Sunday, 11 January 2009

When Atheist Buses Attack (Part 1)

I had toyed with the idea of writing a post about the Atheist Bus Campaign when I first heard about it, but real life got in the way. I was reminded about it earlier this week, though, when I stumbled across this article, which proudly proclaims there will be eight hundred of these godless omnibuses travelling the country and contributing to the moral degradation of Western society, or something.

Not that I really think that, obviously. In fact, one imagines (or at least hopes) no-one does. There is though, a significant amount of opposition to the idea. Several people have voiced their objections in person, and I spent some time this afternoon reading various other complaints scattered around the intertubes. All of them can be roughly divided into three camps.

1. This is a waste of money that would be better spent elsewhere.

Whether or not one considers this a waste of money is obviously down to personal preference. To my mind, it obviously isn't; putting together a campaign to reassure those that feel brow-beaten by religion (whether or not they actually have been) doesn't seem that bad an idea. Especially since it isn't really all that much money in the grand scheme of things. It's worth noting (as Andrew Brown did) that the Sidmouth donkey sanctuary raised two hundred times as much money last year. Now, I'm not suggesting keeping atheists happy is worth at least 0.5% of the money spent keeping donkeys happy, but it does suggest that any attempt to portray this campaign as leeching away money from other potential good causes is fairly foolish.

Besides all that, though, there's a more general point here, which is the "that money could have been better spent on X" is actually a fairly shitty argument when applied to large sums of money which have been generated by thousands of small voluntary donations (it's more convincing when discussing where our tax money goes, since we don't get to volunteer that). If, say Bill Gates were to suddenly say "I'm gonna spend $300 000 dollars on public transport that decries God", then it would be legitimate to ask whether he couldn't think of anything better to spend his money on. Demanding that the money raised for the Atheist Bus Campaign should be spent on a better cause (starving children and aid to war-zones being the two most common requests) completely misses the point that the money exists in the first place because people wanted to donate to that particular cause. If every person in the country buys one DVD for a tenner a year (which is massively low-balling it), then the total expenditure is over half a billion pounds. Think how much the Red Cross could buy for that. Does it bother these same people that all that money is going to waste on Mamma Mia - The Movie?

The "all that money spent on Y should go to X" can be applied to almost anything. If you want to say that not enough people give to charity, and not enough of those that do give sufficiently, then that's potentially a reasonable point (though you'd need some fairly compelling statistics before I wouldn't think you were just full of it). Acting outraged because the combined expenditure of thousands of people on something you think a waste adds up to a lot of money is just stoopid.

2. The message is too "in your face"; it's the Shouty Atheists having a go again.

If the first argument is misguided but understandable to a point, this second one is total bullshit on toast. There are two reasons why claiming the advertisement is too aggressive is idiotic. The first is comparative. The reason this campaign was launched in the first place was a direct answer to an earlier set of bus adverts that read "When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?". There was also a web link on there, which took you to a website that left the reader in no doubt that their options were either accepting Jesus, or spending eternity burning in a lake of fire. Obviously not everyone who saw the message was likely to check out the link (which means those claiming that "this is just push-back for that advert telling people they were going to Hell!" are being somewhat economical with the truth), but even the text itself is somewhat unsettling. I don't think I'm reading too much into the quote to say it looks a lot like the "What will your father say when he gets home?" formulation familiar from my childhood. It isn't explicitly a threat, but it cannot be taken in any other way apart from the most random of questions.

Compared with that, the atheist message "There's probably no God. Now go out and enjoy your life" is very positive [1]. It's the carrot, rather than the stick (this isn't the time to go into my problems with the idea of Hell, but I will say that I am continually baffled by those Christians who think the best way to persuade others that the infinite love and mercy of God is best sold to others by telling them "Believe in him, or else"). Had atheism attempted to respond in kind, the message would have been "There's no God; you're wasting your life if you think otherwise".

Of course, "They started it" isn't usually a particularly compelling argument. It is hardly possible, though, to consider a way that the slogan could be less aggressive. Adding "We believe" to the start is the only thing I can think of. Of course, that would only really be necessary if people automatically assume that anything written on the side of the number ten bus must be unquestionably true. And if that was true, then the quote given above (Luke 18:8, apparently) would have to have been presented as ""When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth? Assuming he hasn't just been made up, that is." One wonders if those protesting over the wording of the atheist slogan would insist on this change as well. What about other faiths? If a Muslim group wants to put "The One True God doesn't want you out every Friday night binge-drinking until you vomit into your kebab," do they have to add "That is, as far as we're concerned. It's all a bit hard to verify, y'know?"

