The full-page New York Times advertisement by the Freedom From Religion Foundation was certainly blunt -- starting with its headline telling "liberal" and "nominal" Catholics that "It's Time to Consider Quitting the Catholic Church." Conservative Catholics were outraged and called the newspaper's leaders hypocrites, claiming they would never dare to run such a fierce and offensive ad that targeted believers in other faiths, especially Islam.
Sure enough, a group called Stop Islamization of America immediately produced a full-page advertisement that precisely mirrored the images and rhetoric of the anti-Catholic effort, including a headline telling "moderate" Muslims that "It's Time to Quit Islam."
Conservative Catholics were outraged -- again -- when Times leaders refused to run the anti-Muslim advertisement, claiming that to do so would endanger American troops.
Truth be told, the offended Catholics had little reason to be shocked if members of the Times hierarchy based their decisions on convictions similar to those recently aired by the leader of the British Broadcasting Corporation, another of the world's most influential news organizations.
For BBC director-general Mark Thompson, the key is to understand that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and believers in other minority religions share a "very close identity with ethnic minorities" and, thus, their beliefs deserve to be handled with special care.
Meanwhile, he said it's acceptable to subject Christians to more criticism and satire, to treat their beliefs with less sensitivity, because Christianity is a powerful, secure, majority religion -- even in an increasingly secular age.
"I think it is very different to talk about Christianity in the United Kingdom: a very broadly, literally established, but also metaphorically established, part of our kind of culturally built landscape," said Thompson, in an interview recorded for the FreeSpeechDebate.com project produced by St. Antony's College, Oxford.
Christianity, he argued, is a "broad-shouldered religion, compared to religions which in the UK have a very close identity with ethnic minorities, where, you know, it's not as if as it were Islam is randomly spread across the UK population. It's almost entirely a religion practiced by people who may already feel in other ways isolated, prejudiced against, and where they may well regard an attack on their religion as racism by other means."
Thus, Thompson said, it's appropriate for media and government leaders to use a more protective, cautious standard when judging the contents of news and entertainment that could be viewed as threatening to believers whose faith is in some real way tied to their racial identities.
On the other hand, he stressed, "I do not think that it's appropriate that there should be laws inhibiting freedom of speech in the interest of protecting religions. That doesn't mean I think necessarily you should publish or broadcast anything."
Muslims, for example, are more offended by criticism or satire of Muhammad than most Christians are of similar media products about Jesus, said Thompson, who identified himself as a moderate, practicing Catholic.
"For a Muslim, a depiction -- particularly a comical or demeaning depiction of the Prophet Muhammad -- might have the force, the emotional force, of a piece of a grotesque child pornography. One of the mistakes seculars make is, I think, not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief."
Of course, debates on this subject have also been shaped by political and religious realities in an increasingly tense world. It's hard, said Thompson, to hold discussions of sacrilege and blasphemy in England and the western world without mentioning Salman Rushdie and "The Satanic Verses," his 1988 novel that was in part inspired by the life of Muhammad. The book was burned and banned in some parts of the world and, ultimately, led to a fatwa urging all devout Muslims to kill Rushdie -- who continues to live in hiding decades later.
Historian Timothy Garton Ash, who conducted the Oxford interview, said this threat of violence is a "rather nasty ace" that can be played by those who are willing to say, "I feel so strongly about that; if you say it or broadcast it, I will kill you."
Thompson responded: "Well, clearly it's a very notable move in the game, I mean without question. 'I complain in the strongest possible terms' is different from 'I complain in the strongest possible terms and I'm loading my AK47 as I write.' This definitely raises the stakes."