All Aboard the Atheist Bus!

Although I am in the privileged position to not be subjected to them, the thought of living in a part of the UK such as London where every day I would be shown advertisements for various religious outfits would become very annoying, very quickly. Most Abrahamic faiths have been caught on the back foot of recent, whether it be down to a dwindling church attendance, or negative vibes caused by some of the more nutty of the flock blowing people up, and have resorted to proclaiming and suggesting things such as 'follow us and be content and all-knowing' (the positive spin), 'follow us and not burn in hell' (the negative, threatening spin), or 'follow us, and secure your place in the afterlife' (the bribery spin).

Many slogans have apparently appeared on billboards, buses and trains in and around London, to add to the message already pushed down our throats by the megaphone-aided street preachers you get in most city centres. I have been quite fortunate in that the religious presence round my way rarely reaches beyond the church perimeter (although Jehovah' Witnesses do occasionally knock on my door, to which they get a good debating with about various issues). As a 'practising Atheist', it was with some joy that I found there was finally something being done about it. The British Humanist Association has launched a campaign to provide a balance to these posters. They started a justgiving site on 21 October to fund an alternative campaign to be placed on buses around London for a couple of weeks.

The slogan goes 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life', intended clearly as a positive response to the 'should I believe? - what if I don't and then burn in hell?' insecurities that many people will have suffered from time to time.

Though their target amount was quite a modest £5,500, the Christian Voice people (clearly a little threatened if you look at the wording of the piece they wrote) appeared and decided to scoff and mock and pour water on the little flame they saw, deriding the idea (claiming that atheism is dangerous, like bendy buses) and saying that atheists/humanists would never stump up such cash because they are tightwads. Spokesman
Stephen Green went on Radio 5 to do most of the heckling, and along the way proclaiming that he knew God existed, even though when pressed he couldn't find any proof to back it up. His exaggerated guffaws and over-egged put-downs were a psychologists dream to study.

A little over an hour after the launch of the site, the target was reached. As I write, the amount raised has exceeded £95,000 and I expect it will pass the ton by the end of the day, and it's one of the most life-affirming statements I've experienced in a long time. From an initial target of a few buses around London, the posters will now be seen nationwide and be also featured all over the place. I have donated some cash myself as I think it's a very good cause and have been playing the refresh game on the justgiving page for some days now, giggling like a schoolgirl as the total reached higher milestones. It's even more impressive when you consider the fear that has grasped people of recent about the 'credit crunch', you'd think it would be a lot less when people haven't got so much to spare.

The point of this post? Well, partly I wanted to help rub the smug noses of the Christian Voicers in the large amount of zeroes they are seeing raised in a very short length of time, but also it seems that there are a few points raised with religion and belief in general that need straightening out. I'm not the person to do the straightening - it can't be done by one person and one blog but by gradual shifts in global social conscience - but I'll have a go anyway since blogs are all about unqualified people like myself making qualified decisions.. :)

I am not against the notion of religion and belief per se. It is part of the right of every human in our society to believe in what we wish, be that God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or nothing at all. My problem arises when people of one denomination decide to push their assumptions about the world onto other people who do not share that belief. That's how wars start.

The Newly found Voice of Reason

I would hope that the sheer amount of support drummed up against the religious cause has woke the religious representatives up a bit. Until now, there hasn't really been a large focal point for all atheists, humanists, agnostics and whatever other labels people choose to place upon themselves, to jointly make their opinions known on the subject. At least, not one that has stood up from the pulpit, to take a religious simile. I hadn't looked into the Humanists before this because it sounded quasi-religious and therefore out of my field of interest.

The lack of measurement of the atheistic viewpoint has led to a certain amount of complacency on the part of various religious leaders and spokespeople, who had no barometer with which to predict where they stood on public matters. Complacency which I hope has now been tempered by a sudden and unexpected response by the quietly simmering rational subset of people in both the UK and beyond. No doubt people like Stephen Green will laugh and shrug off this vote of no confidence in the notion of religion in all our lives, but it will hopefully go some way to correcting the perceived ratio of religious types to atheists.

Why Preaching Doesn't Work

Gotta be careful here since this is a preach of sorts - but one point made by the venerable quote machine that is 'National Director of Christian Voice' Stephen Green lit up a warning light marked 'hypocrite'. His assertion was that 'People don't like being preached at. Sometimes it does them good, but they still don't like it.' is rattling when we see what he implies - that it does them good only when they get a preaching from the 'good book' and not by nasty heathen druid non believing hell-lovers. Of course, he is correct in that sometimes people need to be told things and other times to be left the hell alone, but what constitutes a valid time to do that is a very uncertain topic.

Unfortunately, the central assumption held by religious types - that their particular God definitely exists - is at the top of their ethical tree, affecting their every action and the words that come out of their mouths at all times. What believers don't understand, is that by shaping sentences with this central assumption within them, they are just putting non-believing peoples' teeth on edge. Thus when they choose to preach - through the medium of a poster, a flyer or some bloke in a town square with a megaphone - many people just turn off, leading to the slightly silly situation where the only people listening to them are the ones who already believe.

