A few years ago, the British Humanist Association ran an advertising campaign on buses in the UK with the slogan ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. It was carried out in response to a campaign run by a Christian organisation which had placed biblical quotes on London buses. At the time many people celebrated the fact that such campaigns could indeed take place in Britain; a testimony of the fact that Britain is a country where people are free to express their opinions publicly, even though some people might find those views offensive.
It seems that five years on, things have changed somewhat. The decision made by Digital Cinema Media Agency, the organisation that handles advertising at cinema chains such as Odeon and Vue, refused to air the advert on the grounds that it might have upset its audiences. This despite the fact that the advert was approved by both the British Board of Film Classification and the Cinema Advertising Authority. Moreover, the Church of England even had discussions with DCM on airing the advert at their cinemas, going as far as discussing costings. It seems that at no point were any objections raised, and so one can understand the frustration that those behind this campaign are currently feeling.
The reasoning offered by DCM is also of concern:
“some advertisements – unintentionally or otherwise – could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith. In this regard, DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally”
By offering such an explanation, DCM may well be placing themselves into an uncomfortable position. After all many adverts, especially those from NGOs, may carry underlying political messages that some members of their audience might find offensive. And why stop at offence caused by political or religious persuasions? Many of their audience members are likely to be offended by the manner in which certain companies market their products. Should DCM extend their policy towards such adverts too?
Furthermore, the support that DCM’s position towards this ad campaign has received from some atheists on social media is equally perplexing. One wonders if they would have been equally supportive of the DCMs actions had it been a campaign from a Humanist organisation that had been censored, giving a message on the irrelevance of God and calling for membership. Rather than cheering on social media, they most certainly would have been making the same arguments surrounding free speech, and the unacceptable influence that theists apparently have within a secular democracy.
Even the assertion that this particular advert might have caused offence to those of differing faiths is spurious. Perhaps one of the greatest successes in Britain today is the respect that exists between members of different faiths. We live in a society where Christians, Jews and Muslims can strongly debate matters of theology with one another, but equally can work together for the betterment of society. Indeed, it is difficult to see exactly what non- Christian theists might have found offensive within the proposed advert.
The wider question this entire episode raises is the role of evangelism within the context of a secular democracy. Modern Britain is a place that is tolerant of varying theological beliefs, where people are free to worship God as their religions describe. Worship comes in many forms, from praying in solitude to alleviating the suffering of fellow citizens through acts of charity. Whilst such acts do not cause any problems within a secular democracy, the act of publically calling others to the way of God does, as in doing so, religion makes a bold statement within the public realm, going against the principle that within a secular democracy, faith should largely remain a personal affair. However, if we truly believe in the right for people to freely worship, to what extent should evangelism as an act of worship be tolerated? After all, evangelism was a key aspect of lives of all the Prophets; for each of them were tasked with delivering a message to a people that didn’t particularly want to hear that message. Perhaps this is an interesting point of reflection from this affair, that whilst ancient prophets were able to challenge their people publically on matters of faith through the various channels available to them, today faithful believers are increasingly being prevented from doing so. Perhaps we are not as tolerant as we think we are.