Into the current conversation that has been reviving controversy about the place of religion and faith in contemporary society comes another dispute that has set teeth on edge. While unreflective people have jumped to the unwarranted conclusion that religion is the root-cause of the ISIL murders in Paris last week, and much violence and bloodshed elsewhere around the globe, there comes an fresh attack on religion in an unexpected manner and in an unexpected place—a cinema near you (if you’re in Britain, that is). Or rather, not. A short commercial, entitled “Just Pray” and made by the Church of England, is now banned by a leading movie theatre chain on the grounds that the script it uses, the words of the Lord’s Prayer, might be “offensive” to people of other faiths or of no faith.
The ad, which runs for all of one minute and two seconds, takes the words of the Lord’s Prayer and breaks it into sentences and phrases, each spoken or sung by a different person. These range from the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, some refugees in a day-centre, weightlifters working out in a gym, a farmer, a grieving mourner by a grave, a train passenger and there is a gospel choir for good measure. It ends with a simple on-screen graphic that declares “prayer is for everyone.”
The Church of England hoped, apparently without irony, that its ad would show just before the new Star Wars release during the busy Christmas period. The agency that deals with such ads for cinemas, controlling roughly 80 percent of the country’s screens, has refused to allow it in, saying that it would offend people of no faith or of differing adherence. The agency, Digital Cinema Media (DCM), issued a press statement stating that "some advertisements—unintentionally or otherwise—could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith," adding, also presumably without irony, that "in this regard, DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally."
The Church of England responded that it was “bewildered” and “baffled” by the agency’s decision. Anglican leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, told the media that he found it “extraordinary that cinemas rule that it is inappropriate for an advert on prayer to be shown in the week before Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ,” adding that "billions of people across the world pray this prayer on a daily basis. I think they would be astonished and deeply saddened by this decision, especially in the light of the terrorist attack in Paris where many people have found comfort and solace in prayer. This advert is about as 'offensive' as a carol service or church service on Christmas Day.” The Anglicans’ director of communications, Arun Arora, concurred, adding that “in one way the decision of the cinemas is just plain silly but the fact that they have insisted upon it makes it rather chilling in terms of limiting free speech.” This was a risky response from the Anglicans, because, strictly speaking, only governments can outlaw free speech by limiting what is legal to say in public. Here, though, it’s the aggressively secularist culture, worshipping at the altar of the money-deity, that imposes such restrictions. The primary reason for the suppression of this ad is almost certainly commercial.
And now, who can this be? Here comes the one described by one blogger (full disclosure—an acquaintance of this column), as the “infallible archbishop of the New Atheists,” Professor Richard Dawkins. He’s got an opinion. Of course he has. But it is not quite what one might immediately expect. The good professor opines that cinemas should show the ad. He told the Guardian that “if anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.” Dawkins has previously argued that censorship cannot be justified by an appeal to protection of religious sensibilities. He, too, notes that behind the ban lie commercial concerns rather than straightforward censorship.
Inviting people to pray is not indoctrination, no matter how much the doctrinaire New Atheists scream that it is. They are, poor dears, awfully easily offended, just as their high priest, Prof. Dawkins, points out. The one-minute ad is an invitation to try prayer, just like it says, no more, no less. Belittling the beliefs of others just because they make us feel upset is infantile, lazy. In a pluralist society like ours, even though we have not yet entirely separated church and state, still insisting on linking the unelected and privileged monarchy (still adored quasi-religiously by some) with the established church, there should be enough room for expression of every faith or belief or for none at all—but then you couldn’t claim to have an open, free or plural society.
One New Atheist group decided, a couple of years ago, to pay a lot of money to put ads stating their case on the sides of double-decker buses. This was a good thing to see in a free country, although they came to regret wasting their money and almost certainly failed to proselytise a single soul; or should we say, (for fear of offending) one single person. It is important to resist the forced removal of anything religious from our national conversation. Censorship must be handled with caution; were an ad to incite violence, for example, or exploitation or discrimination then a ban is appropriate. But it is surely also worth asking how really offensive one minute and two seconds of a film that culminates in expressing a desire for forgiveness really is.
A lot of our cinema screens are located in our contemporary cathedrals, the sprawling shopping-malls that fringe our towns and cities. Perhaps some cinema-goers might find the pervading proselytising of the dominant religion of consumerism and the flagrant commercialisation of Christmas, such as by being forced to consume your latte from red coffee cups at Starbucks, rather offensive. As offensive, perhaps, and as silly as the following 2 hours of “Star Wars—The Awakening”; a suitably religious title, no? After all, couldn’t you claim that you are offended by a movie that so blatantly promotes the Jedi religion?