While some Montrealers may find ten new signs on the sides of buses reading, “There probably is no God. So relax, enjoy your life” amusing, Canadian atheist and humanist activists say the ads should be taken seriously as a campaign for the recognition of non-believers in Quebec.
“[The ads] make believers and unbelievers know, ‘Yes, there are such things as atheists,’ and they want to be recognized as citizens, with the same duties and rights as believers,” said Michelle Virard, president of Association Humaniste du Québec (AHQ), the group funding the Montreal campaign. “This year, we have said, ‘Enough is enough.’ We are coming out of the closet.”
Justin Trottier, president of the Free Thought Association of Canada, a group that has sponsored similar ads in other cities following a campaign by the British Humanist Association in London, thought they would serve as a way for non-believers to enter the public and political sphere – something he felt was necessary in contemporary society.
“To marginalize and ignore non-believers, who by certain estimates account for a quarter of Canadians, is nonsensical,” explained Trottier. “We can’t have discussions in public space about science, religion, or public policy without consulting non-believers.”
While similar ads were vetoed recently by the Ottawa and Halifax transport systems, the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) was neutral about the content of the ads. According to Marianne Rouette, a spokesperson for the STM, the company already set a precedent to allow religious content in advertisements.
“[The AHQ ad] has been accepted on the same level as one last year for the St. Joseph’s Oratory,” said Rouette. “It said, ‘If you feel lost, come see us.’ [The AHQ ad] is on the same level. It does not cause prejudice to anyone, and it doesn’t say, ‘If you don’t believe in God, you’re stupid.’”
Both Virard and Trottier also felt atheists were underrepresented in Quebec’s mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture Program because they are lumped with other philosophies into a single segment, “Existential Questions.”
“Most schools of ethics in the last 200 years have nothing to do with religion: secular systems of utilitarianism, Kant’s maxims, that sort of thing, but that system is very different from non-belief,” Trottier said.
Virard pointed to a “negative” public perception of atheism, references to “God” in the Constitution, and the presence of a blasphemy law in Section 296 of the Canadian Criminal Code as problems atheists have in engaging in the public sphere, a general sentiment that Trottier also held.
“If you’re going to talk about every other faith, there should be an entire unit on disbelievers. Every religion has had [them]. It’s not good enough to just talk about existential or secular philosophy,” Trottier said.
So far, the AHQ has received only two letters of complaint, one which read “God is Love,” and one threatening a lawsuit. The United Church of Canada issued a public response, posting a reply in the Globe and Mail stating, “There probably is a God. So relax, enjoy your life.”
Mary Frances Denis, communications officer for the United Church, said her organization replied to AHQ’s ad so they could initiate a discussion between believers and non-believers – not because they were angered.