In February, The Indiana Atheist Bus Campaign, or INABC, was refused an advertising spot by the Bloomington Transit Company, when it asked to pay for signs reading “You Can Be Good Without God” to appear on buses. The bus company denied the proposal, citing a ban on posting controversial comments. The INABC and the American Civil Liberties Union have since sued, arguing the vague policy allows for discrimination. The debate has sparked a dialogue among religious leaders in the community.
The sentence, “You Can Be Good Without God” begs ancient ethical questions of humanism, morality, and theism. The statement challenges central religious tenets of a good-natured God who is responsible for the moral fiber and later guidance of humans. Bloomington Transit’s policy attempts to avoid such controversy. Church of God minister Tony Taylor said he agrees with the bus company’s refusal, even though he supports the group’s right to advertise.
“If they want to put their group and their advertisement on the side of the bus, that’s within their right to do it-for any other atheist that’s looking for a group to get involved in,” Taylor said. “But as in the message, no. Because the message is against everything we believe.”
Taylor argues any bus supported with tax dollars should not have statements that counter what he considers to be the foundational belief system of the country. He says the country and Constitution were based on a belief in God, calling the United States a “Christian nation”.
However, several other religious leaders do not mind the posted statement.
Father Bob Keller of St. Paul Catholic Church said there is always contention when a system of thought within a culture feels threatened. He says it creates troubling questions for the dominant culture.
“Are we endorsing it? If we are, then what’s wrong with us? Are we out now? Are we dinosaurs? It’s the presumption of, ‘Well, we are the culture. It looks like a challenge,” Keller said. “It always happens when you have a monopoly.”
Though Keller said he’s not personally offended by the statement, he understands why it’s controversial.
“I think a lot of religious communities would see it as an attack, a huge challenge to that as a norm, because morality and religion are pretty much partners. I think you can’t get around it. Even using the word ‘atheist’ is religious because you have to use the word “theism”, which is God. So if you have a description, even that description is religious.”
Faiz Rahman, a leader in the city’s Muslim community, said he does not think beliefs should be suppressed, even if those beliefs counter what many other groups hold true. He said he doesn’t understand the offense felt by some religious groups.
“If somebody thinks that I have to stop somebody else from saying something that goes against my faith, in order to retain my faith, I would not agree with them,” Rahman said.
Rex Sprouse is a Quaker and said he does not find the message offensive, because it isn’t about him.
“It’s actually not saying anything about people who believe in God,” Sprouse said. “It’s simply saying something about people who don’t believe in God. I think it’s unfortunate that the Bloomington Transit has this policy, in general, because it could be stimulating public debate and discussion if public messages were allowed.”
In fact, the INABC’s Charlie Sitzes says sparking conversation was one of the advertisement’s chief goals.
“The main intention of putting this ‘You Can Be Good Without God” ad is to get people talking about it,” Sitzes said. “We think it will open up the subject and maybe we can all learn something from each other. It’s not to put down any particular religion. We’re just for free and open thinking without any fear.”
Sitzes says the atheist group has not yet made plans to organize a public discussion on the topic, but intends to bring it up to the group in the near future. By the time the discussion happens, however, the group’s lawsuit against the city may be over. More on the lawsuit in part two of WFIU’s series Friday.