Reflection: Atheist Ads on British Buses


That was the message boldly splayed in pink, red and orange on the side of dozens of U.K. buses in October 2008. It makes sense for the campaign, financially backed by famous atheist Richard Dawkins and conceived, essentially, on accident by atheist bloggers and journalists proposing some sort of campaign for their beliefs (or lack thereof), to have been a success in the United Kingdom. After all, two-thirds of Brits do not identify as religious, and a Guardian/ICM poll published around Christmas in 2006 indicated that 82% of respondents felt religion does more harm than good. But the campaign’s success has less to do with a receptive environment for humanism and more with the unprecedented mobilizing power of Web 2.0.

As the self-described “feminist, atheist, anti-monarchist” blogger Jon Worth explained at the 2010 eCampaining Forum–with slides that are here–it was probably only through the Internet that the Atheist Bus campaign was even possible. One day in June 2008, an atheist journalist suggested fellow atheists donate money to start a campaign that could counter the many religious ads on London buses. Lo and behold, by the end of that same day, her request had gone blogospherically viral, Worth himself already beginning Photoshop mock-ups and setting up a pledge at Not two weeks later, newspapers were covering the budding campaign. By August a website had been conceived and by October, launched– The website said its goal was to raise £5500 to pay for the bus ads. Not 10 hours after launch the website met that goal, and by the end of the first week, more than £100,000 had been raised. Soon other traditional media, e.g., TV and radio, began alerting people to the campaign, and international press from Croatia to Italy to Germany started paying attention too. Eight-hundred atheist buses were ultimately launched across the U.K. The campaign generated more revenue than the creators knew what to do with.

Worth says the Atheist Bus campaign succeeded for six reasons: it was (1) a quirky and simple idea that (2) had celebrity backing (in Richard Dawkins) and (3) foundational backing (in the British Humanist Association); (4) a dedicated team worked with (5) cheap and simple technology like Facebook, Twitter and WordPress to reach people (6) both online and off-line, the latter via traditional media that got interested once the campaign gained steamed. This recipe is very similar to the highly successful one implemented by Team Obama in the senator’s push for the White House. Starting virtually at the same time, the Obama and Atheist Bus campaigns point to the new political reality in which we live. Accessible technology is replacing the complicated; informal but strongly worded statements are replacing the high-brow. Most importantly, the Internet is empowering “everybody” (as Shirky calls them)–ideas can now die or thrive based on how engaged ordinary people are at the grassroots level. Remember the so-called “group paradox”–that groups need people to join them in order to succeed, but that people will only join groups if the groups are demonstrably succeeding, which is of course measured by the number of folks who’ve already joined? Well that paradox is dead. The Internet so enables and encourages membership that trying to find the moment when that first, lonely person joined a group is like trying to see beyond the Planck epoch.

How many campaigns that succeed today could not have even existed--let alone succeeded–20 years ago? Ten years ago? The Atheist Bus’s swift, proactive timeline was due to the transcendent speed and strength of the Internet. This power enables campaigns to rage and conquer before opposition figures out a counterattack–or even realizes the threat. It enables campaigns to be born faster than opposing forces can abort them (e.g., in this case, religious groups).

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