The British Humanist Association is running a bus campaign. I had heard about it a month or so back, and was bemused; I thought the slogan they were running was a bit daft, but only a bit. But recently I saw a bus in Oxford with the advert upon it.
Photo © Jon Worth / British Humanist Association. Used with permission.
There's something about seeing such a thing on a bus that helps focus the mind a bit. One sits there and actually thinks over the message and the values that produces such a sign. As a consequence of actually thinking about the Humanist Association's advert for a more sustained period of time, I no longer think it is a bit daft; I now think it is one of the strangest things I have seen for a long time.
To begin with, it's daft to be running the campaign in the first place. I think it would be hard for Aussies reading this blog to get how disinterested in God the British are. Down Under, we are used to seeing ourselves as living in a very secular society. That's true by any standard of measurement. But the average Australian doesn't have the almost passive aggressive indifference towards God that I sense over here. It is almost an active lack of interest, if it is possible to have an active absence. It is almost as though the British find the God question socially embarrassing, and so deal with it by ignoring the question until it shuffles shamefacedly out of the room.
So, in such a context where a practical atheism rules the country by default, because no-one wants to consider the question one way or another at all, why on earth would you run a campaign to provocatively put the God question back on the agenda when you want people to not believe in God? They already don't believe in God in any meaningful sense; you've already won. By reopening the question, humanists can't do any better than maintain the status quo—most people not believing in God in any meaningful sense. But even that is only possible if the Humanist Association does very, very well with its advertising campaign. Anything less and they end up going backwards. This is because muddle-headed practical atheists have a tendency to start recognizing God and coming to some kind of theism when:
- they start thinking seriously about the God question and
- there is some kind of Christian witness going on.
Accordingly, where there's a small number of genuine theists (who are, by and large, relatively clear as to why they believe in God) and a large number of non-theists (many of whom are just confused as to what they believe and why, because practical atheism is the ‘default option’ in a secular society), and both sides seriously examine their beliefs, then the most likely outcome is that you'll end up with more theists at the end of the process. It's just the way human people work in the world God made. More theists isn't necessarily a ‘win’ for Christianity, but it's definitely a loss for atheism. So, given sheer pragmatics, the presence of the campaign is an own goal.
But let's put that aside for the moment and focus on the advert itself. It's self-defeating on multiple fronts.
Firstly, there is that wonderful word ‘probably’: there's probably no God. At one level, it is very British understatement. The British seem to have an almost pathological dislike for certainty. For a while, a café here in Oxford claimed not ‘the best coffee in Oxford’, but ‘probably the best coffee in Oxford’. That sign really captured the way in which the British seem to draw back from making definitive statements. So, at one level, it is very culturally appropriate.
But when the sign is self-consciously in dialogue with Christianity (as the supporting website makes clear), ‘probably’ is just dumb. ‘Probably there is no God’ means that it is quite conceivable that there is a God; it is just that the speaker has, in their personal judgement, concluded that the balance of probability is against such a possibility. But that clearly invites the person reading the sign to consider seriously themselves whether they think God's existence is that unlikely. And when such a question is asked seriously, very, very few people are prepared to accept that the balance of probability is against the existence of God. Atheism is like designer drugs: it's a lifestyle choice for a small westernized elite.
For my money, even if someone concludes that God ‘probably’ does not exist, that still does not simply translate into taking up atheism. There are many things that probably will not occur that we still take steps to make even more unlikely, because the consequences are so significant if they do. The entire health and fitness enterprise is predicated, at least in part, on people's desire to take a two-in-five chance of illness/medical condition x occurring and reducing it to something less, even though it probably won't happen if they take no steps at all. For example, to prevent some overwhelmingly unlikely foetal abnormalities, mothers will often still take tablet x and avoid food y to reduce that chance even further. The God question, like global warming, can't simply be resolved by deciding that one's rubbery figures end up with odds greater than 50 per cent against, and therefore, concluding that, the entire question can be shelved.
So ‘probably’? That's an own goal.
Now stop worrying and enjoy your life
Secondly, there is the great imperative: “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. Why is God's non-existence the reason to stop worrying and ejoy your life? The attending website for the campaign argues that it is because the atheist adverts are responding to a prior Christian advert campaign which, on its supporting website, mentioned that unbelievers face eternal hellfire. It's a telling point: one aspect of the Christian message that wasn't even directly part of the original advert campaign (but merely supporting web-literature) has become a key focus of the atheist campaign.
