How The Atheist Bus Campaign Started

The Atheist Bus Campaign was an idea that started in London England in response to some pretty bold ads put on buses by a Christian group. The video above tells the story of how this international campaign got started, and addresses the thinking behind it's wording.

The Atheist Bus Campaign In Ottawa

Without fail, Ottawa City Council almost rejected allowing our group to run the ads on buses in our city. In the end, enough pressure was applied and the ads ran. The video above tells the story of the ordeal that took place in March of 2009.

Henry Beissel from the HAO appears on Talk Ottawa to discuss the Atheist Bus Ads in Ottawa

The Whole Story

In June of 2008, Ariane Sherine from the UK became offended when she clicked onto a website she had seen advertised on a London bus. The website stated that non-Christians will "spend all eternity in torment in hell." Ariane reasoned that atheists had a right to a counter ad. She teamed up with Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and the British Humanist Association. Between them, they managed to raise in excess of $200,000.

Ariane chose the slogan:

THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE.

Atheist bus ad

The word "probably" was to appease the London transit authority.

The slogan caught on and freethinkers have placed ads in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and the USA. There are groups in Germany, Australia, Finland, Switzerland, and Croatia who are also working on also placing ads.

Thus, HAO became part of an international movement along with other Humanist and freethinking associations in Canada. Some cities in Canada readily accepted the ads such as Toronto, Calgary and Montreal. Others put up a fight, namely Halifax, Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, BC, and London. At issue was freedom of expression and if challenged, the courts would most likely side with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Nevertheless, Ottawa Humanists had a battle on their hands. The HAO joined with the Freethought Association of Canada and atheistbus.ca to put the atheist ads on Ottawa buses. The ads were rejected by the Ottawa Transit Committee. City councilor Alex Cullen, the Chair of the Transit Committee and always supportive of our atheistic stand, decided to take OC Transpo to task to find out why the ad was being rejected. This meeting took place on 18th February 2009.

Four HAO members turned up with tape over their mouths to indicate they were being censored. The media loved it and it resulted in many requests for interviews. It was the major topic on radio and television talks shows in the days ahead. The issue was also covered extensively in the local print media.

 


Left to right: Julie Breeze, David Burton, Mike Beavington and Feliks Welfeld, protesting the censoring of the atheist ad. Seanna Watson, HAO President, had these T- shirts especially made for the occasion.

 

Alain Mercier, the Manager of OC Transpo, said that the reason for rejecting the ad was because religious advertising was unacceptable unless it advertised a specific event, with a date and time listed. The fact that the Anglican Church, the Pentecostal Church, and Bus Stop Bible Studies were allowed to run ads without the above specification, weakened the Committee's case. Several Councilors, including the Mayor, Larry O'Brien, felt that our ad could be offensive to Transit riders. The HAO was allowed to give five minute presentations to support their position. The Council vote ended in a tie and the matter was rescheduled to a full City Council meeting on March 11th 2009.

Below is an email received from the Mayor of Ottawa:

Larry O'Brien
Mayor / Maire

April 8, 2009

Re: Atheist Advertising Ad Campaign

Dear Constitute: (sic)

I wish to acknowledge receipt of your correspondence regarding the Atheist Advertising ad campaign and thank you for patiently awaiting my reply.

I had the chance to review your comments and wish to speak on this file in relation to how it played out at Council. Some of my colleagues approached this file from their respective religious viewpoints, while others voted according to a belief that lines up with the very Rights and Freedoms promised in the Constitution.

With respect to my vote on this issue, I did not support allowing the ads to be put on the sides of our City buses. While I do believe everyone reserves the right to speak their mind, and do so publicly, I do however have some reservations to wording of this campaign and find them offensive to some. Ad campaigns on City property should be reflective of our values and ultimately they should respect the views of all persons who may come across the ad.

For many, God plays an important role in their day-to-day lives. For others God does not play much of a role at all, and for some God does not exist. Either way, people are allowed to promote their belief, but I am hopeful that it can be done in a more open-minded, less offensive manner.

Thank you for taking the time to express your concerns on this issue. I look forward to future correspondence with you.

Sincerely,

Larry O'Brien
Mayor
City of Ottawa

At the March meeting, Alex Cullen told the Council that the City's legal team advised that the City would most likely lose the case should the matter go before the courts. The City lawyer estimated the cost to the city of such a battle would be about $10,000 - 20,000. In the end the ban was reversed and the Council voted 13-7 in favour of running our ads.

The adage that any publicity is good publicity was very true in this case. The HAO got more exposure from the controversy of the ban than the ad itself. It resulted in increased awareness of humanism and consequently the HAO gained more members.

The ads ran on 24 OC Transpo buses for 4 weeks, from 7 April to 4 May. OC Transpo was very accommodating and arranged a photo session for the Ottawa Humanists at Billings Bridge.