Religion & Beliefs

Preaching the Word of Atheism

When British comedy writer Ariane Sherine saw a bus ad with the Bible quote ‘When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ she was not amused. When she followed the web link accompanying this quote … Read More

By / December 26, 2008

When British comedy writer Ariane Sherine saw a bus ad with the Bible quote ‘When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?’ she was not amused. When she followed the web link accompanying this quote from the book of Luke, she was positively alarmed. The website, jesussaid.org, warns that those who reject the anointed one’s musings will face the wrath of God and all the unpleasantness that entails, including torment in hell.

Rather than succumbing to a sudden urge to throw herself under the bus, Sherine sought guidance from that secular arbiter of right and wrong, the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA informed the comedienne that the Advertising Standards Code – which with its 10 sections of do’s and don’ts reads like a modern-day version of the ten commandments – does not prohibit advertising religious messages.Then, Sherine had a revelation. The brewer Carlsberg famously claims in its ads that its lager is ‘probably the best beer in the world’, so she, a devout atheist, should surely be allowed to claim that ‘there’s probably no God’. Under the influence of Carlsberg, Sherine decided to pen an article for the Guardian, urging fellow godless travellers to donate a fiver towards a counter-ad campaign on London’s red ‘bendy buses’.  There was a flurry of excitement around ‘the atheist bus campaign’, with nearly 1,000 individuals pledging money to counter what they see as a pro-religion bias in the advertising world. The British Humanist Association (BHA) agreed to administer donations and the distinguished British scientist and bestselling author of The God Delusion, Professor Richard Dawkins, agreed to match all contributions up to £5,500.

The atheist bus ad campaign is scheduled to run in London in January 2009. The rather timid poster will read ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life’. Observant London commuters will notice a web link to atheistcampaign.org, a rather slick and colourful website, adorned with pretty flowers and links to other god-unfriendly websites. Across the Atlantic, fellow atheist travellers have jumped onboard the atheist bus campaign, with the American Humanist Association (AHA) launching its own ads last month. Their rather uncatchy slogan ‘Why believe in god? Just be good for goodness’ sake’ can be seen on buses across Washington DC. The AHA, too, has a website (whybelieveingod.org) which apparently crashed twice – not because of divine intervention, but because of the huge media flurry around the campaign leading to a sudden, high volume of visitors to the site The question is, why do humanists feel the need to preach the (probable) non-existence of the Lord to the commuting masses of London, Washington DC and beyond? After all, ours has been hailed as a godless age and the influence of religion is, indeed, at a low ebb. The past couple of years have seen a steady stream of anti-religious books, many of which have topped bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, by a range of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists. The most prominent of them – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are now referred to collectively as ‘The New Atheists’. They have launched a zealous, no-holds-barred attack not so much on God as on the devout.

Dawkins, for example, demonstrates convincingly in The God Delusion that Darwin’s theory of evolution, rather than the Book of Genesis, provides the plausible answers to the emergence of human life on Earth. But as his books, as well as his television documentaries, The Root of All Evil? and The Enemies of Reason, have shown, in Dawkins’ mind, preachers and charlatans would not form such a threat to rational thinking if it weren’t for the gullible masses that apparently so easily fall for their quackery.  It is true that the forces of unreason are still very much in play today – as the widespread popularity of New Ageism, continuous environmental doomsday mongering and salience of scientific scare stories demonstrate. Yet The New Atheists on the one hand seem unable to explain just why religion continues to play an important role for many in the twenty-first century. (Dawkins for instance takes an ahistorical approach in explaining the salience of religion through evolutionary psychology.)  And on the other hand, they do not recognise that the celebrities, commentators, politicians and others who warn daily of climate chaos being visited upon Mother Earth are simply preaching a secular version of Kingdom Come – and, paradoxically, many of them would not hesitate to dismiss religious people as backward Bible-bashers. Hitchens, in his book God is Not Great, talks about imminent ‘heat death’ as a result of global warming, while denouncing religious ‘visions of apocalypse’.  It seems that the New Atheists, their fans at the British and American Humanist Associations, and others who fear the popularity of god, fall back on religion-bashing rather than trying to convince others that there is merit in their own secular values. Really, what irks them about the religious is that they have a grand vision and are committed to live by it – something that is sorely lacking in society at large. 

Sherine, writing in the Guardian, says that ‘there’s no doubt that advertising can be effective, and religious advertising works particularly well on those who are vulnerable, frightening them into believing.’ This assertion really brings what’s behind the atheist bus message to light: the secularists believe they must take it upon themselves to shine a guiding light steering the easily-duped masses away from the darkness of unreason.  In truth, the atheist campaigners, rather than trying to engage with the public, are simply preaching at us.