How I wish, how I wish you were here

You know you’re getting older, not only when all the favorite bands you grew up with are suddenly thought of as “classic rock,” but when their members start dying on you. Now we’ve lost Richard Wright of Pink Floyd. Major bummer. And all this time I’d been sure Keith Richards was the guy well and truly overdue for a visit from the reaper.

I don’t know if there’s a “great gig in the sky,” Rick, but if so I’m sure it’s a far better place to be than what the pious are trying to sell me. Thanks for all the music. Shine on.


Nick Mason, Dave Gilmour, and Rick Wright

Post-Ike

We’ve gotten a couple of emails, from some overseas fans, asking if we’re all okay in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Thanks for your concern, and the short answer is: yes. In fact the storm avoided Austin entirely, except for a light shower that popped up at about 11:30 last night and went away just as quickly. After slamming Galveston, Houston and Beaumont, Ike’s remnants shuffled on up the Texas/Louisiana border. My parents live in Jefferson, about a 45-minute drive from Shreveport, way up in what’s called the ArkLaTex, that area where the three states meet. They reported fairly heavy rains, really heavy winds (an entire oak blew down at their lakehouse), and a power outage that lasted until about 4:30 this afternoon and even affected other nearby towns like Marshall and Longview.

Last weekend when I was on the show, someone called in asking some vague question about the severity of hurricanes lately, and I pointed out that this was a pretty clear sign of global warming, as it’s the function of hurricanes to act as a heat sink, channeling excess heat from the equatorial regions towards the poles. So if you have more heat sending more evaporation into the weather systems, presto, big hurricane. My use of the word “function” got the knickers of one viewer in a twist, who felt that word was inappropriate to use when referring to a natural phenomenon. Well, “function” can be used that way, and does not imply that the thing in question was designed, nor does it impart any teleological purpose to it. Basically he was in the mood to gripe about semantics that day, I guess. Not to say that’s an invalid gripe, as people frequently will misrepresent the intent of words in conversation. After all just look how enthusiastically creationists distort the words of Gould and Dawkins. It’s practically a sport. Still, I don’t think too many people were confused about what I meant when I was discussing the function of hurricanes.

And the mail keeps coming…

The TV show gets fan letters at a volume I certainly never experienced in the years before the internets became the distribution channel it is today. When I was host up until early March of 2004, we had set up the address (tv [at] atheist-community [dot] org) already. But with the only people watching the show being those with nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than tune in to Austin Access, a good week of letters might be one or two letters, tops. Now they flood in at dozens per day, it seems.

Here are a couple of emails that give a flavor for the kinds of questions people have who write in. It’s great to hear from so many atheists, from all over, who never hesitate to express their gratitude for the work Matt and the whole team does. (And yes, we get letters from Christians, too, more of which is friendly and not of the “I’ll pray for you!” stripe than you might think.)

A fellow named Alexander Altaras asks, in his subject line, a straightforward question: “We don’t trust the Bible as an accurate source, why do we trust the news or any other historical document?” A good question indeed. I answered: Whatever the source of information you’re referring to, you should only find it trustworthy to the degree its claims can be independently confirmed or corroborated. Historians are usually expected to cite their sources, and the good ones do. News reporting has gotten more difficult to trust, because so much of it today is tainted with one type of political bias or another. It’s always a good thing to see if the information being given to you is well supported by facts. It’s why science is trustworthy where religion is not. In science the process of peer review is set up so that scientists can independently check each other’s findings without favoritism tainting the results. Religion has no such self-correcting tool in place. Another point is that religious claims are doubly hard to trust at face value because, unlike history, for example, the people promoting religious claims are doing so in order to defend or proselytize the belief, an agenda that isn’t as often applied when dealing with purely secular matters. So in short, consider the source, consider their reputation, and consider their sources most of all.

A fellow identifying himself only as Bobby, and informing us he’s a 38-year-old Marine and plainclothes narcotics officer (I’m assuming ex-Marine, if he’s a cop now), wants to know “what is the root of [believers’] hatred for the theory of evolution?” Bobby writes, “Why do theists get so offended by the theory of evolution? It is a basic question. I do not understand. I am an Atheist. I do not get offended by religion until it is forced upon me. I do not actively attack religious concepts until I am provoked. Theists behave as if the very IDEA of evolution insults them. They act as if the theory was created to specifically offend them. Why?”

I think much of it has to do with the fact that evolution seems to deny religion’s great promise to them: that they are special creations of a loving god, imbued with souls, which to go on to live in eternal paradise after their bodies die. By treating the development of life as a purely natural process, theists are afraid that evolution denies the divine and thus the chance they’ll get to go to Heaven.

