Faith, Science, and Advertising: An Ethical Quandary

I had this odd ethical quandary the other day, and I wanted to run it by y’all and ask what you think about my decision. I had to make a decision somewhat quickly, so it’s actually already been made — but it’s a question that’s likely to come up again, and it’s therefore not just a moot point.

The situation: As you may have noticed, I have ads on my blog. It’s not a huge source of income, but it’s a decent trickle, and as my blog gets more widely read, there’s a good chance that the trickle will increase to a somewhat larger trickle. I don’t have to accept every ad that gets submitted to me, and I have rejected ads in the past (most memorably an ad from some multi-level marketing firm that was obviously Scam City).

So an ad was submitted to me the other day… from the United Church of Christ.

Not advertising a particular church program; not advertising an educational series or a charitable fund. Just advertising themselves. The church, qua church.

Specifically, advertising themselves as a science-friendly church.

The tag line of the ad was: “Science and faith are not mutually exclusive.”

(You can see more about the ad campaign here.)

And I had a very hard time deciding whether to accept it.

Until now, my policy has been to accept any and all ads unless I found their content flatly objectionable. (Or dishonest, like the multi-level scam ad. Which I guess is just another version of objectionable.) I don’t think a publication has to agree with or endorse every ad that they publish, and in the same way that I like having a variety of dissenting opinions in my comments, I’m happy to have a variety of dissenting opinions in my ads. I’ve even had ads with religious content before — religious content that I didn’t really agree with.

And as churches go, the UCC isn’t a bad one. They’re not the Unitarians or the Quakers, but as far as I can tell they’re on the progressive side, pretty gay-positive and all that. I like that they’re taking on the fundies on the science question; I don’t think they’d put it into those words, but I think it’s clear that that’s what they’re doing. And I was actually pretty impressed that they wanted to advertise on an atheist blog. (Especially this atheist blog. In fact, part of me really wanted to take the ad, just to have the United Church of Christ ad right under the Blowfish ad with the buttplug.)

But ultimately, I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t do it because the fundamental thrust of their ad campaign is one that I totally, completely disagree with.

I think science and faith are mutually exclusive.

Now, before you jump down my throat: I think religious believers can be scientists, and good ones. The evidence for that is pretty obvious. Most scientists throughout history have been religious believers, and many scientists today are as well. I’m not saying that having religious faith means you can’t be a scientist.

I’m saying that — as approaches to life, as approaches to understanding reality and engaging with the world — faith and science are radically different. Science is an approach to life and learning that is willing to question anything, give up any belief or opinion, if a preponderance of evidence contradicts it. Faith is an approach to life and learning that starts with an assumption that it isn’t willing to discard. The more progressive faiths are willing to bend and change to adjust to reality; but the basic assumption — the existence of God and the soul — can’t be relinquished if you’re going to maintain the faith. It’s an approach to life based on an assumption that’s not only unproven, but unprovable. And it’s an approach to life that says it’s okay to make this big, unrelinquishable assumption about the nature of reality based entirely on tradition, authority, and personal intuition.

(That’s an oversimplification — of both faith and science — but for the purposes of this post, it’ll have to do.)

And if you’re a scientist with religious faith, it’s very likely that, at some point, your faith and your science are going to collide. And when/if it does, you’re going to have to make a choice. You’re going to have to decide which approach you value more.

(The big conflict in the 20th century was obviously evolution, colliding with the idea of life being designed. In the 21st century, I think the big conflict may be neuroscience, colliding with the idea of the soul.)

That’s what I mean by faith and science being mutually exclusive. I think faith and science are significantly different approaches to life, representing significantly different values. They can both be accommodated up to a point — but when that point is reached, one has to be chosen, and the the other has to be set aside.

Now, I don’t actually feel like debating that point right now. I’m currently working on a larger, more comprehensive piece about faith and rationality where I go into this idea in more detail, and I’d like to hold off on debating this point until I do that. (If you really feel driven to argue in the comments, knock yourself out, but I’m letting you know now that I’m probably not going to get into it.)

My question is this: Given that I do disagree so diametrically with the basic message of the ad, what should I have done?

Should I have accepted it — and should I accept other ads like it — on the theory that this blog is a forum for lively but respectful debate about religion, and this ad would have been just one more part of that?

Or should I have rejected it — and other ads like it — on the theory that I shouldn’t accept ads that are the 100% opposite of my most passionately held beliefs?

I’ll admit: A fair part of my decision was just emotional. I did not want that ad on my blog. I think it’s clear that. as a blogger, I don’t necessarily endorse every comment that’s made on it. I think that point is rather less clear when it comes to ads. I didn’t want anyone coming to my blog and thinking that I endorsed this UCC ad, in any way, shape or form.

