The Atheist Billboard Campaign

The Atheist Billboard Campaign launched today. It’s the second phase of the Atheist Bus Campaign, and sees large billboards in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Here’s the London one:

Atheist Billboard Campaign - Old Street, London

Isn’t it cool? The message will be familiar to anyone familiar with Richard Dawkins’ writings: it’s wrong to label children with concepts beyond their understanding. The labels shown in the background – ‘Catholic child’, ‘Muslim child’, ‘Atheist child’, ‘Post-modernist child’ etc. – should all stick in the throat, as there are no such things (the BHA’s campaign page goes into more detail on the divisive and coercive nature of labelling children in this way). Like the original bus campaign, it’s about consciousness-raising – as Ariane Sherine says in her Comment is Free launch article:

We hope the advert’s message will encourage the government, media and general public to see children as individuals, free to make their own choices as soon as they are old enough to fully understand what these choices mean, and that they will think twice before describing children in terms of their parents’ religion in the future.

I played a very small role in the planning of this campaign, and I’m proud to be associated.

There have been many negative comments, of course. So far the complaints seem to be:

  • “It won’t do any good.” – The aim is consciousness-raising – to get this idea more into the public domain. Anecdotal evidence suggests the bus campaign was tremendously successful at affecting public discourse around the world, and I don’t see why this shouldn’t be similarly capable.
  • “Who are you to tell me how to raise my children?” – Firstly, if you don’t want to listen, don’t listen – nobody’s forcing you to do anything. Secondly, what’s wrong with expressing an opinion on how to raise children? Thirdly, they’re not ‘your’ children in the sense of ownership – you’re their guardians, not their owners, and they have rights as people that trump your rights as parents.
  • “You’re smug and arrogant.” – Ad hominem attacks are pretty desperate.

Given the quality of the complaints so far, I think it’s going well.

Atheist Thriller on the Plinth – Part 1

I spent last Friday and Saturday in my flat, with the blinds closed, pretending to be Michael Jackson. I had to get the Thriller routine set in my head before my Plinth date on Sunday, and although I knew it pretty well, I kept making mistakes. Just little ones, but always something different. I’d go off time, or inexplicably forget the next move, or ad-lib something I really shouldn’t say in front of, you know, people.

And the people. I didn’t want to think about the people. We’d put the call out on Facebook and Twitter, and almost 30 people had confirmed, with another 35 saying they might. I hadn’t been shy, and pretty much everyone I knew had promised to watch, either in person or online. Some very popular atheists had mentioned me on Twitter. The British Humanist Association, as well as providing a ‘There’s probably no God…’ original bus sign for me to display, had posted about me on their front page. What was I thinking? I like these people – what if I did something so cringeworthy no humanist would meet my eye again? What if I sullied the spectacularly cool Atheist Bus Campaign? The very worst possibility I could imagine – worse than falling into the safety net – was the dance group getting bored and disintegrating: what if I was just rubbish?

Thing was – I didn’t have a choice. Having had and rejected the idea for Thriller – it was far too scary – I’d come up with something else, and promptly found myself preemptively regretting not dancing. So that was that. I wasn’t going to get a chance like this again. Decision made.

So after not much sleep I was up and on the early Sunday train to London. I had with me a bag of audio kit and a 15kg amplifier that seemed suddenly forged of glass. I’d spent ages trying to find a battery-powered amp powerful enough to blast music over the Trafalgar milieu, and finally located one two hours drive away, in Surrey. I phoned, booked it, and drove down to be told it was gone – would I like the next model up? It was enormous, but did at least have wheels and a drag-handle, and seemed sturdy, so I said yes. But pulling it along the cracked Marylebone pavement was horrendous – every bump and jolt felt like it was stripping circuit boards and puncturing capacitors. What if it broke? How much did this thing cost? What would I do for an hour?

The amp and I finally made it to the BHA offices, where we met my friend Bob, picked up the bus sign, finally located an ABC t-shirt that fitted, and jumped into a fully-laden taxi, heading to Trafalgar Square and the One and Other big green box. I was, by this point, terrified.

