Friday, October 24, 2008

No-God squad climb aboard the atheist bus

by Joan Bakewell, Times UK

The bus-funders are young people who feel that no one is listening to them

Advertising account executives must be green with envy; fundraisers must be tearing their hair. A young woman who writes sitcoms for a living came up with an idea around June, posted it on a comment-is-free website and saw it mushroom into something global. The idea of the atheist bus, which will bear the slogan “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”, will not even leave the garages until January, but it has caught the popular imagination. More than that, it has ruffled the feathers of established religious spokesmen, prompted tentative support from unlikely corners and even breached the citadel of religious broadcasting.

The results so far: by midday on Thursday there were 1,800 supportive comments on the blog site: they are often offbeat and full of good humour: “I'm sending a tenner because no one thanked the farmers at my son's harvest festival.” £83,000 has already been pledged, with offers pouring in from as far afield as Russia, Chicago, New Mexico, New Zealand and Ohio. As Ariane, the idea's begetter, says: “The sky's the limit - except, of course, there's nothing up there.”

There have been calls to spread the message to Ireland, Spain, Manchester, the US, Cardiff, Australia and Wales ... Manchester again ... and less hopefully to Kabul and Alaska. There are some surprising contributors: The Christian think-tank Theos has donated £50 in the belief that talking about God is a good thing and there is no such thing as bad publicity. The notion has even broken into the sacred minutes of the Radio 4 spot Thought for the Day, which has been locked in conflict with the British Humanist Society for what seems years. One bright idea from a 28-year-old woman and the atheist bus makes it on to the programme. 
Not since Going to Work on an Egg has an advertising initiative made such an impact, and for so little cost.

Yet as advertising copywriting the slogan doesn't really cut the mustard. It has no lilt, no rhymes, no wordplay. And that word “probably” has opened a can of worms. Many bloggers have asked simply “why 'probably'?” “Probably” was what they worried over most. It's said that Richard Dawkins, who is contributing some £5,000, favoured the phrase “almost certainly”. Another contributor explains that “in science nothing has certainty, only statistical probability”. I can see the copywriters chewing their pens over that one. So "probably" stays. There are other reasons, too. Yesterday in her blog Ariane explained that inserting the word helped to avoid breaching the Advertising Standards Authority rules.

Meanwhile, in the same week a government minister, Phil Woolas - three weeks ago appointed Immigation Minister - speculated in a Times interview that within 50 years or so the Church of England will have lost the special position it holds at the heart of the country's life. He suggested that in any reform of the House of Lords the privileged position of the 26 Lords Temporal - the C of E bishops - would be up for consideration. The Church's disestablishment was suddenly within a lifetime's prospect.

This is exactly where the light-hearted atheist's campaign intersects with national affairs.

It has been obvious over recent years that well-funded religious lobbies have been bringing their influence to bear on a government legislative programme that includes considerations of abortion and the matter of assisted dying. In accordance with their specifically devout beliefs, such groups are able to challenge and defeat legislation that many of us would like to see liberalised. The unelected bishops in the House of Lords rise to speak against such moves as Lord Joffe's Bill to legalise assisted dying.

So what is the atheist bus achieving? First, it establishes a sense of solidarity among those who see religious sentiments carrying the day simply because they are well organised and well funded. From the tone of their blogs the bus-funders are often young people who feel that no one is listening to them. Now they are at least being heard.

Its second achievement is to convey the fact that atheists believe in something rather than nothing. It is a canard of the religious to suggest that atheism is an absence, a void, a moral vacuum. It is no such thing. It constitutes a body of belief in humanity and its virtues. A lack of faith and the decline of religion are often blamed for the current evils of society. Those without belief in God want it to be known that they have as strong a moral framework as those who follow ancient biblical texts and commandments laid down long ago by desert tribes. It is not an unreasonable thing to expect, and the bus is perhaps a jokey way of saying so.

So what next? There is money to spare already beyond the original plans of the organisers. Perhaps there will be billboards around the country. Stephen Green of Christian Voice predicts that such displays will be covered in graffiti. As he dares to declare: “People don't like being preached at”!

My own fear is that while this has started in a gentle and unconfrontational way, it may fuel the notion that people have to be antagonistic to those of other faiths. While it is spoken in the mood of live and let live, I am apprehensive that it may be seen by others as a move in the battle of faith-versus-science. Theology in all its centuries-old intricacies and science with its blossoming insights are both far too subtle to allow of such clich├ęs.

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