Who are you calling a sheep? (Another classical music post)

It’s the holiday season, and my chorus last weekend performed a piece closely associated with the season, Handel’s Messiah. As I’ve often said before about choral music, atheists have to judge the artistic merits of a piece of music apart from the message being conveyed through the music. Presumably even the most hardened philistine is familiar with the great “Hallelujah” chorus of the piece, and there’s plenty else to love throughout the work. A few more of my favorites bits: “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” “And He Shall Purify.” And the Amens at the end. Great music.

Of course I could criticize the theology in all of it, but I want to focus specifically on this one piece in part 2. “All We Like Sheep.” In fact, it’s critical enough to this post that I’m going to embed it so you can watch it first. I think there’s a valuable insight into theology to be found.

(That’s not my chorus, by the way, it’s just some people on YouTube.)

Cute, isn’t it? Here are the words.

All we like sheep
Have gone astray
We have turned everyone
To his own way

And the Lord hath laid on him
The iniquities of us all!

Sometimes I imagined changing the lyrics to “We all like sheep,” which changes the message considerably.

Our director really emphasized the shift in tone at the final part. Up till then, everything is bouncy, cheerful, and silly. After that, it’s dark and scary. I like to envision all the little sheep frolicking around in a Pepe Le Pew style hopping trot. Then at the end, maybe a giant Monty Python foot comes down on them.

Who are the sheep? Us! All we! Maybe you’ve heard the Christian metaphor already that Christians are sheep and Christ is our loving shepherd. You might interpret it that way, but that’s not how Handel apparently thought of it… the consequence of being dumb, frolicking, self-willed sheep is implied in the dark, brooding, angry minor key of the last few bars.

That’s the perspective that Christianity seems to offer on humanity. Under all the cheerful, bouncy “I’m so happy I have a personal relationship with Christ!” vibe, I also detect a deep rooted contempt for all humankind. The image of sheep doesn’t seem to be used here to convey the idea of comfort at being taken care of, so much as scorn at whatever it is that people like doing that makes them go astray; and also an implied threat.

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but actually I think a lot of preachers would agree with me. “You’re just denying God because you want to sin,” they’d say. The idea of all non-Christians as stupid, clueless sheep lurching around without the shepherd to watch them is baked into the core message of the Bible.

The disagreement here is not that I want to “sin” for its own sake. It’s that I don’t agree with the Christian concept of what constitutes bad behavior. It doesn’t matter what the bad behavior is — whether it’s sex that isn’t sanctified by the church (as Darrel Ray and Matt discussed yesterday) or sleeping in on Sundays or scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe. What’s important in a religious context is that you feel generally uncomfortable with anything you do that the doesn’t involve religious devotion.

I understand that many people raised religious still feel that discomfort. What’s interesting is that if there is no God, the only place you’re getting information about the “going astray” behavior is from a group of individuals with a direct interest in keeping you coming back to church and donating money.

Alternate universe TV crossover episode!

Hey folks, quick heads up. I will be in Seattle this weekend visiting my dad, and I’ve arranged to show up as a third wheel cohost on “Ask an Atheist” on Sunday.

What? You haven’t heard of Ask an Atheist? Why, it’s a nonprofit call-in cable access show promoting (something similar to) positive atheism and the separation of church and state. You should go check it out!

Also, if you live in Seattle and watch The Atheist Experience, feel free to swing by and say hi. I’m pretty sure there’s some sort of social post-show activity that dad and I will attend, but you’ll have to look it up yourself.

- Russell

Another year, another Hell House

Lynnea‘s still relatively new to Texas, with just over a year clocked here, and she told me she really wanted to visit a Hell House this Halloween. Long time readers may recall that I had a terrible experience with a Hell House a couple of years ago — seven of us stood in line for about 4-5 hours, for an attraction that was generally not worth it. I didn’t want to go back to THAT one.

There are no Hell Houses that I could find near Austin. There is one in Temple, TX, a place I’m unfortunately familiar with thanks to an extremely unpleasant six month software contract job (in a company where all workers are contractually obligated to adhere to “high Christian principles”). However, we’re now in South Austin, and Temple is more than an hour’s drive north of us.

Fate intervened though… Ben’s best friend had a birthday party at his grandma’s house near Temple, and we decided that the two events together were enough reason to make the trip.