Thing is, I happen to think (and Ken Miller would disagree) evolution does deny this. But it’s hardly the fault of nature, or of science’s methods of learning about nature, if people choose to retreat from reality and embrace irrational beliefs out of fear and wishful thinking.

Now keep in mind that everyone on the TV crew gets these emails, and the above answers to these questions are only my own. The good questions usually spark a stimulating discussion, with some of the other cohosts, like Tracie, offering such beautifully written and thought out responses that I can’t help gritting my teeth she doesn’t get a chance to post here more often than she does. But however the discussion threads turn out, it must be said that we really do have a fine and engaged audience out there, and we’re grateful to the lot of you. Keep watching, and keep the emails coming.

A grim reminder on a grim anniversary: it can happen here

Because people need to remember exactly what was at the root of the most horrific terrorist act of modern times: religious fundamentalism and zealotry. Here is the list of instructions that was found among the personal effects of 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Some salient excerpts:

Keep in mind that, if you fall into hardship, how will you act and how will you remain steadfast and remember that you will return to God and remember that anything that happens to you could never be avoided, and what did not happen to you could never have happened to you. This test from Almighty God is to raise your level [levels of heaven] and erase your sins. And be sure that it is a matter of moments, which will then pass, God willing, so blessed are those who win the great reward of God. Almighty God said: ‘Did you think you could go to heaven before God knows whom amongst you have fought for Him and are patient?’

Remember the words of Almighty God: ‘You were looking to the battle before you engaged in it, and now you see it with your own two eyes.’ Remember: ‘How many small groups beat big groups by the will of God.’ And His words: ‘If God gives you victory, no one can beat you. And if He betrays you, who can give you victory without Him? So the faithful put their trust in God.’

When you have reached (M) and have left the taxi, say a supplication of place [‘Oh Lord, I ask you for the best of this place, and ask you to protect me from its evils’], and everywhere you go say that prayer and smile and be calm, for God is with the believers. And the angels protect you without you feeling anything. Say this supplication: ‘God is more dear than all of His creation.’ And say: ‘Oh Lord, protect me from them as You wish.’ And say: ‘Oh Lord, take your anger out on [the enemy] and we ask You to protect us from their evils.’ And say: ‘Oh Lord, block their vision from in front of them, so that they may not see.’ And say: ‘God is all we need, He is the best to rely upon.’ Remember God’s words: ‘Those to whom the people said, “The people have gathered to get you, so fear them,” but that only increased their faith and they said, God is all we need, He is the best to rely upon.’

The ultimate “faith based initiative,” this.

Ah Martin, some of you might be saying, of course radical Islamists are violent psychotics. But that’s what their religion promotes. Christianity is all about peace and love and forgiveness and fluffy bunnies. You’d never see that kind of mindset bred here, goodness gracious me no!

Except, of course, we do. Meet “Joel’s Army,” a fast-growing group of Dominionist maniacs so flamboyantly extreme that they even frighten other conservative Christians. In the words of Rick Joyner, a popular pastor associated with the movement:

“As the church begins to take on this resolve, they [Joel’s Army churches] will start to be thought of more as military bases, and they will begin to take on the characteristics of military bases for training, equipping, and deploying effective spiritual forces,” Joyner wrote. “In time, the church will actually be organized more as a military force with an army, navy, air force, etc.”

This is how you brainwash a generation of kids into becoming the kinds of killers who strap bombs to themselves and walk into public places. You convince them that any violent act they see fit to commit is fully justified as an act of self-defense. And the best way to feel like you’re a persecuted minority when you really aren’t is by embracing religious piety. Ol’ Adolf had convinced himself of this, when he wrote many religious justifications in Mein Kampf for his anti-Semitism, and the psychology was well understood by Hermann Goering, a much smarter and more cunning man than Hitler, who testified in Nuremberg, “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” Goering was speaking in a general political sense there, but the principle applies to religious terror as well. Just replace “pacifists” with “unbelievers” or “unsaved,” and “patriotism” with “piety” or “faith,” and it’s basically the same sentiment.

Joel’s Army have what must be the biggest case of fatwa envy on the planet, and take my cynical little word for it: the only difference between them and al Qaeda is that Joel’s Army simply haven’t gotten around to the “killing people” part of their plans yet. They’re hopeful, indeed, even eager, to see a sea change in public attitudes that will make that kind of activity in America receive the sort of overall public support that Qaeda’s terrorism gets in much of the Islamic world. But that doesn’t mean they’ll wait around to commit acts of violence, any more than the Islamist terrorists have. Proud of their anti-intellectualism and lack of education and worldliness, the cretins of Joel’s Army pray for the day God’s armies swoop down across the United States, killing off all the fags and libruls and establishing a blessed Christian fascist theocracy to welcome the savior’s second coming.

