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.
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.