Florida Believers are Not Stupid, But the State Issuing the Liscence Plates Is

When it comes to defending science and rebutting creationist claptrap, biologist blogger PZ Myers is second to none. He’s rude, crude, and controversial, but by and large when it comes to debates over things like framing (i.e. “shut up, atheists, selling science would be easier without you”), I’m on his side. But not always. In his recent post on a proposal to offer cross-bearing “I believe” license plates in Florida, he steps over the line:

Look at it this way: the stupid people in Florida are going to be conveniently self-labeling themselves with the Mark of the Buffoon.

It almost makes me feel worse to know that if someone called him on it, he’d probably actually defend this language. I almost don’t want face how disappointing that would be.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a believer, and I spend a lot of time arguing against religious claims that I think are anything from pernicious to pathetic. But I don’t think believers are stupid: not even stupid to believe. As I argued, I’m in the skepticism game against bad ideas, bad arguments, even bad people. But belief isn’t itself an argument: it doesn’t even always claim to be supported by arguments, good or bad. So I just can’t justify the attitude of someone who runs around calling believers qua believers stupid, or saying that by wearing their belief on their sleeves that they are marking themselves as buffoons.

This isn’t about Myers inconveniently “mis-framing” some issue. He’s just wrong.

And it muddles the issue. The problem with these plates is not at all what they say, but where they say it. It’s simply yet another example of the government trying to get into the message business (and the especially dicey religious message business) when there’s simply no need or justification for it.

Citizens are perfectly capable of decorating their cars with messages about their religious convictions, political party, opinions on world peace, and attitudes towards fat chicks. They simply do not require, in any way shape or form, the aid of the government in expressing their views. Government issued materials should be strictly functional: serving some legitimate regulatory purpose and then getting out of the way. They have no business being promotional, and certainly not promotional for just one religion.

In the case of Florida, this has gotten particularly pernicious, because while there are many different plate designs to choose from, the range of messages allowed by no means open forum. Each design must be approved by the state legislature: i.e. politicians rule on what messages they like or don’t like. And the process for citizens to even nominate a design is both arduous and expensive, with a $60,000 application fee on top of market research costs and so on.

And while most of the selections are relatively banal, there’s an unavoidably political and sectarian slant to the selections. There’s the notorious “Choose Life” plate (I don’t see any corresponding pro-choice plate), and if the current lawmakers have their way, things like “In God We Trust” and the Christianity-themed “I Believe” will soon follow. The closest comeback to any of these I can see the is ambiguous John Lennon “Imagine” plate.

But even that’s sort of beside the point. If the range of plates really was wide and free enough to encompass all sorts of different messages, I’d still oppose this sort of thing. There’s just no reason for the government to play this game. Space on cars for promotional messages is hardly at a premium. Dull license plates are hardly a high price to pay for a government that knows its place, and leaves expression wholly up to the people, rather than trying to get in on the game.

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15 Responses to Florida Believers are Not Stupid, But the State Issuing the Liscence Plates Is

  1. For Prez '24 says:

    Great entry, I can’t agree with the viewpoint more.

    The Country motto is one of those things that gets me. But then I suppose its just a sign that like today, in 1956 the government was no longer one from many.

    http://www.QuestioCunctus.com

  2. Blaidd Drwg says:

    This proposal makes me wonder……

    Will the State of Florida also be offering liscence plates with the Star of David?
    The Star and Crescent?
    The Yin/Yang?

    Or is Christianity now the Official State Sponsored, Endorsed and Supported religion of Florida?

  3. Hugo says:

    “Here’s the thing: I’m not a believer, and I spend a lot of time arguing against religious claims that I think are anything from pernicious to pathetic. But I don’t think believers are stupid: not even stupid to believe.”

    At what point does a pathetic belief actually become a stupid belief? And if a believer holds onto a stupid belief is (s)he not stupid then? Lets call a spade a spade.

    To me, a believer that pays money to put that on her car is also inviting to be called stupid.

  4. Bad says:

    Again, pathetic arguments are not the same as pathetic beliefs. Arguments can get you to beliefs: or fail to properly get you there in a sound way. But people can also just have beliefs.

    And I don’t think someone that pays extra to get a plate they like is stupid. I think the state is stupid to offer these sorts of things selectively.

  5. Greg Wright says:

    Wow. I think I’m turning into a fan!

  6. Marko says:

    It’s easy to spot idiots here in Texas. They got W4 stickets.

  7. Bad says:

    It’s easy to spot idiots here in Texas. They got W4 stickets.

    Is that a tax form? Or an a type of oil lubricant?

  8. James says:

    “But belief isn’t itself an argument: it doesn’t even always claim to be supported by arguments, good or bad.”

