OC Transpo and atheism

2009-02-21

in Ottawa, Politics

In case anyone needed yet another reason to dislike OC Transpo, it seems they have decided not to allow a group of atheists to run the same bus ads that have been displayed in London and elsewhere. The ads read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

The ads will be running in Toronto and Calgary, though they have been rejected in Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Halifax, and London.

Naturally, it would be unthinkable for bus companies to refuse a similarly innocuous banner promoting a particular religious organization.

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan February 21, 2009 at 8:40 pm
R.K. February 21, 2009 at 8:57 pm

That is disappointing.

Still, I don’t think these ads are likely to change anyone’s mind about believing in god.

Sarah February 21, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Personally I think these atheist ads are stupid since the premises of sensible atheism (i.e. rational deduction and empirical evidence) are contrary to the premises of advertising. However, it strikes me as offensive and as a form of unwarranted censorship to refuse to carry an ad simply because it is representing a viewpoint contrary to that of oneself and/or vocal groups of citizens. Unfortunately there are plenty of other examples of transit authorities refusing to run ads from progressive organizations on the grounds that they are ‘political’ while accepting ads from rightwing groups such as ant-abortion clinics.

Tristan February 21, 2009 at 9:55 pm

I bet it’s the union that caused this – bunch of religious zealot communists.

Tristan February 21, 2009 at 9:57 pm

Sarah,

Are you implying that anyone who is an atheist, but not an empiricist or a rationalist, is un-sensible? I find that kind of dismissal of any non-reductive approach a bit theological in its hegemonic character.

Milan February 21, 2009 at 10:31 pm

I don’t think these ads are likely to change anyone’s mind about believing in god.

I don’t think committed theists are really the audience here. Rather, I think the most likely positive effect of the ads would be to convince existing atheists to be more vocal about it, and perhaps to more actively question those with religious convictions.

Sarah February 21, 2009 at 10:41 pm

As far as I am aware, almost all atheists in the West adopted (or at least claim to have adopted) their position on the basis of rational deduction and the available empirical evidence. Rather than being a worldview in itself as religions often are, I see atheism as the product of other worldviews about the nature of ‘truth’.
While I suppose it is possible that one might be an atheist by virtue of peer pressure, familial socialization, concerted efforts at brainwashing, really hip adverts etc. I would find that rather sad and, yes, un-sensible.

Tristan February 22, 2009 at 2:46 am

Sarah,

It’s pretty absurd that you would speak for “all atheists”. Also, that you wouldn’t call western scientific rationality a “worldview”. Also, what would you say that western scientific reductive rationalism has to say about the nature of truth? Scientists I speak to generally don’t want to argue that their work has anything to do with “truth”.

Also, by the way, there is can be no connection between empiricism and atheism, and this is pretty obvious. God is, by definition, the kind of thing you can’t have empirical knowledge of, so empiricism is by definition not the kind of thing that can decide anything with respect to God. You could be an empiricist and an atheist, but atheism can’t be a result of your empiricism. Whether or not you affirm the existence of things outside the purview of empiricism can not be, by definition, a question answered from within the scope of “empiricism”.

Tristan February 22, 2009 at 3:19 am

I think this is a serious unjustified silencing of speech. I would definitely attend a protest on this issue. The idea that atheism is ‘rude’ needs to stop.

Also, at some point, eating un-healthily should be considered as socially taboo as smoking is now.

BuddyRich February 22, 2009 at 9:04 am

(I recycled most of this comment that I left on another blog)

Personally I think there should be no religious advertising on public property, including these ads. That said, the city has allowed religious advertising in the past, so should allow this one.

I have no problem with them spreading their message of “there is no God” if that was their only message (which it wasn’t in the ad). More skepticism in the general public would be a good thing. And not just amongst the right-wing masses, many liberal causes are equally guilty of appealing to emotion rather than reason to spread their message (environmentalism comes to mind, as has been discussed on this blog, alternative vs. western medicine another, also discussed here).

In science you have discourse in a civilized manner, with peer reviewed articles published in respected journals. These articles dispute facts and never attack the person, which this ad did. Now an ad is not a scientific article, i’ll agree, but there is no way to empirically state that atheists enjoy life more than believers, yet they do, and that is what is wrong with the ad. The whole purpose of this ad was to cause controversy, and it succeeded given all the free publicity it is getting, however is this the sort of advertising we want to allow as a society?

