Ban for billboard that riled atheists

A church billboard depicting atheists as stupid has been removed after a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority.

The authority recently upheld an atheist’s complaint against the billboard for River’s Church which was located on its premises in Sandton.

The billboard featured an image of a man holding his hands against his temples, and the following quote from English poet Francis Thompson appeared underneath: “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident.”

The consumer submitted that the billboard offended him as an atheist as he did not consider his existence to be an accident. He added that the depiction of a man with an empty head communicated that atheists were stupid.

A relevant clause of the Code of Advertising Practice with regard to offensive advertising was taken into account by the ASA.

In response to the complaint, the church submitted that the advert was based on Psalm 14v and Psalm 53v1, which said: “Only foolish say in their hearts there is no God.”

It quoted Thompson, who wrote the well-known poem, The Hound of Heaven, thinking that most people would be familiar with his work and would possibly respect his comment.

The ASA referred in its ruling to a clause in the code which stated that no advert may offend against good taste or decency or sectoral values and sensitivities, unless it was reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.

The authority added that the quote on the church billboard suggested that atheists believed their existence was an unplanned event.

The visuals of a man holding the sides of his empty head suggested that atheists lacked intelligence. This was something that would likely offend all atheists in a manner that the code sought to prevent, the ASA ruled.

It added that the commercial would likely cause offence and was therefore in contravention of clause 1 of section II of the code.

The authority upheld the complaint and ordered the church to withdraw the advert immediately and not to use it in future.