Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dawkins and the “new atheists" take to the buses

A Christian bus driver in Southampton, England has refused to drive a bus which carries a pro-atheism message on the side. The driver said he was shocked by “the starkness of this advert which implied there was no God”. 800 buses in England are now adorned with the message "There's probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life." The English move follows a campaign in Washington DC last year which planted the message: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake” on 240 buses. Here in Australia, the ad agency APN Outdoor took a more prudish stance and rejected a $16,000 campaign to put such slogans as "Sleep in on Sunday mornings" and "Celebrate reason" on local public transport.

While Australian atheists have been forced to take their case to the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Board, their counterparts in the UK would probably be delighted with the publicity their campaign has afforded. While the idea was the brainchild of comedian Ariane Sherine, it was quickly taken up by the country’s most public atheist Richard Dawkins. Sherine got a thousand people to pledge money to counter a pro-religion bias in the advertising world. Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion” and the TV documentary “The Root of all Evil?” came to the party by agreeing to match all contributions up to the first £5,500. His endorsement also helped the credibility of the project, and in the end, the fundraising drive raised more than £140,000.

The campaign has raised a predictable outcry from the religious lobby and also some surprising support. The activist group Christian Voice has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about the ads. However, the Methodist Church said the campaign might be a "good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life”. But even some non-believers are finding this new militant brand of atheism off-putting and unnecessary. According to Natalie Rothschild in Spiked, the new atheists are engaging in religion-bashing. She says the reason the likes of Dawkins believe preachers and charlatans form such a threat to rational thinking is because of all the gullible masses that “apparently so easily fall for their quackery”.

But Rothschild’s argument is flawed. She says that Dawkins (and the other atheist campaigners) are preaching at the public rather than trying to engage it. Even if that were true, they would simply be mimicking the way religion also advertises itself. In any case, Dawkins went to great pains in The God Delusion to avoid preachiness and engage with the debate. The book presents 400 pages of closely argued points that look at the evolution of belief, its role in society, morality, philosophy and the impacts of organised religion. Harking to the bus campaign, one of his chapter headings is “why there is almost certainly no God”. Ironically it is one of the least interesting chapters (with its over-intellectual ruminations on irreducible complexity, god of the gaps, and the anthropic principle) of an otherwise engaging book and passionate polemic.

In an early chapter, Dawkins quotes the words of his late friend Douglas Adams. In the speech, Adams tackles the whole notion of the sacredness of religion. Religion was a notion, he said, that people were not allowed to say anything bad about. Adams continued:
“Why not? - because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'Fine, I respect that'.”

Dawkins called it an example of “society’s overweening respect for religion”. Religious grounds are still the best bet for a wartime conscientious objector. And in those wars, Dawkins noted a “pusillanimous reluctance” to use religious names for the warring factors. Religions are exempt from a whole raft of laws (include taxation) that govern every other organisation. In the US, the constitutional right to the freedom of religion has been used to justify warped behaviour and discrimination against homosexuals and other minority groups. In the Muslim world, the furore over the Danish cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten was deliberately stoked up by a small group of Muslims living in Denmark. The clerics took their propaganda campaign worldwide with predictable results. Libyan rioters killed nine people and burned an Italian consulate. Pakistanis and Nigerians burned Christian churches, while in Britain some Muslims carried banners which read “behead those who say Islam is a violent religion”.

Believers deemed the hurt and suffering they felt as a result of seeing the pictures worse than any physical violence perpetrated on anyone who got in the way of their revenge. What Muslims share in common with believers of most other faiths is that their values trump anyone else’s. The atheist campaign is not about gratuitous offence or hurt to religious belief. But it is a valid protest against the disproportionate privilege of religion in otherwise secular societies. Dawkins quotes the words of the great H.L. Mencken: “we must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart”.

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