Do, or do not

I’m watching “Selling God” on Netflix Instant, on a whim this morning. It’s only half an hour in so far, and it’s all right. It’s no “God Who Wasn’t There,” which I go back to now and again, but it’s definitely aiming for a similar tone and format, with a focus instead on how religion, and Christianity in particular, markets and spreads itself.

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about Romans 7:15-20, which just got quoted in the film. Read through this:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

I get that the passage is talking about man’s sinful nature causing him to make bad choices, and I suspect that it’s a lot less tongue-twistery in Greek, but holy cow, look at that. I don’t know if anyone else remembers the slapstick comedy New Testament I proposed way back when, but this passage put me in mind of it again. Can’t you just hear that passage being read by Jackie Mason or John Moschitta or the late Rodney Dangerfield? It’d be hilarious.

George Lucas is a Genius

Crossposted from Movies Schmovies

Ever since The Phantom Menace, people have been complaining about how George Lucas ruined the Star Wars series through a series of stupid plot points and plodding movies. After all, he took two of the most badass, fan-beloved characters in the series…


…and turned them into annoying, whiny bitches:

Not only that, but it introduced annoying characters like Jar-Jar Binks and then proceeded to make them central to the mythos (go ahead, try to forget about him. Try to explain the backstory of the Empire, the driving force behind the trilogy that you actually like, without noting that Jar-Jar Binks cast the deciding vote to making Palpatine Emperor). It’s really almost surprising that we weren’t treated to a shot of young Han and Lando whining at each other over a game of space-marbles or something.

But while watching bits of Attack of the Clones on Spike today, I think Jon and I stumbled onto the truth. This wasn’t George Lucas being some dumbass hack who can’t write dialogue or a coherent plot, who thinks that political discussion between two unlikable one-dimensional characters belongs in the middle of the second film of a trilogy.

No, this was George Lucas, the genius who has had to deal with legions of Star Wars fans for the last thirty years. George Lucas, the man who couldn’t escape from under the shadow of this fucking trilogy if he tried–and if he did, he’d still end up under the shadow of the Indiana Jones films.

So this is George Lucas’s letter to the fans: Hey, you know those badass characters? Those mysterious and awesome people that you’ve been pestering me about for decades? Well, it turns out that they’re whiny fucking bitches…Just. Like. You.

And man, after falling right out of Star Wars fandom, I can totally sympathize with that. Lucas knows that his fans want to identify with the characters, and so he’s thrown them the biggest bone ever: now you can identify directly with Boba Fett and Darth Vader–the fans’ favorite characters!–who have become whiny, obnoxious little shits that ruin the whole goddamn experience. It’s…it’s kind of brilliant in its spitefulness.

So good on you, George.

The Future’s So Bright

I’ve been watching a lot of action movies lately, inspired in part by Don’s Manly Monday series. It started with “Team America: World Police” and “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” and so far I’ve worked my way through “Live Free and Die Hard,” “Demolition Man,” “Con Air,” and most of “Lethal Weapon” recently. For some of those, it’s not the first time I’ve seen them, but there are others that I missed for one reason or another. “Demolition Man” is one that I’d managed never to see before, despite the massive amounts of hype I remember surrounding its release, and while it’s not the best of my recent marathon, it certainly gave me a lot to think about.

See, I love dystopian stories. I love the semi-reasonable ones and the fantastic ones and the blatantly ridiculous ones. I love the way they turn the slippery slope argument into a world-building exercise. I love the way that they can provide a handy reference for actual social issues. I’ve read and watched a lot of dystopian stories, and while there’s a lot of quality variation, I can’t think of any that I didn’t enjoy to some degree.

So, because I don’t have enough to do, I’m going to start a series of posts discussing some of the features and commonalities of my favorite dystopias. Unlike most of my posts, I’ll probably go back and edit these periodically to add titles to each list. Like most of my posts, I’m not going to put any kind of schedule or restriction on this, because FSM knows I’ll never be able to keep to it. But it’ll give me an outlet for some percolating thoughts, and I think it could be interesting.

UnbELIevable

If you’ve been to movies recently, you’ve probably seen the trailers for the upcoming film “Book of Eli,” where Denzel Washington plays a kung-fu monk walking across the post-apocalyptic wasteland with a copy of the Bible that Gary Oldman’s character wants to use as a weapon…somehow.

I was actually optimistic about the movie when I saw trailers that played coy about what the book was. I mean, a plot that focuses on a book as some kind of all-important weapon-thing is totally primed to be a preachy “Bible is Awesome!” message, which also makes it a perfect twist to have the book be something–anything!–else. I suppose it’s a better setup for a “Twilight Zone” episode than a movie, really, but all that focus on a book that some revere and others want to use for evil would be great fodder for a twist where the book turned out to be “Utopia” or “The Republic” or the U.S. Constitution or the Collected Works of Shakespeare or a book by Galen or Hippocrates or Pasteur or Salk or Gray’s “Anatomy” or any number of books that would be worthy of such focus thanks to their utility–and would do what post-apocalyptic stories are meant to do: comment on modern society.

