LONDON — The advertisement on the bus was fairly mild, just a passage from the Bible and the address of a Christian Web site. But when Ariane Sherine, a comedy writer, looked on the Web site in June, she was startled to learn that she and her nonbelieving friends were headed straight to hell, to “spend all eternity in torment.”
That’s a bit extreme, she thought, as well as hard to prove. “If I wanted to run a bus ad saying ‘Beware — there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!’ or ‘The “bits” in orange juice aren’t orange but plastic — don’t drink them or you’ll die!’ I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims,” Ms. Sherine wrote in a commentary on the Web site of The Guardian.
And then she thought, how about putting some atheist messages on the bus, as a corrective to the religious ones?
And so were planted the seeds of the Atheist Bus Campaign, an effort to disseminate a godless message to the greater public. When the organizers announced the effort in October, they said they hoped to raise a modest $8,000 or so.
But something seized people’s imagination. Supported by the scientist and author Richard Dawkins, the philosopher A. C. Grayling and the British Humanist Association, among others, the campaign raised nearly $150,000 in four days. Now it has more than $200,000, and last Wednesday it unveiled its advertisements on 800 buses across Britain.
“There’s probably no God,” the advertisements say. “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Spotting one of the buses on display at a news conference in Kensington, passers-by were struck by the unusual message.
Not always positively. “I think it’s dreadful,” said Sandra Lafaire, 76, a tourist from Los Angeles, who said she believed in God and still enjoyed her life, thank you very much. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don’t like it in my face.”
But Sarah Hall, 28, a visitor from Australia, said she was happy to see such a robust example of freedom of speech. “Whatever floats your boat,” she said.
Inspired by the London campaign, the American Humanist Association started running bus advertisements in Washington in November, with a more muted message. “Why believe in a god?” the ads read, over a picture of a man in a Santa suit. “Just be good for goodness’ sake.”
Although Australian atheists were refused permission to place advertisements on buses saying, “Atheism: Sleep in on Sunday mornings,” the British effort has been striking in the lack of outrage it has generated. The Methodist Church, for instance, said it welcomed the campaign as a way to get people to talk about God.
Although Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Church of England, Britain is a deeply secular country with a dwindling number of regular churchgoers, and with politicians who seem to go out of their way to play down their religious beliefs.
In 2003, when an interviewer asked Tony Blair, then the prime minister, about religion, his spokesman, Alastair Campbell, interjected, snapping, “We don’t do God.” After leaving office, Mr. Blair became a Roman Catholic.
More recently, Nick Clegg, a member of Parliament and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, announced that he was an atheist. (He later downgraded himself to agnostic.)
David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, alluded to a popular radio station when he joked that his religious belief was like “the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes.”
Still, since Sept. 11, 2001, religion has played an ever more important role in public discussions, said Mr. Dawkins, the best-selling author of “The God Delusion,” with the government increasingly seeking religious viewpoints and Anglican bishops still having the automatic right to sit in the House of Lords.
“Across Britain, we are used to being bombarded by religious interests,” he said, “not just Christians, but other religions as well, who seem to think that they have got a God-given right to propagandize.”
Next week, the Atheist Bus Campaign plans to place 1,000 advertisements in the subway system, featuring enthusiastic quotations from Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Douglas Adams and Katharine Hepburn.
An interesting element of the bus slogan is the word “probably,” which would seem to be more suited to an Agnostic Bus Campaign than to an atheist one. Mr. Dawkins, for one, argued that the word should not be there at all.
But the element of doubt was necessary to meet British advertising guidelines, said Tim Bleakley, managing director for sales and marketing at CBS Outdoor in London, which handles advertising for the bus system.
For religious people, advertisements saying there is no God “would have been misleading,” Mr. Bleakley said.
“So as not to fall foul of the code, you have to acknowledge that there is a gray area,” he said.
He said that potential ads were rejected all the time. “We wouldn’t, for example, run an ad for an action movie where the gun was pointing toward the commuter,” he said.
But Mr. Bleakley said he had no problem with the atheist bus ads. “We do have religious organizations that promote themselves,” he said. “If somebody doesn’t believe in religion, why wouldn’t we carry an ad that promotes the opposite view? To coin a phrase, it’s not for us to play God.”
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Getting the message out
From the NY Times. Too good not to share.