Sure, you might say that, with the vast majority even of Christian denominations contemptuous of the militarist fantasies of JA’s “Kingdom Now” theology, and arrayed against them, that they’re unlikely to gain any kind of majority foothold. But while they might hope for that kind of acceptance, disaffected loons don’t exactly need a majority foothold to be violent. Indeed, the feeling of being further isolated and marginalized might prompt them to action sooner rather than later. And with the far right currently energized by the rise in popularity of Sarah Palin, a book-banning zealot of the fire-and-brimstone old school from a Dominionist church, who knows what kind of plans are fomenting in the brains of these loons, if it looks like even a shred of respectability is suddenly being accorded their views. (Not saying that Palin’s fundamentalism, while too extreme to make her a safe bet in the White House, is as extreme as Joel’s Army. But the link between her church and Dominionist teaching has been noted.)

So on the 7th anniversary of 9/11, it behooves us to remember that not only is the war on terror still not won, it will probably never be won as long as the primary ingredients of terrorism’s recipe — a self-righteous sense of victimhood married to an implacable faith that God is behind you all the way — remain at full boil on the stove. And while we’ve been spending all our time these last seven years nurturing our fear of the Islamists, and wasted countless lives and resources trying to bring the war to them on their shores, over in America we’ve been cooking up our very own divinely inspired wannabe mass murderers, who have as much, if not more, contempt for the United States and its diversity and freedoms as al Qaeda ever had.

World still here, so far

Well, the Large Hadron Collider has been switched on, and as far as I can tell, we haven’t all been slurped into a black hole to Narnia or whatever alternate universe might await us at the end of one. It’s an amazingly ambitious experiment, and one that will certainly reshape a lot of what we understand (or don’t) about the early universe. I like Stephen Hawking’s take on the whole thing. He’s banking on that wonderful unpredictability you so often find in science. Hawking has bet £100 that, in fact, the LHC will not confirm the existence of the elusive Higgs boson, but will in fact lead us to discover things we may never have dreamed of. We’ll see how it pans out, won’t we? Unless I wake up tomorrow with a winged octopus perched on my nightstand singing Beatles tunes while feeding me breakfast in bed. I might get suspicious I was in another universe at that point.

We get email!

Here’s a delightful missive from someone who assures us he’s a “scientist”! I suspect he’s more likely to be a typical example of the McCain/Palin — oh, I’m sorry, I meant Palin/McCain — cheerleading squad. His subject line was “How misleading your are” (spelled just like that, yes), and he goes on to say, without paragraph breaks (because those are for libruls and homos):

atheism is not new and is as old as religion itself believing in ones self then believing in god! i am a scientist not atheist.. I look at facts to back up my beliefs not speculations about if or not there is a god. I know there is billions of atoms and trillion to the 2nd power of DNA splattered through-out the universe and thing unexplained by science today! before you assume that there is no god or assume there is you must look at the evidence. and not at the winners of history’s version of truth! just because they claim to be one thing doesn’t mean they are that which they claim! atheist are the same you worry about about future and worry about today! as most humans do! I worry about my children and their future! but i look at the christian world and see a joy they have that no other set of people have! so i look at both sides no worries and a joy beyond measure.. or fear and self human interest! and death..to believe in something greater then ones self .. hmm but left to human temper the world is then ruled by fear hatred and death.. wars.. disease..famine..religion has bring out love and understanding..but for a few bad apples take Islam for example it claim all infidels should be killed!! but in christian belief accept jesus into your heart and be saved beyond your earthly years! This is just a look at what are atheist and their views..looks like no-one ever thought it through we don’t have enough evidence to claim there is no god! or creation..but belief..and then you must stomp out the belief in love hope and faith if there is no god.. for all the idea of god is a starting point of creation..if big bang is correct then god is the impact of two asteroids..but why hasn’t their been another big-bang??? all the time asteroids impact each other..and the universe keeps expanding into infinity! atheism is a belief just as satanism is..belief in ones self!