Instead, the filmmakers have apparently taken a route that makes almost no sense, by playing the whole thing straight with the Bible. I don’t know about anyone else, but if I were struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I’d be much more interested in “Survivalism for Dummies.”

All this would be somewhat forgivable if the filmmakers were trying to present some sincere message on the nature of society or faith or religion or humanity or something, but apparently they haven’t put that much thought into it. Seriously, take a look at this hilarious, enlightening interview with the directors. It’s a thing of beauty. Some highlights:

Q: I’m just curious. For you, why was it more important to have a character carrying a book with a message of spirituality, versus a message of “This is how you purify water?”

Albert: I would say it’s the same thing nowadays. Why is it important that people are holding that book in such high regard, or thinking that it should be spoken from, or told to others as opposed to building a church talking about irrigation? You can pose that question to anybody in any time period, post-apocalypse or now, about any religious text, or any text of any sort. “Oh, it’s more important to survive. We need food. So why not build churches about survival and food?”

You shouldn’t have to explain anything — poetry, art on the wall, a movie, whatever it is. You shouldn’t have to explain yourself. But here I am, being a hypocrite.

Q: I read an interview with you guys in Maxim, where it mentioned that a lot of audience members might think that this is Mad Max meets The Passion of Christ, and that that is a wrong assumption to make. Why?

Allen: Yeah I don’t think that [describes] the movie at all. I don’t believe you can even make comparisons. First of all, Passion of the Christ is an anomaly, it’s a one all. That will never happen again. That was a situation that no one ever would have foresaw. I don’t think you can compare any movie to that movie. Whether you loved it or it wasn’t your cup of tea. As far as Mad Max, I prefer Road Warrior. Our movie has a bit of Road Warrior in it.

And my personal favorite:

Q: If religion didn’t help the people of Eli’s fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?

Albert: You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You’re applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That’s part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith based religion — any of them — it will slowly start to fall apart. If you apply logic to Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, it will slowly start to fall apart. But if you go into it as a movie experience, as entertainment, [as] a mythology, and you don’t look for the holes, and you go and believe then that’s a different experience.

It’s not often that you see a filmmaker outright stating that the movie falls apart if you examine the plot with logic. I have to hand it to interviewer Meredith Woerner for asking all the right questions–with follow-ups, even!–and getting the most laughably inept, inane, and incomprehensible answers from the directors. Go read the whole thing; it’s a gold mine.

As to “Book of Eli,” I’m actually looking forward to seeing it even more, but I’m now fully expecting it to be a Schmovie.

Crossposted at Movies Schmovies.

So it’s come to this

It’s taken quite some time, but the camel’s back is officially broken. I fucking can’t stand Bill Maher.

I don’t know where to begin, really. I liked “Politically Incorrect” back in the day, but Religulous was a mixed bag. And now, between the AAI debacle and his renewed rampaging against basic medicine, as well as the frothing and infighting he’s inspired in the skeptic and atheist communities, I’m finally done with the asshole.

I guess the place to begin is AAI. I don’t know, I think there’s some tackiness involved already with their Richard Dawkins Award, and the criteria don’t help assuage my concerns. Here’s what the award was supposed to honor (according to the Wikipedia page):

The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

Wikipedia cites the Atheist Alliance website as their source for that quote, but the site is poorly designed, and neither the search function there nor Google can find anything about the Dawkins Award anywhere on either that site or the convention site. I’ve heard charges that the criteria were changed after the Maher controversy started, but I can’t confirm that. What I can tentatively confirm is that there’s no apparent mention of the criteria on their site. There is this telling bit:

We are also pleased to announce that Bill Maher, effervescent host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and host and co-producer of the 2008 documentary movie Religulous, will be in attendance Friday evening to receive the 2009 AAI Richard Dawkins Award for his efforts to further the values science and reason in the world.

Here are the problems: first, Maher is avowedly not an atheist. While all the direct quotes addressing his agnosticism, disavowal of the term “atheist,” and vague spirituality come from years back, I seem to recall even in “Religulous” he claimed that atheists were just as dogmatic, or something along those lines. It wasn’t until just before the convention, when he had Dawkins on his show, that he claimed that title for himself.

Second, there is no way that anyone can claim Maher “further[s] the values of science and reason.” There wasn’t any science in “Religulous,” and even the reason was a bit light. I don’t watch “Real Time,” but I’ve seen enough clips of his antivaccination, antimedicine views to know what an antiscience kook he is. I’m convinced that the only reason Maher buys into global warming and evolution is because his political opponents are against them, not because he understands or trusts the science. His views on medicine have been and continue to be insane and dangerous–and probably spurred again by his anti-corporate political beliefs. He thinks that vaccines are a less settled science than global warming, overestimates the role of nutrition in disease prevention, subscribes to various flavors of detox woo, and generally distrusts “western medicine.” All this should rather disqualify him for any award based around the promotion and advancement of science.

