The wheels on the bus (probably) go round and round…

There’s been a story bubbling up for a while, which has reached the public conciousness this week. So, instead of writing about the substantial imminent change to my life, or stupid wars in the Middle East, I will discuss the Atheist Bus Campaign.

Back in the summer Ariane Sherine, a comedy writer and Guardian blogger, wrote an article about an advert she’d seen on a bus. The advert was placed by a religious group, and directed people to a website which as well as proclaiming the existence of God and the advantages of becoming a Christian (fair enough, I see nothing wrong with them evangelising if they want to), also informed visitors of all the horrible things in store for unbelievers.

So, she suggested a bus advert to promote atheism. A few people took the idea up, and in the autumn the campaign was launched with a target to raise £11,000 (£5,500 of which would be a matching donation from arch-atheist Richard Dawkins). Within a short space of time, it had raised £100,000 from small individual donations.

So, this week, instead of 30 adverts on buses in London, the slogan “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” adorns 200 London buses, as well as another 600 across Britain.

So far, so good. The ‘probably’ was added in because they were advised that just saying “There is no God” would be more likely to lead to complaints, but as it goes, it does satisfy the broad atheist creed as far as I understand it – we do not believe in a god, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe that there is no god (and logically it can never be proven that no god exists anyway).

But yet, the complaints have come in. over 50 so far to the ASA, led by the stalwart religious nutter, Stephen Green of Christian Voice. Green claims offence, and yet he’s not above being very offensive towards Islam. He also claims that the ad makes an unsubstantiated claim, but the ‘probably’ means that it makes no hard claim in reality.

So, I was watching from the sidelines, until the Christians who seem to be able to take offence at anything stuck their oars in. Now, I have donated to the campaign.

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The godless meme

Like Unity, I’m not big on memes. But like Unity, I like this one

Q1. How would you define ‘atheism’?

The lack of belief in God/gods.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

No. My parents were not religious at all. My first introduction to the concept of ‘God’ was at school. Apparently I was pretty annoyed at Mum and Dad for not having mentioned this whole thing about one bloke making the whole world. It’s not as if they ‘made me’ an atheist, they just didn’t see any point discussing it, and left me to find out for myself.

As a child I was generally agnostic until I was about 11 or 12. The religion I was agnostic on would have been that fluffy Anglicanism that we English cling on to. I was a cub scout and in St Johns Ambulance as a cadet, so every week I had to pledge to God (and the Queen), and I knew that I was lying (on both counts).

Q3. How would you describe ‘Intelligent Design’, using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

That’s a really tough question, as there are loads of possible answers – the Human Genome project, space travel, quantum computing….

My background is Mathematics, and so it may not be ‘sexy’ or have an immediate impact, but I’d say Game Theory is a favourite, and I can apply it to playing Diplomacy.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the ‘atheist community’, what would it be and why?

I’m not sure that there is a ‘community’, or that there could or should be one. I’d rather that atheists as individuals didn’t attack religion for the sake of it, but on the other hand I’d also want them to defend each other more robustly when the religious attack some of us.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said ‘I’m joining the clergy’, what would be your first response?

I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how I’d react. I’d like to think I’d have some clue that a child of mine was religious already, so it shouldn’t be a massive shock. I’d probably make a joke about them getting a free house.

I would not force my atheism on my kids, just as my parents didn’t force theirs on me. I would, however bring my kids up to question everything, and I would certainly make sure that they were equipped to question their own beliefs (or lack thereof). If they decide that they want to become a priest, nun, whatever, then fine. As long as they are happy, and don’t try to convert me.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

I’m not sure about it. The most common one is the idea that everything has to have had a beginning, and that beginning is God. The challenge (if not a refutation), is that this is unknowable. Time could be infinite, in which case there is no beginning.

Q8. What’s your most ‘controversial’ (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Dunno. Perhaps continuing to support the Labour Party even though Blair and Brown (and most leaders in fact) have been religiously motivated in some way.

Q9. Of the ‘Four Horsemen’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I’ve not read much Dennett or Harris, but what I have is a little too confrontational for it’s own sake. Likewise, Hitchens just likes to take an argument and let loose the rhetoric to show how clever he is. When I agree with CH I can nod along vehemently, and when he’s wrong (as he is on Iraq in my opinion), he’s an annoying git.

So it’s Dawkins then, by default. Actually, I’ve read The God Delusion and it’s pretty well presented (and is often misrepresented in order to demonise him and through him all atheists), so it’s not just be default. He does, however, sometimes go a little too far when speaking.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I can’t think of a specific person. Perhaps a Jehovah’s Witness who’s refusing to accept life saving treatment as a result of their beliefs.

