By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 6, 2009
LONDON, Feb. 5 -- Three Christian groups in Britain are putting ads on city buses proclaiming that there is a God, a reaction to a high-profile atheist campaign here that has spread around the globe.
From the United States and Canada to Italy, Spain and Australia, nonbelievers have been placing anti-religious ads on buses -- usually seen promoting toothpaste, cellphones and other products -- and stirring up national debates about God.
Thousands of people in Britain recently raised $200,000 to place an ad on 800 London buses that reads: "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
Now, just as that campaign has ended, the Christian Party is putting up its response: "There definitely is a God." The Russian Orthodox Church's bus ad reads: "There is a God. BELIEVE. Don't worry and enjoy your life." And in the next few days, the Trinitarian Bible Society will be posting a line from Psalm 53:1: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God."
"Great idea!" said Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, a lobbying group. Expressing delight that the godless bus-borne messages are off the road, he said, "The forces of darkness are in retreat."
More than three of four people in the world consider themselves religious, and those who say they belong to no faith are in the distinct minority. But in many of the world's richer nations, particularly in Europe, an increasingly vocal nonreligious movement has gained ground.
Leaders of many humanist and other nonreligious groups say their numbers are growing in reaction to rising religious fanaticism and faith-inspired terrorism, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Perhaps because atheists had rarely advertised before, the ads on buses seen by millions sparked raging debates in many places.
"A lot of people are angry, a lot of people are happy" about the atheists' ads, said Katie Kish, vice president of the Freethought Association of Canada, which promotes secular views. She said her group, which is coordinating an atheist campaign in Canada, will later this month have buses in Toronto, Halifax and Calgary bearing the same message as the London ones: There is probably no God, so people should stop worrying and enjoy life.
In Italy, where the Catholic Church is strong, some proposed atheist bus ads have been rejected, but this one has just been approved to run this month in Genoa: "The good news is there are millions of atheists in Italy; the excellent news is they believe in freedom of expression."
In Britain, the Rev. George Hargreaves, leader of the Christian Party, said he was annoyed that buses running past his London office bore the atheists' creed. So his minor political party bought advertising assuring people of God's existence. Those ads also seek to raise money by encouraging people, for a $2 fee, to text "Amen."
David Long, a spokesman for the Trinitarian Bible Society, which publishes Bibles, said the atheist ads got "people talking about God." That "probably was not their intention," he said, "but we felt that it was amusing."
Fred Edwords, spokesman for the American Humanist Association, said that "nobody is going to be converted because of a sign on a bus." But he said the ads his group put on Washington buses in November and December -- "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake" -- let people who don't believe in God know they are not the only ones.
Edwords said a new bus campaign, due to start in New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras, will feature this ad: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."
Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said the new religious ads proclaiming God are "really quite a compliment" and mean "our ads had an impact."
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.