British Atheists Take to the Buses

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on January 13, 2009

Tired of hearing that you’re just a sinner who’s going to spend all eternity burning in hell fires? Tired of those guys and gals in their Sunday best ringing your bell to inform you that you’re doing the work of the devil because you don’t accept the dead guy with the crown of thorns?

Ariane Sherine, a British comedy writer and atheist, was, and she did something about it. She raised $150,000 in four days, with the help of internationally known British atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins and others. Now, 800 double-decker buses across Britain are spreading the good news: “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The ad has raised more than a few eyebrows, but no great national outrage.

That’s because Britain appears to be more of a secular country than America, despite the fact that it has a state religion, the Church of England, with the queen as its head. Sunday Church-going in that country, as in much of Europe, is dwindling. Politicians in England actually downplay their religious beliefs.

The next stop for the British atheist campaign is 1,000 ads in the underground trains featuring quotes from Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein and Katherine Hepburn, all famous nonbelievers.

British atheists aren’t the only ones using buses to ride home their message. A similar campaign was begun during this past holiday season in Washington, D.C. by the American Humanist Association. Its message was more seasonal: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” In Australia, atheists were not allowed to place their “Atheism: Sleep in on Sunday mornings” on public transportation.

While I applaud the British campaign, I am troubled by the use of the word “probably” in the message. I know that it was a compromise. According to the New York Times, it was “necessary to meet British advertising guidelines.” Tim Bleakley, the head of the advertising company for the bus system, said that for religious people, the assertion of there being no god “would have been misleading.” He added: “So as not to fall foul of the code, you have to acknowledge that there is a gray area.”

Does that mean that religious ads have to follow the same standard? There’s certainly a lot of gray areas in all religions. In fact, there’s little proof for anything they say.

If Bleakley’s standard were applied across the board it would mean that Christians couldn’t assert in bus ads that December 25 is the birth date of Jesus, since there is absolutely no historical evidence for that. Ditto for Adam and Eve, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc. There is nothing to prove that if you don’t follow the Christian code of behavior you will go to hell. In fact, there’s no proof of the existence of hell, or heaven for that matter.

As Ariane Sherine explained in a comment on the Guardian newspaper site, if she wanted to run an ad saying that a giant lion was on the loose, she would have to prove it first. Christians are not held to that same burden of proof.

It’s time they were.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which will be published next year by City Lights Books. His website:

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