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Atheism on the Bus

A while back someone from our church asked me what I thought about the prospect of the atheist bus ads, brainchild of British writer Ariane Sherine and enthusiastically supported by that most zealous of atheist proselytizers Prof. Richard Dawkins, making their way into Canada (apparently Toronto and Calgary are in the works, while Halifax has deemed the ads too controversial for public consumption).  On the left, is the slogan currently appearing on buses in the UK, Madrid, Washington D.C., and which you may see on a bus in Canada in the not-too-distant future.

There are many things that could be said about the content of the sign itself, but I’ll leave that aside for now.  All things considered, it’s fairly benign and probably not worthy of the attention that it is getting.  I spent three years riding buses and Sky-trains in Vancouver and I found much of the utterly banal and idiotic advertising plastered all over them—advertising that had nothing whatsoever to do with God’s existence or non-existence—a good deal more “offensive” than this.  But back to the initial question…

What I told the person in my church was that I don’t think Christians ought to be putting much (any?) energy into fighting these ads.  I think that in a country like Canada, with all kinds of different people who believe different things, it’s to be expected that various groups/ideologies will want to advertise their beliefs.

I lived in southern Alberta for most of my life and almost every week, as I drove the highway between Coaldale and Lethbridge, one particular business had some kind of Christian slogan or Bible verse on its sign.  I often didn’t like or agree with what the signs said, but (in my better moments) they spurred me to think more carefully about why I didn’t like/agree with them.  The church where I currently work has some kind of a faith-based message on it all the time (I like to think that ours are more thoughtful than many church signs out there, but I digress…) and many people have told us that they appreciate these signs because they get them thinking.  If it’s acceptable for the Christian community to advertise their beliefs in a religiously plural country, on what grounds can we refuse the atheists?  I think part of living in a country like Canada is being presented with the beliefs of others and learning how to discuss these beliefs respectfully and openly.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure how much these signs will actually accomplish.  Will people who had previously believed in God all of a sudden be converted to atheism because they read “There probably is no God” on a bus?  Perhaps, but I doubt it.  I think the signs could actually open up doors to meaningful discussions among people who maybe previously wouldn’t have paused to think about the bigger questions of life.  In my experience, many people just ignore these questions or pretend they don’t matter.  Perhaps this could be an ironic way of getting people thinking and talking about them again.  For me, it’s much easier (and more enjoyable) to have a discussion with an atheist who actually cares about the question of God’s existence than with someone who can’t be bothered to think about it.

My views were confirmed yesterday as I listened to CBC Radio’s The Point while running a few errands around town.  The prospect of the atheist bus ads coming to Canada was one of the topics under discussion and there were two people representing the opposing sides.  The woman who saw no problem with the ads (and who herself believed in God) argued largely along the lines I described above—they get people talking, people ought to be free to say what they think, Canada has many different religious beliefs, including atheism, etc.

The guy who opposed the ads seemed unable to come up with anything substantial besides that he thought they were antagonistic towards religious people (he never really said how they were antagonistic, despite repeated requests for him to do so) and he thought the content of the signs was “stupid” and unlikely to lead to any meaningful public discourse on the matter (the irony of making this statement on a public radio program apparently eluded him).  The overall impression he left was that of someone who was quite convinced that these ads represented a threat to him as a religious person but couldn’t really give a good reason why this was the case.

In my view, these ads are certainly no threat and Christians have no reason to fear them.  In fact, as soon as we move into defence mode, and look at this movement as something to be “defeated,” we have already lost sight of who we are and what we are to do.  As Christians, we are not called to “keep ______ a Christian nation” by preventing irreligious contaminants from entering our borders.  We are called to be salt and light, and to alway be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have with gentleness and respect.  Maybe a dose of atheism on the bus could provide us with an unexpected and highly ironic opportunity to do these very things.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I completely agree. The only “threat” these could possibly pose would be for a person who was on the verge of becoming an atheist anyway and was only holding back because of fear (or something like that). In such a case, the sign might give them courage to be true to their new lack of faith.

    Some how I doubt that this would apply to all that many people who wouldn’t become atheists anyway, and whatever the danger, it doesn’t justify silencing free speech. Rather, as you said, we should treat this as an opportunity for discussion, and be grateful for it.

    And besides, if you really want to fight that sort of thing, your better off responding in kind. 😉

    February 3, 2009
  2. Ha! Love the sign, Ken. I suspect there are many “alternative” versions of these signs floating out there already—all part of the “dialogue,” I suppose…

    You may be right about the person teetering between belief in God and atheism. I’m inclined to think that whatever one’s views happen to be, if they’re fragile enough to be decisively influenced by something as trivial as a bus ad, there wasn’t much there to begin with. Nevertheless, I don’t want to discount the possibility of these ads having a negative impact on some. I guess my hope would remain that it would be a conversation-starter rather than the final word on someone’s religious quest.

    February 3, 2009
  3. Ken #

    The ad makes me think of some questions.

    I wonder how one can assess the probability.

    If one fears the punishment of God, as the expression in the ad implies, is assurance that there is probably no God sufficient to avoid worry? I don’t think so.

    The ad seems to imply that there is a chance that God is real, and if God is real, that one may suffer in this life and the next as a result.

    I think the ad would offer more assurance to its target audience, those who associate God with punishment, if it simply said there is no God or, as people once said, God is dead.

    To me, it is the thought that probably there is no God that terrifies and diminishes my enjoyment of life. For most people, the death of God has come with sorrow, not enjoyment. I think, for example, of Thomas Hardy’s poem, God’s Funeral.

