Religion and Social Issues

(Preface: I use the term “social issues” here to refer generally to issues of concern to society, including everything from civil rights to economics to natural disasters. Such topics are sometimes categorized as either current affairs or political issues; I feel that both those terms carry baggage—reaction-driven in-the-moment decisions and electoral tactics, among other things—that is best introduced independently from the underlying issues.)

As social issues have become an increasing focus of public attention—in some sense a new entertainment industry—there has been a trend towards “religious perspectives” on these issues. Religious advocates are quoted in newspapers, appear on talk shows, and even hold their own public meetings to discuss social issues. I’d like to take the opportunity to offer some nuanced and carefully considered advice to such advocates:

Shut the fuck up.

This isn’t a defensive attempt to silence those with whom I disagree. In fact, I agree with the doctrine of humanism which modern advocates publicly claim forms the core of their religions, and this doctrine is highly relevant to many social issues. What is more, I’m perfectly comfortable with advocates arguing ignorant anti-scientific rhetoric when they are given the opportunity; my expectation remains that the more explicit and well-understood such positions are the more they will fall out of favor.

I’m advising religious advocates to shut the fuck up for a different reason: I find their marketing offensive. It’s one thing for the Pope to offer unhelpful or counter-productive advice on dealing with earthquakes; it’s quite another for him to embrace an earthquake as an opportunity to pitch his product. I totally get that he thinks his product makes the world a better place, and that it makes people happy, and that every single person would be better off if they bought it. But I suspect Steve Jobs feels the same way about his products, too.

The most egregious cases of poor taste in marketing occur when it is the religion itself which has precipitated the problem under discussion. When discussing the abuse of children by priests, it only makes sense to invite someone from the Catholic church to participate. Appropriate participation, however, is limited to answering the concerns that are raised. Instead Catholic advocates consistently choose to argue that these incidents should not be “reasons to turn away from the Church”, digressing to long rants about all the good the church does. For all of Tony Hayward’s tone-deaf PR after the 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf, he didn’t try to turn every interview into a plug for big, gas-guzzling cars.

Suppose a chainsaw is recalled because the chain occasionally comes loose and amputates a user’s limbs. This is not the time for the company spokesman to argue that amputation is no reason to turn away from the company’s chainsaws. It damn well is a reason, and we all know it. So shut the fuck up and tell us how you’re going to stop it from happening again.

Even if the chainsaw is perfectly safe—the best chainsaw ever made, even—I’m not okay with chainsaw advocates in the news proclaiming “AIDS is terrible. We hate AIDS. Buy chainsaws.” If you can’t contribute to a discussion of AIDS without trying to sell chainsaws, then just shut the fuck up.

Religion has sunk so low that we don’t even bother to register disgust at its marketing tactics any more. That says a lot about an industry that claims the moral high ground.