Debating the existence of God, on the sides of buses

Debating the existence of God, on the sides of buses

8th February 2009, Comments 0 comments

A British campaign to promote atheism is telling people to stop worrying about God and enjoy life.

An atheist drive to persuade people that God does not exist is catching on in a surprising fashion -- on the sides of buses in a growing number of countries around the world.

With the concise message, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," the campaign took to the road in Britain last month, while similar drives are underway or planned in Spain, Italy, Canada and Australia.

Comedy writer Ariane Sherine originally floated the British campaign in a newspaper column in June. She hopes it will reach the majority of the country's population in some fashion or another over the course of its tour.

"We could never have imagined it would have gotten this big, and that we would have raised quite this amount of cash," said campaign co-founder Jon Worth, a political blogger and website designer. "It's astounding."

Soon after Sherine’s column was published, Worth contacted her asking if he could set up a pledge bank based on her idea. Shortly thereafter, the Atheist Bus Campaign began taking donations, initially hoping to raise 5,500 pounds (6,200 euros, 8,200 dollars).

To date, the campaign has raised upwards of 140,000 pounds, enough to pay for advertisements on 800 buses across Britain -- 200 in central London alone -- along with 1,000 posters in London's Underground trains and two video screens in a popular Tube station. The campaign started in January and ends in early February.

The British Humanist Association (BHA), as well as prominent atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion,” are backing the campaign.


Protest against atheist advertising on buses

A reaction to evangelizing
Sherine said her idea for an atheist publicity campaign was born out of anger at a Christian advertising campaign on London buses this summer.

Those who followed the "Jesus Said" campaign to its website were told that non-Christians "will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then … spend all eternity in torment in hell."

Sherine said she believed a lot of people were outraged by the evangelical advertisements, but did not know what to do about it.

"Our rational slogan will hopefully reassure anyone who has been scared by this kind of evangelism," she said upon launching the atheist campaign. "I hope they'll brighten people’s days and make them smile on their way to work."

Rankling believers

Unsurprisingly, the campaign has struck a nerve among many God-fearing commuters.

By mid-January, 326 complaints had been made to Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which regulates commercials.

By way of comparison, the most complaints the ASA has ever received over an advert was 1,600.

The watchdog needs just one complaint to investigate an advertisement. Advertisements are judged on a variety of factors including harm, offensiveness, taste, decency and factual accuracy.

"A few religious people have complained to the ASA, which seems rather odd, as if they (the ASA) will be able to make a judgment about the evidence on that sort of issue," said Peter Cave, chair of the Humanist Philosopher's Group, which advises the British Humanist Association.

In late January, the ASA ruled in favor of the campaign, deciding not to investigate the complaints made against it and to close the case.


 Comedy writer Ariane Sherine, (L) Professor Richard Dawkins (C) and Guardian writer Polly Toynbee (R) pose for pictures beside a London bus displaying the advertising campaign, in London, on January 6, 2009. Ariane Sherine objected to the Christian adverts on some London buses, which carried an Internet address warning that people who rejected God were condemned to spend eternity in "torment in hell". AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal

“It’s a great day for freedom of speech in Britain. Atheists are officially allowed to be represented in public for the very first time … and a rational counter-view can now be visible at any point to balance out evangelical advertising,” Sherine wrote on the campaign’s website.

Opening dialogue
In Britain, where the BHA says up to 40 per cent of the population has non-religious beliefs, the atheist poster campaign has met with a measured response from church leaders.

"We would defend the right of any group representing a religious or philosophical position to be able to promote that view through appropriate channels," said a spokesman for the mainstream Church of England. "However, Christian belief is not about worrying or not enjoying life."

The Methodist Church welcomed the atheist bus campaign as "an opportunity to talk about the deepest questions in life." It could open up a dialogue between Christians and atheists that could "allow misconceptions to be challenged."

Taking the message elsewhere
Attempts to engineer a similar campaign in Australia have run into obstacles, with the country's biggest outdoor advertising agency, APN Outdoor, deciding to reject a bid by the Atheist Foundation of Australia for ad space.

"Any company really has the right to refuse a service to a customer, but in this instance, you have to wonder," foundation president David Nicholls told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) have also experienced problems placing their advertisements.

In mid-January, the IGP Decaux advertising group refused to run the ad on buses in the northern city of Genoa. The ad was supposed to read: "The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that we do not need him."

IGP Decaux eventually agreed to run an ad that will say: “The Good News Is There Are Millions of Atheists In Italy; The Excellent News Is They Believe In Freedom Of Expression.”


 London's iconic red buses are to be plastered with the slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," in an atheist advertising campaign responding to a set of Christian ads. The slogan is planned to hit the side of London's buses in January. AFP PHOTO/R.

"It is more than probable that political and religious authorities exerted pressure," Raffaele Carcano, national secretary of the UAAR, said regarding the advertising group’s initial reluctance to run the ad. “In no other part of Europe is the Church's influence as strong on politics and citizens' lives as it is in Italy."

Buses with a similar slogan to the Atheist Bus Campaign's message, translated into Catalan, began appearing on two routes in Barcelona in mid-January, with plans to extend the campaign to the rest of the country.

In Britain, religious groups are not the only people that have problems with the campaign -- some atheists are annoyed as well. They wish the campaign’s denial of God’s existence was worded more strongly.

The inclusion of the word "probably" in the slogan was principally added to adhere to British advertising rules.

Yet, while Peter Cave of the Humanist Philosopher's Group disagrees with the word's inclusion, he does admit the campaign is trying to make a broader point. "I can see no evidence for God just as I can see no evidence for pineapples floating around the moon," he said. "I don't say there probably aren't any pineapples floating around the moon, I just say I know there aren't any pineapples floating around the moon. But, it's a piece of marketing, and I think it's good because it makes people think."
Jessica Dorrance/Prashant Rao/AFP/Expatica

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