Beyond all that, we'd have to adapt this theory to all advertising. "Stella Artois: reassuringly expensive. Well, that's what we think, but we work for them, so we're biased." It's a standard that isn't applied anywhere else. I don't think it should be applied, either, since I already despair of how carefully one has to avoid idiots taking you too literally (remember the "fictionalisation" label that cell-phone advert had to bear, just in case someone though you really could skip the damn thing across the entire Pacific Ocean). But if the atheists have to qualify themselves, then so does every bugger else.

The final thing to consider is the target audiece. The original Christian advertisement was aimed at non-believers. The threat is aimed at those who don't yet accept Jesus. This is anecdotal, but I've heard of a number of Christians complaining that these advertisements are an attack on their religion (I personally have only spoken to one). This is obvious rubbish to anyone who knows the history of the campaign, but I'm pretty sure this can be worked out without that knowledge. It's a simple matter of understanding the other side. Faith is an extraordinarily powerful thing. It can and has survived bereavement, war, crippling illness, and even the Holocaust. It would be ludicrous to imagine it could be broken by something so minor as a slogan on a vehicle. Given that, which is the more likely? That the people behind this campaign are targetting Christians, and are either are too stupid to know they're wasting their time, or know it but just want to bite their thumbs at the church anyway? Or that they're targetting other atheists, or agnostics, or those still unsure about whether they still believe in the Christian God or not? Attempting to colour this campaign as attacking Christianity requires an assumption that atheists are either stupid or mendacious (or both), which says more about the commentator than it does about the subject.

I said the Christian attempt at persuasion-through-public-transport was aimed at non-believers, but that might not be quite the right way to put it. Sometimes it's helpful to consider the relationship between Christianity and Atheism is to imagine as political rather than religious. There are the devoutly religious who cannot be dissuaded by atheistic arguments. There are atheists who are sufficiently secure in their (lack of) beliefs that no amount of Bible quotes and pictures of pitchfork-wielding demons will bring them into the flock. These are the base of each group. But there are also those who are unsure, the swing-voters, those who either have a history with a church that they haven't quite broken away from, or who are looking for spiritual meaning in a world that doesn't seem to provide it [2]. Much like political advertising isn't designed to sway the faithful, but hoover up those in the middle, both of these campaigns seem to be aimed at those who have yet to make up their minds (or become content with) their religious outlook. The only difference is in the method of persuasion used.

3. "There is probably no God" violates advertising standards.

This third argument officially arrived on Thursday when Christian Voice complained to the ASA that the "advert" was "misleading" (h/t to Garathon for the link). This is by far the most interesting of the three arguments. There are two questions to be considered at this point:
  1. Should all (or even any) of the rule that apply to advertising products hold when advertising religions and/or philosophies?
  2. Assuming they should, is "probably no God" a sufficiently defensible statement?
Unsurprisingly, it's question two that I'm most interested in (I've already highlighted the problem with answering "Yes" to the first question). There are a number of aspects to consider in attempting to answer it. In fact, it's such a good question that I think the discussion of it is worth a post in it's own right. I'll try to have it up tomorrow.

[1] Though I did run into one person who thought that the slogan was not only attacking people of faith, but also irresponsible because it didn't specify how one should enjoy their life, meaning people might take it as an endorsement of any attempt whatsoever to gain pleasure, whether it or not it be moral or legal. There's not much to say about that particular point, other than it reminds us once again that there is no argument so fucking stupid that the internet will not feature someone who espouses it with all the conviction of the Sermon on the Mount.

[2] There are probably a lot of other descriptions you could add to that brief list, but I hope you get my point.


BigHead said...

Can't really disagree with too much here (prepare for a slightly off-topic tangent), although I don't think the chosen slogan is too effective a choice. Perhaps I am in the minority thinking that the question of whether there is "probably" a God or not is not of so much interest to the "floating voters", who are presumably willing to wrestle with the idea that there may or may not be a God or gods. When I was in that group, I suspect I'd have responded "blah blah blah, what a bore" to a bus advert saying there probably is or isn't a God.

I think the important question for people in this set to answer is: what do you need religion for? And the duty of atheists is to explain to those people that their problems can be solved without a God. Not so much "there probably is no God" as "you probably don't need a God".

Along these lines, I'm a much bigger fan of the slogan apparently chosen by the American humanists for their buses: "Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake". This for me is closer to the heart of where the conversation should be. It takes one of the things that religion seems to offer -- the concept of goodness -- and says "hey, folks, you don't need a religion for this." This is the sort of revelation that may not be obvious for our target "floaters" (it certainly wasn't obvious to me a few years ago), and is a very positive message that can really be helpful for people struggling with these weighty questions.

