Religion Causing Offence

fool_hath_said_posterI came across an offensive advertisement on my way to work recently. It was put there by the Trinitarian Bible Society. I’ve seen a variety of other Bible verses in their adverts, but the one pictured to the right caught my eye.

“The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.”

That’s not an argument for the existence of a god. It’s not even a statement of belief. It’s an insult. An ad hominem attack – something intended to sully an opponent’s character and by association, their opinions. That is, unless this is intended as an isolated story about one particular fool with no wider context. In which case it’s hard to see why the Trinitarians are so keen to let hapless commuters know about it. As it is, the idea seems to be to tell passers by that “Atheists are fools and well, you’re not a fool, are you?”. Trying to convince people to agree with you by insulting those who disagree is only slightly better than telling them they’ll suffer eternal torment for disagreeing.

Faced with this I considered writing a letter of complaint to the advertising company. I can imagine the outrage if someone put up an advert with the equivalent slogan, “The idiot has told himself there is a god”. Thinking about it later it I realised I was overreacting. I don’t have a right not to be offended. No one does. No one has the right to veto something simply because they find it offensive. For one thing what people find offensive is subjective, so to outlaw the causing of offence would be something of a blank cheque.

The parallels with the reactions to recent atheist advertising are predictably the next section of this post. The bus adverts paid for by public donations to the Atheist Campaign are now on the streets of the UK. As the amount raised was in excess of what was expected, a series of “tube card” adverts, like the one below, are also being shown on the London Underground.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently offensive about the statement on the card shown nor the other freethinker quotes that were used. However as I agree with the sentiments in this case it’s hard for me to judge whether they would offend people. According to Ariane Sherine, who came up with the idea, the email response she’s received has been almost all positive. With the exception of a few extreme examples, I think most religious people in the UK would support atheists’ right to free speech even if they find it offensive. Some have even said that they welcome the debate.

So I’m not going to follow the great British tradition of writing a stiff letter (presumably on cardboard?) to complain about being called a fool.

Free speech is there to protect offensive speech and controversial ideas, as Greta Christina wrote when she was offended recently:

“What Buckley failed to realize is something blindingly obvious, something many, many people have said before me: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect the radical assertion that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech.”

It doesn’t matter how offensive the eye of the beholder finds someone else’s opinion. If some belief system’s representatives put up adverts saying “All those who disagree are hopelessly stupid and criminally insane” they should still be allowed. I don’t think it would help their cause much, however. There are plenty of good reasons not to offend people when you communicate – it can backfire and create hostility and turn the offender into the bad guy – and I’m certainly not convinced by a religious group who thinks that one of their best arguments is to call atheists fools. I think it’s pathetic, but I support their right to say it.

7 thoughts on “Religion Causing Offence

  1. Why don’t we just buy up the hoarding next to it and put up Matt 5:22

    “Whosoever shall say, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hellfire.”

    Burn, Trinitarians, burn!

  2. “I don’t have a right not to be offended. No one does.”
    Amen to that. I recently wrote about the issue of free speech on my blog too. But I wrote about a more touchy subject – the right of free speech when chritisizing Islam.

    By the way, the slogan is a Bible verse. It’s the only Bible verse ever to talk about atheism at all. Probably because it didn’t really exist at that time. Many scholars believe that the passage’s underlying meaning is that the fools say that “there is no God to me”, or “God doesn’t help me” or “is not interested in me”. Pure belief in no God at all – atheism – was pretty much non-existant 3000 years ago.

  3. Thanks Thatdudeyouknow,
    I’ll check out your article sometime.

    Yes, I’m aware it’s a Bible verse, although that doesn’t make it less offensive, nor any more likely to convert me.

    Pure belief in no God at all – atheism – was pretty much non-existant 3000 years ago.

    Hmm, now you’re in the ironic position of needing to prove a negative. :-)

    You know just because something isn’t mentioned in the Bible, that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist or didn’t happen.

    As atheism is probably the only world-view you can reach on your own (the others all require you to hear the story), it seems very unlikely that there wouldn’t be some people who’d be atheists. I’ve not got the time right now to research this in detail, but a quick look shows ancient varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism were atheistic.

    “The thoroughly materialistic and anti-theistic philosophical Cārvāka School that originated in India around 6th century BCE is probably the most explicitly atheistic school of philosophy in India.”

  4. You’re right, that’s pretty impossible to prove. I’ll rephrase it: “Pure belief in no God at all – atheism – was probably either pretty much non-existant 3000 years ago, or practised only in secret by private persons”

    An idea is that people need explanations of the things they see – moon, sun, stars, nature. As long as science hadn’t evolved enough, atheistic ideas were never really brought to the surface because they couldn’t answer those questions. Maybe this is also why varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism were – because they (if I’m not mistaken) often say that existential questions are unecessary and takes away your focus. Also, since its trail of thoughts is all-inclusive, it’s understandable that atheism, or at least agnostic thought, have been around there more, and have had a possibility to raise its voice. In short – in west we need explanations. No science, no atheism. In east they didn’t feel the need for any explanations.

    Of course science can never give answers to the existential questions. But it answers the small simple questions as “does the sun drown when it goes down into the sea”…

    I know a scientist who, as a youngster, thought science has all answers, and there’s no need for God. As he developed the studies (he is today a physician and mathematician) he discovered that science is all based on unproven axioms, and that there’s nothing scientific that contradicts the existence of God, as science is limited and does not have “access” to the spiritual realm.

    It didn’t make him Christian, that was a much later story, but it made him an agnostic.

    This entry had less to do with the blog post than I intended. Sorry.

  5. Yes, Gods word is an offence to sinners and saints alike. Especially when it hits the nail on the head.
    It’s what you do about it that matters.
    And there is no such thing as an atheist. Any honest person will tell you there must be something after death. Hands over your ears now and lalalalalalalalalalal I can’t hear you! :-)

  6. Danny,

    Thanks for your comment. Interesting that you deny the existence of atheists! I have a few questions for you. I hope you’re not really putting your hands over your ears.

    Firstly, why do you think that there “must be something after death”?

    Also, why do you conflate atheism with there being nothing after death? Atheism is simply not believing in gods. Some atheists do believe there is something after death, such as reincarnation. As it happens I don’t believe this, but the idea of there being something after death is not the same as the existence or not of gods.

    Atheists don’t believe in any gods. I’m sure you don’t believe in all gods, there must be many many gods you are perfectly capable of not believing in. In respect of those “other” (false?) gods you are atheistic. So why do you think it impossible to go “one god further” and believe in none. For example, if you’d never heard of the idea of gods, then you couldn’t believe in one. This is implicit atheism.

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