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Austin Cline

Christian Refuses to Drive Bus Advertising Atheism

By January 19, 2009

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Apparently, the message that there is probably no God is just so horrible, so hateful, and so intolerant that it's just more than some Christians can stand -- or at least it's more than Christian Ron Heather can stand. A driver for First Bus, Ron Heather doesn't want to drive any busses that display the atheist advertisement suggesting that his god might not exist and that this isn't anything to worry about. Just as amazing is the fact that First Bus is willing to accommodate his position.
Mr Heather told BBC Radio Solent: "I was just about to board and there it was staring me in the face, my first reaction was shock horror. I felt that I could not drive that bus, I told my managers and they said they haven't got another one and I thought I better go home, so I did. I think it was the starkness of this advert which implied there was no God."

When he returned to work on Monday he was called into a meeting with managers and agreed to go back to work with the promise he would only have to drive the buses if there were no others available.

First Bus said in a statement: "As a company we understand Mr Heather's views regarding the atheist bus advert and we are doing what we can to accommodate his request not to drive the buses concerned."

Source: BBC

Oh, yes, saying that may be no gods is just so stark. Atheists in Britain should have tried not to beat people over the head with such a stark and insensitive message. They should have, you know, tried to be more cautious and humble in what they said. You never know when children or people with delicate sensibilities will be reading and it just wouldn't be right to unnecessarily insult them with egregiously strong messages.

What if a vegetarian didn't want to drive a bus with advertisements for meat? What if a person who abstains from alcohol didn't want to drive a bus with advertisements for whisky? What if a person waiting for marriage before having sex didn't want to drive a bus with advertisements for condoms? Somehow, I doubt that their "concerns" would be accommodated.

But what if a Muslim didn't want to drive a bus advertising something Jewish? What is a Jew didn't want to drive a bus advertising something Muslim? Those concerns might be accommodated because they are religious concerns -- I don't see nearly as much interest in accommodating secular interests but employers and government fall all over themselves accommodating religious objections to standard job duties.

And what if an atheist objected to driving a bus with Christian advertisements on it? Oh, you can forget about that. Atheists have no right to object to what Christians are doing.

Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "I have difficulty understanding why people with particular religious beliefs find the expression of a different sort of beliefs to be offensive.

I don't find it so difficult to understand, though I frankly find it ridiculous: some people are so accustomed to their religious beliefs being privileged that any public expressions of dissent, disagreement, and criticism is treated as a serious offense. Christians advertise their ideas publicly all the time and all over the place, but they can do this because Christianity is traditionally privileged. As soon as atheists do anything analogous, though, that's wrong -- because, apparently, public promotion of one's ideas is something for Christians rather than atheists.

'I do understand that the advert is not breaking any laws and that the campaign by this group is set to end at the end of February. However if it goes on any longer then I will have to think again and I will seriously consider giving up my job - I feel that strongly about it.' ...

He added: 'If this had been a slogan which had been as derogatory about another religion then I'm sure people would be up in arms. There would be no way buses be able to drive around with an anti-Muslim message like that on the side mentioning Allah. There would be uproar.'

Source: Daily Mail

Wait, suggesting that there might not be any gods is derogatory? Talk about an inflated sense of personal and religious privilege -- how does such a person ever deal with any sort of disagreement in their lives? Has Ron Heather ever had to deal directly with disagreement? Does he feel insulted any time anyone suggests that he might possibly be mistaken in some small way?

And isn't it interesting that Heather imagines that the atheist advertisement is aimed directly at his religion rather than theism (or at least monotheism) generally? I find this to be another sign of an inflated sense of privilege: people who disagree with your beliefs are regarded as disagreeing with you in particular and even personally, not simply disagreeing with your type of position generally. Thus atheists are regarded as directly and specifically attacking Christianity in particular rather than religion or theism generally.

This is probably at least part of why an atheist ad was banned on busses in Genoa:

The ads reading "The bad news is that God doesn't exist. The good news is that you don't need him" were to have been put on buses in the northern city of Genoa, home to the Catholic cardinal who is head of the Italian Bishops Conference.

The mock-up was ready and the contract was sent to the group for signing but the publicity agency changed its mind and said the ad could not run it because it violated an ethics in advertising code, according to Giorgio Villella of The Italian Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (UAAR).

Source: Reuters

According to Villella, "Right-wing politicians criticized us ferociously ..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." Perhaps following the example of Ron Heather, one Genoa bus driver threatened to refuse to drive any bus with the phrase "No God" on it.

Simon Barrow comments on the kerfuffle:

The reality is that we now live in a mixed-belief society, and Christians and others are going to need to get used to this. Being offended that other people think differently to you achieves nothing. We need to learn to talk and listen to one another better.

