Offended Atheist Gets Stupid Christian Billboard Taken Down

The Billboard in question (via The Daily Mail)

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.)

Responses

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.

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28 thoughts on “Offended Atheist Gets Stupid Christian Billboard Taken Down

  1. Nice post, thanks Tauriq. I agree with you (mostly) on this. I thought the ASA overly fussy on the Axe add, and think perhaps the offended atheist is overly sensitive. However, the act of the church in question is pretty ugly, and since churches generally have more cheap billboard space than atheists – the question for me is “what would an appropriate response be?”.

    Having had some experience with complaints put to the ASA, I would say that a more reasonable way of complaining would have been on the grounds of veracity. The advert is making a claim (despite it being a quote) that is unprovable; and this is exacerbated by the ’empty head’. All responsibility for proof rests with the advertiser.

    • Thanks, Kevin. Good point. I agree that one could work on the idea of veracity, rather than intention to offend or elicit outrage as a point of contention. It would also be good, since it means that there could be no Christian billboards, basically, since they can’t verify their claims – unless it was something like “We have 10,000 members worshiping. Join us.” Also we wouldn’t have signs for homeopathy, detox, and other CAM nonsense. But the problem is how often that would get applied. In any case, it would be a better way to combat ideas on basis of veracity rather than emotions. It’s still difficult though.

  2. Maybe the best response to a billboard that you disagree with or find offensive is to put up another billboard. (Although I kind of agree with Ogden Nash on the subject of billboards in general
    ‘I think that I will never see,
    A billboard lovely as a tree,
    I think unless the billboards fall,
    I’ll never see a tree at all.’
    I’m being a bit facetious here, I suppose, but as a rule I agree with you on the need for free speech.
    I think we should let those with hateful views damn themselves through their hateful comments while we can always engage with those who might be amenable to reason in the hope that they can be persuaded. (Or who knows, we might be persuaded ourselves if we find that we’re wrong about something).
    This is going to make for a noisy sort of world, I uppose, but it’s healthier than suppressing views that might a/ turn out to be right, or b/ tend to fester in secrecy.

    • Precisely. Love the quotation. I offer you my own from the great John Stuart Mill.

      If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

      • I’m also an admirer of JS Mill. The curious thing is that much of his defence of free speech was anticipated by John Milton in his Areopagitica.
        Not that this made JS Mill’s work redundant, he produced additional arguments of his own, and anyway, it seems that every couple of hundred years we need another reminder of why free speech matters.
        Given some of what’s going on these days, I think we’re overdue for another reminder.

  3. @Fekesh. Agree with the sentiment; And I would hate to proliferate the species billboardius uglius (thankfully I live in CPT who seem to be waging war on same) but the nonreligious are at a huge disadvantage iro available space and funding for a face-time war.

    The thing is, many of the slightly religious will sway toward the in-group, thinking “thank that I’m not one of those empty-headed atheists”, and not consider how offensive it really is.

  4. I don’t really agree with you, Tauriq.

    There’s a difference between freedom of speech and freedom to slander or display prejudice using public resources. That billboard is displaying prejudice, it’s making an insulting generalization about a group of people.

    This is easy to understand if you simply imagine an analogous situation with a different target. Imagine someone putting up a billboard with the words ‘women are stupid’ written plainly. Would this be acceptable? No, clearly it wouldn’t. The problem is the prejudice, the obvious sexism. Your freedom of expression doesn’t give you the right to use public resources to express prejudice.

    I say it again, freedom of speech is not the same as freedom to slander or prejudice.

    The religious billboard is prejudiced. An empty head is a universal image for someone dull or clueless. You can argue that the atheist who lodged his complaint shouldn’t have done so based on his ‘feelings’, but that’s irrelevant. A woman who saw the ‘women are stupid’ billboard and complained that she was offended would be just as valid. The ASA isn’t (or shouldn’t be) basing it’s decision on the emotion per se, but whether that emotion is a symptom of an actual violation or not.

  5. Good post, and agreed. I’d like to see a picture of the billboard – the Thompson quote is simply an expression of a view, which I don’t think even falls foul of what Kevin suggests above. The ’empty head’ stuff might, though. But even if it does, the ‘product’ in question is already known to have negative attitudes to nonbelief, so I wouldn’t think the empty head a false or even unprovable claim – they could retort that our heads of empty of a particular thing (namely, religious faith or whatever), which would be entirely true. Methinks a column on this a good idea.

