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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Reginald Selkirk

    … The FFRF has done fantastic work, both defending church-state separation in court and promoting atheism in the media, and they deserve our support… There are many people, especially religious fundamentalists, who haven’t grasped what atheists are setting out to achieve…

    Atheists not being a monolithic bloc, there is no reason to presume that they are all setting out to achieve the same thing. The FFRF’s strategy is more confrontational than that of some other groups. As an example, consider their anti-religion holiday display in the Washington state capitol, as contrasted with the much more gentle “probably not a God” bus ad funded by other groups. Consider also the FFRF’s record in legal cases, which is not at all good.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    The FFRF’s strategy is more confrontational than that of some other groups. As an example, consider their anti-religion holiday display in the Washington state capitol, as contrasted with the much more gentle “probably not a God” bus ad funded by other groups.

    I think what a lot of people missed is that the FFRF’s winter solstice sign was deliberately provocative. That was the point. The state was endorsing Christianity by putting up a nativity scene in the capitol building rotunda. To show everyone why that’s a problem, the FFRF put up a sign that most religious believers would find upsetting, just as we find it upsetting when the government endorses other people’s religions.

    Consider also the FFRF’s record in legal cases, which is not at all good.

    I don’t know what evidence would lead you to say that. The Hein decision was greatly disappointing, true, but that’s hardly the FFRF’s fault – it can rather be blamed on the theocracy-sympathizing conservative justices on the Roberts court.

    That aside, the FFRF has had plenty of significant victories in defending church-state separation. Among other things, they stopped a Wisconsin program giving taxpayer subsidies to religious schools; they defeated a plan by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to create single-faith prisons dubbed “God pods”; they won a major decision halting Bible instruction in public schools in Tennessee; they won the first victory against taxpayer-supported faith-based initiatives; and they stopped Indiana from hiring a state chaplain for governmental workers.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    A religious ad campaign may do something, but not what the religious groups may intend. Any controversy surrounding these ads shows that in expressing atheist views, one will invite anger and discrimination from religious groups. The ffrf ads (and others) tell us we are not alone, while the religious rebuttles give a glimpse of what we may be faced with should we come out of the closet.

  • http://intragalacticcomic.com Steph

    Could there be anything more arrogant than ads and billboards featuring quotes attributed to God? They didn’t get that phrase from the Bible — they’re putting forth their own opinion in their own words and claiming that it’s the declaration of an all knowing, perfect superbeing. Egocentric assholitude barely begins to cover it.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    I suggested a pro-freethought ad campaign to several groups, including the Madison group. My campaign would feature a group of happy looking people, smiling at the camera, an “all walks of life” sort of group photo, with the headline “Join The A-Team” and a caption below the group, “Atheists and Agnostics are A-OK”.

    So? Discuss?

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I have to say, while I love the atheist bus campaigns generally, I don’t like any of the slogans this organization is proposing. They’re all pretty snarkily anti- religion, rather than being pro- atheism… and while I have nothing against anti- religion snark in general, I don’t think it’s appropriate for the bus campaigns. If the idea, as Ebon suggested, is to reach “people who doubt religion but are wary of atheism because of the negative stereotypes spread about us” “persuade them that being an atheist can be a positive and praiseworthy decision,” then I don’t think any of the slogans being proposed are going to fulfill that purpose. They don’t counter negative stereotypes being spread about us — they actively confirm them.

    Again, I’m not saying we should criticize or argue against religion, or even that we shouldn’t be snarky about it. I think we absolutely should. I just don’t think this is the forum for doing it. I think this is a forum for saying, “Atheism is a valid option that you should know about.” And that’s not what any of these slogans are saying.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I think what a lot of people missed is that the FFRF’s winter solstice sign was deliberately provocative. That was the point.

    FYI: I was aware of that.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    I think this is a forum for saying, “Atheism is a valid option that you should know about.” And that’s not what any of these slogans are saying.

    Didja read mine? Right above your message? I too think we need to be more positive, and show atheists to be “just like your neighbors.” That’s the point of my campaign idea.

