03/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Atheist Bus Campaign: Why it's Okay to Offend the Religious

First off, I have to admit that initially, the idea of an "Atheist Bus Campaign" made me cringe a bit.

I thought that the campaign, which has already been launched in Britain and Spain and is now coming to my hometown of Toronto, blurred one of the distinctions that I think separates non-believers from many religious groups -- an opposition to large-scale proselytization.

But seeing what the campaign consists of made me chuckle: it's a series of ads in buses, subways, and trains that simply proclaim, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" -- an upbeat, somewhat tongue-in-cheek-sounding statement that can just as easily be translated to, "Don't worry, be happy!"

Also, although the word "probably" was placed into the statement to satisfy legal advertising standards, it maintains another distinction between the rationalists and the religious -- the rejection of absolute certainty in the absence of evidence.

The idea for this campaign -- which is very controversial and has outraged religious groups in Europe and North America -- was first proposed by Ariane Sherine, who saw two bus ads from a website called, that quoted Luke 18:8, on her way to work. She expressed her response in a column in The Guardian last year:

"[Apart from the Biblical quote], there was also a web address on the ad, and when I visited the site... I received the following warning for anyone who doesn't 'accept the word of Jesus on the cross': 'You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels (demonic spirits)' (Matthew 25:41). Lots to look forward to, then.

Now, if I wanted to run a bus ad saying 'Beware - there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!' or 'The bits in orange juice aren't orange but plastic - don't drink them or you'll die!' I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims. But apparently you don't need evidence to run an ad suggesting we'll all face the ire of the son of man when he comes, then link to a website advocating endless pain for atheists."

At the end of the day, non-believers and rationalists will use words: they will question, challenge, and ask the religious for evidence supporting their beliefs and ideas -- applying the same standards to religious claims as they would to any scientific theory, political ideology, or legislative proposal. At the very most, they may satirize these beliefs and make jokes, all of which falls in the realm of non-violent free speech.

But what do the holy books -- which billions believe contain the indisputable word of God -- say about non-believers or those who question religion?

Start with Leviticus 24:16 in the Torah/Old Testament, which states clearly that "blasphemers" who question the Lord are to be stoned to death. (Remember, for Jews and Christians, this is God speaking.)

In Islam, the blood of one who converts out of Islam is halal (the Islamic equivalent of "kosher"), and numerous verses in the Quran speak about a "terrible fire" awaiting non-believers, where they will dwell for eternity.

The view of Christianity towards non-believers is pretty clear in Sherine's citation of Matthew 25:41. And to Catholics who have been outraged and hurt by this ad campaign, is it really worse than what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his Dominus Iesus?

"[Followers of other religions are] in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the [Roman Catholic] church, have the fullness of the means of salvation."

Another argument against the campaign from the religious right is that it is "hate speech". Again, there's no comparison.

It's well-known that the holy books advocate many forms of sexism, from saying that a woman's word (Quran, 2:282) or monetary worth (Leviticus 27:3-8) is half that of a man, to declaring that a woman who is not proven to be a virgin on her wedding night should be sent to her father's doorstep to be stoned to death (start at Deuteronomy 22:20 and read on), and that's just scratching the surface. Homophobia also figures prominently in the holy texts, and the Pope himself pulled an Ahmedinejad when he called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil" and an "objective disorder".

And again, what do the scriptures say about the non-believers?

Apart from being sentenced to death here on earth for simply questioning these beliefs and scriptures, non-believers are also promised eternal damnation in hell, and considered to be immoral, evil agents of Satan that have gone astray. Hate speech, anyone?

Which side over here should really be offended?

Let's get real. The ad may not be the best idea ever, but it's fun, it's satirical, and it's a smart, funny response to similar ads from the religious community that aim to use fear and guilt to make you feel bad about yourself and give them your support and money (that they don't have to pay taxes on, by the way). These are the people that persecuted Galileo for saying the world was really not flat, but round, and still reject evolution in the face of evidence like fossils, molecular genetics, and the innumerable species of bacteria that have evolved over the last few decades to become resistant to penicillin. Worse, these ideas frequently find their way into our legislation, foreign policy, and public schools.

Let's welcome the much-needed dialogue that the ad campaign brings to Toronto and other cities after it. When President Barack Obama acknowledged non-believers in his inaugural speech, he was acknowledging between 10% to 16% of the population of the United States (more than 25% of 18-25 year olds) -- that's more than Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists combined and doubled.

It'll be okay. Now stop worrying, and enjoy your life!