Bus atheism revisited

As I predicted, the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that the bus advertising ‘there’s probably no God…’ is an expression of an advertiser’s opinion, and not capable of objective substantiation. Good for them. Any other ruling would have put bus advertising for Alpha Courses and other Christian events into danger, and would have set us on a course of censorship of freedom of thought which would have been far worse for all concerned than any offence caused by the advertisements.

But the ruling itself is, in a philosophical sense, a slap in the face for the advertisers. The ASA has effectively ruled that the claim is unfalsifiable, and therefore empirically meaningless. Such a ruling wouldn’t bother Christians too much, since they (that is, we) argue that empiricism is an insufficient tool for exploring the existence of God. But for the likes of Richard Dawkins, who have built their public personas on arguing that empirical evidence (remember that Doctor Who? episode?) is the measuring rod, the bus is travelling in the wrong direction.

I did urge that Christians should not contact the ASA to complain. But I knew that Stephen Green of Christian Voice would. I suspect the Dawkins-ites were rather counting on it, and were counting on the ASA ruling against the complaint.

Of more interest is Ron Heather’s decision to refuse to drive a bus with the advertisement on it. This has prompted a storm of bloggers and commentators arguing that he should have no right to refuse, and that advertisers should be allowed to put anything they like on buses, with no come back. Actually, this indicates a lamentable lack of understanding of how bus advertising works. CBS Outdoor, who sell the majority of the UK’s bus advertising, will send you quite a long list of things you can’t put on your advertisements. This includes lingerie, and any writing that looks like graffiti (I suspect because bus companies are worried it might prompt vandalism).

But Ron Heather’s decision to risk his job for the sake of a principle has gained grudging respect from most people. Whether or not you agree with his point of principle, you have to accept that for a man to put his job on the line for his beliefs is a welcome return to courage and conviction in the public arena. Of course, many people have instantly leapt in to accuse him of hypocrisy (the standard charge against Christians, whenever you can’t really think of something more substantial), but the explanations of just why this constitutes hypocrisy are sufficiently far-fetched to rebound more on the heads of the accusers than of the accused.

Considering the campaign again, I think it will eventually backfire heavily for its sponsors. It is achingly asking for the riposte “but why take the risk?”, bringing about echoes of Pascal’s Wager, a famous (although, in fact, insufficient) argument against atheism that seems to annoy atheists more than any other.

Imagine that you saw any of the following advertisements:
“The speed camera probably isn’t loaded”
“You probably won’t die in a car crash”
“You probably did turn off the gas”
Telling someone that something probably won’t happen doesn’t stop them worrying about it. Quite the contrary. And, if the millions of lottery ticket buyers are anything to go by, telling someone that something they very much hope for is unlikely to happen does nothing to stop them hoping.
If “there’s probably no God” is the strongest statement that, on reflection, atheists dare to make in public, then they have moved a long way from the certainties implied in their name.
To paraphrase a quote from the Psalms: “The fool says in his heart ‘there’s probably no God'”. Ouch.

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