About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Christians complain atheism does not meet advertising standards

No, this isn’t a headline from the Onion, it’s the latest turn in the “atheist buses” controversy in England. As you probably know, the British Humanist Association has endorsed an idea by comedian Ariane Sherine, who was annoyed by Christian advertisements on British public transport that threatened eternal damnation. Sherine thought it would be nice to give people a bit of metaphysical relief by writing on buses and subways that “There probably is no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

To Sherine’s utter surprise, her campaign quickly raised £140,000, which has made it possible to run the advertisement on 800 buses across England. Not at all unexpectedly, this has generated an angry response by some religionists, despite the fact that church attendance in that country is one of the lowest in the world. And here is the kicker: Christian campaigner Stephen Green and others have actually filed formal complaints with the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on the ground that the atheists are violating “guidelines on taste and decency.” According to Green “If you're going to put out what appears to be a factual statement then you have to be able to back it up. They've got to substantiate this proposition that in all probability, God doesn't exist.”

Oh really? Talk about a spectacular example of the pot calling the kettle black! Let me get this straight: a statement that supernatural entities probably do not exist is, in Green’s and his loony friends’ mind, less obviously substantiated than a statement that there is such a thing as everlasting punishment in hell? To put it another, perfectly parallel, way: claiming that Santa Clause (probably) doesn’t exist would also be less “tasteful, decent, and factual” than to claim that he really does deliver presents to the world’s (Christian) children every 24th of December. If you think I’m joking, you should read the excellent “Santa Lives! Five Conclusive Arguments for the Existence of Santa Claus” by Ellis Weiner (the arguments are: ontological, causal, from design, experiential, and moral -- sounds familiar?).

Now this hilarious insanity has put the ASA in the rather awkward position of having to rule on a long standing metaphysical dispute. If the agency lets the atheist campaign go on, it will implicitly be saying to the British public that it is in fact reasonable to state that god probably doesn’t exist; if, on the other hand, Sherine’s and the British humanists are found to be at fault, the ASA would in effect taking the position that there is sufficient evidence for the existence of hell, so that Christian groups are not violating its advertising standards. Philosophers and theologians the world over will surely be following this one with utmost interest!

By the way, I have to note that the only atheist who has (partially) objected to the campaign is our good old lovable curmudgeon, Richard Dawkins. He doesn’t like the word “probably” in the ad. This is because Dawkins, as I have pointed out before, insists on maintaining the indefensible position that science can disprove the existence of (all) gods, though he is a bit wishy washy about this even in his "The God Delusion", where he says both that he is not absolutely certain of god’s nonexistence and that science can disprove such a ridiculous notion anyway. The reality is that science cannot disprove the supernatural, but that a philosophical argument informed by sound science can, in fact, reduce the likelihood of the supernatural to the very, very improbable indeed. That’s why Sherine and the British Humanist Association got it exactly right in the wording of their campaign. So now go on and enjoy your day without fear, there (probably) is no hell.


  1. Atheists, like Dawkins, are in a sense pushing for certainty (by trying to eliminate the word 'probably') even tho they (and he) are most likely the ones saying simultaneously that certainty and absolute thinking lead somehow to the downfall of society. Or something to that effect.

    Bottom line is, science and the sum of its principles, activities and outcomes alone isn't enough to make a decision about whether certainty is a valid route to deny or pursue. It lacks historical perspective. Does prove tho that without sufficient evidence and a comprehensive view of reality and history, ANYTHING WHATSOEVER can be become a false god, including science.

    And as far as I am concerned, all those people can advertise anything they want about God. He is still God, He is STILL completely sovereign and His character has not been changed one iota by this kind of activity.

  2. It gets even more interesting. While Green is an utter loon, Clifford Longley is a respected religion correspondent and liberal Catholic, formerly of The Times and The Tablet.

    He's also gone to the ASA with the same argument: the detail is that this one's all about fine-tuning.

    Whilst I think this argument is bunk, it does show what the moderate religionist is supposed to think. Garbage dressed as science...but no space to destroy it here.


  3. At last! (It sounds facetious but I'm serious.) Recognition from the philosophical community. Where were you guys three years ago, before the book went out of print? Oh, never mind. I'm glad someone "gets it."

    Massimo, you've made my day. Many thanks.

    Ellis Weiner

  4. For what it's worth, Dawkins has come out publicly as having changed his mind about the ad. he says he''s warmed to the idea, and doesn't object to the use of the word "probably" anymore.


    Also, I'm currently reading "the God Delusion" and I don't take Dawkins' position to be as you've characterized it (although this may simply be a difference in how we have each interpreted his statements). I took him to be saying that religion's truth claims about the observable universe can be disproved-- e.g. claims about God answering prayer and the like.

