Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Skepticon IV, a major skeptical conference, took place over the weekend in Springfield, Missouri. Several of my favorite bloggers were attending or giving talks at the event, and I would have LOVED to be there. Unfortunately Florida is rather far from Missouri, but at least I got to enjoy reading about it from the perspective of some of my favorite writers! One image that kept popping up as I read through updates from Skepticon was a picture taken of a sign in the window of a gelato shop.
'Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business'
'Wow, what a dick,' I thought. 'Guess he'll be losing a lot of money this weekend.' I figured that was it. But who can predict what will take the internet by storm? Even though the sign was reportedly only up for a few minutes, the damage was done. The above image was widely circulated in the atheist blogosphere. Gelato Mio's online presence was hit hard, with negative ratings dominating their Yelp, Urbanspoon and Facebook pages overnight.

In an attempt to restore his reputation, the owner posted apologies online and attempted to explain his side of the story. First he tried his company's Facebook, followed by their website and finally published an open letter of apology on Reddit. And that's where it gets interesting.

Some atheists, such as Hemant at Friendly Atheist and Jen at BlagHag, feel that the apology is sincere and the owner of Gelato Mio ought to be given props for admitting he was wrong and trying to fix it. Others, including PZ of Pharyngula and JT of WWJTD, feel that the owner is just trying to save face to prevent losing anymore potential profits and the apology is irrelevant since he ignores the actual problem with his behavior. The debate currently rages...how should the atheist community react to this insult and the subsequent apology?

This is one of the things I love about the atheist community. We have a million different perspectives and we write about what we think so that others can critique our positions. We disagree on stuff all the time, and that's ok! There's no correct answer, no single True Path of Atheism. It's awesome.

Also, wow! Look at the power of the internet! Douchebags can't get away with being discriminatory anymore. Every little fail can be caught on camera and plastered across Reddit and Facebook instantly. This guy only had that sign in his window for maybe ten minutes, and that was enough. We have an unprecedented ability to share information and make our opinions known. The ability to rate businesses based on how they treat their customers gives us a tangible way of expressing our disapproval and provides real consequences for subtle discrimination that may have escaped comment or notice in the past. That's pretty damn cool.

But getting back to the debate at hand, I'm personally unsure about where I fall on the spectrum of responses to Gelatogate. Let's take a closer look at what I think the important questions are in this situation and see if I can figure it out by the time I'm done.

What did he do wrong?
The owner of Gelato Mio apparently saw something he didn't like at Skepticon: Sam Singleton, the Atheist Evangelist. Sam is a comedian whose act is basically an atheist rant disguised as a Pentecostal revival. It's supposed to be hilarious, but it makes a lot of people uncomfortable because of how blatantly it mocks Christianity. Offended to his very core by what he saw of the performance (which he neither paid for nor was he obligated to watch), the owner of Gelato Mio marched right back to his store and decided to let those damn dirty atheists know they weren't welcome in his place of business. 'Cause that'll show 'em.

Basically, the guy was offended by someone who was mocking his religious beliefs. Instead of just complaining about it or explaining why Sam Singleton was wrong or just leaving the show if he didn't like it, he decided to tell the entire convention they weren't welcome in his store. As a private business owner, he gets to make whatever stupid business decisions he wants. He also gets to live with the consequences of those decisions. Maybe he's heard of this thing called the internet.

Is his reaction justifiable?
Several people are saying that it is understandable that the Gelato Mio guy reacted so strongly because Sam Singleton's act is so inflammatory. Wouldn't you feel self-righteous is you saw someone mocking your beliefs? He wasn't expecting to find atheist sentiments at a skeptics conference, he was expecting to see UFOs and psychics. Maybe skeptic conferences should be focused on debunking frauds and encouraging scientific thought instead of becoming an atheist platform.

