30 October 2008

Atheist evangelism

A group of people in Britain are engaging in "atheist evangelism" by sponsoring bus advertisments with the slogan "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".

Simon Barrow: People are as likely to be sceptical about the 'atheist bus' as they are about being sold religion:
This week the 'atheist bus' project finally gets wheels. After scrambling around for a few thousand quid, the money has finally come in to perambulate an inspiring message ('There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life') around our streets, bringing merriment to millions...

To those without a huge vested interest in promoting or dissing religion, this probably looks a slightly odd initiative. Frankly, the slogan is a bit anodyne. It's the non-believing equivalent of 'God may very well exist. Now have a nice day'. But it will probably still be enough to upset counter-evangelists of the kind who like to tell everybody they are going to hell for not subscribing to their particular doctrine, and who think atheism is very, very naughty.

Simon Barrow also comments about it in his blog FaithInSociety, and several others have also commented on it. In fact, so many people have commented on it that further commentary might seem to be redundant.

I tend to agree with Bishop Alan’s Blog: London Atheist ads: Shome mishtake?, when he says: "Perhaps this particular ad is more agnostic than atheist, and we still have to await a genuinely atheist poster ad."

But what interests me are the values expressed by the ad, which are assumed rather than explicitly promoted. They are not really atheist values, because there can be no specifically atheist values, since atheism is the absence of something. Atheists may have all kinds of values, and all kinds of reasons for holding them, but the values and the reasons for holding them owe nothing to atheism. Marxism-Leninism, for example, is strongly atheist, but the values it espouses are not based on atheism, but on a particular theory of economics and history. Ayn Rand, who detested Marxism-Leninism, and proposed an alternative, capitalist ideology, was also an atheist. One could multiply examples, but the point is clear -- there are no specifically atheist values.

I don't know whether the sponsors of the bus ad are calling what they are doing "evangelism". But "evangelism" means "spreading good news", and the sponsors clearly believe their message is good news and they are spreading it, so it is evangelism of a sort.

But what is the message that they intend to convey? And what is the message that people receive?

I can't speak for others, but I can say what message I receive from the ad. Whether it is what the sponsors intended to convey, I don't know. But if any of them read this, perhaps they can tell me if I've got it right or wrong. And if the intended message doesn't get across, then it means that there is either something wrong with the sender, or with the message, or with the recipient.

So what is the good news?

"Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy: There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".

And that sounds like another message I've been hearing a lot on TV lately:

"You only have one life, so make it a full one with world-class entertainment."

Both messages seem to have the same underlying values, the same basic message:

Eat, drink, and be entertained, for tomorrow we die.

The advertisements are being placed on British buses, so they will be read by rich and well-fed Westerners. Simon Barrow notes elsewhere (Cold water, buses and shared humanity | Ekklesia) that it raises interesting issues about "the extent to which the philosophy reflected in the bus slogan - ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ - is widely shared (much more than many church leaders seem aware), and so on."

And yes, that philosophy is widely shared in prosperous Western societies, even if that prosperity is under threat of a recession.

And we see on TV how people "enjoy life" in Britain -- teenagers getting drunk. They send each other inane messages on their cell (mobile) phones, with scarcely a thought about the fact that in parts of the Congo armed groups are fighting to control access to coltan, one of the ingredients that makes such "enjoyment" possible, and that people, including teenagers and young children are being enslaved or killed as a result.

Will the message on British buses come across to people in strife-torn Congo as good news, so that they can "enjoy life", and have a full one, with "world-class entertainment"?

Oh yes, the message, the philosophy, of the slogan is widely shared in the rich West.

So how do I interpret it?

There is probably no God, so go ahead and enjoy your life, even if it is at the expense of other people. There is probably no God who cares about them, so you don't need to care about them either.

Forty years ago I was studying for a Christian doctrine exam, and instead of reading the text books for the course I read a book written by a Methodist minister in Zambia, Colin Morris. It was called Include me out: confessions of an ecclesiastical coward, and this is how it began:

The other day a Zambian dropped dead not far from my front door. The pathologist said he'd died of hunger. In his shrunken stomach were a few leaves and what appeared to be a ball of grass. And nothing else.

Colin Morris's book wasn't aimed at rich well-fed atheist evangelists, but rather at rich well-fed Christian ones, and at ecclesiastical bureaucrats, and he challenged them to think about how the message they put across, in words or deeds, in what they did and what they didn't do, could have come across as good news to "an ugly little man with a shrunken belly, whose total possessions, according to the police, were a pair of shorts, a ragged shirt, and an empty Biro pen."

There is probably no God, so it doesn't really matter if your leaders, using your taxes, rain down bombs on people in Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, just so long as you continue to enjoy a full life, with world-class entertainment. There is probably no God who cares about them, so don't let their plight interfere with your enjoyment of life.

Some of the things Colin Morris said 40 years ago are just as valid today, and they apply to all rich well-fed evangelists, atheist as well as Christian, including me.