    Of course, I'm only about a third of the way through the book, but the Chapter stating "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" still contains qualifier "Almost."

    I haven't read much of Dawkins' popular works, but what I have read leads me to believe that most people who comment on Dawkins' position have also failed to read much of Dawkins.

    Just a thought.

  5. We can't expect you to believe in a a place called Hell if many Bible teachers don't teach on it.

    A few do. I do. Be warned, the following teachings are not easy to listen to.

    Paul Washer




  6. You also can't expect us to believe in Hell if there's no evidence for the existence of such a place.

  7. That old Herbert Spencer quote comes to mind:

    "Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution, as not adequately supported by facts, seem quite to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all."

  8. I don't need any "probably", or "almost". There is no heaven, there is no hell, and there is no god. There. Done. Can we me move on now?

  9. Massimo, I agree with iarnuocon that you misrepresent Dawkins' views. I have never heard Dawkins state, that science can disprove the existence of god(s). Actually he has stated the opposite many times (also in the videoclip that iarnuocon links to).

  10. Just for laughs, would love to see a 3rd bus ad campaign, funded by anonymous, invisible sources denying the existence of "factual statements that can be substantiated". The post-logicians would would advise us to ".... get out there and keep the BS coming"

  11. While Green is an utter loon, Clifford Longley is a respected religion correspondent and liberal Catholic, formerly of The Times and The Tablet.

    It is often the case that people will show their truest colours in times of "difficulty", innit?

  12. Just for info, a similar campaign has been launched in Barcelona and Madrid, Spain, recently.

  13. Sadly australia, a more secular society , is at the whim of the advertising companies themselves, who will not allow the "atheist bus" campaign here..


  14. Actually, the BHA hasn't got it "exactly right", Massimo; the world "probabnly" should be parenthetical, surely...?

  15. You also can't expect us to believe in Hell if there's no evidence for the existence of such a place.

    The real absurdity is thinking that our tiny speck of a planet in this vast universe is somehow the central front in a cosmic battle between good and evil.

  16. I'll go ahead and add a third voice to Morten and iarnuocon in that I don't read Dawkins like you do. I'll also add that I saw an interview with Ariane Sherine (in one of those videos) where she said that the original sign proposal didn't have the word probably, but the ad agency refused to put it on buses so she had to change it to include that word.

  17. It's funny because no one extends to the other gods in the world's pantheon the degree of PC agnosticism we extend to the Judeo-Xian deity. Does any Xian theologian take seriously such characters as Shiva for instance? Pure mythology they'd say. Joseph Campbell rightly said that other people's religion is mythology, ours is true religion.

    Nevertheless, saying "there probably are no gods" is what's technically true. Although I wish we could put a number on that, and one that we can back up. My personal subjective probabilities are: That there is at least one transcendent being is 0.1%. That it is Xian variety with the incarnation and all that yarn is 10^-12.

  18. "The reality is that science cannot disprove the supernatural, but that a philosophical argument informed by sound science can, in fact, reduce the likelihood of the supernatural to the very, very improbable indeed."


  19. Nevertheless, saying "there probably are no gods" is what's technically true.

    Good reminder. I try to always say/write "gods", in the plural and not capitalized, when talking about these subjects. Gotta be an equal opportunity heathen, after all, in this PC world... :-)

    Oh, well, and there's also the hope that the plural will make some people think about it for a moment.

  20. J.,

    I take it one further. I typically write "gods", because 99.99% of the time no one can even define the term well enough to make me believe it's a possibility - it's always a bit like claiming "Flarfs" exist and never actually saying what a "Flarf" is.

    Caliana said, "We can't expect you to believe in a place called Hell if many Bible teachers don't teach on it."

    That's the same as saying, "We can't expect you to believe in Hell if Bible teachers haven't brainwashed you to believe it."

  21. All, I have detailed my objections to Dawkins' ambiguous statements about science and religion in an article last year in American Atheist magazine (the issue with my picture on the cover... :) I'd be happy to send it to anyone interested.

  22. JF: "You also can't expect us to believe in Hell if there's no evidence for the existence of such a place."

    If deeds, accuracy and ways of approaching evidence matters, so too it follows that there must be a Judgment with a capital "J".

    I'm not a gambler tho so....

    If reason and the Bible points to the great potential that every single person who ever lived will be judged, I believe it.

    And I don't really care if some people, including some preachers, downplay the importance of it...if I thought that there was the most remote possibility that anyone I knew might go to hell, what kind of person would I be to say "oh. well..too bad for them" ?

    NOT on your life.

    Even tho we often don't agree on various philosophical stuff I don't want any of you face God unprepared.

