Richard Dawkins has been in the news a bit recently. Firstly, about a fortnight ago the buses in various cities in Britain started running his adverts for atheism. The slogan adopted by Dawkins and his fellows for attacking religious belief is ‘God probably doesn’t exist, so be happy.’ This has prompted its share of comment and controversy. According to the British papers, one Christian bus driver in Southampton, Ron Flowers, refused to drive one of the buses with the slogan. Apparently he turned up for work one Friday, saw that he was supposed to drive that bus, and went home instead. According to the bus company, when he turned up for work on Monday the company decided instead to reach some kind of arrangement with him so that he could drive another vehicle instead. A spokesman for the Humanist Society declared that they couldn’t understand why someone would be offended by someone else’s statement of belief, while a spokesman for the Methodist Society stated that they had no problems with atheists sticking the slogan on buses, as this encouraged people to think about these important issues.
Now my own point of view is that atheists like Dawkins and the Humanist Society have every right to have their adverts carried on buses and other places. It’s a free society, and so they should have the right to express and try to promote their views, just like people of faith. However, I also consider that Dawkins’ atheist bus campaign presents far more problems for atheism, and indeed itself constitutes a rebuttal of some of their arguments, than it does for people of faith.
Firstly, it bears out Aleister McGrath’s view in The Twilight of Atheism that much of the New Atheist attack on religion is due to religion not declining as was expected by atheists in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Also, the content of the slogan itself has managed to offend many people regardless of their own personal stance on religion or political affiliation. The advert was briefly discussed this past week on the BBC magazine programme, The One Show, broadcast on BBC 1. One of the presenters, Christine Blakeley, felt it was arrogant for Dawkins to state that religious believers were miserable. They had as one of their guests on their show the fertility expert, Dr. Robert Winston, who has himself presented a number of science programmes on the Beeb. Winston’s very definitely a supporter of Charles Darwin, and was talking about a children’s book he’s written about evolution. He also made it clear that he was a friend of Dawkins, but objected to the buses’ slogan and stated that he also found Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, also to be arrogant in its choice of title. In fact, Winston gave a speech at the Edinburgh branch of the British Association for the Advancement of Science a few years ago where he stated that, as much as he liked Dawkins’ personally, Dawkins’ attempts to promote atheism in the name of science was itself unscientific and indeed damaging to science.
There are also a number of non-scientists who were similarly unimpressed with the adverts. They were discussed a few weeks on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz, which, like Have I Got News For You on TV, takes a satirical look at the week’s news. One of the regular guests on the programme is Jeremy Hardy, a man of strong left-wing opinions, who isn’t afraid to criticise organise religion. However, he described Dawkins as ‘one of those irritating professional atheists’. This seems to indicate that Dawkins’ campaign has managed to annoy a lot of people regardless of their personal views on the existence of God or religion. This might be because people generally don’t like to be told what to believe or how to vote by others. Now one of the most frequent objections to organised religion is that it tells people what to believe. But this is exactly what Dawkins and his fellows have done with their bus slogan: they are telling people not to believe in God. The slogan is not ‘We believe that there is probably no God, and recommend that you be happy’, but ‘There is probably no God, so be happy’. Now I’ve no objection to people being told to be happy, but there is clearly a problem in that the posters are telling people ‘there is probably no God’.
In fact there are further, more profound objections to Dawkins’ slogan. There’s the question of how Dawkins can say authoritatively that ‘there is probably no God.’ One can question not just the validity of the statement, but the logic and arguments that support it. However, the slogan doesn’t present any: it’s just an assertion, a statement of belief purporting to be fact.
There is also the problem that the non-existence of God does not necessarily lead to happiness. For atheist existentialists such as Camus and Sartre, the non-existence of God meant that man was free, but also condemned to a meaningless existence, and much atheist, existentialist literature is occupied by the anxiety and despair that created by this lack of transcendental meaning. So, rather than atheism leading necessarily to happiness, it may also lead to misery and despair. Indeed, Hume, the great founder of modern Scepticism, himself declared that at times his rational investigation of the cosmos filled him with such despair that he had to take a break from his philosophical activities and amuse himself for a few hours. Nevertheless, when he returned to his philosophical analyses once again, they appeared so cold, strained and ridiculous, that he didn’t want to go any further with them.
Many religions, by contrast, offer the joy of a truly meaningful universe in which humanity can find fulfilment both as a creature in the cosmos, and through contact with the gods and deeper realities that give that cosmos meaning. In Christianity, humanity was created by the Lord for fellowship with Him, and so has a profound meaning and dignity. People of faith are not necessarily miserable, and indeed there is considerable evidence that they are happier and enjoy better mental health than other, secular individuals. Religion, and Christianity, can therefore be seen as far more optimistic than the atheism that Dawkins seeks to promote.