Perky agnosticism on bendy buses

ArrivaBusOnce he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true.
– Letter 1, The Screwtape Letters

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you’re a member of an interest group in Britain — or a pressure group, in British usage. Your group has launched a campaign of advertisements on articulated buses (or bendy buses, in British usage) to tell your fellow citizens that, despite what most of them think, belief in God interferes with enjoying life:

The atheist posters are the idea of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and have been supported by prominent atheist Professor Richard Dawkins.

. . . The complete slogan reads: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

. . . Professor Dawkins said: “Religion is accustomed to getting a free ride — automatic tax breaks, unearned respect and the right not to be offended, the right to brainwash children.

“Even on the buses, nobody thinks twice when they see a religious slogan plastered across the side.

“This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think — and thinking is anathema to religion.”

This is vintage Dawkins charm, to be sure: I’m right, and if you believe in God you’re most likely an idiot who brainwashes children to be similar idiots.

Now imagine that you’re part of another group responding to the British Humanist Association’s PR campaign. Here’s what group spokesman Stephen Green says:

. . . “Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large.

“I should be surprised if a quasi-religious advertising campaign like this did not attract graffiti.

“People don’t like being preached at. Sometimes it does them good, but they still don’t like it.”

Which organization does the BBC identify as a pressure group? Which group escapes the ideological use of adjectives?

Take a wild guess.

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  • Jerry

    The end of the story attracted my attention. I really REALLY liked this bit of verbal aikido:

    However the Methodist Church said it thanked Professor Dawkins for encouraging a “continued interest in God”.

    Spirituality and discipleship officer Rev Jenny Ellis said: “This campaign will be a good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life.”

    She added: “Christianity is for people who aren’t afraid to think about life and meaning.”

    And I also enjoyed the irony of asking an atheist to endorse an agnostic campaign since it, in effect, is asking him to subscribe to the possibility that God exists.

  • Perpetua

    Hi Doug,

    Great catch on the use of the pejorative adjective “pressure group” for the Christian group but not the British Humanist Association. But I agree with Jerry about the closing paragraphs. So kudos to the unidentified BBC reporter for finding that source and using the material so well.

    On another note, one wonders if the specific wording chosen for the bus signs provides interesting insight into the minds of Dawkins and the British Humanist Association members.

  • Matt

    Hi Doug,

    I’m sorry you missed the start of the story. This campaign is a direct response to an advert containing a bible quote and a link to a Christian fundamentalist website which basically contains the message that if you do not “accept the work of Jesus on the cross as your substitute” then you will burn in a lake of fire for all eternity.

    Attempting to scare all non-Christians in this unjustifiable way is what prompted the “stop worrying and enjoy your life” message, which you erroneously interpreted to mean “belief in God interferes with enjoying life”.

    Link to the initial blog posting, and the follow-up.

    Regards, Matt

  • Michael V

    The end of the story attracted my attention. I really REALLY liked this bit of verbal aikido

    Yes. I wonder if British Methodists familiar with the phrase “oh snap”?

  • benjdm

    I love how everyone on this site still can’t get the idea that atheism is NOT the absolute certainty that God doesn’t exist. ‘God probably doesn’t exist’ is a statement of atheism.

    When anyone ever finds a way to be absolutely certain of something, anything at all, let the philosophers know. You’ll become quite famous.

  • Wandering Internet Commentator

    Some of the quotes on the actual donation site are just priceless.

    The ad is far too lenient. It should say ‘there definately is no god, if you believe in god check yourself in at the closest physiciatric unit’–infidel

    I’d donate 10 times as much if the word ‘probably’ wasn’t in there –Ivan Vermezovic

    At last! As momentous as the fall of the Berlin Wall. –’mark’

    Anyways, though, I’m wondering, didn’t this happen a few weeks ago, actually, and didn’t work out the first time?

    Or am I looking at something else?

  • Jerry

    benjdm, some atheists I know prefer to make a distinction between strong and weak atheism. The Wikipedia article says:

    Strong atheism is a term generally used to describe atheists who accept as true the proposition, “gods do not exist”. Weak atheism refers to any other type of non-theism.

    In The God Delusion Dawkins describes people for whom the probability of the existence of God is between “very high” and “very low” as “agnostic” and reserves the term “strong atheist” for “I know there is no god”. He categorises himself as a “de facto atheist” but not a “strong atheist” under this definition.

    I had not realized before that Dawkins did not classify himself as a strong atheist so my earlier statement about him was a mistake.

    Atheism might be becoming a word like evangelical that needs to be defined with every use, but I prefer the current dictionary definition rather than getting into strong versus weak and others such as theological noncognitivists who are also mentioned in the referenced Wikipedia article.


    All of this reminds me of the classic:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

  • benjdm

    Atheism might be becoming a word like evangelical that needs to be defined with every use, but I prefer the current dictionary definition rather than getting into strong versus weak and others such as theological noncognitivists who are also mentioned in the referenced Wikipedia article.

