“12 Years a Slave”—and a question about faith

I’m no movie reviewer (I’ll leave that to my nephew, who I hope will weigh in below), so my review of “12 Years a Slave,” which I saw last weekend, should be taken as the lucubrations of a tyro.

I won’t recount the plot, although there’s not really a spoiler, except to say that it’s based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York, but was kidnapped and sold to Southern slavers in 1841.  It took him 12 years—years in which he witnessed the most horrible degradation and mistreatment of his fellow slaves—before he regained his freedom. He subsequently wrote a book about his experiences and campaigned against slavery.

The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, won the Academy Award this year for “Best Picture,” although, in a rare snub, McQueen didn’t also get Best Director (that went to Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity,” a film that for some reason I have no desire to see).

The film garnered two other Oscars: one to Lupito Nyong’o as Best Supporting Actress, and the other to Best Adapted Screenplay by Mark Ridley.  Chiwetel Ejiofor did a terrific job as Solomon Northup, but lost out to Matthew McConaughey from “Dallas Buyers Club” (a film that I will see). One note of interest: Brad Pitt, who co-produced the movie, makes a cameo appearance as the single white man in the south who eloquently decries slavery, telling a slaver that he will eventually reap retribution. The scene in which Pitt does this, though, strikes a false note; it’s a bit of unneeded moralizing put in the movie for no obvious reason except to make Pitt look good. The horrors and immorality of slavery were amply depicted without Pitt’s preaching.

My verdict: a very good movie but not a great one—but still one you should make an effort to see.  It was beautifully photographed, the acting was excellent (particularly by Ejiofor and Nyong’o), and the story was compelling.  But it was compelling not so much through the depiction of character, but because the story was so heartbreaking and the portrayal of slavery so graphically brutal. Perhaps that was part of the problem for me: the power of the movie lay largely in its scenes of brutality, particularly the repeated and bloody whippings, which reminded me of The Passion of the Christ.  But as far as showing the degradation of slavery, this movie was not markedly superior to “Django Unchained” (granted, that was more of an “action” movie with more shootings and explosions). I repeat: this is an excellent movie well worth seeing, but for me will not take its place in the pantheon of great movies next to “Ikiru,” “Tokyo Story,” “Chinatown,” or “The Last Picture Show.”

Now to the question of faith. Religion plays a large part in this movie, and in two senses. It is shown as a means by which the slaver controls his slaves by telling them that the Bible sanctions slavery and the whipping of slaves (which it does), and also that they should accept their lot. There are at least two scenes in which the slaver Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) is shown preaching from the Bible to a forced audience of his slaves on a Sunday.

Clearly faith was used to control the slaves, quelling their discontent and serving, in the Marxist sense, as a kind of opium. But it’s also shown as a palliative for the slaves themselves, helping them accept a horrible existence which could not be changed.

In that sense, then, was faith good for the slaves? One might answer that the “opium of the slaves” was bad because it prevented them from bettering their own lot, but that was clearly impossible in the antebellum South. A slave rebellion would have been brutally quashed, as was Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, which simply led to the death of a few hundred blacks and no change in slavery. And remember, the slaves (at least in this movie) thought their faith was true—that they really were going to a better place after they died. So it was not a matter of believing something for which there was known counterevidence. 

In that sense I cannot see faith as being inimical to the slaves themselves, although of course it was a pernicious device used to control “human property” and make them accept their whippings. But, given the South at that time, what was the alternative? What good would have come from trying to convince slaves that there was no God? In that sense it’s like the “dying grandmother” scenario in which you allow a religious woman to retain her faith on her deathbed. In this case I can see no advantage that would have come from trying to convince slaves that their faith was false.

Or am I wrong?

I am intensely interested in the question of the circumstances in which faith—defined as belief  in an issue that is disproportionately strong compared to the weak evidence for that issue—is beneficial.  According to Sam Harris, it almost never is. I agree insofar as faith keeps people invested in a delusion that won’t come to pass, and thus prevents them from taking action to better themselves. And it prevents people from thinking clearly about issues, usually to the detriment of better solutions (stem cell research is one example). But in the case of slavery, the notion that dispelling faith would prompt slaves to improve their lot isn’t realistic.

One possible example of the beneficial effects of faith is the placebo effect, something well established in medicine. Placebo effects have been shown to be beneficial in cases of depression, and even in things like knee surgery (yes, they’ve done “sham” knee surgery, where patients think they’ve been operated on for knee problems even though they’re just cut open with nothing done subsequently—and, surprisingly, this gives results as good as a genuine operation). In such cases the faith that you are being treated is enough to effect a cure, or at least substantial improvement. But in such cases one could, I suppose, argue that this isn’t really “faith,” for the patient really does think that he or she is getting genuine scientific medical treatment. Nevertheless, what placebo effects show is that mere belief in something that cannot possibly work the way it’s supposed to can still effect real improvement.

