Atheists hope (don't pray) to bring ads to Toronto
Canadians say dialogue 'a healthy thing'
From Friday's Globe and Mail
January 16, 2009 at 4:37 AM EST
The atheist slogan, "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," may soon be coming to subways and buses in Canada's largest city.
The Toronto-based Freethought Association of Canada, inspired by a campaign that has plastered British buses with the phrase, has contacted the private firm that handles ads on the Toronto Transit Commission to see if the message would violate any rules. Organizers plan to launch a fundraising page on the website atheistbus.ca in the next few days.
The British campaign, which has inspired similar moves in Washington, Barcelona and Madrid, has sparked complaints to the country's advertising authority and a backlash from the evangelical group Christian Voice, which has proclaimed that Britain is in "deep sin."
Here in Canada, reaction to the idea from religious groups reached by The Globe and Mail was muted.
Journalist Ariane Sherine, who came up with the idea to have 800 buses in Britain carry a message promoting atheism, has endorsed a similar campaign in Toronto, where organizers hope to raise $6,000 to place ads on buses and in subway stations. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)
Neil MacCarthy, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, said it was difficult to comment on ads that he hasn't seen.
"The reality is that organized religion is often an easy target," he said. "... At the same time, this type of campaign would likely generate discussion and dialogue around faith. And that can be a healthy thing, as long as it is done respectfully."
The moderator of the United Church of Canada, Right Rev. David Giuliano, said he would rather see atheists say what they believe in, rather than what they are against.
But, pointing out that his church also uses advertising, he said he has some sympathy with the impetus behind the ads.
"I think most of these ads ... are responding to a version of God and Christianity that is grounded in a kind of judgment and fear and guilt," Mr. Giuliano said in an interview. "I don't believe in that God either."
Mohamed Elmasry, founder of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said he had no problem with the ads: "They have a system of belief like anybody else, and they are entitled to live with this system and also propagate it among others."
The effort to bring atheist ads to Toronto's transit system started with a Facebook group.
The website atheistbus.ca was launched this week by Chris Hammond, a first-year political science student at York University who has joined with the Freethought Association to mount a campaign.
The effort has been endorsed by Ariane Sherine, the British journalist and comedy writer who launched the London campaign.
Echoing Ms. Sherine - who said she wanted to counter London bus ads referring people to a website warning that non-Christians would roast in a "lake of fire," - Mr. Hammond, 22, said he wanted to answer ads quoting Bible verses that he had seen on TTC buses.
"There's atheists that are out there. This will show them they are not alone," Mr. Hammond said.
Organizers hope to raise at least $6,000 to buy ads on the TTC, which run from $315 for the back of a bus to $700 for a subway ad, said Katie Kish, vice-president of multimedia for the Freethought Association.
Toronto organizers can only hope - rather than pray, of course - for the reception that greeted the British campaign.
Originally, organizers there had aimed to raise £5,500, or about $10,000, to put ads on 30 London buses. Instead, they raised more than £144,000.
(The qualifier "probably" was included in the slogan both to satisfy Britain's ad regulator and scientific atheists, who reject anything that smacks of faith.)
TTC vice-chairman Joe Mihevc, a former Christian theologian who has long sat on the ad-review committee, said he would welcome the atheist ads: "What better place to have one of the key theological, philosophical debates of our time but on public transit?"