UK’s Pro-Atheist Bus Ads as Pressure Relief

Signs on buses tell you it’s OK not to believe in God. Admitted, but what of signs that said, “it’s OK not to be gay”, “it’s OK not to be black”, “it’s OK not to be a Jew”? While true, these statements are more than the simple expression of a point of view. Accurately perceived, they are an ugly form of pressure that while necessarily legal is nonetheless indecent.

The quote is from Mark Helprin, “The Rise of Anti-religious Orthodoxy”, in Adam Bellow (ed.), “New Threats to Freedom”, Templeton Press, 2010.

In Helprin’s view, the UK bus ad informing riders that “it’s OK not to believe in God” is no better than one that might read, “It’s OK not to be gay,” or “It’s OK not to be black.” All three, he finds, are ugly and indecent forms of pressure.

Are they?  His use of the word “pressure” implies that a choice is to be made: to believe or not believe, to be gay or straight, to be black or something else. Uh-oh. Something’s wrong here. Already his comparison is faltering: the last two pairs are not choices.

Granted, some people still do cling to the now-thoroughly-discredited notion that homosexuality is a choice, so let’s imagine a reparative therapy clinic posting a bus ad that reads, “It’s OK not to be gay.”

Hmmm. Visualize thousands of London commuters scratching their heads. Did the printers accidentally reverse the words “OK” and “not?” Or are these therapists from a planet where being straight is not generally perceived as being “OK,” while being gay is?

Why doesn’t the therapists’ ad make sense? And why is the atheists’ so clear, even to those who are offended by it?

The answer is simple. The atheists’ ad works because it addresses a minority—the roughly 10 percent of respondents on religious identification surveys who identify themselves as “nones”—and offers them a message of inclusion. (“You’re OK.”) The therapists’ ad fails because it addresses a majority—the roughly 90 percent of people who identify as heterosexual—with a message of—once again—inclusion. So, at 90%, why should they need a message of inclusion? If Helprin was looking for two sturdy analogs to the atheists’ ad, he should have tried these:

“It’s OK not to be white.”

“It’s OK not to be straight.”

Are either of these “ugly forms of pressure?” Hardly. What they have in common with “It’s OK not to believe in God” is that they validate two other groups that have historically been stigmatized and marginalized—people of color and homosexuals.

“It’s OK not to believe in God” is anything but pressure. It’s pressure relief, like being told that you may be left-handed but we still love you, or you’re OK even if you’re prematurely bald. The point is that you don’t need to feel that there is something wrong with you for not believing in God.

The British humanists who sponsored the ad might have reversed the second and third words so that it read, “It’s not OK to believe in God.”

That would have been, in Helprin’s words, “an ugly form of pressure.”

Postscript: Here’s PZ Myers’ reaction to Helprin’s take on the bus ads:

I am forever astounded that those mild-mannered bus signs have aroused such ferocious antipathy. Even admitting that we’re fine with our disbelief is considered antagonistic bullying, which actually goes a long way to explain Helprin’s whole thesis — he’s simply on a hair-trigger over any dissent.

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