Tentative unbelief takes a ride

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.

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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.

(Probably.)

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 1 month ago
In the context of this ad ''probably'' is the rational intellectual position, as it is impossible to disprove the existence of any of the many gods man has invented. This isn't much of a boost to religion mind you, as disproving the existence of a child's imaginary friend, or the existence of invisible pink unicorns, is similarly impossible.
9 years 1 month ago
The word probably was added by the author of the slogan because the advertising authority believed its omission would be offensive to religious sensibilities! This is well documentated - shame the author of this article didn't find that in his research.
9 years 1 month ago
Austen, the ''probably'' was added at the insistence of the 'neutral' advertisers who are quite happy to promote religious groups announcing the existence of God. For the most part unprecedented reaction comes from a group of people who want to be heard. I grew up as a catholic before realizing how ridiculous first my own faith and eventually all faith is. I'm happy to support a campaign to give the thoughts of atheists a voice without feeling any real need for the message to change people's minds or to evangelize. Though perhaps it will help those who are struggling with the contradictions of faith. The campaigners would not expect to shake the beliefs of the faithful but for those who are unsure I can't think of any other way to reach people than to advertise. Advertising is done for that purpose and works. The message is a positive one. Bad things happen and we can as thinking people actively change them, perhaps they can do so better when they concentrate on the one they are living. Losing my faith has only reinforced my desire to prevent suffering in this life as those born into poverty have only this life. They deserve better and we can give it to them. Even religious leaders will not tell you that God will pay your mortgage (though evangelical preachers seem to do quite well out of him). However the person next to you can help you and you can help him whilst you're both still breathing. Religion regularly asks people to abandon themselves to ''God's'' will, this message asks people to commit themselves to their own.
9 years 1 month ago
This kind of article is why us Brits really struggle to understand Americans sometimes. If you had properly researched the article, you would have discovered that the word ''probably'' was only used to comply with UK advertising standards, which only allow religions to make unprovable statements. Most atheists fully accept that it is not 100% possible to disprove the existence of some kind of higher being. However, we think the evidence to support the gods of the major world religiions is dubious, at best, and riddled with intellectual inconsistencies. However, atheists fully accept the right of people to choose what to believe, but think these beliefs should not be forced onto other people. We want people to make up their own minds on what to believe. The adverts are designed to counter the kind of aggressive marketing of Christianity recently seen on London buses - advertising websites which threaten non-believers with eternal torture in the fires of hell. These adverts are a light-hearted attempt to balance this hateful nonsense, and stop people being scared into believing in God. If - after looking at the evidence with their own mind - people still want to believe in God - then we have no problem with that. (Although, obviously, we think they're wrong!!). I suggest you look at the astonishing scale of the response from the British public to this campaign, which has already raised 20 times the original target, within 48 hours.
9 years 1 month ago
Sounds like the atheists are missing the boat. If TimS is right and, ''The adverts are designed to counter the kind of aggressive marketing of Christianity recently seen on London buses - advertising websites which threaten non-believers with eternal torture in the fires of hell.'', then the athiests need to be making the British Advertising Standards and TFL (Transport for London) enforce their own rules; afterall, 'religious' ads of the above type threatening non- believers ARE an affront to religion! They ought not to be allowed!
9 years 1 month ago
Nine of the eleven comments posted thus far have focused on one paragraph of Austen Ivereigh's post. He wrote: ''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?'' Nine comments have stressed that the word ''probably'' was added to the advertisement at the insistence of either the British Advertising Standards people or the Transport for London. Indeed, for some commenters, that was the entire substance of their post. I don't think that paragraph was the main thrust of Mr. Ivereigh's post, and I'm surprised that so many commenters focused on it. Atheists advertising on busses is a novel idea, and a lucrative one for CBS Outdoor. But, frankly, the message is dumb. It implies that one's belief in the existence of God is causing one worry. I have never met a believer whose love for God caused him or her worry. If that is true of some people, I feel real sorrow for them. I would also question how and when they acquired their understanding of God. It seems to me that the message is meant for fellow atheists and/or potential atheists; a kind of solidarity cheer. After all, ''...stop worrying and enjoy your life'' just doesn't have the same effect as ''Be still, and know that I am God'' (Psalm 46:10) or ''Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.'' (Matthew 11:28) But maybe ''...stop worrying and enjoy your life'' is all atheists have to offer.
9 years 1 month ago
"Probably" may ironically be the right word when viewed in the light of the 3 to 1 voting margin in the House of Commons earlier this week to allow the the creation of human/animal hybrid embryos for the purpose of cell research. Just what sort of slippery slope are we on?
9 years 1 month ago
Great article and funny too. I agree with the Methodist spokesperson. Why not talk about G_d. Beats talking about best fish and chips. Unless you are hungry.
9 years 1 month ago
You're missing the point: The "probably" acknowledges that people can and must make up their own minds, but that the total lack of evidence for god(s) is fairly conclusive. The "so stop worrying..." - and the whole ad itself - is not trying to "weaken a conviction". It's aimed at the non-committed, those who are also the target of ads FOR religion which this ad is responding to. Those ads often amount to nothing more than harassing vulnerable people with threats of damnation. The god you should stop worrying about is not the one who will apparently help out if your home is being repossessed, but the one who will allegedly send you to hell. The ad is saying "it's OK if you don't believe in god(s); don't let others frighten you. Think for yourself, and make the most of your life, because it's the only one you can be sure you have".
9 years 1 month ago
As Ariane Sherine's article on the topic notes, the "probably" has been inserted at the request of the British Advertising Standards people. To run an advertisement saying "There is no God", which is what the campaign wanted to do, would offend against Britain's laws which require advertisements not to offend against religion.
9 years 1 month ago
Well, a bit more vigorous research would have showed that TfL (Transport for London) insisted on adding the "probably" out of fear of "upsetting religious sensibilities". They were afraid of agressive religionists vandalizing the buses. Some people are more equal than others it seems....
9 years 1 month ago
''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?'' Just to be clear - the ''probably'' was added by Transport for London (who own and run the buses) so as not to offend religious sensibilities.
9 years 1 month ago
The word "probably" was used to meet UK advertising guidelines. The advert would not have been approved if it had the potential to offend religious beliefs. The organiser of the campaign, BBC comedy writer Ariane Sherine, saw a bus advert promoting a website which said that non-Christians would burn in hell. She felt that something more life-affirming was needed and the £87,581 raised in little more that 48 hours shows that she was not alone in this opinion. It's quite an amazing grass roots campaign.

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