Thursday, February 25, 2010

Atheist bus slogans. Pathetic?

Canto: In the July/August 2009 issue of Philosophy Now, Charles Taylor was interviewed by Chris Bloor, a former student of his. It was a pretty soft interview, and generally unsatisfying, but I was intrigued by a particular ‘unguarded moment’, which I found particularly revealing. Here is the exchange:
Bloor: I was thinking about your recent book A Secular Age this morning and a bus passed by with an atheist [or more correctly, agnostic] slogan ‘There’s probably no God: now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
Taylor:  I heard about that! It’s hilariously funny. It’s very odd, isn’t it? I’m trying to figure out why this is happening in our time. This new phenomena is puzzling – atheists that want to spread the ‘gospel’, and are sometimes very angry. I think it may be rather like the response of certain bishops to Darwin in the 19th century. The bishops had a sense that the world was going in a certain direction – more and more conversion, and so on – and then they find they’re suddenly upset in their expectation and they get very rattled and very angry. Similarly, we’re seeing this now among the secularising intelligentsia – liberals who felt that the world was going in a certain direction, that it was all going according to plan  - and then when it seems not to be, they get rattled. So you get these rather pathetic phenomena. Putting things on buses as though that’s going to make people somehow change their view about God, the universe, the meaning of life and so on. A bus slogan! It’s not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody.
Jacinta: Well, where do we begin? At the beginning I suppose. When Taylor says he thinks it’s hilariously funny, I suspect it’s because he’s rattled, and so the best way to respond is to be contemptuous. To pretend it’s only to be laughed at. Next he claims to be puzzled – as if the rise of a response to increasingly in your face avowals of belief is more odd than the phenomenon it's responding to! Of course non-believers are responding with increasing irritation to the endless slogans they themselves are being confronted with on a daily basis, on car rear windows and bumper bars, on letterboxes and t-shirts, on church billboards, sometimes in glorious neon. Jesus saves, Yes Jesus loves me [and you too], Jesus is the answer, What would Jesus think, Honk if you love Jesus, Not perfect, just forgiven, etc. The word for this phenomenon is exactly the one Taylor used for the response to it. It’s pathetic.
Canto: Bravo, Jass, but you’ve stolen my thunder. To continue the analysis, Taylor speaks about atheists ‘spreading the gospel’ and being very angry. Why though, does Taylor jump from a perfectly calm and reasonable bus slogan to atheist anger? And also to an atheist ‘gospel’? Note the bus slogan has the word ‘probably’ in it – which prompted Bloor to remark, rightly, that it was an agnostic slogan.  You won’t get too many religious slogans with the word ‘probably’ in them. In fact, let’s face it, you’ll never get any, ever. Yet all this is lost on Taylor, who only sees the spread of ‘gospel’ and lots of anger, which is surely his own projection.
Jacinta:  And you know, what follows is what at first seems a slightly more insightful line of thought, where Taylor reflects on the idea that atheists thought they were winning, but the rise of creationism, fundamentalism and the like set them back on their heels, and now they’re angry and disappointed that their takeover of the world might be delayed or even abandoned. Taylor compares this to the rise of evolutionary theory, when the bishops got angry because they thought they were going to take over the world and convert everyone, but along came evolutionary theory to spoil it all. In other words, Taylor is, rather carelessly, putting evolution on the same footing as fundamentalism. But, though, Taylor likes to emphasize anger, the sense of outrage, and the often ludicrous arguments of the bishops can hardly be compared with the books being put out by the so-called new atheists. Are there any writings by the nineteenth century anti-evolution  bishops that could stand up to scrutiny today? The answer is no; they were simply fulminating, they didn’t have any decent arguments. By contrast, the new atheists do have good arguments. Some are better than others, no doubt, but none of these works are simply fulminations – even though they have plenty to fulminate against. One shouldn’t forget that the bishops were rising against a scientific theory that has since become the cornerstone of modern biology. The ‘new atheists’ are rising against the murderous and irrational nature of fundamentalism, and the threat that ‘creationism’ poses to a deeper and more open understanding of our world. And they’re making valid points about the dogmatism and the anti-intellectualism of all religious belief, and expressing a hope that we can collectively rise above this sort of stuff. There’s really no comparison, Charles Taylor. Check.
Canto:  Yes, and to get back to the atheist/agnostic bus slogan, Taylor seems quite miffed, and threatened by it. That’s why he says he finds it hilarious. He’s expressing his contempt. But let me repeat his little hissy fit about the bus slogan, and I’ll ask you to imagine that he’s talking about Christian slogans, the slogans we’re all so familiar with.
So you get these rather pathetic phenomena. Putting things on buses as though that’s going to make people somehow change their view about God, the universe, the meaning of life and so on. A bus slogan! It’s not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody.
Spot on, Chaz, you’re right – these mind-numbingly fatuous Christian slogans won’t change anyone’s mind about the fundamental issues, will they?  Maybe they just use them to remind everyone that, hey, we’re god-botherers, we’re in your face and we’re not going away. And maybe atheists are playing a bit of tit for tat. But you know there’s an imbalance here. I mean, how many atheist slogans are there by comparison to Christian slogans? One in ten? Hardly. One in a hundred? Come now. One in a thousand? Well that’s getting closer, but it’s still not close. And you know that. You really need to think things through a bit, mate.

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