Friday, January 9, 2009
Meh. Who Cares?
Everyone is no doubt aware of the Atheist Bus Campaign in Britain, mounted by (among others) the British Humanist Association. As of this week, there are some 800 public transit busses in various cities bearing an ad reading: "THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE". Around the atheist blogosphere, there has been some discussion of (and complaints about) the fact that the PTB who regulate British advertising required the insertion of the qualifier "probably", as the non-existence of God is not considered absolutely proven (this is the same reason that commercial ads rarely say anything definite enough to constitute an actual claim). As Larry Moran notes, such standards of evidence are not uniformly applied across all forms of public expression. Be that as it may, I actually prefer the qualified version, so I consider the amendment serendipitous.
Partly, it's a personal quirk: I don't like absolute statements. At all....at least, not much....OK, on occasion I suppose.... Alright, you get the idea. To me, our attempts to grasp reality are full of nuance and uncertainty, and I feel compelled to acknowledge that. So the qualified version fits my temperament.
But there's also a practical advantage: I think the qualifier makes the message less confrontational, and thereby increases the number of people who will accept it -- and yet, I think it still moves its target audience in the same direction, and by roughly the same distance. I know, some atheists prefer a no-compromise, no-quarter-given approach. I just happen not to. There's certainly a time to be absolutely blunt, with no subtleties -- but it shouldn't be the default. A little friendliness rarely hurts.
To put it another way, there are multiples ways of expressing atheism. One is: "No, there IS NO GOD, DAMMIT! Now bugger off and take your imaginary friend with you!" But that response is essentially forced on atheists by a certain kind of aggressive religion. (Not me personally -- in meatspace I lead a pretty sheltered life. I have to go online if I want to find someone trying to re-convert me). As part of an ongoing interaction, it's undoubtedly justified in some circumstances. But I take the bus ad as a way of starting a conversation, and the blunt opening "There is no God" gives more importance to the "God Question" than is warranted. It accepts the premise that "Does God exist?" is an important question -- maybe even the Most Important Question Of All (especially when backed up by thinly veiled threats). I used to agree with that premise -- I thought it really mattered. Certainly, back when I was an intellectually-oriented Christian with an interest in apologetics, proofs of (the Christian) God's existence seemed very important to me. Over time, however, the subjective importance of that question diminished. When I finally became an atheist, it wasn't so much that I came up with a definitive refutation of the God hypothesis -- it just stopped mattering to me. So my expression of atheism tends to be along the lines of: "Probably not and the question isn't really all that interesting. I've got more enjoyable and productive ways to spend my time, than thinking about it".
So to my ears, that word "probably" gives the bus ad a certain off-hand spontaneity, just the right air of casualness -- and thereby denies the premise of the evangelists, that the matter is so supremely important that we must all dedicate ourselves to figuring it out. It's not -- any more than agonizing over the existence of unicorns or gremlins. In itself, the God Question doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. If it weren't for the historical-cultural weight this concept carries, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.
Is there a God? Meh -- who cares? Not me.
Bus photo credit: Jon Worth / British Humanist Association