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March 11-18, 2009 – Atheist ads on British bus

Contributed by Sylvia Alloway
Granada Hills, CA

Ariane Sherine, a British comedy writer, was shocked when she saw an ad on a London bus, placed by a Christian Web site. She decided that religious ads needed a “corrective.” She organized the “Atheist Bus Campaign” (link to BBC News article) and was soon joined by others who objected to religious sentiments expressed in public, notably famous atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.
Two-hundred thousand dollars later, this advertisement for atheism appeared on London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The American Humanist Association took up the theme by posting an ad on a Washington bus with a picture of Santa Claus that read, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Australians came up with “Atheism: Sleep in on Sunday mornings.”

While some believers are outraged by these notices and demand that they be retracted, others look upon them as a good way to start a conversation about God. Since most of the Western world grants its citizens free speech, it is unlikely that the “Atheist Bus Campaign” will die down at any time soon.

Check out the ELCA ad campaign developed for sharing our mission and ministry.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think that city buses should run atheistic ads? Christian ads? Why or why not? Are there any kind of ads or messages that shouldn’t be given/sold public space?
  • Under what circumstances could a Christian use the same “stop worrying” ad language to talk about his or her faith?
  • Discuss the bus ads (both Christian and atheistic) in the context of free speech. Does free speech mean anything goes, for instance, ridicule or personal attacks on a person for their beliefs or racial/ethnic identity, or use of cruel, violent, or obscene language? Where do you draw the line? Who should make such decisions?
  • Think about the message, “Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Would atheism really eliminate worry and make life more enjoyable? Why or why not?
  • Atheists say that there is no factual support for the message of salvation through Christ, or for God’s existence. What do you think? How would you respond to them? 

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, March 15, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

God’s will and law in both our physical and moral world has not been a popular idea throughout history. Yet the Bible is full of stories and admonitions that have to do with the truth and necessity of God’s law in all areas of life. In today’s Old Testament lessons, we have the Ten Commandments and a rousing picture of God’s sovereignty over nature (“The heavens are telling…”) and humanity (“The decrees of God are sure…”). But the New Testament lessons warn us that these laws are not obvious to everyone. In fact some will consider them foolish, while others will simply disobey when it suits them—believers and nonbelievers, alike.

Jesus does not go easy on this latter group who know better but still choose to disobey. The moneychangers in the temple are not just disobeying God’s law, which they probably know very well. They are corrupting God’s temple and leading others into sinful behavior by reducing worship to the act of buying the right sacrifice for the right amount of money so that God will hear their prayers more clearly or treat them more favorably, rather than worship God as they are with what they have. But there can be no tolerance or compromise here. God’s law clearly describes what belongs in the marketplace and what belongs in the temple, and cheating people out of their money (Mark’s account of the same incident, Mark 11:15-17) is wrong in any place and at any time.

When Jesus mentions destroying the temple, the Jewish leaders think he is talking nonsense. Jesus simply leaves them in their ignorance, knowing that they want only to argue, not to learn. At this point, the gospel writer zooms ahead and reminds us that the disciples remember these words of Jesus, after he is resurrected, and then find that they make perfect sense. As believers and followers—imperfect as they are—the disciples have become more open and receptive to God’s truth and word, while others remain resistant or closed off in mind and heart to the truth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

How, then, can we be more Christ-like in the matter of God’s law? We need to study, know, and have faith in God’s word, and apply it boldly to every situation of our life. We must resist compromise or messing with the truth to break or bend the law for our own benefit. And we need the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our public witness with others and remind us of the great love and forgiveness that God wraps us in because we are imperfect and not always obedient.

The bottom line: We all need God’s mercy, even in our good works and obedience, because none of our actions are pure. (a paraphrase of Martin Luther)

Discussion Questions 

  • What specific modern examples can you think of in which people think God’s law is foolish, unrealistic, or can be ignored? What examples can you describe of people who claim to know and trust God, but act or do something contrary or seemingly hypocritical? (e.g., a minister scamming a congregation, TV evangelist preaching one thing and living another, a friend in youth group posting lies about someone online, cheating on a test or stretching the truth on an application because it could mean getting into a highly respected Lutheran college, etc.) How does God’s love, grace, and forgiveness enter into all of this?
  • In what way, or under what circumstances, might a bus ad influence a person to accept, reject, or want to know more about God?
  • You never know when you are going to have an opportunity to speak up for Christ, or when you might unknowingly be a witness. In what ways can Christians prepare themselves for such opportunities? Think beyond just spoken words and consider creative writing, videos and photography, actions, Web pages, relationships, decision making, etc.
  • A discussion for more mature students: Atheists claim that human beings can be truly good, caring, and generous without God’s law. What do you think? (Martin Luther talked about several different kinds or righteousness, one being a moral or “civil righteousness.” He described the possibility of people who are not Christian, in the context of obeying government and social laws and expectations, being good citizens who are caring, working for justice, good, and serving people in need. But he is clear in asserting that these works, no matter how good they are, do not earn us favor or salvation with God… that’s where the idea of “heavenly righteousness” or “righteousness of faith” comes in. We give ourselves over in faith that our forgiveness and redemption is God’s work and gift to us through Jesus Christ.)
  • Discussion Extension: Act out a few responses to the news article discussion questions 2 and 5. 

Activity Suggestion

  • Creating bus ads: Use art materials to make one or more Christian bus ads that respond positively (even humorously) to the “Stop worrying” ad or one of the others mentioned in the story. (Remember, the point is not to rip apart or smear the other ads or organizations.)
  • Work in your congregation or synod to use some of the media ads from the ELCA ad campaign. We have a message of good news, hope, and invitation to share with everyone.

Suggested songs

  • “Great is the Lord” (contemporary)
  • “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #858
  • “O, Sing to God Above” (“Cantemos al Señor”), Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #555
  • “Earth and All Stars,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #731

Closing Prayer

Almighty God and sovereign Lord, we thank and praise you that your law and your saving grace rule every corner of creation. We need never worry or fear that you are absent or that you have stopped caring for us, your people, your creation. Keep us surrounded by and grounded in your love and will, God, and show us the true freedom that comes from obedience and trust in you. In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.