Thursday, 19 January 2012

South African church billboard banned following atheist complaint

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The offending billboard displayed by River's Church in Sandton, South Africa
I was interested to read that a church in South Africa has been ordered to remove a billboard about non-believers following a complaint from an atheist to the country's Advertising Standards Authority.

The billboard depicted a man, apparently missing that crucial section of the head that houses the brain, holding his temples in deep thought (lack of brain notwithstanding), alongside a line by the English poet Francis Thompson: “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident.”

In his complaint to the ASA, Eugene Gerber argued that the billboard, displayed outside River’s Church in Sandton, was offensive:
"In essence, the complainant submitted that the billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid."
The ASA upheld the complaint, and explained in the ruling how it determines what can and cannot be considered offensive in relation to religion and belief:
"... when advertising with somewhat of a religious connotation or connection does not pass comment or judgement, or belittles a basic belief or tenet of any specific religion or belief system, it would not likely be regarded as offensive to that particular religion."
However:
"the proverbial line is drawn when advertising propagates statements that undermine the dignity and constitutionally protected right to freedom of religious beliefs of any identifiable sector of society."
 By this logic, the River's Church billboard was deemed to be offensive to atheists because:
"The quote [...] suggests that atheists believe that their existence is a result of an unforeseen and unplanned event. The use of the word believe further strengthens this communication.

Furthermore, the visuals of a man holding the sides of his empty head suggest that atheists are 'empty headed' or lack intelligence, presumably as a result of the above 'belief' communicated. This is something that would likely offend all atheists in a manner that the Code seeks to prevent."
A story like this is interesting, because in general we're far more used to seeing religious complaints of this nature than we are atheist complaints. I was alerted to it by Tauriq Moosa, a South African blogger, and he has some good points to make about how it relates to free speech, arguing that atheists should be against such complaints because "it concerns how we defend and articulate free speech and expression, since, by definition, free speech only make sense if you can defend the right of your worst enemies to express themselves too.

It reminds me of something that happened here in the UK at the time of the Atheist Bus Campaign, when the evangelical Christian Party launched a counter-campaign with bus ads saying "There definitely is a God. So join the Christian party and enjoy your life". Large numbers of atheists complained to the British ASA about this, with some arguing that it was a claim that cannot be substantiated and other arguing that it was offensive, making it the country's fourth most complained about advertisement of all time.

Of course, those bus complainants were perfectly within their rights to complain if they wanted, and the same goes for the individual who complained about the billboard in South Africa, but, in my view, if atheists wish to stand at the forefront of defending free speech, such action isn't exactly helpful. If atheists want to be able to say what they like about what others believe, they have to accept that religious people can do they same. In fact, they should welcome it – it's called free debate, and it's actually quite a straightforward way of maintaining a free society.
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