The atheist bus and "devangelism"

I have comedian and writer Dave Gorman‘s latest blog entry to thank for pointing me towards the origins of the controversial Atheist Bus adverts that have been appearing around the country.

The declarations that “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life” have caused some fascinating debates, and I have been mulling over my response to it all for some time now. Here are my thoughts.

Excellent!

For starters, I think the adverts, backed by the British Humanist Association, are excellent – they’re amusing, quirky, and a neat pastiche of the “Jesus lives” adverts that churches often support or display.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Why should I as a Christian feel uncomfortable or threatened by the message? These adverts are not the first such proclamation, and we are used to hearing people knock religion and condemn God all the time. So when the message pops up on the side of a bus, it’s simply the medium that’s worthy of note rather than the message itself.

And in any case, the church should share the British Humanist Association’s desire that there should be a real, serious discussion about whether God exists or not; one that peels away the perceived privileges, structures and distraction of organised religion and get down to the real issues – like who we are, where we came from, and what the meaning of life is.

We have nothing to fear from such a debate. The more people see these adverts, the more we as Christians will be asked for our views, and the more we can talk about our faith to those who enquire.

Argh!

Just a shame, then, that many Christians who have been invited to comment about the posters have put their feet in their mouths before they have barely opened them.

This article, for instance, quotes someone from Christian Voice as saying:

“People don’t like being preached at. Sometimes it does them good, but they still don’t like it.”

Meanwhile this article reports a Christian woman condemning the advert because:

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don’t like it in my face.”

And then there’s the bizarre story of the Christian bus driver who refused to work on a bus carrying the advert. Even more bizarrely, his employers have acquiesed, despite the fact that it’s obvious to everyone that companies (let alone their employers) do not endorse the products their spaces advertise.

Such reactions don’t need a militant atheist to tell the kettle that the pot’s on line 1, or to observe that many people are sick of Christians who ram their messages down people’s throats and then are aghast when a contrary message is blandly stated in response.

Is the faith of some Christians so weak, so stagnant, so unstimulated that when the slightest challenge arises, they take instant offence and can’t see the opportunity it represents?

“Devangelism”

In this photo, a Christian Flickrite coins the throught-provoking phrase “devangelism”, which I feel neatly sums up exactly what’s wrong with a lot of Christian outreach – in your face, aggressive, critical and utterly out of sync with how people lead their lives and seek information.

When people prosthelytse in such a way but, as in the quotes above, condemn atheism for doing the same, it reeks of hypocrisy and spectacularly undermines those who are doing such good for the name of Jesus in this world.

As with much else in the world, it’s sadly the bad examples of Christianity that people remember and judge by.

How refreshing, therefore, to read that one Christian think-tank has seen the opportunity the the adverts represent, and have donated to the fund that is paying for them. I wonder if the British Humanist Association saw that one coming.

It is hard, but we as Christians must continue to strive to avoid hypocrisy, aggression or defensiveness. We must remember that when we speak out, people judge us, and judge our God through us. We must show that Christianity is not about shoving religion down people’s throats or about judgementalism and the imposition of values upon those who do not choose them. Rather, it’s about living and breathing the message of love contained in the Gospels – even when we’re not speaking.

As St Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times – if necessary, use words.”

Faith

In recent weeks, I’ve been having some fascinating discussions with a variety of atheist friends about religion, faith and God. One of the major points has been about proving the existence of God, which of course I am unable to do.

Many of these friends don’t feel satisfied with my argument that if God is the infinite, omniscient being that the Bible describes, and if we as humans have only limited knowledge of our universe, then its perfectly reasonable that God – and indeed many other things – may be beyond our comprehension and therefore unproveable.

This is why Christians have faith in him rather than simply a logical acknowledgement of him.

Mind you, a logical acknowledgement of God is all that Christian Voice seem to have – in the article about the ASA referral I referred to above, they claim:

“There is plenty of evidence for God, from people’s personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.”

That’s it? Some people have claimed they felt something, and there’s lots of pretty trees and flowers in the world… therefore God exists?

If that’s not a dangerous misrepresentation of Christianity, I don’t know what is.

The point is, even if I or Christian Voice were able to provide conclusive proof that God exists, it probably still wouldn’t be enough for many atheists. The Bible contains many examples of people who witnessed the power of God, or even met Jesus, but still refused to believe, because it didn’t suit their lifestyle or worldview or they couldn’t understand what they were experiencing.

If we claim to possess or rely on scientifically solid proof that there is a God, then we’ve missed the point.

So my message to Christians who are appauled and offended by these adverts is to get a grip.

Christianity is a faith, not a logic. That’s why we have nothing to fear from an advert on the side of a bus that tells us nothing we’ve not heard before, from a jibe which our God is bigger than and which we should rise above, from a slogan which is an invitation for us to set out our stall and answer the questions we will inevitably be asked.

Perhaps I should start an appeal for a similar message on the side of buses:

It’s clearly just an advert. Now stop worrying and get on with your faith.

19 thoughts on “The atheist bus and "devangelism"

  1. “Calm down, dear, it’s just a commercial…”

    No, wait…

    Or:

    “There’s a man sat on the pavement behind you. Now stop worrying about whether there’s a God or not and just buy him a cup of tea.”

