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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

The Bus Wars

We all now know about the city bus ad campaigns, first started in Britain by secularists who encouraged readers that “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and just enjoy your life.”

Here in Vancouver, our local Translink board has forbidden secular humanists from blessing our region with their own version of it. Translink has ruled that their message falls under this regulation:

“No advertisement will be accepted which promotes or opposes a specific theology or religious ethic, point of view, policy or action.”

The secular humanists are appealing this decision, outraged to be lumped in with the religions they so devoutly oppose. But the Translink board is in line with, among other authorities, the Supreme Court of the United States, which has for several decades recognized secular humanism as functionally a religion—and we professors of the academic study of religion would agree. That is, whatever ideology constitutes the center of concern for an individual or group is de facto a religion. So the Translink board is right to forbid the secular humanists from mounting their ad campaign if the board is not willing to let other religious groups do the same.

But why would Translink forbid ads about religious matters when they allow ads that are at least as provocative in terms of theology (let’s understand that term more broadly as metaphysics) or ethics? I think of political campaign ads, for example, that have been quite provocative in their espousal of this or that view of human life and what we ought to do about it. I also think of salacious or otherwise immoral consumer advertising that implicitly and sometimes explicitly recommends a “theology” and an ethics quite contrary to Christianity and other religious views. Why should those public messages be allowed and not the message of the secular humanists or of the Christians?

What we have here is a lingering distinction between “organized religion” and everything else.  We should be sophisticated enough to recognize now, however, that every message conveys something of a worldview and commends something of a way of life. And it is not at all clear that allowing implicit messages is somehow more appropriate than allowing explicit ones. One might argue, in fact, that the implicit ones affect us insidiously—and are therefore more dangerous—while the explicit ones are simply there to take or leave as one will.

In fairness, however, what such policies likely have in view is preserving a public space such that everyone can inhabit it without too high a level of discomfort. That’s why advertisements generally are forbidden that, in the view of such boards, are too salacious or otherwise too challenging to people’s values. (Whether they always make the right decision, of course, is a matter of opinion–but that’s what they clearly try to do.) Because religion in the nature of the case deals with people’s ultimate values quite explicitly, then all such religious messages are ruled out of order. And given the increasing levels of violence associated with religion around the world, one cannot help but sympathize with such a concern.

Bottom line? I think Translink has a pretty sensible policy given the multiple concerns that have to be weighed here. And they certainly made the right decision about the secular humanist advertisement campaign, given their current policy.

Now, whether other transit companies have been wise in allowing the Dawkins campaign (and the subsequent counter-campaigns, such as the pathetic riposte from the United Church: “God probably does exist. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”) is something else again.

But these particular slogans seem awfully unprovocative. In fact, such feeble assertions reflect badly on both secularism and Christianity: I mean, that’s all we’ve got to say?!

As to whether buses should be allowed to carry more exciting signs that say, “We’re right; you’re wrong; go to hell” or “Religious people are stupid and dangerous and ought to be exiled” or “Prepare to meet thy God, and we’ll be glad to facilitate that meeting”—or the unfunny real-world parallels to these—well, it makes me glad for the current policies. And you, too?


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