Ariane Sherine talks about the Atheist Bus Campaign
Comedy writer Ariane Sherine created the Atheist Bus Campaign -which saw bus ads saying “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”…
Christian evangelical group “Proclaiming Truth In London” posted bible quotes up as bus adverts to spread their message. This launched a counter-move from the atheists, not normally known to group together to proselytize. Too much like herding cats.
Tell us all about the Atheist Bus Campaign!
The Atheist Bus Campaign came about in response to evangelical Christian advertising on London buses. I thought it would be a good idea to put some uplifting and rational alternative advertising out there for everyone to see, to balance religious advertising. I wrote it in a Guardian article, and didn’t expect it to get such a positive response – but the idea took off, and there are now versions of it running in 12 countries around the world.
The Atheist Bus Campaign was a marvellous campaign and got people talking. Did you feel weird at any point? Like you were proselytizing, perhaps, which is what a lot of people find annoying about some religious sects?
I’m really glad you liked it. I think it provided a sense of balance – religions have been advertising for over 2,000 years, so we thought it was time for a cheerful and peaceful right-to-reply. We weren’t encouraging anyone to join anything, just to enjoy their lives.
Regardless of your feelings about spirituality and religion, would you accept that it’s a comfort to some people?
I think it definitely is a comfort to some people – and if they’re attached to those comforting ideas, an advert on the side of a bus is unlikely to change that. But, talking of comfort, it’s also essential to let people who don’t believe know that they’re not alone.
As long as they don’t force those beliefs on others, do you see a place for religion in society?
I think that, as long as beliefs are always expressed peacefully and don’t infringe on others’ freedoms (e.g. gay rights, women’s reproductive rights) it is very important that people are free to hold whatever beliefs they wish.
Could you imagine a society without religion?
Societies where religion is not allowed are extremely repressive, which is why I think freedom of belief is so important. But this freedom also has to extend to non-belief – and often it doesn’t, at least not on a social level.
Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Katharine Hepburn were famous atheists. You put their quotes on 1,000 tube cards! Sadly we never got any of the cards. What were the quotes?
Those were my favourite part of the campaign, but the cards weren’t handed out – they were adverts displayed above tube seats. The quotes were:
“I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to one another and do what we can for other people” – Katharine Hepburn
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet” – Emily Dickinson
“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” – Douglas Adams
… And a very long one by Einstein!
When you get faith-related chats between people with opposing views, no-one ever walks away ‘winning’ the debate. No atheist, and no Christian, will ever back down and go “My God (well, maybe not ‘my God’), I’ve had a conversion, why thank you.” So what is the benefit of having faith-related chats? Because people can’t help themselves but get into one, it seems…
I think that if we talk about these ideas in a calm, friendly and honest way, at the very least we can gain a greater understanding of one another.
Now that you’re Atheist Bus Lady (sorry. But if people end up being labelled at least you have one to be proud of) has that boosted your comedy-writing career or does everyone think they have to talk about God or the lack of one with you all the time?
People do tend to talk about it initially, but once they realise I’m quite sanguine about the topics of atheism and religion, they move on to other things. I’m not sure it’s boosted my comedy writing career though, because the campaign was taken seriously by the press – so now I often get asked to write serious stuff, which I don’t really want to do!
The British Humanist Association really loved the bus campaign. Are you a great big humanist? What do you think being a great big humanist actually is?
I think it’s just living a moral and ethical life without recourse to the supernatural – being kind to other people, being aware of their feelings, not hurting them, taking care of the environment.
What keeps you going in terms of Big Thoughts when encountering major moments in life?
Given that most people aren’t religious, much the same things as everybody else I suppose – love of friends and family, and the fact that there is no alternative but to keep going.
You wrote for Countdown, and that’s amazing. What does writing for Countdown entail? Living a life besieged by puns?
Yes, pretty much! Though I wrote for them for two years (2004 – 2006) and there are really only so many puns you can make about jackets and ties, consonants and vowels. It was a great couple of years though.
Do you think female comedy writing differs from male comedy writing?
No, not at all. There are fewer female comedy writers than male, but I’d be very surprised if anyone could tell the difference between male and female-written scripts.
You write comedy for TV, newspapers, film scripts… Got a favourite?
I currently only write comedy for The Guardian, which is my ideal job. There’s genuinely nothing I’d rather do.
Apparently the majority of atheists are men! Freaky! Go on, posit a theory why. It doesn’t have to be the truth…
Perhaps it’s just that men are more interested in classifying and categorising – and many women who are de facto atheists don’t label themselves as such. But I honestly don’t know.
Is there anything we should have asked about you but were too selfish to do so?
I’m currently editing a book for HarperCollins called “The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas”, featuring contributions from 42 of the world’s most entertaining atheist comedians, writers and scientists, including Richard Dawkins, David Baddiel, Charlie Brooker, Richard Herring, Jenny Colgan, Ben Goldacre, Simon Le Bon and many others. The full advance and all royalties will go to the UK HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust, so please do buy it when it comes out on October 1st.