Angering Bishops: An Open Letter

This is an open letter in response to a religious group, who have argued to remove a piece of entertainment based on their moral values, in a secular society. The South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference claims they have good reasons why you and I should not view an ad that apparently mocks Jesus. This letter could be a template I could send to all religious groups who want preferential treatment, in direct opposition to the foundation of a secular democracy. These bishops are simply the latest I’m focused on. You can read on my blog where I’ve disagreed with, for example, Muslims, too. This is also to affirm that in terms of targets for my arguments, the Bishops aren’t getting preferential treatment either.

Here is the ad in question:

The SACBC response can be found here, written by Cardinal Wilfrid Napier OFM. It is interesting that this incident arose in the same week I wrote about the dangers of silencing dissenting views.


Dear Bishops

This letter is not going to criticise your faith. It is not going to question your beliefs regarding the existence of god, since, to me, it is a largely unimportant question. What concerns me, and, indeed, what should concern you, is when someone or some group claims to deserve special treatment over the rest of us, in a society trying to defend equal rights and equal standing before the authorities. Your latest actions and reports indicate you believe you can decide what even those who are not Catholic, like myself, can and cannot see. You are limiting my experience by successfully convincing the appropriate authorities to remove pieces of entertainment that you find merely offensive.

I am here concerned with your thoughts regarding the recent Red Bull ad that depicts Jesus. I would like to offer some responses to your own response, written by Cardinal Napier.

You write:

“In a multi-faith country like South Africa, where over 70% of people profess to be people of faith, the use of Faith-based symbols in a satirical, if tongue-in-check manner is guaranteed to cause a reaction.”

Firstly, this is a fallacy of appealing to majority. If 70% of the majority thought the earth was flat, that won’t alter the planet’s shape. Should we just never do anything that will offend or “cause a reaction” (whatever that vague term means) in 70% of people? Where would our world be if we constantly silenced ourselves for fear of offending or causing “a reaction” from the majority? Think of women’s ability to vote, the ability of different races to have the same standing in law and business. I will not mention gay marriage, since I know you disagree there – but you cannot at the same time claim upsetting the majority is bad and yet still consider women and racial equality good, since these came about through causing a reaction from many people (in some instances the majority).

Indeed, this is an example of what John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of majority opinion. He named it this for the very real reason that it characterises an imposition on individuals, whether women, non-whites, or in this case non-believers. A tyrant is a tyrant, whether comprised of one voice or many voices echoing each other, since it is the imposition against individual liberty that arises. Even if the majority do not want to see something because it offends them, they have no right to remove it from being seen by those wish to. This is an imposition, this is an outcome of the tyranny of majority opinion.

As Mill said in Chapter 2 of On Liberty: “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Secondly, just because 70% of people “profess faith”:

(1) doesn’t mean they are the same faith as you (which you do admit loosely later in your letter). After all, what do they “profess faith” in? Yahweh? Allah? The “Universe”? Spirituality? There are plenty of people “of faith” who are not of an organised religion.

(2) doesn’t mean they are necessarily going to react in any noteworthy way, even if they are your faith. There are no doubt many who consider the ad benign and you can read online of many Catholics asking for their fellows to “lighten up”. Whether they’re right or not is irrelevant: this mainly indicates you do not apparently speak for these, even within your ranks (though obviously, your office and station allows you to).

“We are grateful to the many people  - Catholics, other Christians and people of other faiths or no faith – who have registered their displeasure with the campaign both with RedBullSA, their marketing representatives and the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa.”

Again: appeal to majority. See Mill quotation above.

“During this time of Lent which many Christians use as a preparation for the festival of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus at Easter, we question the timing of the release of the advert- which seems to be part of an international campaign. While the RedBull adverts are characterised by their cleverness, we believe that RedBull South Africa have overstepped a mark."

Should we just never do anything vaguely offensive on Christian holidays? Why should we non-Christians give in to Christian holidays. You’re celebrating these days, not us. I don’t know what you mean by “questioning the timing” – you’d be offended and outraged no matter when it aired.

You also, in your letter, call for people at Red Bull to acquire the Orwellian-sounding “sensitivity training”. This is an insulting and unfounded call: plenty of ideas and arguments and individuals upset me within your Church, but I would presume you and others could respond like adults to my criticisms. I would not call for any one of you to go for sensitivity training, despite your views on things like abortion, stem-cells and euthanasia being incredibly flawed. I would hope that you could respond openly, like a fellow moral adult, to my criticisms and we could engage in open discussion.