If you don't help people understand that they can celebrate virtue and righteousness just for their own sakes, because it's the right thing to do and it makes you and the world happier, then you can't really blame them for saying "actually, forget about your probably-is-no-God, I'm sticking with what I've got."

I guess this is in some sense related to the opinion in [1] that you swiftly dismissed. You shouldn't say "go and enjoy your life without God" if you don't point out the non-obvious step "but you need to keep some concepts of goodness and virtue, and you can do this, and it makes perfect sense to do so".

Perhaps a more coherent rewriting and expanding of this may occur tomorrow if it's a slow day. Anyway, none of this is contrary to the thrust of your article, that the presented arguments against the campaign are not good enough. This seems quite right to me. I guess what I'm presenting is the argument "is this a really good way to proceed? Can't we do much better?"

Look forward to your analysis of the third argument.

Peace and love,

Senior Spielbergo said...

Yep it’s me :¬)

I think one of the motivations for the objections is a lack of understanding as to why an Atheist would actually want to actively promote Atheism. Religions promoting their religion makes sense, it is part of their core beliefs, and something encouraged by their leaders. You might not believe in that particular religion (be you religious yourself or not) but you can at least understand (and hopefully respect) that by preaching their religion they are doing something that they believe in and their faith encourages. Therefore bus adverts promoting their religion, people going door to door, hand outs, fliers and the like promoting their religion are really quite understandable.

Now Atheism, by its nature, is an absence of such a belief structure, so I think it tends to be viewed with a fair amount of distrust when Atheism is being actively promoted. The question is asked, what is their motivation? They aren’t earning brownie points with their deity (who they do not believe in), they aren’t following any kind of belief in the need to spread their own beliefs. On one hand the vast majority of Atheists encourage the tolerance of other peoples religious beliefs and are against one religion going after another, yet when you start actively promoting Atheism you are affectively doing the same thing, just to all religions. So without an understanding as to why they are doing it, which at least equates somewhat to their own motivations, the answers that spring up are maybe they just want to have a pop at religion and therefore their own beliefs, or maybe it’s born out of some kind of arrogance that just because you believe one thing you should automatically try and make others believe the same thing, even with no motivating factors.

Perhaps you can help, at least with my understanding. Why would an Atheist seek to preach Atheism to others? What do they gain? I can get an Atheist basically saying “I don’t believe in God, I’m going to go out and enjoy my life”, but don’t really get why an Atheist would take timeout from going out and enjoying life to exerting effort actively trying to convert others to their beliefs, especially when they seem quite happy with what they believe.

jamie said...

Mr Spielbergo - I don't think you're looking at this from quite the right perspective; granted, the campaign is setting out to promote atheism to some extent, but there are levels and gradations of strength with which such promotion is carried out.

I take exception to this being described as 'preaching'. The bus campaign is about as gentle a way of putting across a (I would say pseudo-) atheistic message, and yet you are saying that despite its inherent mildness, the very source from which it originates will make it inherently suspicious (or at the very least appear so to certain people). To paraphrase what Squid said in the main post, I think this argument says more about those who make it than those it is aimed at.

This isn't actually 'promoting' atheism in the sense of recruiting followers to some kind of ever-growing army; rather it is targeting atheists and agnostics who feel browbeaten by the pervasiveness of religious attitudes in our society, and trying to give them some sense that they don't, or shouldn't, have to be ashamed of their beliefs or hide them under a bushel. As Squid says, the message used is hardly going to shake the foundations of hardcore religious believers, so why assume that it is an attack on them?

As to what anyone would gain by promoting their beliefs, surely that's a question of human nature. Humans are actively social animals and we like to socialise with those that have similar beliefs and interests. Clearly atheists and Christians can be friends, but I think that's usually despite their respective beliefs rather than because of them; what unites people is having things in common, whether religion, a lack of it, an interest in Battlestar Galactica, golf, knitting, train-spotting, or what have you. How can an attempt to feel a bit of empowerment and solidarity amongst atheists to believe what they like and to realise that they are not alone be considered 'preaching'?

SpaceSquid said...

"Perhaps I am in the minority thinking that the question of whether there is "probably" a God or not is not of so much interest to the "floating voters", who are presumably willing to wrestle with the idea that there may or may not be a God or gods."

I have no idea whether or not you're in the minority, but there are certainly many who could do with hearing the other side to the "fire and brimstone routine". Back as an undergrad I had to sit through all those irritating week-long Christian recruitment drives Durham went through each year (Identity, Revelations, or whatever they chose to call it in a given year), there was always a few people just within my circle of friends who panicked, and started going back to church, not because they realised they absolutely did believe in God, but because they didn't want to go to Hell. Those are the people I regard as "floating voters".

