Probably An Atheist Bus

I am rather late in covering this, so by now I imagine everyone is familiar with the Atheist Bus Campaign, which has probably generated more publicity than the eventual bus adverts ever could. It started when Ariane Sherine (pictured) wrote an piece in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section complaining about one-sided religious advertising:

“Yesterday I walked to work and saw not one, but two London buses with the question: “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). It seems you wait ages for a bus with an unsettling Bible quote, then two come along at once.”

The website featured on the advert contained dire warnings about hell fire and damnation, which is really not what you need on a Monday morning when you’re late for work. Ariane did some homework and suggested that with moderate support a similar advert could be bought by atheists – one with a more tolerant, uplifting message. She suggested:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life.”

The atheist bus campaign caught on well and has so far raised over 117,000 pounds – enough for several bus adverts. However, the proposed wording of the advert has caused dissatisfaction amongst some atheists. The “probably” is described as a cop-out, too weak, too uncertain. A friend of mine expressed her disappointment by saying, “It’s more of an Agnostic Bus Campaign really isn’t it?”.

There are two things I want to discuss. Firstly, the philosophy geek’s question of whether the slogan is Atheistic, Agnostic or something else? Secondly, is it a good message to slap on the side of a bus?

An Agnostic Atheist Slogan?

Here’s a quick summary of the non-believing spectrum as I see it:

Strong Atheist – “I believe there is definitely no god and I have no doubt about this.”
Weak Atheist – “I believe there is no god but I do not have absolute certainty about this.”
Agnostic – “I do not know if there is a god.” (literally ‘without knowledge’)

Naturally these are not hard either-or distinctions and many people are somewhere between the above positions. There are also several other non-religious positions some of which I covered previously.

In practice the vast majority of those who speak of themselves as atheists are of the “weak” variety (aka “Agnostic atheists”). The reason is that it’s notoriously difficult to prove the non-existence of anything, whether it’s gods, unicorns or a teapot orbiting the sun. The problem with trying to find any of those is when to stop searching. OK, so we’ve searched the world’s mountain ranges and the plains, but what if these mythical beasts exist in the Arctic, or the deepest oceans, or on the moon?

In science and philosophy no knowledge is beyond doubt. If it were, then we might still be believing that the Sun goes around the Earth or that light travels in a luminiferous ether. So strictly speaking a non-believer in unicorns should say, “There are probably no unicorns”. For simplicity this usually comes out as “There are no unicorns”. Not a strict provable statement, but simple enough for everyday language which gets the idea across.

You can however often disprove specific religious claims – for example geocentrism or an omnipotent deity who doesn’t allow lightning.

I said it was a philosophy geek’s question.

Probably the best bus in the world

So does the word “Probably” trammel the proposed advertisement’s intention? Can it still make people stop and think?

I know some believers have responded to the uncertainty of the slogan with ridicule, apparently amused that those noisy atheists aren’t so sure of what they believe after all. Others may think it cowardly.

Many religious people are comforted by the absolute certainty with which their beliefs are claimed. Uncertainty and dilemmas can be unsettling. For people who feel that way, believing something is “probably the case”, never mind contributing to an advert to tell people it is “probably the case”, is laughable.

But I think expressing doubt is a good thing. I’m certainly not the first person to say that, for example Bertrand Russell:

“I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn’t wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine.”

Furthermore, I’m all too aware that believers regularly accuse atheists of being every bit as irrational as the religious. Some have even written books claiming they don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. In the case of strong atheism (or strong unicorn-disbelief), I think that accusation would be justified. What evidence could provide absolute certainty that there were no unicorns (or gods)? To have absolute certainty that gods or unicorns did not exist would require faith.

The “probably” has certainly caused surprise amongst some religious believers. American Evangelical minister, Clark Bunch reacted on his blog as follows:

What surprises me is that Dawkins would settle for such a weak position.  “There’s probably no God” is not spoken with nearly the certainty with which Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed.  I’ve never sung a hymn nor heard a street preacher shout “There probably is a God.”  The slogan even allows the possibility the God may exist.  If all atheists were this soft, I probably wouldn’t give them such a hard time.

Which is where the massive misconception comes in.

