There’s an old adage that says the two things you don’t talk about in a bar are politics and religion. But what about on the bus?
In Britain we like to think of ourselves as having a pretty clear separation of church and state, and we’re reluctant to talk about God in most areas of public life – yet monotheism underpins many of our public institutions. Christian bishops are still automatically given seats in the House of Lords, the state funds faith schools, and the national anthem asks God to save the queen. “We don’t do God,” snapped Alistair Campbell when a reporter asked then PM Tony Blair about his Christian beliefs. Shortly thereafter Mr. Blair himself caused major controversy by stating that God would be his judge over the war in Iraq. Evidently, we “do God” in Britain – we just keep it under wraps.
Ariane Sherine really doesn’t do God, but she’s not afraid to talk about it in public. Indeed, she is responsible for the 800 bendy buses nationwide bearing the slogan, “There probably isn’t a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Her argument is that Britain is an increasingly secular society and that atheists should be represented in public life equally to religion. The statistics seem to back her up. Though it’s hard to get an accurate picture of religious belief, a 2007 YouGov poll revealed that 42% of those asked thought religion was harmful, and that only 28% stated that they believed in God. It seems reasonable that the other 72% should be represented by campaigns such as Sherine’s.
Ten atheist bus-related jokes later, it’s not surprising that the campaign has had its detractors: the central statement is audacious and unprecedented in the UK, and statements about religion always provoke passionate reactions. What is more surprising is that the majority of criticism and commentary has come from self-identified atheists. Among believers, there has been a mild response, with some religious leaders actually celebrating the campaign for encouraging people to talk publicly about religion. More’s the pity, then, that most of the dialogue spurred has not been concerned with ontological arguments for the existence of God, or the validity of Pascal’s Wager, but with the futility of advertising atheism on a bus and the imposition of the word “probably” by the Advertising Standards Agency. There’s still nobody talking about God, but everybody is talking about the atheist bus campaign.
A look through the commentary on the Times website quickly confirms that atheists are not providing a united front on the issue. For the most part, it’s ‘practical atheists’ leveling criticisms. They don’t believe in God, but they consider this to be a lack of belief rather than a religious belief in itself. Accordingly, they don’t see the point of the campaign – we have nothing to sell, they say, so what are we advertising? They argue that the money would have been better spent on charity or humanitarian aid (which is probably true, but could be said of must human ventures). Even those who concede that gaining public awareness might be useful in challenging the assumption that everyone believes in God are skeptical of the adverts effectiveness. Are people really going to be enlightened when they see the atheist bus pull up at 8am on a Monday morning? Will they think about it at all?
Then we get to the “probably,” and the more theoretically-minded atheists, the Richard Dawkinses of the world (for whom the existence of God, for everybody, should be thought about a great deal), emit a great collective wail of distress. Tim Bleakley of CBS Outdoor (the company responsible for advertising on buses), explains the decision to make the word “probably” compulsory as a fairly innocuous one; it would be misleading to suggest that there is definitely no God, since we don’t really know either way. AC Grayling, on the other hand, assures us that this decision is a clear example of “insidiousness, pusillanimity, timidity and absurdity,” rightly observing that there is no such caveat placed on the existence of other fictional characters. After all, we don’t tell our children that it’s time they knew Santa Claus might not exist. To many atheists “probably” reads as surrender to the tyranny of political correctness that governs public life.
The fact that the Advertising Standards Agency can place restrictions on statements by non-religious groups (atheists) but not, presumably, on faith-based groups is worrying in an age where freedom of speech is counted as one of the greatest achievements of liberal democracy. We can’t let religion be immune to public scrutiny because people are sensitive about it. The fact that it is taken so seriously and personally means it’s even more imperative that we have reasoned public debates about God, about our human origins and about the meaning of life. If we continue to dismiss such beliefs as ‘private,’ their influence on all aspects of life will continue to be masked and monotheistic assumptions will prevail. This will be to the detriment of everyone who believes human beings, not superhuman deities, are the only entities that should be involved in governance and civic society, at least in this life.