And I’m sure that there were others in 2008 who would better deserve this kind of award. What about the people who organized the London bus signs? How about Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who made serious waves with the Washington Christmas sign, have expanded their billboard campaign, and have continued their radio show and other ways of promoting both atheism and reason. What about Simon Singh, who has taken on the British Chiropractic Association in an ongoing campaign against pseudomedicine? These are just a few, off the top of my head, and there are others who have done more–and consistently–for science and reason than Maher.

Which has skeptics in an uproar, and rightly so. And no one has been roaring louder than Orac, one of my favorite bloggers, who has discussed Maher’s woopidity in the past. Unfortunately, I think Orac got a little overheated in one of his last posts on the subject. For context, Orac’s discussing a post by PZ at the AAI convention. PZ talked about Dawkins’s introduction of Maher, and how Dawkins had to walk a tightrope in the speech between acknowledging Maher’s contributions to the atheist movement and dissociating himself and the AAI from Maher’s stupid views on science and medicine.

I don’t envy the position that Dawkins was put in, there. AAI fucked up in their choice of Maher, and it’s not as though Dawkins was in on the decision. He’s also on a book tour, and apparently wasn’t familiar with either Maher or his views (outside of “Religulous”) until fairly recently. He could have disavowed Maher and refused to present the award, in which case I imagine AAI would have replaced him with someone who would give a glowing boilerplate introduction. By staying involved, Dawkins was able to throw a few punches in as well as acknowledging Maher’s contributions.

Anyway here’s what Orac had to say about it:

As for the “tightrope,” well, suffice it to say that I’m still less than impressed. PZ is right about one thing; it wasn’t enough. To me, this whole fiasco is pretty strong evidence that, if atheism and science come into conflict (unless, of course, that science happens to be the science of evolution, in which case I highly doubt that this controversy would have been so flippantly dismissed), for Richard Dawkins atheism wins hands down, and science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community. Atheism is clearly what’s more important to Dawkins now. As long as he bashes religion, Maher’s a-OK with him and only gets a brief remonstration for his promotion of quackery and anti-vaccine views.

Orac’s posts on the matter, especially some of the later ones, came across to me as mildly unhinged (such as where he criticized PZ for not complaining about Maher in a post that was clearly just a list of speakers–no one was commented on), and this quote is really the apex of that. Richard Dawkins cares more about atheism than science? Yes, I’m sure that’s why he just wrote a science book about science and is touring the country to read scientific excerpts from that science book. That claim, I think, is ludicrous.

Furthermore, it’s not “atheism and science” coming into conflict, as Orac suggests. It’s an atheist group and science coming into conflict. It seems that by the time anyone knew about Maher’s receiving the award, the choice had already been made. So what to do, have all the prominent speakers pull out of the conference? Or use the moment to remind people that atheism isn’t a dogma, and that we can vociferously disagree with one another–and with the organizations that supposedly speak for us? Perhaps there wasn’t enough of that, but it’s not reasonable to claim that this was a conflict between “atheism and science.”

And then there’s this bit: “science-based medicine once again remains the poor, neglected stepchild of the so-called “reality-based” community” Quoi? I’m sorry, Orac, but I’m not entirely clear on this: which reality-based community are you talking about? Certainly not the skeptical community, which gets more vitriolic about antivaccinationists and the dangers of alternative medicine than any other subject. Certainly not the skeptical community who rallied behind Simon Singh in his legal battles. Certainly not the skeptical community who take every quack’s attempt to silence a skeptic and spread it like wildfire around the Internet. Certainly not the skeptical community who has tirelessly fought against the Mercury Militia and the Jenny McCarthy and Oprah followers. Certainly not the skeptical community who typically cut their teeth on debunking homeopathy. Certainly not the skeptical community who trumpets every child’s death due to faith healing and quackery. Certainly not the skeptical community whose top luminaries include a neurologist, a psychiatrist, and a cancer surgeon. No, it must be some other reality-based community that Orac is talking about, because the one I’m a part of makes medicine a primary focus.

So, overall, I don’t think anyone comes out of this looking good. Maher is a contrarian idiot, and has reaffirmed that since the conference ended. The AAI made a boneheaded mistake and apparently is more concerned with covering it up than addressing it, which certainly doesn’t give me any desire to be associated with them. Dawkins comes across as someone who doesn’t pay enough attention to what’s done with his name and assumed endorsement (see also: the Brights). I think PZ makes it out relatively unscathed, though I’m willing to reconsider that. And Orac comes across as someone who wrote one too many insolent posts on this subject.

But while my opinion of the latter three isn’t enough to tarnish my opinions of them more than a little, Maher’s continued use of creationist-style arguments to promote his antiscience views has led me to the conclusion that he’s a world-class asshat, and I’m as done with him as I am with Ben Stein. At this point, I’m glad I haven’t bought “Religulous”: I don’t think I could stand to watch Maher for that long anymore. Fuck ‘im.

