"You can be good without God." It's a controversial statement presented by a group of Bloomington atheists who founded the Indiana Atheist Bus Campaign after being inspired by similar campaigns in the U.K. and Canada. The goal of the campaign is to purchase ad space on local buses with messages supporting non-religious views, and in a short period of time the group has made an impact and drawn national attention to their campaign.
"Around February we were observing the success of the bus campaigns in England and Ontario," says Eoban Binder, a member of the group. "We thought, 'Why couldn't we do something like that here?'"
So one night, approximately 30 non-religious people met and began planning Indiana's own campaign. They pitched ideas, investigated advertising costs on their laptops and donated some of their own money to get the fund raising going. Later, they contacted the Canadian campaign for advice and were encouraged to use the same slogans and designs to create unity between the campaigns. A partnership with the American Humanist Society created tax-deductible donations and, days before the campaign was even publicly announced, they received a $150 donation on their Web site.
The group also settled on two slogans for their campaign - "You can be good without God" and "In the beginning, man created God." By placing the messages on buses, they hope to start a discussion and give non-religious people a voice. "They say the two things people should avoid talking about is politics and religion," Binder says. "Well, it just doesn't work because they are so influential in our society in so many ways. The general feeling amongst our campaign is religion, just like everything else, is not above criticism. It's not immune from being discussed or argued about or debunked and refuted. The central thing was getting people to talk about religion in an open way. I don't see why religion should have a special status. It should be discussed in a logical way just like everything else."
Getting the message out
With a plan of action and money - $1,000 was raised during a three-day stretch upon publicly announcing the campaign - it was time to start buying ad space on Hoosier buses. But the group hit their first stumbling block when Bloomington Transit denied them ad space under their "no controversial ads" rule. The Atheist Bus Campaign is currently challenging the rule with a lawsuit. "In our opinion it was an overly broad policy, which could be interpreted to mean anything and could be used to deny advertising to anyone they felt like," Binder says. "That was the justification of the lawsuit and the Indiana ACLU agreed with us and agreed to take on the case. They have never lost a First Amendment case in Indiana and we are confident they are going to do well."
Despite the difficulty in Bloomington, the group pressed on and bought ad space in South Bend, hoping to put their "You can be good without God" message on buses in time for President Obama's Notre Dame commencement address. Burkhart Advertising, which handles South Bend TRANSPO's accounts, had a contractual obligation to get the signs up in five days time; however, they were blocked by TRANSPO, which held a board meeting and eventually decided to launch the ads "conveniently after Barack Obama was gone," Binder says. Since then, TRANSPO has stopped non-commercial advertising and begun revising their policy.
For their next effort, the campaign went out of state and purchased ad space on Chicago buses, where they decided to go with the more provocative "In the beginning, man created God" slogan. "Chicago gets so much crazy stuff," Binder says. "CTA runs all kinds of religious ads. They run ads for Islam, Catholic groups, Evangelical Christian groups. So they just shrugged and said, 'Sounds good,' when we asked to put the sign up. It was a minor drop in the bucket for them."
While the group is currently focusing on where to go next, don't expect advertising to pop up here in Indianapolis. IndyGo advertising guidelines specifically state "advertising involving or referring to political, religious, moral or environmental issues subject to public debate" is restricted.
The Center for Inquiry
Despite the Atheist Bus Campaign not being visible in Indianapolis, they are getting support from local citizens, including Reba Boyd Wooden and the Center for Inquiry. "I'm very well acquainted with the people in Bloomington - many are members - and I support them," she says.
Wooden is the executive director of the Center for Inquiry's Indianapolis location, located on the Canal Walk. The organization promotes science, reason and freedom of inquiry through social activities, education and activism. It's part of a larger structure with centers around the world. Center for Inquiry also participates in the United Nations as a non-governmental organization and is also active in Washington, D.C.
Wooden was aware of the Atheist Bus Campaign from the very beginning. "I knew what they were trying to do but we stood on the sidelines until we saw they were really going to get it going," she says. "They have fantastic leadership from students and people in the Bloomington community." Last month, on May 24, the campaign announced an endorsement from the Center For Inquiry. The center also contributed a $2,000 donation.
Wooden says a sign like "You can be good without God" grabs people's attention and creates awareness of those who are not religious while also offering them support. "People who aren't religious are out there," she says. "They are neighbors, teachers, friends, but they are often afraid to speak out. There is an idea that non-religious people are horrible people. But that is a misconception."
Already a success
Only a few months old, Binder calls the campaign a success. They recently surpassed their short-term goal of raising $10,000 and the campaign was covered on Time magazine's Web site and CBS News has also shown interest. "I feel the campaign has already accomplished its initial goals, which were to start discussions among people," Binder says. "It wasn't just about raising money and putting ads up. Its grander purpose was not just explaining our point of view or getting ourselves out there but getting other people to talk about it."
Binder notes people from all walks of life have responded positively to the campaign, saying many religious people appreciate starting such a conversation. At the same time, there has been an equal amount of negative response, including from non-religious people. "There is an interesting phenomenon among non-believers that leads people to say, 'Since I'm not religious I shouldn't talk about my beliefs with someone the way religious people would,'" he says. "There are people who think we are just making ourselves look like another proselytizing religious group."
As the campaign shifts and begins looking into new cities to advertise, a stronger focus will be put on fund raising in hopes of reaching the $50,000 goal met by the U.K. and Canadian campaigns. "We're hoping now that we have people following the campaign we can say, 'This is how far we've gotten and now we want to do another two cities. We want to bring ads to where you live,'" Binder says. "I'm hoping that will motivate people. They've seen what we've done so far. I think we've established ourselves."