Photo from the New York Times.

January 2009: Richard Dawkins in front of a London bus, with a good advertisement. There was one, on the buses previously, of a Christian origin, that, if one visited the URL, told the reader that permanent hellfire would result from not being a Christian.

The request for donations for these atheist adverts met with an astonishingly good result, so that many buses have been so adorned: 800, in fact, across the UK.

One up for the good guys! Dawkins would prefer the word 'probably' removed: that, however, is necessary from a censorship standpoint.

Taking on the believers, one bus billboard at a time

Headshot of Elizabeth Renzetti

Elizabeth Renzetti

"Give Satan an inch and he'll be your ruler," warned a billboard outside one U.S. church I once passed, while another recommended itself as "a going church for a coming Lord." The best, though, simply showed a sky dark with thunderclouds, above the words "Don't make me come down there."

You might think that Britain, with its centuries of religious strife, its regicide and sizzling martyrs on a stick, would be the last place to find such fundamentalist finger-wagging. But last summer, British comedy writer Ariane Sherine saw a billboard on the side of a London bus indicating that only the followers of Jesus would be saved, and everyone else should prepare for an eternity slathered in SPF 1,000,000.

Sherine, who was raised a Christian but is now an atheist, found this intensely off-putting: Didn't nearly a quarter of Britons describe themselves as non-believers in the most recent census? Didn't more people regularly attend cricket matches than religious services? Where was the atheists' alternate vision of "Live free, die unbothered"?

So Sherine started a campaign to get the atheist word out - and received such a staggering response that, beginning this week, 800 buses across Britain will be carrying the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." (Presumably, they rejected "Prepare for an eternity of ... absolutely nothing, so get your shopping done now.")

First, she asked for donations of 5 (roughly $9) to support her billboard campaign, and the money rolled in - not least because Richard Dawkins, Oxford professor and author of The God Delusion, coughed up 5,500. Thousands of others gave smaller amounts. Sherine was astonished to find that by Christmas - oh, the irony! - "the atheist-bus campaign" had raised 140,000. That was enough to buy not just the bus ads, but a giant digital display on Oxford Street (where people tend to be more concerned with that afternoon's bargain flat-screen TV than their immortal souls) and a series of billboards dotted around the Underground featuring slogans from famous non-believers: "I am an atheist and that's it. I believe there's nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people." That was Katharine Hepburn.

The campaign is spreading. Some of Barcelona's buses are now sporting similar messages in Catalan, and the American Humanist Association is trying a seasonal approach in Washington. "Why believe in a god?" its ads ask. "Just be good for goodness' sake."

Yet there was a party pooper at the launch of the atheists' campaign in London earlier this week, and it wasn't Jesus. No, it was that one little word: probably. Saying God "probably" doesn't exist seems an inexcusable waffling in some quarters. "Probably" doesn't hold a votive candle to soaring Gothic spires, incense, and the promise, however irrational, of paradise undying. Or, as philosopher and God-denier A.C. Grayling, who supports the campaign but dislikes the equivocation, put it: "If one wished to cite a better example of insidiousness, pusillanimity, timidity and absurdity, you'd be hard-pressed."

So why didn't the atheists hold the power of their un-convictions and just say "There's no God"? It turns out that the word "probably" was required by the regulatory body that looks after Britain's bus advertising, which insisted the slogan needed to acknowledge "a grey area" with regard to the presence of the Almighty. Bring on Monty Python! (Actually, the Pythons have already shown us that the existence of God can be empirically proved by way of a wrestling match between a monsignor and the author of a book called Hello, Sailor.)

The atheism campaign could perhaps use a bit of that sense of fun - it's never going to win on pomp, intimidation or holidays. Over at Britain's National Secular Society, for example, you can download a "certificate of debaptism," free of charge.

Thanks to Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins - the Billy Grahams of atheism - the forces of humanism seem to be seizing the day, at least in Britain. Dawkins's The God Delusion and Hitchens' God Is Not Great were huge bestsellers. Dawkins is spearheading a campaign called Out, which calls on atheists to leave their closets of shame (the parallels to gay liberation are deliberate) and proudly wear a scarlet letter A. Yes, literally, you're supposed to proclaim your faith in reason with a pin or T-shirt emblazoned with Hawthorne's famous letter. If adultery can lose its stigma, why not atheism? Maybe "avarice" can take over as the last shameful A.

As an atheist - there, Prof. Dawkins, I'm out - I'm going to be watching for the billboards on my local bus routes, even if it does seem like preaching to the (un)converted. It's comforting to have company, even if it's very odd to suddenly be among the evangelists.