The rhetoric of atheist bus ads

Click to go to their campaign website - I am sure they will appreciate the internet traffic.

From . Go to their campaign website - I am sure they will appreciate the internet traffic.

I just received an email from a concerned citizen about the advertisements that are appearing on our local City transit buses in some Canadian cities.

To find out more:  All of the bus ads from the UK campaign are here on their Atheist Bus website.   The Canadian Atheist Bus campaign website is here  – they also have a discussion board .

My correspondent was concerned that these were “hate ads,” and expressed her thoughts thus —

While the University may have the goal to invite communication (positive and negative) on this subject, I do not believe supporting this type of controversial “communication” is constructive or positive in a world that is already in distress.

So, is it hate speech, is it too distressing to talk about, and is it effective in achieving the goals of its authors?

Is it hate speech or unethical advertising?

Apparently the ad campaign was provoked by a Christian campaign.

The campaign was inspired by Guardian news journalist Ariane Sherine who wrote a July 2008 article complaining about a London bus advertisement by that said “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).  When she went to the website to which it referred her, Ms. Sherine wrote,

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).

Our society continues to debate the definition of “hate speech.”  For current laws and court rulings in Canada, especially on the topic of religious hate speech, see this page of the Religious Tolerance website and you will see very recent activity in various public forums.

Interestingly, the religious tolerance site says that according to current law in Canada,

Sexual orientation has now joined four other groups protected against hate speech on the basis of their “color, race, religion or ethnic origin.

BUT surprisingly, religiously motivated hate speech is allowed in Canada, which seems like inequity to me.

[ … ] a “not withstanding” type clause allows hate speech if it is religiously motivated. In essence, the law states that the freedom of one person to express religiously-motivated hatred is given higher priority that the freedom of another person to be free of hatred expressed against them.

Although there are many people online claiming that the bus ads are hate speech, I have seen no official resistance to them in Canada except one instance of political resistance. According to the CBC, The city of Halifax has decided not to run the ads.  However, the UK Advertising Standards Authority ruled on Jan. 21, 2009 that the bus ads follow their regulations.

I do not believe that it is an example of “hate speech.”  There are many ways of responding to the advertisement if you are an atheist, agnostic or religious reader.  Its interpretation does not always lead one to ridicule or hate religious people, even if it does question the truthfulness or value religious beliefs (which is allowed in our society).  It does not even hint at suggesting we should be violent or limit the rights of religious people.

Questions for further analysis

Even if a future court decides it is, or is not, technically “hate speech,” it is still worthy of being discussed and one should not be silenced or shut down as if the debate were closed.  We continually have to make decisions on what is or is not ethical communication even when we have incomplete evidence and have not heard all arguments; decisions do not “close the book” on an issue.

It is a controversial advertisement with various ethical possibilities.  There are many unanswered questions about its claims and unstated presumptions.

  • Does belief in a God lead to worry and an unhappy life?
  • Does the contrary belief lead to a happy, worry-free life?
  • What forms of evidence and which paradigms of interpretation lead to the bias toward this belief expressed by the word “probably”?
  • Do the varied quotations above the slogan lend valid authority to its advice?
  • What political agendas are underneath the ad, and what will the donations really be used for?
  • Is there enough productive public debate among atheists/agnostics or people of faith?

These questions do invite reasoned responses and discussion, hopefully between atheists and people of faith as well as among atheists and among people in faith groups.  Some of these questions are indeed addressed by the bus ad campaign website.

In fact, these are questions that may well be raised about a religious advertisement by a faith group.

Communicating constructively in a world that is already in distress

As for the harm of engaging in controversial communication “in a world that is already in distress,” one may argue that some part or aspect of the world is always in distress (economic, political, environmental, etc.) and therefore we should not talk about anything that might upset people emotionally.   Discussion could of course lead to stress and more distress, but it could also be most valuable at times of distress.  People who are distressed often seek out counselling so that they can talk about what distresses them, so talk can be a healing and clarifying process.

Besides, an engaging, insightful discussion would not be likely to occur on certain topics if there were no distress about them at all (either emotional or intellectual).  I could argue that “the sky is blue,” but nobody may currently be distressed about my claim —  unless the sky is currently black at night, or pink with a sunset glow, or someone is color blind and it’s a cloudless day.

Anyone can be blind to a real or potential ethical harm of communicating a certain way (or failing to communicate), and so we need to set each other straight.   Communication on a controversial issue may lead to less overall distress and more mutual understanding in the long run … if it is handled well.

Constructive public communication

Since I am a professor of rhetoric, I hope to offer some guidance for a healthy debate.

