A novel advertising campaign underway in the United Kingdom reads "There's probably no God. Now, stop worrying and enjoy your life." Residents will see it on the sides of buses, and perhaps, based on the amount of funding rolling in, on posters, and elsewhere. The campaign is sponsored by people interested in encouraging atheist and freethought; writer Ariane Sherine suggested the idea last year. Read more about the campaign here.
I have to say that I'm of two minds concerning this campaign if it were tried here. On one hand, I'm all for engaging the debate. At least in the U.S., religious messages seem to be everywhere, and atheist and agnostic messages, well, not so much. Despite conservative Christian clamor that Christians are "persecuted" in this country, I fail to see any signs that such a thing is true. Most people claim to be Christians, most people claim to go to church, at least on the Christian holidays. Consider the flap over whether Senator Obama is a Christian or not. He says that he is, and we have no reason to doubt him, any more than we have reason to doubt what Senator McCain says about his faith, but the controversy just won't go away. A gentle reminder that some people, by some estimates, as much as 15-16 percent of the U.S. population is atheist, agnostic or "unaffiliated," and that these beliefs and belief systems are protected by the First Amendment, just like those of the Religious Right (which seems to forget this fact, every so often), would be welcome.
On the other, I'm not certain that I particularly want to be urged, on a city bus, or a city park bench, to buy ideas like peanut butter. But I can avert my eyes (Cohen v. California). Nor do I relish the idea of open ideological warfare, which might be the outcome of this kind of advertising, though it's better than real warfare, which we're seeing in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Quite honestly, could people successfully take out these kinds of ads in some parts of the U.S. in the kind of ideological climate we have now, and have had for some time? I think not, but perhaps things are changing. This country does tend to seek balance, does tend eventually to seek the middle, so perhaps they are.
Legally, could an atheist or agnostic group purchase advertising space on city buses for a campaign like the one in the U.K.? It depends on whether the city considers its buses public forums. If it does, as does Madison, Wisconsin, then I would think that if it accepts ads from, say, the local Catholic and Methodist and Unitarian churches urging people to come and worship, it would have a difficult time rejecting ads from a freethinking group urging people to consult their Hitchins or Dawkins. (Note that I don't have any indication that Madison has accepted any such ads from any religious group). If a city hasn't so designated its buses, then the city will have (or should have) set up standards by which it decides to accept ads, and it can accept or reject ads based on suitability, public policy, etc. But it would still need to be consistent in its acceptance of these ads, and it would need to give notice of these standards.
In spite of this doctrine, though, I really do think anyone who would try to buy advertising space for such a message on city buses in a city that had designated its buses public forums would have an uphill battle, simply because of the existing prejudice against atheists, agnostics and "unaffiliated" folks. As many as the U.S. electorate still won't vote for someone for President who doesn't attend church or says he or she doesn't believe in a supernatural being. If a city bus carried such a message the incumbents in office might find themselves in real jeopardy of being tossed out of office come election day. Sad. And to tell the truth, I think that people with an extreme religious or ideological message of another sort would also have trouble (think a sect that practices polygamy, for example). As far as I'm concerned, that's not the way it's supposed to work. I would hope that we could discuss these ideas calmly and dispassionately, like adults. But some of us don't. We yell, and shout insults, some of us from the pulpit, and condemn those who don't worship as we do, secure in the belief that the other person is going to the other place (which isn't the one we would choose for ourselves, if it exists). What a comfort.