Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On the Atheist bus campaign

My dad pointed out that one of the local pundits in Malta took issue with some aspects of the campaign. There were aspects of her criticism that need to be addressed.

Her points can be summarized, fairly, I think, as follows:
  1. "Probably" means atheists aren't sure
  2. People will have a hard time enjoying life if they don't believe in a god
  3. Religion is a harmless eccentricity of the lower classes
  4. Atheism is a religion, as it is organized and evangelizing

First off, she doesn't like the word "probably" in "There probably is no God."
"You would think that atheists, of all people, would be certain in their own minds about the non-existence of God, that they wouldn’t be blithering and blathering in the same way as those ‘believers’ who are not quite sure, who practise their religion just in case there is a God and they wake up after death to find this elusive being waiting for them with their name on the Naughty List."
She seems not very good at research, for googling "Atheist bus campaign", clicking on the first result for the official site, and looking at their FAQ page yields a clear explanation of why the word probably is there:

As with the famous Carlsberg ads (‘probably the best lager in the world’), ‘probably’ helps to ensure that our ads will not breach any advertising codes Committee of Advertising Practice advised the campaign that “the inclusion of the word ‘probably’ makes it less likely to cause offence, and therefore be in breach of the Advertising Code.”

Ariane Sherine has said, ‘There’s another reason I’m keen on the “probably”: it means the slogan is more accurate, as even though there’s no scientific evidence at all for God’s existence, it’s also impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist (or that anything doesn’t). As Richard Dawkins states in The God Delusion, saying “there’s no God” is taking a “faith” position. He writes: “Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist”. His choice of words in the book is “almost certainly”; but while this is closer to what most atheists believe, “probably” is shorter and catchier, which is helpful for advertising. I also think the word is more lighthearted, and somehow makes the message more positive.’

So her conjecture that we atheists are secretly scared of and believe in the imaginary sky daddy is a bit off. If we were scared he was real, we'd probably not have left an auditable paper trail of our heresy. If it weren't for the state protection of religious belief from unpleasant confrontations with truth ("Your facts might offend folks, please tone them down"), we could be more direct.

The second point is also important. We don't say "there is no" because we've a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of logic and reason to know you can't prove a negative, merely show it's highly, highly unlikely. Can't prove there are no WMD's in Iraq. So it's a great way to pick a war, if you threaten to invade unless the other side can do something that's not logically possible. One can persist in believing in the WMDs despite all the UN weapons inspections in the world, because they don't prove they're not in the country, just not in those specific locations at that time. I use this example to show how pernicious the belief in provable negatives is, and why it deserves eradication.

Her next criticism is interesting, but hardly a problem:

"...the atheists who came up with this less than brilliant marketing ploy for their cause don’t appear to realise that the prospect of no God is more disturbing to many people than the prospect of there being a God. It is the existence of a God in their moral universe which allows them to enjoy life in the reassurance that they will be rewarded for the good they do while others will be punished for the bad they do. Whip God out of the equation and they are left floundering in a sort of moral anarchy. How can they enjoy life when they know that the paedophile down the road, the heroin-trafficker round the corner and the wife-beater in the flat downstairs will not be toasted on Satan’s spit for all eternity?"

A few thoughts:
  1. Yes, it's much more scary to confront the truth that death means poofing out of existence and not teleporting to magic happy land. But then it's much easier to enjoy this life (Jews: have some bacon! Catholics: use the pill, save money on babies! Muslims: wear a skirt!) without the insane superstitious practices dictated by world religions. Sleep in on Sunday, no one cares.
  2. Who's the police force? We are. Ceding tasks to imaginary friends is a great way to be sure nothing is done. My guardian angel doesn't do the dishes, and God won't heal your cancer, stop global warming, protect the innocent or punish the wicked. It's all up to us.

