Funny or Cruel?

Recently an “Off the Derech” (ex-Orthodox) acquaintance/Facebook friend of mine tried selling his portion in the world to come on ebay. This reminded me of a piece I wrote for the Chicago Tribune “Seeker” Religion Blog a few years ago. Even if we Humanists intend these as jokes, is our mocking others really good for us?

Every time the end of the world is predicted, a series of jokes appear making fun of the gullible. Some years ago, a group of atheists created “earthbound pets” to play along with another apocalypse that never came. Did I laugh at “post-rapture pet care”? Sure. Is it ethical? No.

Using religion to scam money is nothing new – from ancient “holy relics” to medieval “indulgences” to modern televangelists, selling salvation is the second-oldest profession. In this case, we might say that anyone foolish enough to think they would experience “Rapture” while atheists would hang around to scoop litter rather than be condemned to hellfire is fair game.

Unfortunately, making money through cruel mockery is also a venerable human tradition. As columnist Randy Cohen once wrote, “’Customary’ is not a synonym for ‘ethical.’”

A higher principle of human experience applies: “You should not curse the deaf, nor set a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). In our words, you should not take advantage of someone else’s disability for your own amusement or advancement.

Does it happen? Yes. Should it happen, under either religious or secular ethics? No.

Supporters might argue that they are giving peace of mind to those who believe, however naively. From their own perspective, they are getting money for nothing and preying on the gullible. They could get a similar laugh by creating a joke site to sign up for a free “post-Rapture pet co-op.” It might be poor taste, and I have better things to do with my time, but there would be little harm done.

Ethics is not simply about how others see us; it is also how we look at ourselves, particularly if we do not believe anyone above is “making a list and checking it twice.”

Read about “surplus” crutches discarded after public “faith healing” revivals, even when their owners still need them (see James Randi, The Faith Healers). This website feels like doing business in used crutches. Would it not be both kinder and more ethical to convince people not to believe in something so harmful than to profit from their naïve beliefs? And if you can’t convince them, is it really ethical to take their money anyways?

If you believe they are wrong, you are profiting from their delusion. If my neighbor believes The Flood is coming, I can laugh; if I then sell him lumber at exorbitant prices, that’s taking advantage.

If users of “earthbound pets” are paying to set their mind at ease about a Rapture you believe is crazy, then you’re really doing the same thing as the corrupt televangelist. Why not a “Rapture reverse mortgage” that pays them something small now in exchange for possession of their house in 10 years, since they won’t need it anyways? If that seems obviously to be taking advantage, then we’re really haggling over degrees of stealing.

The fact that money has always been made from simple piety, and that mockery is a human tradition, simply means that we can do much better. As do many non-theists, the organizers of “earthbound pets” “fully endorse the Rule of Reciprocity, also known as the Golden Rule.” In this case, they really mean “a fool and his gold are soon parted.”

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