Source: Ekklesia

Uh, we are now living in a mixed-belief society? Now? How long has Simon Barrow been cryogenically frozen for? American and Britain have been mixed-belief societies for quite some time by this point. People who are only waking up to that fact now are well behind the times. Barrow is right, though, that Christians need to get used to the presence of non-Christians who are willing to be very public, direct, and vocal about their ideas -- even if it means disagreeing with Christians.

Christians who can't stand to see or who are offended at the sight of statements disagreeing with them have a real problem which they need to work through.

"The larger issue in all this is the way that beliefs, religious and otherwise, are increasingly being 'commodified' in a consumer culture - sold like products. But what convinces people of the value of a way of life or belief is its fruit in good lives, not an endless endless cycle of propaganda and anti-propaganda.

"Given the suffering, conflict and injustice in the world, one would hope that people of faith and people of general good will would want to find common purpose through investing in humanitarian causes rather spending vast amounts of money sloganeering."

Well, Simon Barrow has a point about the importance of spending money on humanitarian causes, but he's way off base suggesting that the atheist advertisement is an inappropriate use or waste of money. It's easy for people who belong to a majority class to look askance at minorities who spend time, money, and effort to simply publicize the fact that they exist, to explain what they think, and to work to get others to recognize that there is nothing wrong with them.

Members of privileged groups may not see the importance of this because they take it for granted that they won't be viewed as strange, immoral, or a threat to society. Members of privileged groups take it for granted that just about everyone already knows what their beliefs are and therefore don't need so much "propaganda" just create a bit of familiarity. For members of minority groups, though, it's not "propaganda" or "commodification" to get others to recognize that minorities exist, aren't any less moral and don't deserve to be treated with any less dignity.

It's easy for people like Simon Barrow to dispute the need for advertising and publicity because his belief system doesn't need it -- or shouldn't, though Christians do it all the time anyway. Maybe he should focus his "concern" on Christians who surely don't need publicity instead of on atheists for whom publicity and advertising are still critical.

Simon Barrow almost gets it, kind of, but he doesn't quite get there because he insists on wallowing in his own privilege and socially superior position. In contrast, Stephen Tomkins really does seem to get it:

Considering the number of religious groups who advertise on public transport, if all drivers took Heather's stance, the result would be pretty chaotic. No Christians, Muslims or other believers could drive an atheist bus. And if a bus had a poster with a verse form the Bible about Jesus dying for our sins, no atheist or Muslim could drive it. If it advertised the Qu'ran - you get the picture.

And what would happen with a bus that had an ad for the Qu'ran on the inside and for Jesus on the back? It could only be driven by someone who believes all religions lead to God.

In fact, "There's probably no God" is more a statement of agnosticism than atheism, so a really principled hardline atheist ought to refuse to drive the so-called atheist bus too.

Source: Guardian

That's the practical bit and it implicitly reveals some consciousness of Christian privilege because it points out the absurdity of what would happen if everyone behaved like the Christians involved here. Far better, though, is the next bit where Stephen Tomkins explicitly reveals his awareness of Christian Privilege -- an awareness which escaped Simon Barrow and which seems to escape so many other Christians:

In fact, speaking as one myself, I think it shows quite a cheek for Christians to make a fuss about this. We've spent decades covering public places with verses from the Bible, and posters promising that if you let Jesus into your life everything will be all right for ever.

Then as soon as the opposition get the money together to do the same thing we're outraged, and think that God is as cross as we are.

Christians have spent years and years and years doing things which no other religious group -- and certainly not atheists -- have been doing. Now, though, atheists are trying to do just a little of the same and suddenly they are nasty, horrible, intolerant people for it. Atheists aren't trying to do anything remarkable or strange, and the sentiments they are trying to express are far less blunt than the sorts of ideas expressed by Christians on a regular basis.

But many Christians will brook no serious competition when it comes to the public square. These same Christians may whine incessantly about how they are being "shut out" of the public square by laws and regulations which require that all groups be treated equally, but the truth is that they are using the tactics of bullies to keep others out as much as possible. They want to dominate the public square like they have been accustomed to doing for centuries and atheists are making that more difficult.

January 20, 2009 at 8:44 am
(1) Simon Barrow says:

Austin, I fear you’ve misconstrued my comments a little. I’ve been consistently critiquing (from a Christian perspective) ‘religious privilege’ for many years. Likewise, “now” does not mean “suddenly” – though it is a wake-up call for those who haven’t noticed what’s been going on for years! As to Stephen Tomkins’ remarks, have a look at what my colleague Jonathan Bartley has been saying – http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8271 Our comments on the commodification of belief are not a specific criticism of this initiative, but a comment on a general trend. And as I remarked in the Guardian: “[T]he real message that needs to get out there is about encouraging one another in active compassion. That, surely, is something we could all agree on? Compassion Ė an identification with the suffering of others so that you feel the need to alleviate pain and challenge injustice Ė is at the heart of the best kind of [non-religious] thinking and living, and also the best kind of religious thinking and living.” Best wishes, S.

