Recently, there has been great excitement surrounding the campaign for advertising posters with atheist messages on London buses. The excitement comes not just because of the what but also the how. Back on June 10th this year, comedian and journalist Ariane Sherine, wrote a post on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website bemoaning her frustration and irritation with encountering evangelising messages on buses, billboards and other advertising. Sherine rang advertising standards to complain and was informed that citing religious scripture from the bible was permitted, so she decided that there needed to be some positive atheist messages available too. Her suggestion, “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and get on with your life”, struck a chord with many non-believers and the flood of comments became a mound of pledges which evolved into a fundraising success which startled even the professional fundraisers and campaigners.
After the original suggestion, political blogger, Jon Worth, set up a pledgebank page where people pledged that they would donate £5 each to help fund an atheist bus advert. Times journalist, Matthew Parrish, wrote about the pledge on its last day and voicing his support for the idea. Finally, a website was launched. The British Humanist Association would be handling the donations and campaign and Richard Dawkins had agreed to match the funding up to £5,500 so that thirty buses in London could run with the atheist message for four weeks. Ten hours after the campaign had launched, the target of £5,500 had been reached, but the donations did not stop there. Around mid-afternoon that day, BBC news reported that donations had reached over £36,000. Such a response is incredible for a relatively low budget, word of mouth, grassroots idea that grew out of blogs, comments, facebook and one-off small donations made via the online fundraising site, Just Giving. As I write this, the donation total is over £121,000.
The idea is obviously a popular one but not uncontroversial. Adam Rothwell, writing for the Intelligent Giving website which analyses charities and their performance, seemed concerned that such charity donations would be funding a religious propaganda war susidised by the state through gift aid. Many commenters pointed out that all charities receive gift aid and it wouldn’t be fair to try to deny it to charities that we disagreed with, and also that gift aid is effectively an individual claiming back tax that they themselves have paid. The BBC article reported mixed reactions. Stephen Green of the pressure group Christian Voice came up with the choice quote that “Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large.”, but a spokesperson for the Methodist Church, Reverend Jenny Ellis, said that the campaign would be a good thing if it got people to think about the deeper issues. Another late development has been that of television presenter and comedian, Bill Odie’s vocal dislike of the campain and decision to mount his own personal campaign against the adverts which he sees as Dawkins’ style atheism and likely to incite extremists.
So who is right? Is this a tit for tat propaganda war, the beginning of the last days for public transport and moral sanctity or is it a good opportunity to get a discussion going? What is striking about this whole situation is the depth of feeling that this idea arouses. Both the overwhelming support from non-believers and the offence taken by religious and non-religious members of the public. But is the message of the advert that controversial? The final wording reads “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”. Advertising on billboards, buses, train stations, church banners and student campuses all proclaim the existence of a Christian God, although the British public is free to choose or abstain from their religion of choice, and the existence of these adverts remain relatively unchallenged. However, an advert that declares that there probably isn’t a god is considered possibly offensive. Why? These adverts do not target any individual religion or god. Surely, those with an alternative worldview to the religious are also free to express it.
Some may consider this blatant or tasteless promotion of the atheist worldview, but why is this a bad thing? It’s certainly no crime. Don’t atheists and non-believers have the right to proclaim, nay, promote their world view and look to form a community with others of like-mind. Would there be the same objection to posters declaring that ‘There is no God but Allah!’? It seems to me that there should be enough room in the public sphere for a variety of worldviews and messages. Whether atheist organisations want to spend that much time, effort and money on advertising is another question entirely, but they have every right to engage in the public sphere of advertising. I agree with Rev Jenny Ellis that what makes these messages important is that they stimulate public debate and encourage people to think about their own ideas and worldviews. In fact, such is the interest and success of the Atheist Bus campaign that the American Humanist Association have decided to launch its own atheist bus campaign on buses in Washington D.C.
Let the dialogue start…