Monday, November 24, 2008

Retraction retraction? Imagining No Religion

The furor over the removal of the “Imagine No Religion” billboard in Rancho Cucamonga has gotten more complicated and more interesting. If you read the article in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin here, you may have noted this important claim:

According to Redevelopment Director Linda Daniels, City Hall had received 90 calls of complaint since Wednesday.

"We contacted the sign company and asked if there was a way to get it removed," Daniels said.

What would be very significant about this is that an official in City Hall construed the FFRF billboard as a problem and as a result she called the sign company and pressured them to remove it. Ordinary citizens complaining about such a billboard would hardly be surprising; but city officials have no business exerting pressure on private businesses in order to eliminate the free expression of ideas.

When I complained to the city on the email address I posted here last night, I received an email today from Kristen Compean and/or Fabian A. Villenas, Principal Management Analyst (it’s not clear which from the email.) They said, among other things,

“I am responding back to your inquiry to clear up any misunderstandings and to make it clear that the City of Rancho Cucamonga gave NO direction in the removal of that billboard message, or any billboard message. In fact, the City does not have any authority over the content of a billboard and the City does not approve what is put up on a billboard and is not authorized to remove billboard advertisements.”

The latter claim is surely right. No city has the authority in a case like this to approve or remove any billboard ads on the basis of their content—although there will be exceptions for community decency cases, but I’ll leave that for later. But the first claim, that the city gave no direction to remove the sign is in direct contradiction with what Wendy Leung reported in her article (“Controversial `Imagine No Religion' billboard removed in Rancho Cucamonga”) quoted above.

So either Linda Daniels did pressure the sign company and Kirsten Compean and Fabian Villenas are mistaken, or Linda Daniels did not pressure the sign company and Wendy Leung is mistaken.

I have emails into all parties and I am hoping to get some clearer answers. Rancho Cucamonga may have just gotten itself into some hot water with an abuse of power. And the whole scandal makes it clear that they really needed to have the billboard up and they all needed to spend some time imagining being free from the stranglehold of religious dogma.

I think on a reasonable construal of censorship and freedom of speech, the removal of the billboard and cancellation of the FFRF’s contract was wrong. There are other venues, of course, where the FFRF and others can express their ideas. But that’s not the point. The FFRF sought to purchase ad time and display their billboard like any other group just like the countless religiously themed billboards out there. But their attempt to make use of the same venues as any other religious citizens was thwarted because being non-religious is so immensely unpopular.

For comparison, consider this rough analog. Imagine that a non-profit group working on behalf of African Americans put up a billboard that said, “Imagine having a black family.” And then an outraged (racist) community flooded the billboard company and city with calls protesting the horrible suggestion that they are black or are related to black people. And then, as a result, the company takes the sign down. Would you have any doubt that the free expression of ideas had been violated here and that the action was an example of prejudice and censorship?

When the typical citizen is quoted in cases like this about billboards, or “In God We Trust” on the money, or the “Under God” on the flag, there’s a very common theme. They often say, “I’m all for freedom of speech, of course. And they have a right to think what they want. But there are limits to what the rest of us what to hear. They are being too strident and their message is deeply offensive to us.”

Reading between the lines, those of us on the other side know what this all means. Non-believers really don’t have freedom of speech or freedom from religion if the exercise of those rights mean actually disagreeing or rejecting the religious views and practices of the mainstream. Or, even if they have the rights, the widespread social stigma on non-belief is strong to result in the de facto repression of those ideas in public.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this, and for your efforts against this blatant censorship and anti-atheist bigotry. I was rather pissed when I read about that sign being taken down in Rancho Cucamonga a couple days ago. I might just send a couple e-mails over their way myself, just to stir the pot a little...

Bryan Goodrich said...

Sounds like it is time to call some news organizations to do some further investigations and make a big issue out of it. I'm definitely going to mail out a letter to the addresses you provided.

Jamie said...

Matt - I love your example of "Imagine having a black family". That was spot on.

Here's my take on it:
The ideal - The Constitution does guarantee free speech.

The reality - freedom of speech is in direct relationship with how receptive the hearers are of the message. I think you'll find this true across the board. Its basically the idea of a contextualized message. That's why advertisers spend so much money trying to figure out how to get under people's skin - they want to make the message relevant to people.

