Bus Ads and Atheist Visibility

If you’re an American freethinker who’s envious of the success of the atheist bus campaign in Europe, this is your chance. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is launching its own campaign to put pro-atheist messages on buses and trains in America, with six ads already designed that feature quotes from famous freethinkers both historical and modern. The ads are already up on buses in Madison, and if enough donations come in, the FFRF plans to take the campaign to major cities like New York.

If we’re going to counter the outsized influence of religious interests in politics and popular culture, we need to fight back and speak out, and with this campaign, you can help. The FFRF has done fantastic work, both defending church-state separation in court and promoting atheism in the media, and they deserve our support. Donate today – even just a few dollars, if that’s all you can afford – and help bring this message of freethought to cities across America! You can even vote on what the ads should say.

With all that said, I want to add a few words about what our media strategy should be, and what we can hope these ads will accomplish. There are many people, especially religious fundamentalists, who haven’t grasped what atheists are setting out to achieve. Their lack of comprehension can clearly be seen in the pro-religion response ads that have run in several cities where atheist messages have aired:

Three separate pro-God advert campaigns on the sides of London buses are set to hit city streets.

Buses adorned with the slogan “There definitely is a God” are from the Christian Party, while the Trinitarian Bible Society chose a Biblical verse.

In response to the arrival in Calgary of an international bus ad campaign questioning the existence of God, local pro-religion forces have raised about $12,000 to buy ads on eight Calgary Transit buses and two transit trains. The ads, which will start appearing Monday, will read, “God cares for everyone… even for those who say He doesn’t exist.”

Two Christian-based groups have purchased advertisements with Washington D.C. Metro buses to counter the atheist “Why Believe in a God?” bus campaign with their own pro-God Christmas ads.

…The pro-God ads will read: “Why Believe? Because I created you and I love you, for goodness’ sake – GOD.”

Clearly, these religious groups assume that persuasion is merely a matter of who can speak at greater volume. If they can “balance” atheist ads with an equal number of theist ads, the thinking goes, they will cancel out any impact of the former and ensure that the atheist ad campaign doesn’t make any converts.

With traditional ad campaigns this might make sense, but it’s the wrong paradigm to use here. As I wrote in my post about the 2008 ARIS, the number of Americans who self-identify as atheist or agnostic has more than doubled, to 3.6 million, since 1990. But the number of Americans who are atheists, based on their stated beliefs, is far higher – as high as 12% of Americans, over 36 million people.

What this shows is that there’s still a broad gap – tens of millions of Americans – who agree with our position, but haven’t taken the step of formally declaring themselves atheists, much less joining a group like the FFRF. It is these people whom we can expect to reach with these ads. For nonbelievers who thought they were alone in the world, we can show them that there is a community that shares their views; for people who doubt religion but are wary of atheism because of the negative stereotypes spread about us, we can persuade them that being an atheist can be a positive and praiseworthy decision. Our primary goal, at least in this stage, shouldn’t be to convert the religious, but to unite nonbelievers and to bring all the loose and drifting atheists into the fold. These people are eminently reachable, and if we can reach all or even most of them, we’ll have a formidable platform from which to further promote our message.

By contrast, I doubt the pro-theism bus ads will accomplish much. Our culture is saturated with religion, and it’s safe to assume that anyone who wants to join a church has already done so. They, unlike us, do not have low-hanging fruit to reach. Their presence is abundantly obvious; if they want to spend yet more money broadcasting it, let them go ahead! We can get on with the important work of building a secular community while they train their fire on the wrong target.

Thoughts on the Chapel Hill Shooting
Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
New on the Guardian: The Peaceful Side of Atheism
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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