Considering the End of the World

There’s something nicely apocalyptic about Hollywood. There’s that last scene in the Nathanael West novel Day of the Locust – that’s where it all burns to the ground, all of Hollywood, and then all of Los Angeles, as the hapless and emblematic victim-of-everything – appropriately named Homer Simpson – just loses it. He goes murderously nuts, but that’s understandable. People embrace the apocalyptic when they’ve convinced themselves that the situation is hopeless, and West’s novel, finally published in 1939, had been written in the depths of the Great Depression, just after that 1937 debacle, when after things had been looking up, finally, they all crashed again. Someone told FDR it was time to stop spending and lower taxes on the rich, so they could earn big money again, letting the unburdened free market fix everything – the poor would disappear in a few weeks, without the government doing anything at all. Oops. It was a hopeless time, and West’s buddy out here, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had just died. West was no doubt in a foul and apocalyptic mood. Burn it all down. And it’s easy to feel that way now, as in those critical years, Fitzgerald had been living right here on North Laurel Avenue, one block down the street, and Nathanael West had been typing away in his seedy apartment over on Ivar Avenue, just a few blocks away. The smell of apocalypse hangs heavy in the air here. It comes with the territory.

That’s why it was no surprise that this year, Saint Patrick’s Day opened with a rather impressive earthquake – here the apartment building shook and twisted and it was damned loud, but then the epicenter was pretty much just down the street. It was a Hollywood thing, and this was also the day that always ends with the LAPD and county sheriffs parked on every corner, because this is the one day America sets aside each year for very heavy drinking. Everyone is Irish for the day, and everyone’s drunk, and they drive around, badly. It would be the end of the world for someone down on the Sunset Strip, one way or another. That also comes with the territory.

One disgruntled Irish-American put it this way at Salon:

On one hand, Irishness is a nonspecific global brand of pseudo-old pubs, watered-down Guinness, “Celtic” tattoos and vague New Age spirituality, designed to make white people feel faintly cool without doing any of the hard work of actually learning anything. On the other, it’s Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Pat Buchanan and Rep. Peter King, Long Island’s longtime Republican congressman (and IRA supporter), consistently representing the most stereotypical grade of racist, xenophobic, small-minded, right-wing Irish-American intolerance. When you think of the face of white rage in America, it belongs to a red-faced Irish dude on Fox News.

It was not a good day, all around – too nasty and mean and apocalyptic for some of us – but many seem comfortable with that. For them the end of the world is a pretty cool thing, and in fact, Hollywood just made another end-of-the-world epic – Noah this time, with controversy too:

Amid ongoing controversy over the theological themes depicted in Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming film “Noah,” Paramount Pictures has decided to add an “explanatory message” to future marketing materials letting prospective viewers know that “artistic license has been taken.”

An upcoming online trailer, the movie’s official website and all print and radio spots, among other advertisements, will contain the following caveat:

“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

Attention religious zealots! We at Paramount know we didn’t follow all the precise details in the Bible. It’s just a movie, guys. It’s a riff on the general idea. Cut us some slack here!

No one was in the mood for that – even if it won’t open until the end of the month, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain already banned the movie because it depicts a prophet, which one must never do, as they had explained so carefully to those Danish cartoonists a few years ago, and the National Religious Broadcasters folks threatened to boycott the thing unless Paramount added that disclaimer. They understood a precise telling of the story, with all the minor details in specific order, wouldn’t make a very good movie, but they insisted Paramount add that “this is not the Bible” disclaimer – so people wouldn’t confuse the one with the other. Apparently they think that’s far too easy to do – it must happen all the time. Executives at Paramount, down on Melrose Avenue, must have been rolling their eyes. It shouldn’t have been this hard. God destroys the world, but He lets Noah save what he can. It’s just another disaster movie.

That was their mistake. This was God, not Godzilla, and everyone, particularly Americans, takes God very seriously – except Bill Maher. Late in the afternoon, on the Friday before the earthquake, down the hill at CBS Television City on Fairfax, Maher taped his weekly HBO show Real Time, which always ends with his New Rules segment, a rant on what’s bugging him. There should be new rules about certain things, and this time he decided there should be new rules about movies like Noah:

No one can blame me when I say this is a stupid country – when sixty percent of the adults in it think the Noah’s Ark story is literally true – which is why I’m already sick of the ads for this floating piece of giraffe crap. Although, the movie has been condemned by both Christians and Muslims, so it must be doing something right! And they say it may lose a fortune for the studio, which would put it in hot water with the Jews, too.

That’s a good line, but he asks us to think about what’s going on here:

You believe a man, Noah, lived to be 900 years old, that’s what the Bible said; and when he was 500, he decided to have three kids – just like Clint Eastwood. And when he was 600, he and his three 100-year-old sons built a boat unto which, in one day, they loaded over three million animals, all of which were apparently indigenous to within five miles of the boat. But get this – what the Christians who are now protesting this movie are upset about is that it doesn’t take the biblical story literally enough. They’re mad because this made-up story doesn’t stay true to their made-up story.

