The Raving Theist

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Unlucky Charms

November 30, 2006 | 18 Comments

An art student who blogs as the Portland Atheist has summoned the ACLU to clean up this mess, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go with it:

Bob Averill, a student at the Art Institute of Portland, claims he was expelled for being an atheist after he challenged a young woman’s belief in “energy layers and astral beings.”

“I jokingly asked her if she believed in leprechauns. It turns out, she does. They live on another energy layer,” Averill told the Portland Mercury. “In the interest of bringing my own view to the discussion, I began to ask her how she knew these things. Again I know all too well that people can be sensitive about their spiritual beliefs, so I was pretty much walking on glass as I did so.”

The woman explained her energy layer theory by asserting that “there are many universes co-existing like bubbles of foam in a “multiverse”, each with their own sets of laws and constants.” Eventually she complained to the teacher, and Averill was soon expelled.

The Institute, a private, for-profit school, claims that the confrontation was merely the last in a series of “aggressive, demeaning, and threatening” incidents involving Averill. But even crediting Averill’s assertion that he was respectful, I’m wondering precisely what kind of legal claim he has under the school’s non-discrimination policy or whatever state and/or federal laws apply to private educational institutions. Although atheism is a “religion” for First Amendment purposes — it takes a position on the divinity — it’s not clear whether religion is involved in this case.

Averill was denying leprechauns, not God. His atheism might be part of a more general rejection of all supernatural beings (or of a broader rejection of what he considers false or unsubstantiated or unscientific propositions), but he was not acting in a specifically atheistic capacity in questioning the woman’s leprechaunist beliefs. Averill might also dispute the existence of life on other planets, of multiverses, of whether any dinosaurs still exist, or the weight-reducing power of Exercise in a Bottle, but he couldn’t claim religious/atheistic discrimination unless he was expelled for skepticism related to God-belief. Possibly he could argue that the woman practiced a non-theistic leprechaun-centered faith, but the facts as reported don’t support that thesis.

Averill also claims that the school’s deans objected to his “discussing religion in school” and responded to his claim of atheist discrimination by stating that the godless were “not a protected class of people.” These allegations are probably insufficient as well. The administrators may have thought they were adjudicating a religious dispute, but if they were mistaken about the subject matter it is irrelevant that they discriminated in favor of one side or the other. While unlawful discrimination is sometimes found in situations where the defendant acted out of mistaken perception that the plaintiff was a member of a protected religious, ethnic or other class, that’s not what happened here. The deans didn’t penalize Averill because they erroneously thought he rejected god. They penalized him for attacking leprechauns, which they erroneously interpreted as anti-religious. It would be no different than if the school had punished him for disputing his fellow student’s views on stamp collecting. That the school for some reason thought that philately was a religion wouldn’t make it liable for discrimination.

Perhaps the ACLU (if it takes the case) will contend that non-theistic belief in any supernatural being is so closely elated to religion or “spirituality” that Averill’s conduct should be considered atheistic. I think considerations of public relations might discourage this approach. The organization advocates neutrality towards religion. The equation of leprechaun-belief with god-belief is a classic atheistic argument. Averill himself attempted to use leprechauns as a battering ram until he recognized his particular opponent’s immunity to it. While the ACLU might support a sincere leprechaunist’s efforts make the argument, to advance it as the group’s own position might be viewed as an attempt to annihilate religion rather than encourage its diversity.

What’s left is some kind of free speech argument. Absent some special statute extending such protections to private university students, Averill will be out of luck. Whatever lip service such a college may give to academic freedom, it’s as free to muzzle students as a blog — whether religious, atheist, or indifferent — is to ban commenters.

Comments

18 Responses to “Unlucky Charms”

  1. "Q" the Enchanter
    December 1st, 2006 @ 2:13 pm

    The simple answer seems to be he’s got no discrimination claim at all unless he can show the use of this particular encounter wasn’t “aggressive, demeaning, and threatening” and is just being used as a pretext for targetting him for conspicuous atheism generally.

    He might of course claim that he was discriminated against based on his “creed,” which presumably would be ontological naturalism (or Brightism, if you like). I doubt any state or federal protections would attach, but maybe there’s a colorable claim in contract (based on the creed clause).

  2. "Q" the Enchanter
    December 1st, 2006 @ 2:13 pm

    The simple answer seems to be he’s got no discrimination claim at all unless he can show the use of this particular encounter wasn’t “aggressive, demeaning, and threatening” and is just being used as a pretext for targetting him for conspicuous atheism generally.