But how does that differ from belief in God, which can, despite God’s nonexistence, effect psychological benefits? I suppose many of you will answer that faith can be good for individuals, but as a system reduces well being overall.

h/t: GM

139 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    “Northup”, not “Northrup”, is the name. (Common typo)

    • Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      Indeed! Fixed, thanks.

    • noncarborundum
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      It has a long pedigree. A 19th-century New-York Times story about Northup that I saw posted on a bl*g last week rendered his name “Northrup” throughout.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        There’s Northup Avenue near where I live. Disappointingly, it does not intersect with a Southdown or a Westleft.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

          :D

        • Publilius
          Posted March 12, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          There is a city near me with a “West Avenue” which is divided into “North West Avenue” and “South West Avenue.” There is also a “North Street” divided into “East North Street” and “West North Street.” They meet at the intersection of “North West Avenue” and “West North Street.”

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 12, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

            So unintelligently designed, it’s almost like it evolved!

    • Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      Even wikipedia has one overlooked typo of the name. It’s correct everywhere else in the article on Northup.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the slaves were in any position to think about god and religion and were probably clinging to whatever kept them alive.

    The slave owners, however would be the ones that would have enough prosperity to contemplate such things. Their use of the bible to justify their behaviour could be turned on them.

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      They did succeed in subverting the religious message in some ways, as shown in their spiritual songs.

      Two common themes are Moses and the escape of the Israelites from slavery, and crossing Jordan.

      While crossing Jordan was an overt metaphor for dying and going to Heaven, it is also believed by at least some scholars to be a covery reference to the Ohio river and the escape to freedom in the north.

      It’s also important to recognize that religious language was the only poetry that the slaves had exposure to. The masters might arrange bible readings, preaching, and hymn singing, but they were not hosting readings of Shakespeare, Byron, or William Blake.

      • eric
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        Your last comment is very interesting. If a culture only has one (or a few) books of stories, then they are going to express their art and all sorts of cultural tropes through those stories. Taking away that one book of stories in that respect seems overtly cruel.

        I hope this comparison isn’t so superficial as to be specious, but in terms of the breadth of literature they were exposed to, you can liken the slaves’ situation to being stuck on a desert isle with only a bible to read. In that situation, even as an atheist I wouldn’t want to throw it into the sea. In such a situation, that one book provides a human lifeline to storytelling sanity, even if the theological lifeline is an illusion.

        • Notagod
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

          The only use I would see in the christian holey book in that situation would be to distract my mind from unhappy thoughts. However, when I read the bible I see it for what it is and the unhappy thoughts would be exchanged for other more unhappy thoughts.

          I would get rid of the damned god thing and find happier ways to distract myself.

          • Latverian Diplomat
            Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

            Nobody should have to read the Bible if they don’t want to, but it is important in literature and art.

            And people have done some interesting things with it, from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale to the one season wonder TV series Kings of a few years ago.

            But as authoritative text on morality, the Bible is contradictory, repugnant, and antiquated.

            • Notagod
              Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

              Would you contend that murder and rape have been important in literature and art?

              I would disagree if you didn’t. To hold the christian holey book up as something that can be used for good is to disregard all the other bad things that can be used in some way positively. The bible can be used by the same person to justify every good they ever did and at the same time justify ever bad they ever did.

              • Latverian Diplomat
                Posted March 11, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                Yes, murder and rape are subjects for art because art reflects society. Art is not just pretty pictures of flowers (though those are fine too).

                A Handmaid’s Tale is full of biblical knowledge, but it is hardly a pro-Bible work of art.

              • Notagod
                Posted March 11, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                So the christian holey book is no more important to art and literature than everything else is. The statement that it is important is giving the bible undue respect.

        • Willard Bolinger
          Posted March 12, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          Reading and writing for slaves was not allowed and Northrup was told to keep quiet about his abilities. Whippings were common for any attempt to learn to read or write. There are some stories of women teaching a few slaves to read and write, and some of those were charged in court and punished.

      • lkr
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

        You’d think the slave-owners would have avoided teaching these passages [easy, since they didn't let their slaves read the Bible]. They’re both a bit past passive resistance: kill the Pharoah’s army and all the first born of Egypt, then run for it. Cross the Jordan and kill and enslave the Midianites..

        Of course neither scenario ever happened to the Israelites — they were concocted by the Jewish elite during their Captivity [but not chattel slavery] in Babylon. Revenge propaganda..