That’s not the half of it, because this is also a deeply disturbing story about God:

It’s about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it, and his name is God. What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at? I mean, besides Chris Christie.

Hey, God, you know you’re kind of a dick when you’re in a movie with Russell Crowe and you’re the one with anger issues.

You know conservatives are always going on about how Americans are losing their values and their morality, well maybe it’s because you worship a guy who drowns babies.

If we were a dog and God owned us, the cops would come and take us away.

There’s about five minutes of such talk, ending with this:

I’m reminded as we’ve just started Lent, that conservatives are always complaining about too much restraining regulation and how they love freedom, but they’re the religious ones who voluntarily invent restrictions for themselves. On a hot summer day, Orthodox Jews wear black wool. On a cold winter night Mormons can’t drink a hot chocolate… isn’t life hard enough without making shit up out of thin air to fuck with yourself?

That’s a good question, and yes, Maher is one of those new atheists – those who hold that religion should be confronted, not ignored on the principle that anyone can believe whatever nonsense they like, or believe nothing much at all. Their notion is that if the religious folks are going to scream at those who don’t believe precisely what they believe, as they always do, it’s not only those who have slightly different ideas about dogma and liturgy and whatnot who have the right to scream right back at them. Atheists have the right to scream back at them too, at all of them. It’s a free country, after all, and no one should be told to shut up. Those atheists who don’t subscribe to this new militant atheism are those who have decided that what they don’t believe is their own business, just as what others believe is theirs, and they are a bit appalled by folks like Maher and Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, because if atheists now start screaming then absolutely everyone ends up screaming. That doesn’t do anyone any good, but on the other hand, biting your tongue and never telling another soul, if there are such things, what you really think, takes its toll over all the long years. Bill Maher’s periodic rants are a guilty pleasure, even if he can come off as a dismissive, sneering bastard. Each side should have a few of those. Now they do.

It’s just not as easy as Maher makes it look. CNN dutifully reported that American Atheists, an advocacy group for atheists and atheism, would have a booth at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference – to build bridges between historically faith-motivated conservatives and those who were just as conservative on matters of small-government and next-to-no taxes and getting rid of unions and public schools, and the EPA and the Federal Reserve and Obamacare and anyone vaguely Mexican too, but just weren’t that into God. None of those things had anything to do with God. David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, called the booth “one of many steps” his organization would take in its “outreach effort” to mend fences.

That wasn’t to be. The CPAC organizers tossed them out on their ear – probably because of Silverman’s comments to CNN – “I am not worried about making the Christian right angry. The Christian right should be angry that we are going in to enlighten conservatives. The Christian right should be threatened by us.”

Those were fighting words, as they say, and atheists should shut the hell up. What do they know? Ironically, that’s the whole point. They know what they don’t know, and they’re pretty sure about what cannot be known. All they have on their side is logic. That’s not Faith of course, but it ain’t exactly chopped liver either, and Elizabeth Stoker had pointed out their problem with logic:

If the American Atheists’ goal is to make public quiet inklings of atheism in seemingly faith-saturated conservative circles, an incendiary conversion attempt based out of a booth at CPAC is likely the worst tack to take. After all, a much more successful war against religion on the right has been waged by none other than perpetual philosophical train wreck and failed film critic Ayn Rand.

Rand is perhaps the only virulently anti-Christian writer that Republicans nonetheless routinely feel comfortable heaping praise upon. In a charming 1964 interview with Playboy, Rand described the crucifixion of Jesus in terms of “mythology,” and submitted that she would feel “indignant” over such a “sacrifice of virtue to vice.” That Christians are called to care for the most vulnerable of God’s people was, to Rand, manifest proof that the religion has nothing constructive to add to human life: After all, in her philosophy, “superiors” have no moral obligations to those weaker or more vulnerable than they. According to Rand, the Christian moral imperative to serve the needy is a “monstrous idea.”

This is followed by a detailed discussion of the conservatives’ limitless infatuation with Ayn Rand, from Paul Ryan to “Rand” Paul and beyond:

This dearth of criticism is rather startling, especially for a set so manifestly averse to atheism – at least, when called by such a name. (“Objectivism,” the title of Rand’s philosophy, perhaps smuggles into decent discourse what American Atheists were at least honest enough to make explicit.) In March 2008, President Obama’s then-pastor Jeremiah Wright was raked over the coals in conservative media for willing that God should damn America, but at least that sentiment acknowledges that there is a God whose authority exists over and above that of the state. If statements that agree with the Christian right’s fundamental beliefs about existence receive that kind of criticism, what accounts for the tacit conservative acceptance of Rand’s extreme anti-Christian tendencies?