  • Polar Bond

    I have to agree that the proposed FFRF ads are kind of hostile, especially considering the really mild retaliatory Christian ads that were bought in Europe. Somehow, I think “Science flies you to the moon; Religion flies you into buildings. vs. “God cares for everyone… even for those who say He doesn’t exist.” will just reinforce the stereotype of atheists as hostile and immoral people who are simply rejecting those kind, loving Christians.

    Needless to say, that would be rather counterproductive.

  • RollingStone

    What I find amusing in those “God cares for those who say He doesn’t exist” slogans is that you could apply them to any god or religion:
    “Allah cares for everyone…even for those who say He doesn’t exist.”
    “Zeus cares for everyone…even for those who say He doesn’t exist.”
    A good rebuttal message to that would be “WHICH God??!!”

    And if we’re talking about the biblical god, I’m not so sure about the caring part, considering that he’s planning to send “those who say He doesn’t exist” straight to Hell.

  • bestonnet

    Would those who do not understand the Overton Window please stop complaining about the activities of those who do?

    Besides, the biggest strength of atheism is the weakness of religion.

  • Wayne K-M

    Hello Adam,

    I think we are making some serious progress.

    Wayne

  • Wayne K-M

    Hello again, Adam

    Do you intend to publish your book under your full name?

    Wayne

  • Wayne K-M

    Hello yet again, Adam Lee

    If so, I would treasure the first autographed copy hand delivered by you.

    Respectfully yours,

    Wayne K-M

  • bestonnet

    And why do you think you deserve it?

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    We have a saying in Jewish families that aptly illustrates this “Overton Window”:

    “If you wanna bring home a shiksa, first bring home a shvartze.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Take it easy, bestonnet – Wayne is a long-standing friend of mine.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Jim Speiser: with the headline “Join The A-Team”

    It’s catchy. Before actually pursuing that, I would want to know who owns the rights to the “A-Team.”

  • 2-D Man

    Greta said:

    I have to say, while I love the atheist bus campaigns generally, I don’t like any of the slogans this organization is proposing. They’re all pretty snarkily anti- religion, rather than being pro- atheism…

    I thought a few of the bus ads were actually pretty positive. I mean

    Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.

    and

    There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

    don’t really seem all that snarky, and they promote a positive message about atheism in my opinion.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    2-D Man: Those atheist bus ads that you cite are very positive, and I fully and unreservedly support them. My problem is specifically with the slogans being proposed by this particular campaign.

    Follow the link given in Ebon’s post. You’ll see that those slogans are:

    “Religion Once Ruled the World. It Was Known as the Dark Ages.”

    “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

    “The truth shall set you free from religion.”

    “Hang out with atheists. It’s more fun than hanging on a cross.”

    “9/11 was a faith-based initiative.”

    That’s what I’m talking about. It’s all snarkily hostile against religion — none of it is positive about atheism. Which, again, is important and has its place… but not, I would argue, on the bus ads.

    And yes, bestonnet, I’m familiar with the concept of moving the center by moving the fringe. I’ve written about it at length. I just don’t think these particular bus ads do a very good job of it.

  • Archimedez

    “There definitely is a God”

    That slogan is as empirically empty as the claim that there is definitely a Santa Claus. I think the slogan may serve another purpose, however, which is to announce, essentially, “Hey, we’re believers. Here we are. We’ve seen that atheist bus campaign and other atheist publications, and we will respond to that, and any other such effort, with more pro-God material. Where you say ‘probably,’ we say ‘definitely.’ We’re confident, certain, and we are digging in our heels.” There are other perhaps unintended messages, one of them being that there is “a God”–that is, there is one, but it is not specified which one exists, or if it is some wishy-washy amalgam of the Abrahamic (probably intended), or the deistic (perhaps also implied as an afterthought), or other versions of one God. It does not say “There definitely are gods.” This may also be an attempt to further unify Muslims, Christians, and Jews together as a socio-political block.

    “Why Believe? Because I created you and I love you, for goodness’ sake – GOD.”