We got there pretty early, soon enough to see the first group of people go in. The line this time was not five hours — it was two. We chatted up a pleasant fellow behind us, who had two kids in tow. He turned out to be an Iraq veteran who had a law degree and was going after a sociology Ph.D. He had a lot of funny things to say about being always surrounded by morons, by which I think he meant both in the army, and in Temple in general. I didn’t have the nerve to ask his religious position. I did make some wisecracks about the Hell House theme, and he laughed about it but said that supernatural stuff does scare him.

We wound up going through in a group with that guy and his kids, and about fifteen high school kids, mostly African-American and fairly loud and boisterous. I’m not going to completely rehash the experience inside, which was pretty similar to the one we went to in 2008. “Demons” — kids wearing black capes and various skull masks — pranced around various scripted scenes of “sin” and death, giggling gleefully and egging the participants on. Among the highlights:

  • A husband had an affair, and he and his mistress were shot in a bar by his betrayed wife. This struck me as an insanely stupid and random way for the wife to handle it, openly shooting two people in full view of half a dozen witnesses. Why not get a divorce and soak him for everything he’s got, instead of getting a “go directly to jail” card and leaving the kids with neither parent?
  • Our group got “kidnapped” by a black soldier with PTSD. One teenager with us, obviously a plant, was yelled at to shut up, then dragged behind a dumpster and shot. This was actually the most fun part of the experience, as we got herded into the back of a windowless van at gunpoint and driven wildly around a field, with lots of swerving. I likes me some showmanship. Despite the amateur acting, it seemed like some of the high school girls were actually fooled, as I heard many of them screaming and crying a lot. I should also mention that one of them had approached us with a worried look on her face before we went in, and asked if we had seen anyone come OUT of the Hell House. I thought that was hilarious.
  • In a scene nearly identical to my last trip, a girl met a guy on the internet, agreed to meet him at his house, and got drugged and then violently raped. (Question: why drug the girl at all if you are just going to violently force yourself on her before the drug has any time to take effect? Huh? Isn’t the point of the drug… oh, never mind.) Anyway, then in the next scene, she’s already discovered she’s pregnant, gotten an abortion, felt guilty about it, and then — with demonic encouragement, of course — she slits her wrists. The end. The moral, of course, is that she should have gone ahead and borne her rapist’s baby.
  • A kid gets picked on in school, and then shoots people in the cafeteria. Then himself.
  • We go to hell (dark room where demons gesticulate at people in the foreground, while the Devil gives us a Hannibal Lecture about how we’ll never escape). Then we go to heaven (cottony room where the torture porn scenes from Passion of the Christ play, because that’s what’s ALWAYS playing in heaven).
  • And then we get preached at, by a woman who first apologizes for scaring us so much, then talks about how Jesus changed her life, and finally she invites us to go to the prayer room and get saved. Out of our group of twenty, only one or two went to the other room. Can we call this progress? I’m thinking that at this point, far more people attend Hell House for the camp value than to actually take the message seriously.

As you can tell if you read my previous report, not a lot changes from city to city, or from year to year. They change the themes, just barely; this year’s excursion was called “Beneath the Skin,” and also featured the Devil at the beginning of the tour comparing life to a game of chess, where we mortals are all pawns waiting to be captured one by one. But really, it’s mostly like a well worn stand-up comedy set that gets polished a bit between performances but mostly stays the same.

To drive this point home, we watched the movie Hell House on Netflix instant queue the next night. The documentary was released in 2000, and it still looked like they could have been filming the stuff we just saw. I watched about an hour of it and it was interesting for a while, but I got bored of it as it was mostly just following the lives of a bunch of misguided evangelicals who really think their messages make sense.

Now that I’ve been to two Hell Houses and Lynnea’s already seen it, I think I can do without any more. In any case, here are a few stray observations from our trip.

Hell House is based on something I’ve come to recognize as one of the most standard evangelical ploys. Basically you spend an hour shouting the message “Life sucks! Life is miserable! Everything sucks! You suck!” And then in the last five minutes, you switch to: “…Unless you have Jesus.”

As a lifelong atheist, I don’t identify with it. At all. But I do see the effects of this type of thinking on people all the time. You know, it’s the people who ask “You’re an atheist? Why go on living?” Or “You believe in NOTHING?” I know exactly where this is coming from. People listen to the message “There is absolutely nothing in this life worth living for, except for Jesus.” Then, never having taken the time to look for something worth living for, they’re baffled by an atheist who doesn’t appear to be an emotional basket case.

