At first it looked like just a gimmick: posters on London buses station, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
But the grassroots effort is gathering speed, snowballing into what amounts to a marketing campaign for atheism:
Will slapping a brand on non-believers prove to be anything more than just a publicity stunt
The ads stirred up an international media rumpus, and soon spread — from the British Humanist Association, which helped raise funds for the original campaign, to the Freethought Association of Canada, which has now launched the ads in Toronto, Calgary, and London, Ontario.There’s Probably No God! – Richard Dawkins, Ariane Sherine, And The Atheist Bus Ad Campaign
There’s no such thing as bad publicity, goes the cliche, and controversy may be just what these groups had in mind when they took on the task of marketing the nonexistence of God.
“They’re certainly getting the press. To that extent they’ve been successful,” says Mara Einstein, the author of Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. Einstein is now a professor of media studies at Queen’s College in New York, and worked in marketing for 20 years. She points out that the public is bombarded with advertising messages on a daily basis. In order to be heard, it is necessary to have a brand.
“Branding and advertising are the ways to make a comment in our culture,” Einstein says.
The non-believers may have just jumped on that bandwagon, but religions have understood the power of marketing for years. This is nowhere more evident than among Christian groups in the United States.
Modern Christian leaders have recognized the need to take part in contemporary culture, says Janice Peck, a professor of mass communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Gods of Televangelism: the Crisis of Meaning and the Appeal of Religious Television.
“The idea was, you didn’t have to be at odds with the world — you could be a good consumer and a good Christian,” Peck says.
“It’s purely capitalist religion. But when capitalism is the dominant organizing power in a society, everything in that society is going to be related. It’s not like religion is a separate thing.”
The atheist ad campaign is an attempt to join in that culture of consumption and visibility. And while atheists cannot be said to be a unified group, the marketing of nonbelievers also has its merchandise in the high-profile book sales of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great.
“If there were no religious advertising, there would be no atheist advertising,” said Ariane Sherine in a phone conversation from her home in London. Sherine is a journalist who spearheaded the idea for the ads in an article in The Guardian newspaper.
From a marketing perspective, however, the problem with the atheist brand may be that it is essentially selling nothing; not God, but no God.
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The official website of the Atheist bus campaign notes: “The atheist bus campaign is going international… Or to be more precise a whole bunch of different people all over the place have liked what we’ve done in the UK and are doing similar things in their own towns and cities.” It lists campaigns in Germany, Canada, Italy, Spain and Australia.
• Christians and Atheists Battle in London Bus Wars (TIME magazine)
• Bus Wars — Atheists and Christians Jump On The Bus (Bob Waldrep)
• Does God exist? Is there evidence for the existence of God? (GotQuestions.org)
• I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Norman Geisler and Frank Turek)