“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
“the ad was an expression of the advertiser’s opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation.”
Apparently the word “probably” was added at the request of the Authority since the originally submitted message’s claim clearly couldn’t be objectively substantiated either.
According to the BHA, the campaign was in response to an earlier fundamentalist ad promising hell for the unsuspecting members of the public – but as the saying goes two wrongs don’t make a right. Later on the Daily Telegraph weighted in with the following assessments:
“If it ruled that the wording in the posters was unsubstantiated, it would be interpreted as effectively saying that in all probability God does exist.”
“Ruling that the words were justified could be taken as an agreement that God probably does not exist.”
As it happens, the ruling said that the ad was both unsubstantiated but also justified insofar as it expressed an opinion, and not a statement of fact. ASA thus wisely refused to adjudicate on the actuality of the Supreme Being, a question which occupied humanity for millennia.
What can we learn from this exercise? I think we can learn several important lessons, and we should start by analysing and expanding these two sentences, which in my opinion effectively stated or implied the following propositions:
- We know exactly who or what God is
- It is possible to calculate and express probability of existence of God so defined
- That probability is less than 1
- Therefore God as defined has a calculated probability of less than 1 but more than 0 of being actual – which means God may or may not exist
- Therefore God doesn’t exist
- You mistakenly think that God exists when he does not
- You worry and can’t enjoy your life (presumably because you live a sinful life and do not believe that God can or would forgive you, but you believe you would be punished)
- Proposition 5 states that God doesn’t exist, therefore you should stop worrying about your punishment and can now enjoy your life safe in the knowledge that the non-existent-God is not going to punish you, no matter what you do.
So what is wrong with the statement? Well, embarrassingly almost everything:
- We do not know exactly who or what God is – God is unknowable in His aseity and there are good theological and philosophical reasons for holding to that orthodox opinion held by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike; this is the reason for the existence of apophatic theology
- It is impossible to calculate probability of existence of an incorporeal spiritual entity outside the space-time continuum (who is believed to have caused that continuum to exist and maintains it in existence in the first place) since we cannot count or measure anything outside this physical universe – never mind the many things we can’t count or measure even in this universe
- Because proposition 2 is impossible proposition 3 is incalculable
- Proposition 4 is not applicable since it’s impossible to assign probability we are unable to calculate
- The premises of the argument are non-existent, and therefore the conclusion is unsubstantiated – a non sequitur
- This assumes that everyone seeing the ads believe in God – which of course is patently false
- Here the assumption is that you are a sinful person and should therefore worry about your (supposedly mistaken) belief in the existence of God
- Finally this statement further assumes belief in God is largely a matter of fear and punishment, which betrays ignorance of beliefs of actual people who believe in God of the Abrahamic traditions
So what has the BHA actually achieved by spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on this badly worded, in my opinion, campaign? Has it convinced any actual Christians, Muslims or Jews to abandon their faith thanks to two sentences on a bus? Or has it made a groundbreaking philosophical or scientific discovery? I think not. Perhaps the recent work by Paul Vitz, emeritus professor of psychology at New York University – Faith of the Fatherless – may shed some light on the psychological factors of belief and unbelief – which is the book I will read next!