  6. @Fekesh

    As I said above, I did write a brief background and intro to the Areopagitica at 3QD. I will probably write about the fully blooming arguments that were planted by Milton but cultivated by Mill next. (So irritating that both were named “John” and have surnames beginning with “Mil”! I’ve confused them before much to my detriment.).

    @Jacques

    Thanks. Be great to see your take on it. It irritated me that I couldn’t judge the picture for myself, since I’m not sure what was even meant by the description and the empty head. Nonetheless, the idea of the empty head I presumed was the idea of lacking a soul (and therefore morality or whatever). I don’t think they’re being malicious when doing so, but explanatory. After all, they DO think this about atheists, as lacking something. Yes, it’s stupid and perhaps insulting (though it isn’t to me personally). I wanted to see the damned thing though and I don’t like the idea that I’m not able to because one person complained (and perhaps presumed to speak for me).

    @Gareth

    We mustn’t confuse legality with morality here. Legally no group could long get away with defamatory statements about, say, women or gays or black people. There are laws against this – that is correct. Your statement is also descriptive, therefore, that no group could get away with making such statements.

    However, morally speaking, I personally would have little trouble with something saying “women are stupid” or “white people are smarter” or whatever. Churches can have billboards saying “Atheists are evil and are going to hell” if they want. Why does it matter to me? Groups which say these things have NO EVIDENCE to back up their claims. They are plainly wrong (anyone who thinks women are stupider than men plainly doesn’t know either women or men!).

    Furthermore, as I said, the church is merely conveying what it already believes. How is taking down the billboard helping to combat that stupidity — which should be the focus after all? It just shows we’re willing to take action – which is good – but we should take action where it counts, like in medical policy or institutionalised marriage.

    Personally, I don’t care what a church or temple or group thinks of me. You may find it insulting, but I do not. Do you presume to speak for me when I’ve plainly indicated my indifference toward them? Who gave you or this complainant permission to speak for all the godless? I certainly didn’t, nor do I want them taking action on my behalf.

    I care only when churches begin infringing on my rights and my law and my government. Why should we worry otherwise? Sure this can LEAD to them acting against us in these areas, but how is taking down the billboard helping to combat them when they DO make a push in areas of, say, medical policy? If we fight them against criminalising, say, abortion, how will the billboard victory help? Or whatever you think is important.

    There are numerous other problems with your argument, but mainly you must disassociate legality from a moral view. Thanks for reading.

    • Sorry. My mistake, and given your background I should have realised that you would have known about Milton anyway.
      I look forward to your further comments, not least because I see this as being a contribution towards this process of reminding people about the positive value of free speech.

  7. “Why does it matter to me? Groups which say these things have NO EVIDENCE to back up their claims. They are plainly wrong (anyone who thinks women are stupider than men plainly doesn’t know either women or men!).”

    You’re arguing from emotion. That opinion, that men and women are mentally equal, is, in the terms of human civilization, a very new thing. Men and woman have ‘known’ each other since the beginning of time, that doesn’t change how deeply rooted sexism has been for thousands of years. It has only been displaced by the valiant efforts of people who fought tooth and nail to change the opinion of society, an opinion that is still very much around if you scratch below the surface, despite the evidence or lack thereof.

    And it matters because biased messages create oppression. You say ‘don’t confuse legality with morality’ as if they two aren’t related. As if the laws against defamatory statements don’t come from a recognition of the moral problems they give rise to.

    “Furthermore, as I said, the church is merely conveying what it already believes. How is taking down the billboard helping to combat that stupidity — which should be the focus after all?”

    How is making illegal any statement of defamation (women are stupid etc) helpful? If you understand it in the case of sexism, you should understand it in the general case.

    “but we should take action where it counts, like in medical policy or institutionalised marriage.”

    This is not an either/or situation. Choosing to complain about the billboard does not mean we’re restricted from taking other actions.

    “Personally, I don’t care what a church or temple or group thinks of me. You may find it insulting, but I do not. Do you presume to speak for me when I’ve plainly indicated my indifference toward them?”

    No. Are you claiming that unless all women are ‘bothered’ by an example of sexism, then it isn’t sexism?

    A complaint was lodged by an individual who felt prejudiced against. If the regulatory body found that there was actual prejudice, regardless of whether it bothers you or not, it should take action.

    “If we fight them against criminalising, say, abortion, how will the billboard victory help? Or whatever you think is important.”

    What? So you can only complain about a small thing if it helps you win a big thing? Why? That doesn’t make much sense.

