“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
It’s certainly not everyone’s opinion, and it may or may not be yours – but if you’re a transit user in this city you’ll soon be seeing that message frequently.
It’s part of a controversial ad campaign by the Toronto-based Freethought Association of Canada that has been approved by the TTC to appear on buses and inside subway cars.
The spots, which were given the thumbs up by the transit commission late Wednesday, are already sparking heated debate. Charles McVety, president of the Canada Christian College in Toronto, calls them out-and-out attack ads. The evangelical leader said he hasn’t decided whether the group he heads up, the Canada Family Action Coalition, will formally complain about them once they start appearing on the transit vehicles.
“They’re attack ads and saying we worry and saying that we are not happy. That is an offensive statement,” he argues.
Neil MacCarthy, Archdiocese of Toronto, believes they may serve a purpose.
“If it evokes a discussion around religion and discussions around issues of faith, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s done respectfully.”
The ads were used in a similar campaign in Britain recently, and they’ve also adorned buses in Spain.
CityNews.ca spoke with Rabbi Reuven Tradburks of the Council for Orthodox Rabbis in Toronto to get his take.
“I think the issue has to be divided into two things: What is our personal reaction to an ad of that sort, and what’s the legal status of it? I think that legally, there’s freedom of speech and people can advertise whatever they want. There is always a certain point where it crosses what is appropriate for advertising in general, but there’s freedom of speech and people can do what they like,” he explains.
“I think on another level, personally, to see an ad that promotes or encourages people to adopt a view which rejects God in their life and therefore you can do whatever you want, that’s personally offending to me. I don’t like to see that, and it bothers me to see it.”
The Freethought Association, for its part, says the atheist messages aren’t meant to attack people’s religious beliefs but to promote dialogue.
“People welcome this. They may not agree with our point of view but they welcome the challenge, and the dialogue, and support our right to freedom of speech,” said Association spokesperson Justin Trottier.
Promote dialogue they have – Torontonians asked what they thought of the soon-to-appear spots had a lot to say.
“We are living in a multicultural country. That’s their right to express their belief,” said Willy Rablora. “But for me, whatever I see, I just read it, that’s it.”
And George Van Luven noted, “Personally, it doesn’t affect me – I’m sure a lot of people would be upset.”
“I think it’s a good message,” Doug Welsh opines. “Don’t worry about it, just get on with your life.”
But Erica Pugcaliwangan suggests, “It’s inappropriate. It’s kind of offending to some people that do believe in God.”
In a CityNews phone poll, 4020 respondents said ‘Yes’ they were offended by the ads, while 2543 respondents said ‘No’ they weren’t. On CityNews.ca, our web poll found more people on the other side of the debate – 674 people said they were off-put by the spots, while 767 people said they weren’t.
The TTC says the ads, which are supposed to start appearing in mid-February, don’t violate any of the transit commission’s rules, however the decision to approve them could be reviewed if there are complaints.
“Under the Ontario Human Rights Commission atheism is defined as a creed or a religion so we are required to run it,” TTC Chair Adam Giambrone explained.
The Freethought Association now plans to use a portion of the tens of thousands of dollars in donations it raised through a site called http://www.atheistbus.ca/ to post similar ads in Calgary and Halifax.