Saturday 10 January 2009

God, buses and 'probably'

There's lots of interest in the bus ad campaign suggesting that "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

I'm hoping that intelligent observers will have a better grasp of the nature of probability than the atheist advertisers. The statement "there's probably no God" can only be understood as implying that it's more likely that there is not, than that there is a God.

Now there either is or there isn't a God. If there is a God, there either are or there aren't ways to substantiate God's existence; and whether or not there is a God, there's certainly no way of substantiating God's non-existence. On this rather crude analysis you might make a case against that 'probably,' but not with any great interest perhaps.

You can look, like Clifford Longley, at discussion of scientific indications of a 'deliberate' universe, like the fine tuning of various parameters. This is interesting, but it seems to me that this doesn't really cover the question of probability.

Practically, the overwhelming proportion of humanity that believes in some kind of god seems a possible line. "Most of the world is probably wrong," would hardly have made a catchy campaign, though it might have led to interesting discussions.

But personally I think the sentence "there probably isn't a God" simply isn't meaningful. It looks grammatically fine, it just fails to function as a proposition.

My own reading of the ad, then, is

Some atheists neither believe in God nor understand the basic concept of probability. Not to worry. Even in credit crunch Britain adult education is widely available.


  1. You make a good point. I find the bus campaign very humorous.
    It doesn't offend me at all...and I hope and pray that through it, many will question their beleifs and come to Christ. At least then it will be worth the money that has been put into it.

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  3. Thanks James. I'm still chewing. On balance, I think it is offensive... And I'm also delighted by the discussion it's provoked.

    There's a bit of spin that the 'Probably' is to 'inject an element of fun.' I think that's disingenuous - the word is used to create wriggle room on the precedent of 'Probably the best lager.'


    The slogan is all there is. No lager to buy and compare, no backup. So what is the advert? A truth claim pure and simple. And a claim that is at least arguable, and on a balance of probabilities basis simply wrong(-headed). And this as a public advertisement is indeed offensive.

    So I'd be perfectly happy with exactly the same wording coupled with a fully clear and prominent indication of who is making the claim / the organisation or website that's being promoted.

    'Clear indication' has implications for the relative visibility of the slogan and the indication of source. Some of the posters seem fine - there's a reasonable amount of space given over to the BHA. The bus ad seems to me to fail this test, though.

    However, I think you're right that this campaign will encourage some people to ask questions that will lead them to do their own thinking.

    For those who do connect from the posters to the Atheist Bus website (, many will find the promised banquet of reason rather a thin gruel. Christ or Grayling? I know who I'd choose to sit next to on the bus ride to eternity...


It's great to get comments - a good way to encourage, challenge and help me! Thank you. Jeremy