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

          It was popular among many whites, especially those of British descent, to identify with the Israelites and see themselves as God’s new chosen people. For some this went as far as embracing crackpot theories of a literal demographic connection:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Israelism#History_of_the_movement

          It quite possibly never occurred to most slave owners that the slaves would find their own, much more obvious connection with the Israelites until the cat was out of the bag.

          And a Christian master could hardly punish slaves for referencing bible stories, as long as they kept it strictly metaphorical when he was in earshot.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        I’m not really arguing iconography but I’m thinking more along the lines of Maslow. If you are barely surviving and are horribly oppressed, you aren’t going to devote much energy to contemplating philosophical issues or discovering truths.

        However, the slave owners were clearly using the bible to justify horribly humane acts. This brings to mind Ariely’s book about lying: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves where he explains that humans deceive themselves in order to see themselves as good people; few people would describe themselves as bad. If the bible were shown as being reflective of a cruel time – even if god’s existence is not evoked, it may crack the facade the slave owners have of themselves as good people. Convince the slave owners that god does not exist & the facade completely crumbles.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          *horribly inhumane. I wonder what a horribly humane act would look like?

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

            You spotted it!
            And there I was looking to add another card to the deck for “Cards Against Humanity”

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

              :P

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted March 12, 2014 at 1:49 am | Permalink

              Excellent.

          • Latverian Diplomat
            Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

            If one takes horribly humane to mean beneficial but unpleasant to perform, then a surgeon amputating a gangrenous limb might qualify.

  3. gbjames
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    I read the book (Northup’s description of his experience) and was impressed at how well the movie followed the original. (Mostly.. there were a few divergences, but not significant, IMO.)

    As to the value of religion to slaves, I can’t see it. I don’t think it is ever better to hold an incorrect and delusional understanding of how the universe works. Whether non-belief would have resulted in freedom is impossible to say. But in the absence of divine justification of the institution I can not but think it would have been harder to maintain.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      I think I agree with you fairly closely. I think that while religion did undoubtedly have some positive value to some slaves I don’t think they got anything of value out of religion that they couldn’t have gotten by secular alternatives, and been better off for it.

    • wanderobo
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      I can’t see it either. It was unnecessary then, removing their tribal gods who had “successfully” been worshiped for generations and replacing them with the foreign god of their captors, further disempowering them. And over the long term faith has been a placeholder for decades in the Black community: trusting in Jesus has taken the place of getting it done for yourself and with strong negative effects.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Yes, no doubt it would have been much better, from the point of view of an intellectual of a certain kind today, if the slaves had been reading Voltaire or somebody like him, but, surely, the point is that in those particular historical circumstances, where there was only the Bible, the Bible provided myths, such as the Egyptian captivity and the escape from it, that spoke to the condition of the slaves and helped them endure. Whether or not the Bible is a ‘good book’ or not is beside the point: it has been of immense historical and cultural importance, and as well as being used to justify oppression it has been used to foment rebellion and in the fight for a juster society – it is no accident that Martin Luther King was a preacher. There seems to me to be a peculiar superficiality and condescension in asserting that the slaves would have been better off with some other book, a refusal to recognise historical realities and the recalcitrance of reality, and a near magical assumption that if the benighted people of the past had only thought in the nice, bright, enlightened way that we New Atheists do, they would have been, well, almost like us! Bright, happy, reasonably well off! It’s not only the religious who believe in fairy tales.

  4. Jon Butler
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Saratoga Springs, NY, not Syracuse….

  5. Jonathan Dore
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Another aspect of the portrayal of religion in the film is the contrast between the Sunday devotions led by Ford (the Benedict Cumberbatch character) and Epps. While Epps, as you say, concentrates on verses emphasizing obedience and chastisement, Ford reads verses talking about consolation and togetherness — a perfect illustration of the way in which the morally inchoate ragbag of texts that make up the Bible are simply used by believers to project and reinforce their own personalities, rather than saying anything definite about the supposed wishes of a supposed deity. Every believer assumes that God is, in some sense, like themselves.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      I agree. There are places it is outright harmful and others where it is pernicious. In my opinion is is rarely beneficial.

  6. Robert Seidel
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    You forget that religion was also held by the slave owners, often sanctioning the worst impulses in them – Frederick Douglass in his memoirs tells that the most religious slavers were also the most savage.

    • Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      Did you not read my post? I make this point several times.

      • Bruce Gorton
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        What I think he means is that it wasn’t simply something to keep the slaves in line – but something the slave owners believed in as a sort of justification for their own acts.

        The opiate wasn’t there simply to dull the pain of the slaves, but the consciences of the slavers.

        • Robert Seidel
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

          Yes.

        • Robert Seidel
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

          I also remembered now where I found this, a post by Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism:

          http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2010/09/religion-and-slavery/

          The crucial passage in Douglass was this:

          “If it [the conversion of one of his masters to christian faith] had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.”

