Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Darwin Groaned

The Sideshow has a link to an article at the Guardian about an "atheist bus", which turns out to be no such thing. (Whatever that would be -- a bus that doesn't believe in gods?) The Atheist Bus Campaign raised £135,000, "breaking our original target of £5,500 by over 2400%", to put advertisements (or adverts, as the British call them) on the sides of 800 buses. And the magic words?

There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

Ooooh, child! I'm reminded of IOZ' parody of militant but well-behaved Homo-Americans ("We're Here. We'll Just ... Uh, Oh, You Don't Have to Get Used To It."). This catchy bus slogan was meant as a "positive counter-response" (um, "counter-" is redundant) "to the Jesus Said ads running on London buses in June 2008." Ariane Sherine, the author of this series of articles, felt that the threat of hellfire is a depressing thing to see at 8:30 in the morning when you're on your way to work, and will cause people to kill themselves. "Our rational slogan will hopefully reassure anyone who has been scared by this kind of evangelism." Just reading Ms. Sherine's article makes me want to kill myself. But not to worry: thanks to the gratifying popular response, and inspired by suggestions by other bloggers, "from Monday January 12, 1,000 tube cards will run on London Underground featuring atheist quotations from Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Katharine Hepburn ... , alongside the original campaign slogan."

It's not that I want the adverts to be more aggressive, in the mode of, say, Christopher Hitchens (Abandon Islam Or We'll Bomb You Out of the Stone Age!), Daniel Dennett (Accomodate Atheism Or We'll Reluctantly Cage or Disarm You!), or Richard Dawkins (Theism Is Megalomaniac Insanity! Darwin Is Truth, and I Am His Prophet!). I'm not even sure I want that "probably" to come out of the slogan, though I think it comes across as excessively diffident and not particularly rational. There probably won't be a worldwide nuclear war either, but that doesn't mean it's okay to relax and do nothing to make sure it never happens. Sherine reports, by the way, that although the campaign has gone international, Australian atheists' bus signs were turned down by the country's largest outdoor advertising agency; they seem to have given up there, rather than going to the second or third-largest agency. There's such a thing as not being aggressive enough.

People differ widely, so it's likely that there are some who will be cheered just to read on a bus that there probably isn't a god, so have a nice day. The American Humanist Association's entry, "Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake", is not much better, partly because of its echo of Santa Claus (another old guy with a beard who'll punish you if you're bad), but also because being good for goodness' sake is, if anything, less rational than being good to avoid going to Hell. And what is good? How do we know? When people disagree in their moral judgments, how should the disagreement be resolved? Not all religious people worry about going to Hell or obsess about going to Heaven; different believers believe for different reasons and in different ways. Many of them are not at all comforted by the idea that there is no god out there to take care of them, to tell them what to do, to reward them for being good and punish other people for being bad.

The same, as far as I can tell, is true of atheists and agnostics. Some of us yearn for an external standard of morality as rigid as that of any Pope or Imam, only based (supposedly) on science rather than Scripture. They aren't interested in tolerance or pluralism, because there can be only one right answer, and if Science tells us objectively what is right and what is wrong, there's no need to let people with the wrong answers go around confusing the weak and ignorant. What really counts to such people is who gets to run the show, and like their religious counterparts they take for granted that it will be them.

Given the high visibility of religion in all media, I don't object to atheists getting into the act. As I've tried to indicate before, what bothers me about other atheists is not so much their pugnacity as their ignorance and sloppiness about facts. Just being an atheist does not, in itself, make you either an expert on religion or on how best to get along without religion. Calling yourself a rationalist doesn't make you rational. Atheists are as apt as believers to make misinformed claims about Christianity, and trying to boil atheism down to soundbytes that will grab commuters' attention from the side of a bus doesn't help.

Look again at the Atheist Bus Campaign advert: "stop worrying and enjoy your life." There are Christian ad campaigns which encourage the public to get right with God, stop worrying about Hell, and enjoy their lives, because Jesus loves them and wants them to be happy. Are atheists happier, free of worry, more relaxed than believers? I'm not sure. I've known atheists who envy the devout their certainty. Others are, if anything, too confident that they have all the answers that matter. Both atheists and theists like to accuse each other of taking the easy way out; C. S. Lewis liked to say that being a Christian didn't make life easier, and scorned even other Christians who constructed a God who would make no demands on them. Atheists will often accuse Christians of the same thing, of letting other people do their thinking for them. I think that sometimes we do need to worry if we're doing the right thing -- not because we'll be punished, but because we are hurting other people.

Nontheistic philosophers have grappled with this problem. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), for example, wrote in a famous letter to one of his students:
... what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc. & if it does not improve your thinking about important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious ... You see, I know that it's difficult to think well about 'certainty,' 'probability,' 'perception,' etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people's lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it's nasty then it's most important.
Happiness is hard to define, but I think I can safely say that by all accounts Wittgenstein wasn't a very happy person. This seems to have been more a matter of his temperament than of his lack of religious belief; suffering seems to have run in his family. Philosophy was an ongoing struggle for him, but it was still important to him to continue that struggle. The quotation above has challenged me ever since the mid-1970s, when I first encountered it in Walter Kaufmann's The Faith of a Heretic (Doubleday, 1961). It wouldn't fit on the side of a bus, nor I think would it appeal to someone whose day is already going downhill at 8:30 in the morning.

On the other hand, Kaufmann remarked (and I agree) that although "thinking about these things" is nasty, it is also thrilling. The psychologist Dorothy Dinnerstein made roughly the same point in a more inspiring manner, I think, in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976, vii):
And in either case, to fight what seems about to destroy everything earthly that you love – to fight it not passively and autistically, with denial; and not unrealistically, with blind force; but intelligently, armed with your central resource, which is passionate curiosity – is for me the human way to live until you die.
Many religious believers don't think they have all the answers, and they spend a lot of time and energy questioning themselves and their values. This is among the reasons why I reject a simplistic division between religion and irreligion, as though they were totally, mutually exclusive opposites. Many atheists and theists, whatever else they disagree about, agree that they are -- religion is irrational, atheism coldly rational; religion is based on authority, atheism has no foundation; etc. -- but I think they're wrong. Probably. Not to be too militant or aggressive about it, y'know. If you don't think so, I'll just give up and sit over there, if that's okay.