And even more emotionally than that: I just didn’t want it. Nothing against the United Church of Christ (well, apart from the fact that they’re perpetuating a belief that I think is mistaken and ultimately harmful), but I did not want that ad on my blog. It made me feel icky.

But icky feelings aren’t a very good basis for making an ethical decision. If I’m going to keep accepting ads, this kind of question is going to come up again. And I think I need to have a consistent, coherent policy about which ads to accept and which ads to reject. Something more coherent than, “No ads that make me feel icky.” Based on my experience with this ad, I’m leaning towards, “Ads are okay unless they’re flatly objectionable… or their content is in complete opposition to my own beliefs and values, even if it’s not actually offensive.” But I’m still developing it, and would like to hear what y’all have to say about it.

(Oh, and P.S.: In case you’re wondering, the money was not that big an issue. It would have been nice, of course — especially since they wanted to run the ad for a whole month — but I just don’t charge enough for my ads for money to be a make-or-break factor in deciding whether to accept one. Not yet, anyway.)

Faith, Science, and Advertising: An Ethical Quandary

22 thoughts on “Faith, Science, and Advertising: An Ethical Quandary

  1. 1

    Preachers stand in pulpits and claim that religion and science are perfectly compatible because religion (the more moderate versions, at least) is willing to accept the body of knowledge discovered by science. When you remind them that their religion can’t accept the scientific approach by which that knowledge was obtained, they try to claim that there are mystic truths that the scientific approach can’t fathom. There may be such mystic truths, but if there are, religion hasn’t found them either.

  2. 2

    I think your reasoning is sound. That ad, and its content, made me ask “have they read this blog?” But I don’t know how personalized their request was.
    Also, I tend to listen to those gut instincts. Usually, it means there’s something I’m missing consciously. (why is my first impression of this guy that he’s a slimeball, I haven’t talked to him yet. . . Oh, wait, because he is!)

  3. 3

    Maybe an adverse emotional reaction seems a bit unsatisfactory as a reason, but ultimately a blog can be seen as a reflection of your personality and I think it’s OK to reject ads that don’t mesh with that. Which basically fits in with your modified policy of “no ads which are opposed to my beliefs”. I think that’s an ethically defensible position.

  4. 4

    While it’s true that the United Church of Christ (UCC) are not Quakers or Unitarian Universalists (UU), they are cousins to the Unitarian Universalists. The New England Congregationalist churches gave rise to both the UCC and UU groups that we have today.
    Also, they are the other church denomination that worked with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in producing the comprehensive and sexuality-positive lifespan sex education program known as “Our Whole Lives”:
    And their “bouncer” ad a few years ago got them some positive publicity because several networks would not run a church ad because the network considered it to be “issue advocacy” advertising:

    The news coverage of them being gay-friendly and having a religious ad being rejected for being gay-friendly got them more positive publicity than they ever could have paid for.
    FWIW, most of the UCC sexuality educators that I’ve worked with are not viewing the stories in their faith tradition as “literal.” And they’re working for the same sexual justice issues that folks like you and I support.
    And I like have a mainline Protestant denomination that is sexuality-positive, gay-friendly, and promoting good sexuality education. When someone comes along and says “Well … you can be ‘gay-friendly’ — you’re a Unitarian — I can’t because I’m a Christian,” I can counter that by saying that the UCC is both Christian and gay-friendly. It provides a potential exit from a “faith vs what one knows in one’s heart” dilemma for some decent people who want to keep their Christianity and who could potentially be gay-friendly if given the UCC as an option.

  5. 5

    Regarding the concern about your blog and the “have they read this blog?” question that Ainuvande raised, I do share links to sexuality-related posts on this blog and your work on Blowfish Blog with an online network of Unitarian Universalist and UCC sexuality educators.
    You write some very good stuff and I think that folks should be aware of it. It’s very useful for folks doing sexuality education in non-religious and religious settings.
    So — it’s possible that someone at the UCC denominational offices did read your blog before making this decision. From where I’m sitting, this isn’t a mystery.

  6. 6

    Though publications have long lists of approved advertisers, most of those decisions are made on the basis on not offending the readers and losing subscriptions.
    Because there are no publishers to please, blogs are more personal reflections of their author’s convictions.
    In a sense blogs are like autobiographies – the authors own view of his or her life and thoughts.
    Another author might see the issues differently and place the ad, but I think that you made the right decision for your site.
    But as I said, it’s your choice, and that’s the whole point of blogging.

  7. 7

    You’re a very reasoned and logical person. However, you are entitled to make a decision based on “Well, I’m just not comfortable with it.”

