Friday, 9 January 2009

All aboard the Atheist Bus Complaint


There are now, according to Ruth Gledhill of the Times, more than 50 people who have taken it upon themselves to complain about the Atheist Bus Campaign and its adverts, now adorning buses throughout London (and, soon, the rest of the UK). This is an advance from yesterday, when it appeared that fighting God's corner would be left to Stephen Green, a man whose most significant achievement to date has ironically been to ensure the abolition of the law of blasphemy. Green is easy to dismiss as a laughable publicity-seeking baboon, a vexatious litigant and professional complainer who manages to damage the reputation of the Christian religion every time he opens his mouth. But it now appears that the rather more serious figure of Clifford Longley, a Roman Catholic journalist who is often described as a "distinguished commentator", is among those to have gone crying to the Advertising Standard Authority.

So far, leaders of the bus campaign have treated the complaints with amusement, even delight. The notion of the ASA being called upon to rule of the probability or otherwise of God's existence is absurd. Gledhill is also looking forward to it: "What fun! That will be a judgement to read." But we should, perhaps - and whatever view we take on the existence or otherwise of God - be starting to worry. Religious campaigners are always complaining about being sidelined, but they are remarkably jealous of their privileges. Even the prospect of a secular voice presenting Radio 4's Thought For The Day brings out passionate denunciations from the God Squad. For many, it seems, the Atheist Bus represents a symbolic line in the sand.

It's as well to remember what prompted Atheist Campaign founder Ariane Sherine to her stroke of genius: it was being confronted with religious propaganda on her morning bus, including a link to a website that spoke movingly of the reality of hellfire and damnation for anyone not signing up to the God package. Her slogan, "There's probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life" is mildness itself, chosen so as not to offend ASA guidelines on factual claims. It's no secret that some more go-ahead atheist types, including Richard Dawkins himself, would have preferred a less equivocating statement, such as "there is almost certainly no God", or "there is a miniscule possibility of the existence of God" or even, bluntly, There Is No God.

Whether or not "there is probably no God" accurately reflects the weight of evidence is not something that a committee such as the ASA can reasonably be expected to decide. But however it is worded, it is clearly a statement of opinion, an invitation to thought, a stimulus to debate. To complain about its factual accuracy is at best mischevious. Stephen Green resorts to remarkable sophistry when attempting to explain why Christian slogans wouldn't fall foul of the same rule against "misleading" claims that he seeks to invoke:


a statement such as "The Bible says 'the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord'" is entirely factual. The Bible does say that. The statement "Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life - no-one comes to the Father but by me,'" to take another example, is a Biblical quote


By the same token, "There is probably no God" is merely a quotation from the Atheist Bus Campaign.

But if we can safely ignore Stephen Green, Clifford Longley is a different matter. A prominent journalist and writer, a regular panellist on the Moral Maze and contributor to Thought For The Day, he is as much a member of the Establishment as Green is a resentful outsider. I must say he always struck me as a pompous twat, and boring with it. His main value on the Moral Maze is to be reliably wrong on almost every issue. But his CV gives him a kind of credibility, which means that the ASA may feel forced to treat his complaint with more seriousness than it deserves.

Yet the terms in which Longley frames his complaint, couched in pseudo-intellectual and cod-scientific verbiage, are little different from those of the fatuous Green.

Green writes:

There is plenty of evidence for God, from peoples' personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world. But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it.

Longley's complaint says more or less the same thing, but makes it sound complex and deep.

The statement “There’s probably no God”, as currently seen on the side of London buses, is untrue and dishonest, in so far as the word “probably” completely fails to reflect the true state of the scientific argument. In fact it would be honest and true to say the opposite - “There probably is a God.” A fair reading of the material below could lead to no other conclusion.


Coming from someone with intellectual pretensions, the hollowness of this argument is fairly startling. There is no "scientific argument" about the existence of God. Once philosophers, scientists, theologians - or anyone else - enters the realm of theology by talking about the "proofs" of God's existence, they are by definition no longer doing science. This is why, however much Richard Dawkins uses his understanding of evolution as evidence against God, his atheistic polemics do not form part of his scientific output. Surely Longley realises this. Apparently not, because he then comes out with some ill-understood cosmology:

According to growing numbers of scientists, the laws and constants of nature are so "finely-tuned," and so many "coincidences" have occurred to allow for the possibility of life, the universe must have come into existence through intentional planning and intelligence.

