The Atheist Bus Ads Controversy

7 08 2009

I’m hesitant to bring up topics of religion here, if only because questions of belief are so contentious and amorphous that it’s impossible to say anything without bothering some devoted sect or social group. However a recent occurrence has provoked my interest because it allows me to talk about my current obsession, the nature of offensiveness and public controversy.

 Over at the terrifyingly popular Pharyngula blog, PZ Myers has commented on a story involving a local atheist group. The group Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers paid to have the following ad displayed on the side of some public buses.

Atheist bus ad - image stolen from the Pharyngula blog

Atheist bus ad - image stolen from the Pharyngula blog

  According to an article run in The Iowa Independent: “Gov. Chet Culver said he was “disturbed” by the ads.” Apparently the complaints started as soon as the ads were first displayed publically. Which means that people would have had to take immediate offense to the message.

 Now, apart from atheists being America’s number one hated legal social group*, I wonder where the offensiveness of the ads lies. The message itself isn’t an aggressive one. It isn’t even overtly promoting non-belief in god. For an answer we have to look at the meanings of the word ‘offense’.

 Offense, in one sense, is an attack. One ‘goes on the offense’ or ‘plays offense’ in a game. An ‘Offense’ is also a crime, or a transgression of a social or legal boundary. One ‘commits and offense’ or ‘displays offensive behaviour’.

 The understanding of people ‘taking offense’ to something like these atheist bus ads, then, is that the people who take offense feel like some social boundary or moral code is under attack by the statements/actions of another.

 But these ads weren’t’ attacking anyone. ‘Don’t believe in a god? You’re not alone.’ The ad is aimed at people who already are on the doubting side of the fence. Where I think the notion of offensiveness comes from is that some people equate the acceptance of atheism as a legitimate alternative to an attack on the legitimacy of their religious views.

 For a more vitriolic commentary I suggest reading PZ Myers’ comments on the subject. He, as ever, is eloquent in his outrage.


 * i.e. apart from terrorists, pedophiles, and mass murderers.