Sunday, February 22, 2009



By Barry Ronge
Feb 22, 2009

Perhaps the atheists should put their mouths where their money is, instead of running offensive campaigns

I always feel a little chuffed when I discover that no matter how loony things get in our country, there are always some other places where things are a little more daft and depressing, and no, I don’t mean Zimbabwe. This time it’s England, where the media are having a field day over a brand new kind of Holy War.

It’s being funded by the British Humanist Association and it takes the form of bus advertising. There are now several London buses driving around the city carrying the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” They have also opened a Facebook page and Twitter campaign that has the Internet junkies twittering like a cage full of canaries that have spotted a rat scurrying into their nest.

It has created a social furore. Bus drivers who profess to be Christians are risking their jobs by refusing to drive any transport that carries the controversial slogan. There are also accounts of passengers who refuse to board what they consider to be an offensive vehicle.

Anyone who has ever tackled the infrastructure of the London bus system will know that the city’s traffic gridlock is one of the dismal realities of life in the metropolis. It requires quite an act of will to reach your final destination and most people would probably jump onto any bus that is not visibly on fire.

But when it’s the threat of actual hellfire and damnation, the decision to jump onto any bus that moves in the direction you are going becomes more complex. Do you board the offending bus and make a donation to the missionary fund at church next Sunday? Or do you stay put on the pavement because the bus has lost its faith?

It’s a situation that no one, not even Monty Python’s Flying Circus in its long-ago heyday, could ever have imagined. For the media, of course, it’s a boon. Barack Obama is last month’s news; British politics looks more and more like a clash between rival tribes of noisy pygmies; and Amy Winehouse has refrained from amusing her fans with another substance-fuelled breakdown. Even the British cricket wars seem to have been stumped. So a bus ride to hellfire is a gift to Britain’s quirky media culture.

There are other questions. How come the atheists have so much cash to spend on what amounts to anti-advertising? Every other advertisement exhorts us to believe in something, so an ad advocating disbelief seems to go against the flow. What’s in it for them? Are they looking to swell their numbers? Is it a recruitment campaign?

Will we soon have posters and radio ads saying: “Become an atheist now and our trained staff will see to it that no Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons or charismatic Christians will knock on your door in the next three months. Trouble-free Sundays — that’s our guarantee. Believe in the people who don’t believe.”

I’d also love to know who is paying for all this. If I were a London politician, I would order a forensic audit of the books of the British Humanist Association. Humanism is not exactly a “sexy” cause, and I don’t think they have book-and cake-sales to raise funds, so where’s the cash coming from?

Already, the more right-wing publications, and the groups that support them, are asking pointed questions about the origin of this ad-spend, hinting at surreptitious groupings who have no great liking for crusading Christians and are running a small covert jihad. Now that’s exactly how mad conspiracy theories are born.

As for the Anglican Church, the official religious agency in the UK, they are more or less staying out of it. On Sky News, we saw a priest saying: “We welcome any debate or discussion that makes people think about faith, God and religion.” In other words, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

On a personal level, I can only say all this money that is being spent on advertisements and publicity could be better spent on the vast numbers of poverty-stricken people in Britain; or on the merciless people-trafficking that sells desperate people into slavery in the sweatshops and crime syndicates which are rife in that country.

I’d be more impressed if I had seen a public march through the streets of London with banners saying “Atheists against Women and Child Abuse”. How about a street clinic, a hospice or a shelter for homeless children proudly proclaiming “Maintained and Staffed by Atheists”? Instead, they decorate buses, and that’s about as useful as yet another exhibition of Princess Diana’s costly ballgowns.


Hanne Stinson said...
February 23, 2009 at 2:04 PM  

I just thought I should clarify that the 'atheist bus' adverts were paid for by thousands and thousands of individual donors who were happy to put their hands in their pockets to see their beliefs plastered on the sides of 800 buses. The British Humanist Association has not had to use any of its charitable funds for this campaign.

From the messages donors left as they gave their money, the reason is very clear. With the religions having so much influence on public policy in the UK, and religious messages beamed at them from all sides, humanists and atheists want their voice to be heard as well.

We are totally committed to freedom of belief and freedom of expression - and that includes both religious and non-religious beliefs. The response from some Christian organisations has shown that quite a few of them do not share our commitment to equality.

How about an atheist bus campaign in South Africa?

Hanne Stinson,
CEO, British Humanist Association