Have a crack at Madeleine Bunting, who not only completely misses the point of the atheist ad campaign on London’s buses, but in the same breath manages to be excruciatingly patronising about religious working poor (but we’ll get to that).
At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions – belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment – that I couldn’t see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can “probably” change someone’s mind?
What is the point of the campaign, by the way? Let’s take a look at the FAQ section of the campaign’s official website, which is more than Bunting bothered to do:
The campaign began when comedy writer Ariane Sherine saw an advert on a London bus featuring the Bible quote, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find Faith on this Earth?” [sic]. A website URL ran underneath the quote, and when Sherine visited the site she learned that, as a non-believer, she would be “condemned to everlasting separation from God and then spend all eternity in torment in hell”.
Incidentally, some Christians in the UK have complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that the ad—which reads “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”—is “offensive” (while, presumably, ads condemning non-believers to eternal torment and hellfire are not offensive).
Anyway, Bunting continues:
Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.
Yes, Bunting: how can you be so elitist and patronising—not to mention positively Straussian? Suggesting that while we middle-class types can afford the luxury of our non-belief, the poor benighted plebs with whom you are forced to share a bus, and into whose psychology you claim profound insight in spite of such a fleeting acquaintance, need a faith to cling to. And who do those mean and nasty atheists think they are, with their mean and nasty bus slogans, making her fellow passengers, whose inner life Bunting purports to know intimately, feel bad about themselves? Perish the thought that the atheist bus campaign might be directed at these passengers also. No, no, says Bunting: they haven’t the education to cope with that.
Madeleine Bunting is a textbook illustration of the argument that religious moderates give cover to religious fanatics. Not in the least because, like many other religious moderates, she seems more concerned with demonising non-believers than with combating extremism and fundamentalism. To a moderate like Bunting, secularism, not fundamentalism, is the real Enemy.
Oh, and she doesn’t miss the opportunity to scoff at atheists’ support for Obama:
The irony of course is that the trio of intellectuals roped in to launch the advert, led by Richard Dawkins, are in all likelihood going to be celebrating the presidential inauguration of a passionate Christian, Barack Obama, next week – a man commonly agreed to be one of the most intelligent politicians of our age. But what they might prefer to overlook is that he chose – after an agnostic upbringing with doses of atheism from a distant father – to become a Christian in his 20s. “I felt God’s spirit beckoning me and I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth,” he writes in his book, The Audacity of Hope. You can’t do pick and mix on Obama: he is pretty forthright that Jesus died to redeem his sins.
There is no irony, of course, because simply being an atheist or a secularist does not preclude one from supporting public figures who have strong religious beliefs. (Even when they invite bigots such as Rick Warren to preside over the inauguration.) What matters is whether they advocate policies based on an appeal to reason, evidence and reality . . . and not on the basis of “because my sky-daddy says so.” And on that score, I’ll give Obama himself, c. 2006, the final word:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.