I mean if the Virgin “Rock God” ads can be pulled as they were deemed misogynistic and demeaning to women (which they were) then they shouldn’t allow this because its demeaning to believers of God. It permeates an outdated stereotype that believers are meek, submissive, stick-in-the-mud, Ned Flanders copy cats.

Tristan February 22, 2009 at 11:12 am

“I think there should be no religious advertising on public property,”

I don’t think this can be a serious position. For one, it puts the advantage to those who have private property, i.e. the church – the Church can put advertising banners up on all its lands because that’s “private property”. Do you have a problem with a Church advertising its Christmas service in a newspaper – is that private enough? But newspapers are read in public property? What about the free dailys handed out on Skytrain and here in Toronto on the TTC – those are privately owned, but they are pushed on people in public places – should churchs or atheists be allowed to advertise in those?

The boundary between public and private property seems like a relatively arbitrary and insufficient boundary as to where religious advertising should be allowed. This is just to chant the mantra of de-regulation for the private – i.e. don’t regulate private tyranny, only explicitly public institutions need to have the public good taken into account.

The popularity of the idea that the problem with these ads is that they aren’t scientific enough, shows the sorry state of liberals with respect to anything that exceeds the scope of empiricism.

Milan February 22, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Arguably, the best reason to be an atheist is because the fiction of deities never occurred to you personally and nobody ever tried to teach it to you.

In the alternative, the best reason is a rational rejection of religious belief on the basis of the lack of any compelling evidence.

Milan February 22, 2009 at 12:07 pm

These articles dispute facts and never attack the person, which this ad did.

I really don’t see how this ad does anything of the sort.

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” is probably the most common emerging position, when it comes to religious faith. People are dubious about the existence of god, but not overly bothered about affirming it forcefully or thinking excessively about it.

Tristan February 22, 2009 at 4:36 pm

“, the best reason is a rational rejection of religious belief on the basis of the lack of any compelling evidence.”

I’m not satisfied with this. Don’t we believe lots of things without compelling evidence? What about the rightness of freedoms and of human flourishing? Do we have evidence of that?

As for arguments for the existence of a being which is not like tables and chairs, Aquinas’ first cause argument, borrowed from Aristotle, was only ever defeated by changing what counts as a philosophical question. The argument is familiar enough, that if we presume that everything has a cause, there must have been something for which there was no cause – otherwise it is impossible that we could give a complete explanation of anything. There are many ways out of this, there is the Kantian way (to say the completion of an uncognizable series is reason extending beyond cognition’s grasp), there is also the way which argues that there is nothing wrong with the incompleteness of explanation. I think the most convincing counter-argument is something like the Kantian one – to say that causality is a human category, a human construct, and that we needn’t assume that things in the world are “really” caused, all the way back, that if they are or not is not something we can know (when we try, we are mistaking “beings as they are for us” with “beings as they are not for us”).

But, the interesting thing about this argument, is that it re-enforces not “god” itself, but something like the notion of God as a necessary belief, or at least possible belief, resulting just from the way we understand the world in terms of causal relations.

Tristan February 22, 2009 at 4:39 pm

I second Milan’s position – that these adds are not offensive in the least. Although, perhaps they could be made even less offensive by taking an agnostic rather than atheistic position – they could say something like,

“You can’t really know if there is a God or not, is this really such an important question? How about just enjoying your life?”

Maybe before the first comma there could be a footnote, referencing the relevant antimony from the first critique.

randomreader February 22, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Dude, in all kindness, I think you need to get your arguments straight.

At first, you most ardently supported the atheists’ stance, averring that they have just as much right as any religious group to post whatever they’d like on public property. Now, you’re cautiously biting back your words, and saying that–“Hey! Maybe they shouldn’t have taken such an atheistic approach!” Yeah, talk about defeating the purpose. Why must the atheists cower at the thought of offending the religious, when the latter overtly splash their dogma all over the city? They have every right to–but in turn, they should grant us atheists the same courtesy.

And, are you even an atheist? Speaking as one (though of course, I can’t presume to be voicing out the group’s opinion), rational arguments ARE usually the basis of an atheist’s naturalistic worldview. That’s the whole point: faith is not based on fact, therefore it is rejected. I’m pretty certain most every atheist would tell you that.

This wasn’t meant to give offense to anyone. I respect your opinions (a half-baked apology?). :D

betsy February 22, 2009 at 6:53 pm

I was glad the ads won’t be allowed but I was glad for a very poor reason- I just don’t think they work well as advertisements. I agree with the “stop worrying and enjoy life” sentiment, but it could have been done in less pompously.

