All aboard the atheist bus? No thanks
The plastering of God-doubting adverts on buses and trains captures the preachy attitude of the New Atheists.
Waiting for the bus in the freezing cold on your way to work, would the thought that there probably is no God bring a smile to your face?
That’s what British comedy writer and creator of the ‘atheist bus campaign’, Ariane Sherine, hopes. She and a bunch of celebrity God-deniers hope that their advertising drive, launched yesterday on buses across Britain and on the London Underground, will encourage people to ‘come out’ as atheists. Apparently being non-religious today carries with it a social stigma akin to homosexuality before the 1960s. Their ads declare: ‘There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
When Sherine saw a bus ad last summer with the Bible quote ‘When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’, she was not amused. When she followed the web link accompanying the quote from Luke, she was positively alarmed. The website, jesussaid.org, warns that those who reject the anointed one’s musings will face the wrath of God and all the unpleasantness that entails, including torment in hell.
Rather than succumbing to a sudden urge to throw herself under the bus, Sherine sought guidance from that secular arbiter of right and wrong, the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA informed the comedienne that the Advertising Standards Code – which with its 10 sections of do’s and don’ts reads like a modern-day version of the ten commandments – does not prohibit advertising religious messages. Then, Sherine had a revelation. The brewer Carlsberg famously claims in its ads that its lager is ‘probably the best beer in the world’, so she, a devout atheist, should surely be allowed to claim that ‘there’s probably no God’. Under the influence of Carlsberg, Sherine decided to pen an article for the Guardian, urging fellow godless travellers to donate a fiver towards a counter-ad campaign on London’s red ‘bendy buses’.
Atheism advert displayed on the
side of a bus in Sheffield.
There was a flurry of excitement around ‘the atheist bus campaign’, with nearly 1,000 individuals pledging money to counter what they saw as a pro-religion bias in the advertising world. The British Humanist Association (BHA) agreed to administer donations, and the distinguished British scientist and bestselling author of The God Delusion, Professor Richard Dawkins, agreed to match all contributions up to £5,500. In the end, the fundraising drive raised more than £140,000.
Observant London commuters will notice a web address at the bottom of the ads, to atheistcampaign.org – a rather slick and colourful website, adorned with pretty flowers and links to other God-unfriendly sites.
There will also be 1,000 advertisements on the London Underground from next Monday and on a pair of LCD screens on Oxford Street. The posters will have quotes from famous figures, including Albert Einstein, Douglas Adams, Katharine Hepburn and Emily Dickinson. The organisers say these have been selected because they endorse atheism or at least express scepticism about the existence of God.
The atheist gospel has spread across the world, inspiring similar campaigns in Barcelona, Italy and Australia, though it fell through in Oz when the country’s biggest outdoor advertising company rejected posters with slogans such as ‘Atheism – sleep in on Sunday mornings’.
Across the Atlantic, fellow atheist travellers have jumped onboard the atheist bus campaign, too, with the American Humanist Association (AHA) launching its own ads last month. Before the holiday season, the rather uncatchy slogan ‘Why believe in god? Just be good for goodness’ sake’ could be seen on buses across Washington, DC. The AHA, too, has a website (whybelieveingod.org) which apparently crashed twice – not because of divine intervention, but because of the huge media flurry around the campaign leading to a sudden, high volume of visitors to the site.
The question is, why do humanists feel the need to preach the (probable) non-existence of the Lord to the commuting masses of London, Washington and beyond? After all, ours has been hailed as a godless age and the influence of religion is at a low ebb. The past couple of years have seen a steady stream of anti-religious books, many of which have topped bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, by a range of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists. The most prominent of them – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – are now referred to collectively as ‘The New Atheists’. They have launched a zealous, no-holds-barred attack, not so much on God, as on the devout.
Dawkins, for example, demonstrates convincingly in The God Delusion that Darwin’s theory of evolution, rather than the Book of Genesis, provides the plausible answers to the emergence of human life on Earth. But as his books, as well as his television documentaries The Root of All Evil? and The Enemies of Reason, have shown, in Dawkins’ mind, preachers and charlatans would not form such a threat to rational thinking if it weren’t for the gullible masses that apparently so easily fall for their quackery.
It is true that the forces of unreason are still very much in play today – as the widespread popularity of New Ageism, continuous environmental doomsday mongering and the salience of pseudo-scientific scare stories demonstrate. Yet the New Atheists on the one hand seem unable to explain just why religion continues to play an important role for many in the twenty-first century. (Dawkins for instance takes an ahistorical approach in explaining the continuing existence of religion through evolutionary psychology.) And on the other hand, they do not recognise that the celebrities, commentators, politicians and others who warn daily of climate chaos being visited upon Mother Earth are simply preaching a secular version of Kingdom Come – and, paradoxically, many of them would not hesitate to dismiss religious people as backward Bible-bashers. Hitchens, in his book God is Not Great, talks about ‘heat death’ as a result of global warming, while denouncing religious ‘visions of apocalypse’.
It seems that the New Atheists, their fans at the British and American Humanist Associations, and others who fear the popularity of god, fall back on religion-bashing rather than trying to convince others that there is merit in their own secular values. Really what irks them about the religious is that they have a grand vision and are committed to live by it – something that is sorely lacking in society at large.
Sherine, writing in the Guardian, says that ‘there’s no doubt that advertising can be effective, and religious advertising works particularly well on those who are vulnerable, frightening them into believing’. This assertion really brings out what is behind the atheist bus message: the secularists believe they must take it upon themselves to shine a guiding light and steer the easily-duped masses away from the darkness of unreason. The atheist campaigners, rather than trying to engage with the public, are simply preaching at us.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.
Previously on spiked
‘Catholic atheist’ Michael Fitzpatrick was repelled by Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, and critiqued the secular intellectuals who are baiting the devout. Dolan Cummings wanted to be counted out of atheism’s creed. Neil Davenport argued that it’s not the devout who are the real enemies of reason. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.
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