'In fact, this "fine-tuning" is so pronounced, and the "coincidences" are so numerous, many scientists have come to espouse "The Anthropic Principle," which contends that the universe was brought into existence intentionally for the sake of producing mankind. Even those who do not accept The Anthropic Principle admit to the "fine-tuning" and conclude that the universe is "too contrived" to be a chance event.


OK, where shall we start? Far from being an argument for the existence of God, as Longley seems to think, the "Anthropic Principle" is something very like the opposite. It states the fact (which should be obvious) that, if the universe were not of a kind in which intelligent life could evolve, then we would not be here to wonder where it came from. It says nothing about how the universe came to be, or how such "fine-tuning" occurs. There are many possible explanations. Perhaps the most popular is that there are many different universes, and we happen, of necessity, to live in one in which it is possible for organised complexity to emerge. It's even conceivable that these universes evolve by a process akin to natural selection. Since only stable and complex universes reach a state of maturity in which new universes might come into being (probably through black holes), if follows that complex universes would come to predominate. So an "anthropic" universe, far from wildly improbable, might actually be the norm. All this is pure speculation, of course. But so is the existence of God.

It is possible, of course (perhaps even likely), that the universe in which we live has been intelligently designed, at least to the extent of fixing the initial conditions, but even then there would be no reason whatever to suppose that it was intelligently designed by God, as God is conceived of by traditional religions: a being eternal, omniscient, all-wise and benevolent. Anyone in possession of the technological ability to create and manipulate black holes - something which is far from inconceivable, however beyond current technology - would be capable of creating a universe. A remote descendant of CERN's Large Hadron Collider might function as just such a Universe Creating Machine, but its operators would not be God.

The rest of Longley's complaint to the ASA, designed to rebut the ad's claim that there is "probably" no God, consists of a series of out-of-context quotes from well-known scientists such as Paul Davies, David D. Deutch and Stephen Hawking. He cites as his sources an old Horizon documentary on the Anthropic Principle and a feature from Science magazine dated August 1997. Science, needless to say, it about the accumulation of data and the formulation of hypothesis: it does not proceed by appealing to the opinions of scientists, however eminent. Even Darwin wasn't right all the time: but it's no argument against natural selection to point to a passage in The Origin of Species and say "Aha - Darwin was wrong about that!". Anyway, this is what Longley has to say about Hawking:

"For example," Hawking wrote, "if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded... It seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers (for the constants) that would allow for development of any form of intelligent life. Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty." Hawking said this was evidence of "a divine purpose in Creation and the choice of the laws of science (by God)" (ibid. p. 125).


As far as I know, Hawking is an atheist. He has often complained of the use made of his famous remark about science aiming to "know the mind of God" by religious polemicists. Longley's selective quotation - which does, I suppose, prove that he is nothing if not a journalist - must therefore rank as deliberate misinterpretation. At the very least it proves that Longley has not taken the trouble to acquaint himself with Hawking's actual opinions before using him as evidence in his ridiculous complaint.

Actually, it's worse even than that. Longley's complaint turns out to have been lifted almost verbatim from a Creationist website (a poster on Andrew Brown's Guardian blog spotted this). The original article, dated Feb 20, 2000, by Rabbi Mordechai Steinman and Dr. Gerald Schroeder, also appears on the Jewish website aish.com. It includes, and Longley reproduces, a lengthy quote from "Dr. Dennis Scania, the distinguished head of Cambridge University Observatories". The only trouble is that there is no such person. There was a Dr Dennis Sciama, now deceased, at Cambridge, who is presumably the source of the quote; but Longley didn't see the need to check the facts behind his internet source before going to the ASA.

It is scarcely credible that such a supposedly intelligent, learned - and undoubtedly experienced - commentator should have imagined that his lazy act of plagiarism wouldn't be found out. Or that the journalistic standards of this old-school writer should have been so lax. But there we are. What this farce reveals is that Longley isn't merely scientifically illiterate, he's also incompetent. And by his ill-considered, pointless, hurriedly cut-and-pasted complaint he has showed himself to be a fool. An even bigger fool, if such a thing were possible, than Stephen Green himself. Maybe there is a God after all, and he supports the Atheist Bus Campaign.

