Martin Turner is a former chair of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. He previously worked with Operation Mobilisation in Belgium, and is a member of Bidford Baptist Church (theBarn).

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.

Atheist buses deny existence of God. So what?

The long promised atheist buses have gone onto the streets of London, touting the message: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. The planners of this campaign faced some criticism from their own side, who wanted a stronger message. But it appears that fears that it might breach advertising codes softened it.

Actually, I’m fairly certain even the message they’ve chosen would breach the normal guidelines applying to products, though, I, for one, will not be complaining.

How’s that, you ask? Essentially, if it were a product, the advertisers would have to prove their claim that ‘God probably doesn’t exist’. But in order to prove this, they would have to find some way of quantifying ‘the probability that God doesn’t exist’. Being as there is no ISO standard on the probability of the existence of a deity, this would be tough to prove. Atheist leaders may be hoping that they get the same dispensation as the phrase ‘probably the best lager in the world’, but that was clearly a joke, and this clearly isn’t.

In reality, they are probably (and I mean a measurable probability) quite safe, because the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) doesn’t intervene on issues of a political nature, and takes a nuanced position on religious offence. More importantly, they aren’t selling a product.

I suspect, though, that half of the aim of this campaign is to spur hordes of Christians (and others) to complain vociferously. If you are a person of faith, let me urge you not to give Richard Dawkins and his crew the satisfaction. In advertising terms, it’s not very probable that this ad will achieve anything other than prompting complaints. For a start, it’s too long: the eye takes in typically 18 letters in one go, which is why bus adverts, bill-boards and newspaper headlines are usually no longer than that. Most advertisers work to the old adage ‘AIDA’, standing for ‘attention, information, decision, action’. A good ad is generally considered to have an attention getter, some informative content, something that makes you decide to buy the product or service, and a call to action. The good folks at the ASA did some research a few years ago, where they discovered that messages which work in the UK are first of all informative, then clever, and, finally, enter popular culture. In my own experience, the three other things which make or break an ad are clarity (do I get the message?), credibility (does it sound believable?), and relevance (do I care?).

The British Humanist Association may be very good at representing its members, but (my personal view) probably not going to be getting calls from other voluntary organisations asking for advice on campaigns. This is an ad which will only appeal to people who already agree with it, and (again my view) quite a few of those will be embarrassed by it. Of course, they won’t be admitting that, and certainly not to me. Well, probably not, any way.

If you’re a Christian, and have been embarrassed in the past at well-meant but unappealing church adverts, take some consolation from the fact that the other side are now facing the same thing.

PS: If you’re interested in actual debate on the existence of God, you can catch the video they shot of me (and others) at the Cambridge Union autumn 2007, on the motion (which was defeated) This House Believes that God is Dead.