If you made it through that lunatic eruption of verbal diarrhea, it’s possible you may have some questions. Such as, what exactly is this “joy…that no other set of people have” that he seems to think exists in the Christian world? I mean, sure, they all seem like they’re having fun at their church services, especially in those Pentacostal madhouses where they all hold hands and chant “ooga booga wakalakamaka” all the time. But get them out in reality, and you see a group of people governed almost entirely by fear — fear of gays, fear of “liberals” (defined as anyone out there who thinks people should be nice to everyone whether they’re white and Christian or not), fear of science and education, fear of us “militant” “new” atheists, fear of all the soul-corrupting anal-sex loving Jews in Hollywood (that one courtesy of our pal Bill Donohue). And rather than assuaging those fears through understanding and knowledge, they nurture and cherish them. Nothing is more important to the fundamentalist mind than fear, because fear allows them to believe they are the oppressed rather than the oppressors, and feeds their need for martyrdom.

Come to think of it, our correspondent may be right after all. Perhaps this sort of thing is a “joy” that no other group has. If so, good thing! It doesn’t seem like an especially joyous sort of “joy” when you think about it. I’d rather get mine from good old reality. Say, by things like walking my dog on a beautiful day. Which I think I’ll do right now.

Back in the saddle with some political observations

Yes, I’ve been a mite busy of late, which has precluded my blogging here as often as usual. But I see others of the team have stepped up admirably to take up the slack. Kazim’s Objectivism post has generated either the third or fourth longest comments thread this blog has ever seen. Nice to see a good scrap going on in my absence.

Really not much to talk about, except some obvious notes about the 2008 campaign. I have nothing to say about Sarah Palin that hasn’t been said. John Scalzi, in a very timely and brilliant post, has some pointed cautionary words for Dems and liberals that everyone needs to read and Digg like mad. Short version: focus, focus, focus, and stop playing into the fundie neocons’ hands by losing your shit over the Palin media frenzy. And Phil Plait reminds us why supporters of science, something vital to our nation’s very survival (yes, science is that thing, not religion) that has been in freefall for eight solid years, have a friend in Obama. These are the kinds of facts that need to be cutting through the media noise right now. Spread ’em far and wide.

As Scalzi points out, Palin was brought on board to placate the waffling fundagelicals, who were worried McCain wasn’t Christofascist enough. And choosing her shows just how easily placated those people are by a shallow ideologue who can get away with telling lie after lie after lie as long as she toes the proper ideological lines. We ought to expect the GOP to play dirty pool, and they are. For my part, the fact that Palin is a creationist wackaloon of dubious character and political experience who attends a Dominionist church with ties to such disturbing, militarist fringe movements as Joel’s Army was enough to disqualify her pretty much instantaneously. The GOP will, of course, portray her extremism in the conservative-friendly mainstream media as a feature, not a bug. The thing for sensible people to do is stay on message. Yes, I know that didn’t exactly work out for Gore or Kerry. But it isn’t over till it’s over, and by being diligent and displaying the kind of integrity that the win-at-all-costs neocons can’t be bothered with, two months is still plenty long enough to get the message out that the party that has spent the last eight years destroying America from within more thoroughly than Osama bin Laden ever dreamed of destroying it from without does not need to be rewarded for their evils with four more years of power.


Addendum: There are many things I don’t like about Ariana Huffington and HuffPo, but this post of hers makes more excellent points about the distraction Sarah Palin has quite deliberately represented, and how the Dems cannot afford to fall into the GOP’s trap here.

Her critics like to say that Palin hasn’t accomplished anything. I disagree: in the space of ten days she’s succeeded in distracting the entire country from the horrific Bush record — and McCain’s complicity in it. My friends, that’s accomplishment we can believe in.

Batman Begins, Gotham and Gomorrah: (Shows #556 & 562)

I have gotten repeated requests to provide some sort of summary on this two-part program. I’ve been slow to provide it, because, frankly, it’s a lot of material. But here goes:

This show was billed as “How Batman Begins is based on the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.” However, it is fairer to say it shares many commonalities with the tale. I have nothing from the writers of this film indicating they intended a modern retelling of the tale—but a modern retelling of the tale it is, intentional or not.

Background on Sodom and Gomorrah:
The myth of Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s destruction is found in Genesis, chapters 18 and 19. It is a simple plot. God comes down to meet his loyal subject Abraham. God shares his plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He has heard reports that the cities are—well, actually I’m not sure what he’s heard specifically. What the cities are guilty of is never clearly revealed. Basically, He’s heard that they’ve been very, very naughty. And he plans to investigate the allegations, after which, he’ll know for sure if what he’s heard is true.

