Special Report

Those Odd Atheist Bus-Slogans

What is the joy that belief kills?

By 1.26.09

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British atheists have paid to have buses carry advertisements saying: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Professor of Atheism Richard Dawkins, a geneticist by training, is a major supporter of this campaign and has put quite a lot of his own money into it. (A much humbler figure, a bus driver, has possibly made a bigger sacrifice by refusing to drive buses bearing the message, but that's another story.)

In America a similar campaign of bus ads reads: ""Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake!" while leaving the definition of what would be "good" in a world without a god rather unclear (though it is true that Marxism and Nazism gave us some idea).

Writing in the Daily Express, former British Conservative government minister and Catholic Ann Widdecombe has remarked that this advertisement is strange. She says:

To most believers that is baffling because the existence of God is the main reason why we do enjoy our lives and expect to go on enjoying life, in a different form, for all eternity, but let us lay that aside and concentrate on other aspects of this very odd message.

What exactly are we to stop worrying about? And what is the joy that belief kills? Presumably the answer to the first is judgment and the second is undue indulgence. In other words this advertisement is urging a society already steeped in selfishness, materialism and cheap celebrity towards even greater hedonism and moral anarchy.… No real joy is banned by belief. What is prohibited is lack of restraint: casual and promiscuous sex, obsession with money and drunkenness, but not healthy relationships, material well-being and a glass or two of wine…The essence of the message is "lay aside conscience and do what you like," but even non-believers recognize that if we lived by the Ten Commandments, life for all would be better.

If my neighbour believes "Thou shall not steal" I can leave my door open… the bus campaign…is advocating a selfish lifestyle at a time when we all need the opposite.

If, as C. S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, we believe that we and our neighbors were created by God to live forever, we will treat ourselves and one another differently. But it actually goes further than this. If man had in the past taken to heart the injunction that "There's probably no God," not only would there be no hope of eternal Salvation, and no fixed ground for morality, but there would also be no art, science or civilization.

Western art grew from our religion and a striving to illuminate and understand mankind's relationship with God. So did non-Western art -- the pyramids, the Norse sagas, the statues of Easter Island and a number of other things that enrich our lives. Even cave-art was almost certainly related to the supernatural. Belief produced Michelangelo's Pieta and the Sistine Chapel, Leonardo's The Last Supper, the great Cathedrals of Europe, the works of Dante, Shakespeare, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and virtually every great masterpiece.

Modern atheist art has produced the pickled cows and sharks of Damien Hirst, the soiled bed-linen of Professor Tracey Emin, and, in literature, the mumblings and ravings of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, attempts to portray a meaningless world. Socrates and Plato, pagans but believers in a god, laid the foundations of Western philosophy, including its humanistic aspects. Atheism produced the meaninglessness and worse of Nietzsche, an unintentional progenitor of Nazism, and then of Sartre, spiritual father of the Pol Pot Genocide, as atheism produced Communism in general, responsible for about 100 million deaths and ruined lives beyond count.

Supernatural aspects aside, what these bus ads seem to actually promise and hold out to us is at best a world and a vision of dullness and drabness, from which color, splendor and even interest has been largely excluded, at worst something a great deal more terrible.

Further, and as is not emphasized enough, not only Western art and thought, but also Western sciences and technology, are the products of Judaism and Christianity, the one religious tradition which welcomed and exalted reason, as it exalted art, for the greater glory of God.

The first industrialization of Europe, with water wheels replacing slaves driven by the lash, was the work of monks. The Romans knew of water wheels, but made only a small number, even at times when they were apparently short of slave labor. By the Middle Ages, thanks to the monasteries, there were thousands of water-wheels and windmills, helping free humans, and indeed some animals, from lives of dull and torturous drudgery. One medieval monk wrote a poem celebrating the fact that, with the harnessing of water-power, horses' backs no longer need be broken.

