Atheist buses: the effect of religion

Posted on January 12, 2009

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The ‘atheist bus’ campaign has launched, with an astonishingly gushing and self-congratulatory piece on the Guardian website by the instigator, Ariane Sherine. (For non-UK readers, this is a campaign that has been running for a year or so to raise money to put atheist [sic; in the event, agnostic] slogans in the advertising space on London buses as an ‘antidote’ to the religious advertising that is around.) Ms Sherine’s piece notes that £135 000 has been raised, an amount she describes as ‘truly overwhelming,’ and demonstrating ‘the strength of atheism in the UK’.

The amount of money raised is remarkable – remarkably small. Let me try some context: the campaign to gather funds ran nationally for six months, with considerable free publicity in national media; I can think of two local churches, one with considerably fewer than 100 members, within ten miles of my home here in rural Scotland, who in the last year or so have raised (much) more money in less time from essentially their own communities (both for needed building projects, as it happens). That is, 60-80 Christians in a little market town in Fife with no media exposure at all seem to have much better fund-raising ability than a heavily-publicised national ‘atheist’ campaign.

(Actually, I think this does demonstrate ‘the strength of atheism in the UK’ fairly accurately – the National Secular Society refuses to reveal its membership figures, no doubt out of embarrassment, but I have been told by a credible source that it has fewer members nationally than many parish churches welcome each Sunday morning…)

Part of this was no doubt the astonishing flacidity of the slogan (apparrently some people have complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that the slogan, ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’, is ‘offensive’. Seriously? It is unquestionably banal and wimpish; it is also demonstrably illogical (connect the two sentences?) and ignorant (the first sentence is indefensible to anyone up on current philosophy of religion – see this article, written by a leading light of the Society of Humanist Philosophers, for starters – further, the notion that the possibility of the existence of the divine is the occasion of worry, or that the demonstration of atheism might lead to joy, is merely asinine), but it is about as offensive as a chintz tea service – you would rather that such smug suburban attitudes did not exist, but they are hardly matters to be offended by).

Back, however, to the fundraising. It seems to me that the comparison with a local church demonstrates something interesting about the effect of religion in people’s lives. The current atheist literature suggests rather strongly that religion has been a force for evil in the world: people who believe in religion, any religion, do appalling things; people who are not religious are less likely to do appalling things. With a careful definition of ‘religion’ I happen to think this claim is true.

The defences of religion tend to claim the opposite point: religion has been a force for good in the world: people who believe in religion, any religion, do ethical, charitable and altrusitic things; people who are not religious are less likely to do such things. With a careful definition of ‘religion’ I happen to think that this claim, also, is true.

Tempted as I am to end the post there, perhaps some elucidation is appropriate… ‘A careful definition of religion’ first: I am not here interested in any belief in the ‘supernatural’ (whatever that, properly defined, may be…) so much as a belief system that claims to explain the nature of the world and the place of humans within it, and to offer guidance for human behaviour on the basis of this explanation. This is a definition of ‘religion’ that is carefully crafted to include many atheist positions, such as marxism, or the ‘scientific humanism’ of the Tamil Tigers.

So to the two claims. It seems to me that belief systems like this make people less apathetic. a ‘religious’ person, in these terms, is more likely to care, more likely to donate, more likely to act, more likely to get involved, for better, or indeed, for worse. The precise balance of horrendous acts compared to altruistic acts probably depends on the particular nature of the belief, and on the psychology of the individual involved, but if people are exerting themselves to change the world, it is usually because they believe something.

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