Milan February 22, 2009 at 7:02 pm

randomreader,

Who are you addressing?

betsy,

Who do you think the ads were aimed at? I think they were aimed at closet atheists, not dedicated believers. As a mechanism for encouraging atheists to be open about their view, I think they could be effective.

It would certainly be nice to reach the point, as a society, where being an atheist isn’t viewed with suspicion, if one is running for political office.

Sasha February 22, 2009 at 7:34 pm

I’m saddened but not surprised by the news. The City of Vancouver has become very comfortable with the habit of stifling debate and free speech ever since they became future-Olympic hosts. This follow in a long line of advertisements that haven’t been approved, including messages from Urban Native Youth (as well-known association) about the status of un-ceded land in BC, and many others. Their justification has pretty much been that anything that might provoke anyone or cause any international scrutiny that might not be wholly positive “is a risk that should not be taken at this sensitive time” (to quote a member of the transit board).

I’m an atheist because I’m allergic to dogma. I have an extremely difficult time accepting anything just because someone said so. Beyond that, I find it impossible to reconcile the atrocities committed in the name of religion with the principles they claim to espouse. I suspect that mix of basic critical thought plus rejection of hypocrisy is a leading cause of atheism in our generation – certainly, it is widespread among my personal compatriots.

Sasha February 22, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Also,
Tristan: “I bet it’s the union that caused this – bunch of religious zealot communists.”
Can I read a whole bunch of intended sarcasm into this? Otherwise, I’m completely baffled.

Tristan February 22, 2009 at 9:30 pm

Random reader person,

“And, are you even an atheist? Speaking as one (though of course, I can’t presume to be voicing out the group’s opinion), rational arguments ARE usually the basis of an atheist’s naturalistic worldview. That’s the whole point: faith is not based on fact, therefore it is rejected. I’m pretty certain most every atheist would tell you that.”

Are you serious? You think the point of rational argument is to speak “from” a specific position? This is the definition of appeal to authority, or some other kind of prejudice. The only reason anyone would take any argument seriously is because it is spoken, at least to some extent, from “any” position. Argument’s are strong or weak because of their content, not because of the position they are spoken from.

Who gives a flying fuck whether I’m atheist or not when I’m asserting arguments for free speech, for atheism, or for theism? To concentrate on what “I am” both distorts the issue, which is the argument (which you claim to champion), and assumes that I “am” something stable, so therefore changing my mind (which is suppose to be what you do fairly often if you respond to arguments) makes me less of a person, and I can be criticized for ‘flip flopping’.

Milan February 22, 2009 at 9:36 pm

To concentrate on what “I am” both distorts the issue, which is the argument (which you claim to champion), and assumes that I “am” something stable, so therefore changing my mind (which is suppose to be what you do fairly often if you respond to arguments) makes me less of a person, and I can be criticized for ‘flip flopping’.

Don’t worry. Those of us who follow your comments regularly appreciate that your positions can often exist in rancorous disagreement with one another.

Milan February 22, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Incidentally, the ‘randomreader’ in this discussion came from this discussion.

Tristan February 22, 2009 at 9:57 pm

I don’t understand how randomreader is related to that other discussion. Did he/she win the internship? I’d be surprised if the Economist were interested in such stringent identity politics, I thought it was a liberal publication.

Milan February 22, 2009 at 10:05 pm

I don’t understand how randomreader is related to that other discussion.

By email address provided. That’s what seeds the identicons beside comments. I would prefer it was based on IP addresses, since that would make it slightly harder for one computer to represent several people, but that is not the course that was chosen.

BuddyRich February 23, 2009 at 7:37 am

Tristan:

” I don’t think this can be a serious position. ”

and I think it can, we may agree to disagree here. Yes the church owns private property but given the latest statistic I saw said atheists account for up to 30% of the population, I am going to assume they also own property on which they could also advertise, if they chose. Now are atheists organized as a group? Not really but perhaps that what this ad wants to achieve, drum up a “fellowship” of atheists?

As for your other points about newspapers, etc. Sure they can, and so could the atheists.

As for asserting whether it is offensive or not, you are not a believer, so how could you even know? I am not one either, but I have talked to some Christian friends who were offended and some who weren’t. Everyone of the ones who were offended were offended by implication that they didn’t enjoy life as much as the next guy, not the assertion that there is “no God”…

Maybe those people that were offended are overly sensitive? I personally am not offended but I can see how one might take offense.