God never states that he has any intention of destroying the cities, but Abraham gets that impression, and Yahweh doesn’t dispute him. Abraham has a history of unquestioning obedience to Yahweh (look up “Abraham and Isaac”). But here, the same man who would have murdered his own son as a human sacrifice to God points out that god’s plan could be considered unjust. Abraham’s plea amounts to the idea that there must be good people in the city, and that god, righteous as he is, would never kill good people in his lust for vengeance against those who are, for whatever reason, judged to be wicked. Abraham, being for a moment almost a humanist, tries to reason with Yahweh to save the cities by appealing to His pride and reputation (it should stand out that he doesn’t attempt an appeal to Yahweh’s compassion), “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked…Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

In what is perhaps the most famous aspect of the story, Abraham bargains with god to spare the cities for the sake the righteous. Yahweh says he will spare them if he can find 10 such people. Later, the cities are destroyed without any confirmation whatsoever in the story of how many “righteous people” were found. Actually, there’s no account of any attempt at investigation on Yahweh’s part to try to determine the number of “righteous people” in the cities. We go straight from the scene where God tells Abraham he’ll spare the city for 10 righteous people, to a new scene where two angels (who had accompanied Yahweh during his visit to Abraham’s) are imploring Lot and his family to leave the doomed locales. Lot is Abraham’s nephew, who lives in the area. So, without any recorded tally of righteous people, the cities are marked for destruction.

If I assume, as most Christians do, there were less than 10 righteous people in the cities, it still appears that, like the myth of The Flood, children don’t count. There is no indication in the myth that any children were spared, pitied, or even considered for the briefest moment.

We’re left to guess what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah might have been and to guess how many righteous people Yahweh was ultimately willing to destroy for the sake of vengeance. But that’s the tale in a nutshell.

The Characters of the Bible Story:
Yahweh (and his angels): Powerful, supernatural being bent on the vengeful destruction of the cities after judging them wicked beyond salvation. Spiritual “father” to Abraham.

Abraham: Loyal follower of Yahweh who tries to intervene to save the cities for the sake of the righteous.

Lot: Abraham’s nephew who lives in the area.

The Wicked: They make a brief appearance as a mob who mean to inflict harm on Lot’s angel guests.

The Righteous: Never make an appearance. In some sense Lot and some of his family may be part of this group.

The Storyteller: The Hebrew adherent who puts forward the story and creates the other characters in conjunction with the spiritual beliefs of the religious institution of which he is a part.

The Characters of the Film:
Batman Begins has pretty much the same roster.

Ra’s al Ghul: Leader of a powerful organization (that shrouds itself in the trappings of supernatural power) bent on the destruction of the city of Gotham. According to Ra’s, “Gotham’s time has come…the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” He claims the right of judge, jury and executioner. Ra’s is not portrayed as a compassionate humanist. He admits to Bruce openly that he is motivated by “vengeance.” Another clear parallel with Yahweh of the Bible.

It is important to note that while I initially identified Ra’s as correlating to “god” in the story, he actually appears to be the equivalent of the religious leader, who creates the character of god in order to empower his will and justify his actions. If we take the Bible story as fact, then Ra’s is playing the role of god—but the correlation then fails immediately, as Ra’s is not really supernatural, but only a very powerful man who feigns supernatural ability and immortality.

To the Christian viewer, Ra’s would be an imposter god, and, therefore, unjustified in his actions toward Gotham. This would produce a disconnect that would allow a Christian to accept the message of the film as not being critical of his god’s actions in Sodom. In other words, god acted rightly toward Sodom and Gommorah for no other reason than he is god. Ra’s, being a mere mortal, would not be justified in judging or meting out justice upon Gotham in the same way.

If, however, we take the story as a product of Hebrew religious myth from the point of view of a religious storyteller, then Ra’s (with his League of Shadows) correlates to a religious leader (and institution) who produces god to further his own goals. And, in that case the character of god would actually be completely lacking in the film—just as he is lacking in observable existence. All we have of god, then, in the film, are men who use the god concept (specifically the fear of it injected into others) to empower their own actions. So, we have a choice to go with an interpretation that fails to correlate with the Sodom story’s main character (god to man)—or one that successfully correlates (man-made symbol to man-made symbol), but only from an atheistic perspective.

Bruce Wayne: Correlates to Abraham—loyal follower of Ra’s who desires to support the will of Ra’s, until he begins to question the justice and benevolence of Ra’s’ actions and goals. In fact, even the famous Biblical bargaining scene is repeated in the film, as Bruce tries to reason with Ra’s that the city should be spared for the sake of the righteous. The culmination of the exchange is Bruce’s statement to Ra’s that, “Gotham isn’t beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here.” It is important to note here as well that Ra’s was ultimately responsible for Thomas Wayne’s death, after which he hand selected Bruce in a “lost” state and mentored him—becoming the father that was lost. Just as Yahweh is a surrogate father-god to Abraham.