Alphabetical Blasphemy

Since today is International Blasphemy Day, I thought I’d take a few minutes to quickly blaspheme against as many religions as I can think of off the top of my head. So, here goes:

  • Ásatrú: I’m not sure how to feel about Ásatrú. I mean, on one hand, it’s got to suck to have other people casually citing your gods as the silly mythological ones that no one believes in anymore, but on the other hand, you’ve got fucking Thor. Plus, your canon is huge–once you’ve finished the Edda, you can start working on Journey Into Mystery. Even Catholicism doesn’t have regular monthly updates. Or continuity editors, for that matter.

  • Baha’i: I’ve read about Baha’i half a dozen times, but any information about them just kind of slides off my brain. I’m pretty sure their schtick has to do with letting the dogs out.
  • Christianity: I realized today that I’d really like to do a comedy version of the Jesus story. Not “The Life of Brian,” but an actual, accurate adaptation of the gospel stories (inasmuch as you can call any mash-up of those four contradictory stories “accurate”) done in a wacky slapstick style. It occurred to me while reading Jesus, Interrupted that Jesus gets run out of town and stoned quite a few times. I can just imagine the scenes of Jesus and his crew running with huge crowds of angry Jews chasing them with stones and stuff, while Ciaphas (or someone) shouts “JEEEESUUUUS!” in a Mr. Slate/Dean Wormer style. The more I think about it, the better I think it would be. I just need to figure out how to funny up the downer ending. Much as I’d like to, I can’t steal this idea:
  • Deism: Deism is kind of like the bathtub drain of religious belief; it’s almost totally empty, and so many things seem to end up sucked down it. Every major argument for the existence of gods ends up getting as far as Deism and no farther; people who aren’t quite ready to give up religious belief altogether seem to get caught in it like clumps of hair, Antony Flew fell in from the other side of the tub, much though Christians would like to claim that he made it across the Deistic divide; and American government has spent so much time caught in the gutter that it’s started using it for ceremonial purposes.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is “Deism sucks.”

  • Ellinais: All the lameness of Ásatrú, but without the awesomeness of Thor. Sure, Hercules and Zeus are cool and all, but there’s so many also-rans–the Legion of Substitute Olympians like Iris and Eris and Nike and such. I don’t know, I just can’t imagine Odin turning into a golden shower to impregnate someone.

    Oh, and as long as I’ve mentioned Eris, I might as well mention Discordianism. Either it’s a parody religion with its collective head up its own ass, or it’s a real religion based around trying way too hard to be funny. I can’t tell the difference, and I’m convinced that its followers can’t either, and most of them are just playing along so they don’t look like they don’t get the joke.