  2. What a lovely post. I know a few clergymen who all seethe at the presence of Stephen Green (the leader of Christian Voice) in the public spotlight. He’s a self-appointed leader of an organisation that doesn’t represent mainstream Christianity in any meaningful way… but which gets to air its objectionable views on a regular basis because the news media loves an outspoken comment. In doing so he does mainstream Christianity far more harm than good.

    The only part of your post I’d disagree with is the line “The point is, even if I or Christian Voice were able to provide conclusive proof that God exists, it probably still wouldn’t be enough for many atheists.”

    I don’t think that’s true for myself or for any atheist I know. Conclusive proof is conclusive proof and one of the defining traits of the atheism I read and discuss is a willingness to amend belief as and when new evidence arrives…

  3. If I were God, every Christmas Day I would create an undisputed miracle all round the world, something simple like a global white Christmas for everyone for just that one day. Something unexplainable by science, just an annual sign that there is something more out there, rather than many, many years of apparent (to the non-believer at any rate) silence.

    Re: the ads, they’re light-hearted, and only a very silly person could find offence. I don’t really think atheism needs advertising though.

  4. How polite atheist campaigns are compared to Christian campaigns.

    Take the massive JIM campaign, now forgotten, as the British public are sensible, even if the BBC gave the campaign loads of free advertising.

    Just see how offensive Christians are, without even trying

    ‘Correction to JIM campaign

    A national Christian evangelical campaign has been running for the last few months under the slogan JIM – Jesus In Me. It was commented upon by the Vicar of Rotherham in an article in the Rotherham Advertiser (18.03.94). He said, “Not all Christians would be entirely happy about the way the faith is presented and practised by those involved in the campaign. There was one thing, for example, which I consider to be a gross error of tact – to say the least – in the preliminary literature I received.” This was the listing of the number of mosques in Britain in the middle of a set of “ills of the age”. It seemed to equate the number of mosques as an evil which could be compared with the amount of crime, the amount spent on pornography, etc. So strongly did I feel that this was an error on the part of compilers of the list – and indeed something which could give a totally unChristian impression – that I asked the “Churches Together in Rotherham”… to write to the JIM organisers and object.” It appears that no reply was received.’

  5. ‘The Bible contains many examples of people who witnessed the power of God….’

    Yes, God made the seeing blind. Just ask Paul, who was blinded by the god he was already worshipping.

  6. N, Phil and Duncan – thanks for your links. Although Duncan, it seems Mark J Berry’s blog is down right now…

    Dave Gorman – yes, I was tempted to go off on a tangent about my reflections on the content and tone of the Christian Voice website, but I bit my tongue! As for your point of disagreement, my point was that there was conclusive proof given to many in the Bible, but they still rejected it, as many others have done since. Although of course on a technicality you could argue such people did accept the proof, just refuse to act on the implications.

    Nev – the Bible tells us the rainbow is just one example of a regular miracle (see the conclusion of the story of Noah and the flood). And arguably creation as a whole is a constant reminder of God’s existence – although as I said in my post, that’s not good enough for many people.

    Steven Carr – that’s quite a generalisation. Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, I’d argue that this blog was polite, and I could point to many atheist campaigns that are impolite. Neither side has a monopoly on politeness or otherwise. And as for your point about Paul and blindness, are you implying (or suggesting that Christians believe) that any disability is a bad thing imposed by God? I’d hardly agree with that.

  7. Apparently Paul wasn’t disabled before the god he worshipped allegedly blinded him.

    Of course, this puny God can not strike down bus adverts, only people in old books.

    ‘Creation is a constant reminder of God’s existence’?

    God created cholera, rabies, HIV and the Ebola virus?

  8. Steven, it seems that you came here (however you found this blog) with the sole intention of evangelising about one specific quibble with God (his apparent blinding of Paul), despite the fact that it has nothing to do with my original post.

    I suggest that you pursue your preferred train of thought on your own blog where you have the freedom to write about what you like.

    Further comments that are unconnected to the original post will be justifiably regarded as spam.

  9. Interesting post, Simon. Personally I actually agree with some of the aims of, for example, the National Secular Society ( I don’t think God prefers theocracy to democracy for one thing). Certainly episcopalians suffered terribly in Scotland from “Christian” rule , and adverts like this and a general climate of open debate are all for the good. One of the worst things about “Christian” advertising ( Alpha courses and the like) is that people assume that middle class fundamentalist/ evangelical Christianity is the only real kind, which is ridiculous. Creationism and belief in Hell are aberational.

  10. ‘One of the major points has been about proving the existence of God, which of course I am unable to do.’

    Really?I thought your god was a mighty god who did mighty deeds.

    And he can’t even prove he exists ,despite all those stories in the Bible where this god appeared to people?

    Have you read the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal?

    The prophets of Baal could not prove their god existed, and they were mocked by Elijah.

    Why should I not regard your god with the same attitude I take to Baal?

  11. Ryan – on the whole, I quite agree (apart from the hell bit, but that’s for another day!).

    Steven – you can regard my God any way you like, it’s a free world. You’re even free to be confrontational, just not on this blog.

  12. Steven – “And he can’t even prove he exists ,despite all those stories in the Bible where this god appeared to people?”

    He also does not stoop to temptation in the desert.

    I don’t regard myself a Christian. But I do regard you as extremely rude.

  13. C of E haven’t believed in Hell since 1995 (c.f. “The Mystery of Salvation”) and we in the Scottish Episcopal Church are meant to be more liberated and fabulous than them. So there! 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.