Does the Unitarian Church magazine have the right -- not just the legal right, but the moral right -- to reject an ad from an atheist organization, an ad that criticizes religion and asks people to reject it?
You might have heard about the recent kerfuffle, in which UU World -- the free denominational magazine for the Unitarian Universalist Association -- printed a paid ad (PDF) from the Freedom From Religion Foundation... and then, in response to complaints from some readers, apologized for the ad, said that it was a mistake to run it, and is declining to run it again.
Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist has objected vociferously to this decision, saying (I'm summarizing here) that the decision goes against the UU's purported commitment to religious freedom and diversity of ideas, and is an unreasonable squashing of atheist expression in a forum that should be open to it.
I'm going to go out on a limb here.
I'm going to disagree with Hemant, and with other atheists who have criticized the UU over this.
I'm going to defend the church.
It's easy to draw the obvious parallel between the Unitarian Universalists' decision, and the ongoing controversies over atheist bus ads that bus companies keep trying to find feeble excuses to reject. That's the most obvious context that this kerfuffle took place in, and I can see why people who got irate over the bus ad controversies might jump to irateness at the Unitarian Church.
But there are two enormous differences between these situations: differences that make the situations not parallel at all. Tangential, in fact. Maybe even perpendicular.
One: The magazine of the Unitarian Universalists is a private publication, expressing the viewpoint of a private organization.
Public buses are... well, public. They're supported, at least in part, by taxpayer dollars. The rules that apply to them and their ad policies are therefore more stringent. They're supposed to have consistent ad policies which they apply fairly, across the board, to anyone who wants to advertise, regardless of whether the company agrees with the message. If they rent ad space to churches saying, "Christianity is cool," then they have to rent ad space to atheist organizations saying, "Atheism is cool."
That's a pretty solid legal principle. And I think it's a good moral principle as well. Publication spaces that belong to all citizens should provide equal access for all citizens.
But a private organization is under no such obligation. Its publications don't belong to all citizens. They belong to the organization, to publish its own opinions and views.
Yes, there are laws about public accommodations and such, and businesses that are open to the public can't reject customers based on race, gender, religion, and so on. But this principle is balanced by the First Amendment right of publications to control their content. Even large, publicly-sold, widely-read magazines have the right to reject ads whose content they think is offensive or in direct opposition to their mission. (As someone who's tried to place ads for a sex toy company in the New Yorker... believe me, I know.) And an internal magazine of a private organization has pretty close to free rein. They are under no obligation whatsoever to accept an ad whose content is explicitly hostile to their central function.
Legally -- or morally.
Which brings me to:
Two: The content of this particular ad was actively hostile to religion.
This wasn't one of those kinder, gentler atheist bus ads saying something like, "You can be good without God," or, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone," or even, "There's probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The message of this ad was not, "Hey, there are other atheists out there, it's okay to be an atheist, atheists can be good and happy people."
The message of this ad was, 'Religion sucks."
And it is entirely reasonable for a church magazine to decline an ad with the message, "Religion sucks."
Now, don't get me wrong. This is a message I more or less agree with. Some of the specific quotes are ones I might quibble with... but I basically agree with the message that religion (a) isn't true and (b) on the whole does more harm than good. I'm not saying that the FFRF were bad people for trying to run this ad.
I'm saying that the Unitarian Universalists were also not bad people for rejecting it. It was totally reasonable for them to reject it. In their place, I probably would have done the same.
Let me put it this way. Would it be reasonable for the magazine of an atheist organization -- or an atheist blog, for that matter -- to reject an ad saying, "Atheism is immoral, atheists will be condemned to hell if they don't repent, the only true path is the path of Jesus"?
And if that would be reasonable -- then why are this church's actions any different?
I actually ran into this very situation myself a while back. The United Church of Christ was running an ad campaign plugging themselves as a science-friendly church, with the tag line, "Science and faith are not mutually exclusive." It's a message that I ultimately don't agree with, that I pretty strongly don't agree with (I think religion and science can uneasily co-exist, but are fundamentally different approaches to understanding the world that will eventually conflict). And after much searching of my non-existent soul, I decided to reject the ad.
I've since come up with a different solution. I've put an "Ads Don't Necessarily Reflect My Views" disclaimer above my ad space (thanks to Ebonmuse for that suggestion!), and I now would probably accept the UCC ad with that disclaimer in place. But I think I was entirely within my rights -- not just legally, but ethically -- to reject an ad in my personal, "this is what Greta thinks" free-speech space that I felt ran completely counter to one of my most central values.
And I think the same holds true for the Unitarian Church.
The Unitarian Church is... well, it's a church. Yes, it's a church with a pretty lukewarm and inconclusive position on the existence of God. But it is a church, and at least part of its mission is to provide a home and a place of worship for people who believe in God. Religion is a central part of its mission. It is under no obligation to provide space in its own publications for the message that religion is a terrible institution that should be done away with.
There's an old saying that free speech advocates use a lot: "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Well, that applies here. If the Unitarian Universalists don't want to say "Religion sucks" in their in-house magazine... well, I may not agree with what they don't want to say, but I'll defend to the death their right to not say it.
Finally, and maybe most importantly:
If we atheists are going to be ethically consistent -- if we're going to be models for the principle that you really can be good without God -- then we have to not be reflexive cheerleaders for people who are on our side. We have to judge these questions, not by choosing up sides between atheists and non-atheists, but on the basis of the ethical principles involved.*
In the coming decades, there are going to be a lot of conflicts between atheists and believers. And the atheists aren't always going to be right. We'll have a lot more credibility if we don't always stand up for the atheists... and, instead, always try to stand up for what's right.
*(To be both fair and clear, I don't think Hemant is doing that. He's shown himself plenty willing to criticize atheists when he thinks it's warranted. I'm talking about general principles here -- not Hemant's particular arguments.)