Driving a bus through belief?

By Mark Vernon
January 12, 2009

What will the atheist bus campaign actually achieve? It’s already garnering ‘below-the-line’ advertising – the coverage that is the result, say, of complaints and counter-complaints. Beyond that though, in the wider world, what will be its impact? Well, something might be learnt by turning to history.

A parallel can be drawn with the Victorian period. It was then that the contemporary debates about science and religion, belief and non-belief, took shape. The most striking atheist from this time was Auguste Comte, the man who invented sociology. He was very influential, quite as famous as Marx and Darwin for a while.

Moreover, some historians of ideas, like John Gray, have argued that his system of Positivism illuminates much about contemporary atheism. Very roughly, Comte believed that as science prevails, so religion will pass away. Humankind would then enter a positive stage, ‘based upon an exact view of the real facts of the case.’

Whatever you make of that, Comte had an insight that is relevant when considering campaigns like that of the atheist advertisements. He argued that if religion will pass away, then so must atheism. It too must cease. Why? Because atheism, in its very denial, only perpetuates the rumour of God.

In his General View of Positivism, he wrote the following. He averred that atheism had at one time been ‘favourable to progress.’ It exposed the excesses of the churches. But now the time had come – in the mid-nineteenth century that is – for such talk to stop.

‘Atheism even from the intellectual point of view, is a very imperfect form of emancipation; for its tendency is to prolong the metaphysical stage indefinitely.’

His point was that going on about God, even if in negation, keeps talk of God alive. ‘There’s probably no God.’ Surely there’s more to say if that is the case? Presumably that’s at least part of the reason why the new atheists have sold so many books. As much as anyone, and more successfully than most, they are the ones prolonging the ‘metaphysical stage indefinitely’. Comte, one suspects, would have been disappointed to know of the lack of progress almost 200 years on.

A second parallel might be drawn with the Victorians by considering another subject that apparently made them anxious, namely sex. Respectable women reputedly covered themselves from head to foot in voluminous clothes so as not to draw attention to the subject. They ordered that the legs of their pianos be hidden by drapes. Except that the Victorian era is also the period in which sex became a matter of intense study. As a result, the modern taxonomy of sex emerged, to say nothing of psychoanalysis and the writings of Sigmund Freud.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault had it spot on when he titled the first chapter of his History of Sexuality, Volume One, ‘We Other Victorians.’ When it comes to perennial matters like sex, and religion, the attempt to contain the discourse only generates more discourse. In general, suppressing talk about this or that tends to have the reverse effect, with the result that it promotes it.

Many conservative evangelicals in the church today have failed to learn this lesson too. By making homosexuality the touchstone of orthodoxy, and insisting gays disappear from the public life of the church, they have advertised the existence of homosexuals in a way that gay people themselves could never hope to achieve. Gays won’t go away. Neither, it would seem, will God.

To borrow the words of Andy Warhol: when it comes to advertising, ‘Don’t read it. Weigh it.’ By adding more weight to the debate, the campaigning atheists won’t stop the worry about God. Unless they can stop talking about it, they’ll only succeed in giving the rumour new life.


(c) Mark Vernon. The author is a writer and commentator. His latest books are 42: Deep Thought on Life, the Universe, and Everything (Oneworld, 2008) and Teach Yourself Humanism (Hodder Education, 2008). See also: www.markvernon.com

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