God and probability

Some time ago the British Humanist Association (BHA) ran a bus advertising campaign which read:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

I, and many others, found the wording and apparent assumptions of this ad problematic. Hundreds of complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority, which had eventually ruled that:

“the ad was an expression of the advertiser’s opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation.”


A bus with the atheist ad, at Oxford Circus in London.

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:

  1. We know exactly who or what God is
  2. It is possible to calculate and express probability of existence of God so defined
  3. That probability is less than 1
  4. 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
  5. Therefore God doesn’t exist
  6. You mistakenly think that God exists when he does not
  7. 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)
  8. 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Because proposition 2 is impossible proposition 3 is incalculable
  4. Proposition 4 is not applicable since it’s impossible to assign probability we are unable to calculate
  5. The premises of the argument are non-existent, and therefore the conclusion is unsubstantiated – a non sequitur
  6. This assumes that everyone seeing the ads believe in God – which of course is patently false
  7. Here the assumption is that you are a sinful person and should therefore worry about your (supposedly mistaken) belief in the existence of God
  8. 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!

Edgar is studying for a Bachelor of Divinity with the University of London International Programmes, with academic direction from Heythrop College.

7 Responses to God and probability

  1. radians says:

    wow…brilliant analysis. bravo!.Although the atheist could equally come back saying similar things about the ad campaing that you mentioned in your article was run earlier by supposedly Christians, like what did they gain by posing those ads, or have they been able to convince a single atheist with it and so forth. These are just pointless polemics i believe, they know they wont be able to convince anyone with such stupid things but people just like to give their egos a little boast and especially in times such as these when being an atheist has become like a popular fashion and you see people calling themselves ‘freethinkers’ and ‘rational atheists’ whom you wouldn’t even believe could possibly have an ounce of a brain, people who even fail science and math at school(things which they worship altogether) and so forth…this was just a rant, so no offence intended=)

  2. radians says:

    hey, and by the way how do you people post on this blog i have been trying to give a submission but couldn’t find any button for this purpose

  3. johnbailey84 says:

    There’s an interesting chapter in Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion where he tries to work out the probability of the existence of God/ a god. Probably worth a read considering your interest in the topic.

  4. P. Jack says:

    All things, including man, were created by God for His purpose and pleasure. (Read Revelation chapter 4 and verse 11). Without God, existence would not be. God is the beginning and from the beginning. It is by His word, through Jesus Christ, His Son and our Saviour, that all things were created. In chapter 1 and verses 1 – 4 of the Gospel of John, it is written: “1 In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made. 4 In Him was life; and the life was the light of men.” We have our existence through God. In the Book of Acts chapter 17 and verse 28, it is written that: “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” This whole chapter should be read, especially from verses 24 to 31, which gives us an understanding of who God is, and His ultimate purpose and plan of judgement.

    Honestly, I used to wonder about who made God. However, I’ve come to know the simple truth that “God is.” God is the word, and the word is what created all things. Therefore, God is the beginning of all things. John chapter 1 and verses 1-4 tells us the truth of God. God is the beginning and the end. Read Revelation chapter 22 and verse 13 and Revelation Chapter 1 and verse 8.

    By the disobedience of the first man and woman created by God, man committed sin and fell, and man created after inherited this sin, the consequence of which is to die and be eternally tormented and condemned. The Book of Romans chapter 6 and verse 23 says: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” God loves each of us whom He has created, even in our moments of ignorance when we do not know Him and question who He is and if He really exists. The Devil attempts to blind us from the truth of who were are in God. We are now called to be Sons (Sons and Daughters) of God. God’s plan is for us to live forever with Him and His son Jesus Christ, as His sons. He does not wish for us to die and be condemned forever, since we are His creations. God is not please with us dying eternally.Therefore, through His plan of salvation, He has provided healing, deliverance and redemption for us from sin, and its scourges and grave consequences. Salvation from sin is through Jesus Christ, the son of God. Jesus Christ took our place, and died for us who sinned and inherited sin. A sinful people is unrighteous, and cannot please God. Unrighteousness is against God, who is righteous. God requires a people free from and untainted by sin to please Him and worship Him forever. After all, God created us, and is more than able and entitled to require how we ought to function as His creation. However, God gave us the ability to willfully worship Him, and believe in Him. Jesus took on our sinful body into His pure body, and died, crucifying every sinful deed. However, not only did He die, but He was resurrected. He lived again, this time without sin, so that we could live again through Him, and be righteous, as long as we believe in Him.

