An international effort by atheists to attack religious belief using bus advertisements has been met with mixed responses, retorts and, in one case, an ironic mechanical glitch.
When the first bus in Italy to boast such an advertisement rolled onto the roads of Genoa on Feb. 16, it suffered battery problems and immediately had to return to its depot for repairs. The media quipped that the bus “certainly did not have God on its side,” but a member of the Italian Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists insisted that the breakdown was “by pure chance.”
Buses elsewhere in the West rolled around with the ads in cities that would permit them. Usually boasting the words, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” the ad campaigns began in Britain in January and came to Canada later in the month, with Toronto being the first city to approve them. British comedy writer Ariane Sherine had come up with the idea and it was picked up by the British Humanist Association, along with atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins.
One British bus driver balked at having to drive one of 800 buses with the ad and instead went home for the day. Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency was flooded with protests from Christians asking for proof that the slogans were telling the truth.
In Italy, an ad with the claim that, “The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that we do not need him,” was rejected by a billboard agency. In Spain, the campaign was reportedly being met with indifference.
The Freethought Association of Canada brought the effort to this country. The association said by mid-February, it had raised $43,000 for the ad campaign in this country of 33.5 million. It hoped to bring the ads to cities like Calgary, Halifax, London, Ont., Kingston, Ont., Vancouver and Ottawa, but met up with roadblocks in terms of some city transit companies declining to run them.
In Kingston, the transit manager said the ads wouldn’t run on city buses, because there is a long-running prohibition on controversial content in advertising. That covers religion, politics, tobacco, alcohol, abortion or related issues, offensive or demeaning comments and libelous or illegal material.
In Vancouver, TransLink officials refused the ads, citing a 20-year-old prohibition on material that promotes or opposes a specific theology, religious ethic, point of view, policy or action. However, B.C. courts have, in recent years, ruled against the transit system, saying its policies have violated the right to freedom of expression.
OC Transpo in Ottawa also rejected the ads and was supported in its decision after a review by the municipality’s transit committee.
Some faith-based organizations decided to counter with ad campaigns of their own. The United Church of Canada launched a national newspaper effort at the start of February, twisting the atheists’ own words with the line: “There’s probably a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Even Canadian Muslims jumped into the act, with the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada planning to buy bus ads promoting an all-faith approach to religion. They were contemplating a slogan along the lines of: “God is merciful. God is with you and enjoy your life.”
Internationally, three separate pro-God ads – from the Christian Party, the Trinitarian Bible Society and the Russian Orthodox Church – were slated to be placed on buses in London, England with the line: “There definitely is a God.” Other countering campaigns were reported in the U.S., Italy, Spain and Australia.
The Washington Post says three of four people in the world consider themselves religious, while those of no faith are in a distinct minority. However, in some developed nations, particularly in Europe, an increasingly vocal non-religious movement has begun stirring.
The Canadian Catholic Civil Rights League speculated that the anti-God ad effort may end up backfiring on the atheists. “The promoters may get a surprise when the impact on belief in God proves to be positive,” the league said in a statement. “It is quite possible that the ads will do little more than provoke discussion of faith and belief. We are already seeing heated reaction in the phone-in shows and online polls about the ads … Free speech is a two-way street and interactive technologies have made it a very busy one.”
Christian apologist Ray Comfort has thrown down the gauntlet to Richard Dawkins, challenging the celebrity atheist to a one-hour debate with an offer of a $10,000 payment, win or lose. “The problem is that the god Mr. Dawkins doesn’t believe in doesn’t exist,” said Comfort. “Sadly, I have found that even evolution’s most staunch believers are afraid to debate, because they know that their case for atheism and evolution is less than extremely weak.”
Comfort is author of the new book, You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think and is involved in an effort to erect billboards across the U.S. that proclaim an atheist is, “Someone who believes nothing made everything – a scientific impossibility.” The campaign’s first billboard in Los Angeles is being viewed by persons in almost one million cars every week.
There may be an upside to this atheistic proselytizing.
Writing in the Guelph Mercury, Rev. Royal Hamel, said, “The advertisements encourage people to start thinking about God (and) God’s linkage to a life that is free from worry and filled with joy.” Ironically, Rev. Hamel noted, atheists have succeeded in initiating a discussion about God – and that Christians should welcome that.
“Actually Christians owe atheists big time for plastering slogans about God all over the public square – or at least public transportation,” wrote Rev. Hamel. “Christians should chill out, and not be so threatened and uptight. These slogans are like a gift. They give believers a perfect opportunity to speak up.”
He concluded his column: “Thank you, Richard Dawkins. I won’t stand in your way. Buy all the bus ads you want.”