January 20, 2009 at 10:42 am
(2) Dean says:

Thanks for the clarification, Simon.

January 21, 2009 at 12:09 am
(3) MikeC says:

100 cool points to Austin for using the word “kerfuffle”!

I have to wonder if similar adverts would go over at all where I live. Christian advertisements are a dime a dozen here in southwest Virginia (USA). Landowners place their own Christian stuff by the Interstate highways, such as 3 giant crosses, John 3:16, etc. There’s a red neon Jesus Saves sign visible from 1/4 of the city I live in.

Currently, there is a major debate happening in the local Op-Eds over the vice-mayor praying in Jesus’ name before City proceedings. One writer actually said, “If people donít want to worship our God, then leave our country and go to one where you can worship false gods. Donít stay in America.”

The only rational opinion so far has been from, ironically, a pastor. It seems much of the general population here is under the impression the United States is a theocracy!

January 21, 2009 at 10:22 am
(4) tamar says:

The thing is that life requires thought to navigate it fairly.

Unfortunately, it seems that thought is the bane of humans. We seek, at every turn, to get rid of having to think about anything.

With even the smallest amount of thought, you can see that Christians have placed their opinions about how it all began all over the place. Therefore, it is not wrong for people with differing opinions to do the same.

From the perspective of a churchgoer however, (in my own past) thought is not the first thing encouraged. Questions are not encouraged. Therefore the first (and only) defense is offense. Emotions are whipped up. There is no room for thought. No need for it even, not when your social group does all the thinking for you.

That is the sad part. For a group of people who, as far as I can see, really don’t intentionally hope for harm to others, and yet, their attitudes and opinions attack everyone who is different from them, from what they value because the people before them valued it. And differences can’t just be left alone.

January 23, 2009 at 3:03 pm
(5) Bob says:

I think it’s funny. If I was a bus driver required to drive a bus with religious slogans I would go ahead and drive. I wouldn’t care about the advertisements. Atheist or Christian you have to have a bit of tolerance and not too thin a skin.

January 23, 2009 at 3:06 pm
(6) eva says:

there was a discussion on the radio recently about the bus message there probably isnt a god, and one woman phoned in to express her concern that she just couldn’t imagine the sadness of living in a state of non-belief in god (a god?). sounded really good at first, what compassion and concern for the lonliness of athiests…but wait, isn’t it patronizing condescension…did she bother to inquire with an athiest how “lonely” and “alone” they felt and how they were dealing with it? and, even if she did, and the athiest said he or she wasn’t particularly feeling afraid and alone, she would UNDOUBTEDLY point out that this nonbeliever is in complete denial, just not aware of how alone and afraid they are. well, with “believers” you just can’t win. hey, wouldn’t it just be their comeuppance if, when the day of reckoning comes, they are barred from crossing through the pearly gates because “god” has one bottom line rule…no intolerance or false compassion (condescension).

January 23, 2009 at 5:51 pm
(7) r.l.baron says:

As for the bus incident it not only seems absurd but ironic that these religious people become offended with other viewpoints. I always find their advertisements funny and amusing only because I understand where I’m at with my dibelief in god/s.

It’s these same tantrums that make me realize how much uneccessary privilages they, bigots, get. I think they should’ve just fired the guy for acting out like a child who throws tantrums for not getting what the child wants.

It will definitely be a slow for people to accept but we’ll get there. :)

January 23, 2009 at 6:27 pm
(8) kirby says:

The slogan said “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and go and enjoy your life.” Austin interprets this as people don’t need to worry about there being no God. My Christian friends and relatives interpreted it as because people believe in a God they are worried (about sin? about Hell?). I’ve been an atheist for 40 of my 58 years and, quite frankly, my interpretation was the same as that of my Christian friends. They told me they weren’t offended by the message that there is no God (they don’t really care what we think), they were offended by the implication that they were somehow unhappy and worried because they were Christian! While it seems from the reactions that MOST Christians are complaining about the “There is no God” part of the message the ones I’ve talked to about it are upset about the latter part of the sign. Just another perspective on all this.

January 23, 2009 at 7:09 pm
(9) Austin Cline says:

They told me they weren’t offended by the message that there is no God (they don’t really care what we think), they were offended by the implication that they were somehow unhappy and worried because they were Christian!

Well, let’s assume that that’s the intended meaning.

So what?

What Christian is going to assert that they never, ever, ever worry about sin, hell, temptation, Satan, God’s judgment, etc.? Perhaps there’s one such Christian somewhere, and they might be justified in a little bit of annoyance at the sign. Everyone else is being told that they don’t have to worry about things which religious leaders have instructed them to be worried about.

And that’s not something which a person can reasonably take offense at.

January 24, 2009 at 8:39 am
(10) Mark Barratt says:

Agreed. I know a fair few Christians. They appear to be happy but it doesn’t take long to get to the deep, consuming dread and worry that their beliefs cause them.

I know one who is constantly worried that all his non-Conservative Evangelical friends are going to hell. Even other Christians, who are the WRONG kind of Christian. If he has kids I’m sure he’ll be constantly worried about them.

Not to mention going apoplectic every time a book, newspaper article, bus advert or profanity-filled musical DARES to say something they don’t like about their imaginary friend.

There’s plenty of down side to Christianity, regardless of what Christians say in public. They’re being told to worry about a lot of nasty imaginary god-related things, and the bus ads are telling them there’s no need to worry about such things. That’s an important and relevant message.

January 25, 2009 at 11:49 pm
(11) Todd says:

Funny, this guy gets crap for this. But heaven, (or whatever) forbid at least he did not say merry christmas.

January 26, 2009 at 4:22 pm
(12) Kirby says:

I think there are two things going on…1) they are trying to convince the atheists that they are happy and not worried 2) they are trying to convince themselves that they are happy and not worried. In either case, it is interesting that it is THAT part of the message they focus on, rather than the first part.

March 11, 2009 at 11:47 pm
(13) David says:

Kirby, they are trying to convince people wavering that one can live without god. People who are atheists know that they are happy, or not happy as the case may be, but theists are convinced that the only basis for their happiness is their belief in god.

Also, I’d like to see someone try to refuse to drive a bus advertising Viagra if they’d used it and gotten an erection lasting longer than four hours, so the ad personally offended them.

March 16, 2010 at 11:32 am
(14) Jonathan says:

This thread has more stereotypes in it than a Spike Lee movie.

Guys — I’m happier than I’ve ever been as a Christian. I don’t think the only basis for my happiness is my belief in god. I have a wonderful wife, a strong marriage, a good job, my health, enjoyable hobbies, and the company of great friends. What God provides me is my joy. It’s a different feeling entirely. I feel a contentment I’ve never felt as an atheist. Some atheists feel a contentment they never felt as Christians. I was an atheist for years before coming back to the faith — having lived the two I know which one I’ve come back too. I am legitimately fulfilled, whether Dawkins wants to hold to his predjudice or not.

I’m not going to make blanket statements about atheists just because of my personal experience. Opionions are one thing. Predjudice is another. Demagogues on both “sides” are dangerous, period.

And yes, I’d be surprised to see a member of, say, the ACLU driving a bus with “There’s probably a God, some come experience happiness” on the side. Because my religion centers around the existence of a God, printing an add saying there isn’t one and expecting me as a member of a corporate organization to endorse it by driving it around is tantamount to requiring an atheist to carry a bible everywhere while he works.

This is a point of view thing, and people generally have a very, very hard time breaking from theirs to allow empathy for the other “side”.

March 16, 2010 at 12:04 pm
(15) Austin Cline says:

This thread has more stereotypes in it than a Spike Lee movie.

After you posted your comment, yes.

And yes, I’d be surprised to see a member of, say, the ACLU driving a bus with “There’s probably a God, some come experience happiness” on the side.

That’s prejudice, not opinion, because there is nothing about being a member of the ACLU which is at odds with being a theist.

Because my religion centers around the existence of a God, printing an add saying there isn’t one and expecting me as a member of a corporate organization to endorse it by driving it around is tantamount to requiring an atheist to carry a bible everywhere while he works.

Except, of course, for the fact that driving a bus doesn’t signal any endorsement of any ads that happen to appear on the bus. There are no words sufficient to express just how absurd, false, and ill-conceived your claim is.

This is a point of view thing

No, it’s a “reality” thing and as long as you base your “point of view” on falsehoods and prejudices ó as you do above ó your “point of view” will not be taken very seriously.

March 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm
(16) Okami says:

kirby says, “…They told me they werenít offended by the message that there is no God (they donít really care what we think), they were offended by the implication that they were somehow unhappy and worried because they were Christian!…”

And yet, when Christians “witness” to you, it’s because they’re unhappy that you’re not “saved” and are worried that you’re going to spend an eternity in hell, and are eager to project their personal satisfaction that they’ve managed to escape such a dire fate themselves… because they worried about it before they were converted.

In other words, they are acting out of fear, insecurity, and discontent no matter how you look at it, and just want to bring you to their level. Sounds real happy to me.

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