  • Freethinkers: When people accuse atheists of being smug and superior, this is the kind of stupid bullshit they’re talking about. “Freethinker” is even worse than “Bright” in this regard; it’s effectively calling everyone else a slave-thinker or restricted-thinker. Any organization with cute derogatory terms for everyone in the outgroup has its head way too far up its own ass. Can we please resign this elitist term to the dustbin of history?
  • Gnosticism: Hey, look, an entire religious movement based around being super-special elites who know secret things that make them better than you. It’s the religion equivalent of high schoolers with an in-joke.
  • Hare Krishna: A religion known mainly for hanging out in airports, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (which sounds more like an organization that James Bond would fight against) peaked with a mention in a George Harrison song and had officially jumped the shark by the time they started denying the moon landings on religious grounds. Yeah, let’s teach that controversy. Bald assholes.
  • Humanism: You know, there’s not a lot I disagree with when it comes to Secular Humanism, but something about the tradition kind of squicks me out. I think it’s the adherence to a specific set of ethics, or something. I guess I’m technically a Humanist, but it’s not a term I really use. So, yeah, Humanists…stop being so squicky.
  • Islam: I thought about just putting a crude cartoon of Mohammed here, but then a new thought occurred to me. See, like my “Laugh-In of the Christ” above, I think the life of Mohammed would make a fun movie. See, the Hadith has this bit about Mohammed flying up to heaven on a magic donkey that my brain connected to the end of “Grease,” where Danny and Sandy fly into the sky in their car, and I thought “it’d be awesome to do the story of Mohammed like ‘Grease’!” See, you start it with “Allah (is the Word),” then there’s “Sunni Nights,” “Look at Me, I’m Aisha B.,” and “Madrasah Dropout.” By the end, Mohammed will be all clean-cut and wearing a sweater, and Aisha will be sewn into her leather burqa. I know she’s only supposed to be six years old, but given Hollywood’s proclivity toward casting older people as younger people, I suspect that we might get an actual teenager in the role. I recommend Miley Cyrus.
  • Jainism: You know, if the Jains were serious about their commitment to not killing any living things, they’d all take medication to inhibit their immune systems. You guys are so careful that you sweep bugs out of the sidewalk in front of you and avoid root vegetables since they kill living plants, but what about all those living bacteria that your body’s killing all the time? Bunch of hypocrites.
  • Kemetism: Why resurrect Egyptian mythology as a religion if you’re not going to mummify the dead and build pyramids? Neopagans ruin everything.
  • Libertarianism: Because substituting “the market” for “God” is still a religion.
  • Mormons: Mormonism is religion as done by fanfic.com. It’s a mishmash of Christianity, 19th Century science fiction, Masonic ritual, American patriotism, wish fulfillment, and really awful pseudohistory. “So, this guy discovered some magic stones, which may or may not have been in a breastplate of some sort, then used them to translate a book of golden plates (though the book wasn’t in the room at the time), written in ‘reformed Egyptian’ by Indians who were actually Jews who sailed across the ocean to America, where Jesus went on walkabout once. Apparently, there’s no such place as Hell (but somehow there’s still a devil), so everyone gets into Heaven, but some people get better rooms, and if you’re really good and wear your magic underpants and never drink coffee, you get to be the god of your own planet when you die! Oh, and God is from another planet, which orbits a star called Kolob, and there are Puritans living on the moon! And black people will turn white if they start behaving, and God and Jesus had bunches of wives, but we don’t talk about those things anymore.” Joseph Smith was fucking Harold Hill, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it started as a drunken bet that just got out of hand. In fact, I would be very surprised if it didn’t start as a drunken bet that got out of hand.
  • Newage: Ah, newage, less a religion, more a smorgasbord of stupidity. There is no dumb idea that newage hasn’t adopted, embraced, and woefully misunderstood. If Deism is a shower drain, then newage is the trap pipe underneath that collects all the gunk and detritus that gets past the screen.
  • Objectivism: What kind of cult of personality outlives their personality? One with the personality of a petulant junior high student, I guess. It’s a shame that Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard are both dead; I’d really like to see a definitive decision on which cult leader was the bigger hack.
  • Pantheism: Pantheism saw Deism’s non-interventionist, impersonal prime mover god, and said “that god’s not useless and superfluous enough! I can do better.” And by George, they did at that. Way to set the bar high, Pantheists.
  • Quakerism: The graph of Quaker popularity drops off significantly after the end of the 18th century, and has a short, sharp resurgence in 2003 or so, when everybody took the Belief-O-Matic Quiz and found out they were “Liberal Quakers.” In between, it’s all oatmeal.
  • Rastafarianism: I think if you actually did the demographics, Rastafarianism comprises equally Jamaicans and pretentious college stoners who want to give up shampoo.
  • Satanism: I don’t know what’s worse: that Christians repeatedly get panicked over an effectively nonexistent religion, or that they get panicked over an effectively nonexistent religion that they think is made up of Dungeons and Dragons players and KISS fans. Never has there been a sweatier, hairier nonexistent religion.
  • Taoism: ‘Nuff said.
  • Unitarian Universalism: All the uselessness of Deism with all the boredom of church! UU is the best argument for good atheist meetup groups.
  • Voodoo: The only group who has contributed more easy plot devices to horror movies than the gypsies. It’s almost a shame that no one knows anything accurate about them.
  • Wicca: A fifty-year-old ancient religion made entirely out of pale skin, fishnet sleeves, awkward body fat, pretentious teenagers, and lesbians. No religious tradition in history has ever needed a harder smack with the cluestick.
  • X-Files: I know it’s not a religion, I’m just using it as a handy term for all the conspiracy theorists out there who aren’t adequately covered by the rest of the list. The X-Files was basically “Left Behind” for the Coast to Coast AM crowd. Which explains why the show ended up being totally incoherent, ridiculous, empty, and raising far more questions than it was poised to answer.
  • Yoga: As I understand, this religion gives you the ability to stretch across the screen and breathe fire. And according to the manual, it supposedly allows you to teleport, but that’s, like, 12th-level Yoga or something.
  • Zoroastrianism: Spanish for “the foxastrianism.” Extant since somewhere around 600 BCE, it’s like the little religion that could…worship a god who answers phones on the Enterprise and drives a Japanese car.
  • Everyone else: chances are, you’re too lame or tiny to merit notice. I mean, come on, I picked Kemetism over you? Yeah, sucks to be you. With the exception of Scientology (aka Mormonism with a higher page count): it’s okay, Scientology, someday you’ll catch Nicholas Cage for killing John Travolta’s kid. In the meantime, enjoy being 4chan’s bitch.

And that’s the end of it. Happy Blasphemy Day, everyone!

Stay Vigilant

It’s that time again. On this day, millions of people gather together to remember the day they believe a man rose from the dead and walked the Earth once more. We celebrate this day and keep its memory fresh and alive, in hopes that it never happens again.

That’s right, it’s Zombie Awareness Day.

No mere mortal can resist!Now, it’s commonly thought that only one person rose from the dead on this day in the first century C.E., but according to early sources, this may not have been the case:

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
–Matthew 27:52-53

In fact, if the stories are to be believed, then the celebrated resurrectee himself, Jesus of Nazareth, had a history of working to raise the dead (Matthew 9:24, Luke 7:12-15, John 11:39-44). Like a first-century Herbert West or Victor Frankenstein, Jesus used his inhuman powers to bridge the uncrossable chasm between life and death, in preparation for his own eventual return from that undiscovered country.

Now, I don’t necessarily think those stories are credible, but I do think they provide a clear warning for us: the Zombie Apocalypse could happen any day, so you must always be ready to take up arms and fight against the undead menace.