Monks also put books into their modern form, replacing scrolls, and making possible printing. They designed and instituted public clocks and raised agriculture to a science. They preserved the heritage of the classical world through the Dark Ages: the art and science of Greece and the technology of Rome. Previously, when in ancient times civilizations had fallen, all the small store of knowledge which they had painfully scraped together had been lost with them (the Greeks of Homer's time and of classical antiquity had no idea that civilizations had existed in the Mediterranean before them). The monks of Europe were responsible for not only innumerable inventions but for their application to improve life, and on an organized, institutional basis, making the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages the first great era of rapid human advancement.

Christianity, which, with its obvious close links to the Jewish Rabbinical tradition and ethic, had been founded by a carpenter, and whose first leading figures included a tent-maker, a doctor and fishermen, was a religion, and created a culture, which honored men who did things. This was a great change from the great civilizations of the past, including Egypt, Greece and Rome, where the artisan was despised and had a status little if any better than a slave. Greek science tended to concentrate on gentlemanly occupations like astronomy and geometry, though astronomy could not progress far because it was beneath them to make lenses. (One can imagine Archimedes holding his nose as he made war-engines.) Saint Paul, with the injunction to use the things that are visible to discover the things that are invisible, may be seen to have specifically endorsed science and technology, one of many things which made Christianity radically unlike any preceding religions or ethical systems.

At Glastonbury in England and elsewhere the monks pioneered metallurgy. There is strong archeological evidence that at the time when Henry VIII destroyed the English monasteries the monks of Britain had begun to develop blast furnaces. The Church set up and nurtured the University system to not only preserve but, for the first time, to accumulate knowledge, lifting mankind for the first and only time above the "ceiling" of slave labor, animal power, and sails, and, eventually, above an average life-expectancy of about 30 years.

Professor Dawkins's own discipline of genetics was created by Gregor Mendel, a 19th century abbot. It was the glory of God that inspired and drove onwards Copernicus (a priest), Newton, Boyle, Max Planck and countless other great scientists, as well as, later, the likes of the lay preacher Buzz Aldrin. Even many of those scientists and other geniuses not conventional believers were Deists of one kind or another. Adam Smith, probably the world's greatest creator of prosperity, said relatively little about religion, but he said enough, including on his death bed, to show he believed. His friend Edmund Burke made the point that without religion men reverted to barbarous and degrading superstition.

The Catholic Church was, for most of history, a greater patron of astronomy than all other institutions combined, for it took knowledge seriously.

In the 18th and 19th centuries men of religion, Catholic and Protestant, continued to play major roles. Among the many great Catholic clerical astronomers might be mentioned Giuseppe Piazzi, who discovered the first asteroid, Ceres, in 1801, and established the observatory at Palermo. Piazzi also obtained modern equipment and instruments for it, and converted Palermo from a backwater in poverty-stricken and ignorant Sicily to a great center for astronomy, a position it has maintained ever since, later being involved with the first imaging X-ray astrophysics. Despite being a Catholic priest and indeed a professor of dogmatic theology in Rome, in 1788 Piazzi traveled to England to work with the astronomer Nevil Maskelyne, a Protestant minister, and the famous instrument-maker Ramsden. A little before this a Jesuit mathematician, R. G. Boscovich, had played a key role in charting the way to modern nuclear physics. Charles Babbage, who designed the forerunner of the modern computer, and was a distinguished scientist and inventor in other fields as well as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge from 1828 to 1839, was also a keen theologian and author of theological writings, including the 1837 treatise On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation. In the 20th century another Catholic priest was responsible for probably the greatest astronomical discovery possible to be made: the Big Bang.

It is still the church as an institution -- far more, I think, than any atheistic scientists -- which stands against the coming together of bad religion, bad reason and bad science in the so-called "New Age."

There was, as Chesterton put it, a certain inevitability in the fact that the civilization that believed in the Trinity also discovered steam.

One of the great ironies of atheism is that by denying God it insults man. Atheists often call themselves "humanists," but it is religious belief that is the only true humanism, for it is only religious belief which holds that man is something more than dust, and holds the human brain to be more than a chance assembly of atoms. For another odd thing is that if you believe in God, you get belief in man added in.

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About the Author
Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.