    February 3, 2009
    • I was hoping someone might address the content of the sign—thanks Ken. I think you’re right to point out that the sign presupposes a very specific kind of God—one whose chief purpose is to reward and punish, and who generally stands in the way of people enjoying life (the “big stick in the sky,” if you will). This is certainly the Dawkins-eye view of the kind of God people believe in, but I don’t know very many people with this simplistic a view of God. And as you say, if someone did believe in this kind of God, the assertion that this God “probably” doesn’t exist might not provide the requisite comfort.

      The idea that God’s absence might prevent enjoyment of life is something that seems totally off these folks’ radar (not least due to their simplistic understanding of God). If God is compassionate, merciful, just, and loving (qualities which get at least as much biblical air-time as punishment, if I’m not mistaken), belief might actually help one enjoy their lives more. Certainly the idea of a future hope has motivated many to live more courageously and compassionately in the present. The studies that I’ve come across certainly seem to suggest that far from producing guilt-ridden killjoys, belief in God is a factor in improving quality and longevity of life.

      February 4, 2009
  4. Ryan and Ken (the other one),
    That’s interesting… divine punishment did not even occur to me when I read the sign. My thought was rather the fear of leaving one’s community. I imagine there is a great deal of fear involved for those raised in a religious (even if only nominally so) household and community to reject that and possibly face ostracism for it.

    I would imagine the signs would have the greatest impact on people who are already more or less convinced of atheism intellectually but fear the social consequences of abandoning belief. Though a sign is, ultimately, a small thing, it may well make a difference to such a person.

    Still, I rather doubt that very many people in that position would not eventually come to the same conclusion (for or against belief) with or without the sign.

    February 3, 2009
  5. Ken (Brown), I wonder if the American and Canadian contexts might be a bit different with respect to the potential ostracism/social consequences of “coming out” as an atheist. I know that Dawkins certainly makes a good deal out of his emboldening of atheists around the world who were previously afraid to publicize their disbelief. I can only say that this doesn’t resonate with my experience in the Canadian context. I’m not sure atheism has the same kind of social unacceptability up here. I could be wrong, but that’s how it seems to me. Certainly in my experience at a public university, atheism seemed to be more or less assumed; religion was seen to be a kind of antiquated curiosity that a few people were still strangely determined to hang on to.

    Nonetheless, I realize that my experience is limited and in other contexts the concerns you highlight are real. As you say, though, the signs probably wouldn’t be doing all that much. The intellectual/spiritual groundwork would probably already have been laid; the sign might just move the belief from the private to the public category.

    February 4, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    While I would tend to agree that aggressive “over reactions” might be problematic and ultimately self defeating, I think to “under react” and say nothing could be the worse course of action.

    I think it important to identify who the target audience is. In my city (Mississauga) the predominant demographic served by buses are teenagers.

    One sided arguments that simplistically present the right style(are cool) and teenage self interest, too often take precedence over arguments of substance and communal/family concern, with this audience.

    Propaganda/ and most advertising, is a powerful political and social tool used to misinform and mislead and is particularly effective with a young audience. It is the responsibility of good mature people then, to challenge wrong ideas and inform correctly.

    I do agree that such signs give opportunity to engage others in useful discussion.

    I would hope that “God fearing” people everywhere capable of constructive debate, would take advantage of the opportunities these signs will create.

    February 4, 2009
  7. mdaele #

    With all due respect Paul under-reaction is not the danger in this case in fact it is the preferrable one.
    Consider for a moment the fervent uproar amoung Christians that one Dan Brown caused in the recent past. The undeniable threat perceived at the time of his book’s release certainly has had not any significant enduring impact save one:
    the underscoring of the reactive stupidity typical to fear induced Christian zeal.
    This is again such a case. Both the content and the context of this advertisement reveals the failings of this tactic – even I would suggest to teenagers who have an underlying distain and distrust for advertising in general.
    i would hope that “God fearing” people everywhere would not be interested in mounting constructive debate as in living out the radical claims of Christ’s principles. And perhaps idenitfying one’s self as a follower of Jesus could be less of an embarrassing proposition.

    February 4, 2009
  8. Good thoughts here Ryan, interestingly enough Jessica and I have been talking about this in January and Jessica was drafting a blog on this very subject and posted about it on the same day as you, we both laughed at how great minds think a like… but then i remembered that you share DNA with Gil…and the great mind thing was not fitting… ummm so hmmm….

    Anyways in all seriousness great thoughts. Check out Jessica’s take on it:

    PS- it was great seeing you in January and getting to chat with you!

    February 4, 2009
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Hey mdaele, I meant that (a) some reaction was better than none and (b) don’t underestimate the power of the media to influence, particularly the young.

    As for Dan Brown I think the lasting legacy is a better book deal and another movie. Though I do think it was important then, as it is now, to confront wrong assertions.

    I meet a lot of Christian people, (mostly fellow Catholics) through church, charismatic prayer meetings, core group participation in a large annual catholic charismatic event (Lift Jesus Higher rally), at work and on line. I can truthfully say that I have never met the type of Christian you describe at the end of paragraph two.

    I do encounter that “straw man” argument/accusation a lot though. Ironically in a way that I could honestly describe as ill informed, hostile(fear based?) and zealous. Maybe choosing not to believe in something bigger than oneself is a lot more burdensome than many might think.

    With regard to priorities I would agree that the way in which we live is more important than the “constructive debate” but good thoughts inform good actions; words and their ideas matter.

    Finally my friend if you’re striving to live a spirit directed life in Christ, for the glory of God, the good of yourself and as an example to others don’t stop to concern yourself about, “embarrassing propositions”.

    February 4, 2009
  10. Thanks for the kind words and for the link Paul (Morgun)—it’s on my “to read list” for tomorrow. It was nice to catch up with you a few weeks ago. I always enjoy spending time in Hepburn.

    February 5, 2009

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