On the Buses


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The evangelistic neo-atheists are all the rage at the moment. From Dawkins to Hitchens to Penn and Teller’s Penn, everyone’s stepping it up. And I’m totally fine with the atheists getting out there, just like I’m fine with any other tiny religious minority group putting forward their faith claims for evaluation and discussion. So I’m not outraged at them or anything like that.

You may have seen these bus ads over in the UK.

Now I’ve read a lot of people take issue with the word “probably”, and while I agree that it’s a bit silly and really does work against what they’re trying to achieve, that’s not what struck me most about the ad when I first saw it.

But before I say anything more let me just point out that I’m not trying to disprove atheism or show why belief in the Christian God is rational or basic or probable. Rather this is simply a reflection on their ad campaign from my position, assuming belief in the Christian God and that this belief is defensible within reason.

Two things about the ad struck me: 1) was how naive it was about what life in the world is really like; and 2) was how desperate the whole argument was.

So let’s briefly consider these two thoughts in reverse order.

1)      I guess it’s only early in the new-atheist’s evangelistic push, and so I suppose I shouldn’t expect too much, but I’ve found the arguments I’ve read to be very lacklustre and intellectually shallow. Although, to be fair, I’ve only read The God Delusion from Dawkins and am only part way through Hitchen’s God is Not Great. Now I’m sure they can do better. And I’m not saying that atheists are stupid because they are most certainly not and I’m sure there are some very good arguments for atheism. I’m just saying that the figureheads of this new militant atheism are less than impressive.

But the reason I find this argument here so vacuous, the “so stop worrying and enjoy your life” part, is that it’s one of two key pieces of atheist rhetoric that contradict. One of the favourite arguments against belief in God – any God, not just the Christian God – is that this belief is supposedly simply a crutch for people too weak to cope with life. People who need a sense of purpose or who weren’t told they were loved enough as a child or something like that. So they need to imagine or find an already existing imaginary friend who can be that crutch for them. So belief in God is simply a way for people too weak and stupid to be able to enjoy life to some degree.

Hopefully the contradiction with the bus ads is becoming clear. The bus ad is another favourite argument against belief in God. It’s the argument that belief in God is an oppressive straitjacket that makes people live in a constant state of fear and guilt. It squashes personal freedom and creativity and restricts people’s lives with arbitrary and repressive rules. And it makes people constantly anxious about a coming judgment and wrath from an arbitrary and petulant God who flies off the handle at minor misdemeanours. Or at least that’s how the caricature goes. But, they say, this God doesn’t exist so stop worrying and enjoy yourself. Belief in God hinders you from enjoying life.

So which is it? Either belief in God helps or it hinders. Does it help you enjoy life more or does it hinder you from enjoying life like you should? It can’t be both.

Of course this doesn’t “prove” or “disprove” belief in God or atheism. It’s just a silly way to argue.

2)      But the main thing that struck me was how naive the ad was. Now maybe I’m putting too much freight on a simple ad slogan that’s designed to be provocative and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But even still, the worldview it’s portraying is very narrow and parochial. And of course embarrassingly naive.

It is the view of what could only be a very small segment of the population. Here I’m not referring to the atheist minority. I’m referring to the affluent Westerner-ness of it. Sure, if you’ve lived in unbridled peace and prosperity, like I have, your entire remembered experience then there could be some truth to the “if God doesn’t exist I can enjoy life more with no thought of consequences” thought.

But as I understand it, that’s a very small percentage of the world’s current, and perhaps previous, population. The majority of the world live under extreme hardship, poverty and injustice. And the injustice they live through is of the kind where they will never experience true justice and recompense in this life before they die or are exterminated. But only in looking forward to a true and just judge who will put everything right one day is there even the glimmer of hope. Only in looking to a God who will one day completely heal and compensate and also bring true retribution is there any hope for enjoyment.

Now again, this isn’t an argument for the existence of a God. I’m just assuming that’s true and looking at these ads from that vantage point. And they are hopelessly naive.

What would it be like, to look a woman from the Sudan in the eyes who had just been gang raped by 10 men and then seen her sons, daughters, husband and extended family brutally tortured and murdered and piled up in their own excrement right before her eyes, a woman who had been kept alive by her attackers so that she could “live with death constantly close to her”. And similar situations would be multiplied probably millions of times across continents and throughout history. What would it be like to look her in the eyes and say, “Don’t worry, God doesn’t exist. This will never be put right and there is no justice for you. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”?

Hopelessly naive would probably be an understatement.