Atheist Bus Campaign. Meh.

As someone who believes in critical thinking, scepticism and rational enquiry it is with a little trepidation that I want to address the recent announcement of the Atheist Bus Campaign here in New Zealand.

I’ve given more thought than most would on the issue of the existence of God and, after many years of deep belief, have come to the difficult conclusion that it is just not true. For many this question is simply not an issue; they’re either completely ambivalent and would see someone as a bit wonky for believing or they know ‘deep down’ that God exists.

The campaign represents my beliefs nicely. I even respect the use of the word ‘probably’ in the opening line “There’s probably no God”. It’s nice and accurate and less like the dogma we mistrust so much in religion.

You’d think that I’d be quite enthusiastic about the campaign but I’m just not.

I think that replicating the campaign here in New Zealand smacks of an identity crisis fuelled by a little too much US Internet consumption. We just don’t have the same problems they do. A person can become the leader of our nation and not believe in an imaginary God. People don’t seem to think I’m a morally inferior person when they find out that I’m an atheist.

Sure, we have our problems. The main one I can think of regarding religion is that religions are tax exempt by default; all they have to do is “further their religion”. And there is the occasional exorcism/murder but that’s pretty much down to pig-stupidity and I doubt any amount of buses with signs would stop that. Most of our problems are down to a lack of critical thinking. Whether it be alternative medicine that just doesn’t work or our embarrassing statistics on global warming denial or our deep fear of anything not ‘natural’ (whatever that means). Here in New Zealand we have a deep distrust of science and we lack the ability to carefully weigh facts. It’s almost like we’ll back whoever comes out with the most anti-scientific sentiment as if we are backing the number-8-wire-underdog who will come through in the end with their wacky but revolutionary ideas.

I feel that the closest thing to a ‘magic bullet’ here in New Zealand is to teach children how to think critically, how to examine evidence, how not to be fooled in life, at a primary school level. Methods that we can all agree on that they can apply later in life when someone tells them about the latest healing remedy or their life-transforming revelation or the magnets that help them sleep, etc, etc.

I feel that all an Atheist Bus Campaign will do is make those who are ambivalent think that atheists are wannabe martyrs and give a platform for media-desperate fundamentalists who will come off looking semi-respectable in contrast.

To those running the campaign I say good luck and that I agree with what you are saying. I just don’t think it’s going to achieve what you think it’s going to achieve.

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11 Responses to “Atheist Bus Campaign. Meh.”

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. If atheism is considered in New Zealand to be an accepted view, there’s really not much point in a campaign that’s aimed at raising awareness of atheism at the expense of potentially portraying atheists as wide-eyed zealots.

    The story in the U.S. as you pointed out is quite different, especially in the Bible Belt. People who grow up in very religious households tend to be isolated from the rest of the world. Most have heard about atheism but only second hand from their religious leaders. And as you might expect, the religious leaders portray it as shameful and sinister. I’ve been asked a number times if I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m an atheist. I think public statements about atheism are a good way to bring it more into the open, and to combat the propaganda that atheists are people who hide in the shadows, only come out at night, and eat their young :) )

  2. Damian says:

    Well, to be fair the young do taste a lot better than the old! Tender and succulent.

    I have a deep respect for atheists in the states. It’s an entirely different ball game and you’re having to deal with a depth of dumb that the rest of us rarely encounter.

  3. I almost hate to point this out, but the original bus campaign was in the UK.

  4. Damian says:

    Yes, it was Bnonn. But the US has been in the headlines a lot recently with some strong reactions to various billboards as well as buses. I personally think that the UK is closer to NZ than the US with respect to their level of religiosity although they went through a bit of a rough patch with Blair’s Faith Schools and people are concerned with a growing Muslim extremism movement.

  5. Good thoughtful post, Damian.

  6. BC says:

    Probably = agnostic?

  7. Damian says:

    I am agnostic in that I don’t think you can prove either way whether there is a God but I am atheistic in that, on the balance of evidence, I believe there is no God. This balance of evidence approach fits far better with the word ‘probably’ than with ‘definitely’ and so I think it’s an entirely appropriate word from an atheistic point of view. So, yes, I agree with the wording, just not the implementation.

  8. Ken says:

    While I tend to agree with you generally, Damian, even in good old NZ, where people are generally tolerant, I think the campaign could have spin off.

    I am thinking, in particular, of the fact that many people still feel it is not respectable to admit to no religion. Even though it has nothing to do with belief.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if things like these adverts lead to a significantly reduced number who tick the Christian box (49.5% in 2006 when double dippers are eliminated) in the 2011 census.

  9. Damian says:

    Hi Ken,
    Yes, if there are people who feel that way about admitting to having no religion a campaign like this may well help. It’s quite possible that there are segments of society or other age groups who feel this way that I am not aware of. The general feeling I get from the vast majority of the under-forty middle-class age group is that admitting that you take any particular religion seriously is pretty damn embarrassing. I have met a lot in this group, however, who like to be ‘spiritual’ or ‘alternative’ but they don’t at all identify with the traditional Abrahamic religions.

    It will be interesting to see how the figures change in the next census but if there is a rapid increase in the number of no-religion box-tickers I’d still struggle to believe that this campaign will have been a significant contributing factor. I’ve detected a real sea-change over the last few years and am predicting 40-45% in the no-religion category in 2011 (secretly hoping to break the 50% mark though).

    Still, as I say, best of luck to them. I wish them well.

  10. Simon Fisher says:

    Hey Damian,

    Noticed your blog post earlier, but stumbled upon it again just now. I can definitely understand and sympathise with the points you raised – they were certainly points I had to think over.

    I’d like to just use this to share an aspect that hasn’t been publicised much. I received many emails by members of the public who were genuinely pleased by the campaign because they felt it gave them a voice, or the confidence to talk about their non-belief, of just the sheer fact that there are “others” out there, or other similar reasons. Such emails were a definite positive acknowledgement of the worth of the campaign.

  11. Simon Fisher says:

    One young guy even wrote “It got me thinking that I might not be as crazy as I first believed.”

    I find it very easy to get caught up in the “idea space” of my own little world/social circle etc. It’s easy to forget the multitude of differences amongst people out there in the broader population.

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