If you take everything that is good in life and focus on aspects of it that are bad, then you can easily wind up with an attitude where perpetual misery is unavoidable. Take food, for instance. Most people enjoy the act of sitting down to a meal. But if you went to a church every week where they preached an anti-food message, they could probably make you hate it. They’d show you pictures of morbidly obese families. They’d show people with horrible table manners, shoveling in some kind of completely unappetizing food, like watery porridge and square colorless lumps of something. They’d describe the terrible food being prepared in the most graphical detail, with lard being dumped on a grill and grease dripping everywhere and burned bits flaking off, and pretty soon the very prospect of eating food could make you sick.

But this is unfair, because it doesn’t capture the experience of a delicious steak off the grill, or a fresh salad, or the way your taste buds feel when something is just pushing the limits of how much spiciness you can handle. It doesn’t mention what it’s like when you haven’t eaten for hours, all you can thin
k about is a good meal, and then you eat a feast of something you love until you’re satisfied.

Or take sex. In the world of evangelicals, sex is a filthy, nasty, disgusting business. Until, of course, you get a priest to say a few stock phrases, and hand you a piece of paper to sign. Then it’s magically transformed from an unspeakable sin to a beautiful act AS LONG AS YOU’RE NOT SUBVERTING GOD’S INTENTION FOR YOU TO GET PREGNANT, YOU PERVERT.

In Hell House (not to mention the universe of horror movie rules), all mention of sex is in the context where it is shameful, or sneaky, or dangerous, or violent. People act stupidly, and are punished and probably dead at the end of it.

The Hell House’s abortion sequence is a great case study. In the scene, the abortion has already happened, and the only question up in the air is what’s going to be done about it. And in the scene, the demon yells at her “YOU’RE A MURDERER! YOU KILLED YOUR BABY! HA HA HA!” And the girl kills herself because she can’t take it anymore. But, who told her that abortion was murder in the first place? The church, that’s who. They’re the ones showing tiny like slimy things in the shape of hands and feet, and telling her, “This was a person, with a soul.” For someone who doesn’t believe that souls exist, or that removing tissue without a fully formed brain or nervous system is the moral equivalent of being Hitler, there’s no reason to kill yourself. They’re trying to offer a solution to a problem they created.

In the scenes they created, there were a lot of opportunities for positive social messages. Like, for instance, “If you meet a dude on the internet, maybe your first visit should be in a well lit public place.” That seems like an adequate precaution, especially given that most men aren’t rapists. Or how about: “When you cheat on your wife, your lies are hurtful and the resulting bad feelings can put your family in jeopardy, which isn’t good for the kids.” That seems like a really sound, rational approach even without tacking on the whole “AND THEN SHE’LL SHOOT YOU AND YOU’LL GO TO HELL” angle. And perhaps: “Be nice to the other kids in school, even weird nerdy kids, because they have feelings too and maybe they’re worth getting to know.”

But that’s not the primary interest of Hell House. The message is that this world is a cesspool, and you’re not getting out alive, so you might as well prep for the next one.

And they say atheism is a negative philosophy.

Update: Lynnea has now written her own account of the trip.

New LIVE Non-Prophets return this Saturday

The rabble are banging away at Martin’s post with torches and pitchforks, demanding to know: when, oh when will there be a new non-guerilla episode?

Wonder no more! The first new “official” Non-Prophets Radio will air LIVE this Saturday, October 23. It will feature Matt, Denis, and me… and if all goes according to plan, a special phone-in mystery guest. (I’ve been known to make these claims before and look foolish later, so apologies in advance if the guest can’t make it. Forget I ever said anything! What guest?)

WTF do they know?

“As Deepak Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason.”
– Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth

My fiancee and I watched What the Bleep Do We Know? Why? Because it was there. By reputation it is a terrible new-age movie that claims to be about science. The film makers attempt to explain quantum mechanics and neurochemistry, in the service of a general squishy feel-good message similar to “The Secret” implying that if you send positive energy to the universe, good things will happen to you.

Some of the movie kind of, sort of, almost conveys some important ideas of science successfully. They describe the double slit experiment; they take a stab at chaos theory, in which small random interactions affect macroscopic objects. They also, unfortunately, attempt to have a plot. I want to focus in on that, since it doesn’t seem to be discussed in many reviews.

Early in the movie they introduce a lady who is a deaf magazine photographer. She is portrayed as a severe grouch, so I pegged what this character was for right away. “Aha,” I said. “I’ll bet this character is going to be initially skeptical of whatever claims the movie is trying to make, and then she will be won over in the end.”