Why 'Probably'?

Some questions have been raised by the use of the word 'probably' in the title of the proposed posters. As atheists, aren't we being more like agnostics by leaving a little wiggle room?
Perhaps that is the case, but I believe that the word Probably should stay in. In the same way that I would consider a religious type an arrogant git if they proclaimed that they knew God definitely existed without then being able to prove such an assertion (surely if someone knew something they would have irrefutable proof), I would also consider an atheist to be equally arrogant and wrong if they asserted the opposite. No-one knows for sure whether a god, many gods, or no gods exists or not. We can speculate, and take from the sum total of human knowledge a cherry-picked set of facts and assumptions and make conclusions from them, but we can never be sure either way. Religious types have it easier, since as soon as their God pops down and taps us all omnipresently on the shoulder and says hello, that's case proved in their favour, whilst atheists have to wait to the end of infinity before they can say 'right well we did all that and God wasn't anywhere, so nerrr'.

So I think atheists should sidestep the pitfall that catches out so many religious types and say 'on balance, looking at the world, the information available to me and the experiences I have had, I have come to the conclusion that there is probably no God.' It's more accurate, and it's (presumably) not offensive to people who do believe. After all, it is considered opinion, not fact, whichever side of the fence you happen to be on.

Should we spend so much on posters?

The original target of £5,500 was not trivial, but small in comparison to the eventual haul, so should it all go just on an alternative poster to look at in tube stations? 100k can be used for a few things, and it would be ideal if the association used a lot of it for more positive things. Just for the sake of argument, how about the first £50k should be used on a national poster/billboard campaign, with perhaps even a TV advert or something. The rest should go to a handful of children's hospitals such as Great Ormond Street, or cancer charities like Macmillan. The humanist view is, after all one that seeks to make a better life for people. They should show that that truly is the case. The stick that we would use to beat the message of another choice into people should not be so big as to become comparable to those used by the various religions to do the same.

Will it convert anyone? What happens if I don't believe - and I go to hell?

I'm not sure that the point of the campaign is to convert people, rather to give a voice to the group of us that choose not to believe.
There will be some people who wrestle with the idea of adopting a belief on a daily basis, affected by whatever happens to be on the evening news, that may find the poster message to be either liberating or befuddling.
A major worry held by fence sitters regards their fate if they make the wrong decision. A certain Jesus-themed site deals with plenty of fire and brimstone in the event of non-compliance with their religion to put fear into the hearts of those unsure whether to commit. Here is my counter rationalist view:
  • We live on a huge planet. The planet is one of billions in the universe. We are far too small and insignificant for a God to be bothered with unless we were to do something mental like blowing the whole world up. The easiest way to achieve that is to [just as an example], have a divisive factor such as religious leaning pit person against person, and nation against nation in a battle to see who goes to heaven first.
  • I made my decision to not believe based upon the information available to me. If God is all-forgiving as we are led to believe, then he will forgive me for coming to the wrong conclusion as I wait at the pearly gates, since my only mistake was missing that elusive piece of data that proved or pointed at his existence. Thus it makes no difference to the outcome of my life whether I choose to believe or not, so long as I live my life well and am a good person.
  • The good aspects of religion (a set of moral guiding values, a community spirit, a voice to be heard with) can be decoupled from any religion and survive and prosper on their own. You do not need to have a faith in order to be a good person.
  • No matter which God you choose to believe (and the notion of 'choosing a religion' is a ridiculous one) there will always be all the others which you choose not to believe in. If they turn out to be the right one, you're buggered anyway.
  • If God is all-knowing, made the earth, stars and sun, fashioned Adam and Eve from bits of plasticine or whatever and still had time off for a kip on Sunday, that makes him a pretty intelligent being. I know that if I were to hear the same things daily, weekly, monthly over and over again, I'd get pretty annoyed, so imagine how pissed off a creature of infinite wisdom gets at hearing prayer and worship and hymn in his name EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY.
  • Good things that happen are often attributed to God. Similarly, when a bad thing happens, the devil is often blamed. God and the devil seem to exist, but despite God being all powerful, he either cannot, or chooses not to stop the actions of the devil and all his little pitchforked minions. Either God is not strong enough to stop these bad things happening, or they have an agreement going, or he just enjoys watching the outcome. Or perhaps existence is just one enormous celestial game of table football between good and evil.
  • A rejection of the belief in a god doesn't imply worship of the devil. They are equally fictitious. Good things happen because of good circumstance and/or good people. Bad things happen due to unfortunate circumstance and/or bad people. Bad people happen because of ignorance and lack of education and thought. The idea of believing in a religion hinges on not thinking about things and instead accepting unquestionably what you are told instead. This is the conclusion reached by Dawkins when he states that 'thinking is anathema to religion'.
There. One massive soapbox for one massive subject. I hope the humanist association gets as much money as possible and that they spend it wisely so there is just enough to highlight a choice, but not so much to become a liability. Then lets leave each other to believe or not believe based on what we can see from the world around us, and an intelligent, rational interpretation of those things, rather than from a nutter on a street corner or a sign on a bus.

