Monday, February 2, 2009

The Atheist Bus Campaign: Who Should Really be Offended?

First off, I have to admit that initially, the idea of an "Atheist Bus Campaign" made me cringe a bit.

I thought that the campaign, which has already been launched in Britain and Spain and is now coming to my hometown of Toronto, blurred one of the distinctions that I think separates non-believers from many religious groups -- an opposition to large-scale proselytization.

But seeing what the campaign consists of made me chuckle: it's a series of ads in buses, subways, and trains that simply proclaim, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" -- an upbeat, somewhat tongue-in-cheek-sounding statement that can just as easily be translated to, "Don't worry, be happy!"

Also, although the word "probably" was placed into the statement to satisfy legal advertising standards, it maintains another distinction between the rationalists and the religious -- the rejection of absolute certainty in the absence of evidence.

The idea for this campaign -- which is very controversial and has outraged religious groups in Europe and North America -- was first proposed by Ariane Sherine, who saw two bus ads from a website called, that quoted Luke 18:8, on her way to work. She expressed her response in a column in The Guardian last year:

"[Apart from the Biblical quote], there was also a web address on the ad, and when I visited the site... I received the following warning for anyone who doesn't 'accept the word of Jesus on the cross': 'You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels (demonic spirits)' (Matthew 25:41). Lots to look forward to, then.

Now, if I wanted to run a bus ad saying 'Beware - there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!' or 'The bits in orange juice aren't orange but plastic - don't drink them or you'll die!' I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims. But apparently you don't need evidence to run an ad suggesting we'll all face the ire of the son of man when he comes, then link to a website advocating endless pain for atheists."
At the end of the day, non-believers and rationalists will use words: they will question, challenge, and ask the religious for evidence supporting their beliefs and ideas -- applying the same standards to religious claims as they would to any scientific theory, political ideology, or legislative proposal. At the very most, they may satirize these beliefs and make jokes, all of which falls in the realm of non-violent free speech.

But what do the holy books -- which billions believe contain the indisputable word of God -- say about non-believers or those who question religion?

Start with Leviticus 24:16 in the Torah/Old Testament, which states clearly that "blasphemers" who question the Lord are to be stoned to death. (Remember, for Jews and Christians, this is God speaking.)

In Islam, the blood of one who converts out of Islam is halal (the Islamic equivalent of "kosher"), and numerous verses in the Quran speak about a "terrible fire" awaiting non-believers, where they will dwell for eternity.

The view of Christianity towards non-believers is pretty clear in Sherine's citation of Matthew 25:41. And to Catholics who have been outraged and hurt by this ad campaign, is it really worse than what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his Dominus Iesus?
"[Followers of other religions are] in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the [Roman Catholic] church, have the fullness of the means of salvation."
Another argument against the campaign from the religious right is that it is "hate speech". Again, there's no comparison.

It's well-known that the holy books advocate many forms of sexism, from saying that a woman's word (Quran, 2:282) or monetary worth (Leviticus 27:3-8) is half that of a man, to declaring that a woman who is not proven to be a virgin on her wedding night should be sent to her father's doorstep to be stoned to death (start at Deuteronomy 22:20 and read on), and that's just scratching the surface. Homophobia also figures prominently in the holy texts, and the Pope himself pulled an Ahmedinejad when he called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil" and an "objective disorder".

And again, what do the scriptures say about the non-believers?

Apart from being sentenced to death here on earth for simply questioning these beliefs and scriptures, non-believers are also promised eternal damnation in hell, and considered to be immoral, evil agents of Satan that have gone astray. Hate speech, anyone?

Which side over here should really be offended?

Let's get real. The ad may not be the best idea ever, but it's fun, it's satirical, and it's a smart, funny response to similar ads from the religious community that aim to use fear and guilt to make you feel bad about yourself and give them your support and money (that they don't have to pay taxes on, by the way). These are the people that persecuted Galileo for saying the world was really not flat, but round, and still reject evolution in the face of evidence like fossils, molecular genetics, and the innumerable species of bacteria that have evolved over the last few decades to become resistant to penicillin. Worse, these ideas frequently find their way into our legislation, foreign policy, and public schools.

Let's welcome the much-needed dialogue that the ad campaign brings to Toronto and other cities after it. When President Barack Obama acknowledged non-believers in his inaugural speech, he was acknowledging between 10% to 16% of the population of the United States (more than 25% of 18-25 year olds) -- that's more than Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists combined and doubled.