You are here admitting you are not interested in this, since you are immediately calling for the entire campaign to be cancelled – but then, instead of engaging in open criticism which could possibly merit a response from Red Bull, you simply want them sent away for sentivity training. You are treating yourself and others like children, with an inability to respond to criticism. This does no one any favours.

The major problem is this: you may decide to influence your followers however you wish. For example, I find no reason (aside from it being wrong) why you should not tell Catholic store-owners not to purchase Red Bull in response. But what you can’t do is speak for everyone and claim that the advert should be removed completely, on the basis only of offence and outrage – even if it is the outrage of the majority.

By claiming this, you are admitting your and others’ inability to be self-conscious, rational adults who can avoid, ignore or dismiss this benign advert from their entertainment mediums. You exist in a liberal secular democracy, not a theocracy where our laws and regulations are based on religious authority. You don’t get to tell me what I can watch. You don’t get to tell others, if they’re not part of your faith, your church, your religion. I have not criticised your faith, only your arrogance that justifies taking away my ability to be entertained by a cartoon, to be amused at an advert. You are limiting my ability to acquire what I want, which does not harm anyone, except those who decide to be harmed by it.

In a secular society, religious groups are put on a platform of equal standing as other groups. The very basis of secularism rests not in dismissing religion, but in not giving religious voices preferential treatment. If we did not, we would have to prioritise a specific religion, then other religions would probably be completely silenced. Secularism is the platform that allows you to openly speak, without being silenced by a more powerful religious group. This is essential for you and your fellow religious groups to understand: secularism places you on an equal, not better or worse, platform to the rest of us.

For example, in a letter to you, the South African Muslim Judicial Council said: “We wish that our voices can be united to make clear to any secular extremist that any attack or defacement of religious symbols and sacred spaces is not acceptable."

I don't know what a secular extremist is. Is it someone who loudly and openly says religions don't deserve special treatment (which is written into our laws)? I assume that the advocates and judges in South Africa and certain States in the US who, for example, legalised gay marriage would be secular extremists, since this almost directly goes against all monotheistic teaching? I'm not sure. If the MJC could provide an example of a secular extremist or extremism, I would be very interested but probably more surprised if this extremism was actually something bad. The concept of secularism being extreme is only so for groups who think they and their views deserve special treatment.

Secondly, to whom is it “not acceptable” attack religious symbols and sacred spaces? I certainly find it acceptable: indeed, I find it necessary. If we can’t mock or criticise, we have emptied one of the most important tools that not only expresses but also defends our liberty to think and talk and act as free entities. Indeed, even the Rev. James Martin recognises this and has an entire book on the importance of humour in Christianity.

The openness of anger

We can anger you, you can anger us. But neither side must call for silencing or censorship. I want to hear what you have to say and I hope, bishops, you would want to hear what I have to say. I would hope you would want to hear Red Bull’s reasons instead of censoring their ad and sending them off to special training, to play “nice”. This is no way for free people to act: these are the actions of theocrats demanding their view be taken above all others. I do not doubt the ad upset you – but you don’t get to claim to speak for the rest of us, or deny access to offensive material to the rest of us. I’ve pointed out that your appeal to majority does not and will never justify your views, since views aren’t made correct the more people believe it.

Your reasons are unsatisfying to those of us who don’t already believe: it insults Jesus and is offensive to the Catholic faith. That is meaningless to me and thus you can’t claim to take the ad away from me. You can take it away from yourselves but, by what right, by what standard, do you remove it from me?

I would hope you address that last question above all others. It is not just my liberty at stake, but everyone’s including yours, if we privilege religious groups with being taken more seriously than others. Even if you have the majority on your side, you need only think of any incident where this has not been the case to see the dangers of non-secularism. Yet, the importance of secularism, the necessity of free thought, is that even if you are not the majority, you still get to voice your views. I would defend your right to speak, your right to argue, no matter what it is. But you have to give the rest of us, including and especially the minority, the same due for liberty, both yours and mine, to even be worth that name.

Image Credit: Nomad_Soul/Shutterstock

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