27 comments:

valdemar squelch said...

As someone who handed the lovely Ariane Sherine (the UK's Miss Rational Scepticism 2009) some of my hard-earned cash, I'm rather chuffed. I am particularly pleased at the extra publicity for our campaign that the 'pompous twats' complaining about it will generate. It's amazing, really. With luck the Pope will soon be able to see the message from his balcony, and then the man who once swore a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler can say he's all upset and hurt, too. Such larks, Pip!

Cranmer's Curate said...

As an evangelical Christian who is committed to evangelism, I'm thanking God for the atheist bus campaign. It completely subverts the Alistair Campbell philosophy of marginalising religious faith from the public sphere summarised in his famous aphorism: "We don't do God". What better way of getting conversations going about issues of faith with the man on the Clapham Omnibus than the atheist bus campaign? It gives us a great opportunity to talk about our hope in Christ. Please ASA - listen to the Heresiarch rather than to Mr Longley.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska said...

I think perhaps the argument has more to do with the hypocrisy of first bewailing preaching by Christians and their bus adverts and then... erm, turning round and doing exactly the same.

Still, it's not the first time that Dawkins the High Priest has done exactly that which he accuses others of... or that the supposedly rational and myth-debunking media have quietly given him a miss in their Blastings and Blessings because he happens to attack creationism.

Never mind that he talks philosophical nonsense, promotes outdated 19th Century world views and shamelessly distorts historical understandings of the origins of life to support his own Whiggish interpretation of history (take his recent programme, where he doesn't even deign to mention epigenesis/ontogeny or Aristotle, but rather paints a picture of science vs. religion that has never been the truth.)

Olive said...

"The Anthropic Principle," ... contends that the universe was brought into existence intentionally for the sake of producing mankind.

One thing I've never understood about this principle is that if it's true, how come so much of the universe is uninhabitable by man? By this logic I should fill 99.99999% of the Habitrail that houses my son's hamsters with acid, barbed wire and cats.

mogsmar5 said...

Did I read this right? Last time I checked the Anthropic Principle was an argument against design, not in support of it!

valdemar squelch said...

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska - are you a French post-structuralist? It's just your indifference to facts leads me to think you might be.

Dr Dawkins did not organise the bus campaign, it was Ariane Sherine, as I mentioned in my post earlier. Fact. Dawkins lent his financial and moral support. As did Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker, A.C. Grayling (a proper, bona fide philosopher, gosh) and a lot of others.

Ms Sherine objected to Christians trying to terrorise people with fantasies about Hell and eternal damnation. You know, that central tenet of their faith that so many of them are ashamed of. (How are you on Hell, Cranmer's Curate? Happy to see the heathen all chucked into it?)

Oh, and I'd be fascinated to hear what 'historical understandings of the origins of life' you have to offer us?

Edwin said...

Perhaps we could also have a Gnostic bus - to adapt Kingsley Amis, it's not whether or not it exists that matters, it's what it's going to do to us when it gets here.

I wouldn't pay for it though. The Atheist Bus is a a great idea.

The Heresiarch said...

Looking again at that photo, my admiration for Ariane Sherine grows. I just hope she didn't get hypothermia in that tee-shirt. It was a very cold day on Tuesday. RD and PollyT certainly wrapped up warm.

In its stronger variants, the anthropic principle reminds me slightly of Leibnitz' contention that this is the "best of all possible worlds" - which so amused Voltaire. But I don't really understand it. The weak anthropic principle makes much more sense. If the universe couldn't support life, we wouldn't exist. Obvious, really.

Surely a Gnostic bus would read There is Probably No Bus. Or would that be a Zen bus?

valdemar squelch said...

So Ariane Sherine is a hottie in more than one sense of the word.

Stanislaw Lem dubbed the Weak Anthropic Principle the Schnapps Principle. If the physical laws of the universe had been slightly different, we wouldn't have schnapps. Pick your favourite tipple, it works for them all. Even Baileys.

The flawed assumption is that intelligent life couldn't evolve in a universe with radically physical laws. A universe without planets might still produce intelligence in the form of highly organised clouds of ionised gas. (And if that sounds improbable, imagine all the unlikely things that had to happen during strange aeons to produce, say, Ann Widdecombe.)

valdemar squelch said...

