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Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Reflections on the UK's atheist bus campaign

People have had some time to get used to the idea of these buses. The upset, apart from a few dotty complaints, has been very mild. The very gentleness of the message is a point strongly in its favour.

With a campaign like this, it is important to establish in the public's mind that religion and belief are not sacrosanct and that they are fair game. Additionally, having achieved this, the advertisements, light-heartedly and non-dogmatically, make the point that it's quite acceptable to be a free-thinking non-believer.

Too often, religion gets a free ride; it seldom has to be justified. It is simply accepted. The atheist advertisement undermines this mindset both subtly and appropriately; the deliberate use of 'probably' in its explanation and an implicit exhortation to feel neither guilt nor fear contrasts strongly with most religious messages.

Since the Enlightenment, the 'God-given' nature of 'God' and religion has been increasingly questioned; this campaign continues the process. The tube campaign cards, which will appear shortly, also make the point carefully, without being confrontational. No-one could possibly take exception to Douglas Adams's lovely question 'Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?'

Atheists spend too much time rehearsing and repeating the arguments among themselves; seldom do they do something important and strategic. Carefully argued books like Dawkins's The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell challenge the cosy position occupied by faith and religion. Faced with the arguments, many of the religiosi have shifted to ground where they no longer claim the literal truth of their religious books. Instead, they now talk about the metaphorical point of many of the stories. The bus – and other transport - campaign is an important step further forward; it keeps up the pressure on those who would promulgate faith, requiring them to justify themselves more than they've hitherto been expected to do. Watch out for further retreat into the world of metaphor and simile.

A prominent complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority comes from Stephen Green, the national director of Christian Voice. It includes the claim that the advertisements break the ASA’s codes on substantiation and truthfulness.
It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules. There is plenty of evidence for God, from people’s personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.
This complaint can only help: either the ASA will rule the objection too trivial to consider – (Ariane Sherine has already checked out the 'probably' with the ASA and, in any case, one would have thought that if 'God' were half the person his acolytes claim, s/he/it could surely take care of him/it/herself) - or Green will be asked to substantiate his assertions. Whichever way things go – and the case being ruled 'beyond an earthly court's jurisdiction' being far more likely – the atheist campaign will benefit from yet more favourable publicity.

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