Church Billboard Ruled 'Anti-Atheist,' but Even Skeptics Disagree

Skeptics and atheists in South Africa remain divided over the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling to remove a church billboard that was deemed “anti-atheist.”

Earlier this month, the ASA ruled that Rivers Church of Johannesburg could not display a billboard at their Sandton campus over what a complainant claimed was content offensive to atheists. The church had erected a billboard of a man holding his fingers against the temples of his face. Above the image is the quote, “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident – Francis Thompson.”

Eugene Gerber had submitted a complaint to the ASA, an independent organization funded by South Africa’s communications marketing industry that oversees “self-regulation” of advertising content. The Advertising Standards Committee, a part of the ASA, ruled on the case.

“All human beings enjoy human dignity, including atheists. It is not reasonable and justifiable in an open and society based on dignity, equality and freedom to propagate publicly, statements that undermine their human dignity, as an identifiable sector of the population,” reads the ASA’s decision in part.

But Jacques Rousseau, chairman of the Free Society Institute in South Africa, told CP that he did not agree with the ASA’s decision.

“This appeal was made on the ground of causing offence to an atheist – and nobody has the right not to be offended,” said Rousseau. “Atheists frequently claim that believers are being hypersensitive – which is often true – but this sort of appeal to an authority undermines that case by itself being hypersensitive.”

Rousseau said that unless there was an issue of factual accuracy, “then there is no issue for any authority to get involved with here.”

For its part, ASA’s Leon Grobler told CP that although South Africa’s constitution does protect the rights of free speech and religion, the billboard would not be protected.

“Yes, our constitution does protect freedom of religion, but you have to appreciate that no protections, or rather rights, are absolute,” said Grobler.

“The consequence of this is that we cannot simply allow an advertiser to freely express his religious views if they belittle or mock a basic tenet of another religion.”

On the “South African Skeptics” forum, commenters offered a range of opinions on the ASA decision.

“If an atheist…or plain Joe Soap posted a billboard declaring all [Christians] were stupid, can you imagine the outcry?” said a poster identified as “JoanA Arc.”

“This also sets a precedent that would prevent all kinds of atheist advertising in the vein of Dawkin's posters,” said another commenter with the screen name “BoogieMonster.”

“There’s a difference between freedom of speech and freedom to slander or display prejudice using public resources,” said “Gareth,” commenting on another skeptic blog.

“That billboard is displaying prejudice, it’s making an insulting generalization about a group of people.”

Rivers Church has the option to appeal the decision to the ASA’s Final Appeals Committee, which is a level higher than the ASA.

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