  8. 8

    This your site and what gets put here does say something about you to your readers. If an ad is opposed to a value that you hold, even if it’s not obviously offensive, I think it perfectly fine to reject.
    (Also, thank you for clearing up what was being displayed in the Blowfish ad. I’d no idea what that was, prude that I am!)

  9. 9

    I generally agree with the reasoning above — it’s your choice, and “gut feeling” isn’t necessarily bad (and it’s definitely part of “moderator discretion”).
    Perhaps this reflects a shift in your emphasis, from sexual issues, where the UCC seems friendly, towards atheism and rationalism, where *any* church is “on the other side”, by definition. Are you feeling like more of a “hardline atheist” than a “sex educator” these days?

  10. 10

    I can’t tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. I like the idea of religious people coming to this blog and reading what you have to say. In some ways, allowing that ad would be a recognition that discussion and listening and friendly links are possible. On the other hand, I can understand that you wouldn’t want something on your blog that so flatly states something you disagree with. Maybe if it was just an advertisement for the church, without that statement about faith and science being compatible that people might mistake for your viewpoint, it would be different.

  11. 11

    I really admire the stance that the guys at Penny Arcade take toward advertising:
    “We do not think of the ads you see on our page as ads. They are recommendations and we try extremely hard to insure that anything we put over there is worth your time.”
    If you don’t like an ad, then reject it. This is your site, you are making your statement.

  12. 12

    Well, you have to do what you’re comfortable with, but speaking as a reader, I’d be a lot less uncomfortable with an ad from what sounds like a pretty decent group that I’d be able to agree with on almost everything but the religious part, than from quite a number of businesses that take no overt religious position.

  13. 13

    On faith and science eventually conflicting – my dad’s a physicist and a believer. He’s currently working on a re-write of Genesis including all the physics of evolution. God, apparently, doesn’t specify how long each of the seven days is. So, given enough of stretching room, it is possible to blend science and religion.
    I’ve considered posting ads at my site. I’ve never considered the ad content as a deterrent, but the ads in general. I’m stuck on the sense that it’s either arrogant to think my writing should generate any cash flow and that it’s somehow selling out – like my creativity shouldn’t be marketed (gag). Neither make any rational sense. Since I write about porn and sex quite a bit, I can only wonder what kind of ads would come my way.

  14. 14

    Dear Greta, the answer is obvious. If you do not support a point of view or a particular take of the nature of the universe (pretty wide spread, I’d say), neither give nor take quarter. Say what you mean, mean what you say and damn the torpedoes!
    The example has already been demonstrated.

  15. 15

    You certainly had a tough decision to make – I can see a pretty strong case for both accepting and rejecting the ad. In the end though, I think you’re decision was perfectly acceptable: that they espouse views diametrically opposed to your passionately held opinion trumps the need for an open marketplace of ideas. (Besides, you’re hardly censoring them; you’re refraining from spreading the views, which is very different).
    Oh, and making a “gut” decision isn’t necessarily irrational – read “Blink” by (the fantastic) Malcolm Gladwell if you haven’t done so already.

  16. 17

    “But icky feelings aren’t a very good basis for making an ethical decision.”
    Icky feelings are not a good basis for an ethical decision. But I don’t think choosing to accept or reject an ad is only an ethical decision.
    Your ultimate decision may include an ethical decision, but it may also include a creative decision (“How does this ad interact with my writing?”), a political decision (“Does this ad or this sponsor promote a political cause with which I disagree?”), AND an emotional decision (“How do I feel having to look at this ad on MY blog every day?”).
    For that final decision, the ick factor is paramount.

  17. 18

    In response to Sage:
    “God, apparently, doesn’t specify how long each of the seven days is.”
    This reminds me of the time that other students in my post-graduate program informed me that the answer to a particular brain-teaser depended on “how you define ‘cube'”. This was a Masters in Counseling program, and the fact that the majority in a room full of future counselors thought that there was more than one definition of “cube” demonstrated clearly why math and science students were so disdainful of us “soft-science” students.
    The idea that, when discussing a timeline, there is a useful definition of “day” other than “the period of rotation of a planet or a moon on its axis,” demonstrates equally clearly why it is so futile to try to reconcile science and religion. As Greta points out, ultimately faith and science are sometimes “mutually exclusive.”

