Can 800 British buses be wrong?

london_buses_28travel_london29_route_157_at_morden London. Washington, D.C. Barcelona.

The viral growth of the atheist bus movement has been a godsend to writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

A few days ago, Britain-based New York Times writer Sarah Lyall did a slightly-tongue-in-cheek, lively "London Journal" story on the success of the campaign in England.

She canters smartly out of the gate with this sympathetic lede focused on campaign spokeswoman Ariane Sherine:

The advertisement on the bus was fairly mild, just a passage from the Bible and the address of a Christian Web site. But when Ariane Sherine, a comedy writer, looked on the Web site in June, she was startled to learn that she and her nonbelieving friends were headed straight to hell, to "spend all eternity in torment."

That's a bit extreme, she thought, as well as hard to prove. "If I wanted to run a bus ad saying 'Beware -- there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!' or 'The "bits" in orange juice aren't orange but plastic -- don't drink them or you'll die!" I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims," Ms. Sherine wrote in a commentary on the Web site of The Guardian.

And then she thought, how about putting some atheist messages on the bus, as a corrective to the religious ones?

Seen through Ms. Sherine's eyes, as described by Lyall, how could the campaign be otherwise than a "corrective"?

After all Sherine sounds rational (how would you feel if you found out from a website that you were going to hell, even if you didn't believe in hell?)

The Christians who posted the bus advertisements do sound, well, rather...extreme, particularly when they aren't quoted to explain themselves.

By the way, take a look at the new face of British atheism. Sherine is a media dream--articulate, attractive and wry.

There's a bit of a fairytale quality about the way Lyall tells the story, rather unusual in a piece about atheism.

And so were planted the seeds of the Atheist Bus Campaign, an effort to disseminate a godless message to the greater public. When the organizers announced the effort in October, they said they hoped to raise a modest $8,000 or so.

But something seized people's imagination. Supported by the scientist and author Richard Dawkins, the philosopher A. C. Grayling and the British Humanist Association, among others, the campaign raised nearly $150,000 in four days. Now it has more than $200,000, and on Tuesday it unveiled its advertisements on 800 buses across Britain.

"There's probably no God," the advertisements say. "Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

After quoting some reactions to the bus slogans, Lyall goes on to write about the "lack of outrage it has generated." The Methodists were pleased that the English were actually talking about God, she wrote.

Then we are plunged into the interesting peculiarities of British society:

Although Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Church of England, Britain is a deeply secular country with a dwindling number of regular churchgoers, and with politicians who seem to go out of their way to play down their religious beliefs.

Yes, but what about those pockets of religious revival, particularly in London, to which Time alluded a few weeks ago?

In 2003, when an interviewer asked Tony Blair, then the prime minister, about religion, his spokesman, Alastair Campbell, interjected, snapping, "We don't do God." After leaving office, Mr. Blair became a Roman Catholic

It doesn't seem to be clear to anyone, possibly even Tony Blair, why he was less than forthcoming about his faith, but it might have been because being a Prime Minister and a Roman Catholic could still be a bit dodgy in the U.K.

More recently, Nick Clegg, a member of Parliament and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, announced that he was an atheist. (He later downgraded himself to agnostic.)

"Downgraded?" Some might argue that he'd seen the light -- half of it, anyway.

Although the tone of the story stays pretty light throughout, Lyall could have added a few articulate, dissenting voices without losing anything.

For a sample of British coverage, check out a recent article by Riazat Butt, the religious affairs correspondent for The Guardian. You gotta love an article with a lede like this:

Anyone who has spent a chilly half-hour waiting for a double-decker may already have doubted the existence of a deity. But for those who need further proof, a nationwide advertising campaign aimed at persuading more people to "come out" as atheists was launched today with the backing of some of Britain's most famous non-believers.

Butt's story carries more detail about reaction in the U.K., and includes this interesting statistic (from the British Humanist Association):

According to the BHA, "huge numbers" of people in Britain have non-religious beliefs -- between 30 and 40% of the population, with a higher figure, between 60 and 65%, in young people.

What is a "non-religious belief"? I'd also like to see some indepedent corrobaration of those statistics.

Godless buses sponsored by local and national groups have rolled through Washington, D.C., and trolled through Barcelona, Spain. Have you seen them? What was your reaction?

The advent of this new atheist campaign does seem to be an, errr...heavensent opportunity for journalists to examine freedom of speech and cultural issues. Let's hope there are a few more incisive stories waiting to be written -- we'll see whether the godless campaign phenomenon has wheels, let alone legs.

Picture of London bus is from Wikimedia Commons

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