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Adfail, God edition

September 9, 2010

So, a couple of days ago I was walking to the chemist’s and passed a church with a sign outside featuring a picture of a hippo (not entirely sure why) and the slogan “There’s obviously a God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

This (and several other slogans like it, notably one for the far-right Christian Party which was rejected by the ASA) are all attempts to parody and/or counter the line adopted by the Atheist Bus Campaign*: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

A red London bus carrying an advert saying "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

The atheist bus campaign got the nod from the ASA precisely because they used the word ‘probably’. While most of its high-profile backers are pretty solid and vocal in their belief in the lack of a god, they were also all perfectly willing to admit that this can’t actually be proved to a standard that will satisfy the Advertising Standards Agency. (I do feel sorry for the ASA – usually the worst they have to handle is dodgy statistics or unsubstantiated claims about yoghurt. And then suddenly they were all over the news with headlines like “ASA to rule on existence of God”.)

This church is only advertising on their own space, rather than public billboards, so doesn’t have to fulfil the ASA’s requirements re: hedging unprovable claims. They also cannily avoid one line of criticism by using ‘obviously’ (which doesn’t actually include a truth claim – it merely asserts that someone agrees something is true) rather than something like ‘definitely’ (which claims a fact).

I have two things to say about this, one cheap, one vaguely thoughtful.

The cheap one is, naturally, that it isn’t obvious to me, and I don’t know how they’d go about getting past that, very basic as it is. When it comes down to subjective spiritual experience, you hit an impasse very quickly: one person takes some event – a beautiful sunset, a lucky coincidence, an amazing escape – as proof that there’s a god, another doesn’t, and there’s really no way to move the debate on from there.

The more nuanced point is that I’m not sure they’ve fully thought through the implications of what they’re asserting. I may be an agnostic atheist** these days, but I’m reasonably solid on how faith is supposed to work. And one of the core tenets of Christianity is that God is not self-evidently extant in the way that the things of this world are. 1 John 4:20, New International Version:

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.

Not commenting on the main thrust of this passage – that’s another discussion, and one that Slacktivist is conveniently having here if you want to talk about it – but it’s a concise statement of the Christian principle that you cannot verify God with your own senses in the way you can verify, say, another person.

Thomas demanded that the divine (in this case, Jesus’ resurrection) make itself obvious to him, and got gently but firmly told what was what. John 20:29, NIV:

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Asserting the obviousness of God’s existence is trivialising, if anything. Because really, a god obvious to everyone would be . . . not much of a god at all, really. It’s easy to believe in things that are obvious: it requires no struggle, no self-questioning, no trust, no faith. Way to do your adherents a disservice, Random Church I Walked Past.

Quite apart from the dodgy theology, though, asserting that the existence of god is perfectly obvious to you brings some nasty implications with it. Really? You can look at the state of the world as it is right now and say that yeah, clearly there’s a god? That worries me.

Doing battle with doubt and coming down on the side of faith is one thing, and I respect anyone who’s had that conversation with themselves, whatever conclusion they came to. Finding no cause for doubt in the first place, despite all the shit in the world, is somewhat more disturbing, and again, I have to wonder whether they really thought this through.

Following from which, if one assumes that god does exist and that this is obvious from a cursory examination of the world (as seems to be implied) then you’re looking at a god who’s either evil or incompetent or both, at which point their suggestion that you stop worrying and enjoy life is a bit . . . silly, really.


*I had a fictional band called Atheistbus in my 2008 NaNovel. They were an insufferable indie-punk outfit who made two albums – Gods and Rockers and Sodom and Tomorrow – before splitting acrimoniously. I never got to do anything with the characters, and the novel is never going anywhere outside my hard drive, so the names and album titles are up for grabs if anyone wants them.

**I don’t believe a god/s exists, but I don’t believe its/their nonexistence can be proven, either. I use both words because it’s a more precise statement of my position than either taken separately (especially given the wilfulness with which people misunderstand the world ‘agnostic’). I’ve also heard my approximate position – happiness-focused nonbelief, appreciative of the nice things the universe spits out whilst bearing in mind their randomness – described as ecstatic atheism, which is an excellent phrase.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    September 9, 2010 4:32 pm

    All valid points.

    On this quote:
    “you can look at the state of the world as it is right now and say that yeah, clearly there’s a god?”

    Jehovah’s Witnesses have an interesting take on the “state of the world” and how it’s not God’s fault though*. They believe that since 1914 (convenient, eh) Satan has been ruling the world as he was thrown from heaven for being a naughty boy and was to take up ruling for an undisclosed period of time until Armageddon. At which point there will be a resurrection of all the dead, followed by another 1000 years of Satan’s reign before he (and any remaining “followers”) is finally killed off and everyone lives happily ever after.**

    *I bring this up as they call themselves Christians too, and Not-a-sect-at-all™.

    **I have experience in this particular religion, and thought it might make an interesting, if slightly depressing, anecdote.

  2. September 9, 2010 4:57 pm

    The idea of a basically uncaring universe is positively cosy next to the idea that Satan rules the world and God is just . . . letting him do it. Wow. I think that would fall pretty clearly into the ‘God is evil and incompetent’ box, from where I’m standing.

