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.