I do not like this response. Not one bit. It doesn't just miss the point, it misses several points:
  • Why are we throwing Sam under the bus here? His act is extremely popular and entertaining, and it reflects how many atheists really feel. Atheist sentiments are not inherently bad or wrong just because they are inflammatory, and the fact that Sam's act happened to be the thing that the gelato guy saw doesn't make his reaction any better.
  • You can mock what I believe all you want, doesn't mean I'm going to act like a total douchenozzle. I'm fine with criticism, and I am confident that the facts are on my side. Otherwise I'd be switching sides. So no, I do not think his self-righteous indignation justifies the subsequent discrimination.
  • Skepticism does not stop at bigfoots and UFOs and psychics! Skeptical thinking can, and should, be applied to everything! Climate change, anti-vaccine campaigns, public policy, gender stereotypes...and especially religion! The idea that religion should be exempt from skeptical thought just 'cause is ludicrous, and it is totally unreasonable to call Skepticon an atheist platform because some of the speakers are applying skeptical thinking to theism.
So no, I don't think the fact that his beliefs were being mocked makes what he did any more understandable.

Is the apology sincere?
Honestly, I'm leaning towards 'no'. The first apology that went live was a total 'I'm sorry if what I did offended you'-style notpology, and it only happened in response to negative online ratings and loss of business. When that didn't work, the apologies became more elaborate and personal. The owner sure seems like an intelligent guy, and the long-form apology on Reddit comes across as well-meaning, but it really seems to me like the sincerity is a product of him figuring out how to appeal to this particular audience more than anything else. If all I had seen was the latest apology, then I might be more convinced. But the behavior pattern I'm seeing here is that the more damage his business takes, the harder he tries to apologize sincerely. Not because he unfairly discriminated against a group of people, but because he was caught doing so and is losing money.

Regardless of how sincere he may be though, the guy is still making an effort and that counts for something. As Jen rightly pointed out, publicly admitting you were wrong is hard. But does that mean the atheist community should forgive and forget, or try to undo any of the damage done to Gelato Mio's online ratings as Hemant suggests? I don't think so. I honestly think we should leave it alone. He fucked up, and there was a justifiable backlash. He has apologized and I appreciate that, so I will not add any more fuel to the fire against his business, but he's going to have to rebuild his reputation without my help and I damn sure wont support him.

What is he actually apologizing for?
In the actual apology, the owner admits that his actions were inappropriate and he apologizes for offending everyone. That is nice of him, certainly. But he doesn't acknowledge that not only do we have the right to our own beliefs, but we also have the right to mock his beliefs. Sam Singleton did nothing wrong, and gelato guy was free to leave the performance if he didn't like it.

Yes, gelato guy acted rashly out of self-righteous indignation. He unintentionally showed the world that when faced with viewpoints that were in conflict with his beliefs and privilege that he would respond with bigotry. He's learned a valuable lesson about pissing off potential customers and atheists on the internet, but if he really thinks the problem is just about offending people then that's all he's learned and I don't care how nice his apology is or how much of a discount he's offering to try and make up for it.

Why is this such a big deal?
This is an important question. Because really, this is just one short-sighted business owner. There were plenty of welcoming businesses in Springfield, and being banned from gelato isn't going to have any lasting impact on the Skepticon attendees. So why are people still talking about this, and still arguing about whether or not to accept the apology? Largely because there is one. Most atheists experience discrimination in small ways all the time, and there's not much we can do about it. This guy just happened to get caught, and there just happened to be a perfect venue for atheists everywhere to express their discontent. We were actually able to do something about it in a way that the owner couldn't ignore.

Frankly, we're not used to Christians apologizing to us. It certainly threw me for a loop. I spent this entire blog post just trying to figure out what I thought about it. But I think that's what it comes down to. Gelato guy isn't really any more guilty than all of the other privileged theists out there that are outraged by the fact that atheists exist. He just got caught and actually tried to fix it, so we're holding him up as an example. It's the principles behind the argument that are relevant, not the specifics of the situation. Honestly, expecting any small business owner to change the way he views the world to appease an online community that will probably never shop at his store isn't particularly reasonable. Looked at in that context the apology is a pretty big gesture. But we want theists in general to understand that their beliefs are no more privileged than any other and that we have the right to criticize them, so that's what we want from him too. That's not what we're getting, but maybe this is a step in the right direction.

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