Please donate if you agree with this cause of redressing the balance, or if you like, donate to the site that has been set up in defiance to the atheist buses, which set itself a familiar-looking target, but doesn't look like its quite there yet.


Anonymous said...

I agree almost entirely with your comments but am horrified that you suggest using some of the money we've donated for the campaign to support other charities. I did not donate for the money to go to charities that address issues that are partly caused by greedy corporations, corrupt power elites etc. and by human beings not taking responsibility for their health and/or families. I donated so there could be debate and open rational discussion rather than people being forced to be 'tolerant', i.e. accept the death and suffering-causing organized religions. However I'm now not going to donate again just in case some of my money is going to be used to support other charities.

fancyplants said...

Whoa, please don't slow the money flow just because of my yammerings!! I agree with you that if such a thing were to happen (the alternative things to spend the cash on) then it should be set out from the start in the justgiving page, of which I have no affiliation or sway with, so it can't realistically be expected to happen now when so many people have donated.
My bad entirely. My point I guess was that the amount currently being raised stretches far beyond the amount originally envisaged for the project, and you can only do so much postering with that money before it becomes overkill, so why not find some other worthy causes in the humanist/atheist name? I agree though that perhaps my suggestions of where else it could go were perhaps controversial, but I chose them because the Christian Voice wouldn't have a leg to stand on when it came to a reaction.

Rob Farrow said...

nice post. i actually think that the point about giving to good causes is considered, but probably something for much further down the line: it risks confusing the message.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - I panicked there a bit! As an extremely poor aged pensioner I went into grumpy-old-woman mode:-) I agree, they wouldn't change the goalposts after stating their aims. As I believe humans bring it on themselves, the only charities I donate to - apart from the atheist bus - are animal charities, in an attempt to redress the dastardly behaviour of the human race towards them - and I'm sure there are many who would throw up their hands in horror at my choice of charities:-)

fancyplants said...

Thanks rob/anonymous!
Just been out shopping and the subject has been boinging around my head all the time. I guess a way to decide would be for the campaign organisers to throw open the decision of what should happen with all the extra money (that's surplus after everything they said they would do) to a public vote, one option of which would be to use it all for its original/modified purpose (that is, sides of buses, inside buses/trains, billboards etc.) but on a still bigger/longer scale and then other options such as funding text books in schools, nominating a beneficial source, or whatever. Like rob says, it would be down the line a bit - the justgiving site doesn't end til' April!

And its now over £101k! Woohoo!!

Simon Bishop said...

Thanks for the link from the donations page.
I very much liked almost all of your post, but I agree with anonymous that we should not divert money from this campaign to other charitable causes, however worthwhile they might be.
I have donated £4000 so far, on the understanding that the money would be used for atheist advertising. I would feel cheated to discover that it had been used for any other unrelated purpose.
Sorry if this makes me sound mean, but the cause behind this campaign is atheism and should remain so.

fancyplants said...

Wow! Hi Simon! Your donation to get it over the ton was fantastic especially when combined with your earlier one as well. You will go down as a bit of a hero (you're already on the wikipedia entry!)
Yes, I realise now that my suggestion was not so well thought out given that everyone had pledged based on the initial premise, changing the outcome would not be fair regardless of how deserving the charity. Apologies to anyone who may have been offended. Really glad you enjoyed your visit to my blog otherwise though! :)

Laura Stubbs said...

I feel quite ambivalent about this bus. After all, are not the atheists preaching their own beliefs, for surely the denial of a god is just as much an unfounded 'belief' as the acknowledgement of one? I know that the word 'probably' connotes agnosticism, but was it included merely to lessen potential offence? I am not trying to attack your post, just to try to get my head around such issues! By the way, I do assign myself to any form of religion, agnosticism or atheism.

fancyplants said...

Hi Laura,

I agree - my take with the word 'Probably' is down very much the same lines; if you remove it, you are effectively believing that God doesn't exist in the same way that theists believe that he does. Neither side can prove it, and both rely on a faith of sorts to make it add up in their minds. It thus leads to a catch 22 situation - I thought the point of atheism is to not have a belief system at all.

Its inclusion I believe had two purposes: to minimise the potential offence caused to those who do believe, and to appease the bus companies who would carry the slogan, who would not accept the posters in there original 'probably'-free form. See this post on the Comment Is Free site for a more in-depth explanation on its inclusion.

As for preaching these beliefs on the side of a bus, I personally donated for the reason that the religious types happily invade my life with slogans and street preachers and door-to-door Jesus-sellers on a daily basis, all assuming that I accept there is a God somewhere looking down on me, never thinking for a moment that this central assumption may irritate and possibly offend myself and other people too. A counter slogan that said the opposite sounded like a redressing of the balance, even if the form of the message may raise questions, which it definitely has. One of the most immediate is why has this clearly widely-held atheist view not been heard so loudly before?