Recently it was announced that some atheists and the Freethought Foundation of Canada are planning to buy advertising space on Canadian transit systems in order to broadcast the message that “there’s probably no God.” Several cities’ transit systems, such as Halifax and Victoria, have already rejected the campaign.
Should this campaign be allowed? I can’t see how they can be denied the right to advertise. Such beliefs are clearly already part of the cultural landscape in which we live — a landscape in which free speech and freedom of religion are highly prized. So long as these ads do not incite hatred, no enduring harm will result. Of course, just as people have the freedom to run these ads, anyone reading them has the freedom to disagree completely.
Christian objections to these transit ads, or the objections of any other religious tradition, run the risk of painting themselves into a corner. If I enjoy the freedom to celebrate publicly the existence of God — which I do -— then others’ non-religious beliefs should be permitted in the public arena as well. If I forbid others to share their faith, or lack of it, I need to be prepared to have the public expression of my faith forbidden. Such silencing on either side does nothing to advance understanding, compassion and reconciliation.
It was in fact Christian messages about Jesus on buses in England that first prompted this campaign. In London and elsewhere, atheist-inspired bus advertising suggested “there’s probably no God.” Ironically, the credibility and durability of Christian faith — or any faith — are actually strengthened when such “atheist ads” invite public response. All religious belief is more convincing when we are willing to enter into debate and dialogue, rather than running away or shutting it down.
This is certainly a moment in history when we need plenty of dialogue to find deeper mutual understanding and respect. By knowing and trusting one another, let’s hope we can more effectively tackle the real crises of hunger, disease, war and poverty.
If atheist advertising appears in Canada, Christians and other religious groups need not overreact. People of faith have nothing to fear. The faith that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others have does not depend on everyone agreeing with them. After all, Canada has matured in the last decade. We have welcomed back into public life and conversation many dimensions of faith and spirituality.
Our many faith (and non-faith) traditions reveal exciting searches for meaning, transcendence, and ethical living. They are all part of what makes Canadian culture interesting, vibrant, creative — and free.