Sunday, March 8, 2009



Barry Ronge
Mar 03, 2009

Have faith in freedom of speech, whatever your viewpoint
What a flurry of letters I received after my speculations (February 22) about the promotional campaign funded by the British Humanist Association, which placed advertising on London buses featuring the slogan, “There’s probably no God.

Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. The campaign gave offence to at least one bus-driver, who refused to drive his bus, and to commuters who disagreed with the advert’s message.

I was amused, as I always am, by the incongruous British sense of outrage over the most unexpected things. It’s an almost surreal gift and I love its more popular manifestations, for example, in classic TV series such as Fawlty Towers.

The carefully constructed disdain and scorn, and the patronising mock politeness employed in many letters was very Basil Fawlty and they were great fun to read.

I was, however, surprised by the intensity of the emotion. Who knew that non-believers would be so passionate about things in which they don’t believe?

Some letter read like those you find on the sports pages, in which supporters from one club slag off the supporters of a different club. The sole difference lay in the atheists supporting their right to not support a club, which seems, at the very least, a little strange.

In addition, there is a tit-for-tat thing going on. A couple of correspondents informed me of the events prior to the campaign.

A woman called Ariane Sherine wrote a piece in The Guardian newspaper in June 2008, commenting on London buses carrying questions about what Jesus would find should he return to Earth. It referred people to a web address that threatened hellish torments for those who did not walk the path of righteousness.

She questioned why religious folk should feel entitled to promote such views. A pledge page was set up to fund some counter-information. It caught the eye of Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, who gave a big boost to the kitty that finally totalled £136000, and they spent it all on rebutting the original Christian adverts.

As I said earlier, it was a bit of childish tit-for-tat, to which I say: Shame on the Christians for trying to bully commuters into their churches, and equal shame on the assorted humanists, atheists and authors, who couldn’t miss a promotional opportunity, for sinking to their level.

Many people who wrote in in the defence of atheism stressed that atheists don’t normally proselytis e, but they do sturdily defend their decision to not believe, and while they can insist that the bus campaign was just a response, at face value, it is hard to tell the difference.

There were also inevitably a couple of letters which employed the “it’s always worse in Darfur” strategy, when they compare one situation with another extreme and radically different situation in order to diminish what you have said.

For example: “It is ironic that you find the bus adverts offensive in a week that several people were killed in religious riots in Nigeria,” wrote one reader.

“Religious suicide bombers killed several people in Pakistan, and in a time when religion caused a slaughter of humans in Gaza and religious wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

It’s the oldest debating trick in the book, but those tragic events are extensively covered in all the media, all the time, and I thought it might be useful to suggest that urban buses (even when they are not carrying a suicide bomber) can also be part of that debate.

The greatest source of annoyance was caused by my suggestion that the humanists and atheists might have made more focused and constructive use of those £136000 on some humanitarian or social upliftment programme.

The only really sensible note on the subject read thus: “The ad sends the message that there are people who don’t believe and that members of the public are invited to consider that alternative. It also tells people who don’t believe in a god that they are in good company and that it’s okay. The bus ad is like the little boy who dared to point out that the emperor had no clothes. You are wrong to suggest that the ads are against something (religion) and not for something. They are for the proposition that we don’t all have to slavishly follow the herd on matters of faith. As Socrates put it: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ That is surely a sentiment worth supporting, particularly on the issue of religion, which is and has been both a force for good and for unspeakable evil.”

I’ll match your Socrates with Voltaire. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

And there endeth this lesson.