One explanation comes from David Silverman himself, who submits that “Just as there are many closeted atheists in the church pews, I am extremely confident that there are many closeted atheists in the ranks of conservatives.” It could well be the case that Rand’s extraordinary anti-Christian philosophy slips by mostly unremarked upon because there really is no significant objection to it.

That is a possibility, or not:

It’s more likely the case that conservatives, in wanting to maintain a political system that routinely disadvantages the vulnerable, simply ignore in Rand what rhetoric they don’t like while championing that which they do. The trouble with this is that Rand’s entire notion of morality is predicated upon the idea that a sacrifice such as Christ’s would be morally wrong, which means all ethics that flow out of her work will contain in them that seed of conflict with the central message of Christianity. Whether conservatives like it or not, to advance a Randian political ethic is to further an ethic that fundamentally denies the goodness of the sacrifice of Christ – and thereby can never be brought to union with any serious Christian ethics. 

Everyone knows this. No one says this, or few other than a handful of troublemakers, the militant folks who like to shout back. Stoker argues that’s not necessary. Let them love Ayn Rand. They’ll end up atheists or their heads will explode, and Scott Clement points out what their God stuff has gotten them:

Before the 1990s, Republicans won as much as 43 percent of non-religious voters, but suddenly began losing them by a 2 to 1 margin just as the group began to grow. By 2008, voters with no religion had grown to 12 percent of the electorate – more than Hispanics – and Barack Obama won them in 2008 and 2012 with wider margins than any previous Democrat. Mitt Romney narrowed the gap in 2012, though at 44 points he was hardly competitive. It’s important to note that most of these voters are not full-on atheists espousing intense opposition to religion on principle, but agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

Why did this shift happen? In their book American Grace, sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam argue that the rising number of “nones” and their increasing Democratic tilt are a reaction to the Republican Party’s tightening alignment with Christian conservatives since the 1980s. In one recent example, a 2012 Pew Research Center poll found two in three religiously unaffiliated Americans agreeing that religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party.

So there you go. Toss the atheists out of CPAC and force Paramount to admit, publically, that they fudged the details of God wiping out the world in red-hot anger, perhaps anger at his own dumb mistake, for creating a species of miserable selfish little shits. Well, He got rid of almost every single one of those. The Christian right did force the issue with the atheists and Paramount, and what do such things get them? Voters walked away. Bill Maher is the least of their problems.

But there is a problem. See Paul Waldman and Tolerance for the Non-Religious, Here and Around the World:

Our chart of the day comes from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes project, which asked people in 40 different countries whether it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. There’s a lot going on within that yes-or-no question, and one could see how it could carry different connotations in different cultures. The results aren’t just a measure of people’s own religious beliefs, but also of the character of the place they’re in and the exposure they have to people who aren’t like them. If you’ve always been taught that the nature of right and wrong and the enforcement of those rules comes from the church, and virtually everyone you’ve ever known believes in God, those who don’t would seem like something of an alien species. So for instance, in Ghana, where 96 percent of people in another poll described themselves as religious, it isn’t surprising that 99 percent in this poll – or basically everyone in both cases – says you have to believe in God to be moral.

At the other end, if you live in a place where most people don’t believe in God, even if you do, you probably know many perfectly nice people who don’t, so it would be harder to sustain the belief that they’re all inherently amoral psychopaths. For example, in France, where about a third of people describe themselves as religious, only 15 percent say you need to believe in God to be moral. Unlike in Ghana where there are virtually no religious people willing to grant the morality of those who aren’t religious, in France over half of religious people are willing to be so generous.

And then there’s the United States, closer to Ghana than France:

Well, we’ve always been the most religious of the wealthy countries, which is the product of multiple factors but can largely be explained by the fact that unlike in European countries, where a sclerotic state church lost more and more adherents over time, we’ve always had a dynamic, competitive religious marketplace. Like just about everything when it comes to religion, on this question we’re the exception among similar countries.

But it’s also true that Americans who aren’t religious are a rapidly growing group gaining visibility. So I imagine that over time, even religious Americans will be more and more likely to grant that people who don’t share their views about a Supreme Being can, in fact, be good people.

On what is sometimes called the Thoughtful Right, Ross Douthat argues our religion has done us good, from the abolitionists to the civil rights movement to the glorious pro-life movement he adores, and isn’t happy with decoupling the good from God:

My general anxiety, underlying the specific religious-liberty issues that we’re debating these days, is that this achievement may be slipping away from us – that as the country has become somewhat less religious overall, and as the two parties have become not only ideologically but religiously polarized, a sort of Europeanization of American church-state issues has become visible in our politics. You can see this on the religious right, in the appeal of an ahistorical nostalgia for a Christian America that never really was, and then you can see it on the irreligious left, in the appeal of an ahistorical view that the Constitution somehow bars religious people from bringing their theological convictions into politics. And I think the latter impulse is pushing liberalism in an increasingly anti-clerical direction, toward a narrowed view of religious freedom in which that freedom stops when the Sunday (or Saturday) service ends, and a narrow view of religious pluralism that sees religious schools and charities and hospitals mostly as potential threats to individual liberty, rather than important non-state servants of the common good.