It'll be okay. Now stop worrying, and enjoy your life!


Maha said...

I loved that advert! I think not only does it ridicule this concept of God, it tells people to stop thinking so hard already.

It's one thing to throw yourself at ridiculous concepts in religion because you are in stark denial of your upcoming death, it's another to start being exclusive about who gets to come with you and who doesn't.

I'm reading Satanic Verses right now, it's no wonder Rushdie pissed off those clerics. ;)

Anonymous said...

Muslims are always confused - by which Bible verses are used in Christianity - usually they point to the old Testament and say - look here is what your Bible says -

So let me explain - the Old Testament is considered the 'Law', what was appalling to Jesus was people's strict adherence to this Law over things like love and even truth.

So where the Old Testament says - don't eat pork - Jesus told his followers - that it is not what goes into a man that defiles him - it is what comes out.

Do you see?

And there are numerous cases that reflect Jesus wishing people to drop the Law and tradition in favor of say loving thy neighbor as thyself.

Where the Law said that a woman should be stoned for adultery - Jesus said - let those who have not sinned throw the first stone.

Or where the Law says that an individual must keep the Sabbath day holy - Jesus said if one of your sheep was lost on the Sabbath - wouldn't you go out and look for it.

This is why - in a sense Christians could not adopt Islam - because of Islam's or Muhammed's request that his followers strictly adhere to religious Law/tradition - as the Catholic Pope pointed out (by quoting a Constantinople ruler) even above and beyond rationality.

For Jesus loving your neighbor would have had to come over adherence to any religious Law or tradition. For instance Jesus would say that a person would see the Kingdom of Heaven - not because they took up his religion - (he had none) - but because that person was truthful.

Unlike Muhammad who had very specific specific lines of the believer and the non-believer - the non-believer being someone who did not accept his religion.

Christianity is centered around the life and teachings of Jesus - and a Christian may selectively read or tell the stories from the Old Testament (Psalms are a favorite), but these instructions are rarely if ever followed - these verses are more of an historic value.

He told people to pray in private - and not to make a public show of their beliefs.

Jesus taught that all were equal under his teachings - men, women and children. And he also said that with faith all can do the things he did and greater - so he literally gave you the power to be as he was.

This is very different from Islam - indeed the recorded lives of Muhammad and Jesus could not have been more different.

To find out about Jesus read Mathews in the Bible.

But I'm not a Christian.

I don't think there is a God !!

I feel it somewhat insulting that someone - can say their religion is important to them - and that that in code means that their belief should override mine. Kind of like what Muslims often do today.

I totally respect the atheist campaign to promote the belief that we are in space among millions of stars and planets - special but maybe not one of a kind - there is no God's wrath - only opposite reactions to our own behavior and that of nature.

Belief has nothing to do with religion - religion has no control over the person's ability to believe or to have faith in an idea or outcome - that has more to do with our place in the universe - than any one man who lived in a desert and claimed to receive messages from God. And if indeed God is all - then I must be God too !!

Ali A. Rizvi said...

Thank you for your comments.

Anonymous, if I had to choose a religious figure to follow (which I don't), I'd probably choose Jesus for his character, at least the way it's described. But behind the forgiveness and love and turning the other cheek, there's still the same question:

What happens to those who don't accept Jesus as their savior? Where do they go and for how long?

The idea that those who don't agree to think the way we do will be in hell forever ('a gravely deficient' situation according to the Pope) is using fear to manipulate people. It's the business of saving souls. If you're not saved, you're not only unenlightened, but will deservingly dwell in fire and torture forever in the afterlife. That's part of Christianity too, not just Islam and Judaism.

Jack said...

Its always irritating when atheists pose as rationalists but try to pass of their dogma as reason. For instance, the statement: God does not probably exist. Probability is a mathematical concept. So how was this probability calculated? Theoretical physics is undergoing an internal debate to account for the highly finely tuned constants that make a highly improbably universe possible and while creative design will not be the final resolution, many find it worthwhile to confront this explanation and come up with an alternative. The point is in physics a creator is not irrational as atheist would have us believe.(There is the word "believe" again.)
Also in your article you have quoted Jesus out of context in Matthew 25:41 There he advocates hell not for nonbelievers but for people who reject mercy and love.I have included the context below for you. But it goes to show that sometimes when we do not have full knowledge about a situation, in the case of the atheists - God; and in your case, Jesus and the Bible; we ought to be more humble and less dismissive.

41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'