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.