Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bus Wars! Atheists and Christians Take to the Buses

Amazing as it may sound, during a time of such economic difficulty as we are currently experiencing, atheists and Christian groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to advertise on buses, in what can only be called - the "Bus Wars". As we reported last November, it began when an atheist group in England raised funds to purchase advertising on London buses that proclaimed: ""There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Obviously, atheist groups around the world found this to be a brilliant strategy as several of them adopted the campaign in their own cities. In the November issue of Crossing Currents we reported an atheist group was also introducing an advertising campaign on metro-buses in Washington DC. They are now joined by groups in Canada, Brazil, Australia, Germany, and Italy.

Do not be misled into believing that their message is limited to the posters placed on the sides of buses; it has a much broader scope. As the media picked up the story the message also found its way into local and national periodicals and has been widely reported on Internet sites.

For example, Time Magazine reported the slogan to be placed on Italian buses will read: "The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that we do not need him." Therefore, it is not only the people of Genoa, Italy who are exposed to this campaign but the readers of Time and other media outlets who run the story, without a Christian response. And, by Christian response, we do not mean on the side of a bus.

Unfortunately, it appears there will be no shortage of such reactive responses made by Christians. For, it is not only the atheists who are investing their donations in bus advertising. Christian groups are also jumping on the band-wagon, or should we say, the band-bus.

For example, to counter the atheist campaign in London, a Christian group, the Trinitarian Bible Society, has spent $50,000 to place Psalm 53:1, "The fool has said in his heart there is no God", on the side of 125 London buses. Apparently, this let's those atheists know where they stand.

A conservative political group, the Christian Party, is also placing a message on London buses: "There definitely is a God, so join the Christian Party and enjoy your life." I guess in this case, God wants you to enjoy life by joining a political party.

Even the Russian Orthodox Church has joined the fray, partnering with a Russian satellite-TV channel. Their "bus message": "There is God. Don't worry. Enjoy your life!"

Thus far, the "Christian" response, as reported by the media, has been to call the atheist a fool (of course using Scripture), to point out life really begins when you join a political party, and to boil it down to just enjoying life. Nowhere in these responses is there any hint of the gospel.

One would think if we were going to expend the funds and efforts to counter a message that says there is no God, it would be to point to the only one who can connect us to God, Jesus.

This is not to say the Christian response has not gone unnoticed by the atheists. It hasn't. In fact, Hanne Stinson, CEO of the British Humanist Association, said, "[The Christian response] just proves that we've had an impact."

If, by impact, Ms. Stinson means it has raised the ire of some Christians, I would agree. However, if "impact" means winning people over to their way of thinking, I believe an ad proclaiming, "God probably doesn't exist" - probably - isn't going to convince someone He doesn't.

On the other hand, neither is advertising that the atheist is a "fool" probably going to win anyone over to the belief that God is real. As the Time article noted, in quoting renowned author and atheist Richard Dawkins, "That's a particularly obnoxious quote from one of the Psalms...[the humanist's] was extremely gentle and respectful by comparison."

I would agree with Dawkins assessment that the humanists probably come off looking better than the Christians, in this case. Now, don't get me wrong, this is not to say, that when confronted by a campaign like that of the humanist groups, our primary goal should be to try and appear to be the least offensive. However, that does not mean we should dismiss all charity and wisdom from our sharing. After all, the gospel is offensive enough on its own to those who reject it.

In fact, the origin of the current campaign by atheists is evidence of this. It was initiated by comedy writer, Ariane Sherine, who was reacting to a Christian ad campaign which she found offensive. Here is how she describes its origins: "...the campaign was originally started as a positive counter-response to the Jesus Said ads running on London buses in June 2008. These ads displayed the URL of a website which stated that non-Christians 'will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell... '. Our rational slogan will hopefully reassure anyone who has been scared by this kind of evangelism." www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/06/religion-atheism

Note the Christian ad is depicted as condemning and scary. The atheist response, however, is depicted as positive", "rational" and will "reassure".

Had she seen a poster on the bus that said, "You are condemned and going to hell" I could understand why she might be upset and describe it as she did. However, here are the words that were on the ad she saw: ""When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8)."

In fairness, she did say the message that so offended her was on the website the ad promoted. She is correct in that the website does contain language such as she describes. However, context is very important. Here is the website so you can read it for yourself: http://www.jesussaid.org

Interestingly, when one goes to this website the first message proclaimed is not of condemnation, but hope. Here is what is boldly proclaimed across the top of the web page, "JESUS said:I AM the resurrection, and the life, whoever believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die."

In fact, to find the message that so enraged Ms. Sheine, you have to read eleven pages into the twelve page website. The rest of the pages are a clear presentation of the gospel describing how to avoid that which so upset Ms. Sherine. Quite the contrary from being condemning, these pages contain such headings as: "who is Jesus", "who are we", "what is religion", "if you believe you become a brand new person", and "good news".

What observations can we make about the culture from this? First, it is noteworthy that, in 2008 London buses were advertising a message asking if Jesus would find faith upon his return and the media did not report on this and promote the message of the Christian website sponsoring the campaign. However, when an atheist group placed ads on buses they were found to be newsworthy with the media circulating their message as part of the story. (It is interesting that when the "Jesus Said" campaign is mentioned as part of this story it is in a negative light.)

Next, atheists are becoming increasingly vocal in defending and promoting their own views. And, despite their protestations to the contrary, are attempting to recruit others to their beliefs about god and religion. The bus advertising campaign is but one example of this. This is also being done through books written by such best-selling authors and atheists, as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens; as well as through lectures and public debates with Christian leaders.

Finally, Christians need to be prepared to present a reasoned response - not simply resorting to name-calling, even if under the guise of quoting Scripture - that offers the real hope found only in Jesus Christ. We must realize the attention given to the atheists' ad campaigns has presented Christians with a wonderful opportunity to talk about the gospel - the good news that not only does God exist but he cares for you.

We might do much better to not focus on the ads so much as on the opportunities they present. Rather than view the atheist bus ads as an attack on Christian beliefs, let us appreciate the fact that they have introduced an important question into the culture: "Is God real"?

Now, that is a great question and one that we should want to discuss. If we don't, then it seems the only ones who will actually benefit are the owners of the buses who probably hope the "Bus Wars" last for a long time.

Read the full Time article at: www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1877658,00.html
To read more about Ariane Sherine:
www.guardian.co.uk/profile/arianesherine
Video of Sherine and others discussing their campaign: www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSrSwRpBdHk

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