Why Atheism Should Be Allowed on the Bus

Why Atheism Should Be Allowed on the Bus

Enough is enough. Yes, two posts in one day but I’m angry.

Who ever would have dreamed that London bus advertising would become the platform for a fierce debate on the existence (or otherwise) of God? And why do people insist on missing the entire point? Marketing has often been used to promote religious beliefs — church slogans bombard us every day, some witty, some painfully trite — but it seems some Christians have decided they have the sole right on belief-based advertising.

For those who have not been following this double-decker brawl of theological debate, the situation arose when a Christian group placed advertising on London buses that was definitely confrontational. The poster contained a url leading to a webpage telling all non-Christians that they would spend “all eternity in torment in Hell” and would “burn in a lake of fire”, quoted from Matthew 25:41. Understandably, some non-Christians were surprised that such a campaign was allowed to run.

This led to Ariane Sherine writing a post for the GuardianComment is Free‘ website.

Now, 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. But apparently you don’t need evidence to run an ad suggesting we’ll all face the ire of the son of man when he comes, then link to a website advocating endless pain for atheists.

Ariane went on to suggest that, should enough money be raised, atheists should also be allowed to advertise on buses. If Christian groups were allowed to confront and challenge people’s beliefs in such a way during the morning commute, surely atheists – or anyone for that matter – had an equal right to state their beliefs.

The campaign was a huge success. People across the country donated money to help the campaign buy advertising space for the atheist slogan. Instead of raising a hoped for £5,500, the campaign brought in an incredible £135,000!

This wasn’t about a simple “I’m right and you’re wrong” argument – this was about the fundamental issue of freedom of speech and the right of atheists to finally feel able to speak out and be heard. If Christian groups were allowed to state extreme beliefs on public transport – and threats of eternal damnation and lakes of fire are pretty extreme – then atheists should at least be allowed a polite statement of their beliefs.

Bus Battles

The slogan “There’s probably no God, Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” was unveiled by Richard Dawkins, best-selling author of The God Delusion (one of the best books I read last year). Note the wording. “probably no God”. The atheist approach wasn’t to deny alternative views but to merely stress their own belief (based, of course, on rational logic). They had softened their own view in order to avoid offence and the appearance of arrogance. Ariane had also done her research and discovered that the use of the word ‘probably’ was most likely the reason Carlsberg had never suffered litigation for the unsubstantiated claim “Probably the best lager in the world”. Clever girl.

Of course, the campaign was still the subject of almost 150 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, describing the slogan as blasphemy. The complainants insisted that the slogan was offensive and that the statement “there is probably no God” could not be substantiated and was therefore misleading. The failure of these complainants to see the flaw in this argument is worrying. If the atheist slogan is offensive to their beliefs, then so too were the Christian slogans to non-believers – especially as the atheist poster did not threaten eternal damnation or lakes of fire. Also, if the atheist slogan could not be substantiated, the Christian posters were even more guilty of misleading assertions. At least the atheist slogan deliberately inserted a note of doubt with the word ‘probably’.

Quite rightly, the ASA ruled in favour of the atheist campaign. Now, three Christian groups have decided to strike back with three new advertising campaigns. Two of them are cheeky responses to the atheist slogan. The Christian Party is launching a poster with the slogan “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian party and enjoy your life.” The Russian Orthodox Church has struck back with “There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don’t worry and enjoy your life”.

But the Trinitarian Bible Society is not being so playful. “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” runs the slogan, quoting from Psalm 53.1.

The Best Defence is Offence

Religions still continue to hide behind the argument of offence when trying to quell alternative points of view – a defence that atheists don’t seem to be permitted. Atheists or non-believers in general are not accorded the same sensitivity when it comes to their beliefs. I have used this Richard Dawkins quote before, but it is particularly pertinent here.

A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the non-religious included – is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.

Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion

This current bus battle of belief is a perfect illustration of this imbalance between Christian sensitivity and atheist respect.

Some of you reading this may now believe that I will end up burning in hell for siding with the atheists. Apparently, according to Matthew 25:41, I’m going to anyway. But to argue that would be to miss the point. Before my comment box fills with cries of damnation, consider that I have not criticised religious belief, but only the short-sightedness that fails to allow others to express their (politely worded) views.This is not about atheism versus Christianity or wider religious belief. It is about double standards and arrogance that has no place in serious debate – or in advertising either, for that matter.

Comments

  1. Of course the believers need more respect.
    And of course they shout louder than anybody when their position is doubted.
    ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’
    When you have a position that you deep down feel insecure about, then you have to defend it so much more loudly and aggressively.
    There are believers more secure and grounded in their faith, who are not acting out like these ‘radical’ believers.
    Take pity on them, because them because they have neither true faith or enlightenment. They are lost in the swamp of fear.
    What more can be said?
    Under the laughter of God we are all redeemed.
    (I find the spectacle of London buses with declaration of faith very funny – and I just love the dry wit of ‘probably no God’)

  2. steve says:

    How do the ASA allow this sort of thing. At least the first campaign said ‘probably’, can the christians prove their claim?
    I for one have complained to the ASA as the later bus sides are unfounded.
    Good blog.

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