Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Atheist Bus Incites Controversy in the UK

by Sarah Thorngate 


Tags: Spirituality, Faith, Atheist Bus Campaign, Ariane Sherine, Richard Dawkins, religious advertising,

For the past two weeks, 800 buses have run their routes through Britain’s streets emblazoned with the slogan, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The Atheist Bus Campaign is comedy writer Ariane Sherine’s response to a hellfire and brimstone advertisement she saw on a London bus. Her intention is to provide a positive, reassuring counterpoint—a little more “eat drink and be merry”, a little less “for tomorrow you die.” (The slogan’s “probably” is more a nod to truth-in-advertising than to agnosticism.)

Richard Dawkins’ involvement with the campaign, however, belies the slogan’s purportedly “lighthearted and peaceful” tone. At the January 6 launch of the Atheist Bus Campaign he contended, “They have to take offense, it is the only weapon they’ve got. . . they’ve got no arguments.”

As Dawkins predicted, the campaign has succeeded in ruffling several believers in the UK. One devout London bus driver refused to drive buses carrying the ad. The Advertising Standards Authority has received nearly 150 complaints, which, if the ASA pursues the matter formally, could put some hapless British bureaucrats in the uncomfortable position of having to rule on the probability of the existence of God.

Other theists are self-consciously not rising to the bait, with long-winded articles that might as well be subtitled “Hey Everyone, Notice Us Being the Bigger People.” As the Guardian’s Andrew Brown notes, the campaign does little to promote intellectual discussion, instead waging sandbox warfare with a slicker, grown up take on the classic “I know you are but what am I?” And, as any good recess monitor would advise, when someone’s trying to get a rise out of you the best response is often no response. Besides, writes Ship of Fools contributing editor Stephen Tomkins, “If God is anything like as big and clever as we claim he is, he can probably take it.”

Adding to the glut of bus puns, Brown asks, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, but where do they lead?” Indeed, proselytizing seems a needless mission for atheists, some of whom are not on board the atheist bus for this very reason. Moreover, the slogan’s fatuity is especially vexing at a time when, whether or not you believe in an afterlife, there’s a hell of a lot to worry about in this life. Perhaps the money and energy being spent on both the Atheist Bus Campaign and the Christian ads that inspired it could be used more constructively to jointly address these worldly woes, since, as Brown puts it, “being told not to worry because there probably isn’t a God is about as useful as being told that Jesus will come back and make it all all right.”