So, you may be asking yourself how you can best celebrate today. Well, you’re in luck, because I’ve compiled an incomplete list of appropriate Zombie Awareness Day activities:

  • Walk around your local malls, shopping centers, and hospitals, determining the best places to hole up in the event of Zombie Apocalypse.
  • Clean your shotguns, sharpen your machetes, polish your cricket bats, and check through all your stockpiled ammunition and canned goods.
  • Study one of the many informative and prophetic texts on the subject, such as Max Brooks’ “Zombie Survival Guide” and “World War Z,” or Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
  • Watch one of the numerous documentaries or cautionary films on the subject, from the classic “Night of the Living Dead” to the more contemporary “Shaun of the Dead” “Dance of the Dead,” and “Army of Darkness.”
  • Sing along with some of the traditional holiday songs.
  • Test your survival skills with one of the various video game simulators, such as “Left 4 Dead,” “Dead Rising,” and the Nazi Zombie levels of “Call of Duty: World at War.”

That ought to keep you suitably busy on this most important of holidays. As always, stay vigilant, and shoot for the head!

And we thought “The Unborn” was bad

So after much anticipation dread, Jon and I finally watched Expelled. I definitely thought about liveblogging it, but honestly, it’s been done better by other people already. I have nothing new to add. It’s exactly as bad as you’ve been told, if not a little worse, and I’m glad that I’ve read the accounts of the interviewees beforehand. I’m also glad that I had the lie-correction subtitles open on my computer (haven’t quite figured out how to get them onto a copy of the disc yet).

The whole film is an exercise in dishonesty, logical fallacies, projection, and the celebration of ignorance. The only time evidence was ever mentioned was in how the “Darwinists” are “distorting” it; there’s no discussion of evidence for ID (or why that would even be a concern), nor is there any real discussion of the typical Creationist talking points against the fossil record, radiometric dating, and so forth. There’s a concerted effort to avoid talking about evidence at all, which I imagine is because even considering it causes the film’s thesis to fall apart.

The movie, as you know, posits a conspiracy–explicitly including “The Academy,” “Watchdog Groups,” “The Media,” and “The Courts”–which is keeping people from even asking the relevant questions about Design and campaigning to keep these crusading Intelligent Design advocates out of the system. It goes against all our American values of freedom and democracy, but the conspiracy goes beyond America. It’s a global confederation that controls science and is against religion, even though ID isn’t actually religious. This conspiracy is massively well-funded and powerful, though prominent scientists, thinkers, and politicians all over the world are questioning the Darwinist dogma. The whole concept is ridiculous–who makes up this conspiracy? How efficient must it be that it can operate so broadly and so powerfully when it seemingly requires its entire contingency to be atheists? Somehow, the tiny number of scientifically-minded atheists is able to subjugate and persecute the vast billions of religious people. It’s global apartheid! And somehow, this massive global conspiracy can’t stop this movie (or the books involved, or the interviews with scientists) from being produced; somehow, this conspiracy doesn’t see the value in pandering to those religious billions. How much more funding would be available if the Big Science conspirators were investigating Creationist and Biblical principles?

The interviews themselves may be the most painful bit of the film. I’ve never seen such dishonest questioning tactics and interviews so shallow due to editing tricks. The questions are frequently leading or loaded, often non sequitur, and repetitive–dear FSM, are they repetitive. Michael Shermer noted in his review that Stein asked him the same question a dozen different ways, clearly fishing for some particular response. This is blatantly obvious in his interview with Dawkins, where he asks “do you believe in God” in at least a dozen different and increasingly frustrating ways. I can only imagine how this might have influenced Dawkins’ other comments; if someone’s being that intentionally obtuse and thick-headed, I can imagine it might lead to some bristling and irritation.

The film is awful in every measurement. It makes Michael Moore’s worst offenses look positively fair by comparison, and I’m pretty sure it invents new ways to be dishonest.

One of the worst things, though, is that the movie really confirmed a lot of my suspicions and misgivings regarding Religulous. Aside from the dishonesty in setting up the interviews, the shallow interviews (largely due to butcher-quality editing), the unnecessary stock footage, the largely out-of-place tone shift toward the end, all echo the tactics used in Expelled. Religulous is still the much better film on all those issues (far fewer digressions into stock footage, the interviews and thoughtful threads are more deeply explored, the leading questions were more clearly attempts to elicit humor rather than objectionable statements), and wins out by virtue of not exploiting the Holocaust to make an invalid point. Even so, I really wish that the comparison of tactics wasn’t so easy and so apt.

So, um, yeah. It’s not an experience I’d recommend. If you’re going to watch it, do it when there’s no chance that you’ll wake sleeping people by screaming at the TV, move any desks and hard furniture out of range of your forehead, and remember the buddy system. Good luck.

Religulousness

Simba, you have forgotten me...I saw “Religulous” two Saturdays ago, and I’m just now getting to writing about it. I really ought to tighten up this whole blogging thing. Anyway, on with my brief review.