Sorry, missed word out - 'radically different physical laws', I meant to write.

Edwin said...

One is not supposed to say, of course, but Ariane is extraordinarily beautiful. I remember reading Joss Whedon on his casting of David Boreanz as Angel: DB gave a terrible audition, says Whedon, but he decided to cast him as the women in Whedon's office stopped breathing when he came into the room - Ariane is another such.

Valdemar, as you like Lem I wonder if you like the Tarkovsky version of Solaris?

I love this scene - and the Bach chorale is so beautiful.

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=iFAlegTEBUU

Maybe Bach has the answer: the concertos are humans talking to humans, the St Matthew passion is us talking to God and the chorales are God talking to himself (someone else must have said that but I can't think who).

passer by said...

"probably is not a god" ? should it not be the agnostic bus?

valdemar squelch said...

Edwin, it's a while since I watched Solaris but I much prefer the original version to the pseudo-remake with George Clooney. That scene is one of the finest I've seen in any motion picture. The hunters in the snow - what do they signify? No idea, but it's moving.

Ariane Sherine's beauty is indeed a major factor, especially when you look at Stephen Green and his ilk. If you want to see another attractive young atheist, try Laci at:

http://uk.youtube.com/user/gogreen18?ob=4

As a Whedon fan I take your point about Boreanaz, though actually I quite like his acting. Same goes for the lovely Eliza Dushku.

Edwin said...

The stillness in the painting is astonishing - love that raven in the air.

I'll pass on Laci ta it's near my bedtime and I mustn't get over-excited!

Whedon apparently taught his young crew how to act through group Shakespeare readings - if that's not true Heresiarch (or any other wise person out else out there) please do not disillusion me - keep your buses in the garage.

That episode where Buffy awakes in a mental hospital being visited by her parents is horrifying - if she believes in that reality, her slayer existence is a childish fantasy; if she believes in the slayer universe, she loses her mother again as well as her sister, Dawn.

Too much reality, as Eliot's wee bird says!

Thanks again Heresiarch - your blogs always wake me up, the last few have been partcularly starry I think.

The Heresiarch said...

I've read the story about Whedon's Shakespeare readings - in an interview with James Marsters, I think. The Shakespeare references are threaded through the shows - as are references to Whedon's other enthusiasms, such as William Burroughs and the Wizard of Oz. A man of impeccable taste, JW. It amazes me that some people imagined it was a show about vampires.

I must own to sharing Valdemar's enthusiasm for Eliza Dushku. From a dramatic point of view, too, Faith always struck me as a more convincing Vampire Slayer than Buffy. It's a shame she was in so few episodes.

As for the episode in the psychiatric hospital: the last scene was particularly striking. Some theorists understood it as invoking a "many universes" theory: there's our universe, in which there are no vampires and Buffy is a mental patient; and the parallel universe where there are vampires and a place called Sunnydale. Before that episode I had already come to a similar theory about the Buffy universe: that the show was a drama set in the real world and the vampires were simply in Buffy's head. But I hadn't come up with the mental institution scenario.

So, Valdemar and Edwin are both fellow Buffy obsessives. I had guessed... Like I say, an infallible sign of good taste.

valdemar squelch said...

Oh dear, I'll have to start re-watching the series. Just did Firefly. Am awaiting Ms Dushku's next outing with some trepidation, as Dollhouse seems a troubled production.

Recall Giles' lecture in the first episode (to try to return to the topic). I hope my memory is not too much at fault as it's first thing in the morning and I'm in a rush:

'This earth of ours is older than we know, and contrary to some myths, it was never a paradise.'

I recall JW's commentary to the effect that it was amazing what they 'got away with' on US network TV.

Edwin said...

I see Ariane is in the 'My Week' section of the Sunday Times today talking about the impact of the campaign. She doesn't mention the Guardian in describing the origin of the campaign, just 'a comment article for the web' but this doesn't mean Ariane didn't mention the paper of course, the subs would have cut any reference to the Guardian just as the Guardian subs (if any still exist) would have cut any reference to the ST if it was the other way round.

Ariane says Graham Linehan (fab man) told her to wear a jumper as she might catch cold and thus be told she was being punished by God (it was minus 5) - I expect the snappers argued otherwise.

