LONDON // The advertising watchdog in Britain is being challenged to rule on whether or not God exists. In a war of words between atheists and Christians, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is being asked to determine the accuracy of an advertisement stating: "There's probably no God."
The advertisements began to appear at the end of last week on buses across Britain as part of a campaign launched by the British Humanist Association. By yesterday, the ASA had received more than 100 complaints, most of them saying that the ads were offensive to Christians and other religions that believe in a single God. One complaint, however - from Christian Voice, a fundamentalist ministry - accused the advertisement of breaking the ASA legal code on the ground that, in fact, God does exist.
Now the ASA is having to decide on whether it should launch a formal inquiry to try to determine the accuracy of the atheists' claim. Stephen Green, national director of the Christian Voice, said: "It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules. "There is plenty of evidence for God, from people's personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.
"But there is scant evidence on the other side. So I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it." By tomorrow, about 800 buses in England, Scotland and Wales will be carrying the advertisements, which read in full: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." A further 1,000 posters are being placed on London Underground stations in a month-long campaign that costs £140,000 (Dh784,000).
Ariane Sherine first proposed the atheist advertising campaign in a blog in The Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free column in June, saying that it could provide a "reassuring counter-message to religious slogans threatening non-Christians with hell and damnation". But the humanist association took up the idea and sought to raise up to £5,000 to put the posters on London buses only. In the end, they got more than 25 times their target and extended the campaign to the rest of Britain.
Hanne Stinson, the chief executive of the association, said the Christian Voice complaint had been greeted with "peals of laughter" from her atheist colleagues. She added: "I am sure Stephen Green really does think there is a great deal of evidence for God - though, presumably, only the one that he believes in - but I pity the ASA if they are going to be expected to rule on the probability of God's existence.
"However, if they do investigate, we will be very happy to respond." Other Christian leaders in Britain have been much more sanguine about the campaign than Christian Voice, although the Church of England has now launched its own website - thereprobablyis.com - where people can join the debate with their own comments. Fr Stephen Wang, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said: "I think it is great to get people thinking. I love the idea of this bus winding its way through the streets and someone stopping to think: 'Mm, maybe there is no God - but maybe there is'.
"Many people simply never think about God or religion as a serious question and, if this prods them a little bit, then that's great. "My only sadness is that these posters betray such a negative view of religion - as if religious believers are walking around oppressed by worry all the time." The Rt Rev Andrew Watson, the Anglican bishop of Aston, also welcomed the campaign because of the debate it had created.
But he added: "I'm a little surprised at the idea on these posters that not believing in God helps us to stop worrying and to enjoy life. "All the evidence is that religious people tend to be more at peace with themselves and with the world, and to live longer than their non-religious contemporaries." Following Britain's lead, the American Humanist Association began running advertisements in Washington in November, though the message on the sides of buses was less strident. "Why believe in a god?" they read. "Just be good for goodness sake."
A plan by the Atheist Foundation of Australia to run a similar campaign on the country's public transport system was thwarted when the country's largest outdoor advertising company rejected the ads without giving any reason. Spanish atheists will start running an identically worded campaign to their British counterparts ("Probablemente Dios no existe. Deja de preocuparte y goza de la vida") on buses in Barcelona this week.
The Spanish group hopes to spread the campaign to other cities, including Madrid and Valencia, but local politicians are believed to be coming under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church to ban the ads from municipal buses. A spokesman for the campaign described the advertisements as "an attack on all religions". email@example.com