STEPHEN LEWIS gauges reaction to the “There’s probably no God” bus adverts.

IF you’ve been out and about in York over the last few days you’ve probably seen one of the adverts yourself, stencilled along the side of a First bus.

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

The ads are part of a national campaign backed by the British Humanist Association and supported by atheists such as the scientist Professor Richard Dawkins.

They were devised by comedy writer Ariane Sherine as a response to Christian adverts she saw on a bus.

When people went to a highlighted web address, she said, they were told that those who rejected God were condemned to spend all eternity in “torment in Hell.”

Her ads were designed to counter that message.

First says it is not taking a view on the adverts one way or the other.

It is just treating them like any other advertisment.

But what do the people of York think of them?

The Christian evangelical

Mark Troughton, pastor of the York Evangelical Church, admits he’s delighted with the adverts.

Yes, they may upset some people, he admits: but not him.

“They have achieved what lots of church ministers have been trying to do for ages, which is to get people talking about God! People are being prompted to think about the whole issue, which is good!”

Mark thinks the word “probably” is the key. That word was presumably put in so the advert complied with advertising standards, like the “probably” in the Carlsberg advert. But it is clear the Humanists don’t have the confidence of their convictions, he said. And what if the reverse was true? “What happens if He (God) probably does exist? Then the question is, is there a God? And if so, what are we going to do about it.” He doesn’t buy the whole humanist argument that worrying about an afterlife stops us enjoying this life.

It is actually what gives this life meaning. If there is no reckoning, if there is no moral accountability at the end of the day, who is going to care about anything?”

But what about us as human beings being responsible for our own actions?

Without a concept of the divine, you enter a world of moral relativity, Mark says, in which ideas of what is right and wrong can be manipulated and changed – as we saw in Hitler’s Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia – and ultimately might is right.

“If you had more tanks than your neighbours, there would be nothing to stop you.

There would be no reason why evil should not prevail.”

The humanist councillor

Like Mark Troughton, York Labour councillor Paul Blanchard welcomes the adverts – but for entirely different reasons. Paul is a secularist and a member of the British Humanist Association.

You can’t prove a negative, he says, which is why the advert says there is “probably no God”. Even so, he wishes it had gone a little further, and replaced the “probably” with “almost certainly”. Blind religious faith robs us of responsibility for our own actions, and cripples our ability to see the truth about what the world really is, he believes.

“I’m a great believer in evidence. I don’t think just believing something because the Pope said it is good enough. Only by making a commitment to the truth can you free yourself up to really think about what life is about.”

For far too long, religion has held a privileged position in society, in which religious attitudes have gone unchallenged and the church has unwarranted political influence. “We have 26 unelected Church of England bishops in the upper house, the House of Lords,” he said.

Far from being a source of moral good, the church and religion can be a power for evil, he says. The Pope’s recent comments on homosexuality were a disgrace, he says, and were bound to cause countless gay Catholics real torment. The Catholic church’s insistence on abstinence rather than contraception in birth control also helped the spread of Aids.

You don’t need a divine being in order to lead an honourable, ethical life, he says. “It would be a sorry comment on human beings if we could only live ethically because we believed in God. I have ethics and morals, and I don’t believe in God.”

Most Christians would have a whole list of gods they don’t believe in, he adds – from Zeus to Thor. “My list just has one more entry on it than theirs.”

The comedian

Tommy Cannon, half of the vintage comedy duo Cannon And Ball, has no particular problem with the advert.

It will upset some people, but as a comedian he agrees there are no subjects you can’t poke fun at.

“As long as it is done in good taste.”

Privately, however, he strongly disagrees with the claim made by the advert.

He believes in God – and it certainly doesn’t stop him being able to enjoy life, he says.

He also believes atheists and humanists are probably far more worried about what happens after death than he is.

“I’m not worried, that’s for sure!”