    Atheism is a more limited word than evangelical, but yes, different people mean very different things by it. Most current dictionary definitions cover both weak and strong atheism.
    “1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
    2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.” – Random House

    1 refers only to strong atheism, 2 refers to both strong and weak.
    American Heritage dictionary lists the same basic definitions in reverse order; Wordnet goes along with Random House; American New Heritage dictionary of cultural literacy is an outlier with ‘Denial that there is a God’ as the only definition; Webster’s also covers weak and strong:

    “1. The disbelief or denial of the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being”

    Weak atheism is solidly reported in the dictionary.

    Disbelief is not the same thing as a positive belief in the opposite. If I make X the distance between the Earth and the Sun, rounded to the nearest whole mile, X must necessarily be even or odd. I can disbelieve both propositions (X is even and X is odd) – I lack both beliefs, even though one must be true.

  • Stoo

    I believe this is in response to banners put up by The Alpha Course.

    Also as mentioned it’s more a moderately-worded atheist statement. Or an agnostic atheist one. Actually keeping track of what these terms has made my head hurt lately. Most atheists seem to be agnostic too; very few are claiming to *know* there’s no god.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for the background, Matt. George Pitcher of the Telegraph mentions the detail about how this campaign is a direct response to another campaign, but also takes on the language about relaxing and enjoying life.

    Such are the difficulties, I suppose, of discussing the existence of God in a bus advert campaign. It’s only one step up from feigning a philosophical debate by way of bumper stickers.

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  • Eevee

    Seems like the much simpler explanation for the phrasing is that other people will be receptive if you don’t flat-out tell them their supernatural safety net simply doesn’t exist. Adding “probably” makes the sign more casually dismissive than preachy, which is what the campaign looks to be going for.

    Turning this into projection on the part of Dawkins is really stretching.

  • don

    The word ‘probably’ has been included to get around various advertising standards legislation (mainly that adverts shouldn’t cause offence).

    I agree that ‘probably’ forms a diluation of the message, which is meant purely as a light hearted riposte to (what I would consider – ‘in your face’ religious advertising). It also of course allows for the possibility that god may exist and therefore forms an agnostic message…

    The British Humanist association is running the campaign on bahalf of atheists, although technically, I believe them to be atheist.

    I would just have the simpler message “There is no god – get over it”, but then advertiusing standards would ‘probably’ prohibt it…

    Don. (with absolute faith that there is no deity:-)

  • Susan

    Well, Rrichard Dawkins has proved that you can be an atheist antisemite. He said in an editorial that “atheists in America needed a lobby like the powerful American Jewish lobby.

    Which reminds me that antisemitism and anti-Muslim attitudes are both much higher in the secular and Europe than in America.

  • David (in Edinburgh)

    If the campaign is in response to Alpha Course posters (which is what I thought, seeing as a new ‘Alpha Initiative’ started a few weeks ago, so their posters are everywhere), then I guess the ironic thing (as the Methodist source mentioned) is that this poster encourages the same thing that Alpha encourages – engagement with the ‘God issue’.

    If you’ve been anywhere near an Alpha Course, you’ll probably know that the job of the small group leaders is to ask ‘And what do you think?’ as much as possible – to encourage discussion and honest engagement. This is where Christians and Atheists actually have bundles in common, since both (more or less) believe they are right, and all that is required for everyone else to agree is an honest engagement with the Truth.

    This article from Christianity Today includes some other rounds of Christian applause for the ads.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I’m greatly enjoying the comments from our U.K. readers. Thank you all, and keep them coming.

  • David (in Edinburgh)

    If you have a moment, can you say a bit more about strong vs weak atheism? It’d be helpful to know if the terms are accepted by both the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ (in the atheists that you know), or whether this nomenclature has been coined by convinced/orthodox atheists pouring scorn on their seemingly-backslidden brethren. Thanks :)

  • winston

    Susan (14), I’m bemused by your comment. How on earth can it be anti-semitic to suggest that the American Jewish lobby is powerful? Are you saying it isn’t powerful (surely that’s beyond debate)? Or that it is powerful but you shouldn’t say so? Would it be anti-tobacconist of me to say that the American tobacco lobby is powerful? Or is that OK? And if so why?

  • benjdm

    It’d be helpful to know if the terms are accepted by both the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ (in the atheists that you know), or whether this nomenclature has been coined by convinced/orthodox atheists pouring scorn on their seemingly-backslidden brethren.

    In my experience, most atheists use the word very broadly. If theism is not one of your positive beliefs about the world, you are not a theist, and therefore an atheist. Many self-labeled agnostics are considered atheists also in this manner – not in the sense of disputing what they wish to call themselves, but a sort of internal translation.

  • Susan

    Richard Dawkins vastly overestimates the power of the American Jews. The vast majority of Americans are pro-Israel which makes American Jews seem more powerful than they really are. If Jews are so powerful why did the Democratic party have caucuses on Saturday?

    The most powerful pro-Israel force in the Republican party are Evangelical Christians, not Jews.

    Dawkins also seems to think that only religious Jews are pro-Israel

    The NRA and the tobacco lobby are vastly more powerful than the Jewish lobby. Your comparison doesn’t work. The “powerful Jew is a classic antisemitic stereotype that goes back to Medieval Christian Europe. Dawkins just took an old Christian stereotype and secularized it.