    Besides appearing to be a textbook example of a logical fallacy, in my opinion the slogan fails pretty badly, even in terms of it’s attempt at positive emotional appeal. Both the religious and the non-religious audiences will be stuck with the fact that this statement had to be written by a human, not God. That can raise by analogy the idea that humans authored the words attributed to God or supposedly inspired by God in the Bible. The alleged God in question could be of the any of the Abrahamic religions, though neither the Bible nor the Quran say that God/Allah “loves” non-believers.

    I don’t think the author of that slogan is so daft as to think that it will convince anyone to believe, but it may be an attempt to soften up non-believers by saying something essentially like “Look, we believers are just nice, peace-loving people! We’re loving, tolerant, soft and cuddly, and positive in attitude. Look how we contrast with those annoying, and always angry and militant, atheists.” This may be an appeal to people who are in a mushy middle ground position, to get them to see religion as a positive thing, and thus to hold back or reduce whatever criticisms or objections they may have.

    “God cares for everyone… even for those who say He doesn’t exist.”

    This one should be known to most people in the audience of the advertisement to be, at best, misleading in light of what the religious texts themselves state. The singular “God” with capital G almost always is used to refer to the Abrahamic versions of God. The Old and New Testaments, and the Quran, show that God has a strange way of showing how he “cares” about those who believe he does not exist. The attitudes and policies of the Old Testament God toward unbelievers are well-known, and despite Christian apologetics, the New Testament has more of the same, e.g.,

    John
    3:36 “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”

    15:6 “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”

    Mark
    16:16 “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

    The Quran is even less ambiguous about Allah’s policy and attitudes toward the disbelievers

    3:31. “Say: If you love Allah, then follow me, Allah will love you and forgive you your faults, and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. 3:32 Say: Obey Allah and the Apostle; but if they turn back, then surely Allah does not love the unbelievers.”

    30:45. “That He may reward those who believe and do good out of His grace; surely He does not love the unbelievers.”

    35:39 “He it is Who made you rulers in the land; therefore whoever disbelieves, his unbelief is against himself; and their unbelief does not increase the disbelievers with their Lord in anything except hatred; and their unbelief does not increase the disbelievers in anything except loss.”

    40:10 “Surely those who disbelieve shall be cried out to: Certainly Allah’s hatred (of you) when you were called upon to the faith and you rejected, is much greater than your hatred of yourselves”

    For extensive lists of the bad verses, see these links

    http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/int/long.html

    http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/quran/int/long.html

  • Archimedez

    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. –Ebonmuse

    I don’t have the U.S. stats handy at the moment, but there is also probably a higher percentage of teens and college/university students who do not believe in God. Some recent stats indicate that about 32% of Canadian teens have “no religious faith.” Catholicism and Protestantism are declining, while other religions and unbelief are increasing among Canadian teens.
    http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/04/07/teens-lose-faith-in-droves/

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    Jim Speiser: with the headline “Join The A-Team”

    It’s catchy. Before actually pursuing that, I would want to know who owns the rights to the “A-Team.”

    Well, if its Mr. T, I hope he’s an atheist.

    Seriously, I think it’s one of those titles that can’t be infringed, its such a common expression.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I agree with Greta; although I think the bus campaign as a whole is a very good idea, I don’t care for the slogans currently under consideration for the exterior ads. (I do like the ones they’ve already run in interior ads, the ones I cited above featuring quotes from six famous freethinkers.)

    I think we can come up with something better. Anyone have any suggestions?

  • bestonnet

    Greta Christina:

    And yes, bestonnet, I’m familiar with the concept of moving the center by moving the fringe. I’ve written about it at length. I just don’t think these particular bus ads do a very good job of it.

    Anything in public that moves that moves the fringes is doing a good enough job of it.

    Theist ad:

    God cares for everyone… even for those who say He doesn’t exist.

    Much more moderate than a lot of other protheistic ads, it looks like the Overton Window is already moving in our direction.

    Archimedez:

    I don’t have the U.S. stats handy at the moment, but there is also probably a higher percentage of teens and college/university students who do not believe in God.

