Dawkins’ new “atheist bus” doesn’t go down as well as the original

Ariane_Sherine_and_Richard_Dawkins_at_the_Atheist_Bus_Campaign_launch

(Credit to my son Daniel for coming up with this idea.)

11 responses to “Dawkins’ new “atheist bus” doesn’t go down as well as the original

  1. I think that about sums it up: I’d always considered a slogan for Dawkinsite atheism as “just like religion but without the good bits”.

    Of course his disciples would claim it’s nothing like religion. I guess because it has none of the good bits.

  2. Reference to the original?

    I suppose this bus has the upper-level seats torn out?

  3. “enjoy your life” should have all the good bits included :D

  4. Steve, the original is described on Wikipedia, which is where I got the photo from.

    asszem, I don’t understand what you’re saying.

  5. Thanks for the clue, now ISWYDT.

  6. I can tell you why this is wrong if you like.

  7. (One week later…)

    I guess you couldn’t, after all.

  8. OK, then I’ll do it instead. (I didn’t before because I thought it would be kinda rude. And also kinda boring; analysing jokes is seldom much fun for anyone. I suppose it isn’t rude when there’s an explicit invitation, but nothing will make what follows not be boring. Sorry.)

    So, first of all, your joke isn’t merely a joke but a joke-with-a-point. And the implicit argument that gives the joke its point goes something like this. “Richard Dawkins did this Atheist Bus thing where he tried to claim that atheism means you can stop worrying and enjoy your life. But Richard Dawkins believes that there is no design, no purpose, etc., etc., which is an incredibly depressing idea, and so atheism — or at least Dawkins’s sort of atheism — is a rotten basis for stopping worrying and enjoying your life. So Richard Dawkins is being inconsistent and dishonest, so let’s mock him a bit for it.” What’s wrong with the joke is that this is in fact a severely broken argument.

    (You could respond: Duh, it wasn’t an argument, it was a joke. In which case I will simply suggest that the humour of the joke really does depend on something like that argument, and refer you to the Screwtape Letters, no. XI.)

    Those words “no design, […], nothing but pitiless indifference” are taken from Dawkins himself. Unfortunately, that is no guarantee that they represent his actual opinion, because it turns out that taking words out of one sentence and inserting them in another sometimes changes the meaning. And in fact, I suggest, the sentence you’ve put on the bus is not at all one Richard Dawkins would endorse.

    The thing he wrote that contained the words “no design, […], nothing but pitiless indifference” was not a claim that those things exist nowhere in the universe. It was a claim that you will not find those things *underlying or superintending the universe*.

    And that’s an important distinction, because the two claims (a) “Nowhere in the universe is there any sort of good or evil” and (b) “The fundamental laws by which the universe works are indifferent to good and evil” are very different claims, and — this is why it matters in the context of your joke — (a) is much harder to reconcile with a stop-worrying-and-enjoy-your-life message than (b). And (a) is the one you’ve put on the bus. But (b) is the one Richard Dawkins actually believes.

    It might be your opinion — it certainly is the opinion of some Christians — that when carefully worked out, atheism actually implies (a) as well as (b). In that case, you might say that although indeed R.D. didn’t actually say what you put on the bus, and didn’t actually mean what you put on the bus, and would in fact disagree vehemently with what you put on the bus, in some sense he *ought* to agree with what you put on the bus, so there. But this is the same sort of logic that insists that you, as a Christian, ought to be treated as if you think the world is 6000 years old and pi is 3 and women who are raped should be forced to marry their rapists and all sorts of other things that an ungenerous reading of the Christian scriptures can be made to say. I suggest that it’s usually not a good idea to treat anyone as committed to every implication drawn from their beliefs by their ideological opponents. (Not even when those implications are actually valid!)

    In summary: the joke only works in so far as Dawkins believes what you put on the bus; although it uses many of his words, he almost certainly doesn’t believe it; so the joke doesn’t work. (Well, I’m sure it works in the sense that it makes some people who dislike atheism or Richard Dawkins laugh, but that’s too easy a bar to clear.)

    OK, that was exactly as boring as I promised it would be. My apologies once again. (If you are inclined to make some remark about humourless atheists not being able to take a joke as a joke, then once again I can only refer you to Screwtape. But I think you have better sense and better taste than that.)

