How did the Atheist Bus Campaign start?
The campaign began when comedy writer Ariane Sherine saw an advert on a London bus featuring the Bible quote, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find Faith on this Earth?” [sic]. A website URL ran underneath the quote, and when Sherine visited the site she learned that, as a non-believer, she would be “condemned to everlasting separation from God and then spend all eternity in torment in hell”.
Unsettled that religious groups were allowed to advertise websites which warned that the non-religious would face torture at the end of their lives, Sherine pitched and began to write a comment piece for The Guardian‘s Cif (Comment is free) website, called Atheists – Gimme Five. As part of her research for the piece, she called the Advertising Standards Authority, but was told that the website advertised wasn’t part of their remit. At the end of her article, keen to suggest a solution, she proposed:
[if all atheists reading this] contribute £5, it’s possible that we can fund a much-needed atheist London bus ad with the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and [enjoy] your life.”
To Sherine’s surprise and excitement, the majority of reader comments under the article were very positive and enthusiastic about the idea, with dozens of commenters offering to contribute to the campaign.
Political blogger Jon Worth read the piece, thought the proposal was a smart and sweet idea, and emailed Sherine asking if he could set up a Pledgebank page, where readers could pledge to donate to the campaign. The Pledgebank link was placed in the comments of the original article, and although the piece was archived after three days, dozens of blogs picked up on the idea and it spread across the internet.
877 people signed up to the Pledgebank page before it closed six weeks later, and Matthew Parris wrote positively about the idea in his column in The Times on the page’s very last day. However, the Daily Telegraph published an inaccurate report after the page closed, saying that atheists had failed to donate enough money to the campaign, not acknowledging that there had in fact been no donation phase and almost no publicity.
To set the record straight, Sherine wrote a second article for Cif called Dawkin ‘Bout A Revolution, explaining what had happened, and announced that the campaign would relaunch in the autumn “with a new website [AtheistCampaign.org] and a more proactive campaign”.
The Atheist Bus Campaign launched on Tuesday October 21 2008 with the initial fundraising target of £5500 which was surpassed in a matter of hours. The campaign has so far raised more than £135000 and has been featured widely in the press (1, 2, 3) and the buses can be seen on the streets of London and cities across the UK in January 2009.
Why only ‘probably’ no god?
As with the famous Carlsberg ads (‘probably the best lager in the world’), ‘probably’ helps to ensure that our ads will not breach any advertising codes Committee of Advertising Practice advised the campaign that “the inclusion of the word ‘probably’ makes it less likely to cause offence, and therefore be in breach of the Advertising Code.”
Ariane Sherine has said, ‘There’s another reason I’m keen on the “probably”: it means the slogan is more accurate, as even though there’s no scientific evidence at all for God’s existence, it’s also impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist (or that anything doesn’t). As Richard Dawkins states in The God Delusion, saying “there’s no God” is taking a “faith” position. He writes: “Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist”. His choice of words in the book is “almost certainly”; but while this is closer to what most atheists believe, “probably” is shorter and catchier, which is helpful for advertising. I also think the word is more lighthearted, and somehow makes the message more positive.’
Why say ‘stop worrying’?
The Christian ads to which the Atheist Bus Campaign is a response linked to a website that promised non-Christians and eternity of torment in a lake of fire. Pretty worrying. Our ads offer a dissenting view from this and are positive messages, urging that we enjoy our lives.
Why say ‘enjoy your life’?
People who do not believe in gods or other supernatural things, do not usually believe in life after death. Humanists believe that death is the end of our personal existence, that we have only one life and must make the most of it – as Robert Ingersoll, a nineteenth century American humanist said, ‘The time to be happy is now!’
Is this really a good use of the BHA’s money?
All the money used to pay for the ads came from the thousands of individual donors who have supported the campaign. One of the great things about the campaign is that the support came from the grass roots, demonstrated by these thousands of small donations from members for the public, and its origins with Ariane and Jon. No money has been diverted from other projects; indeed the heightened attention to humanism and atheism even helps further campaigns.
Isn’t this just atheist preaching – like religions do?
This has been an overwhelmingly positive campaign. It’s lighthearted and peaceful, and is meant to reassure rather than preach. After all, an advert on a bus isn’t going to convert anyone, and the vast majority of religious commentators have recognised it as a simple statement of atheist and humanist beliefs. The advertisements were designed as a response, an affirmation for people that it’s OK not to be religious; that if you are not religious, there is absolutely no reason to worry about that, and that one can lead a happy, enjoyable and rewarding life without religion. Of course, most non-religious people recognise that the best way of leading a happy, enjoyable, positive and rewarding life is by working with, cooperating with, and supporting other people of all beliefs to do the same.
Where are the buses going to be?
You can see a Google Map of where the buses are here. The idea of the bus ads running in London sparked imaginations up and down the country, prompting calls to take the buses “on tour”. Most importantly, like-minded people across the UK offered not just their financial support but their considered, good-natured, humanistic endorsement.
Where else can ads be seen?
As well as on buses there are ads in the London Underground.
How else can I support Humanism?
The huge support for the Atheist Bus Campaign has shown how many non-religious people there are who want their voice to be heard. The BHA needs your help to make that happen.
The BHA is the national charity supporting and representing people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. We promote Humanism, run numerous campaigns for an open society, a secular state and a rational humanist approach to public ethical issues and work in education in both schools and to the public at large.