Not even buses can escape the great British punch-up between revivified religion and its old-fashioned opponent in the opposite corner, aggressive atheism.
The idea of atheists advertising on the sides of buses the non-existence of God was first suggested in an online article for the Guardian in June by Ariane Sherine, who announced on Tuesday that the millionaire atheist crowd-pleaser Richard Dawkins had agreed to match any contributions to an ad campaign.
The £5,500 target was met within minutes of Sherine’s appeal on behalf of the British Humanist Association, and after a few hours £31,000 had been raised for the Atheist Bus Campaign – over five times the amount required, which will now allow the message to be spread in ads on the tube (in the UK that means subway, not TV).
Stay with me, folks. This is more fun that it looks.
Consider, first, the gloriously tentative message that from January will emblazon London’s famous red double-deckers: "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".
Don’t you love that "probably" -- the air of self-questioning doubt that hangs around it, and the way it is followed, so incongruously, by an invitation to self-abandonment?
So there’s the wonderful futility of the exercise itself - an attempt to weaken a conviction by means of an advertisement.
It’s one thing to alert someone to an event, a happening, a course, an experience -- as most religious advertising does -- and quite another to announce a nothingness. And even worse, a tentative nothingness.
(Imagine if this were done with art. Compare the impact of advertising a new exhibition in a gallery with another announcing: "Contemporary art probably sucks".)
But there’s also the hugely injudicious timing. Just when people are fretting over their mortgages and their jobs, the Humanists would like us to "stop worrying" because "there is probably no God".
In an act of double irony (I realise how British this all is), the Telegraphreports that a Christian thinktank, Theos, has donated £50 (which is worth a lot less in dollars now than it was last week) to the atheist bus campaign. Theos director Paul Woolley says: "Stunts like this demonstrate how militant atheists are often great adverts for Christianity."
Why not keep this going? The British Humanist Association could donate money to Theos, commenting ironically on the benefit to atheism of Theos’s ironic endorsement of the atheist bus campaign. And so on.
But not everyone is aware of the need for irony. And that’s where it gets really funny.
The Methodist Church spokeswoman, for example, who thanks Professor Dawkins for encouraging a "continued interest in God".
Or take the statement from the firm which will place the ads on London buses in January. Says Tim Bleakley of CBS Outdoor:
"Ultimately, CBS Outdoor is a commercial media business that generates revenue from advertisers, and we are completely neutral in every respect. As such, our decision to take an ad that promotes God, or one that promotes No God, is based on commercial terms, as long as the advertising copy itself does not breach UK advertising standards".
COMPLETELY NEUTRAL IN EVERY RESPECT.
It could be the great moral battle-cry of our age.