Some of us would rather not have politicians bringing their theological convictions into politics. There’s a long history of that causing nothing but trouble, like the Thirty Years’ War and so on, and we do keep saying that’s a terrible thing in the Middle East. It might be a terrible thing here too. If the Sunnis and Shiites cannot get along, how are we going to deal with the angry American conservatives, many of them Catholic – supported by the Southern Baptists, but opposed by the Episcopalians and a few dour Lutherans in Minnesota and those odd Unitarians – who think the new Pope is a fool who is far too forgiving of the wrong sort of people? Do we want a holy war, turned political, over whether gay folks, or poor folks for that matter, deserve to be treated with common decency?

That would be unfortunate, but we already have that holy war. It also would be best if no one brought their theological convictions along when they come out here to Hollywood too. We prefer our apocalypses literary, as in that West novel, or cinematic, as in that new schlock Noah movie. And as for earthquakes, as Freud said about that cigar he was puffing, sometimes an earthquake is only an earthquake. This one wasn’t the end of the world. That’s just how everything seems out here, all the time. You get used to it.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Considering the End of the World

  1. Rick says:

    I almost had nothing to add today — I especially enjoyed Bill Maher’s rant — but then I saw this, from the moderately-conservative mind of Ross Douthat:

    “My general anxiety, underlying the specific religious-liberty issues that we’re debating these days, is that this achievement may be slipping away from us. … You can see this on the religious right, in the appeal of an ahistorical nostalgia for a Christian America that never really was, and then you can see it on the irreligious left, in the appeal of an ahistorical view that the Constitution somehow bars religious people from bringing their theological convictions into politics.”

    He pretty much nails it with the religious right, but with the “irreligious” left, he pretty much misses the point.

    First of all, Douthat needs to be reminded that this Constitutional “Separation of Church and State” thing — which the right has, in recent years, mostly taken to denying even exists — is a principle embraced not just by the “irreligious” left, but also by the “religious” left. Why? Because both groups realize it’s not a theological principle, it is, more importantly, a principle of self-governance. After all, we reason, America is a country, not a church.

    Why is this important? Because unlike on the right, virtually nobody on the left in America believes in theocracy, and virtually all of them, at least that I’ve ever spoken with, believes that religion and politics can co-exist. In fact, few of them seem to like the idea of either one overwhelming the other — which is something else that does not seem to be as true of the right.

    Where Douthat goes wrong here is his mistaken belief the left thinks “the Constitution somehow bars religious people from bringing their theological convictions into politics”. Speaking for myself, I have no problem with religious people allowing their political opinions to be informed by their religion, but what I do have a problem with is religious people all but demanding that my opinions be informed by their religion.

    Maybe the best example of this would be the insistence that their religion’s creation-myth be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Our public schools are places where all of us can meet to learn about the empirical world, often through the natural sciences, whereas houses of worship are where the faithful meet to practice their religion, in pretty much any way they choose — that is, short of polygamy and certain historically-popular devotionals, such as stoning-to-death, burning at the stake and human sacrifice.

    In this country, we cannot allow religious institutions to dictate that we instruct all children in religious tenets, any more than can we allow our government to insist that churches teach evolution alongside creationism, much less dictate what churches people attend, or how they worship their gods(s), or even insist that they worship at all. The big mystery is why everyone on the left seems to grasp this idea, while so many on the right don’t.

    To repeat the obvious, religion and science are not mutually exclusive; there are scientists who believe in god, and many religious people believe in science. And if your own particular religious belief precludes your kids from gaining knowledge of the world, you’re even free to practice that, but you’re not free to insist that everybody’s kids grow up stupid. We have to draw the line somewhere.

    One place we have drawn that line is on the question of whether healthcare is a public concern, and whether it should include birth control, and we have decided that it is, and it does. You are free to disagree — and are free to express your disagreement by not availing yourself of the birth control made available by Obamacare — but you need to understand that America is a country, not a church, and that entails it respecting reasonable religious beliefs, but not if they involve polygamy or human sacrifice or allowing church leaders to overrule public policy on family planning.

    If “religious liberty” is an “achievement” that Ross Douthat, among others, thinks is “slipping away from us”, it may be that their idea of “religious liberty” entails all citizens, especially non-believers, making way when religion chooses to leave its house of worship to enter the public square. He, and they, forget that the public square, by definition, belongs to all of us, not just those who believe in a god.


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