December 2, 2010 12:03 pm

Skeptics plan to bring controversial atheist ads to Calgary buses

CALGARY – Bus billboards with an atheist message similar to one that spurred controversy across the country last year could be in Calgary and other cities in 2011.

The premise this time would be that belief in God, Ogopogo or fairies needs to be questioned.

The slogan is "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence," and below it lists "Allah, Bigfoot, UFOs, Homeopathy, Zeus, Psychics, Christ and God."

"Why is belief in Bigfoot dismissed as delusional while belief in Allah and Christ is respected and revered? All of these claims are equally extraordinary and demand critical examination," says the campaign’s website.

Justin Trottier, executive director of the Centre for Inquiry — the non-profit organization behind the campaign — said his group wants to raise more money to bring the campaign across Canada.

He hopes the ads will hit Toronto streetcars in January and then transit services in other cities, including Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary, shortly later in the new year.

"It’s not for the sake of debunking, or suggesting none of these things exist. But we feel that our society has progressed because of the methods of science, because we have looked at things rigorously and demanded evidence," Trottier said.

"Some extraordinary claims have produced extraordinary evidence. And those claims have ended up bettering our world. For example, quantum mechanics."

He said the campaign is not disrespectful of organized religion. On the contrary, Trottier said real esteem is displayed through forthright debate.

"That’s a more sincere form of respect," he said.

But the move is unwelcomed by Syed Soharwardy, lead imam at the Al-Madinah Calgary Islamic Centre, who said he relishes the discussion, but not the format.

"I would love to debate with these people," Soharwardy said. "If they want to start a debate, why are they starting a debate from a bus ad?"

In 2009, the Freethought Association of Canada, another secularist group, launched an atheist bus campaign with the motto, "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Trottier was president of the Freethought Association at that time.

The campaign went to Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, but transit services in some other centres rejected the ads.

Other groups concurrently promoted the message in London, Madrid and Washington, D.C.

The United Church of Canada countered last year’s atheist ad campaign with a push of its own.

"There’s probably a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," was the church’s rallying cry.

Rev. Bruce Gregersen, the church’s general council officer, said Trottier’s new campaign will ask Canadians what’s more valuable: facts or meaning and purpose.

"Conversation is welcome and invitational to all people to think about the meaning of faith. It’s a fair question that goes to the heart of what you count as proof," he said.

Gregersen hopes religious Canadians won’t be upset by seeing Christ and Allah on a list with Bigfoot and leprechauns.

"Our belief about Christ is much bigger than anything related to Zeus, or psychics or homeopathy, so in that sense, it’s trivializing the nature of faith. On the other hand, it’s not enough that I’d want to raise issues," he said.

Some Calgarians supported the secular campaign with their pocketbooks. But with his own money, and donations from Christians and members of other faiths, Soharwardy also organized a counter campaign with the slogan: "God cares for everyone . . . even for those who say He doesn’t exist!"

On Wednesday, Soharwardy said he now realizes it’s better to have an open debate in a public forum rather than to hash it out through bus ads.

Soharwardy also said he doesn’t like the tone of the atheist ads because they assume people of faith are blind believers, indoctrinated from birth. Soharwardy said the money spent on the bus ads "would be better served if they feed a poor or hungry person."

Ron Collins, a Calgary Transit spokesman, said he would not comment on any campaign until it’s actually submitted.

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