Monday, 19 January 2009

Religion, Posters and Public Transport

You may have read about all the furore this month around the posters expressing doubt in the existence of God. They have been termed 'atheist' posters and the £140,000 campaign (€140,000; US$207,000) has been run by the Atheist Bus Campaign fronted by writer Ariane Sherine. It was lauched in June 2008. The campaign needed £6000 just for the advertisements in London but within two days of being launched donations had reached £87,000 and ultimately rose to £135,000 allowing the campaign to expand. It has inspired a parallel one in Washington DC in the USA where in November 2008, the slogan, 'Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake' appeared inside 230 buses. In the UK the posters will appear on 200 London buses, 600 buses across England, Wales and Scotland (interestingly not Northern Ireland with all its religious difficulties) and a further 1000 posters on the London Underground, I do not have the details, but I assume this is both walls and inside trains. This extended campaign has cost £140,000. The UK slogan is much more ambivalent, saying 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life'. I would argue that the 'probably' makes it agnostic rather than atheist and in contrast to the US version it seems to suggest replace a moral code enforced by a deity simply with hedonism. This is rather missing the point as it neglects to point out that atheist viewpoints such as Humanism do have a moral approach to life. In my experience, all the Humanists I have met have a much more caring attitude to humans as a whole than the bulk of Christians, Muslim and Jews, many of whom seem to want to categorise people and criticise and neglect, even oppress those in different categories to them, even when they follow the same religion.

The point of the campaign was to provide a balance to all those Biblical tracts and advertisements for various gurus that have appeared particularly on the London Underground for years. No-one complained about a whole slew of things some of which indicated that if you were not following the particular line they were promoting, eternal damnation awaited. I would have welcomed a more ardent atheist text saying something like 'Stop wasting your time reading the Bible/Torah/Koran it was written long after the events portrayed and in a way which helped promote the interests of the men who produced it. Instead go and do something to help real people in the 21st century.' Instead we have a very British, very tepid approach, which in the words of Theos a UK 'religious think tank' which told 'The Guardian' newspapr that '[t]he posters will encourage people to consider the most important question we will ever face in our lives. The slogan itself is a great discussion starter. Telling someone 'there's probably no God' is a bit like telling them they've probably remembered to lock their door. It creates the doubt that they might not have.' I just had to laugh at this phrase: 'a bit like telling them they've probably remembered to lock their door'. People are dying around the World over issues of God, it is not like leaving your door unlocked. Religious warfare is alive and well in this century, just ask Christians in Iraq or Iran or atheists facing prejudice in the USA or non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, let alone anyone who lived under the Taliban or lived in Northern Ireland at any time, especially since 1969.

Now a bus driver in Southampton has baulked at driving a bus with one of these posters on it. Given that millions of us have had to travel on public transport for years with religious slogans all over the place this is rather rich. However, it does expose the fact that though Britain (i.e. the UK outside Northern Ireland) is ambivalent to religion there is a tough resistant prejudice that actually we are all guided by Christianity are we not? This is the worst form of religion in the UK. Most of the followers of what you might term 'society Christianity' are not that moral. They are in fact usually self-righteous, very selfish and intolerant certainly to difference. They do not really follow Christianity's morals and yet use it for disapproval and to beat others they feel are 'different' or they simply do not like the look of. This is the state religion in the UK today, far more than people who actually attend church. They pick and choose among the elements of religion to give themselves a social control tool. For these people who number in their millions in the UK I suggest a poster 'you say you're a Christian, well, behave like one then!'. The Advertising Standards Authority has received 232 complaints about the atheist posters and to some degree these people are just being indignant for the sake of it. I am glad we have not had the avalanche of indignation that seemed to be a fashion at the end of last year. The posters are so bland that there is little to take offence at and it is irritating that some people are unwilling to give a centimetre, to even allow any challenge to their way of thinking even if they only pay lip service to what they say is their 'faith'.

The bus driver in question, Ron Heather, I accept is probably a genuine Christian, but he wants to police what his passengers are exposed to and that is not acceptable. It is pathetic that he says that many of his passengers are over 90 and/or ill and it is bad to suggest to them that there might not be any God. This is a terribly patronising view of the elderly, most of whom, I imagine will have made their minds up long ago about what awaits them after death. They might welcome some stimulus to discussion at the bus stop or to provoke them to think something different. The elderly do not need anyone to silo them into what is seen as nice, comfortable pathways. Heather totally neglects the fact that many thinking of being judged by God will worry that they have not lived good enough lives and may have such fears alleviated by thinking they will simply dissolve back into atoms and become part of the World. We need to challenge those who think they are 'good' but their definition is that they are because they can shop for their family and charge around in their 4x4 with little concern for anything beyond their own desire.

I welcome having some theological/philosophical debate on our public transport. I think the Atheist Bus Campaign has missed an opportunity to really create this and instead have ended up with a tepid British approach to these things. I look forward to more ardent slogans on buses I see, ones I hope will challenge people to actually live a moral life, one that concerns itself with the welfare of all of our fellow humans.

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