Atheists on a roll – but how can we capture that enthusiasm to change the world?

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

Congratulations to Ariane Sherine, Richard Dawkins and the BHA and all concerned with the atheist bus slogan campaign. At its second attempt it has really taken off and has far exceeded expectations. It is hoped that the campaign can now be rolled out around the country – so even if you don’t live in London, you might still see the slogan on a mode of transport near you in the new year.

At the same time, the comedian Robin Ince — who entertained so magnificently at our Bye Bye Blasphemy party in June — has found himself with a surprise hit on his hands with his alternative Christmas show “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People”. This started out as a modest enterprise at a small London theatre. It sold out within days. Robin booked another night at the same theatre and that sold out quickly, too. Such was the demand for tickets, the he has now added another performance of the show – at one of the larger theatres in London, the Hammersmith Apollo.

It seems atheists have suddenly decided that they want to make themselves heard.

Of course, the Christians — who don’t take kindly to being contradicted — were not happy with all this. They have been fazed by the overwhelming success of the bus poster enterprise, just as they were when the books by Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. started to hit the best seller charts.

In all cases they have tried to make out that it was all a flash in the pan, a fad and fashion that would fade away. It is not quite so easy for them to be so dismissive now that there are more large-scale expressions from the great non-believing constituency in this country.

Reactions from the “people of faith” varied from outright abuse (“Richard Dawkins’ rubbish bus campaign” – Daily Telegraph) to feeble attempts at mockery ("Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large." – Stephen Green, Christian Voice). The insufferably smug Simon Barrow of Ekklesia tried to patronise the campaign in the Guardian (Atheist Evangelising ). The oxymoronic “Christian Think Tank” Theos even contributed £50 to the campaign on the basis that such “atheistic evangelising” drove people back to religion. They wish.

It seems that the Christian brigade don’t really know how to cope with this sudden blossoming of not only atheistic, but also quite blatantly anti-religious feeling in the country. Reading the comments on the website where the money is being collected it is clear that people are growing increasingly angry at the arrogance of religious leaders and the assumptions they make about their right to power.

It would be a wonderful thing if we could harness this outburst of energy and enthusiasm in the cause of secularism. But the sad fact is that the thousands who have donated to the atheist bus campaign won’t, in the main, sign up to the groups that could represent them.

And although the prodigious amount that was raised in such a short time is impressive, I wish these enthusiasts would give just as generously to the less glamorous, but just as valuable, campaigns to change the government’s mind on “faith schools” and to disestablish the Church of England. Such workaday, long-term campaigns have to struggle on the usual shoe-string budgets.

Still – we should be pleased that at last the silent majority (it may well be a majority) has found its voice and rallied. Maybe we’re getting somewhere.

See also:
Joan Bakewell on the atheist bus

17 October 2008