Author tackles atheism with humour

Andy Bannister, author of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist.

Andy Bannister, author of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist.Photo courtesy of RZIM

Author tackles atheism with humour


  • October 3, 2015

Laughter might truly be the best medicine if it can encourage friendly conversation between Christians and atheists. That was Andy Bannister’s goal when he wrote The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist.

In his new book, Bannister uses humour as a way to recognize and dissect what he calls “atheist sound bites,” common cliché arguments that are being used to support the New Atheism movement. He hopes that in writing this book he will be able to engage Christians and non-Christians alike.

“I often think that too much Christian literature, for those who are non-Christians, isn’t fun to read, so the humour is (in the book) for a reason,” said the British author. “I wanted to write an apologetics book that is fun to read, so that when (a reader) gives it to an atheist friend … (he or she) can say to them, ‘Look, you might not agree with everything in this book, but you’ll enjoy it.’ ”

Bannister begins each chapter with a scenario that exposes what he calls the lazy skepticism that many atheists use today. In the first chapter of his book, Bannister tells the story of how he first came across London’s “atheist bus.”

An ad on a London bus reads, “There is probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The advertisement, sponsored by the British Humanist Association, is a good example of a bad argument.

“An argument so bad, so disastrous, in fact, that one has to wonder what its sponsors were thinking… Like a cheaply made cardigan, they’re full of loose threads, that if tugged firmly, quickly began to unravel,” Bannister writes.

“But here’s my question: what’s the connection between the non-existence of something and any effect, emotional or otherwise? There probably aren’t any unicorns, cheer up. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is just a parody, so take heart.”

Beyond the first part of the ad’s claim, the second part is not much stronger. Bannister writes that the slogan might be a symptom of a general trend in culture to zero in on the emotion of enjoyment. He writes that to be authentically human, there is considerably more to life than to experience the one emotion of joy. Without joy, he asks what principle does New Atheism have for times of trial?

It is with bad arguments like these that Bannister opens discussion on the danger of lazy slogans to reduce complex arguments for New Atheism.

“In many Western countries, atheism has become seen now as the default position,” he said. “People assume atheism is the only position for someone who wishes to appear educated, sophisticated, urbane and rational. Best way to do that is to have a British accent. If you don’t have that, be an atheist.”

A large portion of Bannister’s characteristically British humour is often embedded in the footnotes of his book, where he refers readers to literature for further reading and the occasional punchline.

Bannister explained that using clever quips to address the flaws of bad arguments is a much more effective way to engage people in debate. For this technique, he cites C.S. Lewis as his inspiration.

“I remember C.S. Lewis, one of my heroes, explaining that one of the reasons he wrote fiction… was that he came to realize that the front entrance of people’s minds was often guarded by what he called ‘watchful dragons,’ things like cynicism and pride and bad arguments,” said Bannister.

“I’ve had this experience with atheist friends where you present to them what you think is a really compelling argument of who Jesus is and it just bounced off them… But narrative and story, as (Lewis) put it, can steal past those watchful dragons and take the truth into the side door.”

As the director and lead apologist of Canada’s Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), Bannister has found himself in many debates with atheist colleagues. A common criticism that he encounters is that atheists do not have to prove their non-belief.

During an appearance on Justin Bierley’s Unbelievable podcast, Bannister appeared with Ed Turner, an atheist writer and blogger, for a discussion on whether atheism is a belief system.

Turner, who is a solicitor by trade, criticized the book for being “a tactic to try and put the burden of proof on the other side.”

Turner said that because atheism is a non-belief, it is the believer’s responsibility to provide the right evidence to prove that God exists.

However, Bannister believes the burden of proof should be equal.

“I actually ended (the discussion) saying that this is not an attempt to push the burden of proof,” he told The Catholic Register.
“With that said, I would put one more qualifier on that. I think it’s hugely important, whenever you believe in anything… that you are willing to live out the consequences of your belief system. If you are not, I question whether you actually believe it.”

Bannister calls this the “livability test,” which he explains further in The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist. Bannister argues that if humans are just atoms and particles, people would abandon the idea of treating each other with dignity and respect.

“That’s not so much burden of proof as it is burden of livability and I think the Christian worldview is the only one you can live out consistently,” said Bannister. “Even if atheism is true and Christianity is false, wouldn’t you prefer to be treated with value and as precious, rather than just being treated as atoms and particles?”

Bannister admits the arguments he presents are not the end of the debate between Christians and atheists, but he hopes that it becomes the start of a more productive discussion.

“My prayer for my book is that it really gets into the hands of atheists and skeptics. It doesn’t just sit on the shelves for Christians, but the Lord will actually use it,” he said. “Books can go where we can’t.”