  23. I don't see that any judgment rationally follows just because one believes that it is important to be kind to others and to be intellectually honest. Kindness to others makes the world nicer for me and the people I like. Intellectual honesty gives us a way to approach things that actually allows us to learn things and solve problems, you know, like how to make airplanes fly and cars go zoom.

    There's no other reason needed.

    The bible, and indeed any holy book, is a set of rules for people who need to be told rather than to discover. And they can keep it.

  24. But yet, Hell somehow seems quite plausible for people who normally would not believe and think it is not a credible idea, but they seem to know exactly who deserves to go there.

    Strange logic, for sure.

    "Bernie Madoff 'in hell' hot sauce launched"


  25. "That's the same as saying, "We can't expect you to believe in Hell if Bible teachers haven't brainwashed you to believe it."

    NO, its not even close to the same. And very few actually teach on Hell today anyway. Except for the preacher I listed websites for here.

    My husband taught about false teachers on Sunday. II Peter 1-2.

    To be considered a "false teacher" it is not like they would come directly into the church appearing to teach something other than the Bible. It will seem like what they have to say has something to do with the Bible. The Catholic Church is particularly bad about this. I note in a lot of countries the Catholic church turns a blind eye to the fact that Catholics often mix their pagan (voodoo, animistic, witchcraft) beliefs with beliefs and teachings of the church. From this you get a hybridized, not truly christian belief that seriously disorients people so they have a very difficult time determining what truth is supposed to look like. And if you don't know what truth is supposed to look like, you can be brainwashed.

    As a matter of fact, one can even be totally brain washed by Atheism. I have a case and point. Do you want a four page explanation? :)

  26. "From this you get a hybridized, not truly christian belief that seriously disorients people so they have a very difficult time determining what truth is supposed to look like."

    LOL! As if Christianity itself wasn't a hybrid belief system.

  27. Ok Cal,
    Explain, where is hell? Where does hell get its energy source? How do we know, other than the supposed authority of the Bible, that it exists, that people are there, and will go there? Are they there physcially, or as spirits? If as spirits, how do they feel suffering? If as regular physical beings, how do they survive in conditions not suitable for human life?

    And tell us why would an allegedly loving and compassionate God condemn people to eternal suffering? Even for things like disbelief, yet forgive others for much graver offenses?

    I know that bearing false witness is a supposed sin. Bearing ineffective witness would be a sin you commit. The more you yap about your religion here, the more you are considered a joke!

    If heaven is populated by insufferable zealots like you, hell would be a blessing.

  28. Sheldon

    The preacher that I mentioned above explains why you think you can't tolerate people who stand for the Bible and its gospel. Paul Washer says firstly that "its a scandal". It becomes a scandal because people can't appreciate the thought of being humbled or corrected in the way that they are living. A greater % of the world just simply hates humility. And if that is the way it is, then the Bible must be accurate in its assessment of human nature. And if the Bible is accurate, then I can take all the angst and unhappy feelings that you toss my direction, even if nothing ever changes as far as you're concerned.

    I could explain things to you about Hell,(people who have seen what they believe was hell before they die, etc.) but since you have already made you mind up, what help would it be to you? Is it just going to harden your heart, as you suggested, and cause you convince yourself that your looking forward to it..or what?

    If you consider that rational, I'd rather not be "rational" then.

  29. Caliana,

    There is an obvious problem with the Pascal's wager argument, which you seem to have been making.

    OK, you're facing death, and worried that maybe there is a Hell, and if you don't make nice to the Sky Fairy you'll "go there." But which sky fairy? Do you make a sacrifice to some pagan god? Do you try to die in battle so as to go to Valhalla? (or Sto-Vo-Kor, if you want to be Klingon in the afterlife)

    I am reminded of the joke where some guy is being given a tour of Heaven, and is told that he has to be quiet as they pass a particular wall, because the [Catholics, Mormons, whatever] are on the other side, and they think they are the only ones there.

    On a more practical note, isn't it the British ASA that recently refused to rule that a fertilizer company was committing fraud when they said that their "organic" fertilizer was "chemical-free?" I don't look forward to their interpretation of the likelihood of the existence of a god or gods.

  30. Since Dawkins has been mentioned... I've just been sent a link to an interview he gave to the LA Times, talking about the bus campaign and other stuff. Not the most impressive title: Richard Dawkins on board with a pro-atheist message.

  31. Sheldon: Explain, where is hell?
    It's in you heart, Sheldon... In your heart! :-P

    Hey, Cal!

    Let's do it like this: after you die and go to hell, could you please call us back to tell how it is? Then I will start getting impressed by the concept.

  32. I'll be in Seattle till next week.

  33. Hey, Ellis Weiner

    I just bought your book, used, from an Amazon affiliate. I look forward to reading it.

    Regret to inform that they charged me 1 cent for it (U$3.99 for shipping). Heh.


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