Wednesday, February 25, 2009

God Rides Public Transit

Have you heard of the controversial ad-campaign produced by the Free Thought Association of Canada that simply states, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” These ads are now appearing on Toronto transit buses and subway cars, while being rejected in some cities such as Halifax and most recently Ottawa.

When I first heard about this campaign I thought, “Good for you, you go get ‘em Free Thought Association of Canada!” What is the FAC about? According to their website, they are a “non-profit organization promoting education and outreach and the principles of various secular worldviews,” which include atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and skepticism. The goal of their “Atheist Bus” campaign (atheistbus.ca) is to “raise awareness of the presence of non-believers in our country, to make it okay for people to step out of the closet,” and also to “open up communication between faith communities and secular organizations,” a dialogue which Free Thought says is terribly lacking.

Anyways, there’s a lot that I like about the ad. Firstly, the words could be speaking to adherents of the various religions that bicker back and forth about doctrine, challenging them to tone things down a bit, though I doubt that many will suddenly agree that there is no God at all. Or the words could speak to people who are trying to jump through the various hoops they jump through in attempting to please a separate, all-powerful deity who is keeping a close watch on them from above. You know, the sort of Santa-God: “He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake; He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” I think that more than a few people view God this way. ‘God has a standard, I fall terribly short, so I’ve got to find ways to shape up. Living this way, with a deep sense or belief that one falls short or doesn’t measure up seems quite unhealthy to me. God can become the ultimate projection of low self-worth, and activities such as church services and prayer can become means by which people try to assuage this belief. If it’s between this God and no God at all, then bring on the free-thinkers.

Now, in response to this ad campaign, the United Church of Canada has countered with their own version: “There probably is a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In a letter to clergy and United Church members, the moderator states that their campaign is also meant to encourage discussion. “Clearly, as Christians, we most definitely believe there is a God,” writes The Right Rev. David Giuliano. “ (We) see this as an opportunity to delve more deeply into what it really means when Christians say they believe in God. I would encourage you to bring your faith to this conversation wherever it arises.”

While the moderator states that it is the church’s intention to join the conversation, I think that more than a few people may see their counter-campaign simply as a defense of a deity who is more or less separate from humanity and life in general. Many people do not believe in this type of God anymore, including many United Church members. So I think that churches need to make attempts to present a different view of
God. If the counter-campaign leads to deeper conversation, it could be a good thing. There are a few other steps that I believe should be taken if Christians or any other religious adherents want to engage the world.

The first step is to take the “I’m the King of the Castle” belief and throw it on the scrap heap. For sure, most Christian churches and leaders have toned down or eliminated the damnation, or ‘dirty rascal’ language that was once prevalent, but the notion of original sin is unfortunately still believed in and taught. But any notion of “My religion is better than your religion,” or “My God is bigger than your God” has got to go.

Once this step is taken, sincere dialogue at the very least, and ideally co-operation and strong friendship between different faith groups can occur. This is more than tolerance. People of different faiths can see each other as equals, each on a unique path but fundamentally connected. One thing that turns people off from organized religion is the arguing that goes on between people of different faiths, and this would go a long way in having people take a second look at these religions.

But perhaps the most important thing is to present a view of God that does not involve an entirely separate deity. What kind of God is being offered to people? Is “He” solely seen in religious books or on Sunday mornings? Or is God the spirit behind and in all things, meeting us in the eyes of a stranger or in the fury of a thunderstorm, or in an embrace? I believe that God, or Life or Love or Spirit, is actually within each of us; the teacher, the waiter, the single parent, the imam. And this may be the message about God that many are looking for. What would the response be if we approached others with language such as, “You are important, and you already have God inside of you. Now let’s sit down, have a drink, and we’ll exchange our stories.”

That may not easily fit on the side of a bus, but it may do some good.