The UK’s first ever atheist advertising campaign launches today, with official support from Professor Richard Dawkins, best-selling author of The God Delusion. The campaign will feature adverts across London’s bendy buses.
The slogan on the buses will read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
This appears to be a tactful retreat from Professor Dawkins' previous claims that God "almost certainly" does not exist - but commentators are already pointing out that it is closer to agnosticism (uncertainty about whether God can be known as a reality or not) rather than atheism (outright denial).*
The Atheist Bus Campaign began with some readers of The Guardian’s Comment Is Free (Cif) website. Comedy writer Ariane Sherine wrote an article in June 2008 about the Christian adverts running on London buses.
These ads featured the URL of a website which said non-Christians would burn in hell for all eternity. Sherine suggested that atheists reading her article could each donate £5 to fund a "reassuring counter-advert."
Hundreds of readers offered to contribute to the proposed ad, and after six weeks, 877 people had signed up to a Pledgebank page where they pledged to donate their £5. Another 1,300 joined the campaign after Sherine’s follow-up piece on The Guardian site.
The British Humanist Association undertook to administer donations for the campaign and Richard Dawkins - who is a multimillionaire, and has recently helped launch a Tory humanist group - agreed to match all donations up to a maximum of £5,500, giving the campaign a total of £11,000 if the full amount is raised. This is enough for two sets of 30 buses carrying the atheist slogan across Westminster for four weeks, say campaigners.
CBS Outdoor, the bus advertising company, have said that they will run the ads in January 2009 if the money is raised.
Professor Richard Dawkins commented: “Religion is accustomed to getting a free ride - automatic tax breaks, unearned 'respect' and the right not to be 'offended', the right to brainwash children. Even on the buses, nobody thinks twice when they see a religious slogan plastered across the side. This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think -- and thinking is anathema to religion.”
Hanne Stinson, Chief Executive of the BHA, said: “We see so many posters advertising salvation through Jesus or threatening us with eternal damnation, that I feel sure that a bus advert like this will be welcomed as a breath of fresh air. If it raises a smile as well as making people think, so much the better.”
Ariane Sherine, Atheist Bus Campaign creator, said: “I’m very pleased so many people are behind the atheist bus. Though not actually behind the atheist bus – they’d get covered in exhaust fumes.”
The religion and society think-tank Ekklesia says that the new campaign, if it gets out of the garage onto the road, will pose interesting questions about how beliefs are promoted in public.
"I suspect most people are as sceptical about being sold non-religion as they are about being sold religion," commented Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow.
"The atheist slogan chosen - which is more agnostic, frankly - is a bit anodyne. It's rather like believers saying 'There probably is a God. Have a nice day', but it at least attempts to be non-offensive and positive, unlike a lot of religious advertising that cajoles or condemns. Christians and others should learn from this."
Ekklesia argues that the real message that really needs to get out to the world is about encouraging one another in active compassion, even though we may have different beliefs.
Writing in an article which appears today on Guardian Comment-is-Free (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/21/religion-advertising...), Simon Barrow says: "Compassion – an identification with the suffering of others so that you feel the need to alleviate pain and challenge injustice – is at the heart of the best kind of humanist thinking and living, and also the best kind of religious thinking and living."
"Indeed," he adds, "the Epistle of James in the New Testament suggests that those who go around proclaiming that they love God while actually hating their sisters and brothers (in modern times by bombing them or condemning them out of hand) are actually liars – their religion is false, and they haven't got a clue what they are talking about when they use words like 'God' and 'love'."
On Thursday evening (23 October) Barrow will address the issue of 'living in a multi-conviction society' at a seminar in central London, arguing that conversation rather than sloganeering is the best way to promote practical engagement between those who hold different - or even contradictory - beliefs and values.
Meanwhile, Ekklesia colleague Jonathan Bartley speaks tomorrow on the dangers of the political manipulation of religious speech at St James' Clerkenwell.
"God bless America? Should Politicians 'Do God'?", with Jonathan Barley - at the crypt, St James Clerkenwell from 7pm, Weds 22 October 2008, Clerkenwell Close, London, EC1R 0EA.
"Conversion, Conversation & Co-existence: Living in a Multi-conviction Society", with Simon Barrow - St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, 6.30 – 8.30pm, Thursday 23 October 2008, 78 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AG.
NOTE * The classical definition of agnosticism is "the belief that we cannot know whether there is a god or not" (though agnosis, "the cloud of unknowing") is also a major feature of ascetic Christian spirituality). But in more popular usage it has become identified, if not synonymous, with convictional indecision - which includes undecidability about