Thursday, 23 October 2008

Probably the craziest advert in the world

Why did Ariane Sherine, who came up with the idea for a campaign to put ‘atheist advertisements’ on the sides of London buses suggest as a slogan, "There’s probably no God"? Surely an atheist convinced enough to pay to advertise her beliefs would want to write, "There’s no God", period?

According to one of her earlier Comment is Free columns, it may be because the manufacturers of Carling lager can advertise their product as "Probably the best lager in the world", without incurring the disapproval of the Advertising Standards Authority.

Or is there another reason? Back in February, Ms Sherine described her desperate struggle with depression and the side-effects of anti-depressants. So awful was this, she wrote, "anti- depressants depressed me till I prayed to God to make the pain stop."

But doesn’t that rather undermine the whole campaign? Shouldn’t the slogan read, "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life - unless life is really unbearable, in which case although atheism certainly won’t help you, God just might"?

Or is that just too long for the side of a bus?

Revd John Richardson

When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may not be posted.


  1. right on John!
    Maybe she needed the "probably" to fit round the corner of the bendybuses, otherwise the "no" might have got lost in the bend.
    Also, the "probably" prevents us from adding "the fool says in his heart" with a spray can at the beginning!

  2. Will Rogers, Leicestershire24 October 2008 at 02:40

    On the contrary, I would imagine that most of the backers would support the inclusion of the word 'probably'. It sounds like the initiator objected to the definite wording and implications in the original adverts. I don't think the object would be to claim absolute correctness, without evidence. The benefit, in my eyes, is just to allow for the possibility of debate, and (non-confrontationally, in my opinion) make the point that though something is written as fact in the public eye it may not be true.

  3. It's because it's impossible to prove that something doesn't exist. A more precise wording would have been "Given the available evidence it's almost certain that god doesn't exist", but that's not quite so snappy.

    That and the fact that the advertising company would only allow it with that wording as they're scared of offending those poor sensitive religious souls.

  4. Ironically enough, the author of the advertisement could have quoted Paul. "Let us eat, and drink, for tomorrow we die" is certainly more catchy (and accurate) than what was used. But then who wants to be reminded of death?

    Of course, the exhortation to enjoy life begs all the important questions. What if you can't enjoy life? Do you simply off yourself? What does it mean to enjoy life anyways? Is it anything more than self-indulgence? Since at the last there is no remembrance of us, why should our lives be anything but self-indulgence? What difference does it make?

    Atheism is a luxury of the comfortably rich. Like the man with full barns in the parable , the atheist looks to take his ease - confident he has no needs. Money covereth a multitude of sins. It gives man the courage to say "God is dead, and I am free!" But man is not free of death. The atheist may know that someday in the future he will die, but he lives with the comfortable illusion that tomorrow he will still see the sun rise.

    But one day he will not see the sun rise. And then he will hear the dreadful words "Thou Fool!"

    carl jacobs
    United States

  5. Happy without God? Common sense tells you that atheism leads to nihilism

  6. I can't help thinking that if the 'probably' is there because we can't be sure whether there is a 'god' or not (and Richard Dawkins apparently endorses this view) then the rest of the slogan ought to read, "but given you're a long time dead, it is also probably worth finding out."

  7. And has none of them heard of Pascal's wager?

    Steve Walton, Marbury, Cheshire

  8. Dear All,
    I was worried this was a case of an atheist in a foxhole situation so I asked the question of the writer herself. I think her response is reasonable and ratioinal, but I might be in the minority.

    Donald: Hiya, and thanks for reading my early pieces. I was talking about taking anti-depressants when I was 19. I was agnostic and didn't really think about religion much, but used to "pray" when I was in pain in the same way people get religious on airplanes.

    I became an atheist in my early twenties. I'm 28 now and am running an atheist campaign. And you'll be shocked to learn that I no longer pray to God...

  9. Good point. Perhaps that is what the Christians should put on their buses.

    "Maybe there is no God, but given you're a long time dead, it is probably worth finding out."

    I would approve of/be amused by that in the same way I approved of the atheist advert...

  10. Howard Jacobson in The Independent has written this response which says what I was going to:

    "As for the rest of the bendy bus message, it makes not a grain of sense. THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD STOP WORRYING? That's a non sequitur. Why should the non-existence of a God stop us worrying? Who ever claimed it was belief in God that caused us to worry? Some of the least worried people I know are unworried precisely because they believe in a benign creator who takes individual care of them. We might think of them as deluded crackpots – we might be driven crazy ourselves by their baseless blitheness and serenity – but if not worrying is to be the measure of happiness then, like it or not, they've found happiness in spades. Ivan Karamazov on the other hand, is misery incarnate, unable to enjoy a moment of mental peace because he cannot see how, if God does not exist, anything can be deemed unlawful. SINCE THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD it would say on the bendy bus Ivan hires to drive around St Petersburg, START WORRYING BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.

    Your liberal atheist would have trouble following the moral logic of that because he thinks everything should be permitted. ENJOY YOUR LIFE he says, as though the mere fact of freedom from ethical or religious restraint is a guarantee of enjoyment and enjoyment the only measure of a life well lived. I am reminded of Dawkins' re-writing of the Ten Commandments, where the grand reverberations of moral injunction are reduced to the bat-squeak registry office rubric of doing what you fancy so long as no one gets hurt. See why we need a God? Without one, nothing stands beyond the competing claims of our private titillations."

    Read the rest here.