It’s a lazy technique that yields a required character in many styles of evangelistic tract: the converted skeptic proxy. It operates under the same principle as the old “I used to be an atheist” claim. The message is: “This character is you, skeptic. She has been where you’ve been, and she was convinced. If you are reasonable like her, you will be convinced too.”

I say it’s a lazy technique because the writers are not attempting to win you over through the legitimate strength of their arguments; instead, they want to lower your defenses by getting you to identify with their position. Last week on the show I mentioned that it’s like a car salesman telling you “I’ve driven every car, and this one’s the best.” Oh, okay! No need for me to do my own comparison shopping then. This salesman seems like a reasonable and completely unbiased chap. (Analogy gratefully borrowed from Slacktivist — Thanks, Fred!)

So yes, this lady does not believe in quantum mechanics or love or happiness, and sure enough, her life suffers for it. And when I say “suffers” I mean she appears to be experiencing a buffet table’s worth of unintentionally hilarious mental disorders. She screams “I hate you!!!” at herself in the mirror. She suffers Vietnam-like flashbacks to her past bad relationship when a guy starts coming on to her. Later, while drunk, she starts to hallucinate her mental hangups as tiny computer animated blobby monsters. You see, reasonable people don’t disagree with the movie’s thesis. Only sad, sad individuals with massive emotional baggage. You aren’t that kind of person, are you? I sure hope not! Now, about that car I’d like to sell you…

The first sign that this movie was going to infuriate me came when one of the Very Serious Narrators explained with a straight face how the minds of Native Americans operated when the Europeans arrived to conquer them. It turns out that they couldn’t see the ships coming. I don’t mean they were distracted and didn’t happen to notice them. In a dramatic reenactment, the tribe’s shaman was staring directly at the approaching ships, and he literally could not see anything. You see, explains the Very Serious Narrator, these massive ships were so far outside the normal day to day experience for these natives, that their minds refused to process them. Eventually, the shaman points out the ripples on the water, and as everyone tries to figure out what’s causing them, POOF — suddenly there is the ship, plainly visible to all, thanks to the magic of camera tricks.

This is, of course, straight out of Douglas Adams.

“Can you see,” said Ford patiently, “the SEP?”

“I thought you said that was somebody else’s problem.”

“That’s right.”

Arthur nodded slowly, carefully and with an air of immense stupidity.

“And I want to know,” said Ford, “if you can see it.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“What,” said Arthur, “does it look like?”

“Well, how should I know, you fool?” shouted Ford. “If you can see it, you tell me.”

Arthur experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with Ford. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. Ford took him by the arm.

“An SEP,” he said, “is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.”

There is, of course, a subtle difference between that scene and this one: Douglas Adams was deliberately writing comedy.

So naturally, while we were heckling this movie, the question that immediately came to mind was: “How The Bleep™ do they know that?” I mean, it’s not like you can go back and question the natives about their experiences. They didn’t leave a lot of written material about it either; and even if they did, how would you really know that the ships were actually invisible to them, and the shaman wasn’t just covering his ass out of embarrassment?

This is a place where we can ask the film makers, because the question is right there on the official What The Bleep™ web site. You’re going to think I’m making this up but I’m not, so prepare to be astounded.


My mother is stuck on the question of where the information on Columbus and the Native Americans came from. She can’t seem to get past the part where the shaman ‘showed’ them the ships, and then they were able to see them. Where did this story come from?
Thanks,
Amy Proctor

[Good question, exactly what I was thinking. Thanks, Amy!]

The story of the Native American’s inability to see the clipper ships from Europe has two aspects to it: physiological and anecdotal.

[Ummm... evasive. Bad start.]

Any journalist is familiar with the phenomenon of asking three different people to relate the “facts” at an accident scene, only to receive three different versions of the “facts.”

[Yeah, people have bad memories. So... you're saying that the cars are invisible to some of them? Let's skip past this, seems pretty empty.]

Pattern recognition depends on familiarity. An example of this is experiments done by Colin Blakemore and G.F. Cooper in the 1960s…

[Blah, blah, blah, not answering the question. Skipping...]

I have personally experienced this
as a truth, raising two wolves from 6 week-old pups. Frankly, I thought the male had brain damage. For months he never looked at me directly

[WHAT THE BLEEP™ HAS ANY OF THIS GOT TO DO WITH HOW YOU KNEW ABOUT THE INDIANS???]

