The religious (probably) have nothing to worry about

January 7, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Posted in British Politics, Media, Religion | Leave a comment

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What fascinates me most about the whole ‘atheist bus campaign’ is watching religious people trying to critique it. Just a few years back, when the godless discourse was dominated by Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens talking about ‘celestial dictators’, Flying Spaghetti Monsters and the ‘indoctrination’ in Sunday Schools, it was easy enough for your average theist to condemn non-believers as ‘militiant’, belligerent and just as bent on denying freedom as the religious fanatics they despise. They were wrong, I think, but it was still a popular, effective attack.

But that attack just doesn’t work with this campaign. Its message is emblazoned in bright, colourful lettering, its words carry a reassuring, inoffensive message, and the breeziness of its approach has meant that critics still haven’t managed to land a punch, as this failed attempt by Nick Spencer demonstrates:

Let’s leave aside the adverts’ basic proposition, “There’s probably no God”. Where did that “probably” come from? It doesn’t suggest the sales staff is overly confident about its product. If my pilot told me “This flight to Paris probably won’t crash,” I’d think about taking the train.

And let’s leave aside the advice, “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. You would have to go a long way to find a slogan less suited to our New Year, recession-looming, mass-unemployment gloom.

No, let’s not leave that aside, because if we do then we have to accept that Spencer’s interpretation is correct. It isn’t.

“Where did the ‘probably’ come from?” Well, from theists, actually. The common response from believers to the statement that ‘there is no God!’ is ‘but how do you know that?’ The simple answer is: we don’t. But our society has only developed this far by placing a high premium on evidence and rationality, so it’s not unfair to deduce from the scant evidence of a Higher Being that one (probably) doesn’t exist. Atheists can hardly be blamed for adding a caveat that was demanded by believers in the first place.

Next, Spencer seems to interpret the “Now stop worrying and enjoy life” line as meaning “the truth shall set you free and all your woes banished!” It doesn’t. What it does say is that we have enough to worry about with the recession, the job losses, the massacres in far-off lands and the climate change without being warned that we’re all set for an eternity in a lake of fire if we don’t attend an Alpha Course . It’s not claiming that atheism will make you happier, give you clearer skin or a toned stomach; merely that this is (probably) our only shot at life, and we should try to make the best of it whilst we’re here.

Next, Spencer appeals to the God of capitalism and asks us to imagine Atheism© and Religion® as if they’re competing brands in the marketplace of ideas:

Of course, merely coming up in conversation is no guarantee that God will win the argument. New competition does not guarantee the market leader’s reinvigoration. If new products are evidently superior, old ones can simply die. When did you buy your last VHS player?

If belief in God is indeed as transparently nonsensical as (some) atheists make out, if the faithful are such idiots, their churches and synagogues so dehumanising, and religion such a grotesque and malign virus, that is precisely what will happen.

The obvious flaw here is that he isn’t comparing like with like; the difference between religion and atheism is as vast as that between alcoholism and teetotalism, or between sex and abstinence. But beyond that, Spencer seems to misunderstand how the campaign developed and what it’s meant to achieve. The motivation here was never to proselytise for atheism or steal people away from the church; instead, it was a reaction against excessive proselytising in our public sphere, whether it be an Archbishop’s batty, ill-informed views of economics, free speach-squelching protests against art or the ‘Save Yourself!’ bus advertisements for the Alpha Course. All it was ever intended to be was a small dissent from the hymns to religious observance that we hear every day.

That modesty is part of what gives the atheist bus campaign its growing appeal, but it’s also why its religious critics (probably) have nothing to worry about.

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