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Atheism and London Buses

David Cowles

Feb 28, 2023

“If a UK political party were to adopt ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ as its manifesto, it would likely get no closer to the House of Commons than the Tower of London.”

I have nothing against Atheism...or atheists. I’m not one, but some of my best friends are. Have you met Schopenhauer, Bakunin, Nietzsche, and Sartre! But not all atheists are besties. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionist and legendary ideologue, for example, is not! 

In 2008 – 2009, Dawkins funded the Atheist Bus Campaign in response to contemporaneous adverts sponsored by Evangelical Christians. No one remembers their ad, but everyone remembers Dawkins’ response. 

Imagine you’re preparing to board one of London’s iconic double decker busses and as the bus pulls up, you notice this ad plastered on its side: 

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Dawkins’ meme gives Atheism a bad name! First, the very notion of a ‘campaign’ in this context is disturbing. If there is no God, why would anyone spend their hard earned cash to convince other people of that fact? Who cares? I can understand a campaign for civil rights or disarmament but I cannot get my head around a ‘campaign for atheism’. 

Julian Baggini, author of Atheism – A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2021) anticipated my objection. He argues that atheism is not just a negation of theism; it has its positive side as well: “…the atheist is almost always a naturalist, believing that there is only the natural world and not any supernatural one…the natural world is all there is.” 

Still though, this doesn’t quite explain why this ‘anti-religion’ should itself become a ‘proselytizing faith’. But enough with the speculation:

“There’s probably no God.” Probably? So let me get this straight, I’m supposed to make the most important decision of my life (God or no God) based on mere probability?  

Confirmed theist Blaise Pascal (c. 1650 CE) might have agreed with Dawkins (‘there probably is no God’) but Pascal went one step further, asking: What if I’m wrong? What if there is a God after all? I’m about to throw away the greatest gift this universe, or any conceivable universe, could ever confer (eternal life) based on a probability

So Pascal did the math, and he came to the only possible conclusion (Pascal’s Wager is not a conjecture; it’s a mathematical fact):

P * ∞ = ∞ where P is any number greater than 0 and no greater than 1.

Pascal reasoned as follows: first, either God exists (Y)…or he doesn’t (N); second, either I believe in God (Y)…or I don’t (N). He looked at all the permutations and realized that all zero-out, except one: “I believe in God (Y) and God exists (Y)!”

Y*N = 0, N*Y = 0, N² = 0…but Y² = ∞.

If God exists, all I have to do is believe and I win the jackpot; and if God does not exist, nothing matters anyway so who cares? There’s no downside to faith. Probability doesn’t enter into it! Once you understand the rules of the game, there is only one possible bet.  

But back to the bus. The 2nd leg of Dawkins’ illogical syllogism is even more dangerous. To suggest, as Dawkins does, that ‘God’ is a major source of ‘worry’ for theists is totally counter-factual. It is the prospect of a world without God that is ‘worrisome’…actually terrifying. 

Even Marx acknowledged that religion is an effective opiate. Fact is, people who believe in God, rightly or wrongly, derive a great deal of comfort from that belief. Maybe they shouldn’t but they do. Sorry, Richard!

The final leg of Dawkins’ infernal triangle is the most pernicious. “Now…enjoy your life.” I don’t think I’ve been told to ‘shut-up and smile’ since I was 8 years old. The underlying assumption appears to be that ‘enjoyment’ is the purpose and meaning of life. 

I dream at night; sometimes those dreams are pleasurable. Is that the sort of enjoyment Dawkins is talking about? Doesn’t work for me! I’m looking for something more out of life than ‘Sweet Dreams’. It may be that ‘to sleep, perchance to dream’ is all there is, but I’m not going to accept that without a fight. I’ll side with Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

One thing for sure. I’m not going to spend my money trying to persuade you that dreaming is as good as it gets. Why would anyone do that?

Without God, life is perpetual worry. ‘Enjoyment’ doesn’t enter in. Psalm 23: “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you (God) are by my side.” 

What adult (or even teen) can doubt that we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death? The Psalmist draws courage from the belief that we are accompanied on our journey by God, the death-slayer. 

From what does Richard Dawkins draw courage? A rare single malt? No judgement here: I have done!

But there is an even more disturbing message buried in Dawkins’ meme, and it harks back to Rome’s bread and circuses, Marx’s opiate, and Huxley’s soma. If a UK political party were to adopt ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ as its manifesto, it would likely get no closer to the House of Commons than the Tower of London. 

It’s hard to imagine a more reactionary platform! Beauty, Truth, and Justice are what give life meaning. The ‘function’ of God is to make these objective values operative in our world. They are normative, always and everywhere, in every possible universe, regardless of anyone’s personal predilections. The purpose of life is the advancement of values, not personal pleasure. 

Have you heard this one? “On earth as it is in heaven!  Catchy, don’t you think? Now that’s a slogan I’d pay to put on the side of a bus!

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