So I don't think this issue is religious v. non-religious so much as it is popularity or unpopularity of a message and the reactions of both sides. If a billboard said "Imagine no atheists" would atheists have the same reaction? Certainly some (but not all) of them would, just like some religious people (not all) reacted this way.

I personally think that religious people shouldn't feel threatened by a billboard. I mean seriously, its a billboard. Sheesh!!

Eric Sotnak said...

Some people here might remember the "God Speaks" billboard campaign of a few years back ( where messages like "The real supreme court is up here" and such messages were posted on all black billboards with white letters (all signed "God"). At the time I made some exploratory inquiries into putting up a few of my own, such as:

"Let me drive a while. Close your eyes and trust me."

"Because I said so"

"Yes, I let children die of malaria, but I have a really good reason."

At the time I found it interesting that even people who are normally fairly tolerant of religious skepticism thought it would be unconscionably rude to put up such billboards. I also wondered whether any billboard companies might actually refuse to put them up. The "Imagine no religion" billboard is innocuous compared to the ones like those I've suggested above, yet it still gets taken down. Seems like (still more) empirical proof that Dan Dennett's central claims in his book, "Breaking the Spell" are spot on.

Matt McCormick said...

We are routinely subjected to a double standard about offense and religious claims that is so pervasive not even the atheists notice it. Believers have promoted a culture where the slightest question, challenge, or request for reasons is met with instant outcries of intolerance and incivility. It's hard not to make a paranoid sounding point about how complete the mind control mechanism has become: In their own realm, even doubting thoughts themselves are considered sinful. And if someone on the outside raises questions that might provoke doubts, they are met with the harshest social criticisms. As far as I could tell, the most substantial criticisms that reviewers had of Dawkins' and Harris' books, for instance, were that they were rude, angry, and strident. But in this context, that was enough to refute them to the satisfaction of many readers. If you're angry about religion, then that effectively disqualifies you as a religion hater and no one needs to take your objections seriously.

Nevermind that everyday on the way to work I am threatened with bumper stickers that promise eternal torment for for non-believers--that's not rude or uncivil.


Eric Sotnak said...

Matt McCormick wrote:
"If you're angry about religion, then that effectively disqualifies you as a religion hater and no one needs to take your objections seriously."

Even worse, I think is what people think a non-angry approach to religion must be like. As far as I can tell, what is being supposed is that to be non-angry about religion means that you must say religious beliefs and practices are perfectly rational. Things are supposed to go like this: "I think religious beliefs x, y, and z are false, but of course that's just my opinion. I could be wrong, and so I have no objection to people continuing to hold and act on those beliefs, and I think it is wonderful that they want to share their religion with me, even though I happen to disagree with them. I mean, hey, I probably AM wrong, anyhow..."

Jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Atheist are now equating their silly movement with I've heard it all

you cry babies seem to always see things only from your POV. Think about what a billboard would mean if it promoted religion?

Eric Sotnak said...

Anonymous wrote: "you cry babies seem to always see things only from your POV. Think about what a billboard would mean if it promoted religion?"

What an interesting comment. Who is seeing things from only one point of view -- the atheists, or the theists? Who thinks it is perfectly acceptable to put up billboards promoting religion, but unacceptable to put up billboards that aren't even critical of religion, but ask the reader merely to imagine no religion. Theists would be quite free to imagine such a scenario and think it would be horrible.

The God Speaks billboards clearly promoted religion. I thought some of them were clever/funny. But I also thought it would be fun to make some others that promoted a different line of thinking about religion. The thing is, while no one complained at the billboard that said "Let's meet at my house Sunday before the game", I'll bet there would be a huge public outcry if a billboard were put up reading "Yes, I let children die of malaria, but I have a really good reason."

Or what if atheists sponsored a billboard that said "The doctrine of the Trinity makes no sense." There would probably be Christian outrage over such a billboard, but the vast majority of Christians can't explain the doctrine of the trinity (they can say what it is, but can't explain it).

Anonymous said...

Think about what a billboard would mean if it promoted religion?

What is your point? Religious billboards are plentiful throughout the land, so that thinking about them is simply a matter of accurate recall, and does not require any imagination at all.

Also, a statement does not end with a question mark.

Anonymous said...

Uh Reginald why are atheist defending a billboard against the notion of religion yet poop in thier pants about religous expression? Its a hypoctical position for you atheist...