Controversial New Ads Market Atheism in the UK

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It is not unusual to see advertisements for religious products and organisations in the UK. However, a new campaign is promoting a very different kind of religious belief, or lack thereof. Beginning in 2011, atheism is promoting their own breed of religious brand in London and other cities.

People in London may have noticed the new campaign, which included around 800 red buses and 1000 subway ads beginning on 6 January bearing a sign stating, “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Called the Atheist Bus Campaign, this represents the first time atheism has been formally marketed in the UK using traditional advertising methods.

The campaign was first planned after a young atheist, Ariane Sherine, noticed several buses last summer bearing advertisements for Christianity. She raised money from people who share her beliefs and gained support from notable atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

Many supporters predicted an angry reaction from the many religious communities in London, but these communities and their leaders seem nonplussed. In fact, many leaders have claimed that a campaign asking people to question their faith may actually lead to deeper and more meaningful religious behaviour and beliefs. According to Reverend Stephen Wag of the Westminster diocese of the Roman Catholic 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.”

Can atheism be branded and advertised like any other belief or company? We think it is possible. There are many religious products such as  book on the market, but atheist products are beginning to be popular as well. In fact, one of the Atheist Bus Campaign’s major supporters, Richard Dawkins, is the author of several bestselling books, including “God Delusion,” explaining the purported logic behind atheism.

In addition, many people in the UK and all over Europe have already embraced atheism, or at least secularism, as a way of life. British people in particular are uncomfortable with public discussions of religion, but these advertisements stirred up a great deal of discussion between believers, nonbelievers, and people who are unsure.

One of the most interesting and well-discussed parts of the advertisement was the inclusion of the word ‘probably’. The atheists involved in the campaign vacillated between extreme statements that there is no God and much softer assertions. UK advertising officials advised the group to hedge their bets by offering a qualification instead of making an absolute statement. Ariane Sherine told UK newspaper The Guardian that the word probably was chosen because it is “…light-hearted, and somehow makes the message more positive.”

Can atheism be branded as a kinder, more honest counterpart to Christianity and other major UK religions? It will be interesting to see if there are any other atheism advertising campaigns, as well as how successful they are and how they are viewed by the religious in the UK. The UK has a diverse enough population to support many different types of religious beliefs, and the tolerance for these advertisements suggests that more atheist advertisements may be seen in the future.