The Atheist Bus Campaign was a fund raising campaign run under the auspices of the British Humanist Association to pay for the cost of advertising the slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." on the side of London buses.


During the early summer of 2008 a number of London buses were seen bearing Biblical quotes such as "When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). It turned out that these advertisements had been paid for by an organisation called Proclaiming Truth in London, although their website provided little in the way of information regarding the identity of those behind the campaign other than that they were "a group of people who have believed that Jesus died for us".

These advertisements attracted the attention of Ariane Sherine, who was "a television comedy writer and journalist from London". It seemed that Ms Sherine qualified as a television comedy writer as the author of one episode of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, although most of her scriptwriting credits were for children's programmes such as The Worst Witch and Space Pirates, whilst she was a journalist in the sense that she wrote an occasional column for The Guardian, or was at least a periodic contributor to the Comment is Free section of the Guardian's online presence.

Ms Sherine regarded the presence of scripture on the side of London buses as "rather unsettling" particularly when she discovered the website behind the campaign and read that those who didn't believe that Jesus had died for them would "spend all eternity in torment in hell". Of course, it might be said that Ms Sherine must have led something of a sheltered life, if she was both disturbed by the sight of Biblical verses and was ignorant of one of the fundamental principles of the Christian faith. But never mind, she duly contacted the Advertising Standards Authority who informed her that they had indeed received two complaints regarding the advertisements in question, but had declined to investigate on the basis that there was "nothing in the advertising standards code to prohibit advertising a religious message".

Having then established that it would cost £23,400 to advertise on a "bendy bus streetliner" for two weeks, Ariane Sherine therefore suggested that if there were 4,680 atheists around who were each prepared to contribute £5, sufficient funds would be raised to promote a suitably secular message such as, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life." Just how serious Ms Sherine intended this suggestion to be is not clear, but it was certainly taken seriously by a certain Jon Worth.

This Jon Worth turned out to be a member of the Labour Party and a former president of the Young European Federalists and made a living designing "website strategies for politicians and political organisations". Having contacted Ms Sherine and obtained her agreement, Mr Worth managed to photoshop a picture of a London bus bearing the suggested slogan, and decided to solicit funds for the proposed atheist advertising campaign through Pledgebank ('I'll do it, but only if you'll help'). Worth duly pledged his own £5 towards the "campaign to put an atheist advert on the side of a London bus but only if 4,678 other people anywhere will do the same". Unfortunately only 877 people signed up had signed up by the deadline of the 31st July 2008, despite a favourable mention by Matthew Parris in his column in The Times who even pledged his own £5 to the cause. The Daily Telegraph duly reported on this sad state of affairs as it noted that "too few non-believers" were prepared to "actually put their hands in their pockets".


However it seemed that both Jon Worth and Ariane Sherine were relatively pleased that they'd managed to attract the support of 877 people in six weeks with zero publicity. With a bit more organisation they felt that they would be more successful the second time around. What became known as the Atheist Bus Campaign was therefore relaunched on the 21st October 2008 under the auspices of the British Humanist Association. Having conducted a more comprehensive analysis of the cost of advertising on London buses, the funding target became £5,500, which was sufficient to pay for the cost of having the proposed slogan displayed on thirty ordinary buses over a period of four weeks. Since Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and much else besides, and a particularly prominent atheist had promised to match the funds raised pound for pound up to a maximum of £5,500, it seemed that the campaign was assured of at least some kind of success.

The BBC duly reported on the proposal to put what it called "No God" slogans on the capital's buses and the reaction from some selected sources. Stephen Green, the national director of an organisation known as Christian Voice was quoted by them as saying that "Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large" and suggested that such a "quasi-religious advertising campaign" would attract graffiti. Research revealed that Christian Voice was an organisation that was opposed to a number of things, such as homosexuality, abortion, genetically-modified food, sex education, the Co-Op Bank, and performances of Jesus Christ Superstar. It also published a booklet under the title Britain in Sin which identified a list of the "57 unrighteous laws passed by successive post-war governments", which included the usual suspects such as the Sexual Offences Act 1967, the Abortion Act 1967, and the Divorce Reform Act 1969, but also such measures as the Leasehold Reform Act 1993 and the introduction of Value Added Tax.

