The profusion of atheist bus campaigns being waged in Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Italy, Spain and elsewhere has, quite expectedly, given rise to counter-offensives by the usual purveyors of bumper sticker theology and anti-atheist bigotry. The Friendly Atheist has posted a couple of humorous images (one shown below) extrapolating this Battle of the Buses to an absurd, but telling, conclusion.
As tempting as it is to dismiss these atheist advertising campaigns as silly exercises in provocation, and as easy as it is to take issue with specifics of the messages (the British campaign’s use of the modifier “probably,” for example, and its mildly hedonistic undertones), on the whole they seem to have served an important purpose, and it is refreshing to see active engagement with the religious fundamentalists at ground level.
It is likely that these campaigns have been successful in reaching out to atheists and agnostics unaware that their views were shared by a large segment of the population. Certainly they have done much to sustain discussion about the role of atheism in our society. A more enduring benefit of these advertisements (and the corresponding counter-attacks launched by God’s apologists), though, may be in converting this theological dispute over the existence of God into a popular culture debate.
Atheism is clearly on firm ground intellectually, and there has been no shortage of treatises on the subject by such luminaries of freethought as Dawkins and Dennett. While those and other books, volumes written in criticism of religious belief over the past few hundred years, and rapid advances in our scientific understanding of the universe and its inhabitants have buttressed the intellectual case for atheism, the vast majority have not been persuaded to abandon their faith in the mythological underpinnings of their chosen religion.
In changing the issue of God’s existence from a scholarly dispute to a matter of cultural preference, we may see more progress than has been made in countless arguments and debates. If these advertising campaigns can foster a perception of moral equivalence, the issue is relegated to the level of choosing between Coke and Pepsi, or Country Music and Rap. Who knows… we may even be able to coopt the mantra of the creationist crowd and insist that schools “teach the controversy” over God’s existence.
The important thing, it seems, is to refrain from attacking religion in these campaigns. Instead, the message should be that there is an equally valuable choice, which is embraced by others who share your important ethical values and live rich and fulfilling lives without belief in any gods.