    So yes, some people's moral compass must find a new magnetic north, in the absence of a Father Christmas on steroids. But they'll find one, as a code of conduct is requisite for successful living within social groups. God's got punishments, and, if we were truly believers, we'd have none of our own. But we actually do have our own code of punishments, both formal and informal, since we need them to keep society working, and waiting for God to take care of it all doesn't seem to have worked so far. The pedophile, heroin trafficker and the wife beater all get punished both through our system of laws, and our system of social stigma. They're all screwed, and they lose out in this life, the only one they have. Life in jail is 100% of your remaining existence in punishment, not an infinitely small fraction of an infinite existence, which is the case when we believe that we have phase 1: earth, phase 2: purgatory, phase 3: be happy with Jesus forever. The infinite part of phase 3 makes the unpleasantries of phases 1 and 2 insignificant (so belief in god yields less punishment, not more when we consider percentage of existence in punishment). And if we hold that phase 2 and 3 become "roast on a spit forever" for the ultra-baddies, it's still somewhat temporally equivalent to "the rest of your life" for duration, but perhaps not intensity, as most of the civilized world has outlawed torture. Save those places fueled by religion. So no god doesn't mean no punishment for baddies.
Then there's her next point, which is the most dangerous, and where I disagree the most:
"What I am saying is that the process of belief is much the same: children believe in Father Christmas because that is the received wisdom in their world, and because authorities higher than they are have assured them that he exists and they have no reason to question that authority. Children also need to believe in Father Christmas because it makes their world more interesting and gives them something to look forward to when they petition him with their hopes and desires.

How would I react to a bus advertising campaign by the Anti-Father-Christmas League, informing under-10s that Father Christmas probably doesn’t exist? This is how: why ruin things for children? Let them have their fun. And that’s exactly how I reacted to the photographs of buses driving past with that wet and wimpy ‘There is probably no God’ slogan. It’s not a public information campaign alerting passers-by to the dangers of smoking, say, or to the benefits of eating more greens. No, it’s what I call a spoilsport campaign, designed by the sort of person who gets a perverse pleasure out of shaking others from their comfort zone.

I agree that disabusing kids of their Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy and Cookie Monster beliefs is cruel and unnecessary. And I also agree that it's fine to tell people to stop smoking and eating only food fried in pure lard, even though all of these things jostle people from their comfort zones.

The reason it's okay to jostle folks about smoking and fried food (and religion) is that they all cause social harm. Your smoking harms me through second hand smoke and larger health care costs for us all, which I absorb through my insurance premiums of socialized risk. Your lard-ass lifestyle also costs me when you have a heart attack at age 45 and remain on diabetes and cholesterol drugs for the rest of your life, while I absorb those costs through socialized cost and risk redistribution. Drunk driving, speeding, not wearing seat belts, dumping household cleaners down the sewer all have costs to those who aren't the ones performing the action. Your rights end where my rights begin.

Religion causes harm. Look at the Taliban, Israel-Palestine, birth rates in the Catholic third world, Suni-Shia, Northern Ireland and the fundamentalist Christians in the US who want to sabotage science and thought W was a great guy. And these are harms caused to the larger society, not just those affected with the eccentricity of belief in faries, jewish zombies, or real estate deals with flamable shrubbery. I'm assering my right to live in a smoke free environment, both of the "tobacco-" and "-and mirrors" varieties.

Does religion do good in the world? Sure. Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, etc. But all of those humanitarian functions are also performed by secular organizations too, that do them not to curry favor with imaginary friends, but out of a genuine desire to help others. So on one hand we have religion, with war, violence, invasion and contempt and hatred for those "not in our tribe", but also some good works. And on the other, we have secular humanism, which tries to do good, and doesn't organize societies into bands ready to do violence to other bands. Given the choice, I prefer the one without all the evil.

So it does make a difference to me whether people believe in God or not. Believers keep fucking up my world, and I'm pretty tired of it.

Her parting shots:

"When atheism organises itself and seeks to convert others, what it has effectively become is a religion in itself, like the new religion of environmentalism. Atheists appear not to be content to get on with life in the absence of a god. Like obsessive believers in God, they seek to ram their belief down the throat of everyone else. They are as bad, and for the very same reasons, as those born-again Christians who pin you to the wall at parties and try to persuade you to come along to the next prayer group meeting despite your insistence that you have never been, are not, and never will be interested in religious involvement.

So by this reasoning, any time a group of people unite under a common idea and attempt to spread that idea, they are a religion. So we'd have the religion of the civil rights movement, the green movement, the gay rights movement, the Apple movement, and the Copernican revolutionaries. Given that Ms. Galiza's definition of religion tends to include things we'd not consider to be religions, I think it's a bad definition.

I'll borrow wikipedia's definition of religion: "A religion usually encompasses a set of stories, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural quality, that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life through reference to an ultimate power or reality.

Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color. Want to see our story about non-god?

Here it is:

Did you like it?

How about our list of non-beliefs?

Long, eh?

We have no ritual, no dogma, no hierarchy, no meeting places, and, most importantly, no supernaturalism, no magic ideas, no ultimate power, Higgs boson aside. We're trying to delete malicious programming from the minds of the masses, just as every enlightenment thinker that's come before us has tried to do.

So it was a well crafted and crafty essay, but the reasoning does fall short on several fronts.