Boycotting Sam Harris's ads: Atheist freedom of speech vs. religious censorship

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(Image via @TheMicroRaptor)

To promote "controversial" atheist Sam Harris's upcoming Australian tour, a series of billboards taking the mickey out of what Harris, a neuroscientist, sees as dangerous religious dogmas were declared "offensive" and banned. Adam Bishop's anger and disbelief prompted him to pen this response.

WHEN I first learned about APN Outdoor's decision to ban billboard ads promoting Sam Harris' upcoming Australian tour on the grounds of religious discrimination, I must confess I was overcome with a heady mix of anger and disbelief.

I mean sure, I'd certainly expect to see such a decision handed down in Iran, where a person may be hanged for apostasy, or even in the democratic icon of the United States, where an increasingly fundamentalist belief in Christianity has corrupted much of the political debate in recent times. But in the allegedly progressive, liberal-minded and secular-wielding nation of Australia, well, I simply didn't see it coming.

For those who are not familiar with Sam Harris' work, he is an author and neuroscientist most famous for vehemently advocating for the principles of secularism, as well as being equally disparaging of potentially dangerous religious dogmas. Most often however, he is described as a "controversial atheist", with the controversial adjective generally being applied on account of Harris not being passive, by this I mean he doesn't keep his non-belief to himself.

Enter the reputedly "offensive billboards" that were used to promote Harris' upcoming Australian tour.

One proposed billboard message read:


A very important point to highlight here, is that the statement above is what most christians actually believe. It would be difficult to characterise these words as offensive given it is simply a restating of their written beliefs, albeit in a disbelieving tone.

The next billboard targets the behavioural issues embedded within the belief system of Islam:


The fact that this last statement is considered by many to be religious vilification is of the most concern, a sentiment which essentially supports the view that someone should be allowed to insult an idea without being killed for doing so.

This is surely a very non-controversial notion in modern Australia? It's important to note that this last message does not advocate a call to arms for everyone to pick up a copy of the Qur'an and flush it down the toilet (despite what the Herald Sun rather speciously asserted), it simply champions the view that if someone was to carry out that action, they should be allowed to do so and not be the subject of any archaic, violent retribution. This is a crucial distinction to make.

ABC Lateline: Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz on the problems of Islam, 28 October, 2015.


I spoke directly with the directors of the group responsible for organising the ads, Desh Amila and Suzi Jamil at Think Inc., to ask them what they thought the impact of a decision like this has on the notion of freedom of speech in Australia.

Mr Amila told me

"I grew up in Sri Lanka where it was possible to be killed for challenging accepted views, and because of that, I truly know how crucial freedom of speech is in any democratic society." 

Ms Jamil added

"In today's world, religion plays such an important role and is embedded in war and social issues like sexual abuse. It is imperative we challenge the dogmas of religion in a rational and logical manner. The 'regressive left' tend not to talk about Islam as they worry they may come across as racist, or worse, Islamophobic." 

The decision to pull the ads was made on the basis of Section 2.1 of the Outdoor Media Association's code of ethics, which states:

'Advertisements shall not portray or depict material in a way which discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, age, sexual preference, religion, disability or political belief.'

Sam Harris on ridiculous arguments offered by religious people, and why aetheists always win.

There is a pressing need here to differentiate between offending a person on the basis of natural attributes, like our sex or our race, versus an idea that a person may hold, such as their belief in a particular religion or ideology. Unlike our gender or race, our opinions are malleable, subject to change under the constant scrutiny of our peers. To suggest we should not question another person's opinions upon punishment of suppression or worse, runs counter to the key threads of any healthy democracy.

The second point is that the billboards in question are not abusive in tone, therefore it would be impossible to convict them on the basis of vilification. At no point do any of these ads postulate the inciting of hatred against a particular religious group, rather they simply implore people to question their personal belief systems and make up their own minds.

Enshrined in this same code of ethics is the mandate not to discriminate against a section of the community based on their political beliefs. I suspect that if this principle was adhered to as rigidly as religious offence, neither side of politics would be permitted to launch an attack ad on the other for fear of 'offending' the other team's political persuasions.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time an ad supporting the right to be an atheist was pulled from public view. In 2009, a bus ad created by The Atheist Foundation of Australia was rejected by the same media company, APN Outdoor, for the following slogan: 'Atheism — celebrate reason'.

Can anybody really argue that an ad such as this constitutes religious vilification? Alternatively, could anyone imagine what the fallout would be if we suppressed the view of the countless religious organisations who routinely advertise their faiths to the masses through mainstream media?

The truth is, religious groups are granted a unique concession when it comes to the right to be offended. This is not so much about the battle between believers and non-believers, this is a battle between censorship and freedom of speech. 

Whether you agree with Sam Harris' opinions or not is beside the point, the fact is in a liberal democratic society one should be allowed to express views that others, even entire religious organisations, disagree with. The open battle of ideas is the cornerstone of any healthy democracy's ability to move forward and form revised, and hopefully more desirable, outcomes for the future.

Adam Bishop is editor for an satirical website The Fault Report — where nine out of ten readers can't tell the difference. You can follow TFR on Twitter @TheFaultReport.

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