Atheist Bus Ads Turn Heads in Canada and Worldwide

Justin Trottier

The atheist ad campaign on public-transit buses in Canada was launched to raise much-needed discussion. It may have accomplished that goal even before the first ad-bearing bus left its depot on February 15, 2009.

The campaign’s slogan was: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” After over $45,000 was raised by the Freethought Association of Canada, ads were placed on buses in the major cities of Toronto, Ottawa, and Calgary. An unrelated campaign by the Humanists of Canada placed signs proclaiming “You Can Be Good Without God” in a major Toronto subway station, while the Humanist Association of Quebec placed French-language ads on Montreal buses.

The Canadian bus ad campaign is part of an international and very successful effort. Although a few smaller campaigns were already underway, the explosion’s real epicenter was London, England, where British comedy writer Ariane Sherine had had an unhappy experience after following the link placed on a religious ad on public transit. The Web site warned unbelievers of a rather gloomy future: “You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you will spend all eternity in torment in hell.” With an initial goal in October 2008 of raising a mere £5,500 (about US $8,000), the British Humanist Association, boosted by Richard Dawkins’s endorsement, has now raised over £140,000 for ads across Britain. Independent campaigns, most of which were inspired by Britain’s, are now either running or are in development in the nations of Spain, the Netherlands, the United States, Germany, Australia, Finland, Switzerland, Croatia, and Canada.

Some have used different slogans. In the United States, campaigns that were already in development prior to the British launch bore slogans like “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake” in Washington, D.C., while “Don’t Believe in God? You’re not alone” found its way into Texas and Colorado. Some have opted for other forms of advertising, such as billboards and even displays in government buildings.

Some groups had an easier time than others. In Australia, the U.K. slogan was refused, as was “Atheism—Celebrate reason.” In Italy, the original slogan, “The Bad News Is God Doesn’t Exist. The Good News Is You Don’t Need Him,” was deemed to “offend the moral, civic and religious convictions of the public.” The final accepted slogan was, “The Good News Is There Are Millions of Atheists in Italy; The Excellent News Is They Believe In Freedom Of Expression.”

Although we had no trouble in Toronto and Calgary, we did run into a roadblock in Canada’s largest maritime city, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our ads, which adopted the U.K. slogan, were first refused because they had sparked controversy. (How odd that successful advertising was deemed unacceptable, whereas an ad that had gone unnoticed might have had no trouble gaining approval.) The official policy was then, “All advertisements must meet acceptable community standards of good taste, quality, and appearance. Furthermore, the ads will not be considered discriminatory, or objectionable to any race creed or moral standard.”

Across Canada, some media outlets went further, referring to our message as “fanatical.” (If only all fanatics showed such restraint in the certainty of their position and then redirected people to appreciate this life on Earth.) When the Humanists of Canada were told that their ad—the modest and tame “You can be good without god.”—needed to be toned down, we were left wondering whether specific wording was really the issue.

The refusal to run our ads in certain key cities sparked two distinct controversies. In certain cases, it was clear that atheists were experiencing discrimination, which reinforced the consciousness-raising goal of the campaign. This was certainly true in Halifax, where the Bus Stop Bible Studies, an association that places quotes from the Bible in public transit, had in previous years been given permission to put up religious ads. When they asked to renew that agreement, they were denied and told that if they were to be given permission, atheists would have to be granted it, too. If our Human Rights Commissions were not so busy hearing censorship cases (such as against magazines that publish “offensive” articles), they might have come to the defense of atheists’ right to free expression.

Some cities in Canada have blanket policies against running any ad that is religious, political, or ideological. This raises an entirely separate question about everyone’s right to free expression, particularly in the public space, which may be answered very soon. Public agencies such as transit commissions are bound by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court of Canada is hearing an appeal from a case in which a British Columbia transit authority refused to run controversial political advertisements for the Canadian Federation of Students. Particularly ironic is the fact that the Federation is working tirelessly to impede any student club that defends the pro-life position on abortion from doing much of anything on campus. Few people seem to understand the concept of free speech or care to apply it consistently.

Some even fail to grasp its importance at all. Dean Steacy, the senior hate-speech investigator for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, once responded to a question about the value of free speech by declaring: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”

But there are champions. One is Alex Cullen, an Ottawa city councilor and chair of that city’s Transit Committee. When the ads were banned in Ottawa by a low-ranking official, Cullen appealed to the full committee, where his motion tied in a 3 to 3 vote. Not giving up, he appealed again, to the Ottawa City Council, where on March 11, after some tough debate and in front of groups of children bussed in from local Christian schools, the motion to overturn passed 13 to 7.

Possibly more significant than this win was the circulation of a document Cullen had the City of Ottawa’s solicitor prepare. The document argued that a Canadian city challenged legally for refusing to run the ads would likely be found in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This document is the sort that should be hung in the office of every transit commission and public agency in the country, since it is a landmark victory not only for atheists but for all those who value fundamental freedoms.

The fight continues, and while there probably is no God, what is not in doubt is that everyone has an opinion on the atheist bus-ad campaign. From the moment the campaign was announced in the Globe and Mail on January 16, the e-mail and phone calls started coming in. They haven’t stopped because the press continues covering the story. Press appearances have included every national and most city newspapers, repeated interviews on national news channels like the CBC and CTV, and a full-hour discussion on TV Ontario’s flagship show The Agenda. Our spokespeople have participated in more than two hundred interviews or publicized discussions. The blogosphere raised our impact another order of magnitude. The following summarizes the main critiques we’ve been receiving and some responses:

You are merely engaging in attack ads. Our goals are to educate and to raise consciousness. A surprising number of people insist that we are specifically targeting Christianity. It may be a curious sign of a deep-seated insecurity that an ad referring to God, and presumably covering Allah, Brahmin, Thor, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, would be instantly seen as an attack on a single religion.

Public transit is an inappropriate vehicle to use to get your message across. Until recently, when debates on broad issues of ethics or public policy took place in the public square, either in the pages of a newspaper or in government committees, it would be routine to invite representatives of faith communities. According to recent surveys, 23 percent of Canadians are atheists or agnostics. Atheism must quickly become a mainstream part of the public space, and so we opted to use a very obvious example of public space for our ads.

Your campaign is a sorry waste of money. Compare $45,000 in private donations to the over $100 million being funded from all levels of government to those registered charities in Canada that have no programs whatsoever other than advancing religion. Our modest sum will have been well-used if as a dividend it brings an often despised minority into the mainstream and allows a new voice to be heard on important public policies.

You’re polarizing the issue. The public response has been overwhelmingly positive, with many religious organizations joining the discussion. Rather than polarizing, we’re learning that there’s a spectrum of points of view among theists, just as among atheists. The United Church of Canada released a newspaper ad with our slogan accompanied by a slightly different one: “There probably is a god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Muslim Imam Syed Soharwardy, based in Calgary, launched a “pro-god” campaign in which he sought to unite believers to fund an ad stating “God cares for everyone . . . even for those who say He doesn’t exist!” But these responses have resulted in open and productive dialogue. For example, recently the Calgary Unitarian Church hosted a panel discussion with Soharwardy as well as a Unitarian minister and the bus campaign’s Calgary spokesperson Cliff Erasmus, chair of the Centre for Inquiry Community of Calgary. These gestures are representative of the overall positive reaction to the campaign.

Justin Trottier

Justin Trottier is the executive director of Centre for Inquiry in Canada.

The atheist ad campaign on public-transit buses in Canada was launched to raise much-needed discussion. It may have accomplished that goal even before the first ad-bearing bus left its depot on February 15, 2009. The campaign’s slogan was: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” After over $45,000 was raised by …

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