The Ethical Dilemma: Should Humanists Boycott Religious Businesses?

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Should We Boycott Religious Businesses? An ongoing debate among some of my atheist/humanist friends is whether to patronize businesses which publically promote their religious views.  Examples include stores which play Christian music year-round, flaunt signs about Jesus, or have the number of a biblical verse on a business card.  I have always tried to avoid these businesses and (nicely) explain why.  I even did this with a store that had Fox News blaring in the background, offering the explanation that I was offended because of the points of view it espouses and would, therefore, take my business elsewhere.

Some of my friends feel that unless a business is totally blatant about their religion, we should let it go. I see letting it go as part of the larger problem of encouraging Christians to view the USA as a Christian nation and I think it’s every citizen’s job to help keep church and state separate. I believe that by taking a stand on smaller issues like businesses publically promoting their religion, we are giving a stronger message about the necessity of church/state separation. What do you think?

—I Don’t Buy The Religion That’s Free With My Purchase

Dear Don’t Buy,

While this is very much an individual choice and one that you don’t have to be consistent about, the approach you advocate is ideal: not only are you taking your business elsewhere, but, more importantly, you are letting the companies know why, so they can decide whether they want to continue turning off customers like you or make some adjustments. Many religious people have no idea that their views are not universal or universally appreciated. It could be a great service to disabuse them, so they can make an informed choice whether a religious statement is more important than a sale.

I’d be less inclined to bother about a mom-and-pop business, such as a shoe repair guy who has crucifixes or pictures of Rabbi Schneerson on his walls, and more inclined to take a stand when it’s a large organization with a corporate religious bent (such as Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A). After all, you don’t want to be guilty of discriminating against people who are simply expressing their religious identities—unless they are infringing on yours or those of other groups.

While it’s fine to note your views to sales clerks, remember that if they are employees but not owners, they can at most pass your comments up the chain of command. So if you are so inclined, you should to send a polite message to the local manager as well as corporate headquarters. Letters to the editors of local newspapers and posts on social media can also help raise awareness among secular shoppers, as well as merchants who don’t want to lose them. Bear in mind that in some situations, decrying the religious nature of a business may actually generate publicity that brings in more customers, so choose your battles with that potential side effect in mind. And don’t take a nasty or petty tone—you’re representing all of us secular citizens (as well as people of other faiths).

Conversely, you don’t have to forsake desirable products, services, or convenience because of ideological issues. I wasn’t keen on buying trendy clothing for teenage girls at Forever 21 when I learned that Christian bible verses are printed on their bags. But the sweet 16’s I know love the clothes (which are inexpensive and about as Christian modest as Jody Foster in Taxi Driver), so until they outgrow this stuff—which I expect will be well before they turn 21—I can live with patronizing the chain while keeping an eye out for competitors who don’t have a Jesus agenda. Recently I heard that Chipotle is printing words of wisdom on their packaging, including atheist sentiments, so now I’m especially inclined to give them my business (I already liked the food). Too bad we can’t replace Forever 21 with Chipotle—unless Chipotle starts selling kinky boots along with tacos.

In researching this response, I discovered that a shopper filed a class action suit against Forever 21 for giving refunds that were a penny shy of the original price, or charging a penny more than the total (is that stealth tithing?). Those extra pennies could add up to many dollars across a worldwide organization. Similarly, informing businesses that you don’t want to shop where you are bombarded with subliminal religious messages—or where top executives refuse to provide healthcare that includes birth control, or invoke biblical passages against LGBT people—may not amount to much when it’s just you. But when it’s enough of us to register in the media and perhaps strike the CEO in the stock options, pennies for our thoughts can add up.

As you note, it is absolutely terrifying how the delusion that the USA is a Christian nation—or any kind of religious nation–seems to be gaining more traction every day. We need to take steps, both large and small, to counter that. So it’s a great idea to inform businesses that you won’t shop where their religious freedom is encroaching on others’. Money talks when you spend or withhold it in support of your views.