I’ve just spotted an advertisement on a London bus that reads “THERE DEFINITELY IS A GOD”.
This, of course, is in response to the Atheist Bus Campaign put on earlier in the year by the British Humanist Association. The campaign saw buses across the UK decked out in advertising posters that read “there’s probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. The obvious first question (and the first to come up in discussion on Jender’s earlier post on the ads) is “why ‘probably’ from an atheist organisation?” And as we discovered, the ‘probably’ was included for two reasons. On a practical level, the ‘probably’ avoided the risk of the ads being found in violation of Advertising Standards Agency code. For integrity’s sake, the ‘probably’ made clear that the claim is not one that has been or can be proved. Richard Dawkins points out that we can’t really even say that unicorns definitely don’t exist; negative existential claims simply can’t be proved.
So, if the British Humanists were forced to say ‘probably’, then why can these theist ads say ‘definitely’? The answer is: technically they can’t. They’re in violation of ASA code. But practically, they probably can, because dissenting views on theism tend to be ignored, and I think this largely to do with the conduct of atheists and agnostics: we tend to shut up and/or grumble in the privacy of our own homes. We’re liberals who care about freedom of expression, so we’re loathe to complain about others expressing their views. And in particular: we’re a minority! If free speech is curtailed, ours will be the first views to be silenced. So the question becomes, does the ASA code, in this instance, curtail free speech? First, here are the two relevant clauses in the code:
3.1 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication,
marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims, whether direct
or implied, that are capable of objective substantiation.
Relevant evidence should be sent without delay if requested by the ASA or
CAP. The adequacy of evidence will be judged on whether it supports both the
detailed claims and the overall impression created by the marketing
communication. The full name and geographical business address of
marketers should be provided without delay if requested by the ASA or CAP.
3.2 If there is a significant division of informed opinion about any claims made in a
marketing communication they should not be portrayed as generally agreed.
The second of these, to my mind, is decisive as regards the theist bus adverts. So, if 3.2 is enforced, will this constrain religious expression in an egregious, anti-liberal way? I’d like to put it to you that it will not. The appropriate and accurate way for a theist organisation to express their beliefs truly is to advertise that “we the members of such-and-such organisation believe that god definitely exists”. This would be a true statement of fact that would constitute full and adequate religious expression.
To hold any one group to a lesser standard than this would be to show favouritism to that group and thereby infringe on the rights of groups with apposing views. If you agree with me, you can file a complaint with the ASA here.