“There probably is no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Twelve words that have caused a lot of controversy, and not just in Ottawa. They’re the text of a series of ads placed on buses in a number of cities around the world, including London (UK) and Toronto. In Ottawa, meanwhile, the ads were flatly rejected by OC Transpo, citing an advertising policy that states: “Religious advertising which promotes a specific ideology, ethic, point of view, policy or action, which in the opinion of the City might be deemed prejudicial to other religious groups or offensive to users of the transit system is not permitted. Religious advertising will be permitted if the information is designed to promote a specific meeting, gathering or event and the location, date and time of said event.”
That’s all well and good, and I can understand that policy perfectly, if it weren’t for this, from another article: ”In 2007, OC Transpo approved ads for Bus Stop Bible Studies, a campaign on panels inside buses quoting scripture and asking life’s big questions. Roughly 2,400 ads have run in Calgary, Burlington and Toronto, but the sponsor has not yet raised enough money to place the ads on Ottawa buses.”
Regardless of the fact that these ads have not yet run, they were approved in principle well over a year ago. Based on the description, they seem to promote a clear religious ideology, but without being overly pushy or blatent, much like the proposed atheist ads. Of course, the subtext here is that qualifer on the first part of the policy, where the officials can deem something offensive. By extension, then, OC Transpo has basically just gone ahead and called atheism offensive.
Now, I’m an atheist, so I have a clear bias here. I’ve always felt fairly lucky to live when and where I do, because I’ve never really felt discriminated against for my beliefs, but this is a slap in the face. Based on the precedent of approving the Bus Stop Bible Studies campaign, there is absolutely no reason why the atheist campaign should be rejected. Really, it just makes the city look very close-minded and conservative, which is certainly not the image we should be projecting as Canada’s fourth largest urban area and national capital. In short, the decision is ridiculous, discriminatory, and borderline offensive.
The larger question, of course, is whether or not religious ads should be allowed at all in the public realm, to which I would say no. Religious debate is a tricky thing, and by wading into it—as seen in this case—officials risk being seen as taking sides and causing conflict. In private publications and the like is one thing, but with government-owned organizations like OC Transpo, there probably is a line that should be drawn.
All of that aside, though, I will be following this debate and how it turns out very closely. With any luck, a solution that is equitable to all will be found soon.