New Zealand is following other countries in having an “atheist bus campaign”. Atheists are raising $NZ10,000 to mimic the UK campaign and place “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” on several buses in major New Zealand cities. Approximately 12 buses in Auckland, 8 in Wellington and 4 in Christchurch will feature the ads for 4 weeks. Television presenter Mike Hosking caught organiser Simon Fisher on the hop with his first question “why bother?” Hosking, who thinks there probably is no God, cannot see the motivation or purpose for the campaign – and Fisher reacted as if he had never thought of this most obvious of questions. That was soon followed by Jo Kelly-Moore, the Vicar of St Aidans, in Remuera, clearly running circles around Fisher’s weak points.
Rather than fear, or tut-tut, this campaign, I welcome the opportunity for some serious dialogue. One of my followers on twitter interestingly pointed out that Fisher’s language echoed the Alpha course. Alpha may be OK for introducing people who have no idea about Christianity to it – but please can we not stay at the level of alpha – please can we move on towards kappa or further. The website of the NZ Atheist Bus Campaign, over which (rather than the soundbite TV debate) they have full control – does not appear to give an adequate definition for “God” which the site is dedicated to stating “probably does not exist”. The discussions, which I am welcoming, may help Christians to move beyond rather simplistic definitions of God (alpha) towards the classical definitions in which God is not merely “a supernatural being” alongside other beings (“supernatural” or “natural”) – as if adding God to this coffee cup results in now having two “objects”. And with the rather regularly trite comment that atheists believe in merely one less god than Christians do… Hence, Christians and other theists, may be enriched by this discussion into deepening the expression of their faith, revisiting the apophatic tradition (alongside the more common kataphatic approach) of Christianity, emphasising the transcendent nature of God (alongside God’s at-Christmas-time-particularly-appropriate immanent nature).
Let’s have some nuanced discussion, rather than the popular Richard Dawkins approach of pitting the best of science against the most simplistic, childish, flat-earth theism, where every few sentences Dawkins drops a clanger demonstrating his lack of reading of any theist up to beta, let alone kappa! Let’s acknowledge the great damage that bad religion and bad theology and bad spirituality have done. But I don’t see Dawkins giving up sex or money just because of the great damage that sex and money have done in human history! And let’s not pretend that Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong are particularly good exemplars of the USA version of this campaign which had the slogan: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Are those atheists an explanation of what “good” means in a world without a god? Can you be good for goodness sake? Or do we need help to be good? And might being good (for goodness sake) be a sign of God – rather than a denial? Fisher’s slight of hand without any explanation, that “atheism” means “humanism” certainly needs justification. It seems to me that it is belief in God and the sacredness of God’s creation that leads to valuing human life – it will take a lot more than a tweet-length bus slogan to convince me that atheism naturally leads to people caring for others as a consequence.
There’s also a need to tidy other definitions:
Theist – believes in God
Atheist – believes there is no God
Agnostic (type A) – believes it is not possible to know
Agnostic (type B) – “I don’t know…”
Also the word “belief” can do with some clarification. Belief in God as a solely cerebral affirmation is a relatively new usage. “I believe in God” is originally more about trust, about commitment – in the sense of I believe in democracy, I believe in the All Blacks. Certainly “I believe in Jesus” has nothing to do with the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth which is accepted by all but the most extreme of scholars – yet popularly, and amongst some young people, they equate belief in Jesus alongside belief in the tooth-fairy, or at this time, Santa.
Alongside the atrocities of religion, let’s also list off some of the positives: art, music, science, technology, literature, genetics (Dawkins take note), the concept of the Big Bang (a real shock originally mocked by atheists), Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Shakespeare, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven,…
Alongside the need to clarify the definition of “God”, we are invited to clarify the nature of “God”. “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” is based on an impression of an almighty punishing ogre in the sky. As Kelly-Moore made crystal clear in the TV interview, nothing could (should!) be further from a Christian perspective of God, a God who is love.
So, in summary, let’s not react against these ads – they are a wonderful opportunity not only to deepen our own reflection, but to clarify the misunderstandings between us. Atheists can be prophets, challenging the idols that Christians present. And just as God does not agree with all done in God’s name – however frequently and fervently God’s name is repeated – so God is not absent from atheists’ lives – however frequently and fervently denied.
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In passing, spend four minutes listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring
Holy wisdom, love most bright
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light
Word of God, our flesh that fashioned
With the fire of life impassioned
Striving still to truth unknown
Soaring, dying round Thy throne
Through the way where hope is guiding
Hark, what peaceful music rings
Where the flock, in Thee confiding
Drink of joy from deathless springs
Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown