The Gentle Secularist: Ariane Sherine

The Gentle Secularist: Ariane Sherine

SPARE a thought for “Proclaiming Truth In London”. The Christian evangelical group’s modest hope was that their Bible-quoting bus advert would hell-scare a few of the capital’s pedestrians into worshipping their zombie-god. Instead, it sparked a planet-wide atheist counter-revolution, with public transport in cities around the globe bearing messages which cast varying degrees of doubt on the dearly held beliefs of millions.

In the league table of Christian home-goals, it ranks up there with Stephen Green’s finest.

And for that, we have to thank Ariane Sherine, journalist, comedy writer, and atheist. On that fateful morning last June she saw two of those Jesus Said adverts and was inspired to start a campaign of her own.

Ariane Sherine

Ariane Sherine

Seven months later, the now-famous slogan “THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE” was plastered onto the sides of buses in cities all over the UK, and copycat campaigns had started up in Canada, the US, Spain, Holland, Italy and Australia. The media coverage was spectacular, and Ariane was nominated for the NSS’s Secularist of the Year Award (won eventually by Evan Harris and Lord Avebury for getting the blasphemy laws abolished).

Arguably, atheism has never enjoyed such a high – and highly positive -public profile.

The Freethinker bumped into Ariane on the internet, and took the opportunity to ask her for an interview. She kindly agreed.

The Freethinker: Many people – mostly defensive Christians, but also many supportive atheists – see the atheist bus campaign as an  attack on religion. Is it?

Ariane Sherine: Not at all. It’s a gentle, philosophical advertising campaign designed to reassure anyone who may have been scared by evangelical advertising (specifically the Jesus Said adverts running on London buses back in June, but also other adverts and websites which promote the idea of hell).

FT: Given the gentle, philosophical nature of the campaign, were you surprised at the ferocity of the reaction it provoked from some people?

AS: To be honest, I think everyone – except perhaps Stephen Green – has been quite mild about it (and I even suspect Stephen Green of being a little tongue-in-cheek at times!) There’s certainly been a lot of press coverage, but overall it’s been a lot more balanced than I expected, which is encouraging.

FT: The slogan remained unchanged from your original article back in June 2008. Did you have to fight for it?

AS: It has slightly changed (from “get on with your life” to “enjoy your life”, to make it catchier and more positive) but the slogan we’ve used is the same slogan I suggested to the British Humanist Association at the start of September when they offered to support the campaign. I think the fact that so many people had already been positive about the slogan helped to persuade us all that it would be successful.

FT: There have been many suggestions for future slogans. What are your favourites?

AS: I like many of the slogans suggested by the Brazilian Atheist Bus Campaign, especially, “I’m happy without believing in any God”, with the subtitle “Be proud to be who you are. Do not hide.”

FT: Now Christians are responding with their own campaign, which is markedly more aggressive. For example – I paraphrase – “All atheists are idiots” (Ps 14:1). What do you think of this?

AS: I don’t think it’s going to cheer anyone up on the way to work! And I don’t think, overall, that it reflects well on the Trinitarian Bible Society. I’d much rather think I’d put out an ad which had made people smile, and I’m fairly sure they can’t think that. I don’t think people gravitate as readily to negative ideas as to positive, inclusive ones.

FT: As a professional comedy writer, do you think there is a place for humour and/or ridicule in the fight against irrationality?

AS: Yes – I think comedy can be one of the most effective mediums for change. If you can make people laugh, you’ll have connected with them, and they’ll be more likely to listen to your point of view, whatever their current worldview. At the same time, I’m aware that we’re dealing with ideas which, though not rational, mean a lot to many people – so I try to keep that in mind if I do joke about them.

FT: Why do you think religion continues to be so popular?

AS: There are many reasons. Lots of people find it comforting to think a higher being is looking out for them when they’re going through tough times. Many also like the sense of community and togetherness they get from their religion. In dozens of countries – and millions of families – openly leaving your belief system is not an option. And there are also plenty of people who have been brought up to believe their religion is the only route to fulfilment.

FT: What is your personal philosophy?

AS: I’m an atheist and a secularist. I think everyone should be free to believe what they like, as long as they express these beliefs peacefully and allow others the same freedom. I also believe that all governments, schools and public institutions should be secular and base their laws, teachings and judgements on reason and science. I believe in being kind to people and in treating everyone equally, whichever belief system they follow.

FT: Are you going to carry on campaigning for a rational world view?

AS: Now that the main phase of the British campaign has finished, I’m going to take a break for a little while, but would definitely like to keep writing about secularism and promoting rationalist ideals. I think all children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely and reach their own conclusions about life’s big questions – and I hope that, within our lifetimes, this will happen.

Fingers crossed. You can keep up with the latest ABC news or donate to further humanist campaigns at the Atheist Bus Campaign website.

31 responses to “The Gentle Secularist: Ariane Sherine”

  1. valdemar says:

    At the risk of sounding like a sad, mad old nerd, having Ariane and Richard Dawkins both leading the charge is rather like getting a fab sexy new Doctor Who without getting rid of a brilliant, magisterial old one.

    Nurse, the screens…

  2. Rocketboy says:

    Hot, Atheist AND a comedy writer. I think I’m in love.

  3. Mike says:

    Heh, i like the atheist bus model. Perhaps there could be a future in mass producing them to raise more funds?

    Will serve as a useful reminder when some quisling MP’s finally get a “thou shalt not criticise or ridicule religion in any way” law through. They tried it once, after all.

  4. Rozi says:

    Valdemar: at the risk of a being a pedant AND a nerd, it’s just ‘the Doctor’, not Doctor Who. That’s just the title of the show not his name. So there. Bet you feel right silly now.
    Although, not only did Dawkins appear in an episode of Doctor Who (The Stolen Earth), but he’s married to Lalla Ward who played Romana II, companion to the Fourth Doctor.

    Sorry, distracted there.
    Ariane Sherine is just lovely, how many Christian campaigners do you meet who are just that nice? Let alone good looking? Not many I’d say.

  5. The line from the psalms is “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God”.

    I always feel like adding “the intelligent person hath shouted it out loud.”

    Valdemar, old chum, surely Dawkins is the Doctor and Ariane is his Rose Tyler.

  6. Angela K says:

    What a delightful and thoughtful person is Ms Sherine; the religious would do better to follow her example rather than that of an imaginary friend. Ms Sherine, if you are reading this forum: well done and thank you.

  7. kevin says:

    I love Idea of it cool. well done.

    next it be Dr who.

  8. Buffy says:

    She’s certainly not the ugly, cantankerous sort the RRRWers love to claim atheists are. But it’s not like they’re right about much so I’m not surprised.

    I hope the ads make their way to the US, though given the problems we’ve had with the FFRF billboards I rather doubt they will. The fundaloons scream about “Freedom of Religion”, but they mean it only for themselves. Everybody else apparently has to go suck eggs.

  9. valdemar says:

    Bob, you Christians are the ultimate egocentric nihilists, being totally self-obsessed and lacking in any real love or compassion. It’s all about YOUR salvation, YOU following YOUR god’s set of rules and having a good laugh at people who care about others without being commanded to. You’re like Ayn Rand with a head full of crappy scripture. Horrible thought, I must have a nice up of tea…

    Heresiarch, Richard Dawkins in Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, and Ariane Sherine is Katy Manning/Jo Grant… Fwoar.

  10. Ryan says:

    “We Christians will have the last laugh, Barry. When you are in the torments of Hell we will be in Heaven worshipping Jesus.”

    Bob I doubt it.

    But thanks for the good wishes anyway.

  11. Bob says:

    Ryan: The good news is that you don’t have to end up in Hell. If you truly repent of your unbelief and accept Christ then God will be merciful to you. However, there is a Hell for those who refuse the Gospel.

  12. Ryan says:

    Well Bob, you see here’s the thing… If I make a list of people who are going to Hell and another list of people who are going to Heaven and compare them, frankly the idea of spending eternity in Heaven does not look particularly promising. In fact Hell looks like my kind of place – way more fun, and of course all my family and friends (or at least the ones that matter,) will be there.
    But thanks again for your incredibly patronising attitude – something that sadly many religious people share. If however, you wish to pray for me go ahead, I really don’t mind wasting your time.

  13. valdemar says:

    Ryan, you’re right on the button. Imagine sitting in heaven with Saint Annes Atkins and Widdecombe, looking down through a tacky glass floor at hell, and a vast panoply of Egyptian, Greek and Roman thinkers and doers, virtually every halfway decent writer and musician of the last few centuries, most of recent history’s bravest and best reformers, scientists and pioneers – not to mention all the people you’ve ever really liked. Doing God’s will isn’t worth it if the prize is an eternity spent wishing you were at a different party.

  14. Buffy says:

    I see the virus blocker stopped working again.

  15. Ryan says:

    With you and yours there Heaven won’t be a picnic either. Can you just imagine the rules and regulations with the Pope in charge. Christ almighty – the missionary position will be fucking compulsory.

  16. Ryan says:

    No, no I don’t think so…

  17. Shargraves says:

    Bob – how on earth do you function in life? Do you have a day job? Can you tie your own shoelaces? Have you got someone to help you when you go outside in the street?

    You sound like you have a mental age of about 8 you really do. That sneering smug “last laugh” you mentioned, that you are obviously so looking forward to – ain’t gonna happen pal.

    Yesterday I wondered wether religion actually had a use in society to keep stupid people happy and stop them from causing mayhem – as without a god – what would keep you religious clowns in check? People too gay-obsessed, sexually repressed, misogynistic and too intellectually stunted to function normally in a healthy society.

    Thinking like ‘a few good men’ – “You can’t handle the truth!”

