Putting a smiley face on the godless

After the holiday debacle in Olympia, atheists should try a new tactic used by British non-believers.
After the holiday debacle in Olympia, atheists should try a new tactic used by British non-believers.

I have written a couple of times recently criticizing militant atheist rhetoric and pointing out that in America, atheists rank near the bottom of the popularity list in politics. I'm not against atheism, indeed, I consider myself an atheist sympathizer, but the movement could sure use a new PR man.

The latest flap was over an anti-Christmas sign in the state Capitol in Olympia which declared that "There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." I pointed out that you're not going to win many converts calling people of faith ignorant, hard-hearted zombies, especially at the holidays. Why do atheists need to play the Grinch?

But a new atheist campaign in Britain seems be generating actual dialogue with religious folks instead of a shouting match between fundamentalists. What started as a small bus sign campaign has bloomed into a campaign where atheists have purchased bus signs saying: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." According to London's Telegraph

Organisers originally hoped to put the message on just a handful of London buses, as an antidote to posters put up by religious groups which they claimed were "threatening eternal damnation" to non-believers. But after the campaign received high-profile support from the prominent atheist Prof Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association, the modest £5,500 target was met within minutes and more than £140,000 has now been donated since the launch in October....

A further 600 buses carrying the adverts will be seen by passengers and passers-by in cities across England, Wales and Scotland, from Aberdeen and Dundee to York, Coventry, Swansea and Bristol.

A subsidiary campaign on subways includes signs featuring quotes from famous doubters like Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson. The New York Times has a blog story about the Web origins of the campaign and how the idea is spreading overseas.

The first thing that strikes me is that the campaign is less atheistic than agnostic--note the hedge in the existence of God who "probably" doesn't exist. But whereas such a campaign in this country still might lead to media witch-burnings, in Britain, it's generating conversation not condemnation:

The campaign has even been welcomed by religious groups for increasing the profile of debate about faith, and although there was tight security outside the launch event by the Royal Albert Hall, the campaigners have not received any threats from fundamentalists. Paul Woolley, director of Theos, a theology think tank which donated £50 to the cause, said: "The posters will encourage people to consider the most important question we will ever face in our lives."

One of the key elements of the campaign is not to lecture believers, but rather re-assure non-believers that being an agnostic or atheist is okay. And to suggest that religion and non-religion are acceptable topics of conversation.

I'm not sure such subtlety in this country would appease the Bill O'Reillys — nothing would — but it does suggest to me that a lighter hand might be more productive for atheists, perhaps even therapeutic. Maybe more will come out of the closet. Plus wouldn't you rather read dueling bus signs debating spiritual matters than see one more Jobdango card on Metro?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.