For God’s sake, stop censoring adverts

The effective banning of UK humanist adverts that dared to mention the G-word confirms that protecting hurt feelings now trumps free speech.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Free Speech

Another week, another free-speech defying ban. For God’s sake, indeed.

This particular ban involved a set of British Humanist Association (BHA) adverts featuring the slogan, ‘If you’re not religious, for God’s sake say so’. The reason for this rather oblique command is that the BHA wants non-religious people in the UK to respond to the 2011 UK census question ‘What is your religion?’ by ticking the box marked ‘no religion’.

Unfortunately for the BHA, the owners of advertising space in UK rail stations, aided and abetted by advice from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice, have not only correctly discerned a ‘religious nature’ to the BHA’s campaign, they have also decided that such ads are likely to cause ‘widespread’ and ‘serious offence’. And where there’s offence to be caused, censorship is sure to follow. Faced with the censor’s knife, the BHA has since changed the ever-so offensive wording to ‘Not religious? In this year’s census say so.’ While this won’t be appearing in any train stations in the foreseeable future, the new, softcore version will be cropping up on the side of buses. Still, stopping the BHA from saying what it wanted to say remains a ridiculous violation of freedom of speech.

Not that it’s too easy to sympathise with the BHA: its religion-chasing has acquired an almost pathological quality. As the BHA sees it, the national census, by asking the question ‘What is your religion?’, intentionally skews the results in faith’s favour. This is why, it argues, the previous census in 2001 – the first to feature the religion question as formulated – recorded higher percentages (over 70 per cent in England and Wales) of Christians than any other survey. The reason for this, says the BHA, is that the question both assumes that one would have a religion and is sufficiently vague to encompass anyone from those who went to church as children to those who currently believe in the Almighty.

As its campaign website states, ‘The leading question “What is your religion?” meant that lots of people ticked the “Christian” box even though they do not attend church and may not believe in any meaningful sense.’ As a result of the census’s pro-Christian bias, so the argument goes, the state operates with a false image of the nation in mind, dumping too many bishops in the House of Lords and allocating too many resources to religious organisations. But if people do as the BHA says, ‘this will lead to more accurate results and better evidence to use in policymaking’.

Quite aside from the fact that the question can’t have skewed results that much, and that the BHA’s vision of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is miserably technocratic, the question in the census is so vague that one doubts whether it is much use to Whitehall bureaucrats anyway. That probably doesn’t matter much to the BHA though. As with its earlier ‘God probably doesn’t exist’ campaign, the main objective here seems to be to rile the religious.

There is something a bit mean-spirited about this type of militant, get-after-’em atheism. People’s freedom to believe, their freedom to think, in short their freedom of conscience, appears to the BHA not as something to which all individuals should be entitled, but as a problem. After all, people, left to make up their own minds, or God forbid to fill in a census form, might believe in the wrong thing. They might believe in God. They might believe in predestination. They might even think Richard Dawkins is just a little tedious or that neuroscience is not the one and the only true faith. As spiked has noted before, New Atheism, as opposed to its more tolerant predecessor, is characterised by a nasty strain of intolerance. A religious state has ceased to be the target of atheists; now it’s religious people.

Yet, as intolerant as the motivation behind the campaign might be, the BHA should be free to harangue the public as zealously as the most dead-eyed, end-is-nigh placard-waver. I might not agree with the BHA’s anti-religion crusade, but the BHA should certainly be allowed to pursue it. To deny the BHA that right is both an affront to freedom – of speech, of conscience – and an insult to the public. To think, as assorted quangos and billboard companies clearly do, that a few irritating posters taking the Lord’s name in vain, are going to be too much to bear for the public, whether god-bothering or godless, shows just how low is the esteem in which we are held. So whether it wants to spread the Word of Dawkins on the side of buses or preach to the public in train stations, the BHA should be free to do so – just as we are free to ignore, argue with, or mock the BHA.

‘This censorship of a legitimate advert is frustrating and ridiculous’, argued an understandably annoyed Andrew Copson, the BHA’s chief executive. ‘The blasphemy laws in England have been abolished but we are seeing the same principle being enforced nonetheless.’ And, in a way, he’s right. But there’s a vital difference between this new-fangled notion of blasphemy and the clear-cut illiberalism of good old-fashioned blasphemy laws. With blasphemy laws, there were specific objects that were off-limits. You couldn’t mock the Holy Scriptures, you couldn’t ridicule the Christian deity and you couldn’t take His name in vain. The reason being that these were sacred objects. They were beyond criticism.

But with this new form of blasphemy, it is not specific objects that are sacred, it is people’s feelings. Therefore, what is sacred, what is beyond criticism, is no longer objectively and clearly defined by doctrine, it is subjectively and arbitrarily defined by what people might feel is sacred to them. It is the capacity for feeling offended that provides censor-happy organisations such as the ASA with the authority to proscribe. That means that if an advert offends someone, somewhere, it is blasphemy. What is deemed blasphemous, then, proliferates according to the number of people willing to take offence. That’s why this culture of offence-taking does so much more to stifle debate and argument than the blasphemy laws of old. Not only is it a case of ‘you can’t say that’ – you’re actually increasingly unsure as to what you can and can’t say.

The BHA might be becoming increasingly intolerant. But to ban its adverts on the grounds that they might hurt someone’s feelings is to further invite a resurrection of blasphemy every bit as oppressive and restrictive as anything the BHA might have fought against in its past.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Free Speech


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