It Has Come to This: In Defense of Religious Speech

In the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Scientology, Buddhism, are all “versions of the same untruth;” different versions of the same nonsense. Historically, religion has been responsible for a large part of the censorship and moral policing that I often criticize. While nowadays we can look at Islam and deride their opposition to the portrayals of their epileptic, plagiarist prophet, both Christianity and Judaism have a very bad track record for their opposition to free speech, not to mention scientific inquiry.

It is because of my dislike of religion that, honestly, I hate being in a situation in which I have to come out in their defense (not that anybody was waiting for my take on it). But that’s just the way some people decided to play it.

Let’s go through the facts.

The Church of England, the religious ideology based on the family values of Henry VIII, tried to buy some ad time in cinemas that will be exhibiting the new Star Wars movie. In their ads, the CoE would show different people reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The ad ends with the tagline “Praying is for everyone”, and invites people to visit a dull website in which they can leave their prayers, or get some help in saying the right prayers (because unless you say the precise magic words, god just won’t listen to your bullshit).

"Hi, I'm Henry. I had six wives, executed 2 of them, and imprisoned one for life. Join my church!"
“Hi, I’m Henry. I had six wives, executed 2 of them, and imprisoned one for life. Join my church!”

Despite the simplistic and dull character of the ad in question,  the company in charge of the ads for the three largest cinema chains in the UK (Digital Cinema Media) decided not to run it. Reportedly, this was decided because the ad might offend some of customers. Although it is a legitimate commercial decision (nobody can force a company to run ads they don’t approve of), it is absolutely the wrong one.

Anybody watching the ad can tell you that it is not offensive. It might be intellectually offensive, since it puts forward the idea that prayer works for anything, but it’s not offensive in the way the company suggests. People going to cinemas are aware that there are people out there who happen to prefer a different flavor of bullshit, and I have a hard time believing that they’d be violently clasping their pearls at the realization that the Church of England both exists and seeks more followers.

Moreover, there are considerably more offensive ads being show in cinemas across the UK, America and Europe, than the simplistic and dull one of the CoE. The idiotic booze ads that follow the simple formula of HOT GIRLS. LOTS OF FUN. FAST CARS. ALCOHOL! ALCOHOL! ALCOHOOOOOOOOOOL! *drink in moderation*”, or Axe ads that suggest random women will fuck your brains out because you smell like turpentine, are considerably more reprehensible than this one, and yet we accept that they should run. Just like alcohol bases its appeal on implying that drinking will make your imbecile friends more tolerable, and your unlikable self suddenly become popular, religions base theirs on granting people a shelter (even if spiritual) from their worries. It’s stupid, sure, but hardly offensive.

Fun fact: If you wear Axe you are much more likely to be mentally retarded.
Fun fact: If you wear Axe you are much more likely to be mentally retarded.

Since we know that the ad isn’t really offensive, we have to ask ourselves what are the real motivations. Well, it’s obvious that the company wants to make sure that their customers are only exposed to products (no matter how offensive the ads might be), but not to anything that involves their lives in a deeper way. Although this is commercially sound (you want to sell tickets, not to alienate your audience) it creates a chilling effect on speech.

Just like when ebay decided to buy all the Burzum and Varg Vikernes products from their site because they disliked his politics, the refusal to carry the ad sets a dangerous precedent. If you know that speaking about your religion will be considered offensive, and that chains won’t run your advertisement, then you will simply stop talking about your religion; if you know that politics are suddenly verboten, you’ll keep your politics to yourself. Eventually, the only topics you are able to discuss are platitudes, and you only end up being exposed to things you already agree with and, of course, to products that you should buy. The only identity that becomes acceptable is the one that we are allowed to create via our consumption.

As a commercial entity, Digital Cinema Media has the right to do what they did. Nobody can question that. Let’s just all agree, however, on the fact that their motives are wrong.

Having said all of that, you’d think that the Church of England would have prayed a bit harder for their ad. I guess maybe god does not interfere with ad companies.