WHAT do you say?" the mother said as the toasted sandwiches were put down in front of her twin boys. The boys placed their hands together in a prayer position and said, "Thank-you, Lord." I laughed. We were in a cafe. I laughed because they thanked God but they didn't thank the woman who made the sandwiches and brought them to the table. They didn't tip either.
My second-best laugh recently was at the news that Australia's largest outdoor advertising agency, APN Outdoor, rejected an attempt by the Atheist Foundation of Australia to put slogans on buses.
British atheists have 800 buses around Ol' Blighty emblazoned with: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." So the Little Aussie Atheists decided to do their bit for the cause. The cause being freedom of speech, rational thought, intelligent discussion and consciousness-raising. In the same way religious groups try to spread the good news to help ease people's existential pain, so too are the atheists. One man's good news is another man's harmful propaganda defacing public spaces.
As a rule, we atheists don't tend to try to convert. Enlighten, suggest and argue? Sure. We're a bit, "Well if you're intelligent enough you'll work it out eventually." Blame the existence of child abuse, torture, war, hunger, poverty, pain, the inequitable distribution of wealth and the fact that God doesn't have a Facebook page. This Epicurean riddle comes in handy: "If God is willing to prevent evil but not able to, he's not omnipotent. If he's able but not willing, then he's malevolent. If he is both able and willing, whence cometh evil? If he is neither able nor willing, then why call him God?"
The Atheist Foundation of Australia approached APN with a slogan and a fistful of cash. APN, a company that has run religious and political slogans in the past, initially said: "Sounds good, no problems." So APN and AFA spent three weeks tweaking, diluting and compromising until APN abruptly pulled the plug. End of discussion.
How offensive was the message? Was it, "Sucked in, there's no God. Ha, ha, ha"? Was it, "Those hours in church bored out of your brain, those years of guilt and all those prayers? Wasted. God's not real"? Was it, "The look on their faces when they find out God doesn't exist? Priceless."
No. It was, "Atheism — Celebrate Reason". How scary is that? That was after "Atheism — Sleep in on Sundays" and "Atheism — Because there is no credible evidence" were knocked back. How flimsy does APN think people's faith is if they'd be rocked by a gentle comment like that? How fragile would someone's faith be if they were rocked by a gentle comment like that? If I were a believer, I'd be offended that someone would think my convictions were that shaky. How dare someone assume I was living in some state of suspended intellectual adolescence?
Aren't we a multicultural, multifaith country that prides itself on diversity and tolerance? So APN, what gives?
APN has cracked open a can of "No Comment" on this one. As you would, considering Spain and Canada are all running the British slogan, America's going with "Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake" and Italy, home of The Grand Poobah of The Roman Catholics, is going with, "The bad news is God doesn't exist. The good news is we don't need him." Ireland will run something similar.
The number of churchgoers in Australia is about 9% and dwindling, the diversity of spiritual belief is flourishing and atheism is going off like a frog in a sock. In his inauguration speech, President Barack Obama, a man raised by atheists, mentioned non-believers. We exist. Like it or not.
Why does the media appear to have a vested interest in portraying atheists as a bunch of radicals rather than dealing with it as the mainstream issue it is? What's the fear?
Fancy advertising taking the moral high ground. Since when has the advertising industry worried about offending women by sexually objectifying them, Muslims by advertising alcohol, vegetarians by plugging meat and anyone even remotely interested in the environment by promoting petrol-guzzling four-wheel-drives as a fashion statement. This rejection of what is free speech and falls clearly inside the guidelines of taste seems odd. Perhaps, dare I say it, discriminatory?
David Nicolls, head of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, told me that he and his crazy rationalist mates are not taking this lying down. He's made an official complaint to the Victorian Equal Opportunity And Human Rights Commission. Watch this space.