    Believing in and accepting Jesus, is needed for us to live forever. Believing in Jesus means and comes with, surrendering our body of sinful deed to death, so that we can live in the in the spirit, as a redeemed people, resurrected together with Christ – as He died for us. It means that we desire to live forever in God, pleasing Him forever, as He originally created us to do. God loves us, and because of His love He sent Jesus to die for us, and to save us who believe in Him from eternal death. The Gospel of St. John chapter 3 and verse 16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” We cannot love God except He loves us, since God is love. God’s love is shown in the fact that He sent his son to die for us, and to save us from the consequences of sin as we believe in His in Son. Our love for God, and love generally, is shown in our receiving God’s love by believing in His son.

    I am a Christian, and a Child of God by the fact that I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and saviour. Jesus gives me salvation. I do not believe in God and Jesus Christ out of fear of being punished, but because God is love, and He does not desire me to live outside of His perfect plan for mankind – which is to eternally please Him, and have eternal life. God sent His son to save us. Fear of punishment has torment. If we fear unto the day of judgement, then there is torment in our lives, and means that we do not truly believe in Jesus. The love of God in our lives mean that we truly and steadfastly believe in Jesus Christ as our Saviour, having received God’s love for us through our belief in Jesus. It means that we are confident to receive the best gift anyone can ever give – eternal life (which God gives us in His Son Jesus). Therefore, we should have no fear on the day of judgement.

    Believe with your heart in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. Declare His name with your mouth, and you will become righteous and be saved.

    I have joy which the world cannot give, because I have Jesus Christ in my life. Jesus is joy, and gives me joy and peace. I am not afraid to die, since I know that because I have belief in Him and have received Him, I will live and reign forever with Him. The world brings all its philosophies and propositions as to why you should not believe that there is a God. The truth is that, God is real, and He is the only and holy God. The world needs God. Know that “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25). Also, God’s thoughts and His ways are not ours. They are higher than ours. Isaiah chapter 55 and verses 8-9. God is wiser than the world’s wisdom, and He loves us all. Believe in Jesus Christ His son, for he was sent to save you because God loves you. If you have a Bible, you could read the scriptures I have given to you in this comment. If you do not have one, you could use BibleGateway on the Internet or any Bible online (preferably the King James version). If you do not understand this, there are particular Bibles which simplify the scriptures for you to understand them. Wherever you are from, seek a Bible believing church that is able to help you in your decision in Christ. Also, if you wish, you can email me, and by God’s grace and love, I trust God to answer your every question. Be blessed.

  5. uolblogger says:

    Hi radians, if you are a current student and want to apply to be a blogger, you can contact us at [email protected].

  6. A.M. says:

    There are so many problems with your analysis. I will suggest just a few.

    I do not think the ad was meant to change anyone’s mind. These types of efforts are more geared towards atheists who are in the closet. It is reassurance that a good and meaningful life can be had without a belief in a god or gods. And I don’t think the ad implied that we know who god is or isn’t, but that many people and religions claim they do.

    Also, it is not meant to give permission to people to act immorally. Atheists have well-reasoned bases for doing good things and avoiding bad things. The message is that people needn’t worry about whether they should wear clothing of mixed fibres, work on the sabbath or fast on particular days to please an all-seeing supernatural dictator. Theists often make this claim that atheists don’t want there to be a god so they can continue their sin. Ignored is the fact that religion is a tool which enables otherwise morally normal people do horrible, wicked, evil deeds.

    “Probably” is consistent with the atheist view that while nobody could possibly disprove the existence of any particular god or gods, there has never been any convincing evidence or argument to support any of the thousands of god claims that have been made. We could not disprove that a fisherman has been blessed by Poseidon with a good day’s catch, but that doesn’t make it so. Someone mentioned Richard Dawkins who has commented on the probability that a god exists and compares it to the likelihood that fairies or leprechauns exist. It is true that the evidence for the existence of all of these entities is equally poor. On this basis, they “probably” don’t exist.

    The author has said that the god he claims exists is not knowable, and on this point we agree. And if gods exist outside of the space-time continuum and are not detectable or measurable then there is no way to differentiate between a god or gods and something that does not exist.

    Don’t live your life based on bronze-age mythology and a desire to please an all-knowing supernatural being who will punish you with an eternity of torture for minor transgressions, including things that you merely think. In all likelihood, this is the only life you will have and you must make the most of it. Be good because of the many reasons there are for being good. I think this is the message.

  7. MA says:

    A nice and truly objective post on religion. A welcome rarity.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34,557 other followers

%d bloggers like this: