Atheists – gimme five

Since when is it OK to spread the fear of God from the side of a bus? Let's get together and distribute reassurance

Yesterday I walked to work and saw not one, but two London buses with the question: "When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). It seems you wait ages for a bus with an unsettling Bible quote, then two come along at once.

The errant capital letters weren't the only disturbing thing about this (Faith Hill or Faith Evans?). There was also a web address on the ad, and when I visited the site, hoping for a straight answer to their rather pressing question, I received the following warning for anyone who doesn't "accept the word of Jesus on the cross": "You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels (demonic spirits)" (Matthew 25:41). Lots to look forward to, then.

Now, if I wanted to run a bus ad saying "Beware – there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!" or "The 'bits' in orange juice aren't orange but plastic – don't drink them or you'll die!" I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims. But apparently you don't need evidence to run an ad suggesting we'll all face the ire of the son of man when he comes, then link to a website advocating endless pain for atheists.

Imagine you've had a really bad day, and it's only 8.30am. You've spilt killer orange juice all over your crucial work documents, you're pressed up in a tube train against a commuter whose armpit smells like a biological weapon, and you're late for work and your only excuse is "I glued my hand to a dog".

You stumble out of the tube, and are confronted with the number 168 bus. It tells you that, along with your boss, a man with a beardy face is going to be upset with you, for ever, because you've refused to acknowledge his existence, despite the fact that he's too antisocial to come down here and say hi. You promptly throw yourself under the number 168 bus.

When I called the Advertising Standards Authority, the nice lady said they'd only received two complaints about the bus ads, neither of which had been investigated, because "The quotations used are clearly from the Bible and there's nothing in the advertising standards code to prohibit advertising a religious message. The website is not part of our remit."

I then asked her about another unrelated ad: was it okay for Carlsberg to say their lager was "probably the best lager in the world"? She thought so: "We haven't upheld a complaint against them."

After that, I Googled Carlsberg and found this marketing site, which suggests that using the word "probably" at the start of the ad saved Carlsberg from litigation.

CBS Outdoor Advertising, who run the ads, supply a very confusing rate card full of "power packs", "supersides" and "T-sides", assembled to destroy the brain cells of anyone who can't label a bus. But as far as I can tell, you can buy a "bendy bus streetliner" for only £23,400 for two weeks.

Which means that if there are 4,680 atheists reading this and we all contribute £5, it's possible that we can fund a much-needed atheist London bus ad with the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life."

Update: Read about the official atheist bus campaign here. To donate to the campaign, please visit here.

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Ariane Sherine: Why should we put up with religious ads on the sides of buses?

This article was first published on at 09.30 BST on Friday 20 June 2008. It was last updated at 12.45 BST on Wednesday 22 October 2008.

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