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Akira Suemori/AP
Ariane Sherine, left, comedy writer and the organizer of the campaign, poses with Professor
Richard Dawkins, the author of non-fiction book 'The God Delusion'.

Atheism Bus Ads Stir Debate in Spain, and Worldwide

January 08, 2009 04:19 PM
by Josh Katz
Spain is the next stop for controversial bus advertisements promoting atheism, while the United Kingdom and United States have or had similar campaigns.

Atheist Ad Campaign Reaches Spain

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Barcelona will follow in the footsteps of the United Kingdom next week when it begins displaying atheist bus advertisements questioning the existence of God.

The buses will say, “Probablemente Dios no existe. Deja de preocuparte y goza de la vida,” meaning, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy life.” Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins helped spearhead the effort in the UK.

The privately funded ads are expected to incite controversy in the predominately Catholic country, more so than in the increasingly secular Britain. The campaigners plan on spreading the ads to other Spanish cities as well in the near future, including Madrid and Valencia, The Guardian reports. The Catalan Atheists say that the campaign continues to receive substantial funding, indicating that the ads will be able to reach other locations.

The campaigners, led by the Union of Atheists and Freethinkers, argue that atheism deserves more attention, claiming that 20 percent of Spaniards do not think that God exists. A 2008 poll by the Center of Sociological Investigations indicated that only 78 percent of Spaniards considered themselves Catholics, while 83.5 percent did in 1998, Monsters & Critics reports. Furthermore, “Only about 30 per cent of the Catholics attend mass regularly.”

But the Protestant minority in Spain appeared to welcome the advertising campaign. Paco Rubiales, a pastor at the Christian Meeting Centre in Fuenlabrada near Madrid, who donated church money for two Madrid advertisements that read, “God does exist. Enjoy life in Christ,” said that discussing these questions in public is a good thing, according to Monsters & Critics.

The Catholic Church was not so welcoming. “It is an attack on all religions,” Javier Maria Perez-Roldan of the Catholic Church’s Tomas Moro centre, told the Guardian. Perez-Roldan also holds the socialist government responsible for allegedly helping to spread atheist beliefs, saying, “The government has created an atmosphere of belligerence.”

The Catholic Church of Spain has recently taken a greater role in the country’s politics. It has battled “against laws passed by prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s socialist government allowing gay marriage, simplifying divorce and reducing the importance of religious instruction in the school timetable,” according to The Guardian. Although the church and the government are considered separate in Spain, the government does provide the Catholic Church with funding.

Background: Atheist bus campaigns in UK, US and Australia

The organizers of the UK Atheist Bus Campaign announced the idea in October 2008, not expecting to receive much funding. But it now boasts more than $200,000 and this Tuesday began displaying the message on 800 buses across the country, according to The New York Times.

Besides appearing in Spain, the ad campaign has also crossed the Atlantic and surfaced in Washington, D.C. The American Humanist Association unveiled bus advertisements there in November, although the message was not as controversial: “Why believe in a god?” the ads read, next to a picture of a man wearing a Santa suit. “Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

Atheists tried to bring the campaign to Australia as well, but that effort was not as successful. The ads, "atheism—celebrate reason" or "atheism—sleep in on Sunday mornings," were rejected by APN Outdoor, the country's largest outdoor advertising company, according to the Daily Telegraph. Similar attempts failed in Tasmania when state-owned bus company Metro called them discriminatory and threatened legal action.

The campaign in Britain hasn’t generated much controversy. According to the Times, “the British effort has been striking in the lack of outrage it has generated.” The Methodist Church in Britain has said the campaign could be beneficial, as it encourages dialogue on religion.

The Atheist Bus Campaign is scheduled to post 1,000 advertisements in the British subway system next week, containing quotes from Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Douglas Adams and Katharine Hepburn, the Times reports.

Richard Dawkins and other atheists have not been thrilled about all aspects of the campaign, however. Dawkins, for example, thinks the equivocal “probably” should have been left out of the ad. Though some campaigners said the word was there to avoid sounding preachy, Tim Bleakley, managing director for sales and marketing at CBS Outdoor in London, which is in charge of bus advertising, said the “probably” was needed to avoid violating certain guidelines. Without the “probably,” it “would have been misleading,” Bleakley said.

Opinion & Analysis: Thoughts on the atheist ads

In the Beliefnet blog, “Reformed Chicks Babbling,” Michele McGinty voices her discontent with the ads. McGinty points out that organizers opted for the word “probably” in the ad because they did not want to sound “dogmatic.” She asks, “But isn't that the current state of the modern atheist movement? Just note the words of Dawkins at the launch of the bus ad, that sounds pretty dogmatic to me.”

On the other hand, Nick Spencer of The Guardian feels that a little competition in spirituality advertising is a good thing. He even claims that the competition could be helpful to religion: “Lack of competition breeds lack of interest breeds apathy breeds market stagnation breeds sales decline.” But he also notes that competition provided by the atheist ads, could, of course, be harmful to religion. “If new products are evidently superior, old ones can simply die. When did you buy your last VHS player?”

Reference: Atheism and religion guides; Dawkins’ official Web site

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