    He might of course claim that he was discriminated against based on his “creed,” which presumably would be ontological naturalism (or Brightism, if you like). I doubt any state or federal protections would attach, but maybe there’s a colorable claim in contract (based on the creed clause).

  3. Rick
    December 1st, 2006 @ 7:26 pm

    It’s hard to believe any secular institution, public or private, would dismiss someone for being an atheist. It seems even less likely it would happen at an art institute, where one can expect to encounter a rather free mix of beliefs and opinions.

    I suppose RA is correct to say, free speech notwithstanding, a school can find a way to boot out anyone whose speech they choose to muzzle. However, I would think they would be legally prohibited from dismissing an atheist if they admit candidates without regard to religion — i.e. if they subscribe to the usual non-discrimination policy of most institutions.

    But I doubt this case will come down to that. It sounds like Bob A. was a jerk who enjoyed teasing other people about their beliefs long past the point he had been asked to stop. It’s not a matter of the pursuit of truth or exposing outrageous beliefs to the light of reason — it’s basic civility. No school is going to tolerate a male student browbeating the young women; that’s a harassment suit waiting to happen.

  4. furcifer
    December 2nd, 2006 @ 2:08 am

    Freedom of speech does not prevent you from ridiculing other people’s stupid beliefs. All he did was ask her a question. It is only because of the stupidity of her belief (not any different from the stupidity of belief in Christianity) that she felt insulted.

  5. Rick
    December 2nd, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

    Furcifer, let’s not forget the article doesn’t give the full story. I strongly suspect Averill did more than just ask one provocative question to get expelled.

    Averill has not left a pretty picture of himself on the Internet. His story was blogged at this website of a conservative group at the University of Oregon:

    http://www.oregoncommentator.com/2006/11/29/portland-atheist-expelled-from-art-school/

    At the end of the article and in the comments are links to the Something Awful forums where Averill had been a participant. The regulars there report that Averill got himself put on probation and ultimately banned. Allegedly he IM’ed someone there to blame his being banned on a Christian bias of some sort, which got a pretty good laugh from the regulars.

    Averill has purged his blog of old posts, but it is still possible to read some of them from the Google cache.

    The overall picture that emerges is someone aggressively confrontational and self-aggrandizing. When all the facts are out, I am certain this case will turn out to be one of repeated obnoxious behavior, and not a one-time persecution of atheist beliefs.

    Freedom of speech is not absolute; while obviously it allows for criticism of other statements and ideas, it does not cover slander, libel, false testimony, and harassment. The school administrators apparently judged Averll had trespassed into the last category.

  6. Aequitas
    December 3rd, 2006 @ 12:26 am

    Freedom of speech is irrelevant. It’s a private school and if they don’t want an atheist there (and I suspect that that isn’t the case anyway), that’s their right. The building is their property, and it’s up to them who they allow to be on said property.

    Let me clarify that I’m an atheist so I’m not just saying “kick out the non-believers!”

  7. Professor Chaos
    December 3rd, 2006 @ 2:25 am

    My totally unscientific and underinformed opinion is that this kid got what he deserved. On the surface, it appears that he was just poking her with a stick until she got mad.

    I hope the ACLU stays away.

  8. thorn
    December 3rd, 2006 @ 10:50 am

    I agree with ProfChaos. From reports by others, and what he has exposed of himself in his writings, he seems excessively egotistical and needs some hard lessons in human relations. -Thorngod.

  9. Jeff
    December 3rd, 2006 @ 11:28 am

    Rick said: “It sounds like Bob A. was a jerk who enjoyed teasing other people about their beliefs long past the point he had been asked to stop.”

    Yesterday I had my satire site removed from SatireSearch.com, and I’m pretty sure it had to do with something like the above quote…I’m afraid. I couldn’t help myself and I went too far. I used satire in one story that led to a video of Richard Dawkins trashing god in 33 seconds and then a video from WhyWont GodHealAmputees.com called “God’s Plan,” exposing hundreds to atheist views. Then I did a story, “Pope Visit Converts Turkish Catholics to Islam” that made fun of the Pope and Islam.

    However, nobody ever “asked me to stop.” I still have 5 of their 30 most-clicked satire stories for the past week, but they cut off my feed! No email, no warnings. Discrimination? No. Business. Too many sites that accepted content from SatireSearch probably complained about my atheist and blasphemous material. I was also a bit too R-rated in a couple of stories as well…it was kind of like my most popular story for them, “When Keepin’ it Unreal Goes Wrong.” I didn’t always keep it unreal. But I see myself as a raving atheist, not a jerk.

