Christians and Atheists Battle in London Bus Wars
The word of God is on the move in London — literally. Beginning Feb. 9, three separate Christian groups will launch advertisements on more than 200 of London's buses to convince pedestrians of God's existence. "It may be unpopular and unpleasant," says David Larlham, assistant general secretary of London's Trinitarian Bible Society, a group that distributes Bibles worldwide. "But there is a whole lot of truth in the Bible that people need to get to grips with." His organization has paid $50,000 to display posters on 125 of London's red double-decker buses that quote Psalm 53: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God."
The move follows a monthlong campaign by atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers that saw 800 London buses plastered with a less God-fearing slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Ariane Sherine, an atheist and London-based comedy writer, devised the scheme after seeing a Christian bus advertisement. "It basically said that unless you believe this, you're going to end up suffering," she says of a pro-Jesus poster that featured what she describes as a "fiery apocalyptic sunset." "Our campaign provides reassurance for people who might be agnostic and don't quite believe and worry what will happen to them if they don't." (See the Top 10 religious stories of 2008.)
Larlham dismisses the atheist's effort as futile: "As if people losing sleep over God will suddenly be fine. If you're worried about something, you need something more powerful than a phrase like that to stop it. You need a change of heart and a change of life that God's words can offer."
He has his supporters. The Christian Party, a right-wing political party whose policies focus mostly on moral issues, is joining the advert battle by displaying posters on at least 50 buses, though it is not working directly with Larlham's group. "There definitely is a God," its message reads. "So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life." Alexander Korobko, director of a Russian satellite-TV channel, says he is teaming up with the Russian Orthodox Church to place the message "There is God. Don't worry. Enjoy your life!" on at least 25 buses from March. "We're living in a difficult time, when crisis is being extensively promoted and people need some life-asserting message," he told London's Daily Telegraph.
Backers of the atheist bus campaign find the response flattering. "It just proves that we've had an impact," says Hanne Stinson, CEO of the British Humanist Association, which helped comedian Sherine raise money for the campaign. When Sherine approached the group with her idea last October, the initial aim was to raise $8,000 over several weeks. But $74,000 flooded in on the very first day, with more than $220,000 raised by the end of January. (See pictures of a charity campaign.)
Similar atheist campaigns have run in Barcelona, Madrid and Washington, D.C. But since its Jan. 6 launch, the London scheme has been credited with inspiring atheist bus campaigns in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany and Italy, where next month posters in Genoa will read, "The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that we do not need him." The Genoa campaign prompted Father Gianfranco Calabrese, a spokesman for the Archbishop of Genoa, to speak out against what many opponents of the campaign call blasphemy. "There are some methods which promote dialogue and others which feed intolerance," he said. "Head-on opposition always demonstrates intolerance." Marta Vincenzi, the city's mayor, told reporters that officials will not "act as censors."
And anyway, say the London atheists, it's actually the Christian adverts that may be offensive to some. While the Humanist Association defends the right of Christians to air their views, many of its members object to the Christians' choice of words. Richard Dawkins, the eminent Oxford biologist and author of the best-selling book The God Delusion, takes issue with a slogan that calls nonbelievers fools. "That's a particularly obnoxious quote from one of the Psalms," he says. "Ours was extremely gentle and respectful by comparison." The use of the word probably in the atheist slogan, he says, does not imply any sort of dogma but merely encourages freethinking.
Even so, the Advertising Standards Authority, the British advertising authority responsible for screening ads, received more than 150 complaints about the atheist campaign in January, and at least one bus driver walked off the job. "This is a public attack on people's faiths," said Ron Heather, a 62-year-old bus driver and Evangelical Christian. "I have a lot of passengers who are over 90 or are seriously ill, and to tell them there is no God seems a bit insensitive when God is probably all they have left in the world." Dawkins believes that's neither here nor there. "It's not the business of a driver to censor the advertisements that go on his bus. It's his job to drive his bus."
Although the atheist posters were taken down when the campaign ended on Feb. 1, this modern-day Crusade being waged on London's transport system isn't over yet. The atheist bus organizers say they are regrouping and will launch another campaign in April, knowing that Christian groups are likely to respond in turn. "I don't object at all to the Christian ads that are going up, especially if they make people think," Dawkins says. "If more people think for themselves, we'll have fewer religious people."