Here at St. Cynic, I have posted several articles relating to the on-going atheist bus-ad campaign happening in the Atlantic Isles, and America.
I find the whole enterprise entertaining -- which is, admittedly, an evolution in my viewpoint, since I was, at first, a little irritated about the whole affair. Nevertheless, continued articles about the subject has brought about some decent conversation, and I have softened. Since the campaign appears to be more of an exercise in political rights, rather than serious philosophical engagements, I support atheist groups in utilizing their civilian rights. And even if atheist groups were attempting this bus-ad campaign purely for philosophical reasons, there are no reasons I can think of that should trump their democratic rights to engage their surrounding culture in on-going dialogue.
Nevertheless, I do have to wonder what a series of well-written assertions will do to mark serious reflections in people's minds. Take for example, Richard Dawkins notion that the old testament God is "arguably one of the most unpleasant characters in all fiction." What can this statement do to generate any serious conversation? From the years of experience I've had dealing with people in many demographies, I'm willing to bet that a conversation brought on by the Dawkins's quote would devolve very quickly into rapid-fire assertions about God being real, and God not-existing; followed by headstrong assertions that the old testament isn't a fiction, that the old testament is just a fiction, etc.
That kind of dialogue doesn't get anyone anywhere -- except inflamed, of course. That is not to say that there is no possible chance that open-minded conversation will happen. However, how likely is it that an open-minded conversation can come of a close-minded assertion to begin with? And isn't that one of the largest complaints of the non-religious: that the religious are not open-minded and just say things with haughty finality? That's been my experience. And that makes me wonder about advertizing Dawkins's statement as an attempt at a brute-given: why shut-off dialogue with such a close-minded statement? Given that Dawkins is an atheist, and that he, like many of the nouveau atheists, prize reason above all things, wouldn't it be more reasonable to represent him with a more flexible, open-minded comment?
Still, I think I can understand why the people funding these kinds of advertisements (Freedom From Religion Foundation) would want to cut-off conversation: it isn't politically expedient. That is, if you want to free people from the misguided concepts of religion, then you want to cut the chains that bind them, as it were, and flee to the safety of rationality. Opening the grounds to talking about the validity of assertions such as Dawkins and McQueen have made might run the risk of people disagreeing. And when you're a fundamentalist batch of atheists, any possibility that you may be wrong is just as upsetting to them as it is to fundamentalist Christians being told they're wrong. It's just not possible!
So this begs the question: is the 'Freedom From Religion Foundation' fundamentalist? Do they preach a dogmatic version of atheism? It would seem from their inelegant bus signs that they consider themselves fully in command of what is right, of what is true. Namely, that faith is beneath human dignity, that we should evolve beyond belief, and that God is simply a fiction. Questioning the possibility that they may be wrong could lead to heady conversation, even mutually beneficial conversation. But from the calibre of the bus signs on their site (and advertised in this article), conversation is not the order for the day; accepting their point of view is.
And this leads me to another thought on the bus-ad campaign. Citing catchy quips, such as Mark Twain's quote above, is an effective marketing strategy. Being able to plant a thought in someone's mind such that it poses an on-going inner-dialogue, or possibly an emotional tension is a very popular way of selling a product. In this case, the product is doubt. There is nothing wrong with a healthy sense of doubt, but attempting to market doubt via memetic phrases poses an interesting connection in this bus-ad campaign.
The connection, in short, is this: Richard Dawkins is credited as introducing the term "meme" in his landmark book The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes, essentially, are bits of information, and ideas that self-replicate, and evolve via selective cultural pressures. The atheist bus-ad campaign is the brainchild of the British Humanist Association, and backed by -- who else? -- Richard Dawkins.
So, given that Dawkins introduced the notion of memes, and is the backer of the bus-ad campaigns, I have to wonder if professor Dawkins hasn't utilized his theory of memes in a brilliant attempt to invigorate a crafty bit of social engineering. If by having compact, memorable phrases puckered up in our brains, phrases that question, even outright deny the existence of God, and the validity of faith, enough people come to reject any form of religion, then the atheist bus-ad campaign would prove to be an insanely intelligent undermining of the hopes of millions.
I cannot be certain of the connection I think I see, but I do find it very interesting, to say the least, and will continue to look on as the ad campaign grows more popular. As for now, even though I find the campaign somewhat entertaining, and support atheists in their use of civil liberties, I will also feel free to doubt the benign intentions of their crusade. This is not an unreasonable position, I think, since I would be suspicious of anyone attempting to convince me to buy into something I don't actually want.
And to echo a phrase that pressured itself into my mind, I respond to atheists and free-thinkers in the words of G.K. Chesterton, "With all due respect to free-thinkers, I am still free to think." The close-minded atheist crusade, dolled-up as a campaign, may pose some reasonable doubts, but I seriously doubt it is a reasonable crusade.