Howard Jacobson: So God 'probably' doesn't exist. Don't these atheists have any conviction?

This is a cowardly opposition to religious sentiment
Click to follow

Something for atheistical Londoners to look forward to from January next year – 30 bendy buses carrying the message THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE. As though bendy buses aren't already distractions enough, blocking every intersection, crushing innocent cyclists (if that isn't oxymoronic), threatening to shave off anything that protrudes from your person if you aren't standing 30 feet back from the kerb. Now we'll be reduced to discussing theology with the cabbie fuming because a bendy bus is yet again preventing him from getting through the traffic lights. "It's not God that's stopping me enjoying my life, guv'nor, it's these bastards." Meaning, of course, the bendy buses not the atheists. Though then again...

And it's not even much of a clarion call, is it? God PROBABLY doesn't exist. You should answer fire and brimstone with fire and brimstone. They aren't saying God PROBABLY does exist in Waynesville, North Carolina. They aren't wondering in Colorado Springs whether, maybe, considering the question fairly, and without presumption, God might just be allowed to be a viable, though grantedly complex and vexatious, entity. God IS, is what they say. God LIVES. God SAVES. God HATES.

You need balls if you're going to swap belief systems with fundamentalists. God DOESN'T exist, God NEVER DID exist, God IS CODSWALLOP – something along those lines. And to hell with what the Advertising Standards Authority thinks. Say God PROBABLY doesn't exist and you've conceded half the argument to believers. It's like saying I PROBABLY won't be sleeping with you tonight, which anyone with an ear for linguistic transaction and a modicum of optimism will interpret as a sure-fire thing you will be. I am PROBABLY not going to let you have your way with me. I will PROBABLY go to bed with my clothes on. I will PROBABLY not keep the baby. Say what you mean for Christ's sake! If you're sure God doesn't exist then probability doesn't enter into it. And if you're not sure then you shouldn't be wasting all that space on bendy buses which would be better used carrying advertisements for quality literary fiction.

What is it with these modern milk and water atheists? Do they not even have the confidence of their disbelief? I recommend they read – if they would have fire in their bellies, and where's the point of an atheist with no fire? – Nietzsche's The Antichrist. Just dip into it, the water's cold and bracing, barely a sentence won't make your flesh tingle. Such as these: "The Christian concept of a god – the god as the patron of the sick, the god as a spinner of cobwebs, the god as a spirit – is one of the most corrupt concepts that has ever been set up in the world: it probably touches low-water mark in the ebbing evolution of the god-type. God degenerated into the contradiction of life. Instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yea! In him war is declared on life, on nature, on the will to live! God becomes the formula for every slander upon the 'here and now', and for every lie about the 'beyond'! In him nothingness is deified, and the will to nothingness is made holy!"

Beat that! Of course you quickly notice that what Nietzsche is expressing is not so much atheism as anti-Christianity. Accept the concept of a God degenerated by his followers and you're exculpating God himself from the charge of holy nothingness and life-hating. Which is probably too much to fit on the side even of a bendy bus. But I would prefer it if our atheists made it clear which God it is precisely whose existence they find improbable. Because, though Muslims, Jews and Christians will tell you in the name of peace that they all subscribe to the same God in the final analysis, in the final analysis – and indeed much sooner than that – they don't. Change your theology and you change your God. The Christian God who plonked his son on earth to redeem our sinfulness is not the fastidiously indivisible Jewish God to whom such an act would have been inconceivable.

God is how we interpret him. And since he isn't answerable to our interpretations, I don't see the point in denying him. Deny those who exalt or corrupt the idea of him, rather. Say there's no Jewish or no Christian or no Muslim God. Put that on a bendy bus. But that really would take balls. Start denying this God as opposed to that God and you don't know who'll be sending you Semtex through the post. Viewed from which angle, a breezy universal atheism is a cowardly position to adopt. It opposes religious sentiment without risking offence to any religion in particular.

As for the rest of the bendy bus message, it makes not a grain of sense. THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD STOP WORRYING? That's a non sequitur. Why should the non-existence of a God stop us worrying? Who ever claimed it was belief in God that caused us to worry? Some of the least worried people I know are unworried precisely because they believe in a benign creator who takes individual care of them. We might think of them as deluded crackpots – we might be driven crazy ourselves by their baseless blitheness and serenity – but if not worrying is to be the measure of happiness then, like it or not, they've found happiness in spades. Ivan Karamazov on the other hand, is misery incarnate, unable to enjoy a moment of mental peace because he cannot see how, if God does not exist, anything can be deemed unlawful. SINCE THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD it would say on the bendy bus Ivan hires to drive around St Petersburg, START WORRYING BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.

Your liberal atheist would have trouble following the moral logic of that because he thinks everything should be permitted. ENJOY YOUR LIFE he says, as though the mere fact of freedom from ethical or religious restraint is a guarantee of enjoyment and enjoyment the only measure of a life well lived. I am reminded of Dawkins' re-writing of the Ten Commandments, where the grand reverberations of moral injunction are reduced to the bat-squeak registry office rubric of doing what you fancy so long as no one gets hurt. See why we need a God? Without one, nothing stands beyond the competing claims of our private titillations.

I'm not a believer myself. But I don't pretend that leaves me better equipped to lead either a good life or a happy one. As for the bendy bus atheists – they have no answers because they aren't even aware there is a question.