The wheels on the atheist bus go round and round

uk_bus_1In a move likely to bring plague, pestilence and horrible smoting upon the land (but a smile to the dial of Richard Dawkins), an atheist group has launched a campaign to raise $10,000 for “ads carrying atheist and humanist messages on buses in major NZ cities, encouraging Kiwis to think critically about their beliefs”.

The same controversial campaign featuring the slogan “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” ran in the UK earlier this year (the folks who set it up there have lent their assistance to the Kiwi incarnation) and similar campaigns have run in the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain, Australia, Finland and Germany. Here’s the rationale behind the advertising.

The campaign, which aims to run six bus ads in Auckland, four in Wellington and two in Christchurch from March (more cities will be added if enough cash rolls in), will be funded entirely by donations from the non-believers (the atheistic equivalent of tithing?), with administrative support provided by the Humanist Society of New Zealand. Donations or criticisms can be made at nogod.org.nz.

The UK campaign raised about £135,000 (NZ$303,100) more than expected, which enabled the group to put the messages on 800 buses. As of 10am, almost $5,000 had been raised. Not bad for the first day’s fundraising.

Wayne Chapman, chief executive of i-Site, the company responsible for NZ bus advertising, says the campaign is at the “more polarising end of the spectrum” but didn’t think the ads breached New Zealand advertising standards. Even so, he says he will wait until he lays eyes on the final creative execution, which he believes is exactly the same as that featured on the UK buses, before giving it the go ahead.

Not surprisingly, all the campaigns riled up religious groups when they ran overseas, but the British advertising watchdog didn’t see anything wrong with them. Freedom of speech and all that, it said.

Chapman did not know the group had planned to draw attention to the advertising campaign before its release, however. The fact that similar campaigns have run overseas does set something of a precedent and he believes the ASA would take that into consideration if it had to rule on its offensiveness here. Although he says ads that have not been deemed offensive in one country, may be deemed offensive in another.

The New Zealand Atheist Bus Campaign spokesman Simon Fisher says spreading the word of no God is designed to get people to think critically about their religious beliefs and rationally about the world in general.

“While New Zealand is by and large a very tolerant and inclusive society, there is still stigma associated with an atheistic position. At the same time we have recently seen the growing influence of radical religious groups such as Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church. With this campaign we hope to encourage positive debate on these issues. Religion should not be a taboo topic,” he says.

Fisher told the Dominion Post: “It’s okay to say you don’t believe in God. We like the slogan. It works, it’s catchy, it’s not perfect, it’s a slogan, but it roughly encapsulates what we want to say.”

When the campaign launched in the UK, Professor Richard Dawkins, who believes atheists are a persecuted minority and wants to try and herd the secular cats and fight back against religious zealotry, told the BBC: “Religion is accustomed to getting a free ride—automatic tax breaks, unearned respect and the right not to be offended, the right to brainwash children. Even on the buses, nobody thinks twice when they see a religious slogan plastered across the side. This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion.”

So is advertising atheism appropriate—or necessary? Should atheists in glass houses throw stones? Will an angry deity smite those who use blasphemous public transport? And why are manhole covers round?

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