  18. 19

    Thanks so much to everyone for their thoughtful replies to this. (And if anyone has other thoughts, please share them!) A couple of themes are coming up, and I want to clarify my thinking about them.
    1) I’m not saying that I should completely ignore my gut feelings when making an ethical decision. I’m saying that my gut feelings shouldn’t be the sole determining factor. I’m saying that I should come up with a consistent policy that I think is ethical, and apply it across the board.
    After all, I’ve been spending over a year arguing that “That’s just how I feel” isn’t a good enough reason to believe in God; that our gut feelings can be easily fooled, and that they can be, and often are, the result of prejudice and preconception and rationalization.
    For me to then reject an ad — especially *this* ad, which I’m rejecting because I passionately disagree with its assertion that the scientific approach and the “gut feeling” approach to life aren’t mutually exclusive — simply because of my gut feeling… that would make me a big hypocrite.
    I don’t like it when magazines or newspapers or TV shows apply their policies about accepting ads inconsistently, and reject ads essentially because they make them feel icky. My blog isn’t a blind date or something, where relying on instinct makes sense. I see it as a professional publication. (Not every blogger sees their blog that way, and that’s fine — but I do.) So I think I should have a coherent policy about ads, and apply it consistently. If I don’t — again, big hypocrite.
    2) The problem wasn’t who was placing the ad. If the UCC wanted to run an ad advertising, say, the sex education program that they run with the Unitarians for kids and teens, I’d be thrilled to have that on my blog. I’d probably even let them do it for free. I’m not adamantly opposed to accepting ads from any church at all ever; and as churches go, I think the UCC is pretty okay.
    The problem was with the *content* of the ad — not who was placing it. Having an ad on my blog saying “Science and faith are not mutually exclusive,” a statement that is diametrically in opposition to one of my most strongly held ideas… that was the problem.

  19. 20

    And to answer a couple of specific questions:
    David: In this blog anyway, my focus has definitely shifted from sex to atheism. I still write about both, obviously, but I do write about atheism more.
    But again (see previous comment), the issue wasn’t, “I don’t want any ads from any church.” The issue was, “I don’t want any ads with content I profoundly disagree with.” I wouldn’t accept an ad promoting an anti-sex work program, either. Regardless of who it came from.
    Aaron: While I think Penny Arcade’s ad policy is reasonable and admirable, it’s not going to be mine. I don’t think of my ads as recommendations, and I don’t have to 100% agree with or support my advertiser’s policies or products. (I don’t, for instance, agree with the assertion of my current advertiser that all you really need to know can be learned from your cat
    Debbyo: “What other reason is there for holding a value other than as a guide for your action?” True. But the problem here is one of conflicting values. I have my values about the conflict between science and faith
 but I also have values about supporting respectful dissent and debate. The side of me that was arguing the other way on this decision was saying, “No, you don’t agree with the content of this ad, but these are decent, honest people with a point of view that’s worth discussing.”
    So the problem was that I *was* trying to let my actions be guided by my values
 but those values were conflicting, and I needed to make a choice between them.

  20. 21

    I’m a bit late to the discussion, but I hope I can still share some thoughts. 🙂
    I can certainly understand why you rejected the ad; I probably would have felt the same temptation. The real problem with it, as you say, is that it’s advocating a viewpoint you completely disagree with, and I could see why it would induce cognitive dissonance to have a blog whose ads clash with the message that blog promotes. It just seems wrong, especially if you want to convey a consistent viewpoint to your readers. If a blog was more like a newspaper, a forum where diverse points of view get aired, then I could see why it should be included. But a blog isn’t a newspaper, it often can and does promote one specific point of view, and it makes sense not to have ads that conflict with that.
    That being said, if I were in your place, I might’ve aired it. Though I disagree with that message as well, I couldn’t see any harm that would result from running it (as opposed to, say, a dominionist or homophobic viewpoint). Maybe I have a few readers who agree more with the UCC’s position than mine, and if so, I don’t mind helping them come across a community that suits them. On the other hand, if (as I suspect) the vast majority of my readers don’t agree with that position, then that church is just being unwise for running their ads on my site, and I’d be happy to accept their money and use it for supporting my own views. I would, of course, have a disclaimer that ads on the site don’t necessarily reflect my opinions.

  21. 22

    Icky :
    1. Disagreeably sticky: icky candy.
    2. Offensive; distasteful: icky sentimentality.
    By definition it is perfectly acceptable to use this word to object to placement of an Ad on your page.
    On a personal note : the fact that you have a quandary about a deep ethical matter in this decision kind of shows a blurring between the strongly atheistic views and the agnostic idea of maybe i should choose a side cause there might be more to this spiritual matter than i realize at this time in my life.
    I think sometimes that one of the biggest supporting arguments for me in the fact that there is a definite spiritual afterlife and in this ‘other’ existence there is a connection to some universal ‘morality’ or ‘conscience’, save those with mental or chemical impairment, it seems to permeate all of humanity throughout history, always a good guy and a bad guy.
    Just an Honest opinion from a scientifically enthused spiritually cognitive individual.

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