Face to faith
By CASPAR MELVILLE - GUARDIAN.CO.UK, COMMENT IS FREE
Added: Sat, 12 Mar 2011 13:15:57 UTC
So the British Humanist Association ads with the headline "If You're Not Religious for God's Sake Say So", urging people to tick the "no religion" box on the census, have been banned because the people who own the advertising space in railway stations think they will cause "serious and widespread offence". I mean, Christ on a bike!
Before considering the ads themselves it's worth reminding ourselves what they are about. The way the religion question was posed on the last census grossly distorted the figures – does anyone really believe that 71.8% of the UK population are practising Church of England Christians? So if we are going to bother to have a census and ask questions about the population's religious affiliations, it only makes sense to get it right – especially since the figures are subsequently used to justify policy. So this is a serious issue.
But the ads are not in themselves serious. Andrew Copson of the BHA admits that the strapline was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, designed to "express urgency" and be attention-grabbing. This is, after all, what a good advertising headline should do. But offensive? OMG!
In actual fact we don't really know if anyone would have found the ads offensive. CBS Outdoor, the owner of the ad space, says it referred the decision to its franchisees, who passed it on to something called the Committee of Advertising Practice, which came up with the advice that the ads would cause "serious and widespread offence". How would they know this? They don't say, and it's hard to think how you might go about proving it, short of actually running the ads. I was interviewed on BBC Breakfast on Sunday about this, alongside the Times's religion correspondent, Ruth Gledhill. She's a Christian, but she wasn't herself offended by the slogan; she just argued that she could see why some people might be.
The presenters urged viewers to email their thoughts. They got a large response, they said, on both sides, and read out on air the views of one person who said he was offended, though he didn't explain why. But really, if you are the kind of person who is going to find commonplace expressions like "Oh my God", or "Bless you", or "Blimey", or "Lord love a duck", or "Saints preserve us" offensive you'd be well advised only to go out in public with ear plugs and a mask (on second thoughts, perhaps it would just be safer to stay in).
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But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes rather than suppress them. Important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society.
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