All aboard the Atheist Bus?

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…

6 Responses to “All aboard the Atheist Bus?”

  1. 1 Tom Rees November 25, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    Meanwhile, in the land of free speech, they taken down a billboard sign reading ‘Imagine no religion’ due to complaints from the religious.

  2. 2 Clare November 25, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    That’s weird that ‘the city’ has asked the advertisers to take it down. Shouldn’t these people be complaining to the advertising companies and not asking the city officials to weigh in? After all, as you point out, there’s a constitutional right to freedom of expression. Shouldn’t it be the advertisers choice? Perhaps atheists are going to have to organise activist groups ready to write indignant letters when their rights to counter the complaints from the religious individuals. It would be a pretty pointless waste of everyone’s time though.

  3. 3 null November 27, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    WRT Bill Oddie, I saw this fantastic letter in The Independent:

    The answer to Bill Oddie (Pandora, 14 November), who worries that the Humanist Association’s “atheist bus” advertisements may provoke extremists to blow one up, is that giving in to extremists only provokes yet more outrageous demands. Totalitarian Islamists (a tiny but dangerous minority) will stop at nothing short of total theocracy – remember the Taliban in Afghanistan? How long before Oddie says we should stop educating girls in case extremists blow up a school?

    David Pollock

    European Humanist Federation

  4. 4 grammarking November 27, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    I’m not sure where I stand on this. On the one hand I don’t think there’s anything remotely offensive about it (people complaining about it tend to forget that they’re a response to Christian adverts that linked to genuinely offensive material), although I think “make the most of your life” would have been better.

    On the other hand, I think the money could have been used a lot better. There is a distinct lack of prominent secular charity compared to religious ones and wasting our money on adverts as a kind of “we’re here” statement is quite distasteful, really.

    That said, I think it’s good that the BHA are handling the money. Since it’s happened it’s raised the profile of humanism (as opposed to the more badly viewed-upon atheism), and for the first time I’ve heard mention of humanists in Spanish articles.

  5. 5 Clare November 27, 2008 at 7:06 pm


    The whole campaign does seem to raise several issues:

    First, whether atheists and humanists have as much right as anyone to declare or promote their beliefs in the public sphere. The answer here is clearly “Yes, they do.”.

    Secondly, whether it’s actually a worthwhile thing to do with their time and money. I would say it’s an action of limited value, but as the BHA point out, this money has been raised for the express purpose of putting this exact message on advertising, but they could certainly develop on from this to other activities now that they’ve established an interest in and support for atheist/humanist views and representation.

    Finally, on the subject of secular charities, I would say that the problem is that a lot of charities are entirely secular and thus completely neutral and unaffiliated with any belief system or lifestance. I suspect that many atheists and agnostics are making contributions there which aren’t obviously visible from the outside. It sounds like what you’d like to see is humanist organisations publicly and recognisably getting involved in charitable activities. I have to admit that I’d quite like to see that too, whether it’s local groups getting involved with charity and voluntary work or the bigger organisations getting involved and speaking out on issues and good works. That said, I think the topic of my next post should appeal to you…


    I think the BHA should definitely take advantage of Bill Oddie’s offer to provide messages. If he feels this strongly about the representation of atheists and humanists and the activities of the humanist organisations then he should definitely take an active role. I think it would be quite cool to have one of the Goodies promoting humanism.

  6. 6 Tim November 28, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    Wow, once again a fascinating amount of detail and colour on a story I had only heard a little about. Working in marketing I should probably stick my oar in on that matter…

    I believe the pertinent bit of theory here is that it is thought advertising informs how seriously we take an organisation on both a conscious and subconscious level.

    At the most extreme end of the scale, a company that people have never heard of before could do a big TV campaign, and this gives it a huge amount of implied legitimacy that would have taken years to build up by other means.

    Seen through this lens, the Christian posters we so often see suddenly seem like a very shrewd move. For many people, religion has so little part to play in their lives that it would be easy to assume that it is fairly irrelevant these days. The continual exposure to their posters reminds people they exist and gives an air of legitimacy that would otherwise be lacking.

    By the same token, I think this is a great move for atheism and potentially humanism.

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