The war of words between atheists and religious believers has entered a new chapter with the launch of Northern Ireland’s first ever humanist advertising campaign.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) yesterday unveiled a billboard with the slogan “Please Don't Label Me. Let Me Grow Up And Choose For Myself” on one Belfast’s busiest routes.
It’s a follow-up to its atheist buses campaign that ran earlier this year in parts of the UK.
The giant poster, at the junction of Great Victoria Street and Bruce Street, shows a photograph of a young girl against the backdrop of “shadowy” descriptions such as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.
Organisers said the descriptions were mixed in with other labels that people would “never apply” to young children like Marxist, anarchist, socialist, libertarian or humanist. They argue that children should be given the freedom to decide for themselves which, if any, ideology they follow.
However, religious leaders across Northern Ireland have hit out at the BHA, accusing the organisation of arrogance and hypocrisy.
Reverend David McIlveen from the Free Presbyterian Church said: “It is none of their business how people bring up their children. It is the height of arrogance that the BHA would even assume to tell people not to instruct their children in the religion.
“I would totally reject the advertisement. It is reprehensible and so typical of the hypocrisy of the British Humanist Association today. They have a defeatist attitude and are just trying to draw attention to themselves. I think it is totally arrogant, presumptuous and sparks of total hypocrisy. I believe this doesn’t deserve a counter campaign. I will be expressing my public position on it in my own church on Sunday. I will be saying that this advert is another attack on the Biblical position of the family and will be totally rejecting it.
“It is a wasted campaign that will have no impact on family life in Northern Ireland.”
Father-of-four Sheikh Anwar Mady from the Belfast Islamic Centre added: “We believe that every child is born as a Muslim. Religion is not given by the family, but it is a natural religion given by our God at birth. The role of the family is to teach the traditions of the faith. But that faith is implanted at birth.”
The BHA said the billboards were being unveiled to coincide with Universal Children's Day on Friday.
Atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins, BHA vice president, said: “Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a “Marxist child”, an “anarchist child” or a “post-modernist child”.
“Yet children are routinely labelled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labelling any child too young to know their own opinions and our adverts will help to do that.”
Dean of Belfast Dr Houston McElvey said the humanist poster would have little impact on Christian believers.
“I am glad to live in a society where people have the right to express their point of view on a God in which I believe doesn’t need defending,” he said.
Fr Gary Donegan, from Holy Cross in north Belfast, said he hoped the campaign would open up debate on religious issues.
“One positive thing that could come from this is if it opens a debate on faith. I am not offended by it, but perhaps the money used for it could have been channelled better into a humanitarian cause.”