    Bad, your epistemology is frightening. You are trying to say that anyone is justified in believing anything, regardless of how stupid or naive, just because beliefs somehow don’t need to be supported by sound arguments. Your principle is self-refuting, without even bringing up any other issues with it. What if I disbelieve what you say (which BY what you say I have the right to do). Well…not anymore, because I don’t believe it. Your maxim leads to a contradiction, and I think that you are simply equivocating for decency’s sake.

  9. Glazius says:

    You are trying to say that anyone is justified in believing anything, regardless of how stupid or naive, just because beliefs somehow don’t need to be supported by sound arguments.

    Hey, James? What’s your favorite color?

  10. Matt says:

    Glazius, I think you confuse belief and preference.

  11. Glazius says:

    Well, he believes that his favorite color is green, doesn’t he? Where’s the sound argument for that then?

    You can’t treat humans like rational creatures, we’re a monkey stacked on top a mouse riding a fish, for pity’s sake.

  12. Bad says:

    Bad, your epistemology is frightening.

    But you’re quite mistaken: I haven’t said anything about an epistemology here. I heartily agree that belief isn’t a means of knowing. But the point is, it doesn’t alway claim to be in the first place. And as long as it doesn’t, what’s the big deal, exactly?

    One of the reasons I find the Christian idea of salvation through belief abhorrent is precisely the idea that there’s something horrible about someone simply believing this or that wrong thing. But beliefs aren’t moral or immoral by themselves. They’re fleeting concepts floating around in a brain. It’s when people act on beliefs, assert, in a way that affects others, that they are true, or make claims about those beliefs that suggest others should share the belief that they then become important and fair game. That’s when the subject of what a sensible epistemology is comes up.

    For fidelists who simply find themselves believing something about the unknown? So what?

    You are trying to say that anyone is justified in believing anything,

    No, I’m not, since “justified” implies logically or empirically justified. What I’m saying is that I don’t mind it as long as it doesn’t step on those particular toes.

    regardless of how stupid or naive, just because beliefs somehow don’t need to be supported by sound arguments.

    Well, they don’t. Truth claims do. Not personal whimsy. Heck, some people can’t even control what they believe in the first place.

    And then there’s of course the deeper question here: it’s important not to forget that all epistemologies are based on unfounded assumptions in any case. You and I happen to favor the one based on our common physical reality, and I think I can make a pretty good moral argument as to why one SHOULD stick to that when making any substantive decision or action. But nothing about ANY case I can make is fundamentally and universally compelling.

    It’s only once we can get people to play on our playing field in the first place (logic, evidence) that we can score goals against them. If they very openly don’t want to play by the rules in the first place, what’s the point in calling them cheaters? They never agreed to the game in the first place.

    Your principle is self-refuting, without even bringing up any other issues with it. What if I disbelieve what you say (which BY what you say I have the right to do). Well…not anymore, because I don’t believe it. Your maxim leads to a contradiction, and I think that you are simply equivocating for decency’s sake.

    There’s no contradiction, I’m afraid, because a bare assertion, again, is not an argument. You’re more than welcome to simply not believe what I say. So what? Are you saying that I need to sic the belief police on you, or something?

    Now, if you run around trying to CLAIM that I’m wrong, asserting that you are justified in your belief by some evidence or argument, THEN I’ll take issue with that, and we can argue. But if you wish to live life believing that I’m wrong, have a blast! It takes all kinds.

  13. It almost makes me feel worse to know that if someone called him on it, he’d probably actually defend this language. I almost don’t want face how disappointing that would be.

    It never ceases to amaze me that otherwise intelligent people like Myers will resort to insults and name-calling, and then get all bent out of shape when their arguments aren’t well received by any except those who were already inclined towards atheism in the first place. Their position seems to be “it’s ok to be rude and insulting, because I’m right.”

    When I was in college, I had a wonderful religious studies professor who also happened to be an atheist. It was a Catholic college, so you had to take a certain number of religious studies courses, but the college got a little more than it bargained for with her.

    While the courses she taught were called “Introduction to the Old/New Testament”, the approach she took was to critique the Bible as one would any other work of literature, emphasizing the different contexts in which the various books were written. While this was not the first time I had heard it suggested that the Bible wasn’t necessarily the unadulterated word of God, it was the first time I was presented with the idea in a manner which forced me to actually consider the notion.

    Now, to someone like myself, who had been raised in a traditional Catholic household, this was pretty radical stuff, and I well remember how there was always a student or two who would walk out in a huff on the first day of class. But she showed respect for my beliefs, even while making it clear that she did not share them, and at the same time encouraging me to question and re-examine them rationally.

    Had she taken the PZ Myers approach, I simply would have tuned her out and that would have been that. Instead, her classes ultimately had a profound effect on the way I view religion and the world in general, and really, isn’t that what a teacher is supposed to do?

    -smith

  14. cbwriter says:

    Comment is incorrect above. People in Florida are stupid. They believe anything you tell them even if it isn’t the truth. People in Florida suffer from a low-mentality.

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