Storm in a teacup

This atheist bus advert is funny, sensible and positive. Really the mildest, nicest of messages. Amusing, then, to see how divisive it’s proving on the very Guardian comments section that inspired it.

According to one early comment: “You must be very proud of yourself. Presumably you are giving no thought to the consequences if it turns out you are wrong. No. Thought not.” To which I’m tempted to use the famous Dawkins reply: well what if *you’re* wrong about every religion other than your own? We are all non-believers in the majority of faiths in the world today. Even the most devout Christian blithely takes the risk that one of the other religions may be right.

A number of atheists (never the most cohesive bunch) also object to the advert on the grounds that it’ll get people’s backs up, or smacks of proselytising, and I can see their point. But really it seems so polite and modest as to defeat any arguments about “militant” atheism. It reminds me of the equally amusing Stonewall advert (“Some People Are Gay. Get Over It!”) but comparing the two makes it clear just how non-confrontational the bus ad is.

Stephen Green of pressure group ‘Christian Voice’ said: Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large. Yes, he said that.

There’ve been a few other comments from religious groups or scholars praising the advert for inspiring debate or awareness of God, which is fine. In particular there’s a counter-point piece in the Guardian by Simon Barrow here. He can’t see what good it’ll do “apart from raising brand awareness”. I tend to agree, except that I think raising brand awareness of atheism (or, in the watered down form of the advert, agnosticism) is a valuable thing to do. Atheism is a stance I happen to agree with, but it’s also a hugely misunderstood one, widely and wrongly reviled as bleak or amoral (see ‘Christian Voice’ above), and *vastly* outweighed in society by implicit and explicit promotion of religious belief1.

Barrow seems troubled by ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life’ bit “Not because I want people to worry and not enjoy life, but because for so many people it is really difficult to do this right now.” Again, fair enough, but that’s really taking it out of context. It’s intended as a riposte to the “your soul is at risk” line of argument, not as an entreaty to stop worrying about everything else.

He also revisits some fairly well trodden arguments about religion and atheism. He’s happy to join with Dawkins et al in ridiculing the likelihood of a “vindictive sky-god” — the very idea! — but contrasts this with a loving and “transcendent God” which he clearly feels isn’t prey to the same difficulties. I’m left wondering why one is more likely than the other. One is certainly *preferable* to the other. If there’s a God, I’d certainly prefer it to be the latter. But thinking that it might be quite nice if there was a loving God doesn’t make it any more likely.

Barrow goes on to say: “It is, rather, a matter of faith. By this I do not mean the denial of rationality, but the kind of reasoning appropriate to a mystery which can never be captured by human mastery, and which requires an encounter with the personal (that is, the struggle to love) to perceive.” Insofar as that makes any sense to me at all, if the kind of “rationality” appropriate to belief in God stops at “I personally feel it and my feelings are true for me” then that is simply a circular restatement of the concept of faith. It’s a perfectly *good* description of faith, but why dress it up as something it’s not, i.e. the commonly understood definition of rationality that relies on a logical, provable argument?

I’m guilty of seizing on Barrow’s article because it’s convenient and these things are on my mind at the moment, even though I’m not about to prove or disprove the existence of God in a blog entry. I doubt he intended it as a rigorous defence of religion (although he is using it to critique the bus campaign.) It’s just that I remain fascinated by the logical side-steps and misdirection from the rational to “it just is” that seem to characterise certain defences of religion. I quite accept that faith can’t be proven, and feelings and religion can be important to people. But that only means that they’re important feelings, not that they have any external verifiable truth.

In any case, Barrow is very conciliatory and is looking for common ground between believers and non-believers in that everyone values compassion and love. I agree. But again Barrow’s main argument for God here seems to be that it’s easier to believe in the primacy of love if you believe in a loving Universe. That’s yet another “it would be nicer if…” argument. It may be harder for atheists to be nice because they don’t believe in God (I flatter myself that I’m pretty nice and it doesn’t seem like an effort, personally), or it may be harder for atheists to be nice because they don’t do it out of fear for their immortal souls (but doesn’t that make their niceness quite special?) Either way, I’m still hard-pressed to see how the preferability of a loving God adds to the argument.

The campaign has reached £73,000 and climbing, far in excess of its stated goals. Which is nice. It all seems pretty harmless, and indeed pretty rare — which is attested to by the level of slightly boggled media coverage.

1 Genuinely sorry if all this offends anyone, by the way. I really do have a pathological conviction that even mentioning atheism in polite company is offensive, which is probably why I find this ad campaign so refreshing.

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