Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why It's Okay to Sell Junk to Religious People

Over on Pharyngula, PZ Myers posted a link to the hilarious Information Age Prayer, where you can buy prayers online. PZ is clear on his position; even if if it were a joke, he would consider it "evil". I disagree.

For the record, I'm not sure whether it's a joke or not. There's a reason that it's so hard to differentiate POEs and real religious sites (because religion is nonsense). But for the sake of discussion let's assume this is a joke. There are really two moral questions at work here: the social impact of the joke website, and taking advantage of people who we as atheists consider delusional.

Individually speaking, I find the question morally clear cut: there's nothing wrong with this guy selling an online prayer to some person who thinks you can say magic words to invisible spirits in the sky. Yes, your "taking advantage of someone" moral instinct might be kicking in, but let me disabuse you of that with another concrete example: let's say I believe in magic sticks (without evidence, because there's no such thing), and you sell me a stick and tell me it's magic (when you know damn well it's not), but you tell me it is, and I believe that it is (because it's nonsense and there's no way to tell). Did you really just cheat me? Even if you told me you didn't really believe in magic sticks, I'd say well, you're just a stupid magic stick atheist and your soul is lost, so I'll still take it off your hands. In fact an otherwise rational magic stick believer should prefer to deal with magic stick atheists, because magic stick atheists put less value on magic sticks, and they'll sell for less.

What's the bottom line? All trade occurs between parties who have different valuations of the traded items. Sometimes the different valuations are arrived at rationally, sometimes not. For example, for lunch most days, I clearly think it's better to have a bento box than $3.25 in my pocket or I wouldn't make the exchange. The sushi place must think the opposite, or they wouldn't be on the other end of the transaction. Now - is it my responsibility to decide if the sushi manager is delusional in his belief, and protect him from the transaction? And in the previous case, is it your responsibility not to take advantage of my (delusion-based) magic stick fetish? After all, we have to be open to new evidence; maybe I'm right, and you're wrong, and there ARE magic sticks, and you just sold me one for five measly dollars! SUCKER!

Socially, some shades of gray do creep in, but there's a way to redeem yourself. True story: I once drove up to a one-dollar toll road entrance and realized I had no cash. I told this to the lady in the toll both (who happened to be black, a fact disclosed because of its imminent relevance to this account). She told me to pull around to the side parking lot and fill out a form in the office. As I parked and got out to enter the small building, a white man emerged from a side door and before I knew what had happened he'd pressed a dollar into my hand. "F**k the n***er, know what I mean? F**k the n***er." He pointed at the woman in the toll both and walked back inside. It was all over in about five seconds.

I was stunned. Initially I thought that I should go in and throw the money back at the guy and tell him that I don't take kindly to racist asshats existing in the first place, let alone assuming I share their convictions just because I happen to be (mostly) white. But then I thought "I'd rather have that dollar to spend on something useful, like a toll road, than for that idiot to keep it and donate to the KKK or buy some racist tschotschkes," and I went back to the toll booth and paid the lady. You can tell this whole episode still bothers me more than a decade later. What I worry about most is that this guy probably concluded, since I said nothing, that there were kindred racist asshat spirits out there, and was subsequently bolder in his ignorance. I also should have said something to the toll booth lady about her coworker - I would want that, were I in her position - but to avoid social awkwardness (read: out of smallness) I did not.

There's no shade of gray in taking away a few bucks from a politically powerful lobby by exploiting their followers' delusions. That's good. On the other hand, the ironic intentions don't translate into a morally different result from selling the stuff in earnest unless you let your victims in on the joke. By selling woo to wingnuts and not ever telling them it's woo, you're reinforcing bad thinking through commerce, like I may have reinforced Mr. Asshat. Plus, how are you different from any other televangelist then? Consequently, redemption comes from revealing the intention: if that cyberprayer site is a joke and a month from now, the owner sends emails out to all past customers saying "we were a fraud the whole time, and the reason you couldn't tell is because all prayer is nonsense", maybe next time those customers will actually think before spending money on evidenceless claptrap. If it's a joke site but the owner gets too attached to his passive income stream and never says anything, then it's socially immoral, because he's just reinforcing woo.

Where I draw the line with this sort of thing is at mentally ill or retarded people who have basic problems with social function and can't take care of themselves. If a mumbling street person comes up to me and offers me $100 for some aluminum foil to make a hat to keep out the CIA mind lasers, I wouldn't make the transaction, and I would encourage them to get help, however futile that might be (as in the case of, for example, a blog providing rational arguments for not believing in gods - but hey, you tried.)

But, folks, here's the good news. All your frustrated wondering at how religious folks can function in their daily lives, believing in the literal word of Scripture for some things but somehow dividing that from the rest of their behavior so they can keep the lights on and feed themselves - all that puzzlement now pays off. The consequence of successful doublethink: since religious people are capable of taking care of themselves, and are socially functional, it's not your responsibility to protect them from their delusions. So if you can sell them magic sticks, holy water, herbal cures, online prayers, etc. then do it - as long as, sooner rather than later, you go very public with the fact that it was all a sham, and these people should have known better. After all, why should a Christian care if the person behind the prayer site doesn't believe prayer works, and sends out a mass email revealing that it was a big joke? That doesn't change whether or not it really does work - and if there's no way of proving whether the prayer was said and had the intended effect (because it's all woo), then that's the customer's problem. Amen? No. Caveat emptor!

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