Like Abraham, Bruce is not only interested in the welfare of the generic “righteous people,” but also those close to him (Lot and his family). The most celebrated righteous man in Gotham is no longer living. Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, appears to be in a blood line of righteous men. His virtues in helping people in the city of Gotham are repeated throughout the film, and even Thomas’ own ancestors are incorporated as good men. Alfred informs Bruce that his “great-great-gra
ndfather was involved in the Underground Railroad, secretly transporting freed slaves to the North.” The Wayne family is a righteous family from a humanitarian perspective.

Humanitarian goals, however, appear to conflict with the vengeance of Ra’s. In talking about his plans to destroy Gotham, he admits to Bruce, “Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one. Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens—such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way.”

Alfred and Rachael: Correlate to Lot and his family—those for whom Bruce cares. In general the generic Righteous People are also represented, and we even have an appeal to the idea of considering children among the victims—something sorely lacking in most Biblical destruction myths. There is a repeating character of a small boy who puts in a few cameos throughout the film.

There are other characters that bring hard realism into the film, which is one of the superior features of this film over the past Batman films. Gordon represents the struggle of man within corrupt social infrastructure—similar to Rachael’s character in many ways. His Quixote-style struggle to benefit society while constrained within the layers of a thoroughly corrupt social system is a flagrant anti-vigilante statement. We feel his frustration to the point of wondering at times why he even bothers to continue in his role as an officer of the law. But he still holds out hope—dwindling as it may be—that if a good system isn’t working, right action doesn’t include blowing up a building or killing people. He works as far as he is able, within the system, to correct what is broken and make it function successfully again. But he, alone, or at least disenfranchised from others of the same mind, can have little to no impact. (That is my one plug for the OUT movement.) This is quite contrary to Ra’s’ philosophy, “If someone stands in the way of true justice…you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.”

Fox: Science and technology are represented as being on the side of reason and humanism. Fox is the sci-tech guru, and the film’s icon of calm reason. His character, immersed in science and reason, actually produces the antidote to “fear”—Ra’s’ weapon of choice, produced in mass quantities by his brilliant, but diabolical subordinate, Crane. If Fox is the epitome of calm reason, his opposite, Crane, is no less the epitome of calm insanity.

Crane: Supplies mass fear, in the form of a neurotoxin derived from a blue flower, that shrouds and empowers Ra’s. And like any faithful adherent to a religious leader or institution, he operates in his own self-interest—Ra’s’ promise of reward. Ra’s explains to Bruce, “He thought our plan was to hold the city to ransom.” Also, during a discussion with Falcone, Crane makes a statement that is reminiscent of the religious adherent proselytizing or the Old Testament prophet, “I am more than aware that you are not intimidated by me, Mr. Falcone. But you know who I’m working for, and when he gets here…”

It is clearly then a struggle between a group of a humanist mindset and a group using fear and deception (of a false supernature) in order to gain power and wreak indiscriminate vengeance upon a population Ra’s has judged unfit to go on living.

The quotes supporting the use of supernature and fear as weapons against the masses are so thick it’s hard to cull them. But, below, I supply a batch as examples.

On Supernature and Deception (being more than a man in the minds of others):
Ra’s/Ducard: Theatricality and deception are powerful agents. You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent.

Ironically, this sentiment is echoed later by Bruce himself as he works out his Batman persona, “Theatricality and deception…are powerful weapons, Alfred.”

Ra’s/Ducard: You know how to disappear. We can teach you to become truly invisible…The ninja understands that invisibility is a matter of patience and agility.

Ra’s/Ducard: …if you make yourself more than just a man—if you devote yourself to an ideal…then you become something else entirely…Legend…

Bruce: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, destroyed. But as a symbol—as a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting…Something elemental, something terrifying.

Finally, in a conversation between Ra’s and Bruce, humanism and reason stand up to supernatural claims to call them out for what they are:

Ra’s/Ducard: But is Ra’s al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?

Bruce: Or cheap parlor tricks to conceal your true identity, Ra’s?

Not to beat a dead horse, but in claiming the film puts forward a statement about religion, showing the repeated messages to this effect is necessary. In Batman Begins, it is not necessary to search with a fine-toothed comb for clues. It hammers us over the head with blatant and repeated messages throughout. Using the Sodom theme as our guide to the characters, Bruce is little more than a mouthpiece, stating outright that god is a cheap parlor trick—a mask—to conceal the real power of religious authority.

