Tiny steps

It’s Tuesday, and the internet is still offended. Why? Because a store owner in Missouri posted an ill-advised sign in his window, which was spotted and widely circulated on the internet. It read:

Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business

The owner of the Gelato Mio store saw something at Skepticon that upset him, which prompted him to put up this sign in his store window. You can read more about this on Hemant Mehta’s blog, which details the incident, and the response to the posting of the sign once pictures of it were circulated on the internet. Mehta’s blog is also the place to go to see a further apology from the owner of the store, which is as follows:

To the World:

Hello, my name is Andy and I’m the owner of Gelato Mio, a gelato shop located in Springfield, Missouri. There has been quite a lot of buzz and discussion concerning a picture of the sign I briefly posted in my front window Saturday evening. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my story and offer a heartfelt apology to your community. I messed up, plain and simple. This is NOT an excuse, but how it happened from my perspective.

I decided to welcome the convention downtown by offering the attendees 10% off their purchases at my store. A lot of the group from the convention were stopping by, being very polite and enjoying my Gelato. Saturday night started out as a great night. Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”). What I saw instead was a man conducting a mock sermon, reading the bible and cursing it. Instead of saying “Amen”, the phrase was “god damn”. Being a Christian, and expecting flying saucers, I was not only totally surprised but totally offended. I took it very personally and quickly decided in the heat of the moment that I had to take matters into my own hands and let people know how I felt at that moment in time.

So, I went quickly back to my business, grabbed the first piece of paper I could find, wrote the note and taped it in my front window. This was an impulsive response, which I fully acknowledge was completely wrong and unacceptable. The sign was posted for about 10 minutes or so before I calmed down, came to my senses, and took it down. For what it’s worth, nobody was turned away. I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their beliefs. I’m not apologizing for my beliefs, but rather for my inexcusable actions. I was wrong.

Guys, I really don’t know what else I can do to express my apologies. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails since the incident, and have done my best to reply to each and every one and express my regret for what happened. For the thousands of you whom I’ve offended, I sincerely apologize. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. This is me as a human being sincerely apologizing for my actions.

To those of you who accept my apology, Thank You; it means a lot. To those of you who haven’t, I hope you will. I’m just a 28 year old small business owner who made a big mistake. I hope you see that I have not made any excuses, I’ve owned up to what I did, and I apologize.

For what it’s worth, an Atheist reached out to me to help me work through all of this and contact your community directly. I graciously accepted his offer.

I will give everyone who comes to my store this week 10% off as a token of my apology. Really, what’s more universal than ice cream?

Sincerely, Andy

So, Andy acted impulsively, realised the mistake he made, and apologised. End of story, right? Sadly, no, because there are still people out there who would rather make an example of Andy than accept the apology and move on. PZ Myers disagrees, and his objections are now posted as part of Mehta’s blog (and you can see a selection of tweets here). The comments for Mehta’s blog contain a disappointing amount of hate, hurt, and irrationality, and readers seem fairly split about whether or not the apology is to be accepted or not. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to come down on the “accept the apology” side of things, and risk the ire that this will, doubtlessly, bring.

I tend to subscribe to the “don’t be a dick” philosophy, because being a dick doesn’t help get the point across, and mostly just tends to upset and alienate people. For anyone who would like to respond by telling me that they are a discriminated against minority who face abuse every day, and therefore have the right to be a dick, I will pre-emptively counter by reminding you that I live in a country which has, enshrined in it’s employment equality law, the right of a religious, medical, or educational organisation to discriminate on the grounds of religion, and where the vast majority of schools fall under religious patronage, meaning that it is almost impossible to educate one’s children without faith. With that said, please do me the courtesy of not dismissing what I say because I “don’t understand” the discrimination people face.

I think that Andy, like all of us, is human, and that he responded stupidly to something that was designed to provoke a response. He is by no means the only person guilty of such a crime, and I would wager that, if we were to check our own blogs, emails, and Twitter feeds, we’d probably find messages that we regret posting, or that we think now, with hindsight, were posted too hastily. Many people who believe strongly in religion do not merely see religious criticism as criticism of the religion, but as a very personal attack too – I could talk here about the various regions of the brain thought to be associated with religious thought, and the psychosocio-development of religion, but it’s probably more succinct to say that religion and faith are very personal and important things to those who believe, and those who believe tend to identify that belief as a large part of themselves as a person. In short, Andy, as a believer, has an emotional attachment to his faith, and when he saw something that ridiculed that faith, it also felt like something which ridiculed him directly, and his feelings were hurt. He acted, like many of us with hurt feelings do – by lashing out.

Am I aware that it’s irrational? Yes. Am I aware that it is illegal? Yes. Do we all sometimes do irrational, and possibly even illegal, things when we are feeling hurt and upset? If we’re honest, yes. Do we all apologise, publicly, for our irrational behaviour once the fog of upset has cleared? Well, no, actually. Mostly, we don’t. We shroud ourselves in a cloak of indignation, rights, beliefs, and other such emotional things, and declare that we were right anyway, or that it’s a matter of opinion, or other such placations. We use the cloak of indignation to bat away anything that might damage or tear the cloak, lest it expose the flawed logic beneath it. Privately, we might admit that we were hasty, but publicly, we do not want to lose face, so we gather our indignicloak about us and continue on. Does that sound like the kind of behaviour that skeptics revere, or more like the kind of thing that we are renowned for ridiculing? It is, I think, much easier to maintain an air of indignant offense than it is to accept that trashing a menu online  or posting hundreds of fake bad reviews was also an emotional reaction that, in hindsight, may be unjustified.

I’m not saying that what Andy did was ok – demonstrably, it wasn’t; it was offensive, and illegal. What I am saying is that he seems to have realised that his behaviour was offensive and illegal, and taken steps to remedy it. Frankly, he could have simply left the sign there, turned away patrons, and picketed the con for the rest of the weekend, and depending on the area he was in, he may well have received popular support for such actions. The fact is that that’s not what he has done. He took down the sign once his initial upset had cleared. He apologised, and has done so again, explaining (but not making excuses for) his behaviour.

People like Andy don’t understand our beliefs (or lack thereof) simply because we browbeat them into submission. People like Andy may never understand how or why we don’t believe in Jesus or Mohammed or any other deity. It would be nice if, in the future, everyone understood everyone’s beliefs, but if we are honest with ourselves, we might realise that, while we know about the beliefs of Christians, for example, we don’t understand them. I can think of many reasons why someone might have faith, but I don’t understand them because, to me, they seem illogical or hollow or simply weak. I speak the language of science, and evidence, and proof, and they speak the language of belief and faith.

I’m not saying that atheists should lie prone on the ground and allow people to walk all over them, but what I am saying is that responding like an aggrieved extremist group does not do anyone any favours. Do you honestly think that, if his shop goes out of business, he’ll suddenly have a conversion experience, become an atheist, and start attending Skepticon himself? Do you think that a non-acceptance of, what really appears to be, a sincere apology makes you seem like the better person? Do you believe that making a loud example of this person will help anyone, in any way? I don’t. Tiny steps matter.