Now for the more anecdotal origins of the story,

[Oh good, FINALLY they're going to answer the damn question.]

which Candace Pert refers to as “A wonderful story I believe is true…”

[Aw, crap.]

Co-writer and producer Betsy Chasse says, “Other scientists related the same story to us.” And, apparently, there are references to the tale in an historical document made by an early missionary in the South Americas. This document, unfortunately, has not yet been found.

So now you know as much as we do about the origins of the tale!

[Are you bleeping kidding me?]

So that’s it, right there, in their own words. The story is made up. They have a flimsy tale, told twelfth hand, and they have no source for it whatsoever. But they decided to treat it as fact in the movie in service of their point.

Elsewhere in the movie, they use more Very Serious Narrators to great effect, in one case citing the works of one Dr. Masaru Emoto, whose experiments in the exciting field of writing words on glasses of water have revealed that water can read and respond to English phrases by forming crystals that are “beautiful” or “ugly,” depending on the sentiment behind the words. This is explained via an intellectual sounding museum tour guide, while soft classical music plays. That’s how you know it’s gotta be true.

In case you haven’t got the point, someone bonks you over the head with it: “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If thoughts can do that to water, imagine what they can do to us.” And then that phrase returns through echoey aural flashbacks about five more times throughout the movie, as our deaf photographer skeptic proxy is sitting around wallowing in her own inadequacy and thinking about what a shallow, emotionless bitch she’s been.

One of the worst scientific atrocities the movie commits is constantly confusing “subatomic particles” with “mental processes.” Heck, they both involve little tiny things, and all little tiny things are the basically same, right? So they’ll say something true (“The state of an electron changes when you observe it!”) and something else true but completely unrelated (“Your brain is made of neurons!”) and then they’ll draw a nonsensical parallel from it, sounding superficially plausible but abandoning any pretense of anything you could actually research or falsify (“Therefore, if you imagine something existing, on some level it really does exist!”)

The woman’s story has a happy ending, of course: She scribbles little hearts all over her body with a sharpie, causing an instant attitude adjustment. People who knew her when she was one of those horrible skeptics come away reeling in shock because she was nice to them for a change. Or perhaps, based on her newly acquired facial expression of pure bliss, she is just intensely stoned.

The Very Serious People who explain things throughout the movie are a mish-mash of folks who are often bearded and are never identified until the credits are rolling. Some of them appear to be actual experts in real scientific fields, which explains why the movie occasionally manages to briefly make sense before cutting away from those people. Of course, the most sensible of the scientists is David Albert, who publicly disassociated himself from the film, saying:

“I am, indeed, profoundly unsympathetic to attempts at linking quantum mechanics with consciousness. Moreover, I explained all that, at great length, on camera, to the producers of the film …Had I known that I would have been so radically misrepresented in the movie, I would certainly not have agreed to be filmed.”

And then, of course, there’s Ramtha.

Apparently this is common knowledge among aficionados of crackpottery, but I honestly had no idea that there was a sixty-something year old middle American lady who, since the late seventies, has been going around claiming to channel a 35,000 year old warrior from Atlantis. I found this out on the internet in between my first and second sittings (what, you think I could watch this drivel in one go??). Before I knew who she was, all I could think about her was: “Who is this ridiculous lady and why are they expecting me to take the stuff that’s coming out of her mouth seriously?” After I learned more about her, my reaction was more like “OH GOD, OH GOD, THAT STUPID ACCENT, MAKE IT STOP.” I guess my brain filtered out the crummy accent that she was putting on before, because it was outside of my normal experience and so I could not hear it. (“I thought you said that was somebody else’s problem!”)

Anyway, like Stephen Colbert, apparently Ramtha only speaks to the cameras “in character,” which is why she is credited at the last minute, not as “JZ Knight,” but as: “Ramtha, Master Teacher – Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Channeled by JZ Knight”. Woohoo! Who needs scientific credibility when you have a Master Teacher at your disposal?

It was a terrible, terrible movie. Not terrible like a hilarious Mystery Science Theater target. Terrible like “If you locked prisoners in a room and forced them to watch this movie, you would be violating the ‘cruel and unusual’ clause.”

Open thread on episode #678

Have at it. Personally, I was frustrated by the hour long format; there’s a constant tension while deciding whether to cut people off, and as you probably noticed, it didn’t get us any additional theist callers. The big studio, while neat, has spotty wireless, so only one person can be connected to the internet. Supposedly we now have four lines instead of three, but the fourth line was intentionally blocked during the show because we don’t trust it yet.

