Rules Are for Schmucks: Before Star Wars, Let Us Pray

One of the wonderful features of humanism is that humanists feel free to disagree among ourselves. Since we don’t believe in any divine truth emanating from on high, we can take differing views on particular matters without either being excommunicated or feeling the need to trash the humanist credentials of those with whom we disagree.

Which is why I can freely disagree with Richard Dawkins when he joins with the Church of England in complaining about the decision of a private business not to inflict sectarian prayer on its customers.

A new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, is set to be released shortly before Christmas. Seeking to capitalize on its popularity, the Church of England prepared a highly polished and no doubt quite expensively produced sixty-second advertisement to be run before the movie. It shows a variety of Christians including Archbishop Justin Welby, a police officer, and school children each saying one line of the Lord’s Prayer and ends by urging viewers to “Just Pray.”

It may have been a good idea, though, for them to have checked first on the policies of Digital Cinema Media (DCM), the private company that handles 80 percent of the UK’s cinema advertising. They have a simple rule: they don’t do political ads, and they don’t do religious ads. Period.

Like many people who make dumb mistakes, the church quickly sought to blame someone else. They say they are “bewildered” by the decision. Politicians, of course, immediately leapt to religion’s defense. Even the prime minister is trying to intimidate DCM into disseminating God industry propaganda it doesn’t feel like disseminating. The government’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has some teeth, is darkly hinting that it undermines “essential British values” for DCM to exercise its own judgment about what advertisements it wants to show its own customers instead of bowing to that of the Church of England.

The stated reason for DCM’s policy is that some theatre patrons find religious or political advertising “offensive.” Dawkins, acting as an expert on what should and should not offend others, said, “If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.” That line of reasoning, which the American Humanist Association has been fighting against tooth-and-nail for decades, would justify permitting prayers at all kinds of circumstances, from sporting events to public school classes to trials in court. If Ted Cruz were to say something like that, most humanists would (quite rightly) jump all over him.

I think a more precise word than “offended” in the movie context would be “annoyed.” I spend my own money, not someone else’s, when I go to the movies. If before I get to watch the movie, I came to see I have to be screamed at by a Donald Trump, prayed at by an Archbishop Welby, vilified as an infidel by a Muslim imam, or threatened with reincarnation as a slug by a Hindu or Buddhist holy man, I wouldn’t be “offended” because I really don’t care what any of them think. But I would definitely be “annoyed,” because that’s not what I spent my money to see. The unmistakable message of this particular slick advertisement is that if you don’t pray, like all the good people are apparently doing, then something’s wrong with you. If someone wants to deliver that message, fine—but I don’t want to pay for the privilege of seeing it.

Movie theatre attendance in general has lagging, which is disastrous for companies like DCM. Attendance in 2014 was the lowest it’s been in nineteen years. There are lots of market reasons for this beyond the content of the pre-film advertising, but every little element of the theatre-going experience matters. Irritating customers with political and religious advertising is not a good strategy for this industry to begin to dig itself out of its hole.

DCM knows this. I’m sure they are wallowing in data analysis about what kind of advertising does and does not make them more money. Apparently they took a lot of flak over advertisements from both sides about last year’s Scottish independence referendum and resolved not to go through anything like that again. If they thought they could earn more money by running political and religious advertising than they could lose by annoying people like me, they would do so in a heartbeat.

Conspiracy theorists have reason to suspect that the church may have known exactly what it was doing with this ad all along and deliberately picked a fight with the most innocuous of touchy-feely advertisements in order to win sympathy—and contributions—for itself. Clearly the desire to bump up contribution levels is what drives a lot of the “War on Christmas” faux outrage here in the US. Cathy Lynn Grossman just published an excellent piece on this phenomenon entitled “Guardians of ‘Christmas Cred’ Reap Publicity, Donations.” Why should the UK be any different?

Is it noteworthy that the church picked a Star Wars movie to latch onto? After all, on the 2001 census, the Jedi religion was the fourth-largest in England, with more adherents than Buddhism or Judaism. There would have been a huge outcry if Christians had tried to tack their ad campaign onto a movie about anti-Semitism, like The Diary of Anne Frank or Gentleman’s Agreement. Yet riding on the coattails of a movie about persecution of Jedis is fair game.

Is turnabout fair play? The church and its political bootlickers are trying to coerce DCM into running a religious ad they don’t feel like running. They’re even threatening to bring a lawsuit, on the ground that DCM is “directly discriminating” against the church. By that logic, atheists, Satanists, or (better yet) Jedis should be able to place ads in Anglican church bulletins with messages like “The Bible praises genocide. We don’t. Come join us!” Otherwise, the people who publish these bulletins would be “directly discriminating” against religion, which is a terrible thing to do.

If the church is really desperate to have its slick advertisement run before the Star Wars movie, there is a simple way to accomplish this. All they have to do is take a tiny slice of their $10.1 billion investment portfolio and use it to buy DCM, which is owned by two of the theatre chains it serves. I don’t know how much DCM is worth, but I’m sure it’s much less than $10.1 billion. For that matter, they could probably buy up the chains as well. Then they can run all the tear-jerking ads they want and annoy customers to their heart’s content (other than those of us who would view this as the straw that breaks the camel’s back and choose to watch movies at home more often than we’re already doing).

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