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Controversial Atheist Ads Make Their Way to Calgary

January 29, 2009 12:29 PM
by Josh Katz
Calgary is the newest city to experience atheist ads on public transit. The ads that began in Britain have also caused debate in countries such as Italy and Australia.

Atheist Ads Spark Debate in Calgary

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The atheist bus advertisements that began in London and spread throughout the world, including Toronto, have now made their way to Calgary, Alberta. The Toronto-based Freethought Association of Canada bought the bus and subway ads that officials in Calgary have approved. The ads say: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Justin Trottier, president of the atheist organization, said people from Calgary have been major supporters of the Canadian campaign, which has raised about $30,000. "About half our donations have come from outside Ontario, with a lot of response from Calgary and Halifax," said Trottier, according to the Calgary Herald.    

As was the case in other cities, the advertisements have made enemies. Bishop Fred Henry said that Catholics should protest the ads: “Absolutely they should, and why not? Catholics ought to push back," he said. "Calgary Transit says it will allow what doesn't offend—well, I'm offended," United Press International reports.

Dr. Charles McVety, president of the Canada Family Action Coalition and president of Canada Christian College in Toronto, is also opposed to the ads and is considering whether to issue a formal complaint, according to the Globe and Mail. "These ads are not saying what the atheists believe, they are attacking what other people believe," he said. "And if you look at the dictionary definition for ... bigot, that's exactly what it is, to be intolerant of someone else's belief system."

But Freethought spokeswoman Katie Kish said they are generating the right response. "Everybody's upset, and that means it's doing exactly what we want, which is creating a discussion," she said, according to UPI.

Background: Atheist bus campaigns around the world

Earlier in January, Barcelona began displaying atheist bus advertisements questioning the existence of God, using the same phrase that is being displayed in Calgary: “Probablemente Dios no existe. Deja de preocuparte y goza de la vida,” meaning, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy life.” 

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins helped spearhead the effort in the UK.

The privately funded ads were expected to incite controversy in the predominately Catholic country, more so than in the increasingly secular Britain. The campaigners plan on spreading the ads to other Spanish cities as well in the near future, including Madrid and Valencia, The Guardian reports.

In Britain, the organizers of the UK Atheist Bus Campaign first announced the idea in October 2008, not expecting to receive much funding. But it now boasts more than $200,000 and in January began displaying the message on 800 buses across the country, according to The New York Times.

The ad campaign has also crossed the Atlantic and surfaced in Washington, D.C. The American Humanist Association unveiled bus advertisements there in November, although the message was not as controversial: “Why believe in a god?” the ads read, next to a picture of a man wearing a Santa suit. “Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

Atheists tried to bring the campaign to Australia as well, but that effort was not as successful. The ads, "atheism—celebrate reason" or "atheism—sleep in on Sunday mornings," were rejected by APN Outdoor, the country's largest outdoor advertising company, according to The Daily Telegraph. Similar attempts failed in Tasmania when state-owned bus company Metro called them discriminatory and threatened legal action.

The campaign failed in Genoa, Italy, as well. "Right-wing politicians criticized us ferociously," according to Giorgio Villella of The Italian Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics. He went on to say, “It's strange that in a country where ads depicting near-naked women wearing skimpy lingerie is permitted on buses that we can't run ads about atheism.”

The campaign in Britain hasn’t generated much controversy. According to the Times, “the British effort has been striking in the lack of outrage it has generated.” The Methodist Church in Britain has said the campaign could be beneficial, as it encourages dialogue on religion.

Reference: Atheism and religion guides; Dawkins’ official Web site

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