Sunday, January 11, 2009

Poster Bus Improbability Drive Worry

The London Bus atheist poster campaign continues to attract a mixture of mirth, chagrin, and bother. Atheist Larry Moran, who, unsurprisingly, is not happy about the word ‘probably’, asks: “Are there bus and billboard signs that say, 'Jesus probably loves you?' ”. One of his commentators (Wandering Weeta) humourously renders John 3:16 thus:

"For God so probably loved the world, that He probably gave his probably only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him probably should not perish but probably have eternal life. Probably John 3:16."

….and remarks “Doesn't read quite as authoritatively.”!

William Dembski, big shot ID guru, also comments on the poster campaign on Uncommon Descent and asks: “What exactly is the probability that there is no God?”

According to this report in the New York Times Richard Dawkins didn’t want the word “probably” but “… the element of doubt was necessary to meet British advertising guidelines.” It is difficult to accept that this is the full story because with bit of imagination a more emphatic and unequivocal atheist message could surely have been devised; how about something along the lines “We know there is no God…”? Or how about this tautology: “Atheists know there is no God…”

In some ways I like the poster; it exposes to the ironies and paradoxes of both atheism and religion. On the one hand we have Christians who like the campaign to the point of wanting to help subsidize it and on the other hand there are atheists who don’t like its equivocation. The poster introduces an “element of doubt” that one might think would sit well with a contemporary atheism that all too easily drifts into nihilism and postmodern ambiguity but it is precisely the ambiguity that is the rub for the out and out atheists. Christians who like the campaign see an opportunity in that element of doubt for discussion and debate about God, yet doubt (and scepticism) is often regarded as an evil bogey amongst believers who equate it with a lack of spirituality, perhaps even a form of blasphemy.

The rendition of John 3:16 above underlines the asymmetry between atheism and religion: authoritarian religion simply doesn’t work with ‘probably’s’. And yet atheism, which one might expect to be comfortable with ‘probably’s’, loses it’s hard sell edge as soon as it incorporates scepticism into its texts - which only goes to show that atheism, as I have always maintained, has underlying intellectual instabilities and paradoxes in waiting. Perhaps people of a religious disposition, if they could just give up believing in God, would actually make the best and most convinced atheists!

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