We did get the one theist caller at the end, but I had to hang up on him, not because of the insult, but because we had no time left. Can’t exactly blame this on the shorter time slot; it does happen even in the 90 minute show that people will not call until the very last minute.

Tracie did a good recap of her recent Intercessory Prayer post, and there were some decent questions. I had a good time.

Non Credo in Unum Deum: Religion in classical music

Next weekend I’ll be performing a concert with my group, Chorus Austin. We will be doing the Mozart Mass in C-Minor which is, in all honesty, a simply amazing piece of choral work. If you can make it, you ought to come. Schedule and details are here, and you can check out the nifty glossy flier here. If nothing else, you should see how I look in a tuxedo. :)

I’m taking a gamble by bringing eight year old Ben along. I expect he’ll pay attention to some of the music for twenty minutes and then hopefully read quietly during the rest. In order to get his interest up, I’ve been playing some movements for him on my iPod — I tried to get him into classical music early in life, and this video turned out to be a fascinating way to demonstrate how fugues work. (The beginning of that piece, the part that everyone has heard in scary movies, is the toccata. The fugue begins at the 2:50 mark. A fugue is like the instrumental version of singing a “round”, with a single theme that gets repeated by different voices, usually in different keys.)

Separating form from message
Of course I also had to explain the words, which are roughly the same as words that are in every mass. My chorus has sung a lot of masses (with Bach’s B-Minor being my all-time favorite) so I know the words pretty well. It is basically an abridged Latin translation of the entire story of Jesus. They all start out with “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison” (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”). Then they move on to “Gloria in exceslis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”). There is a statement of faith in the credo, which is referenced in the title of this post. (“Credo in Unum Deum” means “I believe in one God.” The “Non” was my own addition.)

Eventually they work up to introducing Jesus Christ (“Jesu Christe”) and how he was crucified (“Crucifixus”) after being betrayed by Pontius Pilate; then dead and buried (“sub Pontio Pilato passus, et sepultus est”) But then! Yay! He came back! (“Et resurrexit!”) And everything was all better, and finally we live happily ever after, or at least we hope so. (“Dona nobis pacem”, grant us peace.) There is also a bit in the about love for the one, true, holy Catholic church (“Et Unam Sanctam Catholicam et Apostolicam”), which you have to admit is an odd sentiment in the middle of Baptist country.

As a story, it’s not too terrible. I mean, obviously I don’t base my life around it, but you can look at it as a compelling superhero origin story. But it does get a little tedious when you consider the fact that it was virtually the only story expressed successfully through the song for several centuries in a row.

As I explained to Ben, not agreeing with the lyrics does not diminish the power of the music. The choral works of Bach and Mozart are among the greatest artistic achievements in human history, if I say so myself. Christians today are, of course, eager to take credit for this, saying that great art is made possible by the influence of God.

Secular Art
…Which is nonsense. One of my other favorite pieces of all time is “Carmina Burana,” which I believe is in the short list of pieces that our director plans to put on the agenda in future seasons. Carmina Burana is essentially a satire of religious liturgies, full of Latin lyrics in full on praise of drinkin’, gamblin’, overeatin’, and good old sexual frenzies. And it is a hell of a musical piece also.

As we’ve arrived in more modern times, there has been an explosion of creativity which for the first time in history is not mostly driven by the church. I’ll stack up The Beatles and Rush against the musical greats of centuries gone by, and even John Williams (composer for movies such as “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Harry Potter”) makes a pretty good secular showing with an orchestra.

Religion used to largely dominate the art profession. Why? Because religious institutions were the ones with piles of money, and you needed rich patrons to survive as a composer or painter or sculptor. Writing a mass or a requiem made good financial sense, not to mention the always present nebulous claims of the church that if you offer enough stuff to God then it will make it easier to get into heaven, back when the rules of entry were not so sharply defined as in a Jack Chick tract.

Rock me, obscene child
It’s kind of interesting, if you think about it, that religion no longer dominates popular art. I’m not going to pick on Christian rock. In fact, I’ve heard individual rock selections expressing sincere religious themes that I liked, musically, very much. (Don’t press me for examples, please. I cannot think of any off the top of my head, and if I remembered some then I’d probably embarrass myself by exposing my tastes.) But the point is, religion no longer dominates the music scene the way it did in the mid-to-late parts of the last millennium.

