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

April 14, 2008

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.