    “There are numerous other problems with your argument, but mainly you must disassociate legality from a moral view.”

    Think harder about how legality is rooted in morality. We legislate around actions we feel are morally wrong.

  8. Gareth

    You are making very wild claims and need to localize your views. Firstly, how is saying “there is no evidence” (to the claim women are stupider than men) an “emotional” one. Would you like to point out my “emotion” in that sentence that is not validated from evidence in cognitive studies?

    “That opinion, that men and women are mentally equal, is, in the terms of human civilization, a very new thing.”

    So what? It’s still true and validated by evidence. You’re also getting off track as to whether we should or should not allow billboards to proclaim this. There is no evidence for this and, thus, like the idea that atheists are bad or lesser people, there is no justification for it. Why worry about billboards that proclaim something not backed by evidence? It usually comes to light and we can reinforce this elsewhere: for example, atheists are in charity, are professors, etc., all of which completely counters many assertions they might have. Furthermore, how do we show them they’re wrong: through silencing their expression of these ideas or engaging with them in debate?

    “It has only been displaced by the valiant efforts of people who fought tooth and nail to change the opinion of society,”

    You should read the final two chapters of AC Grayling’s Towards the Light on the importance of women and liberty. I gave a talk about the centrality of women and liberty a few years ago and think it’s the most important goal, alongside the equality for gay and lesbian comrades. I’m not sure what this has to do with our argument about billboards being allowed to display contrary messages, though.

    “it matters because biased messages create oppression.”

    Oh dear. How do biased message “create” oppression as opposed to being the outcome or symptom OF oppressive views? There’s little doubt they reinforce stupid views, but I doubt highly they solely create the views they express. You can’t express ideas that haven’t been already formed.

    “You say ‘don’t confuse legality with morality’ as if they two aren’t related. As if the laws against defamatory statements don’t come from a recognition of the moral problems they give rise to.”

    I didn’t say they weren’t related. If I thought that, I wouldn’t be writing and studying public policy (in medicine). I said they were different. For example, we shouldn’t confuse species with genus in taxonomy, but that’s not at all saying they’re not related. You’ll say I didn’t make such a claim at all. Furthermore, you’ll notice that you gave a description of what will happen on a descriptive and legal stance – if they put these billboards up claiming women are stupid, they’d never be allowed to. Yes legally and therefore descriptively. We’re discussing whether there is any good reason or whether we OUGHT to let them do so anyway. We are assessing the very law itself.

    “How is making illegal any statement of defamation (women are stupid etc) helpful? If you understand it in the case of sexism, you should understand it in the general case.”

    See? This is what I mean about separating illegal from immoral. Just because its against the law doesn’t mean its immoral. For example, abortion was illegal and now is not, because there was little to morally justify it (and then the politics, too). But you’re not doing the moral discussion any help by constantly bringing up what occurs within the framework of law. That’s not what we’re discussing, since it’s not the point: it may be against the law, but is it justified regardless OF law? For example, we can justify why murder is immoral and we can agree a law against it helps. But we don’t say murder is wrong solely because it’s illegal.

    “This is not an either/or situation. Choosing to complain about the billboard does not mean we’re restricted from taking other actions.”

    I think it is to some extent. We have only so much time and expenditure. Billboards should not be a focus for people who want to combat the influence religion is having. It is not effective nor important. People are of course welcome to fight billboards, but I think there are no good reasons to do so (hence my post) and, in addition, we do ourselves an enormous favor by focusing on major battles in public policy. Which do you think more important? Which do you think we should focus on? If you think public policy then you’ll probably find ALL your time devoted to it (trust me, it’s horrible and fulfilling). The fact that someone took action – that’s the clincher for me. Someone took time and money and effort to make this happen. I think that energy is better suited to defending gay marriages and gay blood donations, abortion clinics, women’s shelter, orphanages and adoption and so on. He is welcome to do what he wants, but my argument it is better suited elsewhere.

    “Are you claiming that unless all women are ‘bothered’ by an example of sexism, then it isn’t sexism?”

    No, but no one speaks for all women. Perhaps something is legitimately sexist, but that’s up to individuals to decide. Why can’t they do so? Let me push you” Why should we ban something because it is sexist, racist? Banning does not help combat the prejudice, as far as historical and contemporary evidence suggests.

    “A complaint was lodged by an individual who felt prejudiced against. If the regulatory body found that there was actual prejudice, regardless of whether it bothers you or not, it should take action.”

