Hanne Stinson is part of the British Humanist Association, and very kindly agreed to be interviewed about the role of her organisation in the atheist bus campaign. Thank-you, Hanne!
How did the idea of godless buses come about? Was there anything that jumpstarted the BHA to get involved, and what did you hope the outcome would be?
The idea came from comedy writer, Ariane Sherine, who wrote a ‘Comment is Free’ article on the Guardian website when she saw Christian bus advertisements with quotes from the Bible. The website the advertisements directed people to (http://proclaimingtruthinlondon.org/) condemned those who do not follow Jesus’ teachings to “spend all eternity in torment in hell”. Ariane suggested in her article that people might want to contribute to a more reassuring message for the non-religious, and the campaign has grown out of that. We thought this was an excellent opportunity to reach people who are not religious with a simple message that it’s OK not to believe in a god, that you don’t have to worry about all that, and can still lead and good life without religion – and enjoy it. So we got together with Ariane to work on the advertising campaign together. We hoped to raise £5,500: enough for ads on 30 bendy buses in London for 4 weeks, and to raise awareness of the fact that many people are atheist or agnostic and of the BHA.
What has the response been like? Obviously it is being reported all over the world, but do you have any idea what the people in the streeet are saying? How much of the reaction is positive, and how much not?
The response has been quite overwhelming. The appeal hit its target within a couple of hours, and so far we have raised nearly £120,000, which means that we can take the advertising campaign nationwide. And the media response, not only in the UK but around the world has been quite phenomenal – it’s been reported from Russia to Australia to Nepal to Rwanda, and it looks as if similar campaigns are going to be launched in some other countries too. What has really struck me has been that almost all the money has come in small donations – mostly £10 or less – so this is ordinary individuals saying they want to see these advertisements on buses and, from the messages they leave on the donation site message board, what comes across very clearly is that these are people who feel they have never had a voice. The response has also been overwhelmingly positive. We have had a few negative reactions from people saying we are attacking religion, or that the message is offensive, which I find quite interesting as no one complains that messages like ‘Jesus is the only path to salvation’ are attacking atheists or attacking other faiths. Some people seem to apply different standards when the non-religious say what they believe.
How did you decide on the slogan? There’s been some discussion round our part of the internet that the “probably” shifts the theme from atheism to agnosticism, and that the message might have been stronger without it. How do you feel about that?
There are a number of reasons why we chose the slogan ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. We wanted the message to be positive and reassuring, and we wanted to reach not only people who have firm atheist or humanist beliefs, but also people who no longer believe the religion they were brought up in, but are perhaps not quite as confident in their non-religious beliefs. And we didn’t want to offend people who are religious either. We also wanted to get across that many people who describe themselves as atheists or humanists would say that one can never be 100% certain about a negative. If there were ever convincing scientific evidence of the existence of god, people who base their beliefs on evidence and reason would have to reconsider their position. Not that I think that is every going to happen!
Will you be using different slogans in the future, and would you take suggestions? It seems the perfect excuse for a competition…
We have now agreed to take the campaign nation wide, and we are looking at the possibility of using different slogans, or perhaps adding to the existing slogan with a bit more information, or something about the issues that humanists and atheists face in society.
How long can we expect to see the godless buses running?
We are going for a 4 week campaign, starting in January, although the timing may not be exactly the same in different cities. And if we continue to raise money for advertisements it will probably go on longer – perhaps in additional cities.
What’s the excess money – if any – going to be used for?
Have you heard any news about the possibility of similar campaigns being carried out in other countries?
We know that humanist organisations in some other countries are considering this. There will almost certainly be atheist buses with either the same of different slogans in the USA and Australia, and quite likely a number of other countries.