Six ways to exploit the “atheist bus” in class


It’s another one of what the Spanish would call a “noticia insólita” (which means unusual news, but it sounds better in Spanish!): the atheist advertising campaign on London buses that is spreading to other cities. This is one of those things that just can’t be ignored. As soon as I saw the video on the news and the reactions it was provoking I started getting ideas on how it could be used to spark discussion in class. Six ideas, actually.

1. Play “Guess the word”. Write on the board the following: There’s probably no ______. Now stop worrying and enjoy your _____. Ask students to suggest different words that could go in the slots. At the end, once the words have been guessed or you tell them ask them what they think of the quote. Then explain the backstory.

2. Focus on word order. Give the following words jumbled up in two groups. no there’s God probably / stop enjoy and worrying life now your. Ask the students to form two grammatically correct sentences. Accept all grammatically correct sentences. Then ask them what they think of the quote. Explain the backstory, or give it to them to read.

3. Teach adverbs. Use the sample sentence to focus on adverbs like probably (sometimes called adverbs of certainty). The others are certainly, definitely (watch the spelling on that one!), undoubtedly (there is no doubtedly), surely, possibly. Worth mentioning that they usually come in the mid-position in the sentence. You could use the slogan as one of your sample sentences, and ask students to speculate why the authors used “probably”. Could also lead to a talk about the other way we express certainty in English, through modal verbs (e.g. There’s might not be a God.) Interesting to follow this up with the slogan writer’s reason for including “probably”.

4. Read reactions. If you go to one of the news sites running this story they will almost certainly have a comment section at the bottom of it. Collect a few of the reactions to the story – a balance of in favour and against reactions. Put them on a worksheet and distribute this to the students. They first identify the position of the writer, then discuss which ideas they agree with.

5. Have a general class on world religions. By this I don’t mean a discussion on whether or not God exists, but perhaps more of a reading class on different world religions – matching different facts to different religions for example.

6. Have a discussion on advertising. Use this ad as a starting point for a discussion on advertising. Areas you could make questions for would be: where can/shouldn’t people be allowed to advertise? what are some of the best ads the students have seen? and the worst? is this ad suitable? are religious ads suitable?

WARNING: using the atheist bus in class could be controversial and perhaps even illegal, depending where you are teaching. I leave it up to you to decide whether or not it’s appropriate. Even if you think it is, it is potentially a hot topic. I’ve written stuff on using hot topics in class with Scott Thornbury, you can read some tips here.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 10:33 am  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Lindsay,

    Thanks for some great suggestions. I was already planning to do a lesson on this subject and have posted two articles about it on my blog.

    This one has a CNN Video, which I’ve transcribed, and has a link to the earlier one.


    PS If anyone can decipher what MAN IN THE STREET 2 says I’d be grateful!

  2. Fantastic stuff, and with oh-so-much-more tact than I seem to be able to come up with when dealing with the subject. I do think that it can and should be done in class though, I know of several classes of mine (surprisingly enough here in Spain) that would love to raise the issue.

    True, as you’ve mentioned, not the ideal thing to break out in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, but if you know your learners well enough in other places, why not?

    Thanks again for the ideas!

    • Thanks for the comments Troy. I did it with a class here in Spain too, they weren’t offended – but we didn’t get into a discussion of whether or not God exists I have to admit!

  3. There’s also the message itself of course. Why ‘probably’ and not ‘There’s no god’?

    And who is the message aimed at? Presumably not those who do believe in god and are enjoying life, nor those who don’t and are also enjoying life. So it can only be the doubters – and are they actually ‘worrying’ about this? Does it stop people enjoying life?

    I’m sure students can discuss this without discussing whether there’s a god or not (but not here in Jordan, I fear!).

  4. The more I think about this half-baked campaign, the more I think it could be an evangelist push in disguise! It’s the feeblest argumemt for atheism I’ve ever heard. How can you stop worrying and enjoy your life if you’ve just lost your job, are in poor health, or have half an eye on the misery of half the planet? The message of most product advertising can be summarised as ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life’ anyway. It’s not like most people in western cities are going round thinking, ‘I could start enjoying life if only I could stop agonising about the existence of an almighty power.’ They’re too busy window-shopping. The same message could also be spun the other way: ‘Material things don’t matter so much. So stop worrying and enjoy your life!’ It would make more of a contrast with the other advertising..

  5. I’d agree with Luke here – a half-baked campaign indeed. Surely Humanists and like-minded Atheists should be stating categorically that ‘there is no God’, rather than pussy-footing about and hedging their bets by using ‘probably’.

    Of course, under consumer legislation you can’t make an assertion that can’t be proven, which places both the God-Squadders and the Atheists in a bit of a pickle. I guess the former have the edge, with the existence of documentary evidence; leaving the Nay-sayers to try and prove a negative – surely a paradox, and nigh on impossible?

    I’ve always been a confirmed Agnostic, so I’m happy with ‘There’s probably no God – but there possibly is one too’. Snappy, eh?

    • I like the idea of the agnostic bus slogan. Nice one!

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