As atheists roll out London ads, believers unruffled

Billboard campaign promotes atheist beliefs on buses.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Ariane Sherine created Britain's atheist bus ad campaign.
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    'God Does Exist,' says this Madrid bus ad in a campaign responding to London's atheist ads.
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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.

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.

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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.

Some organizers wanted a flat "there is no God" statement. Dawkins favored an "almost certainly no God" wording. But Ms. Sherine says that British advertising officials advised that a phrase less absolute and not subject to proof would ensure the ad did not run afoul of the advertising standards authority.

This led to amusement by atheists and believers alike that a statement pro or con about that which has been known through the ages as Creator, First Cause, Deity, divine Love, the laws and powers of the universe, the "Christ consciousness" of Teilhard de Chardin, the Great Shepherd, that which answered Job out of the whirlwind and guided "Arcturus with his sons" – could be adjudicated by mid-level British civil servants.

On the website of the British newspaper, The Guardian, Sherine said the word "probably" is "more lighthearted, and somehow makes the message more positive."

Believers have criticized the second part of the message, "stop worrying and enjoy your life." Nick Spencer, of Theos, a public theology think tank in London, felt the "enjoy yourself" message – coming in the midst of an economic crisis that is taking jobs and spreading anxiety across Europe, possibly implies selfish indifference, and "could not be more ill-timed.... But since Brits are frightfully embarrassed about bringing up God in public, it is a godsend in some ways to have the atheists do it for us."

Dawkins, whose book, "God Delusion" sold 1.5 million copies, told the Los Angeles Times that "We've all been brought up with the view that religion has some kind of special privileged status. You're not allowed to criticize it."

Christianity does have a history of intolerance, theologians admit. But it also has a healthy history of doubt and skepticism, as well as interchanges between faith and science – and has reformed itself through a seeking of truth in and outside the church. Some of its best-known modern thinkers have expressed admiration for nonbelievers.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a leading midcentury American theologian, sometimes invoked by Barack Obama, said he preferred honest agnostics to overly pious believers.

Swiss Protestant Karl Barth, a leading 20th-century European theologian, wrote the forward to the English language version of Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach's prominent atheist critique, "The Essence of Christianity." Barth wasn't worried about the atheism, says Herman Waetjen, professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, because Barth felt Feuerbach exposed many fault lines, mistakes, social and collective projections, and other falsifications of Christianity that had arisen around the 19th-century church. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the religious affiliation of Karl Barth, who was a member of the Swiss Reformed Church.]

"Barth was happy to write a forward to a book that exposed the kind of Christianity he felt to be so unlike the radical God of the Bible he was reading. He saw the value of Feuerbach. So for a campaign like the bus ads that forces us to think – well, I thank them for it," Professor Waetjen says.

Sherine says she conceived the ads after visiting the fundamentalist website of Christians who sponsored the pro-God bus ads last year.

She was shocked to hear that in their interpretation of the Bible, unbelievers would "burn in a lake of fire." Sherine rejected such an outcome for her Parsi grandmother, and felt that nonbelievers deserved their own message. The windfall of donations are funding 1,000 ads now in British subway stations and on 200 London buses and 600 other buses as far north as Glasgow, Scotland. The ads also appear on a handful of buses in Spain and Italy.

Disbelief or skepticism of God or doctrine has always flowed strongly beneath what scholars called "lived religion." Doubters and the devout have often felt forced to reject or break out of restricting concepts of God, Professor Fackre says: "The question is not atheism or belief, but what kind of atheism or belief? We see some believers espousing something very far from Scriptures. So what kind of God are we rejecting? And what kind are we espousing?"

One Christian element significant in the struggle, particularly with Martin Luther, is "grace." The phrase is the Apostle Paul's, describing the righteous spiritual action of God when it may seem to humans unearned. It gets used in faithful discourse about changed individual lives. But it has also been central to momentous events, inclcluding the Protestant Reformation. As Theodore Trost, of the religion department at the University of Alabama puts it, "In Luther's moment, he sees that Paul, in talking about grace, is saying that Christianity is a different religion than what medieval Europe was experiencing."

Even the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida at the end of his life struggled with that which he said can't be deconstructed, including Paul's notions of love, grace, and gifts.

Many religious people, like many atheists, look to the natural world for evidence of transcendence. On Jan. 5, a day before the atheist campaign started, scientists revealed that our Milky Way galaxy is far larger than previously thought, contains an unknown arc of stars, and is moving more than 100,000 miles per hour faster than previously believed.

The New York Times, in an editorial that some in the faith community found religious implications in, stated: "One of the wonderful things about astronomy [is that] our understanding of the galaxy around us undergoes a significant shift, and the only real change is the new terrain that opens up inside our heads."

Ben Quinn contributed from London.

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