    Do you see what you did there? You did the descriptive/legal thing. Of course that’s what a regulatory body does and that’s the justification! That’s not the issue. The question was whether the complainant should have lodged the complaint at all.

    I said: “If we fight them against criminalising, say, abortion, how will the billboard victory help? Or whatever you think is important.”

    You said: “What? So you can only complain about a small thing if it helps you win a big thing? Why? That doesn’t make much sense.”

    No. My point wasn’t clear, my apologies. We both agree we should combat idiotic religious views (some might say that’s tautological); we both agree it’s a constant battle to protect our civil liberties, institutions, policies, etc. On this scale, how does banning billboards aid this battle against religion in society? All you’ve done is removed their expression of their viewpoint, not outargued or removed the viewpoint itself. As Mill indicated, we must hear viewpoints since we cannot know whether we are right. Even if a view is wrong, it should be combatted openly not through oppression, since that same right to combat the wrong view could be inverted to be used against us.

    “Think harder about how legality is rooted in morality. We legislate around actions we feel are morally wrong.”

    I do often. Who is “we”? How do we decide what is wrong? That’s the important point and what we’re mainly talking about.

  9. The second part of the statement Tauriq, not the first. This bit.

    “They are plainly wrong (anyone who thinks women are stupider than men plainly doesn’t know either women or men!).”

    You think that all the men who think that women are stupider simply don’t ‘know women’?

    This is an emotional stance you’re taking. That all the sexists are just sexist because they don’t have enough exposure to women. Because, well, it’s obvious isn’t it!!!!

    Will answer the rest later.

  10. “You are making very wild claims and need to localize your views. Firstly, how is saying “there is no evidence” (to the claim women are stupider than men) an “emotional” one. Would you like to point out my “emotion” in that sentence that is not validated from evidence in cognitive studies?”

    Facetious means a joking or flippant response. Unless you have a very subtle sense of humor, there is no flippancy in that paragraph that I can detect. :P

    “Was being merely facetious. Will not do that in future, then, shall I?”

    This, however, IS being flippant.

  11. It is worth looking at the reasoning of the ASA in this matter. They are being consistent with previous rulings . http://www.asasa.org.za/ResultDetail.aspx?Ruling=5881

    But I also see this as leading them to ever broadening values about what is and what isn’t offensive. I do think it worth remembering that the ASA is about establishing some form of self-regulated boundaries in a relatively lawless environment (advertising). They have established an advertising code which states (amongst other things) “No advertising may offend against good taste or decency or be offensive to public or sectoral values and sensitivities, unless the advertising is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom”. And that required them to apply some pretty subjective deliberations. It is wrong to look to the ASA and their rulings as a beacon of what is right or wrong or legal or illegal.

  12. @ Kevin – Agreed. The slogan “Protecting Your Standards” encapsulates the stupid idea that they know what our standards are. They’ve implemented certain standards and can stick to them, but they should not presume to speak for what I find offensive and so on. I don’t actually know whether I find anything offensive to the extent I would want it banned – since those things which warrant serious concern are, as I said in the blogpost I linked to above, insulted by only focusing on banning (for example, we should fight against child pornography not because it is offensive, but because it causes great suffering. No one thinks that we should only ban it, but also track down the people making it and stopping them).

    • lol. True in the sense that we seem to agree that it is not ‘wrong’ to simply be offended. But not in the sense that their mandate (the code) explicitly states that they must measure offense.

      The ASA code is updated annually and you have an opportunity to give comment and suggest changes. http://www.asasa.org.za/Default.aspx?mnu_id=98. Perhaps it is worth having some input from the FSI?
      This, and the Powerband ruling may give some thought for input?

  13. Seems to me there is a difference between saying Atheists/Conservatives/Christians are stupid and Women/Gays/Whites are stupid: the first are choices.
    The poster would certainly make me fume but I agree that free speech trumps even my annoyance (which is terrible to behold)

    • “the first are choices” surely you are not familiar with children being forced into a religion? And one does not choose to be an athiest as for one, it is not a religion but a simple lack of a belief in gods/goddesses/flying speghetti monsters/etc. I can tell you that one does not simply choose what he or she believes even though it does play a role however, I can want to be christian and want to believe in god, but i simply do not. I find that not believing is something that one has about as much “choice” over as i have about my sexual orientation.

  14. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Billboard Removed After Atheist Complaint

  15. I believe in Godd and I beleive that the atheists are sissy.
    Stupids atheists.

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