  11. As a liberal atheist, who is apparently amoral - a leap that is both illogical and demonstrably untrue unless a speeding ticket counts, may I reply?
    I'm not sure whether to do so as there are a number of atheist websites I can read, or blog to, for comfort that what I think is not unique. I've found atheist ideas to be some of the most threatening to believers of any hue. If you'd rather I stuck to my own 'kind' I am happy to continue to read and observe this website as a valuable resource as to how others think.

  12. How about this for a very long bendy bus:

    "Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the while?...God is dead. God remains dead. And we have kiled him... Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it
    -Friedrich Nietzsche "Die Froliche Wissenschaft" in "The Portable Nietzsche" Penguin 1982, pp95-96

    Nietzsche was infinitely more courageous and honest than Dawkins because he clearly saw the consequences of atheism: without God there are no values- we cannoty label our "direction" as "back", "forward" and so on. This is regularly (and deliberately?) misunderstood by Dawkins and co, when they assert that atheists still behave in a moral way. But of course they do- they are still made in the image of God, and can't escape that. The point is that they have no reason for doing so, or even for calling their behaviour "moral" or "immoral", "good" or "evil". Indeed, as "true" and "false" are values, without God there is no basis for science. We are left in the despairing position of trying to become gods ourselves, so that we can we can create our values.

    Dawkins and the BHA are in the position of the people in the marketplace in Nietzsche's parable- disregarding God, but too cowardly and self-deluded too live with the consequences.

    Steve Walton, Marbury

  13. Why are atheist portrayed as militant? or liberal (guilty)? or amoral? or nihilists?
    Today this atheist went to Tescos, did some gardening, took the dogs for a walk. Judge me if you want.

    1.5 million copies of the God Delusion sold, nearly £100K raised for this atheist appeal in 3 days(in response to some Christian ads like the Alpha Course and others that have already appeared on the buses).
    I can understand someone feeling threatened by this but they don't ask for public money and they don't interrupt your Sunday with copies of Skeptic magazine being sold door-to-door.

    Also, morals are normative (there were morals before god and Christians haven't shown themselves to be experts in morals over the years) - do you choose not kill because god told you to or because it is against the law of the land and you know it to be wrong? If you don't think morals are normative then you are happy to rule over women - "and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." Genesis 13.16
    Blame the author of this website for this as he bade me read a bible book through.
    and keep slaves - (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)
    No-one can live with first century morals now and expect to be taken seriously.

  14. Donald, with respect I think you're posting in haste and getting ahead of the arguments or even a possible response. (I know I have an e-mail from you waiting for a reply, though I didn't realize it was 'you' - and you will get one, when time permits!)

    On the 'morals' issue, for example, you neatly raise the 'Euthyphro' dilemma, which is as old as Socrates, (is something moral because it conforms to a moral norm - whether of man or of God - or is there a moral norm because a thing is moral?), but you don't offer an answer, or I think wait for one.

    Hence you write, "there were morals before god", but then, almost in the same breath, write, "No-one can live with first century morals now". Why not? If ancient (before god) morals were right, why not "first century" morals. And which "first century" morals do you mean? And why are some of them now unacceptable? And how do you know which of our twenty-first century morals will be unacceptable 2,000 years hence?

    There is a serious discussion to be had here, but it won't be tackled by hastily writing off first century (or earlier) texts with which, with all respect, you're probably not that familiar. (Do you know, for example, what Genesis 3:16 has in common with Genesis 4:7 - and why it might matter to your argument?)

    Meanwhile, regarding the atheist bus advert, it would be worth listing all those things people might worry about, and then crossing off the list all those things they won't worry about as a result of deciding there is no God - and then ask whether the advert actually makes sense, or even gets away with what it implicitly claims, namely that atheism reduces worry and increases the enjoyment of life. (Advertising Standards Authority, here we come, perhaps!)

    In short, to the offer "Now stop worrying ...", we should pose the question "... about what, exactly, and how does this now enable me to enjoy life?"

    I am not surprised at all to hear Ms Sherine was a fox-hole believer. My question to her would be, "If someone had offered you this slogan when you were depressed and in pain, how would you have responded to them? And what makes you think it therefore belongs on the side of a bus?"

  15. Steve Walton writes: "Nietzsche was infinitely more courageous and honest than Dawkins because he clearly saw the consequences of atheism: without God there are no values- we cannot label our "direction" as "back", "forward" and so on."
    I think this is correct: the transvaluation of values. William Lane Craig makes precisely this point in his five-point apologetic in debates (expouned at much greater length in his book 'Reasonable Faith')with agnostics or atheists, but few of them are sufficiently clued up on philosophy and ethics to understand his point, that unless we see things 'sub specie aeternitatis', ethics is simply groundless opinion or preference (since Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler must have the same destiny in a godless universe).
    What I want to take issue with is the word 'probably'. Since God in Jewish and Christian thinking (as well as derivative Islamic thinking) is *the necessary being, either God MUST exist or God CANNOT exist. I think this must exclude probability, which entails that God is like all the other eings we know of (or imagine) - which He isn't. There is no middle term where the necessary Being (the ground of all other being) is concerned.

  16. Something I must pedantically point out from John's original posting.

    Carling doesn't claim to be "probably the best larger in the world", Carlsberg does. But whoever said that obviously has never drunk Leffe. Real Ale is superior anyway.

    Darren Moore

  17. Donald,
    I don't know about others, but I've appreciated your posts, good to have a proper Athiest joining in a discussion about Athism.

    But I'm not sure anybody is actually threatened by Atheism. For me it's just an idea, like many others that needs refuting, just as I assume you think mine do.

    Darren Moore