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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'.

Atheist Ads Implemented in UK and Spain Stopped Short in Italy

January 19, 2009 12:29 PM
by Josh Katz
The controversial atheist bus advertisements now displayed on certain buses in the UK and Spain will not appear in Genoa, Italy due to conservative opposition.

Conservatives Block Atheist Ads in Italy

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A campaign by atheists to have advertisements questioning the existence of God was not as successful in Italy as it was in Britain and Spain. Over the weekend, Italian atheists stated that their bid to run the ads was rejected in the face of conservative political opposition, Reuters reports.

The ads reading, "The bad news is that God doesn't exist. The good news is that you don't need him,” are based on similar atheists ads that developed in the United Kingdom. The Italian campaign was planned for the city of Genoa, home of Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference. The ads targeted Genoa because Bagnasco is “an outspoken opponent of artificial insemination and gay marriage,” according to British paper The Daily Telegraph.

Cardinal Bagnasco, said to be “furious” over the proposal, told officials to express their outrage to the bus company and the advertising involved, the Telegraph writes.

The publicity agent who was working with the Italian Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (UAAR) allegedly changed his mind on the ads because of conservative criticism and possible advertising ethics violations, according to Reuters.

"Right-wing politicians criticized us ferociously," according to Villella. He went on to say, “It's strange that in a country where ads depicting near-naked women wearing skimpy lingerie is permitted on buses that we can't run ads about atheism.”

Cardinal Bagnasco was apparently “delighted” upon learning that the camping was cancelled, according to the Telegraph.

Villella also said that the atheists will probably appeal the decision in court and will also attempt to launch the ads in other Italian cities, Reuters reports.

Background: Atheist bus campaigns in UK, US and Australia

Earlier in January, Barcelona began displaying atheist bus advertisements questioning the existence of God.

The buses 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.

In Britain, the organizers of the UK Atheist Bus Campaign first 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.

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.

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 voiced her discontent with the ads. McGinty pointed out that organizers opted for the word “probably” in the ad because they did not want to sound “dogmatic.” She asked, “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 felt that a little competition in spirituality advertising is a good thing. He even claimed 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 noted 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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