Those Bus Ads
The fool hath said in his heart, "There is no God," according to the Psalmist; or as an advertising standards council in Britain ruled, the line should read, "There's probably no God," when it appears on the sides of transit buses. Ottawa's city council voted last week to make OC Transpo the latest carrier of this message, which is already appearing on buses in other Canadian cities, and across former Christendom.
I seldom agree with advertising standards councils, and there is no reason why I should make an exception here. While the word "probably" improves the ad, rhetorically, by making it seem a little more open-minded, it also adds two new layers of deceit.
First, the sponsors don't think God "probably" doesn't exist, they have actually bet that He doesn't. And good on them for that: for I admire people who will put their money where their mouth is, at least some of the time. If disbelief in God will take them to Hell, they will ride into Hell triumphantly -- and I would guess on something like OC Transpo.
But second, the laws of probability cannot help you make a decision about the existence of God. They just don't apply to metaphysical questions. You may use the math (usually rather crudely) to determine the odds against various things happening in nature -- for instance, to calculate the insuperable odds against life randomly evolving on earth, or intelligent life evolving from sponges. But supernature is an odds-free zone. This is a point on which intelligent atheists and believers ought to be able to agree.
Advertising is a vexing business. It attracts all kinds of smart and talented people, because the money is usually fairly good, and smart people often prefer more money to less. The purpose of advertising -- which you might never guess from reading literature from an advertising council -- is to sell things. One might even say advertising is intrinsically biased.
Having established that, however, we must then consider the effects of advertising. Not all of it works. Sometimes it is counter-productive. And while I enjoy a brilliant advertisement for almost anything, I even more enjoy spotting an advertisement that is "too brilliant by half."
In my own humble yet authoritative opinion, an absolutely overt advertisement for atheism is a Godsend, but not for the atheists. How could this be? To explain, I must (hardly for the first time) invoke Warren's Iron Law of Paradox, which holds, among other things, that the more clearly you state the case for a false proposition, the better you undermine it.
The case here is against belief in God. But in order to state your case, you must mention Him. From the moment you do that, you are fighting a rearguard action. You have just made people think about God. Your case would work better if they weren't thinking about Him.
The Iron Law of Paradox has many dimensions, and it seems to me there are quite a few on which this bus ad is scoring an "own goal," in the course of sticking a poker in the face of the religious. I want to focus exclusively on the sharp end, however, and not waste space on all the rusted metal behind it. So let me just say that almost everything else the advertising industry produces is more effective against "God belief" than this pointy little bus ad.
The secret of advertising, in a largely post-Christian society, is to use a semblance of the theological virtues against the actual cardinal virtues. That is to say, the advertising propagandist must try to convince the prospective purchaser of mass-market goods that he may enjoy a mild parody of faith ("it's the real thing"), hope ("you can lose 10 kilos"), and charity ("make them smile"), if he will only abandon the sales resistance that comes from prudence, justice, temperance and courage.
Perhaps this idea will be plainer if I express it negatively. The routine advertising strategy is to flog the attractiveness of the deadly sins: avarice, lust, gluttony, vainglory, and so forth. It is to tell the target audience, "stop worrying and enjoy your life."
This is a much more effective atheist strategy, because it leaves God entirely out of the equation. Indeed, the mass-market punter is being subtly persuaded to forget about God, Who, we can only assume, must contribute to sales resistance by His general opposition to sin.
Let us make this argument plainer still. The average modern urban dweller driving to and from work (as opposed to those trapped inside the buses, who don't get to stare at the ad in traffic jams), is not an atheist, nor a Christian, nor anything in between. He is rarely a person who devotes much thought to God. He is more often a person who has subconsciously trained himself -- or been subconsciously trained by things like advertising -- to avoid this subject entirely. The poor, harassed creature may only have time to think in traffic jams.
And now, thanks to the Freethought Association of Canada, he can think about God.
Carlos is from Argentina, he is an author, a Knight of Columbus, and my friend. He lives in "southside" Virginia.