January 23, 2009

Friendly Atheist's Blankets of Christ Dilemma

Colorful blankets (3992598842)

Friendly Atheist is one of the many atheist blogs I read regularly. I have tons of respect for Hemant, even though I don't agree with everything he says. Hell, I probably enjoy reading his blog so much because I don't agree with everything he says!

In a recent post, Hemant asks an excellent and thought-provoking question for readers to ponder. I immediately realized that my response would be too long for a comment, so I'm responding in this post.

Framed as an ethical dilemma, Friendly Atheist presents us with the following scenario:
Let’s say atheists begin a similar kind of store… called “Blankets of Christ” (or whatever). The blankets are blessed by ordained ministers (Humanist ones, of course, though we wouldn’t mention that) and sold for profit. Anyone who buys the blankets, thinking they are getting closer to God, are thrilled. They have no idea there’s nothing holy about them. Money begins to roll in.

All profits are donated to a good charity.

Would you support the Blankets for Christ store?
Anything which qualifies as an ethical dilemma cannot have an easy answer, and I believe that there are indeed two valid but opposing responses to this question. On one hand, we might say "absolutely not" on the grounds that this would be untruthful, manipulative, or that it would perpetuate religious belief by reinforcing it (i.e., spreading the myth that objects which have been blessed are in any way different from those which have not). On the other hand, we might say "sure" on the grounds that money would be raised for a worthy charity, that Christians buy this sort of crap all the time anyway, etc.

Those who say "no" might regard those who say "yes" at dishonest. Those who say "yes" might consider those who say "no" naive. Both would have valid points, and I believe that this does indeed qualify as a dilemma.

In considering how I would respond, I'd try to boil the issue down to the core issue: how would I balance the benefit of supporting a worthy charity with the cost of feeding religious delusion? For me at least, this would be the critical test. I am not swayed by the arguments pertaining to honesty and manipulation because this is how all advertising works. That is, advertising is based on the goal of convincing people that they need something which they do not really need. On the other side, I am not particularly swayed by the argument that Christians already fall prey to this sort of thing. This seems like an argument that could be used to justify all manner of idiocy.

In order to resolve the dilemma, I would weigh the benefit to the charity with the cost of contributing to the religious delusion. Because I believe that the costs associated with contributing to religious delusion are quite high, I would lean in the direction of answering "no." However, I would recognize that such a response would become less likely as the benefit to the charity increased. I can imagine a threshold where the benefit to the charity could be so great that it would be worth answering "yes." And this is precisely what makes this such an intriguing question.