A far more reasoned response came from the Reverend Jenny Ellis, who was Spirituality and discipleship officer for the British Methodist Church. The Rev Ellis felt that the Atheist Bus Campaign would be "a good thing" on the basis that it might persuade "people to engage with the deepest questions of life" and noted that "Christianity is for people who aren't afraid to think about life and meaning".

Of course it was perfectly possible that Christian Voice consisted of nothing more than Stephen Green. Not that this mattered as it was most likely that he had been contacted by the BBC simply because they believed that he would supply a suitable critical quote. He was certainly known to the BBC, as it was this Mr Green who had previously tried and failed to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against Mark Thompson, the BBC's Director General for the crime of broadcasting Jerry Springer the Opera back in June 2008.

Christian Voice was certainly unsympathetic towards the atheist bus cause and had earlier issued a press release on the 19th October in which it derided the campaign on the grounds that its supporters had previously failed to "stump up the cash" and were now left relying on Richard Dawkins to "finance the doomed venture". Presumably the Almighty was working to a different agenda, as the campaign proved more successful the second time around, and by 7.35 pm on the evening of the 21st October, the total raised was £33,564.66, not counting the Gift Aid plus supplement of £8,050.80, or indeed Mr Dawkin's £5,500, and by the following day the total raised was in excess of £100,000. What Christian Voice had failed to take account of was the considerable publicity that had been generated online for the campaign during the late summer, (naturally there was an Atheist Bus Campaign Facebook Group) which meant that far more people were aware of what was going on at the second time of asking.

There certainly appeared to be a degree of enthusiasm for the notion of an unashamedly atheist slogan being placed on the side of a London bus, although some did object to the qualification 'probably'. However the inclusion of 'probably' was inspired by Carlsberg's famous claim that it is 'Probably the best lager in the world' (although Carlsberg probably doesn't even produce the best lager in Denmark, let alone the globe) on the grounds that this ensured compliance with the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (commonly known as the CAP Code). In particular the inclusion of the word 'probably' made it less likely that anyone could claim to have been offended by the slogan and that it was therefore in breach of the Code.


The success of the fund raising campaign raised the possibility that the advertising campaign might be extended nationwide. It was however noted that much of Britain's regional bus network was controlled by Stagecoach, a company run by one Brian Souter, who was a member of the evangelical Church of the Nazarene, and might well therefore be disinclined to accept such advertisements. However as far as London was concerned, the Atheist Bus Campaign was due to commence in January 2009.


SOURCES

  • Ariane Sherine, Atheists – gimme five, The Guardian, June 20 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/20/transport.religion
  • Jon Worth, In your face atheism?, 20 Jun 2008 http://www.jonworth.eu/in-your-face-atheism/
  • Matthew Moore, Atheists fail to cough up for London bus ad, Daily Telegraph, 01 Aug 2008 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/2485331/Atheists-fail-to-cough-up-for-London-bus-ad.html
  • 'No God' slogans for city's buses, BBC News, 21 October 2008 news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7681914.stm
  • Ariane Sherine, All aboard the atheist bus campaign, The Guardian, October 21 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/21/religion-advertising
  • Jenna Lyle, Methodists see opportunity in Dawkins ‘No God’ bus slogans, October 21, 2008 http://www.christiantoday.com/article/methodists.see.opportunity.in.dawkins.no.god.bus.slogans/21703.htm
  • Ariane Sherine, 'Probably' the best atheist bus campaign ever, The Guardian, October 23 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/23/atheist-bus-campaign-ariane-sherine
  • Proclaiming Truth in London http://www.jesussaid.org/
  • The AtheistCampaign at http://www.atheistcampaign.org/
  • The Atheist Bus Campaign at http://www.pledgebank.com/atheistbus
  • The Atheist Bus Campaign at http://www.justgiving.com/atheistbus

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