The SFU Skeptics have had a banner hanging around campus in various locations for the past month, but on the evening of March 11, someone decided that this banner was so offensive that they had to attempt to censor the student group. The banner was found crumpled under a railing the next morning.
So what phrase was so objectionable that it needed to be suppressed? Simply, “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
This is the same slogan that Richard Dawkins plastered across buses in London,which subsequently run in cities across the world from Barcelona to Christchurch. Many other transit authorities and city councils attempted to ban the upbeat message, as though the phrase was as objectionable as “fuck Jesus.” But by trying to block the message, the censors unwittingly gave the atheists a platform to cry foul in the media.
It is almost hard to imagine this phrase as being so offensive. Having an enjoyable life should not be that offensive of an idea, so it must be the fact that there are some of us who are willing to state publicly that we do not believe in a higher power.
Yet we even admit that we may not be right by using the “probably” qualifier; you won’t get honesty like that in a Sunday morning sermon.
Perhaps people take offense to the concept that you can be moral without God. This should be an absurd notion, as countless atheists around the world, including myself, are not constantly murdering and raping. The fact that some theists believe that this is what would happen if they did not have a cosmic babysitter ought to tell you far more about their own personal morality than anything else.
Regardless of how offensive you find the banner or the justification for that offense, it does not change the fact that the banner was approved and sponsored by the Simon Fraser Student Society with a student group grant. The SFSS obviously believes in the right to free speech, and that every sanctioned group has the right to put a message across campus.
The right not to be offended does not exist in this country. The proper response to a message that you disagree with is dialogue, not censorship. This banner serves as a response to the countless religious clubs who are pervasive at this school and in society. It seeks to counter the notion that you cannot be good without God.
Alternatively, when your ideological adversaries are increasingly vulgar, sometimes the proper response is ridicule. My favourite counter-protests to Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps’s picketing of funerals are the ones with absurdist signs with phrases such as “I like donuts,” “God hates shrimp,” or “I have a sign too!”
The only other approach to take with such content is to simply ignore it. Had there been no fatwa against the Danish cartoonist for his portrayal of Mohammed, almost no one would have seen the relatively humourless depictions.
If we permit the silencing of someone’s right to free speech, we risk threatening the core of the democratic ideal. Only when ideas can compete with one another on fair footing do we have any hope of discovering which ones are closer to the truth.
Tearing down posters and crumpling banners is downright cowardly. Most of us come to university with an open-mind, ready to learn new things and hear different ideas. I guess some of us are just not ready for that intellectual challenge.
So to the miscreant who crumpled the banner I ask one thing: would Jesus vandalize?