  10. benjamin
    December 4th, 2006 @ 1:03 pm

    It seems to me he was expelled for ridiculing the ridiculous. Unfortunately, the public at large has no concept of how ridiculous their beliefs are.

  11. Joe
    December 5th, 2006 @ 1:23 am

    I want to make a confession! Leprechauns have destroyed my faith in God! I’m ad doomed as doomed can be. Who do I turn to now? I’m thinking one of those faith rags that Robert Tilton used to pass out for small (and large) donations of money actually might do the trick!!!!

  12. JUST_ANOTHER_PRIMATE
    December 5th, 2006 @ 8:14 am

    It is funny that he mentions that the school’s president suggest he get psychological counseling. Geez – and people who believe in Leprachauns living in some different energy layer are considered sane ???

    Frankly – people with such whacky ideas as hers should be prepared for some challenge to such ridiculous thinking.

  13. Thorngod
    December 5th, 2006 @ 11:38 am

    There’s a sad fact involved here that some commenters are either not seeing or don’t care to acknowledge. A believer, whether in a God, Leprachauns, or the inherent inferiority of a particular racial group, can’t help what he or she believes. Nor can YOU “help” or claim legitimate pride for being smarter, more rational and less superstitious than the “believer.” It seems rediculous to you and I that a sane and reasonably educated person would, or even COULD, believe in what is–or should be–obvious nonsense; but isn’t it equally obvious that no one would believe in “obvious” nonsense if they were not somehow compelled to?

    So while we are justified in challenging nonsense, and trying to show the enthralled wherein they err–and even, to some extent, ridiculing their beliefs–we should also have sufficient understanding and sympathy to not belittle them as human beings or to pummel them unmercifully. In my opinion, we should never push our assaults beyond the point of discomfort.

  14. Drusilla
    December 5th, 2006 @ 12:02 pm

    Well said Thorngod! And perhaps even the comment about the erring enthralled being compelled is also apt – depending on how you define compelled.

    And we enthralled should also “have sufficient understanding and sympathy [and love] to not belittle [unbelievers] as human beings or to pummel them unmercifully. …[W]e should never push our assaults beyond the point of discomfort.”

    PS to JUST_ANOTHER_PRIMATE: Certainly the school’s president would suggest that Averill get psychological counseling, not because of his beliefs but because of his behaviour.

  15. Jahrta
    December 5th, 2006 @ 4:40 pm

    “PS to JUST_ANOTHER_PRIMATE: Certainly the school’s president would suggest that Averill get psychological counseling, not because of his beliefs but because of his behaviour.”

    Maybe, Drusilla. Maybe Averill is unstable…or maybe he’s just tired of pandering to the drooling masses

  16. Rick
    December 5th, 2006 @ 7:52 pm

    One of the “drooling masses” has spoken. A classmate of Averill’s posting under the name axiao writes this report:

    http://digg.com/offbeat_news/Atheist_student_expelled_for_questioning_classmate_s_belief_in_leprechauns#c4028116

    Averill has a history of making himself disliked. Whether he needs psychiatric evaluation or not, he’s got a future of hostility and trouble holding a job if he can’t clear up his interpersonal problems. He is not a martyr for atheism, although that’s the image he cultivates since it plays into his drama of being the persecuted and misunderstood genius.

    As a teacher, I’ve had students like Averill before (thought not quite to his extreme). The sad thing is, they’re usually talented and capable kids, but they are almost totally resistant to any suggestion that their problems are of their own creating.

  17. Steve
    December 19th, 2006 @ 12:26 pm

    This is obviously a free speech issue, but since it is a private for-profit school it doesn’t seem as if anything can be done. It is hard to fully analyze the situation without knowing the guy though; he could be a serial provokator that seriously damages the learning environment in the school.

    Getting someone to admit their belief in the gold-hoarding little men is pretty funny though.

  18. Paul M
    December 24th, 2006 @ 1:23 am

    It only goes to show: the problem isn’t religious folks (although they are the most egregious offenders), it’s people who belive in any sort of nonsense. The slightest questioning of the stuff they belive, and they will lash out as rabidly as any inquisitor. If she were a christina, he’d be a “heretic”. If a scientologist, he’d be a “supressive person”. Either way, the emnity is absolute, and no course of action is off the table, up to and including ruining his future to the very limit of her ability to do so.

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