Likewise, I can think of very few movies that exist primarily to promote a religious message that have gotten much traction. There’s The Passion of the Christ, of course; that did very well. A handful of historical classics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. But here, again, religious contributions are dwarfed by the very large number of excellent movies that have been made outside the umbrella of religion; and movies that do treat religious themes frequently take a critical or ambiguous view of the church. Was Casablanca a theatrical mass? Was Citizen Kane a liturgical requiem? I think not.

For a good example of the intersection of movies and classical music, there’s Amadeus, an Academy Award winner which presents an entertaining (though thoroughly fictionalized) account of Mozart’s life and work. A running theme throughout the movie is that Salieri, the villain/protagonist, worships a God who simply does not make any sense. Salieri initially believes that God loves great music and will reward his own religious fervor with the gift of great talent and success. Instead, he watches helplessly as great music is channeled through a Mozart who is portrayed as a “giggling, dirty creature” and an “obscene child.”

The whole story of his epic failure at life is told to a young and naive priest, whose look of complete shock and disillusionment at the end of the movie has to be seen and enjoyed. For me, the movie highlights the fact, not that the universe is malevolent, but that by all appearances it doesn’t actually care about your piety. Artistic messages are still in the eye of the beholder, and that’s just my interpretation. But unlike a Latin mass, Amadeus is great art that doesn’t directly praise and glorify God.

Sturgeon was right
The percentage of artistic works that portray a positive religious message has declined over time. This is a statement evangelists would agree with, and they’d use it as a sign of the moral decline of our times. I see it instead as an obvious resu
lt of the fact that religion is no longer the only game in town, which I hardly need to this audience say is a good thing.

You can partly credit this to Sturgeon’s Law, which states: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” Most new music that is produced sucks. Most new art that is produced sucks. Most blog posts suck. We romanticize the past because most of the crud has been filtered out by disappearing from the public consciousness. Now we are left with the impression that every playwright of the past was Shakespeare, and every musician of the past was Bach, and every painter was Rembrandt, and every statesman was Jefferson. There are just as many new great works of art being produced now; perhaps even more, since we have so many more tools to make art accessible; but it’s buried under mountains of crud that hasn’t been filtered out yet.

However, the crud of the past that is no longer with us, was also in large part financed by the church. Reaching back in history, we have much more material to choose from that is religious because that’s just where artists went to get money.

I actually am kind of disappointed that so much of the art of the past has exactly the same lyrics. To my modern ear, it seems lazy (probably unjustly, given the circumstances). As I said, I’m not even saying that the gospels tell a bad story. It’s just not the ONLY story they could have chosen. It’s as if all movies had to be made about just one story. Maybe something from Shakespeare. Let’s pick Henry V as an example. I really like Henry V, especially the Kenneth Branagh film version… his delivery of that inspirational speech cements Henry in my mind as one of the greatest military badasses of literature.

But suppose every movie was just a retelling Henry V, and not only that, they were expected to recycle most of the dialogue from the original Shakespeare version. Wouldn’t that get boring?

I recognize, of course, that music is not a movie. The musical qualities of Mozart’s Mass in C-Minor are on a separate dimension from the words they are expressing. Mozart also wrote a lot of symphonies, and those don’t even have words. So you could argue that the lyrics don’t matter.

I kind of think they do matter, though, because they are another piece of the art that could be employed to supply great and unique new sentiments, and they kind of don’t. The music is influenced by the lyrics, so you can predict what kind of dynamic is called for at any point in a mass. Here’s the Crucifixus again, it’s all slow and somber like every Crucifixus. Then it gets loud and exultant with Et Resurrexit. Hosanna in Excelsis is joyful, etc. Now, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, they all wrote masses, and they all approached the subject with different sensibilities. They each have uniquely beautiful ways of capturing these emotions, but they’re still just telling the same story. And I don’t even think it’s all that great a story.

Credo in intelligentibus
I want to wrap this up, so here’s my credo. I believe that human beings are capable of producing massive amounts of crap and calling it art. I also believe that once in a while, some truly terrific stuff filters to the top which withstands the test of time. Sometimes the good stuff goes unrecognized and gets forgotten anyway. But I believe that people are sensitive enough that over time, a lot of great stuff has accumulated for all of us to share and enjoy.

I believe that people find inspiration in all different aspects of their lives. I believe that something doesn’t have to be true in order to inspire beauty, but that truth is inherently beautiful and preferable. I believe that we should seek to understand more of our world, not less; and we should look for art and inspiration in all of the universe, not just a story that we tell ourselves to pretend that we know more than we really do.

