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As atheists roll out London ads, believers unruffled

Billboard campaign promotes atheist beliefs on buses.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2009

Ariane Sherine created Britain's atheist bus ad campaign.

Andrew Winning/Reuters

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It's the first mass marketing of atheism in Britain – and many in the community of faith say that's just fine.

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On Jan. 6 some 800 British red "bendy" buses carried the sign: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

The Atheist Bus Campaign organizer, a young comedienne named Ariane Sherine, took exception last June to several London buses swathed with biblical quotes, placed by Christian fundamentalists.

Her idea to fund a few challenge ads took off; donors sent in $200,000 in two days. Ms. Sherine was joined by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, a leading British atheist and author of "The God Delusion."

He predicted anger from believers. "They have to take offense, it is the only weapons they've got," Mr. Dawkins said as the first bus rolled through the streets of London. "They've got no arguments."

But the response by most faith leaders isn't quite what was expected.

Religious institutes, church pastors, and divinity school professors have not treated the ads with Old Testament wrath, but with a relatively open mind and even embrace of so important an issue.

If Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, they say, the ads remind that an unexamined faith is not a real faith, and people need to think, and even pray, more deeply.

"The campaign will be a good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life," says the Rev. Jenny Ellis, Spirituality and Discipleship Officer of Britain's Methodist church.

"Many people simply never think about God or religion as a serious question, and if this prods them a little bit, then that's great," says the Rev. Stephen Wang, of the Westminster diocese of the Roman Catholic church.

Moreover, in a secular post-cold-war world, where godless communism is said to be replaced by godless consumerism, a declaration of atheism is hardly a renegade position, some theologians say.

"The bus ads simply echo the secular premises of society," says Gabriel Fackre, professor emeritus of the Andover-Newton Theological School in Boston. "There's no longer a protestant orthodoxy in Great Britain or America. The churches are in a counterculture position whether they realize it or not. That puts us much closer to 1st-century Christianity, and that is an opportunity for the church."

Much of the campaign's initial buzz centered on the assertion that God "probably" doesn't exist. Does this suggest a hedging of bets – a move past atheist dogma? Only partly.