    You were raised JW, weren’t you? (Or am I remembering wrong?) I seem to remember our school had a weirdly high concentration of Witnesses.

    There was a JW-related a thread at Pharyngula a couple of days ago that basically turned into people sharing anecdotes on how to get rid of doorsteppers, but there’s some decent conversation in there as well, if you’re interested.

  3. Paul Skinner permalink
    September 9, 2010 5:21 pm

    It’s all in the name of being fair, apparently.
    Satan gets his chance to rule the earth as he challenged God as to rightful ownership.

    Yeah, I was brought up one. There was a disproportionate amount of JWs in particular in our class, yes, but the rest were Jehvais’ family; he has 6 siblings of which 4 were at school the same time as us, somewhat skewing the figures.

    Just for reference, the two bible verses used for the claim that Satan is in charge are:
    1 John 5:19; Revelation 12:9.

    The first is somewhat contentious, considering it’s not really mentioned at all in the King James version of that passage. The New King James version makes more of a reference to it though.

  4. September 9, 2010 5:35 pm

    Re: the hippo, and this may be a huge stretch, maybe St. Augustine of Hippo? I’ve known some atheists to rip on that one…I suppose it would be surprising to see Christians employing the same kind of humour…

  5. Paul Skinner permalink
    September 9, 2010 5:52 pm

    Actually, I’ve just realised I completely made that up there about Satan coming in 1914. That was Jesus’ second coming (or presence on Earth). Satan has been ruling since he challenged God I believe. The rest of it was all erm… true.

  6. September 9, 2010 5:58 pm

    @Paul: Still doesn’t seem very fair on the human race. Alternatively, the world’s actually been okay since 1914 – in terms of amenities, knowledge, equality, etc. it’s a lot better than e.g. the time of Christ. So if Satan is in charge, maybe he’s not doing all that bad a job . . .

    Re the Bible verses: allow me to don my Latin hat (a laurel wreath, maybe?): having had a quick peek at three versions of 1 John 5:19, I’d say that it’s likely that the contentiousness stems from ambiguous Latin. The Vulgate verse describes the world as in maligno positus est – and ‘in wickedness’ (KJV) and ‘with the Wicked One’ (NKJV) are both legitimate translations of maligno. There’s your problem. To try and elucidate any further you’d have to go back to the Greek, and unfortunately that’s out of my range. Though given the way adjective->noun conversion works in inflected languages generally, you might well have the same problem. *removes Latin hat*

    @helikonios: My best guess was that it was trying to invoke the “The wonders of nature are proof God exists!” angle that people sometimes go for. Like, this hippo exists, therefore so does God. A cleverly concealed reference to Augustine does seem like a stretch . . .

  7. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    September 9, 2010 6:00 pm

    So Jesus came and started the First World War? Maybe we are better off with Satan ruling the world…

    When I heard about this poster, it baffled me so much, as none of it seems to make much sense from my own Catholic perspective (now lapsed, and taking suggestions on how to be excommunicated). It’s hard to “stop worrying” when you’re damned for all eternity for being a filthy sinner (and we all are, apparently, it’s just not possible to not be a sinner). They also make it more difficult to “enjoy your life” when you have to obey their rules, although you probably should try before you die and are damned for all eternity.

  8. Paul Skinner permalink
    September 9, 2010 6:01 pm

    To clarify for the last time as I seem to have made even more up than I originally thought*:

    Satan is ruling the earth and has been since he challenged God’s position.
    1914 heralded the start of “the last days” before Armageddon, and Jesus had his second coming.
    Christ will have a 1000 year reign after Armageddon during which time there will be a resurrection
    At the end of the 1000 year reign will be judgement day where people choose to follow one of the other and either die or remain living forever**.

    *I’m quite pleased I’ve forgotten a lot of it really.

    **That’s a longer story than I can be bothered to relate now.

  9. September 9, 2010 6:11 pm

    @knightofthedropdowntable, I think these were Baptists. Not sure what their position on eternal damnation is. On the other hand, they’ve clearly failed to think through this slogan re: how members of other theistic positions are going to take it.

    @Paul: So it went something like this?


    When are we due Armageddon then? 96 years of last days and counting seems like it’s a wee bit overdue.

  10. Paul Skinner permalink
    September 9, 2010 6:15 pm

    That’s the convenience of having a very vague phrase as the basis of your belief.
    “Last days” can mean anything in terms of time when taken in the same context as God creating the Earth in 6 days.

  11. September 9, 2010 8:24 pm


    Cf. The Book of Job. God and Satan are always making macho bets against each other.

    I love this sentence:

    Way to do your adherents a disservice, Random Church I Walked Past.

  12. JustDucky permalink
    September 9, 2010 10:36 pm

    You made me lol at “ASA to rule on existence of God”. 🙂

    Meanwhile, over on my rarely-traversed little corner of the intarwebz, I’ve got a proselytizer. Mild, but yegods, they get annoying on the first post.

  13. Kath permalink
    September 9, 2010 11:22 pm

    You are on FEMINISTING now!! xxx

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