Those living in London may have noticed that for the past few months a new front has opened on the age old battle between religion and atheism- the space on the sides of buses. The opening of this unlikely new battlefield was due to an idea thought up by the comedy writer Ariane Sherine after she noticed an ad on public transport promising eternal damnation for non-believers. Her idea, which she wrote about in an article for the guardian, was to offer an alternative and positive non-religious message to counter negative religious messages. This message seemed to hit a nerve amongst the rationalist community and almost immediately offers to fund such a campaign came flooding in.
The response when a collection campaign was eventually created was phenomenal, raising £150,000 in a matter of days and gaining the support of the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins. The campaign finally culminated in a number of standalone ads across London and, more notably, a fleet of buses appearing across the capital and in a select number of other cities with the slogan ‘There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ emblazoned on the side.
Reaction to the campaign was mixed with non-religious folk finding it on the whole amusing but some taking issue with the ‘probably’ and others suggesting that the whole endeavour was stooping to the levels of evangelical religions. Religious folk similarly had a wide variety of reactions with a few religious figures welcoming the act as ‘encouraging discussion about religion’, others seizing on the use of the word ‘probably’ as an indication of weakness and, predictably, a number of religious groups decrying the ads as offensive and seeking to have them removed.
Another response from religious groups was to organise retaliatory ad campaigns; with three prominent campaigns being launched almost simultaneously after the atheist ads had finished.
First up was the Christian party whose advertisement was an exact imitation of the one used on the atheist ads. The Christian party’s slogan, apparently less hindered than the atheists by a need to recognise any nuance to their position, read, ‘There definitely is a God. So join the Christian party and enjoy your life’.
Next and displaying a similar amount of creativity was the Russian Orthodox Church’s campaign which featured ads declaring, ‘There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don’t worry and enjoy your life’. Finally, the Trinitarian Bible Society organised ads which noted that, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Psalm 53.1”. This, rather depressingly, was the most inventive of the three retaliatory campaigns.
Now here comes the interesting part. The figures for the number of complaints about the ads received by March were released by the advertising standards agency and reported on in the Guardian, New Humanist and on the Professional Fundraising site. And the results aren’t exactly what you might expect.
Coming in last place was the Russian Orthodox Church’s ‘There IS a God. BELIEVE’ with just 53 complaints. Then in a more respectable third was the Trinitarian Bible Society’s ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’ with 191 complaints. In a suprise twist arriving in a clear second place, we have the atheist bus campaign and it’s ‘There’s probably is no God. Now stop worrying’ with 326 complaints. Given the hype surrounding this campaign and the reports of Christian advocacy groups organising complaints campaigns this second place finish certainly caught me by suprise. Which leaves, the Christian party’s ‘There is a God. So join the Christian party and enjoy your life’ campaign as the suprise winner by a large margin with a remarkable 1,133 compliants, making it the 4th most complained about advert since the ASA has been keeping records! Despite this the ASA explained that there would be no investigation into the suitability of the ad as it fell under the category of ‘electioneering material’ and thus was not required to meet the usual advertising standards.
Now, none of this is news given that all the articles on the topic however I felt like writing about it because a) it’s a rather suprising outcome that didn’t get much attention and b) it suggests that the public of the UK find non-equivocal religious statements more offensive than an atheist messages. Since the Christian party’s ad received three times as many complaints as the atheist ads I also think that the figures serve as something of a vindication for those who argued that ‘probably’ was a necessary qualifier for the atheist slogan.
I happen to be one such person and I honestly believe that the inclusion of the word ‘probably’ is likely to have improved the reception of the atheist campaign considerably. Saying ‘There probably is no God’ shows that there is no dogmatic certainty and there is no shame for a non-religious person to admit such a thing. Now, I’m not saying that there is a 50/50 chance of God exisiting but what I am saying is that it’s perfectly possible to recognise that there is no compelling evidence for any of the Gods described in the worlds religions and to simultaneously recognise that the universe is a big place and there may be a God entity out there that we humans can’t comprehend.
An alternative interpretation of the figures that deserves mentioning is that atheists/secularists are three times more inclined to complain than religious believers- which could be the case but seems slightly counter-intuitive in this case given the complaint campaigns organised by certain religious groups back when the atheist ads were first announced. It could be true though.
Setting aside the issue of complaints, the campaigns when considered collectively raise some interesting questions around the stereotype of atheists being shrill and unyielding. Since, in this case, it is the religious campaigns which are making the unequivocal statements and labelling the atheists as ‘fools’ and the atheist campaign is striking a more measured tone.
While I’d be the first to recognise the shrill atheist stereotype as holding some validity I think these campaigns illustrate quite clearly that such a stereotype frequently does involve employing a double standard- one where religious believers are recognised as having a right to voice their opinion on religion whereas non-believers are expected to remain silent.
Whatever your personal views on the subject the message coming from the ASA figures is crystal clear- the Christian messages caused much more offence than the atheist one. Hard to believe but it seems the UK might really be a secular society at heart!
P.S. Please excuse the pun in the title, I couldn’t resist!