Oh I see above i put Dawn in the same universe as Buffy's mum but of course they cannot co-exist at that point of time - must stop posting when drinking!

The Heresiarch said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Edwin. I love this of Ariane's:

"My 83-year-old Zoroastrian grandmother sewed advert covers for the launch and told me that my devout Jehovah’s Witness great-aunt saw me on BBC News. “What did she say?” I asked nervously. “She said it was very nice,” my grandmother replied."

Scunnered, O'Aberdein said...

It's depressing that there is anyone who might believe anything that they read on the side of a bus.

valdemar squelch said...

I also like Ms Sherine's confession about fibbing over her organising 'corporate functions' when in fact she should have said 'my birthday party'. She will go far with such initiative. And I'm sure Einstein didn't mind being creased by her bottom. He was a fun bloke.

WeepingCross said...

I should like it on record that I mentioned the Atheist Buses in a sermon without the phrases 'Down With This Sort of Thing' or 'Careful Now' appearing once. I heard Ms Sherine on the magic wireless this morning and thought what a good advert for humanism she is, much better than that slavering idiot Dr D. It should also be on record that I thought this before I had any idea what she looked like.

(The worst part of my mind is now coming up with all sorts of libellous matter such as Dr D 'investigating her genetic heritage'. That will not find its way into a sermon. Probably.)

WeepingCross said...

Valdemar:
"I hope my memory is not too much at fault as it's first thing in the morning and I'm in a rush"

On your way to Mass, I presume.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska said...

Mr. Squelch, where did I contradict your "facts"?

I am not a post-structuralist. Grayling is not highly considered in philosophical circles. Motor-cars go quickly.

lost causes said...

H - please copy and paste this article to the ASA - in my experience they are actually a well organised body and I'm sure they'll take it on. As Charlie Brooker notes, we need to be able to complain about the complainers (where each of our complaints cancels out one of theirs).

These (certain, foolish) Christians, want to stifle free-speech, in a way that would outrage them if the shoe were on the other foot.

As for Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, is it possible to actually state your argument rather than rattling off ad-hom's and other logical fallacies?

"I think perhaps the argument has more to do with the hypocrisy of first bewailing preaching by Christians and their bus adverts and then... erm, turning round and doing exactly the same."

- it is the Christian message of eternal damnation that is being objected to, not the medium of bus advertising. Everyone should, of course, be entitled to free speech.

"Still, it's not the first time that Dawkins the High Priest has done exactly that which he accuses others of... or that the supposedly rational and myth-debunking media have quietly given him a miss in their Blastings and Blessings because he happens to attack creationism."

- "supposedly rational and myth-debunking media"!! which one is that? Last time I looked it was all stories about UFOs hitting wind turbines...

"Never mind that he talks philosophical nonsense, promotes outdated 19th Century world views and shamelessly distorts historical understandings of the origins of life to support his own Whiggish interpretation of history"

- Firstly, exactly what philosophical nonsense? Mostly he argues against the incursion of philosophical ideas into scientific arguments.

"(take his recent programme, where he doesn't even deign to mention epigenesis/ontogeny or Aristotle, but rather paints a picture of science vs. religion that has never been the truth.)"

- Of course, in the past, philosophy and science were considered to be one and the same, however today's understanding of the scientific method shows that they are not. It is for the scientist to discover the truth through testable hypotheses - the philosopher is left with some interesting, but ultimately subjective ideas.

Anonymous said...

"a remote descendant of CERN's Large Hadron Collider might function as just such a Universe Creating Machine, but its operators would not be God"

or would they?...

The Heresiarch said...

Well I wouldn't be sacrificing any sheep to them, or expecting them to cure my aunt's cancer.

Aquaria said...

"(take his recent programme, where he doesn't even deign to mention epigenesis/ontogeny or Aristotle, but rather paints a picture of science vs. religion that has never been the truth.)"


Dawkins doesn't mention it because it's a program for the masses, not an academic discussion. He is speaking about science vs. religion because it's his big thing now that the religious nuts are trying to disrupt science. They are trying to force specific theological precepts taught as science in classrooms. They are trying to stifle discussion, debate and research into a host of issues.

And all of that has jack-all to do with a bus campaign, anyway. Why bring your personal pet peeves into the discussion?