Yesterday I wrote about a one-minute ad, “Prayer is for everyone,” that the Church of England wanted to show in British cinemas. The commercial agency that handles ads for UK movies refused, saying that their policy banned the showing of religious or political ads in theaters. I agreed, for reversing that policy would turn theaters into venues for religious proselytizing and political hoo-ha, which seems inappropriate and would surely be divisive. It might even drive patrons away from the movies, which is undoubtedly the motive behind the policy.
Surprisingly, in a piece at the Guardian, Richard Dawkins disagrees, for he wants the Anglican ads shown:
The [ad agency’s] decision prompted an angry response from the church, which warned of a chilling effect on free speech. Many expressed support for its position including Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist best known for excoriating religions.
He told the Guardian: “My immediate response was to tweet that it was a violation of freedom of speech. But I deleted it when respondents convinced me that it was a matter of commercial judgment on the part of the cinemas, not so much a free speech issue. I still strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.”
Dawkins has been a long time advocate for free speech, arguing that protecting religious sensibilities is not a reason for censorship. And despite attracting controversy over his views on religion, the author of the God Delusion has previously described himself as a “cultural Anglican”.
So although Richard does understand that there is no “right” to have these ads shown in cinemas, he apparently feels that the ad should nevertheless be shown. And that means that he feels that the organization that banned the ads, Digital Cinema Media (DCM), should accept all ads, whatever religion or political ideology they espouse.
I disagree. The ads should be shown only if DCM had already allowed other religious and political ads. And that, of course, would open a can of worms. It’s not so much that I consider the ads should be banned because they’re offensive: rather, I think is that showing them in a place of entertainment is offensive. I don’t go to the movies and pay good money to hear Archbishop Welby tell me that prayer is really for me! It’s bad enough that, at least in the U.S. virtually all theaters show ads for food, soft drinks (Coke is a big offender) and other stuff, and that I have to sit through 15 minutes of that blather before I get to the movie. (This is why I usually go to the movies on campus, which has a big theater, comfortable seats, Dolby sound, good movies, and no ads.) But religious and political ads, which sell ideologies and worldviews rather than goods, are more invidious. After all, selling Coke isn’t divisive, but selling Toryism or Christianity is.
Why isn’t this like the “atheist bus campaign”, which was largely funded by Dawkins and the British Humanist Association? Because that was a matter of equity. A Christian organization had already been allowed to put its ads on buses, so it was only fair that atheist ads also be allowed. What a private organization decides to do with advertising is its own business so long as it doesn’t discriminate, and the DCA did not. But when a public organization already advertises Christianity on its buses (I presume London buses are run by the government, but I may be wrong), it’s illegal to discriminate against other faiths, or against no faith. I’m not sure about the legality of a cinema showing only Christian but not atheist ads, but it’s certainly unfair if it doesn’t. Best not to open that can of annelids.
The DCM made a proper commercial decision, and I agree with it. So do many British secularists:
But the church did not win universal backing with the National Secular Society describing it as a “perfectly reasonable decision” by a commercial organisation.
The society’s president Terry Sanderson, said: “The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience.”