Most atheists wouldn’t say they have absolute certainty about their beliefs. Despite all the hype and accusations of atheist fundamentalism, Richard Dawkins doesn’t claim absolute certainty of his beliefs. If someone says, “I don’t believe in god”, they’re not necessarily claiming that their belief is beyond doubt. If I said, “I don’t believe it will rain tomorrow” would it be taken as read that I’m so sure about it I’d be willing to bet my life on it? Would I be called a fundamentalist meteorologist? Of course not. But for many believers, ordinary non-belief in deities is taken as a statement of absolute certainty requiring irrational faith. Perhaps this is a kind of psychological projection of their own attitudes to belief?

The slightly dull reality is that the inclusion of the word “probably” was at the insistence of the bus company selling the advertising space, who don’t want to offend religious believers.

Nevertheless, I like the phrasing of the slogan. Atheists know only too well how irritating it is to have other people’s unquestionable certainties shoved in their faces and should be slower to commit the same effrontery. The advert makes a point, without having to make the bold claims of absolute certainty usually used by those lacking good evidence.

14 thoughts on “Probably An Atheist Bus

  1. We shouldn’t have to express ourselves with absolute certainty (or even near-certainty) to have an impact. I think it’s much easier to take the high ground over that bus slogan if it’s slightly more diffident than it needs to be. In fact, it’s nice to draw some attention to the fact that we’re not claiming certainty!

    It’s not as if we have to worry that no-one will be offended.

  2. Lynet,

    Exactly, that is a big part of what is different about non-belief. There are no heretics. Doubt is socially acceptable amongst atheists and changing your mind probably won’t result in being shunned by your community.

    It’s not as if we have to worry that no-one will be offended.

    Hehe, yes. Merely existing as an atheist is apparently an insult to some – never mind a normal, relatively happy atheist!

  3. There is a way to prove the nonexistence of a thing — by contradiction. I don’t know why people often say that they must look everywhere to confirm that it doesn’t exist. I don’t have to look anywhere (except maybe a dictionary) to see that there are no married bachelors; it is logically impossible for a married bachelor to exist.

    Likewise with deities, there are some arguments which aim to derive a contradiction on the assumption that there exists a god with certain features.

  4. So, there are various versions of this, and I consider that the “probably” is required lest atheists themselves be accused of faith. (implicit: faith and belief are different concepts).

    As to the distinctions, here’s how I’d succintly summarise them:

    Strong Atheist – “The claims made about Gods are such that I do not believe any such supernatural creatures exist”
    Weak Atheist – “I’ve not come across any convincing evidence for God”
    Agnostic – “Knowledge regarding the existence God is beyond human ken, so I cannot know

  5. This reminds me of a much less philosophically important matter of phrasing I came across yesterday. Someone asked me how the vegan chocolate chip cookie I was eating was, and I said “pretty good”. They took this as meaning “meh” because I had to qualify my assertion of the cookie’s goodness. However, I meant it as saying that the cookie was good, but did not live up to the pinnacle of chocolate chip cookie goodness (home baked, fresh out of the oven).

    The point of this is to say that “probably” will be likely by taken by some to imply that atheists have a nagging doubt about the existence of a god because they are biased to think that such a god exists (just as my companion was biased toward thinking vegan cookies are bad). As you point out though, leaving “probably” out implies, to some theists at least, absolute certainty. Atheists will be misunderstood either way.

    In the end, I think that leaving “probably” in was the best choice if only because it is more likely to be latched upon by people who already have some doubt. “Probably no god” is safer than “no god” to someone on the edge.

  6. I like the inclusion of the word “probably” because it indicates the thinking of most professing atheists. As other commenters have noted, it wouldn’t have mattered how the ad was worded, theists would have been offended anyway. They’re unaccustomed to having their beliefs challenged so openly. Too bad for them.

  7. I’m not so sure about the “probably”. It’s only a short step from, “There’s probably no god” to, “There just might be something in this god idea”, and once you get to that point you’ve crossed the line into arguing in favour of theism. I’m with robthehall – there’s enough of a contradiction inherent in the Judaeo-Christian God to dismiss His existence out-of-hand. If you redefine God enough, then perhaps the “probably” makes sense, but as regards old miseryguts Yahweh, I don’t think we need any qulaification for the statement.