Yeah, death to our readers too!

Well gee, it looks like Language Log and Pharyngula are BOTH taking a more, shall we say, aggressive moderation policy on unwanted comments. Since I do love jumping on bandwagons, I think it’s only fair to warn you folks that any perpetrators of the following activities in the blog comments, email to the TV list, posts on hosts’ Facebook pages, or calls to the TV show, will be hunted down and killed.

  1. “I have indisputable proof that God exists!” (Ten minutes of embarrassingly weak Poe’ing) “Nah, just kidding, I’m really an atheist too. I love you guys.”
  2. “Hey, there’s a movie I just discovered that really opened my eyes. It pretty much blows Christianity out of the water, and it’s got some other interesting information too. It’s called Zeitgeist. Ever heard of it?”
  3. “Dear sirs, I agree with nearly everything you say, but I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms about your blind foolishness in accepting the official government story about vaccines.”
  4. “Guys, this video seems pretty convincing. Will you refute it for me?” (Link to long homemade YouTube clip featuring several thousand-year-old apologetics that are addressed at Iron Chariots.)
  5. “I was trolling a Christian message board / harassing my religious acquaintance in Gmail chat. The guy said something that got me stuck. What should I say next?” (Copy and paste job of five days worth of conversation.)
  6. “The B**BQUAKE – 911
    Let me show you the FATE OF TRAITORS…
    how can these HEADLESS IDIOTS BET AGAINST GOD!!!
    they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION…
    they LOST THE WAR……
    the blood and bodies of the atheist movement…
    you mofos killed MICKEY MOUSE!!!!”
    (Cue frothing at the mouth and incoherent muttering.)

Consider yourselves warned!

Good luck with that, Larry

Larry Moran offers an interesting challenge:

I challenge all theists and all their accommodationist friends to post their very best 21st century, sophisticated (or not), arguments for the existence of God. They can put them in the comments section of this posting, or on any of the other atheist blogs, or on their own blogs and websites. Just send me the link.

Try and make it concise and to the point. It would be nice if it’s less than 100 years old. Keep in mind that there are over 1000 different gods so it would be helpful to explain just which gods the argument applies to.

Thing is, we’ve been asking this same question for many years on our show. We always rush callers to the front when the screeners tell us they claim to have proof that God exists. So far, we’ve been disappointed.

Pretty much everyone says he or she has proof that God exists winds up landing in one of the following categories, roughly in descending order of frequency:

  1. They wish to make a first cause argument.
  2. Before the call ends they will admit to being an atheist in disguise; they either thought it would be funny to offer a fake proof, or they (correctly) believed that they wouldn’t get on the show unless they lied. Hot tip for people fitting this category: You almost certainly aren’t funny and didn’t impress any of the viewers. Try keeping the lines clear for actual theists instead.
  3. They offer some poorly drawn refutation of a particular scientific principle, and then assume that the only alternative to the science is their god.
  4. [Inserted after reading the comments] They cite a personal encounter with the supernatural which cannot possibly be verified, investigated, or duplicated.
  5. They have some pseudo-scientific argument that is based on some kind of misapplication of a science they barely understand, such as quantum mechanics.
  6. They have some kind of even worse pseudo-scientific argument that involves making up “laws” that don’t actually exist.
  7. They have some kind of linguistic argument that relies on proving that “God” exists based on purely semantic properties rather than observed evidence.

When these various tactics fail, about half will resort to threatening us with some form of Pascal’s Wager, most likely without knowing who Pascal is.

That about covers the supposedly sophisticated arguments that theology has had to offer in the last 200 years. Seriously. If there are many more then few theists are aware of them.

Open thread on episode #676

Matt and Jeff in our last 90 minute episode for a while. I’m in the middle of listening right now.

There appears to be a problem with the podcast, because annoying music keeps interrupting the audio. It might be coming from another studio or something.

Now this is ticking me off. 30 minutes into the episode, Pat from Pasadena called in. AGAIN. Last week she called me and Martin and rambled for quite a while about her “non-traditional Christianity” that she knows from “metaphysical” experiences that she picked up through meditation.

I think Martin and I were pretty patient with her last week, but this is ridiculous. She called in again, with completely different hosts who haven’t her routine before. She makes NO acknowledgment of the fact that she called last week. She doesn’t say a word about the time we already spent on her. She shows no sign of recognizing what we told her then. She just pretty much says exactly the same thing to see what different people will say to her. And predictably, the response is almost exactly the same.