On the subject of advertising though, I hate it when religious organisations do it, and I'm not too crazy about evangelical atheism either. It's kind of like the latter missed the point somewhere along the line.
The quote above is from an email conversation I've had with some friends. Full disclosure: The quote is taken out of context; this quote was followed up with some important qualifications that changed its meaning in the context it was given.
That said, this quote succinctly states a common feeling I'm getting from people whenever the subject of atheist bus ads or billboards comes up. There's an important response to this sentiment.
Culture is defined by those who participate in it.
Culture is built up out of many things. Each of those sub-systems bears at least some influence on the whole. As a general rule of thumb, religion has more leverage on culture than the rest. I can see how it could be hard for religious people (including moderates) to see this. I'm sure the artifacts of popular culture - movies, advertising, music, television - seem to have more pull on culture than religion. Self-declared religious leaders regularly denounce these aspects of culture for this very reason!
However, it is religion that has the most powerful leverage. Religion is sneaky and insidious - particularly when children are indoctrinated at an early age. Religion is built out of our innate (and frequently wrong) intuitions about the world. It should only be expected that religion should appeal very strongly to those self-same intuitions. It's easy to roll along with religious thinking and ritual. It gets its symbols, rituals and presence everywhere. Even if an aspect of human behavior turns out to be resistant to religion, religion just assimilates it (the re-branding of the winter solstice into Christmas is just the most blatant of many such examples). As a result religion gets everywhere, staining the lens of the mind's eye like a glass window. Religion shapes behavior, expectations, interpretations and goals - all at once.
Yet even as religion does all this, it makes itself boring. Almost unnoticeable. Religion is all-pervasive, yet it simultaneously renders its innermost workings completely dull. Have you every tried to read a treatise on theology? Sheer boredom can be enough deflect an inquisitive and curious mind to other more interesting occupations of thought. This helps to ensure that inquiring minds don't notice things in theology that theologians would rather such minds didn't notice.
This all conspires to make religion normal. The default option. It controls our culture in a million little ways. Our culture in turn controls us. Yet most of us hardly notice the influence. That which proceeds unnoticed will continue unchecked. This is what makes religion so powerful.
All well and good, perhaps. But why should we care?
Because when it comes to describing the true state of reality, religion is almost always utterly wrong.
We should expect religion to get reality completely wrong most of the time, because Religion is built up out of our intuitions about reality - and we can prove that our intuitions are frequently wrong about reality. Our intuitions tell us that the earth is flat and that the sun orbits us. Our intuitions tell us that lead should fall faster than wood. Our intuitions tell us that our visual field is complete (blind spots). Our intuitions tell us that our memories are reliable records of the past. Our intuitions tell us that we shouldn't pick the other door.
Human intuitions are wrong about the true state of reality most of the time. We should expect that any cultural artifact that is built on a foundation of human intuitions should also be wrong about reality most of the time. Religion is just such a cultural artifact. We should therefore expect it to be wrong about reality most of the time. The conclusion follows from the premise.
Giving the biggest lever over the whole of our culture over to a cultural sub-system that we can expect to be wrong about reality most of the time is potentially disastrous to our prospects for the future. Our culture affects our decisions in powerful, insidious and almost imperceptible ways. We fail to see our own culture for the same reason that people in Trafalgar Square can't see England. We're so deep into our own cultures we don't notice them. In a figurative sense, we are our culture.
This is important because unrecognized cultural bias can unknowingly influence our decision-making in very powerful ways. Our decisions matter. So much of what will happen to us - both as individuals and collectively - depends on the decisions we make now. Our futures depend very much on the decisions we make, both at the level of the grass roots as well as at the level of politics and policy.
We cannot afford to risk the outcomes of our decisions by letting them be influenced by a way of thinking that is practically guaranteed to be wrong about reality - which means wrong about the likely outcomes of our decisions. We cannot afford to risk our future to the fickle whims of religious opinion.
This is just one of the many reasons why it is good for atheism to announce itself in the public sphere. Simply by making itself more noticed - simply by taking up mental real-estate in the public consciousness by waving a big sign with an atheistic message over someone's visual cortex - this creates an offset to the pervasive and insidious influence of religious thinking. The mere presence of the atheistic viewpoint brings the religious viewpoint into stark relief. It makes religion look less like the default option. It's a small yet firm lever helping to pry the grasp of religion off the reins of culture.
If we want to look to the future, then we need to care about the decisions we make today. We need to know - know, to the best of our ability and despite our personal wishes and ideologies - what the likely outcomes of our decisions are going to be. We need to know what we should be doing today in order to get what we want tomorrow. More to the point, we need to know what we are doing today that is going to get us something we really, really, really don't want.
To do this we need the best possible picture of reality we can build. We need to cast out the ghosts of wishful thinking and flawed intuition and take up a stance towards reality that is open and honest. We need to be prepared to be proven wrong before we can learn to be right. Most of the process of acquiring new knowledge, the process of learning, consists of being proven wrong, over and over and over again. Just as innovation is the process of inviting serial failure, so too is learning the process of inviting serial recognition of our own ignorance. Every time we cast aside an opinion about reality that was wrong and replace it with something that is better, then we can say we have learned something new. Learning is the ongoing process of being proven wrong and accepting it gracefully - even eagerly. I want to be proven wrong; so should we all.
So long as we cling to our base intuitions and wishful thinking, so long as we cling to religion as our guide to what's true, we cannot possibly learn anything new about the true nature of reality. How could we?
Given the heights to which our power as a species has grown, we can't afford to be wrong anymore. Our decisions today have some very, very significant outcomes. One of the great problems of being human is that we can play dice with the universe - if we want to do so.
But for all the reasons above, we really, really shouldn't.