I went into the film not entirely sure what to expect. I’ll say straight off that I don’t particularly care for Bill Maher, and he’s not the first person (or even really in the top ten people) I’d want to see making a film criticizing the ridiculousness of religion. I’d really prefer someone who wasn’t hopped up on their own brand of crazy whacknut woo, someone who didn’t constantly walk the golden mean fallacy of agnosticism and proclaim that it made him better than either side, pointing out religion’s follies from a position of reason and evidence rather than from a position of not accepting the germ theory of medicine.

But, you know, I liked “Politically Incorrect” back in the day, so it’s not as though my feelings about Maher are entirely negative.

Anyway, “Religulous” tries very hard, but it’s not clear on what it’s trying to do. The filmmakers really seemed to be torn between two competing and more or less mutually exclusive ideas. On one hand, as the title, advertising campaign, and majority of the movie would have you believe, the film is about the ridiculous excesses, hypocrisy, and absurdity of religion and religious belief. To that end, Maher interviews the patrons of a trailer park chapel, an ex-gay minister, an ex-Jew for Jesus, Ken Ham, a pot preacher, the clientele and staff of the Holy Land Experience amusement park, and various others. On the other hand, the speech Maher gives at the beginning of the film and the last twenty minutes or so of the movie would have you beleive that it’s about the serious dangers presented by religion and fanatical belief, and the need for reason and reasonable leaders. To this end, he mostly interviews Muslims.

The problem with this is that his serious points are undermined by the amount of time and effort he spends talking with and mocking the ridiculous bits. Every scene with the pot preacher (for instance) already feels like a waste of celluloid, since I don’t think the guy said more than two lines in the whole thing, and that feeling is compounded by Maher’s vaguely apocalyptic rhetoric at the end. The result is a feeling that either Maher has trivialized the grave problems he describes, or that he has largely attacked softball targets rather than the fearsome ones he later decries. In any case, it doesn’t quite feel like he’s made his point about the dangers of religion; he’s made the religious out to be kooks rather than psychos.

Moreover, the interviews are heavily and obviously edited. I sincerely hope that unedited interviews are among the special features on the DVD, because it’d be interesting to see what people actually had to say, for better or worse. It’s also clear that Maher tried to steer many of the interviews toward more fertile comedic ground (such as his repeated attempts to gay-bait the ex-gay pastor), which makes him look more than a little juvenile. Besides that, there are lots of jump-cuts to bits of stock footage or other footage, which resonated unfortunately with everything I’ve heard about “Expelled“. On the other hand, I’m reasonably certain that he uses some of the same clips that “The God Who Wasn’t There” and the “Bullshit” episode on the Bible used, so he manages to create those associations as well.

Despite his fence-sitting agnostic position, Maher’s biases are pretty well evident. It’s clear throughout that he’s willing to give Jesus a lot more benefit of the doubt than Islam. He repeatedly talks about what a nice guy Jesus was, and how he’d obviously be against so much of what goes on in his name, particularly violence. He thanks the trucker churchgoers for being Christ-like, as opposed to just Christian. To be fair, his position is pretty common; back when I was a fence-sitting agnostic, I believed basically the same thing. Heck, my novel treats Jesus as a really nice guy whose good intentions just get twisted all out of whack. It’s easy to watch “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” and so forth and come away with the idea that Jesus was the nicest of guys with the best of intentions, and that all the bad bits of Christianity come from people failing to understand his lessons or twisting the church to their personal or political gain.

Like most easy things, that’s a vast oversimplification of the situation. Going by the four gospel accounts of Jesus–assuming they can even be reconciled into a single coherent person–he was moody, arrogant, and occasionally violent, he openly played favorites and admittedly didn’t want his message to be easily understood, he had a tendency to mix good and bad advice in equal measure, and he promoted a theology that ultimately was significantly more morally corrupt than what prevailed in Judaism at the time. Sure, you can cherry-pick details to make him look like the bees’ knees, but there’s no better rationale to do that than to pick the details that make him look like an unstable sociopath. And certainly the modern church picks and chooses which bits of his advice to follow or ignore, but I can’t see how following everything would improve the situation whatsoever.

Which boils down, to me, to making Maher look like he hasn’t done the research. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that most of the time when Christians say or do something outrageously offensive, Maher comments about how Jesus wouldn’t approve. Then, when Muslims later say something moderate and open-minded or peaceful, we get a jump-cut to an IED exploding or Osama bin Laden speaking. The whole point of sitting on the fence is that you don’t pick sides, but Bill’s sticking out so far into the anti-Islamic yard that he might as well be a plastic flamingo.

Which ultimately undermines the later shots that try to compare bin Laden with Pat Robertson and his ilk. Sure, the comparison is easy to make, but Robertson barely appeared in the film before that. The tactic would have been much more effective if he’d pulled the “let’s contrast their words’ with extremists'” trick on Christians and Jews, rather than just Muslims. Of course, it’d still be a fallacy to ignore that there are differences between moderates and extremists, but at least it’d be a consistently-applied fallacy.

