So this happened. I’ll summarise what I’m focused on in the blogpost itself if you don’t want to read all of that (oh no, reading! *hiss*!).
Basically, an atheist…
lodged a consumer complaint against a billboard for River’s Church located on its premises in Sandton [which is in South Africa, international readers].
The billboard features an image of a man holding his hands against the temples of his face. The following quote “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident – Francis Thompson” appears underneath.
The complaint then:
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 following are my preliminary thoughts when reading about this ruling. (Note: the Christian respondent “smartly” – read idiotically – responded with Bible quotes. Nice move, guy. That’s really going to convince an atheist.)
1. There is no unified structure in how atheists conceive themselves: some are liberal, some not. Some believe in astrology, homeopathy, and other unverified claims and some don’t. Some atheists might, erroneously, call themselves the product of accidents – which is fine – and some don’t. So what? That is not what I think (since I think the term “accident” is a bad description), but some atheists might. There is no unified voice for atheism; indeed, some of us are fighting religion (which is, of course, not the same as being an atheist) precisely because we’re critical of movements where there is a single person who claims to speak for all the members on every matter.
2. Look at the complaint: “In essence, the complainant submitted that the billboard (a) offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, (b) the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid.”
Firstly, (a) is certainly insufficient ground for public action, as we know from the Axe commercials, etc. I’ve argued this before, but basically, we cannot say that my mere hurt feelings are enough to change something in the public or social realm. After all, I’m one person or perhaps one group. Feelings also are different for different people and groups: some might love the billboard and that is their feelings. Whose feelings should preside? Do we judge based on how intense the feelings are, how many feel it, etc.? As Mill highlights, we can’t rely on this and require alternative methods to engage with supposedly offensive material. (I have a private wish that we get rid of the stupid words “offense” and “offensive” from our public discourse, too.)
Secondly, (b) is his view of the billboard. So what if he personally thinks this? I probably would not have made this assumption. He’s doing what our opponents do: impute meaning, based on derogatory views of their identity or worldview (for example, the banned Axe commercial was “saying” angels would engage in the sin of lust), because it will bolster their offensive claim. Notice, (b) exists to kind of bolster the emptiness of (a).
3. What happens now if I wish to see this billboard? I’m not allowed to? This is precisely what Mill fought against and is central to our maintenance of free thought and expression. Our failures and hurt feelings may cut, but life is not a field of rose petals: We do ourselves an injustice and a failure if we think we can wish away the thorns.
The complainant may be offended. He may want this taken away. But he does not speak for me. He must leave me out of it. I will speak for myself and I’ll be, well, damned the day someone decides he knows what is best for me intellectually.
4. This could also make perceptions even worse than they were before, since the billboard is merely the product of Christian perceptions of atheists. That is, whatever view these people had of atheists is already there and is not being removed with the billboard. Furthermore, with the knowledge that atheists removed their billboard, they might think worse of atheists. This is pure speculation, I submit, but should factor in to a decision like this to purposefully ban something. I’m inherently critical and sceptical of any kind of banning, as we all should be: I will decide for myself if I wish to look away, will conduct my own feelings (whatever that means) toward the “offensive” phenomenon.
We already battle religious thought in the important areas that enter the public realm: such as in medical policy, marriage and so on. We are already defending the wall of separation between church and state there. Taking down billboards is not an important focus, I think.
Just because I don’t agree with this ruling (at the moment, since perhaps there’s an argument that might persuade me otherwise), does not mean I’m saying we should be soft on religion. In fact, this is not even about religion. This is more important. 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.
UPDATE: Forgot to originally mention something vaguely related – my new column on John Milton’s beautiful defence of free speech and censorship, the Areopagitica at 3 Quarks Daily.