Milan:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” is probably the most common emerging position, when it comes to religious faith. People are dubious about the existence of god, but not overly bothered about affirming it forcefully or thinking excessively about it.

Which I agree with but its the not the only way to interpret that sentence. Depending on who the ad is directed at, there is also the implicit meaning that if one believes in God that you are worrying and not enjoying life.

Its not clear that they are directing it to fence-sitting non-believers or everyone who isn’t an atheist (including believers).

And I personally think they left it vague like that just to stir up controversy and get the free publicity. Bravo to them on their advertising strategy.

Dave February 23, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Just to provide some context: OC Transpo not only previously permitted ads by Christian religious groups (as you hint at), but also recently trotted out a Virgin Radio ad campaign featuring pictures of pregnant women and instructing fathers to “lock up your daughters” in advance of an upcoming rock concert.

Just to make it clear how far this company’s commitment to maintaining decent public “morality” really goes.

Alex February 25, 2009 at 7:14 am

In liberal-democratic states both religious and non-religious organizations should have the right to advertise on public spaces. However, there should be some public regulations. If religious and atheist organizations start engaging in an advertising race, I would be surprised if the latter won’t simply lose out for the simple fact of having a much smaller pool of potential donors.

As a believer I, of course, strongly disagree with the substance of the advertisement. The implicit suggestion that reflecting upon God and living a religious life are somehow preventing religious people from enjoying life is both anti-intellectual and absurd.

Both Miland and I generally enjoy our lives but, in relation to the religious question, we pursue different notions of joy. The fact that we both might be convinced that our subjective understanding of religion is superior to the other person’s does not imply the other person is unhappy or preoccupied by an irrelevant question.

oleh February 25, 2009 at 8:45 am

I found this discussion interesting to follow.

I also am puzzled as to why this advertisement was not allowed.

I would be interested to hear if OC (Ottawa Transit) has provided their reason (s) for not allowing the advertisement.

Tristan, I found your use of profanity in your entry of February 22 unsuitable I feel use of profanity can lower the level of discussion on a blog where there is generally quite solid discussion. It may also be seen as an attempt to demean or even censor the views of another. This would not be helpful and contrary to the general premise of accepting the views of others.

Tristan February 25, 2009 at 9:18 am

“As for asserting whether it is offensive or not, you are not a believer, so how could you even know? ”

Whether something is “offensive” in a free society is not the same as whether it offends someone. Lots of things offend people, but we don’t call them “offensive”. For example, I’m terribly offended by the reduction of all plant and human life to a set of scientifically graspable external relations, and I’m quite offended by the drive to think everything in terms of efficiency and production, but this doesn’t make science or technology “offensive”. What makes something “offensive” has to do not just with people’s absolute particularity (i.e. how could I know that because I’m not one – again, there’s no need for this kind of individuation in a liberal discussion, it always distorts the issue), but with something like a universal principle – like people have a right not to be ridiculed in the media (perhaps, I just made that up). Or perhaps, you shouldn’t be able to ridicule groups. You could try to use a principle like this to defend against anything that offends Christians (on the grounds not that they are offended, but that it is directed towards them in a ridiculing manner). But you’d then need to look at comparable cases, for example, someone would have to show why it was unacceptable to assert the non-existence of God in this kind of setting, when it’s completely acceptable to assert it’s existence – both as a logical proposition, and as a statement that is directed against the core beliefs of a group, there isn’t a significant difference between these two assertions.

I’m obviously not an expert on this – maybe the real question has something to do with the right to free speech being weighed against the right to not be discriminated against. But again – we’re not talking about peoples particular inner-conscience here, we’re talking about things that can all be understood on the surface, and from the standpoint of the other.

Milan February 25, 2009 at 10:22 am

In a free society, it is essential that people have the right to offend one another. Otherwise, the idea of free speech is meaningless.

If someone can silence you just by saying: “That offends me!” then you don’t have much in the way of freedom of expression.

Tristan February 25, 2009 at 4:33 pm

Milan,

I agree, but there still need to be limits to free speech to prevent oppression. Specifically what I was arguing is that there is nothing about understanding oppression that is based on the irreducible particularity of someone’s experience – because, like you rightly pointed out, in that case anyone could cause silence by declaring “That offends me” and they would not be expected to give an explanation that could in principle be understood by anyone, regardless of what position they were in.