Blair’s Faith Move Misguided

Blair’s faith in difficult task. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set himself what is arguably the challenge of the millennium: to unite the world’s religions for the general betterment of mankind. His argument is simple: religions can create peaceful co-existence, but, right now, extremists seem to have control of the agenda. “It is a massive undertaking, but how important is it? If all the good tunes are with the extremists … if they’re the ones out there with the strong message and those of us who believe that religious faith is about peaceful co-existence are silent we’ve got a real problem on our hands,” he said at the New York launch alongside his old friend Bill Clinton.
But how valuable, practical, and, indeed, coherent is this new approach? Pundits have already pointed out that, if there was one man to unite the world in peaceful co-existence, it wouldn’t be Tony Blair, a man who’s primacy in Britain is primarily associated with the war in Iraq. But there are deeper issues here, and the usual sport of side-swiping Blair for his past may obscure them. It’s instructive that the last US president who could point to genuine religious credentials both before, during and after his presidency — Jimmy Carter — has indeed spent his post-presidential years campaigning for world peace, but has not attempted anything so grandiose as uniting the world’s religions.
Secularists might argue that this is because Carter, deep down, recognises that religions are the cause of the problem, and can never be the cure. The truth is more likely the opposite: it is Blair, and not Carter, who has swallowed this particular piece of secularist spin.
The real truth (as opposed to any other kind of truth which you might read elsewhere) is that dividing culture and belief into two categories — non-religions versus religious — is a gross over-simplification of the way things are. It is, however, a very common way of seeing the world in Britain, and among British politicians. The equation goes “secular=rational, objective, sane, clean”, “religious=irrational, subjective, unbalanced, tainted”. To accuse someone of being a fundamentalist is (at least in popular discourse) one step away from accusing them of being an extremist, which is itself only one step from being a terrorist. But a fundamentalist is no more than someone who believes in the fundamentals of their religion. The suggestion that fundamentalists of all religions are essentially (one might even say fundamentally) the same is, logically speaking, nonsense. But people who use the term rarely have much contact with fundamentalists of any religion, or, if they do, are not aware that the good, sane people they know are the ones they deride in public.
The key to understanding this is to recognise that religions are not ‘all the same’, but, like the cultures of which they are a part, are remarkably different. What’s more, atheism and secularism are no more different from religions than religions are from each other. If we wish to make a logical category, then we should include atheism, secularism and nationalism along with the religions. Or, better, we should include the different cultural forms which give rise to atheism. Marxist atheists (such as Terry Eagleton) are quite different from neo-Darwinian atheists (such as Richard Dawkins), and are not afraid to say so (viz Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, LRB, Vol.28, No.20,19 October 2006“), while both are quite different from Nietzchian atheists, who in turn would argue that the atheism of Hitler and the Nazis was a misinterpretation of Nietzche, in the same way that modern Marxist atheists would argue that the atheism of Stalin and Mao was a misinterpretation of Marx. Equally, forms of secularism cover most of spectrum of religion. The world’s first secular state, France, probably conformed most closely in its original incarnation to the ideals put forward by Britain’s National Secular Society (which uses ‘secular’ as a pseudonym for atheism), but the second secular state, the USA, with its frequent references to God in its constitution and other foundational documents, was really created as a nation in which minority Christian evangelical groups could flourish, while the third major secular state, Turkey, is thoroughly Islamic in its outlook. Nor should we forget that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a secular state.
Religions, too, differ widely not only in the code of their beliefs, but in the categories which they regard as belief at all. Most people in Britain are most familiar with Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and so assume that religions are about a book of instructions based on a belief in God. Not all religions believe in the existence of a God! Not all religions even accept the category of a ‘God’ as a valid one. Most of the world’s religions do not have a set of sacred writings, and one of the mistakes which Westerners have often made with Buddhism and Hinduism is that they have taken the writings of these religions, and assumed that they have understood the religions once they have read and (in their view) understood the writings. Many Westerners see religion as a quest for truth or a quest for God, but identifying any kind of quest at all is problematic in many religions.
Tony Blair — to return to him — seems to think that religions are really about co-existence and harmony. Some religions are. Many religions favour co-existence and harmony along with a raft of other virtues which may at times conflict with them. Some religions are largely uninterested in how society is organised. And there are religions which are closely bound up with notions of violent victory over other groups. This last group are not necessarily more fundamentalist than others. Taking a historical example (for reasons of safety as much as anything), the Norse culture of 500-1500 has left us with a wide legacy of literature and recorded history. We know that war, battle and honour were integral to Old Norse religion. But there is no particular evidence to show that the predations of Vikings on the coast of England was linked to any particular upsurge of religious fundamentalism. In defeat, the most active of Viking leaders and their followers were at times willing to ‘convert’ to Christianity as part of the peace terms.
The real problem for Tony Blair is that he has believed the spin that wars are caused by religion, and believed the counter-spin that religions are really about peaceful co-existence. These might be interesting (though ultimately invalid) points in a debate about the net benefit or dis-benefit of religion on mankind. But they are a dangerous oversimplification as the basis of a programme for peace-making.
Fortunately, the notion that Mr Blair himself will make a big difference, is itself a piece of spin which it seems he has also believed. Having guided (he thinks) Britain through ten years of peace and prosperity (if we ignore some inconvenient counter-examples), Blair has left Downing Street to his successor, who, in a few short months, has plunged Britain back into the ill-led and pessimistic world it inhabited under John Major. As the world situation has not dramatically changed (again, if we ignore some inconvenient counter-examples), the difference is clearly Blair himself. Before Blair, chaos under Major. During Blair, peace and prosperity. After Blair, chaos under Brown. Tony Blair really does believe that he can make a difference to the world, and he can do it quickly, and he can do it right.
Once again, we are drawn back to the comparison with Jimmy Carter. Carter was the John Major and Gordon Brown of the USA, rolled into one. He pursued sensible policies, and a visionary foreign policy, but was a victim of circumstances beyond his control, lost his popularity at home, and was the first elected president since the war not to be re-elected for a second term. However, since losing his job, he has campaigned tirelessly for world peace, bit by by, rather than in one grandiose gesture, for which he has been awarded the Nobel prize. Carter’s achievements have been brick by brick, not a single grand design. His credibility has grown as he has done it, and it continues to grow.
People have always said that Blair was good on the big picture, but weak on the details. In this particular case — and perhaps in all cases — it’s the details that matter. And they are not on Blair’s side.

What is the Archbishop of Canterbury on about?

BBC NEWS | UK | Archbishop defends Sharia remarks

Rowan Williams is undoubtedly a profound thinker leading the Anglican Church through some of its greatest crises in recent years. The ordination of women, gay priests and the adoption issue, alongside more traditional subjects such as the war in Iraq are areas where he has – successfully so far – walked a tightrope.

So whatever possessed him to sound off on a subject which he admits is largely beyond his competence? And, after so many years walking a careful path through many minefields, how is it that he so misjudged the prevailing mood?

For the record, the actual text of the Archbishop’s speech is here.