At the Square we headed for the participants’ door and were stopped by a wryly deadpan security guard, who apologised for having to frisk us, but frisk us he must. Once satisfied we weren’t carrying any guns / bombs / live animals, he helped us carry all the paraphernalia inside. This kind gesture was indicative of the One and Other staff, who were wonderfully friendly. They all introduced themselves, seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing, and took me through the dos and don’ts of the event – for example, I mustn’t try to get things out of the safety net. They also explained the locations of the webcams and said the web feed is on a 30 second delay – apparently swearing is ok, but slander isn’t: ‘dickhead’ is fine, ‘you dickhead’ is not. Interesting.

And then I was left to my own devices for a while. Bob was very kindly keeping me company, and we borrowed the oneandother twitter feed for a bit of last-minute publicity, as well as searching to see if anyone was mentioning the #plinthriller hashtag. We’d no idea whether the idea would work at all – what if nobody turned up? Would the non-invited crowd dance?

I was then offered tea, which I don’t drink, because I gave it up at Christmas to get over my caffeine addiction, and I said yes. Whether it was the caffeine or the situation, the nerves started to fade and the excitement started to rise. I may have been a little hyper. The 14:00-15:00 Bee Lady came down from the plinth (there was a hell of a buzz about her stint) and knew all about our plan. I’d been a touch hesitant in mentioning the humanist aspects in the office, just in case anyone was religious and it got awkward, but she really liked the idea. This was a nice confidence boost.

I was receiving texts galore, and one pointed out that I wouldn’t be alone, music-wise. We looked out of the window and saw why – Steel bands! Everywhere! I’m still not quite sure of the reasons, but they could be heard all over the Square. The text expressed some worry that I’d be heard. I looked over at my ridiculous amplifier, and figured if it couldn’t make enough noise, nothing could.

On the way to the plinthI was then interviewed for the Welcomme Trust, with friendly and surprisingly in-depth questions about where I was from, how long I’d been dancing, etc.. Apparently it’ll be stored and archived for future historians, which is a curious thought. They took some photos, and I realised with a start that it was 15:50 – I walked back into the main office to find it was time to get onto the cherry picker. If this was a deliberate move, it was very clever indeed – I had no time to sit, wait, and get appallingly nervous. Moments later we rounded the corner into the Square, and we were on our way.

(part two)

Christian comebacks to the Atheist Bus Campaign

The Atheist Bus Campaign adverts are coming down in the next few days, after an amazingly successful month. They’ve been a remarkable talking-point1, similar adverts are going up all around the world, and they annoyed, then embarrassed, Christian Voice. All great results, but they’re also apparently the vanguard for a wave of god-related banners:

A trinity of Christian groups have created their own series of advertisements to run across London buses

Fair enough, let’s see what they’ve got. Here’s the first, from the Christian Party:

There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.

Quite the non-sequitur. A double helping, in fact. Why would the existence of god mean I should join the Christian party? And are the last two clauses linked? Will joining the Christian Party2 help me enjoy my life? How? It’s easy to see why ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life’ would make sense, but this? It’s a little cultish. And pretty tacky: using ‘god exists’ to advertise your political party is just cheap. Next?

There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don’t worry and enjoy your life.

Reports differ on the wording and formatting: the Telegraph says it’s “There is God, believe! Don’t Worry. Enjoy your life!”. Whatever. As a comeback, it’s (ahem) godawful.

Really, that’s the best you could do? No kind of logical rebuttal? Admittedly this is only a bus poster, but the atheist campaign said a lot in the word ‘probably’ – that was really something to get your teeth into, as it led into the philosophical arguments and the nature of reasonable belief. This banner just says ‘no no no. we win’. And if the Guardian is to be believed, resorts to shouting like a street-corner evangelist. Weak. And the last one?

The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.

My irony meter. You has broken it.

Seriously? After all that complaining over the horrendously insulting “now stop worrying and enjoy your life” you’re calling atheists ‘fools’? And with a quote from your magical book, no less? That’s certainly authoritative. Well done. Maybe your follow-up campaign can be ‘I AM A REAL BOY’.  That’ll do it.

Overall, not impressive. And these are all marketing criticisms – don’t even start me on the philosophical objections. Elsewhere, the BHA’s response has a lovely air of amused we-have-better-things-to-do, and ponders whether the new banners will – hide your irony meters – break advertising rules. I think the best response is to point and laugh.

  1. sometimes a bit disappointing: did anyone see Adrian Childs on The One Show saying they promote amorality? wtf? []
  2. incidentally, their website weirdly says: “Christianity is not a religion as such, it is a dynamic relationship with God in Christ Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.” Right then. []