I think liberalism needs to be understood within this kind of universal but not universalizing brickwork – not treat everyone “the same”, but treat everyone like anyone would want to be treated, i.e. as someone with particular needs, desires, hopes, and dreams.

Milan February 28, 2009 at 8:43 pm

I find it quite disturbing that the United Nations recently supported a measure to oppose the ‘defamation of religion.’

Being able to defame religion is a central aspect of freedom of speech. Just because someone thinks a thing is holy (communion, the Prophet Mohammad, trees, cows, etc), does not mean that people in free societies should not be able to comment upon it as they wish.

Within free societies, religious beliefs must be treated in the same way as those motivated by anything else.

. March 16, 2009 at 11:15 pm

The vote is in – Atheist ads will be allowed on Ottawa buses!
March 11, 7:33 PM

Today Councilors voted 13 – 7 to overturn the ruling that disallowed atheist ads on Ottawa buses. According to a report on the Ottawa Citizen Web site, “Bay Councillor Alex Cullen, chairman of council’s transit committee, said the right to express opinions is fundamental to a free society and a precious part of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Tristan March 17, 2009 at 10:11 am

I saw this advertisement on the Toronto subway yesterday, and it is awful. The font it is printed in has a very strange emotional effect – it’s not clean like an apple, but rough, dirty, which is out of touch, a bit, with the times. Gives the appearance of amateurishness and pettyness already just in the font.

As for the words, when you see it here on the computer screen, it looks so neutral. “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. But, of course, the sentences relate back on each other – the 2nd one implying that betting with Pascal, thinking there is a God, is somehow going to keep you from enjoying your life. But of course, the opposite could be very well the case – the actual recognition of there not being a God can be a cause of deep existential crisis. And, this of course doesn’t mean something like “Atheism” because almost all atheists believe in some kind of a higher power – i.e. the cause of scientific laws, of space, of time, of matter, of energy. Why are there things? Why do things relate to each other in a stable manner over time? The recognition that there is absolutely no answer to such a deep physics question is a cause for concern, because we are so used to having answers for everything.

But really, this is off the side. The add also says “There is probably no God.” I mean, this statement is absurdly stupid – what do you mean by “God”? Something like a man in the sky, like a flying spaghetti monster? We’ll, yes, of course, there is probably no God like that. But since Christianity is Platonism, I’ve never actually read a theologen who argued for such a God (and actually, even before Plato comes into Christianity, even in Paul, this would be a silly way to think of God). TO say “There is probably no God”, is the same as saying “There is probably no being”. So, “that things are” or “how things are” is a badly formed question. “Why are there beings?” “How are there beings?” Need to be answered with “There is probably no why of beings.” and “There is probably no how of beings.” What nonsense. There was a time when the atheist camp was revolutionary, used the cunning of reason, and pushed spirit forward. But now that God ceases to stir the hearts of men, atheists can do nothing other than fight needless battles with Christendom rather than begin the difficult work of recognizing the flight of God as a flight. Instead, neutral God figures are posited such as “energy”, “relations”, “strings” etc…

The essential aspect here, is that God was never anything other than perfection, form, and it was always other than this world. Never did we find perfection here, the word is a place of genesis and corruption. And yet, we have never come to terms with the imperfection of the world, we still thing in perfect/imperfect binaries. If you want some proof, all science is idealization, which means it is always false in the sense of “Truth is error” which simply means when you carry a “concept” right to the end it never shows up in the world. This was first demonstrated clearly by Hegel, but since we all reject German philosophy, we remain mostly, and that means our intellectual, social, scientific culture, remains mostly in the pre-Kantian nonsense of an antithesis between “rationalism” and “empiricism”.

oleh March 23, 2009 at 3:21 pm

Milan,

Thanks for providing the update of March 11 advising that the Ottawa City Council overturned the ban on this ad. It seems that the importance of freedom of speech prevailed.

I am curious if you can compare the prominence given by the media to the initial ban with that given to the Council’s decision to overturn it. Perhaps one measure would be the location and space given in the paper to each event.

. March 25, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Most Canadians indifferent to atheist bus ads: poll

The Canadian Press

March 25, 2009 at 3:26 PM EDT

OTTAWA — Atheist bus ads which proclaim: “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” provoke a yawn from most Canadians, a new poll suggests.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests Canadians are largely indifferent, although similar campaigns have sparked anger in Britain and parts of the United States.

The poll found 32 per cent of respondents opposed the ads, 20 per cent supported them and 43 per cent didn’t care one way or the other.

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