Right, there it goes. I don’t nominate people to pick up a meme (in fact, if a meme is a true meme, it would be taken up without me needing to).

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Theo Hobson – pretentious and cowardly?

Reminding me why I don’t really intend to submit more pieces to the Guardian’s Comment is Free, along comes Theo Hobson with his: Atheism is pretentious and cowardly

A few choice quotes (as if the title wasn’t enough):

Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is. And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness?

For someone who thinks that atheism misunderstands what a belief in god entails, Theo seems to miserably miss the point about what atheism entails. The ultimate objection to religion, for most if not all proclaimed atheists, is that we don’t believe in a God or gods. After that comes the point when we notice the harmfulness of religion (and atheists and heretics have often felt that first hand in the dim and distant days of history).

Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of “rationality”, will make the world a better place. Atheism therefore entails an account of history – a story of liberation from a harmful error called “religion”. This narrative is jaw-droppingly naive.

Well, the last sentence is true, applied to Hobson’s text itself. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a God(s), or the belief in a lack of God(s). While many atheists may wish that everybody else believed the same as they do, what most of us really only want is for the religious to stick to their own affairs and stop telling us what to do, based on their own beliefs. We don’t want to ‘impose’ atheism on people, or even necessarily ‘liberate’ them from religion, we just don’t agree with Christians and the other theists who believe in a variety of gods, some of whom seem to have determined that people who don’t worship them in a particular way are doomed to Hell, and should be repressed here on earth in the meantime.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Quibble? No, it’s plain wrong. Atheism has no moral basis, it has a logical one. ‘Humanism’ has a moral basis, but that’s not what Hobson is attacking. As for the word ‘militant’? My goodness! While we are talking about R Dawkins, C Hitchens and AC Grayling, all they do is write and talk. Real militants use violence. That’s what ‘militant’ means – warlike, aggressive.

Let me take a step back, and ask a rather basic question. What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don’t know the answer. Indeed it seems to me that anyone who does claim to know is underestimating the complexity of the topic considerably. If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It’s a terribly inadequate definition. Dictionaries would do better to leave a blank, to admit ignorance.

Well, if a theologian doesn’t know what religion is, then who does? I despair…

In reality, “religion” is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by “religion”. For example there is surely something religious in the communal ecstasy of a rave, or a pop concert, or a play, or a sporting event, or a political rally. Some would say that these events are quasi-religious, that they echo religious worship, but are distinct from it. But how on earth is one to make the distinction? Is a yoga class “religious”?

What a load of piffle! A political rally as a religious experience? I suppose that makes the Communists and any other political movement you care to mention religious then? If a sporting event leads to violence, is it religiously motivated? The communal ecstasy of a rave may well be due to very real ecstasy, the drug MDMD, rather than some religious feeling.

What about a performance of a requiem? What about Hitchens’ own belief in the saving power of literature? In practice, “religion” cannot really be separated from “culture”.

Yes, it can. For example, street culture is rarely about religion.

The fact is that the relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation.

‘sloppy generalisation’? Of course Hobson doesn’t dare do that, not even in the same sentence as criticising the fictional ‘militant athiest’ of it. Oh, he does.

I consider the atheist’s desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty. The militant atheist chooses to uphold a worldview of Animal Farm crudity: atheist good, believer bad.

Nope. If anything, it’s ‘atheism correct, theism incorrect’. But there is not really a moral imperative there. For Christians, it certainly is ‘Christianity good, everything else bad’, for Muslims it’s ‘Islam good, everything else bad’.

Is it intellectual cowardice to accept that we do not go to an afterlife, that this is all we have, the life we see? I think not. When you think about it, it’s a scary thought. The less brave prefer to cosset themselves in myths and dream of an infinite life of happiness, and the religious creeds promise such a life – if you just follow our rules…

There’s more – such as ad hominem attacks on Christopher Hitchens (at least one of which didn’t get into print as an editor snipped it out). But essentially Theo Hobson accuses the atheist (not always being careful to distinguish between the ‘militant’ variety and the general common-or-garden unbeliever) of pretentiousness while waffling on about how all culture is essentially religious, because some of the feelings in a big group of people are like the same feelings as we get in a church. He accuses them of intellectual cowardice when he hasn’t even got the courage to tell us what religion actually is. He attacks generalisations while concocting a picture of rampaging atheists in jackboots, stomping all over the poor fluffy religions and tarring all who choose not to believe in a God with the same brush.

Unsurprisingly, the comments below the article are heated and reactionary.

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Book Review

Not by me, but by Harry Barnes, Labour ex-MP. He lays into Dawkins’ The God Delusion. On Three Score Years and Ten, he explains why he finds the book so disappointing

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