It is horrifying, is it not? Fixing what doesn’t need to be fixed and trampling on human rights in the process is not an organization that deserves respect even when lying on the ground. At most don’t kick them, but don’t help them back up either.

I’m for the rule of law as well, but there are limits to which organizations anyone of conscience should help (although everyone already subsidizes churches in the U.S.). One simply does not help neo-nazis repaint after someone paints a rainbow on their building.

I’m honestly not sure what the correct course of action is.  My action in donation and promoting the drive was not pure altruism.  I saw an opportunity for atheists to go for the moral high ground by helping Christians who were attacked despite the ‘you were asking for it’ reaction we get every time one of our billboards are defaced.

When we atheists are already despised and distrusted in large swathes of the country, we have to be visible saints just to make any headway.  It’s just another analogous case of Fannie Hurst’s maxim that, because of prevailing prejudices, “A woman has to be twice as good as a man to go half as far.”  Even though the churches turned out not to need the help, the drive generated positive coverage of atheists and may have made a personal impression on members of the affected parishes

That’s a tolerable ends-oriented argument for organizing and promoting the collection.  By these criteria, I could decide if I ought participate in the fund by trying to estimate the positive long-term boost for atheists and comparing it to the cost of failing to hinder a churches dangerous anti-gay beliefs.  I might be able to boost  the net benefit if I balanced the donation with a larger gift to LGBT activist group.  But I feel the strongest tie to virtue ethics, so there’s a whole other dimension to the problem.

Am I using this as an opportunity to better form my character?  Almost certainly not.

I take more pleasure in giving to charity when I can use the money not only to do good but as a cudgel against my enemies, as in this killing them with kindness PR coup.  As was the case in the ethical case study of my Senior Gift contribution, I looked for an opportunity to feed my pride by ostentatiously following duty in giving to a group I disliked in a manner meant to expose their lack of charity in comparison.  Hardly a sacrifice, if it affords me an opportunity to feel superior.

Although the net external effect of the fundraising might be positive, my personal contribution was probably poorly chosen, since pride and contempt (particularly masked by outward virtue) are stumbling blocks for me.

Any advice on how to handle this kind of choice in the future?  Does any one have tips on how to avoid in indulging my Kantian pride?

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  • Ash

    What's wrong with pride?Why does feeling superior render a sacrifice not a sacrifice?

  • JSA

    Your initial approach seems significantly more mature than Darksmiles. Donations are more about signalling than about actually contributing to a cause. Human altruism evolved as a signalling mechanism; signalling is the basis for what we consider altruistic. People who focus too much on pragmatic effectiveness are missing the point (and are also slightly hypocritical if they write letters about it, since the letter-writing is a form of expensive signalling).I like Ash's response — what's wrong with feeling satisfaction at doing the right thing? But if you're worried that the satisfaction is a bit too smug, maybe my point above about signalling will help. You can convince yourself that you didn't really do the "right thing", but instead played a particularly competent signalling game. Since this whole "right thing" discussion is an elaborate signalling game, it limits the level of pride you can feel.Conversely, you could go the other way and convince yourself that the golden imperative is immensely beyond reach. That is, you could do your best to do the right thing, and then spend as much time as possible making yourself feel guilty about how far you fell from the ideal. For example, beat yourself up and diminish your accomplishment by recognizing feelings of unseemly pride.BTW, I think you would really enjoy this paper on Kant's theory of evil, by Robert Gressis. Section 5 of the thesis deals directly with "How to Be Evil", where Kant talks about the psychological tradeoffs that people make that enable them to fall short of the moral imperative. Your concept of "Kantian Pride" is pervasive in there.

  • Altruism is not exclusively a signaling technique. There are multiple kinds of altruism: kinship altruism, reciprocal altruism, parochial altruism, and in humans it get even more complex, up to and including real altruism.You should feel satisfaction at doing the right thing and guilt at doing the wrong thing, that is standard virtue ethics going to both the Greeks and Hebrews. The problem, of course, is really knowing what right and wrong are, because they tend to align with groups, and perhaps not truth. Which means making sure you check your biases thoroughly. Which is one of the points of this blog after all.Avoid indulging your pride by constantly questioning your motives. Consequences are only part of ethics, your intentions are what warp (or rather display the pre-existing warp of) your character.

  • And all the above was to say I agree with you, not to sound snooty. 🙂 By questioning your motives you are doing a good thing. And other cultures besides the Greeks and Hebrews knew this stuff too, anytime a group becomes big enough to encounter other cultures the question always turns back on itself (at least in a thoughtful person): am I right or are they right? How do I know?

  • JSA

    @Brian – I hope you're not taking the wrong sense of the word "signal". In the paper I linked about "signalling", the evolutionary biologists aren't talking about some intentional facade intended to manipulate others. Instead they are proposing that public altruism is a costly signal meant to signal fitness, and is as involuntary as a peacock's feathers. Leah's reported altruistic behavior closely fits this pattern, and is as real as it gets.

  • Hi JS, no problem. I tend to cite DS Wilson for a lot of stuff on evo bio and he always emphasizes that we have no conscious access to "fitness" itself, only the proximate effects of systems that produce fitness as outcomes (which agrees with your above statement, I think). That is a serious cognitive bias for ethics, but knowing of its existence is an important start. If we wanted to start psychologically analyzing Leah's altruism (apologies Leah… step in here any time…) I think I would examine it more in terms of group selection and parochial altruism rather than signaling, but there's no reason it could not be both at the same time. As for Leah's character (sorry to keep on talking about you, Leah, when you are right there…), I think she is already on the right path, the question is how exactly she can best achieve her goals of becoming a better person given the difficulties inherent in being human, in human nature itself. And that's not easy for anyone.Science can help us here if it is properly integrated with ethics. Which is to say: science gives us the parameters of the possible, and within that frame ethics tells us what good is, i.e., what to aim for. Based on this, science can then tell us how (give us techniques and means, though ethical traditions have already found most of these, I think, just without understanding the mechanism) to use our psychology "against" itself so to speak, that is, how to become good even if we have to turn our mind/brain against itself to do so. Virtue is all about training the mind to do good automatically. This is difficult at first, but when it is truly integrated it becomes automatic. And when one does good it is appropriate to be pleased with one's actions. The question is, are you pleased at a truly good action, or just one your group trained you to be pleased with? Humans are rather liked trained monkeys, after all.

  • JSA

    @Brian – OK, sounds like we're on the same page about signaling then.It also sounds like you believe in an objective morality, and that our evolved morality falls short of the objective morality. I guess if Leah is a Kantian, she does, to. I sometimes forget that there are atheists who believe in objective morality.

  • Actually, JS, I'm Catholic. Like PhD candidate in Catholic. I used to be atheist, and I do natural law ethics, so I might sound atheist. I'll take it as a compliment. 🙂