    But – without religion – they wouldn’t be so psychologically damaged in the first place!

    Your imaginary Zeus-inspired christian god is not a benevolent invisible policeman, but a stupid, infantile, petty, greedy, vain, bigoted character from fiction.

    Thats why his followers are infantile, stupid, petty, and bigoted.

    And he’s invisible – because he is fucking make-believe.

    Good day sir! you belligerent ignoramus.

    (ahh! I’m back)

  18. Angela K says:

    Bob, let’s see if you can answer these two questions:
    Where exactly is this place you call “heaven” – if you are not refering to your favourite gay night club in London?
    Where exactly is the place you call “hell”?
    Please provide evidence to support you answers; quoting from your book of fairy tales invalidates your answers.

  19. Rozi says:

    To quote Bill Hicks, if we know for a fact that rock and roll is the devil’s music… AT LEAST HE FUCKIN’ JAMS!
    If it’s a choice between eternal hell and good tunes and eternal heaven and New Kids on the fuckin’ Block (or the Jonas Brothers, presumably), I’d rather be surfing on a lake of fire rockin’ out.

    Presumably, that’s where Hicks is right now. Bet Jerry Falwell is feeling really jealous.

  20. Ryan says:


    We are taught (or at least should,) to be polite and respect other peoples beliefs. We are taught not to be rude or offensive, not to engage in hate speech. This is something that everyone should know irrespective of race, colour or creed. Just being human should be enough. So I try not to insult people, I try to be understanding. Live and let live sounds good to me. But then I think – “You will burn in Hell….” You will be punished tormented, stuck on a skewer and roasted, not for a year, not for a lifetime, not even for many lifetimes, but for eternity. Tell me Bob, regardless of whether there is a god out there or not, what kind of person insults people like that? And what kind of person takes pride in that? It’s beyond rude – its unconscionable behaviour and yet religious people have no problem throwing it in our faces at every opportunity. It does not reflect well on the people involved. I might also add at this point that if there is a god, then he is assuredly not human and therefore not subject to your petty hatreds or insecurities. Therefore I have no fear whatsoever facing him/her/it for judgement, as by its very nature it has to be as far above us as we are above cockroaches. In fact it’s not unlikely but impossible that a being with such a staggering intellect would be that petty as to punish Atheists for an eternity for the heinous crime of non belief. I, for one, fail to see the need to take Pascal’s wager.

  21. Alan C. says:

    I really can’t understand the Bob’s of this world, they spend all their life worshiping and grovelling, instead of doing something useful in this life (the only life you get)
    And they do this in the vain hope that they can continue worshiping and grovelling, for all eternity!
    As Christopher Hitchens said, “it would be like spending eternity in North Korea” No thanks.

  22. Another Ryan says:

    I think Bob is putting Poe’s Law to the test here…

  23. Talitha says:

    Quote = Bob
    February 20th, 2009 at 10:33 am

    “Ryan: The good news is that you don’t have to end up in Hell. If you truly repent of your unbelief and accept Christ then God will be merciful to you. However, there is a Hell for those who refuse the Gospel”.

    Bob, as a “Salad Bar Christian” you should be more careful about what you promise folk.
    Not all who believe will end up in Heaven. In fact, many who thought they were Saved are now writhing in the Fiery Pits of Hell.
    Doing “many wonderful works” won’t help you either.

    Matthew 7:21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
    Matthew 7:22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
    Matthew 7:23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

    I hate it when false Christians start preaching to Hell-bound Heathens, promising them Salvation.
    There is also a Hell waiting for those that preach a false Gospel.

  24. Shargraves says:

    Wow – there’s a 100% proof fucktard turned up!

    Either that or satire worth the name.

  25. nullifidian says:

    Bob splurged:

    However, there is a Hell for those who refuse the Gospel.

    I think old fundie Bob is onto a winner here: as long as we don’t share his delusion, he’s going to continue to be a pain in the arse spouting his threatening fairy tales.

    P.S. I have to admit to having a bit of a godless crush on the very lovely Ms Sherine. Full disclosure, and all that. 😉

  26. Mike says:

    I just had an idea to start a band that does atheist covers of the songs of !Delerious (what a twattish name, oh well it was the 90’s), maybe i could call it Deluded!

  27. Clare says:

    Dear Ms. Sherine,

    I really admire what you have done. I took the liberty of having a couple of T-shirts made up with your slogan embroidered on it, which I intend to wear at our Darwin’s day lunch tomorrow (we are a week or two late) Hope you dont mind as here in Canada we can’t get your version of the T-shirt (the one you are wearing in the photo) I changed the colours a bit as some guys don’t like pink.

    If I get spaghetti or ketsup thrown at me- it will easily wash off! There are lots of Bob- like creatures here.

  28. Marius says:

    God the superior spirit, creator of the universe wants me to burn in hell forever because I am a non-believer. If he did exist I would be disappointed by his lack of fantasy

  29. God says:

    Now now children