You may recall that a Christian group in Bath called “Healing on the Streets” was going about claiming that faith could heal all sorts of ailments: “Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness”. They got slapped down for making false claims, as they should have been.
Brendan O’Neill is outraged — this is a violation of freedom of religion! And then he goes on to make a really good analogy.
This is an outrageous attack on freedom of religion, on the basic right of people to express central tenets of their faith. Of course, the authorities have a role to play in keeping a check on the scientific claims made by businesses in their ads. If, for example, Pepsi suddenly announced that a can of its pop can cure backache, that should be challenged; likewise, companies that spout homeopathic claptrap can reasonably be asked to provide evidence for their claims. But the state and its offshoots have no business whatsoever sticking their snouts into the expression of a religious conviction, into the public articulation of faith, which is precisely what the HOTS leaflet was. Monitoring claims that are made in an explicitly scientific fashion is fine, but policing the expression of an inner conviction, of a profound belief in the healing qualities of God, is ludicrous and authoritarian. Not content with policing the public square, the ASA, it seems, now wants to monitor men’s souls too.
Well, yes, that’s a really good example. If Pepsi profited by selling more cans of pop by plastering them with misleading medical claims, that would be wrong, and it would be society’s responsibility to act to protect its more gullible members from predatory lies. But when HOTS tries to profit in its evangelical efforts by lying about their medical benefits, that isn’t offensive behavior because…? “Inner convictions” doesn’t cut it. There are plenty of scams going around with devout proponents — homeopathy, balance bracelets, libertarianism, crystal healing — but we don’t exempt them from laws against fraudulent advertising because their middle management is willing step up and say “I really, really believe”. Why does religion get this free pass?
Here’s another thought experiment. What if the CEO of Pepsi has a conversion experience, sees a vision of Jesus, and Jesus says unto him, “Lo, high fructose corn syrup is the true nectar of the gods, it’s all we drink up here in heaven. It’s what makes us immortal!” Could Pepsi now slap a new label on their cans that says “Now with eternal life!”?
What if all of their ads featured a charismatic preacher with big teeth and big hair and tap-dancing angels all singing about how Pepsi was Jesus’ favorite drink? Would that be sufficient evidence of “inner conviction” and justify any medical claims Pepsi might want to make?