Church's 'offensive' anti-atheist billboard is banned by advertising watchdog

Johannesburg, South Africa - A church advertising campaign that depicted atheists as stupid has been banned by a watchdog in South Africa.

Officials ruled a billboard that suggested non-believers considered their existence to be accidental was likely to be found offensive.

The advertisement, which had been erected beside a church in Johannesburg, was pulled down following the ruling by South Africa's Advertising Standards Authority.

The offending poster showed a picture of a man holding his hands against his temples in thought above the line 'An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident', famously attributed to British poet Francis Thompson.

It was erected last year in a prominent position on the property of the Rivers Church in the Sandton suburb of Johannesburg.

However, the ASA noted that it was obliged to consider the advertisement's content after it received a complaint from a non-Christian member of the public.

Laying out its judgement on the matter, the authority stated that the complainant, Eugene Gerber, felt offended by the suggestion he was stupid.

The ruling stated: 'In essence, the complainant submitted that the billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident.

'Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid.'

In a four-page judgement, the ASA noted that it had considered the billboard in terms of a clause in South Africa's advertising code preventing content which could offend.

The authority stated that the church leaders had responded to the complaint by saying they believed the public would recognise the quote as the work of Thompson, who wrote during the late nineteenth century and died in 1907.

The ASA wrote: 'The respondent submitted that the advertisement is based on Psalm 14v and Psalm 53v1, which say "only foolish say in their hearts there is no God".

'The implication of the image was meant to convey that if someone does not believe in God, then they are not wise.

'It quoted the famous English poet Francis Thompson thinking that most people would be familiar with his work and would possibly respect his comment.'

However, the advertising authority judgement said the watchdog believed the quotation printed alongside an image of a man shaking his head was likely to cause gratuitous offence to atheists.

It wrote: 'It is apparent that the proverbial line is drawn when advertising propagates statements that undermine the dignity and constitutionally protected right to freedom of religious beliefs of any identifiable sector of society.

'The Directorate notes that the respondent has made use of a quote "An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident" by Francis Thompson, however this does not justify its use in this context.

'The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines an accident as, "An unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance".

'The quote therefore suggests that atheists believe that their existence is a result of an unforeseen and unplanned event.

'The use of the word believe further strengthens this communication.

'Furthermore, the visuals of a man holding the sides of his empty head suggest that atheists are 'empty-headed' or lack intelligence, presumably as a result of the above "belief" communicated.

'This is something that would likely offend all atheists in a manner that the Code seeks to prevent.'

The ruling added: 'While the directorate accepts that the respondent is entitled to promote its view and commentary to all who choose to attend its services, it cannot ignore the fact that the respondent has chosen to publicly proclaim its viewpoint.'

The ASA ruling, published on January 6, concluded by stating that the complaint against the church had been upheld.

The institution was ordered to pull down the advert immediately and was banned from using the material again.