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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The atheist bus

There's an advertising campaign going on in the UK at the moment involving buses with signs that say:

There's probably no God.

Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.


I love this slogan. It makes the point well - it expresses the position of religious sceptics since the time of Epicurus, one of my philosophical heroes. Epicurus didn't deny the existence of beings whom he identified with the Greek gods, but he saw them as ultimately being material creatures, though much more powerful and fortunate than we are. To Epicurus, the gods are serene, beyond emotions such as jealousy, and uninterested in creatures like us. They do not lower themselves to intervene in human affairs (contrast the jealous deity of the Old Testament). For all practical purposes, Epicureanism was an atheistic philosophy. The Epicureans' slogan would have been: "There's no heaven or hell, so stop worrying and enjoy the life you have." Of course, their idea of how to enjoy your life was surprisingly ascetic - cultivate your garden, relish the company of friends, and treat yourself to simple pleasures.

The atheist bus message is in response to religious messages on buses that ask us to worry about whether we're "saved" or not, and about what's going to happen to us after death. It's a nice, gentle riposte. I love it, and I think Ariane Sherine, who came up with the whole atheist bus campaign, deserves huge congratulations.

Of course, a message like this breaks a powerful taboo. Generally speaking, there's a taboo in our society against criticising religion, let alone taking out commercial advertisements with an anti-religious slogan, however moderately phrased. Well, let's break this taboo by all means. The coverage that the campaign has been receiving, with headlines all over the world, shows just how unexpected and dramatic such a mild message in support of atheism can be. Imagine if they had dropped out the word "probably"! This was actually imposed on them in the approval process, but it improves the message, I think, by giving it a kind of laid-back, matter-of-fact tone.

Among the many issues that have come up is that a bus driver objected to driving one of the buses. So what do you do in such a situation? I'm not going to suggest that bus drivers should have a right of conscientious objection to driving buses with advertisements for products that they dislike or perhaps even consider morally abhorrent. Where does it end if you go down that path? Some will object to advertisements for various meat products, some to advertisements for sexy clothes, some to ... well, God knows what (as it were).

Can Muslim taxi drivers refuse to drive you home from the airport if you're carrying your quota of duty free alcohol? Can Catholic doctors refuse to perform abortions, even if it's necessary to save a woman's life? The possibilities go on and on, and we shouldn't be too quick to give everyone who claims to have a moral or religious scruple the right to decide what work they will or will not do. In some cases, their employer has every right to demand that they carry out the requirements of the job. In other cases, it goes beyond that: there's a strong public policy necessity to avoid people picking and choosing. E.g. a pregnant woman is in a vulnerable situation; she needs to be confident that hospital staff will not even contemplate putting her life at risk if something goes wrong. If an emergency abortion is needed, the doctors and nurses mustn't hesitate to act.

But what about this incident under discussion, the one about the atheist bus? Here, an employee has been caught up in an unusual, unexpected, and newsworthy situation. As a Christian, this particular driver has become upset because he was directed to drive one of the buses with the atheist message. Should a manager simply dismiss him from employment for refusing to carry out a lawful and reasonable direction? How reasonable would it really be to insist on the direction without looking at alternatives (such as allocating another driver to drive this particular bus)?

Having worked in managerial jobs in my time, not to mention spending quite a few years of my life doing quasi-legal industrial relations work (acting as an advocate in industrial tribunals) then having worked for awhile as a lawyer in a major firm, mainly doing employee and labour relations law, maybe I look at this a bit differently from the way some people seem to. From an employee relations, union relations, and public relations perspective, I think that a manager who dug in and insisted, then summarily dismissed the employee if he didn't drive the bus, would be crazy.

Given the unusual circumstances, such an insistence on managerial prerogative would be widely seen as unreasonable (perhaps not by the "some people" I referred to, but certainly by a lot of folks out there in the media-devouring public). It would be a PR disaster for the bus company and the campaign ... and, depending on the law in the jurisdiction concerned, the company would very likely find itself on the back foot in attempting to defend an unfair dismissal claim.

