Weighing in on atheist bus ads

“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.

2 Responses to “Weighing in on atheist bus ads”

  1. 1 TomB
    February 18, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    There is a difference between quoting scripture and what this campaign proposes. Scripture comes from a book which some believe, some don’t. Simply quoting it doesn’t tell anyone they are wrong.

    Now, these ads are different. Think about it this way. If we were talking in person and I said to you “Just accept that your entire belief system is probably wrong. Now, get on with your life!” I think you’d be offended. For me, these ads are offensive and I am a fairly liberal guy (I’ve voted Liberal, NDP and Green because I agree with them, not as a protest). So, are these ads offensive. Yes they are.

    Just my humble opinion. Thanks for all the writing you do. I enjoy your postings, especially the one with the pics of downtown along the Rideau Canal. I shared your posting with many people who also found it fascinating.

  2. 2 David McClelland
    February 18, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Tom.

    And I appreciate what you’re saying, but as far as I’m concerned they are basically the same. It’s true that they’re quoting from a book, but from my point of view those sorts of things—especially in public space—are basically saying the same thing, that my way of approaching the world is wrong, and you should look at it this way instead. I also feel I should point out that the ads use the word “probably” very deliberately. We, as atheists, can’t say definitely what the nature of the universe is, and on a certain level I think most of us acknowledge that we have to leave things somewhat open to interpretation. I think the main purpose of these ads is not necessarily to be evangelical, but rather to let the world know we’re here and that there’s nothing wrong with being an atheist.

    Of course, that all relates back to my paragraph in my post about keeping religion and religious debate out of public spaces, but I hope that I’ve clarified where I’m coming from a bit for you.

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Email: dmccl033(at)uottawa(dot)ca

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