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.)