The Gentle Secularist: Ariane Sherine

The Gentle Secularist: Ariane Sherine February 19, 2009

SPARE a thought for “Proclaiming Truth In London”. The Christian evangelical group’s modest hope was that their Bible-quoting bus advert would hell-scare a few of the capital’s pedestrians into worshipping their zombie-god. Instead, it sparked a planet-wide atheist counter-revolution, with public transport in cities around the globe bearing messages which cast varying degrees of doubt on the dearly held beliefs of millions.
In the league table of Christian home-goals, it ranks up there with Stephen Green’s finest.

And for that, we have to thank Ariane Sherine, journalist, comedy writer, and atheist. On that fateful morning last June she saw two of those Jesus Said adverts and was inspired to start a campaign of her own.

Ariane Sherine
Ariane Sherine
Seven months later, the now-famous slogan “THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE” was plastered onto the sides of buses in cities all over the UK, and copycat campaigns had started up in Canada, the US, Spain, Holland, Italy and Australia. The media coverage was spectacular, and Ariane was nominated for the NSS’s Secularist of the Year Award (won eventually by Evan Harris and Lord Avebury for getting the blasphemy laws abolished).
Arguably, atheism has never enjoyed such a high – and highly positive -public profile.

The Freethinker bumped into Ariane on the internet, and took the opportunity to ask her for an interview. She kindly agreed.
The Freethinker: Many people – mostly defensive Christians, but also many supportive atheists – see the atheist bus campaign as an  attack on religion. Is it?
Ariane Sherine: Not at all. It’s a gentle, philosophical advertising campaign designed to reassure anyone who may have been scared by evangelical advertising (specifically the Jesus Said adverts running on London buses back in June, but also other adverts and websites which promote the idea of hell).
FT: Given the gentle, philosophical nature of the campaign, were you surprised at the ferocity of the reaction it provoked from some people?
AS: To be honest, I think everyone – except perhaps Stephen Green – has been quite mild about it (and I even suspect Stephen Green of being a little tongue-in-cheek at times!) There’s certainly been a lot of press coverage, but overall it’s been a lot more balanced than I expected, which is encouraging.
FT: The slogan remained unchanged from your original article back in June 2008. Did you have to fight for it?

AS: It has slightly changed (from “get on with your life” to “enjoy your life”, to make it catchier and more positive) but the slogan we’ve used is the same slogan I suggested to the British Humanist Association at the start of September when they offered to support the campaign. I think the fact that so many people had already been positive about the slogan helped to persuade us all that it would be successful.
FT: There have been many suggestions for future slogans. What are your favourites?
AS: I like many of the slogans suggested by the Brazilian Atheist Bus Campaign, especially, “I’m happy without believing in any God”, with the subtitle “Be proud to be who you are. Do not hide.”
FT: Now Christians are responding with their own campaign, which is markedly more aggressive. For example – I paraphrase – “All atheists are idiots” (Ps 14:1). What do you think of this?
AS: I don’t think it’s going to cheer anyone up on the way to work! And I don’t think, overall, that it reflects well on the Trinitarian Bible Society. I’d much rather think I’d put out an ad which had made people smile, and I’m fairly sure they can’t think that. I don’t think people gravitate as readily to negative ideas as to positive, inclusive ones.

FT: As a professional comedy writer, do you think there is a place for humour and/or ridicule in the fight against irrationality?
AS: Yes – I think comedy can be one of the most effective mediums for change. If you can make people laugh, you’ll have connected with them, and they’ll be more likely to listen to your point of view, whatever their current worldview. At the same time, I’m aware that we’re dealing with ideas which, though not rational, mean a lot to many people – so I try to keep that in mind if I do joke about them.
FT: Why do you think religion continues to be so popular?
AS: There are many reasons. Lots of people find it comforting to think a higher being is looking out for them when they’re going through tough times. Many also like the sense of community and togetherness they get from their religion. In dozens of countries – and millions of families – openly leaving your belief system is not an option. And there are also plenty of people who have been brought up to believe their religion is the only route to fulfilment.
FT: What is your personal philosophy?
AS: I’m an atheist and a secularist. I think everyone should be free to believe what they like, as long as they express these beliefs peacefully and allow others the same freedom. I also believe that all governments, schools and public institutions should be secular and base their laws, teachings and judgements on reason and science. I believe in being kind to people and in treating everyone equally, whichever belief system they follow.

FT: Are you going to carry on campaigning for a rational world view?
AS: Now that the main phase of the British campaign has finished, I’m going to take a break for a little while, but would definitely like to keep writing about secularism and promoting rationalist ideals. I think all children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely and reach their own conclusions about life’s big questions – and I hope that, within our lifetimes, this will happen.

Fingers crossed. You can keep up with the latest ABC news or donate to further humanist campaigns at the Atheist Bus Campaign website.

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