It’s no coincidence that masks play such an overwhelming role in this film. Ra’s hides behind a supernatural façade, but he is none other than Ducard. Crane plays the Scarecrow. And in a confusing string of masks, Bruce hides behind Batman, who hides behind Bruce. The “Bruce” we see dating models and buying expensive things is a front for Batman who is a front for the “real” Bruce. As Rachael points out near the end (talking about Bruce’s face), “This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear.” This is interesting because of all the “masks”—Batman appears to be the only one that was “real.”

But clearly Ra’s, the deception of the supernatural “more than a man” mask (god), is used as a front to provide the League of Shadows (religious institutions) with unquestioned power. Unquestioned in the sense that so long as everyone is paid off (with Heaven) or scared (of Hell or social condemnation), nobody dares to question what’s in Falcone’s crates—to use another metaphor from the movie we’ll get to in a bit.

When Bruce stands up to Ra’s, we see humanism and reason confronting superstition, vengeance and fear in a struggle for the population, “I’ll be standing where I belong. Between you and the people of Gotham.”

In another response by Bruce, we hear him say, “This is just the beginning. If they hit the whole city [with Crane’s fear-inducing neurotoxin], there’s nothing to stop Gotham tearing itself apart.” In other words, if everyone is infected with fear, there will be no reasonable perspective left to restore order.

On Fear:
Ra’s/Ducard: …men fear most what they cannot see. You have to become a terrible thought. A wraith. You have to become an idea!

Ra’s/Ducard: Feel terror cloud your senses. Feel its power to distort—to control. And know that this power can be yours.

Ra’s/Ducard: To manipulate the fears in others…you must first master your own.

Rachel gives a potent speech on the paralyzing effect of fear: “As long as he [Falcone] keeps the bad people rich and the good people scared, no one will touch him. Good people like your [Bruce’s] parents, who’ll stand against injustice, they’re gone. What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?”

Falcone sums up his take on fear with this, “…you always fear what you don’t understand.”

Crane illustrates how, rather than paralyzing, fear can also motivate dangerous reactions, “Patients suffering delusional episodes often focus their paranoia—on an external tormentor…” Who could forget the images of 9-11? How long have gays been persecuted in our own society? What was it like a few hundred years ago to be an apostate or a heretic? Irrational and paranoid fear is nearly all that is needed to motivate one group to unfairly, and with real animosity, unleash upon another. As Thomas Wayne explained to Bruce about the bats, “You know why they attacked you, don’t you? They were afraid of you.” He also, reasonably notes that those who would use fear against others must understand fear themselves—that is, be subject to the effects of fear, “All creatures feel fear…especially the scary ones.”

On Compassion:
When Ra’s begins his attack on Gotham, he nonchalantly informs Bruce, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to destroy.”

Ra’s take on compassion clashes noticeably with all of the characters of Reason in the film. Finch, Rachael’s boss, small part that he plays, even understands that addressing wrongdoing should not include disregard for the well being of those who are not to blame. When the investigation threatens to put Rachael in harm’s way, Finch makes it clear, “…as much as I care about getting Falcone, I care more about you.”

In a telling exchange between Ra’s and Bruce, we see the conflict between vengeance and compassion hightlighted:

Ra’s/Ducard: Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.

Bruce: That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.

On Justice vs. Vengeance:
No character in the film disputes the corruption levels of Gotham. The question is only one of how to address the problem in the most appropriate way—through blind vengeance or through reasoned justice combined with compassion? Although this is clearly addressed several times in the dialogue, perhaps the clearest expression is between Bruce and Rachael:

Rachel: You’re not talking about justice. You’re talking about revenge.

Bruce: Sometimes, they’re the same.

Rachel: No, they’re never the same. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. It’s why we have an impartial system.

Later, Bruce recognizes Rachael’s point, “I was a coward with a gun, and justice is about more than revenge.”

Religious Language and Symbolism:
Other religious language in the film is not to be overlooked, quotes like these pepper the exchanges:

Ra’s/Ducard: When I found you in that jail, you were lost. But I believed in you. I took away your fear, and I showed you a path. You were my greatest student. It should be you standing by my side, saving the world.

Ra’s, posing as Ducard: Ra’s al Ghul rescued us from the darkest corners of our own hearts.

In contrast to the religious ideology of salvation via an external source, Thomas Wayne’s statement, often repeated in the script, is supportive of self-reliance and stands in stark contrast, “why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Thomas’ other mantra is this: “Don’t be afraid.”

Alfred also asserts self-reliance and the idea that we make our own destinies: “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do with your past, sir. Just know that there are those of us who care about what you do with your future.”

Rachael has something to add to the discussion on self-reliance as well, “it’s not who you are underneath…it’s what you do that defines you.”