  8. robthehall,

    Likewise with deities, there are some arguments which aim to derive a contradiction on the assumption that there exists a god with certain features.

    Quite right, and I said as much:

    You can however often disprove specific religious claims – for example geocentrism or an omnipotent deity who doesn’t allow lightning.

    An omnipotent God who wants us all to be aware of his existence is another.

    Most gods are self-contradictory, but I don’t think it’s as simple as contradictions in terms like “married bachelors” or “square circles”.

  9. yunshui,

    It’s only a short step from, “There’s probably no god” to, “There just might be something in this god idea”, and once you get to that point you’ve crossed the line into arguing in favour of theism.

    If the majority of the population believed that there was no god and you said, “There’s probably no god”, then yes, you’d be positioning yourself on the theist side of the majority. If you said, “The Earth is probably round”, then the probably would be the most significant part of the message, because it puts doubt into a subject where little or no doubt existed.

    That’s not the case here. I think everyone who sees this advert will understand its meaning. The existence of god(s) is less likely than most of you/us think.

    If you redefine God enough, then perhaps the “probably” makes sense,

    Perhaps? Where’s your certainty, lad? ;-)

    Got any good arguments against deism? The only one I know of is Occam’s Razor, and that doesn’t shave especially close and still leaves us with a “probably”.

    The point is that atheists don’t just disbelieve in a particular conception of God, but all gods. Saying, “The existence of Yahweh can be disproved by contradiction” would only get theists responding, “Well obviously I don’t believe in that primitive conception of God.” or “Well, that’s a nice proof, but God might be different from that.”

    To me it seems more skeptical and scientific to say “Probably”. From there on the burden of proof is on the claimant.

  10. Erika,

    Atheists will be misunderstood either way.

    Yes, I sometimes think we’re wilfully misunderstood!

    I also think there’s room (and budget by the look of it) to do a follow-up campaign saying why we don’t believe in particular gods. Short, snappy arguments that make people think.

    For example, I saw an Alpha Course poster recently asking what you’d ask God if you had one question. The first thing which came into my head was, “Where were you when the 2004 tsunami struck?”

  11. That’s the most sensible write up of the situation i have read to date, so you have my sincerest thanks. It irritates the hell out of me when people try and slate it as being ‘weak’ or ‘not Aetheist enough’, I mean, if I wanted to be a self-rightous opinionated idiot then yeah, I’d take out the probably. I do however enjoy the fact that I believe myself well reasoned and open minded person, and I for one wouldn’t support any campaign that existed purely to rub someome else’s nose in our opinion, I’ll leave that to the extremeist christans thanks.

    Saying ‘probably’ does not mean that the people it represents don’t have a 100% definite idea of their beliefs, it just means they are tolerant of each other and other people’s beliefs.

  12. Eshu:

    Got any good arguments against deism? The only one I know of is Occam’s Razor, and that doesn’t shave especially close and still leaves us with a “probably”.

    Well, I’ll agree it still leaves the potential for an “absentee landlord” sort of deity, but I think Occam’s Razor (combined with Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon, for variation) is as much of a response as you need. A god that does nothing, shows no sign of his existence, answers no prayers and takes no interest in his creation is so pointless as to be unworthy of the name “God”. You may as well believe in Bertrand Russell’s interstellar teapot as in this deity, since it makes no difference to anything either way. I would contend, though, that since for all intents and purposes the deistic god does not exist, you can still dispense with the “probably”.

    The only way around it, as far as I can see, is to redefine God as something like “unconditional love”, or “hope”, or “peace”. Go down that road and I’ll grant you all the “probablys” you like. If you choose this path, though, your god is arguably no longer a god, and you’re just talking semantics.

    Mind you, I guess that’s all this boils down to really…

  13. I think you might also inject a cultural aspect to the what’s on the buses debate. Understatement is a British (probably English) trait and using the word probably chimes in well with the intended audience who were initially Londoners. It was only because the idea gained a lot of money that the adverts could go pretty widely across Britain – although not as far as I am aware in Belfast.

  14. “Probably” is fine. It’s the only honest way of speaking about the subject of (g|G)od for those who need to speak about it.

    Brahman is known to one who thinks it is unknowable and not known to one who thinks he knows.

    — Kena Upanishad, ca. 500 BCE