Much theological writing is a highly elaborate conspiracy against that little man with the shrunken belly and his skeletal brethren. It is an exercise in endless qualification, dedicated to showing why we cannot take the words of the Galilean Peasant at their face value or follow His example simply. Let some Manchester bus conductor murmur that he can follow the words of Jesus but cannot follow the words of some of the men who followed Him, and he will earn himself a lecture. This would be to the effect that Jesus cannot be understood except within the whole framework of the History of Salvation and that he did not actually say many of the words reported of him in the Gospels, so he must take our words for what is fact and fancy, because we know!

The biggest problem for Christians with the philosophy behind the bus advertising is not that it is unacceptable, but that its message of hedonism is accepted all too easily by so many Christians. Again, to quote Colin Morris:

Our failure towards the little people of the earth is more than a lapse of simple charity for which sincere contrition can atone. When our Churches have crumbled and our vestments have rotted and the wind blows through the ruins of our ecclesiastical structures, all that will stand and have eternal significance are creative acts of compassion -- the effectual signs of the presence of the Kingdom.

Because the Gospel is simple, the judgement is immediate. It awaits no historical summing up of all things. It can be put plainly and in first-person terms. I saw a starving man and there was no gnawing pain in my belly. I saw a hunchback and my own back did not ache. I watched a pathetic procession of refugees being herded back and forth sleeplessly, and I slept well that night.

8 comments:

Crushed said...

You see I am a Thesi, but I still find myself wondering whether or not, really, the existence or otherwise of a deity should be a factor in our moral decisions
Surely true humanism and the ethics of a God who is what he says he is, must be the same?

Twylite said...

There probably is no god, so if you don't like the wars or the government fraud or having to see people hungry and begging then YOU AND YOU ALONE can do something about it, because god won't.

Daniel Clark said...

"Surely true humanism and the ethics of a God who is what he says he is, must be the same?"

unfortunately, "true humanism" has tended to mean Western centred, racist, colonialist, male domination...in fact the kind of people behind the Bus Campaign.

Steve Hayes said...

Crushed,

I'm not sure how you determine what "true" humanism is, but I suspect that the slogan on the buses assumes true hedonism.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Thanks Steve - I find this a really useful post! It is very difficult to understand the motivation for 'atheist evangelists'. Certainly there must be more worthy causes for which to fight!

Maria said...

Here is an extract from an e-bulletin I received from the organisers of the project:

"Comedy writer Ariane Sherine, 28, wrote an article in June about the Christian adverts running on London buses. These ads featured the URL of a website which said non-Christians would burn in hell for all eternity. Sherine suggested that atheists reading her article could each donate £5 to fund a reassuring counter-advert...Hanne Stinson, BHA Chief Executive says, “We see so many posters advertising salvation through Jesus or threatening us with eternal damnation, that I felt sure that a bus advert like this will be welcomed as a breath of fresh air. If it raises a smile as well as making people think, so much the better."

I concede it wouldn't be unreasonable to see a 'hedonistic' message in the slogan if it were, in fact, a case of unprovoked evangelism on the part of atheists. But no, it's not atheist evangelism. It's counter-evangelism - a reaction to the...um.."loving" Christian message that we're going to burn in hell. Unfortunately, even among us overfed Westerners, there are people who take this message to heart and there are many more who think they are alone in their doubts. Judging by the comments accompanying the £115,000 worth of contributions (exceeding the original target by £110,000 - average contribution about £5) people are not taking it as an exhortation to eat, drink and be entertained. They are simply expressing relief that they are not alone in their doubts about the sky daddy and delight at the chance to hit back at those who use any and every opportunity to browbeat us.

The suggestion that the slogan has anything to do with selfishness barely dignifies a response. The size and strength of our voluntary sector and secular charities are a testimony to the fact that a great many more of us find enjoyment and fulfilment, not in getting drunk and texting others but in helping others who aren't as well-fed in any sense as we are.

Daniel Clark said...

"The suggestion that the slogan has anything to do with selfishness barely dignifies a response"

um..."don't worry, enjoy yourself" can be interpreted as selfishness...the refusal to engage with the critique merely emphasises the narrow-mindedness of the campaign.

In fact, the most that this response suggests is that the BHA has its own spin-doctors ( " The size and strength of our voluntary sector and secular charities" reeks of New Labour speak...when in fact, to the embarrassment of many humanists, the rolling back of the welfare state has forced the state to increasingly turn to faith-based organisations)

Maria said...

The suggestion that enjoying oneself=selfishness is a "critique"? I didn't refuse to engage with it. I suggested that it was an unworthy comment and that most people do find enjoyment and fulfilment in helping others. It is an unbelievably narrow and sanctimonious world view that equates pleasure with pure self-interest and not caring about others.

Your last comment is a particularly silly straw man. As someone who has spent over twenty years working for charities, I know how strong our voluntary sector is and I know how much volunteering means to the people who do it. Most people are happy to give their time, talent and money to help others not because they want to score points in Heaven but because they find it fulfilling.

And that has nothing to do with the BHA, New Labour or any other the other spurious nonsense you raised.

Anyone wishing to continue this discussion with me can find me at www.thinkhumanism.com. All are welcome and you might learn something about people while you're there.

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