Even the murderer Joe Chill chimes in with a statement about responsibility for one’s actions, “Sure, I was desperate, like a lot of people back then…but that don’t change what I did.”

Other lines filtered through religion-colored lenses include:

Bruce: You’re not the devil. You’re practice.

Or more on lost states and salvation:

Ra’s/Ducard: …whatever your original intentions…you have become truly lost.

Bruce: And what path can Ra’s al Ghul offer?

Ra’s/Ducard: The path of a man who shares his hatred of evil…and wishes to serve true justice.

There are even a few lines that may strike chords with aficionados of Bible trivia:

When Batman is interrogating Flass, Flass shouts out, “I don’t know! I swear to god!” Batman replies, “Swear to ME!” If this sounds familiar, it should. Hebrews 6:13 states that “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.” In light of this passage in Hebrews, asking Flass to swear to Batman, rather than to god, produces a usurpation of the god symbol. With Bruce’s prior statements about creating the Batman symbol, which will follow Ra’s lead of making him “more than a man,” we see him, as a symbol of humanistic compassion and reason, raised to a supreme and unchallenged status—even above god. The dialogue now goes beyond Ra’s as a metaphor for god, to the use of the actual symbol god.

Another cameo religious line comes in toward the end when Bruce tells Ra’s, “let these people go.” This is nearly verbatim of a very famous religious quote from Moses (speaking on behalf of Yahweh) to Pharoah—another situation where an oppressed population required emancipation, and here again, Batman speaks words of his own that are, in Biblical terms, words from a god. Extremely interesting here, too, one minor change in the line is the switch from “my” (showing ownership) to “these” (showing autonomy). Batman demands their release on humanistic authority, respecting the human autonomy of those in danger. His power and will to help them requires no submission or reciprocation on their part. This is a slight, but highly significant difference in the two statements—as Yahweh’s assistance is always provided at a cost.

Perhaps the most clear contrast is a statement that reflects Jesus’ divine identity in the New Testament that he is “The Word,” and, subsequently, the Christian’s claim that they are “spreading The Word.” Ducard explains exactly what “spreading The Word” is really about: “Time to spread the word. And the word is—panic.”

Another interesting use of religious symbolism is found in the “rare, blue flower.” Bruce is told to climb a mountain—but he must carry a “rare, blue flower” with him. Ra’s puts it thus, “If you can carry it to the top of the mountain—you may find what you were looking for in the first place.” A friend who actually mountain climbs pointed out that this was his favorite scene. He went on to explain that the use of the words “if you can” should be a red flag. Climbing the mountain, he pointed out, is the hardship. Carrying a flower with you represents no challenge. So why carry the flower? Simply to show loyalty and obedience to Ra’s’ will. A viewer wrote in to point out that this flower represents “faith,” and that appears to be dead-on. Meanwhile, it is no surprise later in the film to find that this flower, faith, is used to produce a neurotoxin that imparts fear to the entire population when spread by Ra’s (the religious leader) and Crane (his adherent).

Further religious symbolism strikes when we consider that fear is used more than once to rebuff inquiry. As Falcone so clearly explains, “Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.” The writers illustrate his point when they have Finch try to investigate the contents of Falcone’s shipments at the docks. Finch is told by the guards, “Listen, counselor, we don’t wanna know what’s in Mr. Falcone’s crate.” Do not question. Do have faith. Use fear where bribes fail. If push co
mes to shove, get violent. Finch does, in fact, end up dead for his inquiry.

What defense is there against the effects of fear? Oddly enough, Crane hands us the key, “only the mind can grant you power.”

Ra’s uses Crane to make the blue flower of faith convert to fear, where it is described, in the film, as an honest to goodness mind poison. When Rachael is injected with it, Crane says, “the mind can only take so much.” And Bruce points out later that “she needs the antidote before the damage is permanent.” Could the effects of fear and faith poison the mind so as never to be undone? I certainly hope that’s not the case.

And who should produce the antidote to this mind poisoning fear brought on by faith, but Fox, the icon of reason and science—real inquiry and information. Later, Batman instructs that the antidote (provided by reason) must be administered to the entire population.

Even to the last, the film is a promotion of a humanist perspective. Gordon says to Batman that he never said “thank you.” And Batman replies, “you’ll never have to.”

Reason, humanity and justice serve humanity and require no homage—no money, no bloodletting of animals or of humans, no pledge of loyalty, not even gratitude. They demand no fear. They fear no inquiry. They provide equal support to everyone to pursue happiness and fulfillment in their lives, and they demand nothing in return for what they offer and provide. Perhaps with more works like Batman Begins on the market, more people will begin to consider taking advantage of those offerings?