It is quite clear that the hysterical presentation of Dr Williams’s views in parts of the media is both unhelpful and unfair. But it is also clear the Dr Williams really is advocating (in his words) “a higher level of public legal regard being paid to communal identity”, or, in other words, the genuine enshrinement into national law of some of the religious laws of a particular community.

It has since been suggested that Williams is simply trying to put ideas into the public debate. But this leaves us with the question: why is it necessary to consider these ideas? In academic debate, certainly all ideas can be considered, and all ideas are in some certain sense (purely as ideas) acceptable. But, equally, in public political debate, some ideas are simply dangerous. Enoch Powell’s famous ‘rivers of blood‘ speech might have had a different impact if published in a dusty academic journal, and written in academic language. But its actual effect, in Birmingham in 1968, was purely negative.

Why might these ideas be dangerous? (I am not, at this point, saying that they are). Essentially, they create the notion in a community that (in parts at least) already sees itself as poorly served and beleaguered, that certain rights or moral expectations are denied to them.

Is this a bad thing in itself? Quite possibly not. If we decided to outlaw ideas which might be disquieting or destabilising in a particular community, then we would not have many ideas left, and they would not be very interesting ones.

Is it a bad thing that the Archbishop of Canterbury is putting this forward? I think, most definitely, yes. There is no ‘ex cathedra’ in Protestant religion in the way it exists in the Roman Catholic church. Rowan Williams does not speak for all Anglicans, and certainly not for all of Britain. But the people who know that are Anglican and other Protestant Christians, and people who are culturally close to them. Very few people – unless they have made a special study – have much awareness of how other religions function. Witness the Western reaction to the pronouncements of the Ayatollah Khomeni which, in yet less enlightened times than these, were interpreted by many as the statements of all of Islam for all of the Muslim world. Rowan Williams’s ideas are couched in the careful language of the academic, which denies as much as it affirms. But the authority they appear to carry immediately cancels that out. I won’t labour the point: the reaction which the Archbishop’s comments have generated in the secular British press clearly indicate the ambivalent status of Archepiscopal pronouncements.

But there is another question: are his ideas right? Are we fooling ourselves with the belief that the British legal system can continue without compromise with Sharia, or other legal systems? If the Archbishop is right, then his comments are all the more important for being controversial.

Rowan Williams makes much play of deconstructing Sharia, the Enlightenment, and the nature of Law itself. Has no-one mentioned to him that deconstruction, which was all the rage in the 1980s, has gone out of fashion as an academic tool? He talks about overcoming the crude opposites and mythologies, but he fails to recognise (at least in this lecture) that both the enlightenment discourse and Sharia are founded on opposites (crude or not) and on unproven, a priori positions (generally referred to by atheists with the shorthand ‘mythologies’).

Deconstruction is not, in any case, a tool which has been much used by constitutional experts or by lawyers. We can talk about multi-layered discourse and contextualisation as much as we like, but the purpose of constitutions and legal systems is to be as unambiguously prescriptive as possible. Law is by its nature normative. Non-normative law is a contradiction in terms.

The progress of British jurisprudence from the Middle-Ages to today is the simplification of many systems into one system. In fact, to some extent, we still have two systems because civil and criminal law operate in tandem. However, civil and criminal law are administered by the same organisation. We have dispensed with ecclesiastical courts, courts of honour, courts for the nobility, for the commoner and for the serf. Whether or not this makes sense in a different cultural context is a moot question.

It was Samuel Rutherford in 1644 who, in Lex Rex (the law is king) refuted the doctrine of Rex Lex (the king is the law). After the Restoration of the monarchy he was cited for high treason, but his ideas (incidentally argued straight from the Bible, from Deuteronomy 17) set the stage for limited government and constitutionalism.

Rowan Williams argues that Sharia and Rabbinical courts are already in use in Britain for arbitration. This is a red herring: two persons may choose any means they like of arbitration, provided that they both accept the outcome. If, in retrospect, one party is unhappy with the outcome, they can still go to the courts. In many cases of civil law, the courts will first ask what attempts at arbitration have been made, and look askance at a case where no attempt at arbitration has been made.

In reality, while there may be space for more than one system within British jurisprudence – even if that is undesirable – there can be no basis for accommodation with a system which cannot exist as a subordinate partner. Rutherford’s argument about limited government and constitutionality apply as strongly to Sharia law as to absolutist monarchs. A system which cannot accept a restriction on its authority cannot be accommodated: and, without any attempt to mythologise or trade in crude opposites, Sharia is not a system (or tradition, if you like) which is designed for compromise.

For such an intelligent and profound thinker, it is surprising, and dismaying, that Rowan Williams did not think this through.
Finally, one more question. Should he resign? He may resign, but he should not. When we reach the point where Archbishops are subject to popular opinion in the same way that politicians are, we have reached a point where the freedom of the church – or any non-government body – has been fundamentally compromised. Rowan Williams has made a mistake. He should answer to his employer on this issue. But since, quite literally, his employer is the divinity, we should reflect on this common proverb: To err is human, to forgive divine.

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