Improbable ads on God's odds

October 27, 2008

Bendy buses snaking through London’s streets carrying the message, ‘There’s probably no God’ will help promote discussion about God, some Christian leaders believe. The bus adverts, planned to start in January, urge the public to ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

Already, months before the first posters are due to appear, the campaign has stimulated discussion in British papers on the topic of God’s existence.

Believers have even joined readers of the Guardian contributing to what began in June as an almost tongue-in-cheek appeal for donations to support a bus advert declaring long odds on God. 

Upset by Bible quotes placed as ads in the London buses ‘threatening readers with eternal damnation’humorist Ariane Sherine challenged her Guardian readers to send in five pounds each for a counter-ad campaign. 

The initial luke warm response over the summer from the atheistic community prompted a Telegraph headline, ‘Atheists fail to cough up for London bus ad’

However, Sherine’s campaign picked up speed when anti-theist Richard Dawkins came on board, promising to match donations up to a maximum of £5,500. 

That offer catalysed a flow of donations to the Atheist Bus Campaign website and very soon over £30,000 had been pledged, more than five times the original goal. So now there’s talk of taking the campaign to the London Tube and to other cities.

The director of the Christian think-tank Theos said they had donated £50 because the advertisements would stimulate people to think about God.

Theos director, Paul Woolley, told the Telegraph he initially had felt almost sorry for the campaign, “as its difficulties showed that there were not many atheists in Britain, and certainly not many who were willing to put their hands into their pockets.”

“But when we saw the message, we couldn’t believe it,” he added, implying that it was an unexpectedly weak statement. “Stunts like this demonstrate how militant atheists are often great adverts for Christianity.”

A spokesperson for the Methodist Church stated that the campaign would be a good thing if it engaged people with “the deepest questions of life.”

Christian publicist Nick Spencer blogged that “the long and tortuous route that this particular bendy bus had to travel has unfortunately exposed one of atheism’s biggest problems-not just tod

ay, but everywhere and at ev
ery time in history: namely that it has never been a mass movement even (especially) in those countries, like the Soviet Union, in which the state promoted and enforced the doctrine through such organisations as the (wonderfully named) League of the Militant Godless.”

Once the funds were assured and the ads were announced, however, the show promised to be worse than the rehearsal, suggested Spencer. 

Atheists don’t believe there is “probably” no God, he wrote. “They believe, at least they tell us believe, that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God. That ‘probably’ is a woeful betrayal of convictions, presumably made in order not to scare off the lukewarm, agnostic market.”

Spencer’s reaction to the ad’s second line, “Now stop worrying”, was that this advice might just be reasonable if the world were populated by atheist homeless charities, drug rehabilitation centres, bereavement, debt counselling, hospital and prison visitors, mums and toddlers groups, and such like. 

But, he notes, it is not.

Simon Barrow, writing in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section, suspects that the vast majority of people will be as sceptical about being sold unbelief as they are about being sold belief. “Well, unless someone is thinking of throwing in a free set of wine glasses or something.”

Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, finds it intriguing that the campaigners are backing off the “almost certainly” that has accompanied many of Dawkins’ own God-denunciations.

Barrow says he agrees wholeheartedly with the slogan, “There’s probably no God”. The kind of vindictive sky-god caricatured by the ‘new atheists’, perpetuated by fundamentalists, and subtly compared to flying space teapots (a Dawkins allusion), probably does not exist, he writes.

But the “stop worrying and enjoy your life” bit, he adds, is more problematic. For so many people it is really difficult to do this right now. Which is why the message needing to get out there, says Barrow, is about encouraging one another in active compassion.

Surely, he asks, isn’t that something we could all agree on? Compassion is at the heart of the best kind of humanist thinking and living, and also the best kind of religious thinking and living.

“If you can get to believe that without God, fair enough. I reckon that takes rather too much believing. But if the atheist bus campaign gets anyone to think seriously about this, or to live life more joyfully, I will be genuinely appreciative,” he concludes.

I’m betting Pascal’s Wager will enter the debate sooner or later, prompted by that word ‘probably’? For Pascal argued that, as long as any possibility remained of God existing, a person should ‘wager’ as though He did exist, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose. To back the other option was to risk losing all.

But it’s early days. The ad compaign hasn’t even started yet!

Till next week,

Till next week,

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