At one level, I think they've again chosen a defensible strategy from a rhetorical point of view. The Humanist Association seems to think that most people are going to find the notion that God will condemn them personally and sentence them to an eternity of suffering the most offensive aspect of the Christian message. And so they are trying to capitalize on that in promoting atheism. I think, at this point, they are dead right. It's a sound strategy: as a teenager who was gripped by a fear of hell, I think I would have found a strong belief in the non-existence of God a more enjoyabale alternative, even though I could also see it meant that my life was inherently meaningless. It was just that, well, the non-existence of God didn't seem probable. But sure, there's no question I had a vested interest in trying to believe that God didn't exist.
I would suggest that this part of the humanist campaign feeds in to a debate occurring within Evangelicalism about how the gospel should be preached. This tactic they are using indicates that those voices in broader Evangelicalism who argue that we should displace justification to the side in our evangelistic preaching in favour of more relational categories (because issues of guilt and forgiveness just aren't that important to contemporary westerners) are wide of the mark. Forensic categories (guilt, righteousness, forgiveness, justification and the like) are clearly still something that people react strongly to, which suggests that they haven't been rendered irrelevant by the slow march of time. People care about the idea that God will judge them, and resent it. That suggests to me that self-righteousness continues to be a big issue for human beings, even if some of its particular details might have experienced generational change. In the relationally starved context that is life in the big city, we may want to give the relational aspects of the gospel more prominence than has been previously the case, but I think we have here a good argument for ensuring that such a move complements and does not compete with a strong focus on the notes of objective guilt, judgement, forgiveness and justification. People don't react badly to things they don't care about.
That to one side, this is another own goal for atheism. One of its greatest rhetorical tools, used to devastating effect throughout the last century, was to run the Freud/Marx play-the-man argument against theistic belief. It went along these lines: “Religious people project a bigger version of themselves into heaven, and call it God, because they need to believe in that to cope with life”. Belief in God was the invisible security blanket for adults who were still craven and weak at heart, but who couldn't suffer the social embarrassment of carrying their childhood fluffy toy around with them. As an argument against the existence of God, it was a poor effort. As CS Lewis indicated in The Pilgrim's Regress, it was on a par with saying that “You only say that 1+1=2 because you're a mathematician”. But then popular atheism has never seemed overly scrupulous about the intellectual integrity of its arguments.
Against weak God-believers, atheists were able to position themselves as the religious equivalent of the ideal journalist or scientist: self-sufficient, caring only about evidence and reason, having the courage and inner pluck to stand on their own two feet and face life for what it really was without the need for any comforting lie. It was a bizarre bringing together of Enlightenment values with the lonely Byronic hero of Romanticism, but it was still an effective rhetorical device—as seen in the way that Richard Dawkins is the latest in a long line of celebrity atheists being presented along these lines.
But “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” kind of blows both sides of the critique out of the water—a nasty case of friendly fire. On the one hand, it turns out that it isn't that comforting to believe that God is up there and is going to pass judgement on us. So the argument that theistic belief is a crutch made up by people who need to believe in it and who do so in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary simply evaporates. It can't be true that belief in God is both a comforting crutch and a barrier to not worrying and enjoying life. So this part of the advert, which seems to be part of a broader move on the part of contemporary atheism to try and argue that God is evil, primarily serves to undercut what has been one of their greatest rhetorical tools in the modern era—presenting belief in God as a crutch for the weak. That's an own goal all by itself.
But this argument also serves to undercut their positioning of themselves. Suddenly, it turns out that atheism is not the consequence of brave warriors for truth, letting the evidence lead them to the only rational position; rather, atheists have a vested interest in the question as well. Go figure. They are not the disinterested referees they make themselves out to be. If God exists, then they cannot stop worrying and enjoy life. They need God to not be there, otherwise life will lose its savour.
So the conclusion that God ‘probably’ does not exist is being offered by someone who really wants God to not exist. How trustworthy do you think their weighing of the issues is likely to be? Probably does not exist? Would you buy a used atheism from this salesman?
Again, this has nothing at all to do with whether atheism has any credibility; good beliefs can be held by people of dubious credentials. But it does have loads to do with whether atheists have credibility. In an era where atheism's popular appeal (such as it is—a muddle-headed practical atheism that only rarely translates into a clear-minded ideological atheism) seems very much tied to an implicit “Trust us; we're the disinterested, rational ones in this debate”, this is an own goal of massive proportions.
No doubt this is more than enough for a single blog entry, gentle reader, so we'll finish this in a concluding post.