As it happens, the company acted quite moderately and leniently. In my view, the relevant manager was smart about this one ... or took smart advice.

Over at Richard Dawkins' (very useful) site, however, the majority view is that the Christian bus driver should have been dealt with very harshly. Basically sacked on the spot. Perhaps I made a mistake in getting involved in an argument about this, because after awhile you can feel as if you're bashing your head against a brick wall.

My feeling is that my fellow atheists are often so exasperated by what they see (rightly, I think) as the continual solicitude given to religion that they can lose perspective and be tempted to some unwise actions. Or at least to sounding off on the internet in defence of those sorts of actions, which is a lot easier. The beauty of the internet is that everyone has a say but no one has the responsibility. Fortunately, the atheist bus campaign itself hasn't worked like that: its gentle, laid-back approach has been one of its great pluses. It's getting publicity without presenting a confrontational message.

Oh well, maybe I'm wrong after all ... since so many people disagree with me. Maybe I'm just feeling exasperated.

Or just maybe an employer or a campaign that has this sort of problem would be better off coming to me for advice on strategic issues than to some of the more gung-ho posters on Dawkins' site.

5 comments:

Blake Stacey said...

Imagine if they had dropped out the word "probably"! This was actually imposed on them in the approval process, but it improves the message, I think, by giving it a kind of laid-back, matter-of-fact tone.

Agreed. We were talking about this at dinner last night, and we figured that having the word "probably" in there makes people at least a little more likely to think, "Hmmm, why? Or why not?"

I agree with you about the bus driver business, too. (Loud people on the Internet are loud. Film at 11.)

J. J. Ramsey said...

When I first heard of the atheist bus ads in the UK, I thought that it was kind of pointless, since Britain was already so irreligious. After seeing the bus driver's reaction, it doesn't seem so pointless.

I do agree, though, that the manager handled the problem reasonably well. The taboo has been broken and the point made. No need for martyrs here.

Also, what's interesting is that the message on the bus was simply a statement in favor of atheism, and not something suggesting that the religious were stupid or crazy. The high road was taken and the point was still made.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, I think it's important to take the high road here. No need to be in people's faces.

I boggle at what the reaction might have been in the US.

J. J. Ramsey said...

I think we already have a hint of the answer to that question in the response to the AHA's bus campaign.

Tine said...

It's not because a lot of people agree with you that you're wrong. You're only hearing the voices from one particular site.
I, for one, agree with you, that it's better to handle it quietly. Had they fired him, there would have been backlash at the message that was on the bus.
But then again, I consider myself an inactive atheist anyway. God, religion, etc. simply isn't a part of my life, it's not something I think about, it's just not there. In a lot of discussions with religious people, you hear the argument that atheism is just like other religions: people feel certain about their own belief, believe only they know the truth, etc. I don't believe in anything. To me, atheism is a lack of belief, not a belief that there's no god. There's no doctrine, no rules to follow, no lifestyle to match and more importantly...nothing to get offended about. I'm of the live and let live principle. Others are religious, fine, as long as it doesn't affect me, who am I to say that they shouldn't believe what they believe in? I don't feel the need to spread the atheist message or to try and convince others that there's no god. In a way, the atheists who feel the guy should have been fired, are almost showing the same kind of sensitivity religious people have about their religion. It seems that to some, atheism is a certain belief system. Not to me. I'm not offended that the word god is in the pledge of allegiance. I don't think the word has to be taken out, as long as people are free not to say it. I do think it's creepy that kids have to do this pledge. Even without the word god in it, I'd still consider it creepy. Any text that has to be learned by heart and read aloud without thinking of what the words actually mean is brainwashing.
But I digress.
Perhaps, the fact that I live in a country where the majority of people aren't religious, makes it easy for me to be so passive. Maybe, I'd be more active had I lived in the US. The bus incident does show some kind of double standard. Imagine if the bus driver had refused because of a muslim message, he probably would have been branded a racist. So in a way, I do understand atheists feeling the need to be more vocal, to break some taboos. But as it is, I'm not going to get worked up over it. Call me lazy.