Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bus ban is the answer to atheists’ prayers

On behalf of atheists everywhere, I would like to extend congratulations and warmest regards to Ottawa city councillors Marianne Wilkinson, Rainer Bloess, and Doug Thompson.

On Thursday, the city’s transit committee deadlocked on a motion to overturn OC Transpo’s bizarre refusal to run bus ads bearing the bland statement: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Only the steadfast opposition of the Sensitive Three stood between the citizens of Ottawa and the psychological shock of being exposed to an unremarkable and politely expressed idea.

The matter will now be considered by the full city council.

I urge the councillors to fight on. Stop those ads. Nothing could be better for atheism.

Just look at what the Sensitive Three have already accomplished. Ads by religious organizations are permitted on city buses, within certain guidelines, and some of those ads explicitly or implicitly assert the existence of god. By refusing to run ads that claim the opposite, the councillors have exposed the double-standard that rings religion like an electrified fence.

“I don’t think we should be demeaning people in advertising on OC Transpo,” Ms. Wilkinson argues. “I think the words are offensive to everyone who believes in God, regardless of what religion they are. To me, as a Christian, it is demeaning. It grates on me.”

Please, Ms. Wilkinson. Keep talking. You’re making the case better than I ever could.

Look at precisely what the ad says. First, god probably does not exist. Then it expresses a sentiment very close to “Have a Nice Day!”

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Analyze it with an electron microscope if you wish, but you will not find anything in that statement that “demeans” those who believe in god. It is simply a claim followed by a platitude.

What really grates on Ms. Wilkinson and the very sensitive people she speaks for is that the ad’s claim is contrary to what she believes to be true. There’s nothing more to it because there’s nothing more to the ad.

Now, advertising routinely makes claims that some people do not accept. Pepsi tastes better than Coke. Fox News is fair and balanced. Marianne Wilkinson should be re-elected. God exists.

No reasonable person would think for a moment that these claims are demeaning to those who disagree with them, nor would they think twice before admitting them to the public forum. I, for one, disagree with all these statements and yet I feel not the slightest urge to suppress them.

But a claim that “god probably does not exist” is nothing less than a linguistic assault on those who disagree and thus must not be permitted to besmirch city buses.

“I don’t follow the logic,” David Harrison, founder of Bus Stop Bible Study, told the Citizen. “Why would they approve our (ads) and not theirs?”

Allow me to answer that.

Mr. Harrison expects people to apply one standard to all. That’s only reasonable. But far too many people believe the standards that apply to all other subjects under the sun do not apply to religion.

If I say “Stephen Harper is Canada’s greatest prime minister,” you are entitled to disagree with considerable vigour. But if I say “God exists” and you disagree with the same vigour, you are an unconscionable bigot.

This double standard is how we got to the absurd situation where city buses carry ads asserting the existence of god without the slightest controversy but ads claiming god probably does not exist are offensive and forbidden. It also explains why otherwise intelligent people can’t see just how absurd that is.

For laying bare this illogical and indefensible double-standard, we atheists thank the Sensitive Three.

But that’s not the end of the gratitude we must express. Not at all. Every person who agrees with the statement “there’s probably no god” is further indebted to three councillors and the OC Traspo officials whose blinkered stupidity got this bus rolling in the first place.

Look at the paragraph above. See the statement “there’s probably no god”?

The Freethought Association of Canada wants to pay a great deal of money to put that on the side of buses so it can be splattered with slush and ignored by people shivering at bus stops across the city. By stopping them from doing so, the Sensitive Three turned the ad into news. And now that very same statement is popping up in reports and commentaries across the country.

It makes half a dozen appearances in this very column. And the Freethought Association didn’t pay a penny. Marketers call this “earned media,” as opposed to the paid variety. They love earned media for two reasons. One, it’s free. Free is good.

Earned media also has special value because people tend to screen out ads, or at least filter them. But news is not advertising. Get your message in the news and people won’t filter it, at least not the same way they would in an ad.

The conclusion for anyone with a message to spread is, don’t fear censorship. Embrace it. Hope to hell it happens. Pray for it, if you are so inclined.

And yes, this does make Marianne Wilkinson and her colleagues the answer to atheists’ prayers. Or it would if atheists prayed.

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