There’s one thing I wish I could remember in greater detail: Maher’s interview with Francis Collins. That’s one I would really like to see uncut, not only because it was more intelligent than most of the softball interviews, but because Collins said something in it that made me sit up and say “you know, he’s right.” When you make Francis Collins look good in a debate about religion–especially right after he’s revealed his profound ignorance by saying that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses, I think you’re probably doing something wrong.

Gosh, I’ve been negative so far. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the film; there were lots of parts that I really enjoyed. There’s an extended segment toward the beginning where Maher is exploring his own history with religion, going so far as to bring his mother and sister in as interviewees. The segment is personal and intriguing, and feels overall very genuine. His speeches at the beginning and end, despite the jarring inconsistency with the tone of the rest of the film, are very well-written and well-delivered, and really communicate the urgency of the problems. He manages to pick a pretty good crop of interviewees overall. It was neat to see Tal Bachman skewer the Mormon church (sadly, he didn’t go after Joan of Arc or Aphrodite); former Vatican astronomer Jerry George Coyne and the radical priest outside the Vatican (who I believe was once on the cover of Newsweek) both provided nice examples of religionists who weren’t nutty in quite the same way as the rest of the crowd.

In many ways, “Religulous” would seem like a much better movie if it didn’t invite itself so readily to comparison with other recent religion-critical movies. It lacks the tight focus of “Flock of Dodos;” it lacks the personal narrative that served as the core and guiding premise of “The God Who Wasn’t There,” despite including something similar toward the beginning (which was necessarily abandoned for the last two-thirds of the film–Maher’s Catholic/Jewish history didn’t exactly lead into ex-Gay ministries and Muslim extremists); it was missing the matter-of-fact horror of “Jesus Camp,” though it had the frequent-shots-in-a-car direction down; and it didn’t have the calm, honest intellectual dignity of “Root of All Evil,” which I think was the biggest strike against it.

If I had to boil it down to my overall feeling, it was like an extra-long episode of “Bullshit.” There’s the same clear biases, the same lack of much in-depth coverage, a similar kind of humor, and the same tendency to think that maybe they’ve picked easier targets than they should have. It’s a decent movie, just as “Bullshit” is a decent show, but nothing about “Religulous” feels particularly well-done or original. It’s a shame, too, because I think it would have been a much better movie, one that stood out a little farther from its peers, if it had stuck to mocking the ridiculousness and excesses of religion.

Define “Success”

Apparently, Expelled was a success at the box office this weekend. At least, that’s what Randy Olson and Chris Mooney say. Ed Brayton tells a different story. It seems that no one has a clear idea of what “success” means.

On one hand, it opened at 9th place over the weekend, and that $3.5 million weekend makes it number 8 on the list of top grossing political documentaries of all time. Not too shabby for a film plagued by plagiarism and unlicensed music.

On the other hand, it opened far beneath films that have been out for multiple weeks, like “Horton Hears a Who” and “Nim’s Island.” Hell, even “Prom Night” did better. Take a quick look at the other films on that list of top grossing political documentaries; it’s just above a movie that opened in one theater, and just below one that opened in two. Granted, these numbers reflect the per-theater income, but when a movie opening in over a thousand theaters can’t do better per theater than one that opened in two, that seems to be saying something. Moreover, $3.5 million might cover the cost of the film itself, but certainly not the publicity and the “we’ll pay you to go” campaign they had with religious schools. Even the producers’ own gauge for success (apparently 2 million tickets sold) was missed by a wide margin.

Before Expelled came out, people were comparing it to “The Passion of the Christ” (and its $83.8 million opening weekend). The same marketing firm worked on both, and the marketing directly to churches and friendly audiences was certainly similar. When I first started hearing these comparisons, I immediately thought of another recent movie that was repeatedly compared to “The Passion”: “The Nativity Story.” “Nativity” couldn’t move the churchgoers into the seats, and is widely considered a flop.

“The Nativity Story” made $8 million in its opening weekend.

Now, why is a movie marketed toward much the same audience, in much the same way, which made over twice as much, considered a flop, while ScienceBloggers are conceding defeat to the success juggernaut that is Expelled? Is it just because it’s a documentary? Is that what sets the “incredible success” bar so low?

Expelled certainly did better than I’d hoped, but I’m more than a little disheartened to see folks like Olson and Mooney essentially conceding defeat at this point. Instead of calling for people to make responses, and lauding the creationists for their superior framing and marketing abilities, and criticizing the scientific community for not doing enough, why not fucking do something about it? What purpose does it serve for a scientist to say “Meet Ben Stein, the New Spokesman for the Field of Evolution”? What kind of framing is that?

And what is the expected scientific response supposed to be? An equally high-budget movie responding to their claims as if they’re claims that deserve a response? Yeah, that’s good framing, letting your opponents determine the terms of the debate. A direct-to-DVD release explaining all the problems? How well do the anti-Michael Moore direct-to-DVD flicks do compared to the Michael Moore films? Why is it that the people who claim to be trying to improve scientific communication are the ones falling over themselves to declare victory for the other side?

I’ll be curious to see how “successful” Expelled is in the coming weeks, as the initial church-rush dies down.

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