  9. Well, g, I agree with a lot of what you say here. It is important to distinguish between two possible meanings of Dawkins’ words “nothing but pitiless indifference”; and the context of the quote makes it clear that he does mean the less strong version:

    The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

    But it never occurred to me that he meant anything more than that, and I don’t think the bus logo above implies that he does. Dawkins’ avowed and unambiguous position is that at bottom — that is, fundamentally — there is no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

    Now we need not detail ourselves for the moment over the (admittedly very important) question of whether he is right. For the moment, the issue is just this: what would follow if he were right? For the great majority of people, that would be a sadness: not everyone is as fond of pitiless indifference as Dawkins seems to be. Yet he tells people that the right response is “stop worrying and enjoy your life”. I think that is emotionally incoherent, whether you’re an atheist or a theist.

    I suppose that for someone in his position — rich, white man with a prominent post at a major university and a horde of uncritical fanboys — the idea that this is all of life might be comforting. For struggling single parents, for children in poverty, for people clinging on after the death of a loved on, it is decided not. So “Stop worrying and enjoy your life” is silly thing to say.

  10. OK, so let me revise my summary of the argument underlying the joke (with the usual apologies for overanalysis, I hope, understood): “Dawkins says that there is no god, and that the right response is to relax and enjoy life. But if there is no god, that means — as Dawkins himself says — that *at bottom*, in the fundamentals of how the universe works and why, there is no design, etc., etc., and that is a very depressing idea to which “stop worrying and enjoy your life” is an inappropriate response. So Dawkins is being inconsistent and we should mock him for it.”

    Now, it seems to me that what you’re saying is depressing is in fact simply *the idea that there’s no god*. You may be right that most people would prefer there to be a god, but it’s not like the original Atheist Bus slogan (which, by the way, I think was pretty silly; my point here isn’t to promote it) wasn’t perfectly frank about what it was saying.

    I don’t know whether you’re right about what most people would be saddened by, but I’m pretty sure that most people *shouldn’t* be saddened by the idea that the fundamental laws by which the world operates are indifferent to us. Because what’s not open to question is that the world has in it all the badness you mention: financial hardship, bereavement, disease, and all the rest of it. And if you combine that with the idea that “at bottom” the world is run by an Absolute Power on the basis of Perfect Justice, the conclusion is liable to be that all the world’s misery is endorsed by Perfect Justice and enforced by Absolute Power, and that’s not such an encouraging idea. The idea that the world is fundamentally just *might* be comforting for someone in your position — a well-to-do[1] white man with a good job and a family and so forth — but for struggling single parents, children in poverty, people clinging on after the death of a loved one, maybe not so much.

    [1] I am not claiming any special knowledge of your financial situation. My apologies if I’ve erred in pigeonholing you as a reasonably comfortable middle-class Western European, which curiously enough is also my situation. I don’t mean anything stronger than that by “well-to-do”.

    I don’t know just how strong the argument in that last paragraph really is. (E.g., many versions of Christianity say either that God isn’t exactly an Absolute Power, or that he isn’t exactly running the world. Of course the further one goes in that direction the less clear it is that God’s alleged goodness gives the sort of grounds for comfort you’re suggesting here, but let’s not relitigate this extremely big debate right now.) But the point, as you’ll have gathered from the way I put the last bit, is that it seems to me at least as strong as the argument in your last paragraph, and it goes in the opposite direction.

    And then, of course, there’s another consideration which I suspect was a large part of why “stop worrying” was on the Atheist Bus. For someone who is confident that they and all their loved ones are perfectly secure from God’s judgement, belief in God may be comforting. But many, many Christians believe in hell; in something whose best brief description (however metaphorical) is of an ever-burning fire, a lake of sulphur, a garbage-heap with immortal flesh-devouring worms, in which the damned are tormented. And if you think there’s any substantial possibility that you or those whom you love might end up *there*, that isn’t and shouldn’t be in any way a comforting thought. Now, perhaps you don’t believe in hell, or perhaps you believe that it is a place of final destruction rather than (as various evangelical statements of faith have it) “eternal conscious torment”, or perhaps you are indeed perfectly sure that everyone you care about will escape that fate. Fair enough. But I can without difficulty find you Christians (and not crazy Christians with fringe-y non-mainstream beliefs; perfectly ordinary Christians) for whom hell is a matter of anguish.

    None of this is intended as any sort of argument that Dawkins is right and you’re wrong about the existence of God. (Though we’re not a million miles away from the territory of the “argument from evil”, of course.) The point is just that I don’t think you can or should claim with a straight face that theism is comforting while atheism is depressing, nor that finding theism less comforting than atheism is an option open only to the highly privileged. Theism can be comforting or depressing or terrifying or any combination of the three, and so can atheism.

    (Incidentally, I too am a well-to-do white man with a good job and a family and all the rest of it. I’m not in the least saying that there’s anything wrong with being in that position. Just that if you’re going to dismiss Richard Dawkins’s opinion on the basis of his privilege, it cuts both ways.)

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