First of all, it is important to know who is involved in the debate, what is at stake, and what issues are appearing so far, before entering the conversation naively.  That way you can be more conscious of making a constructive contribution, not one that is off topic or makes an incorrect assumption.  I would recommend research using the website links at the head of the post.

Universities may productively engage in the public debate about the ads in campus forums or in classrooms.  Individual citizens can voice their concerns to the city, their city aldermen, and transit authority, and the makers of the advertisements, and to each other.

Here are some ethical questions to consider for the broader debate about ethical communication (loosely based on the rhetoric textbook by K. Campbell and S. Huxman, (2009) The Rhetorical Act, 4th ed. chapter 11.

  • have its explicit claims been proven false? (advertising has the right to make vague claims, or claims about values or beliefs that cannot be proven)
  • does it promote social harmony or discord?  (however, some types of discord must be permitted.  Debate among discordant views is valued in democratic society and may lead eventually to improved harmony once different views are voiced and understood)
  • is this an appropriate forum for such messages? (the argument “it is unprecedented in this space” is not enough to claim it is ethically inappropriate.)
  • what are the long term consequences for society if its message achieves its goals?
  • what precedent does it set for the norms of communication?
  • would censorship of this message cause other valid yet controversial messages to be censored?

I encourage us to carefully research the situation and voice concerns with good reasoning (and to listen carefully to other people too).

Is/was the campaign effective?

Effectiveness is partly determined by what the organization set out to do.

The AtheistBus organization in Canada claims these are its aims for the campaign:

to raise awareness of the presence of non-believers in our country, to make it okay for people step out of the closet …

to educate those who may not know about religious alternatives …

to open up communication between faith communities and secular organizations …

to raise $7000 by the beginning of May

Is it effective in terms of gaining attention and money? yes it’s effective.  See, we’re talking about it too.

See the various measures of the UK campaign’s immediate effectiveness by Duayne Raymond on the Fair Say site, October 2008. See also this U Talk Marketing article with charts about its donations.

According to the Washington Post, (Atheists’ bus ad campaign gains global momentum, January 26, 2009,

similar drives are under way or planned in Spain, Italy, Canada and Australia


To date, the campaign has raised upwards of $190,000.

Is it effective in terms of generating more public debate and discourse from various sides of the issue?  Potentially, yes.

In the UK, the campaign has been effective in generating more thought and public discourse on the subject, whether taken seriously or humorously.

The Guardian news reports that various organizations are using the bus as a medium to engage in more discourse on the issue (Let there be adverts: Christians hit back at the atheist bus, 5 Feb, 2009).

The organization has graciously allowed a Bus Slogan Generator to offer people the freedom to create their own image of a bus slogan with the same design.   Just google “bus slogan generator” and you may find some new bus slogan images people have created.  The Guardian newspaper in the UK has invited people to join in submitting their revised slogans to a contest (The great bus slogan competition, 6 Feb, 2009) .

According to the Washington Post, the American Humanist Association in the United States has not just translated the ad verbatim.  It has thought up a slogan that is more appropriate to the common association between religion and morality in US culture:  “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

Ultimately the campaign’s rhetorical effectiveness is impossible to measure because no single message is usually responsible for informing, changing beliefs, or inspiring/maintaining actions — it usually takes a lot of other messages over time, and various other factors, to persuade an individual or start a movement of social change.


4 thoughts on “The rhetoric of atheist bus ads

  1. Tania:

    Fine work on the contextualization of the bus ads. Another resource you might want to post is John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (1859), which contains a clear and easily followed explanation of why public debate on controversial topics is a necessary component of a democratic society. Mill’s concept of democracy as benefitting from a “marketplace of ideas” is especially apt in a commerce-oriented culture: it might be a good subject for another blog entry. The text is available online at:
    and other sources.

    We have been following the bus ad story since it first surfaced. I see it as a rising public voice for one of the last minority(?) groups to be recognized even in liberal societies, and a healthy development. Some people will feel threatened at the sight of the ads, others perplexed, and some deeply relieved to see their own world view appearing in a public forum. The bus ads were designed, according to the originating group in England,to motivate awareness and debate. Looks like they’re working.

  2. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Hate on the Bus

  3. Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!


  4. Excellent piece.

    It seems to me that religion is treated differently from race and ethnic origin because of the pervasive idea that religion is a choice rather than an identity one is born with.

    In any case, I don’t see why the government needs to step in to protect people from negative feelings resulting from hateful speech (indeed Mill is a great source here). It seems to me that government resources would be better spent, if at all, on empowering the people who find such speech too distressing to encounter or to discuss.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s