While we're on the subject, it's worth clearing up that while I think the voter analogy is a good one in many respects, it fails in one important regard, in that it's only the Christians who have a compelling reason to persuade everyone to join their party, for obvious reasons. The endless ranting of Dawkins and co notwithstanding (it's worth noting that Dawkins is an atheist and anti-religion, and it's important not to confuse the two), I think the aim isn't to persuade people who are happy with their religion that they're wasting their time (I don't believe they are), but to ensure that those who are unhappy with what they believe and think aren't constantly at the mercy of all the religious sturm und drang without getting to hear the other side. That's why the slogan reads as it does, as a direct response. You may not find it compelling, but then you presumably wouldn't have found the previous one about Jesus coming back and thinking we're all dicks compelling either.

As to your point that atheists have duty to explain that God is not a necessary condition for life or for morality, I agree entirely. I'm a big fan of the American humanist's version, too. Maybe the next round of bus adverts will have it on.

"I guess this is in some sense related to the opinion in [1] that you swiftly dismissed. You shouldn't say "go and enjoy your life without God" if you don't point out the non-obvious step "but you need to keep some concepts of goodness and virtue, and you can do this, and it makes perfect sense to do so"."

Part of why I dismissed [1] so quickly was it came as part of a larger argument that once someone stops believing in God they will immediately start murdering kittens and eating children. It's an argument I hear quite a bit, but I've never seen any evidence to support it. You'd have to demonstrate that there are a sufficient number of people who want to do X, but don't do X purely because God told them not to, and X be clearly wrong from a humanist perspective. I just don't see what X could be.

Anyway, that's where [1] was coming from. It looks like what you're saying is that it's important for people to realise that helping people is the right thing to do on its own terms. Which, again, I agree with entirely.

S. Spielbergo, Jamie has already covered a lot of what I would have said in reply, especially on the point that "especially when they seem quite happy with what they believe" is a ridiculous generalisaion.

There are a few points I would add, though. First of all, the fact that there are so many different denominations of Christianity (between which there is some migration, if the influx of former CoE and Catholics in my paren't Methodist church are anything to go by) suggests that simply believing in the Holy Trinity is not enough in itself. There are other choices to be made. Is the Pope God's mouthpiece on Earth? Are drinking and gambling acceptable?

The atheist community (and there most certainly is an atheist community) is similarly concerned with far more beyond not believing in God. Just as I think many Christians would agree that it's important to examine and understand one's faith and ensure one's actions are in accordance with it, for an atheist it's important to examine one's behaviour to ensure that it isn't just an endless procession of self-service and solipsism. It's worth pointing that out from time to time (which gets us back to BigHead reminding us of the American Humanist slogan).

As to "going after other religions", you actually answer your own question. If a slogan came out proclaiming "Jesus was way better than Mohammed", then that would really piss me off. That's Christianity singling out Islam and slapping it. On the other hand, "Jesus: best human evah!" wouldn't bother me (beyond disagreeing). That's just religious self-promotion.

The thing is, though, the second wording actually implies the first, logically speaking. But that's just the price of doing business. It's one thing to expouse a view that you know contradicts the views of others, it's something different to specifically cite the alternate view and say it's wrong.

Now, our view is there is no God. It contradicts that of Christianity, and that of Islam, and Hinduism, and Sikhism, and so on and so on, but the advert references none of those specifically. Claiming we're simultaneously taking a shot at all religions is as flawed as saying "Jesus is teh awesome!" is having a pop at all other religions (and us too).

Pause said...

Perhaps a bit late, but in reference to S. Spielbergo's question and Squid's general comments I thought I would add this forum post as evidence of someone who appreciates the occasional pat on the shoulder and reassurance that 'it's okay not to believe.' He's not talking about these buses, just in general terms.

That said, some atheists - and I would assume mostly those who were previously highly religious themselves, although that's just my guess - do feel the need to 'preach' as it were, in order to help (by their standards, just as any preacher's 'help' is judged similarly) those who feel burdened and unhappy with their faith. (Although as Squid and others have elegantly pointed out, that's surely not what these buses are doing.) They would feel it was their duty to help those who are presently as 'burdened' as they once were, just as a Christian (Muslim, Hindu, etc.) convert may say exactly the same thing. If (one of) the entire points of atheism is that you don't need god to be happy, then surely it's plain that some atheists should want to suggest this to others as it is that religious preachers should want to claim the converse. Without getting into a debate on the existence of altruism, humans are social creatures and the desire to 'help' is common to many groups, regardless of subject matter.