    That seems to be the case pretty much everywhere that does age breakdowns.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    bestonnet:

    Are you really trying to argue that “moving the window” is always, always, always right? Do you really not think that there’s never any such a thing as backlash?

    Let me give a somewhat extreme example to show my point. Would it help the atheist cause if we left flaming bags of dog shit on the steps of churches and other religious buildings around the world? Would that “move the window”? Would that make people think, “Well, that Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers are sure confrontational… but at least they’re not leaving flaming bags of dog shit on church steps”?

    Or would that — as I would argue — simply cause backlash?

    I think it’s a mistake to say that hostile confrontationalism is always right… just like it’s a mistake to say that hostile confrontationalism is never right.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Sorry. That was supposed to be, “Do you really not think that there’s ever any such a thing as backlash?” That’s what I get for re-casting my sentences.

  • bestonnet

    Other civil rights movements resorted to violence and still got what they wanted, in fact it was only after they resorted to violence that they got what they wanted (since asking nice didn’t work).

    To get to backlash point we’d need to use violence and we might not even get a serious backlash if we do that (though with demographics on our side we probably don’t need to). Genocide against Christians would probably do to cause a backlash though (but then our victory wouldn’t be legitimate).

  • Richard P

    Personally, I would rather support a bus ad campaign is Pakistan. An armored bus of course, probably remote controlled would be a good idea too.

    Sure religion as a whole needs to go, but if we don’t do something about those muslims, there won’t be any christians left to convert, or atheists to do the converting.

  • bestonnet

    Doing something about those Muslims will involve bringing the Muslim world up to the standard of the living of the western world, then what is happening to Christianity will start to happen to Islam.

  • Richard P

    I agree that there is necessity in that. I also think that we need to smash the narrow perspective that grips them into thinking that it is better to trash this world as a cost to obtaining the next.

    Pakistan public education is practically gone. So the folks send them to muslim schools and teach only the koran. By the time a kid is 12 they have memorized the koran but can not read or do math. This is scary, the only thing they learn is this narrow line of thought. Bus campaigns may not work if they can’t read, but loud speakers would help.

    Teaching them there is more to life than death, seems to be a good start and I would think a better investment that an american campaign. Not that I think an american campaign is not a good idea, but maybe it would be a good idea to set some priorities.

  • bestonnet

    Richard P:

    I agree that there is necessity in that. I also think that we need to smash the narrow perspective that grips them into thinking that it is better to trash this world as a cost to obtaining the next.

    It’s only a minority that are like that, most religious people (of any religion) aren’t that hardcore (rational choice theory of irrational belief and all that).

    Richard P:

    Pakistan public education is practically gone.

    I wouldn’t say it is practically gone but there are some areas where massive improvements are needed.

    Richard P:

    So the folks send them to muslim schools and teach only the koran. By the time a kid is 12 they have memorized the koran but can not read or do math.

    That is wrong, less that 1% of students in Pakistan go to madrassas with most going to public schools (and a significant fraction going to private schools).

    Richard P:

    This is scary, the only thing they learn is this narrow line of thought.

    It is only a few that are being inflicted with that. Still far too many, but it is not as big a problem as is often made out.

    Richard P:

    Bus campaigns may not work if they can’t read, but loud speakers would help.

    Most of Pakistan is literate (though there is a significant gender disparity).

    Richard P:

    Not that I think an american campaign is not a good idea, but maybe it would be a good idea to set some priorities.

    The US is the world’s largest economy as well as having the most powerful military along with the immense soft power that it has, getting some influence in the US should be a high priority and would probably be more useful when it comes to helping out the nations that are further behind the US.

  • bestonnet

    Link to why claims of madrassas becoming dominant in Pakistan are wrong (not sure what happened there):

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=667843

  • Penguin_Factory

    I’d just like to take the oppurtunity to say that the pro-religion slogans reallt suck.

    Anyways, always good to see this sort of thing. I do, however, oppose several of those comments, mainly the ones contrasting science and religion. Many religious people already hold the erroneous idea that science is some sort of monolithic religion-destroying evil force, and we really don’t need to re-inforce that idea.