Remembering the ‘atheist bus’ campaign

Last week, after posting my latest article on atheist community organising, I saw something that took me on a bit of a nostalgia trip back to the beginning.

The story goes like this: religious adverts from the mundane to the pretty extreme are common across many public spaces – including Transport for London. In 2008 Guardian columnist and comedian Ariane Sherine took issue with two bus adverts for a website warning non-Christian passengers that they would burn in hell for all eternity, unless they accepted Jesus. She did some tongue in cheek investigating, and asked the Advertising Standards Agency why the adverts were able to make such strong claims without the evidence we’d normally expect for such a product. She suggested that atheists club together to run an advert saying  “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.”

After a false start, the campaign was wildly successful, spreading to 13 countries, launching a spoof Ladybird Book of Atheist Buses, and helping re-frame the UK’s ‘debate’ on religion.

I had been in my fairly stereotypical new atheist phase for a couple of years when Ariane came and spoke at my student group. I was much more interested in being argumentative and confrontational, but the talk on the positives of the campaign, and her upcoming book The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, left an impression.

So 13 years on, I’ve been thinking about why the campaign was so successful, and what other AHS+ groups could learn from it.

1. The message was positive and inviting

The message was only seen as anti-religious in some parts because of our culture’s excessive privileging of and deference to religion. The short and simple message didn’t come with a clear selling point, but invited curiosity.

2. It focussed on activating not persuading or arguing

The atheist and wider AHS+ movement was able to grow so excessively in the early 21 century, not because of some great rational success in persuading people out of religion, but in activating those already with atheistic or humanist beliefs to be confident admitting them (even to themselves) and to find a community that shared them. Many people would have seen the message, and for the first time realised how many people out there thought the same. It treats arguments for gods with the intellectual respect they deserve (casual dismissal) to move on to what is important, while linking the concepts.

3. It was creative and fun

The bright font was instantly recognisable and often combined with bright engaging images. The project lent itself incredible well to image sharing. People could spot the busses and share their sightings, with 5MP camera phones just becoming ubiquitous. The use of a proto ‘pay to post’ message board of the campaign page was innovative. All of this helped challenge the unfair stereotype of atheists as shut ins or boring self-serious intellectuals.

4. There was an established group in position to support and benefit from the campaign

According to JustGiving’s analysis of the successes of the fundraising campaign, the British Humanist Association “weren’t the first organisation contacted to run the appeal”. But they “gained more publicity and funds than they have probably ever had” before.

The relationships between, and the advantages or disadvantages of, individual verses institutional activism is a key theme in my interview series with various leaders in this space. In this case, both were able to combine their knowledge and connections.

It appears that the BHA (now HUK) initially provided logistical support, before taking more ownership of the campaign. Fundraising efforts were focussed on the adverts themselves, but surely had a big impact on their membership. It was only in the second phase of the campaign – focussed on challenging the idea that children can be labelled with their parents’ religion, and promoting their own campaign against faith schools – that the BHA used the adverts for direct fundraising. Notably, this more complex messaging exceeded their fundraising aim, but had far less cultural cut through.

5. It took a risk

A lot of things about the campaign could have gone wrong including the adverts being rejected or falling flat. That positive responses would so outweigh criticism couldn’t be guaranteed, and that criticism could have led to serious reputational damage. But those risks were managed through small scalable goals. The early fundraisers were structured in such a way that they could be abandoned with no loss if they weren’t successful.

6. It failed and tried again

Following her initial article, blogger Jon Worth took up Ariane’s idea and launched an initial fundraiser, when this failed to reach the necessary support, the idea could have died. Instead, people reflected on it and tried again.

It seems like many in our own communities, not just our critics, are always on the lookout for examples of atheist failures and hubris, to validate their own cynicism. But trying, and failing at, new projects is the only way to move forward.

7. Famous ‘new atheists’ used their platform to promote others

Richard Dawkins’ offer to match the first £5.5k, along with his promotion of the campaign was a key factor in its explosive initial growth. Figures like Dawkins have become extremely polarising in the atheist and wider AHS+ movement, arguable they’ve done more harm than good in recent years. But this was one of many examples where ‘celebrity atheists’ actually used their power and their privilege to promote the work of others, rather than making it about them.

8. It exposed religious hypocrisy and arrogance

When digging back through the history of the campaign, I decided not to spend time on all the articles written by religious groups outraged about the campaign, or who tried to ban the adverts, or those self-important religious commentators who felt the campaign should really be a conversation they have equal part in. But all that noise and the religious imitations just helped fuel the campaign.

It would be difficult to quantify the millions or billions spent by religious groups every year on proselytising, but as soon as a few atheists write a book or put up one advert among the hundreds of religious ones, or politely invite someone to consider the issues, and we’re ‘just as bad’?

It’s a reminder also that although there is plenty to criticise in movement atheism, there really is no way however mild, polite or conciliatory that atheists are able to publicly exist or organise without accusations of arrogance and pushing atheism down people’s throats.

9. It was not deterred by atheist negativity

There is a whole group of atheists who are fundamentally opposed to the whole idea of any atheists ever doing anything or there being any such thing as an atheist movement and want to snipe at every effort.

Often these people felt a great intellectual superiority from being an atheist when it wasn’t socially acceptable, or they passionately believe in the importance of religious privilege and religion for the ‘plebs’ even if they don’t need it themselves.

There were even those in the movement, who felt the adverts were a waste of money, some of those who want to keep atheism as a small very serious elite club. If the campaign organisers had asked a hundred people who were in some way involved in organised atheism before and then again after the campaign whether they thought it was a good idea, there would have been very different answers. There’s an important lesson there in reaching beyond your base’s comfort zone.

10. It moved on

Though campaigns inspired by the original continue to pop up around the world more than a decade later, a key part of the success was it being time limited and the activists and organisations involved moved on to other projects. This made it easier for people with very different views or levels of commitment to be involved. If it had tried to continue forever, then people would have got bored, arguments over different messages and issues would have proliferated, and funds would have dried up. This would all have been painted as a failure.

Looking back I realise that the campaign’s core message – with its focus on moving on baked in – has influenced so much of my activism and community organising. Realising that there’s probably no god, is the easy first step, we should probably stop worrying about, and if we want everyone to be able to “enjoy your life”, focus on building the systems which allow a personally fulfilling and socially just humanism and secularism.

Thanks for reading

This is the 40th weekly article since the blog launched in 2021. Due to some personal changes this year, I’ve decided to take a break from weekly blogging following this article. I’ve bought my planned break forward a little because of other circumstances, but will be taking the time to reflect on what’s worked well and to come back strong, with new articles in May 2022.

Please get in touch or comment below to let me know what you thought of this, or any of my articles and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, £2 or more a month would help with hosting and other costs, help improve our content.

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Photo information: A picture from the atheist bus campaign by Dan Etherington

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