November 6, 2008
A Busload of Unfaith
— Daniel Sack
Once upon a time, as we historians say, religious communities spread their message through preaching. In this modern, media-saturated world, they use advertising. Mainline denominations create cute or earnest television campaigns. Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews send fleets of mobile homes through the streets of New York, plastered with signs and playing music through loudspeakers. There's a billboard above an expressway near my home proclaiming the arrival of Alpha, the evangelical study course created in Britain.
Now the other side is getting in on the act. As a recent Associated Press story reports, British atheists are planning advertisements on London buses proclaiming, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
The idea began as a grass-roots response to an article in London's Guardian. In June, Ariane Sherine, a journalist and comedy writer, objected to an advertisement then appearing on London buses for an evangelical group which asked, quoting the Gospel of Luke, "When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" The ad pointed viewers to a web site that condemned atheists to eternal hellfire. This struck Sherine as false-or at least unproved-advertising. She invited her atheist readers to pledge £5 each; if they raised £23,400 they could run their own ad for two weeks.
The original column provoked almost three hundred comments on the Guardian web site, many saying "sign me up." In six weeks over a thousand people, coordinated by the British Humanist Association, pledged money. Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, promised to match all contributions up to £5,500. With £11,000, they plan on having the advertisement on thirty London buses for four weeks, starting in January. There is now, of course, a blog (http://www.atheistcampaign.org/), a Facebook group, t-shirts for sale, and plans for advertisements in other British cities.
Atheism is not, of course, new. Historian James Turner traces the appearance of reasoned and socially acceptable atheism to the last half of the nineteenth century, often among people with roots in Christianity. And early atheism wasn't just an intellectual phenomenon. Orator and politician Robert Ingersoll made a career of speeches for the general public about agnosticism in the nineteenth century. Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken took great delight in tweaking believers in the mass media in the early twentieth.
Recent years have seen the rise of "the new atheism," ideas and books produced by Dawkins, journalist Christopher Hitchens, and author Sam Harris. Unlike the earlier generation of atheists, most of whom focused on philosophical arguments against a belief in God, the new atheists argue that religion is a source of violence and intolerance in modern society. Their books have occupied top places on best seller lists.
Although inspired by Dawkins and the others, the London bus advertisement strikes a different tone for a broader audience. The new atheists are confrontational, calling believers deluded and downright dangerous. The advertisement, on the other hand, is softer and reassuring, telling readers that atheism is the path to happiness and joy. It is, in its own way, evangelical.
It's not likely, however, that this message will be coming to the United States anytime soon. The Associated Press story notes that most Britons identify themselves as Christians, but church attendance is low and faith is rarely discussed in public. A Gallup survey conducted for the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, however, found that 11 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with a religious community, but a majority of that small minority believes in God. The United States has a much higher religious church participation than Great Britain, and a much stronger commitment to the public expression of religion. Publicly subsidized transit systems don't hesitate to include religious ads, but atheist bus ads would provoke a storm of protest in most American cities.
The British campaigners are thrilled with the response to their campaign. Twenty-four hours after their blog went on-line they raised almost ten times their goal, letting them make big plans for their next step. "We could go national, we could have tube posters, different slogans, more buses, advertising inside buses," Sherine told the Guardian. "The sky's the limit - except, of course, there's nothing up there."
Jill Lawless, "Atheists spread word in London; It's 'no,'" Chicago Tribune, 23 October 2008, 10. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-britain-atheist_23oct23,0,3300153.story
Ariane Sherine, "Atheists - gimme five," The Guardian, 20 June 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/20/transport.religion
Daniel Sack is a historian of American religion and administrator of the Border Crossing Project at the Divinity School.