          Sorry for having been to brief to bring this clear across.

  7. Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Not a direct answer to the question, but tangentially related: Does anyone know who was the first notable African-American atheist?

    • gbjames
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:39 am | Permalink

      I don’t know about the “first”, but there were a number born in the late 19th Century (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, others you can Google for).

    • Erp
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      Well actually pinning down lack of religious belief in a time when not conforming is dangerous can be tricky and people’s views change over their lives. Frederick Douglass would certainly be classified as not exactly orthodox much to the dismay of black clergymen though I don’t think he was ever an explicit atheist. W. E. B. Du Bois and A. Phillip Randolph probably were atheists though I doubt they were the first.

      Then there is Pushkin though not American he would have been classified as “negro” by American law (his great grandfather had been a slave from Africa though ended up a Russian nobleman).

  8. Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Also, the debate rages as to whether abolition was led by humanist principles and religious institutions followed, or vice versa. For instance, some individual Catholic priests and bishops were outspoken opponents of slavery in the American South, but papal condemnation was mute.

    • JBlilie
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Yes, there certainly were individuals who opposed slavery and were also religious. The South assiduously used the Bible and Christianity to bolster their supposed moral “right” to own slaves. The organized churches did little, when they should have totally condemned it. Once again, religion trails secular values.

      • Erp
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        Several White Protestant denominations actually split over the issue of slavery and a few are still split. The traditionally Black denominations (AME and AME Zion both founded about 1820 as split offs from Methodism) were of course opposed to slavery but had little clout. The Quakers may have been the earliest though only some at first (1688 with Germantown, PA with strong influence from their Mennonite neighbors) though it took until 1776 for the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (the equivalent to the denomination and would have covered a far wider area than just Pennsylvania) to ban owning slaves by members (disapproval of the slave trade was much earlier). The London Yearly Meeting (effectively all the Quakers in Britain) officially disapproved of the slave trade in 1727 and officially banned the owning of slaves by members in 1761 (a bit easier then in America since there were supposedly no slaves in England proper [though some English owned plantations with slaves in America or the West Indies]).

  9. Michael D
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Seems like a question for Anthony Pinn. Maybe his book “Terror and Triumph” would be helpful. Suggestion: perhaps religion was used to terrorize the slaves. The belief that God would oppose their revolt inhibited agitation to freedom?

  10. MAUCH
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Religion may be an opiate for the individual but is a cancerous adiction on society.

  11. Richard
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Have you read W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk”? He talks about the role religion and Christianity played in the slaves’ lives.

  12. Tom
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Regarding Gravity the film, I hired it and now wish I had not. It 110% American the US flag patches are hardly off the screen the entire showing. Unfortunately the main character spends almost the whole time hyper ventilating, worrying or getting into one fix after another. I cannot understand why the film makers should want to depict any highly trained astronaut behaving in this way, I just found it embarrassing to watch
    CGI effects :brilliant
    Script:mediocre
    Actors:Did well despite the script

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      She wasn’t highly trained astronaut – she was a scientist, who for reasons I don’t understand, received good training but sort of sucked and for some reason had to be up there in space to hook some stuff up. Don’t they have astronauts do that all the time?

      I liked seeing it in the 3D at the theatre though.

  13. startyer
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    I have not seen the movie but have read the book. In the course of the narrative, Northup learned the hard way not to trust white men with his true situation. Northup asked the carpenter Bass, apparently portrayed by Pitt, for help to get the word to friends in the north who could help him only after he heard Bass vehemently denounce slavery. If you haven’t read the book I highly recommend you do so, it is an amazing story. I would also recommend that you read “Sufferings in Africa” along with it. Either book is a great read by themselves but the two books together are a fascinating indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. As a trivia note, “Sufferings in Africa” was a book that influenced Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery.

    • Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Personally I do think the movie is a great one, and while the scene with Pitt may come over as a little self-aggrandizing, it is pretty faithful to the book. In the film Bass, says:

      “The law says you have the right to hold a nigger, but begging the law’s pardon… it lies. Is everything right because the law allows it? Suppose they’d pass a law taking away your liberty and making you a slave?”

      Here’s a quote from Northup’s narrative:

      “…the law says you have the right to hold a nigger, but begging the law’s pardon, it lies. Yes, Epps, when the law says that it’s a liar, and the truth is not in it. Is every thing right because the law allows it? Suppose they’d pass a law taking away your liberty and making you a slave?”

      And there’s more in the same vein. I think Bass’s opinions are important following Northup’s bertrayal by another white co-worker earlier in the narrative.

      • gbjames
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        Agreed. The movie dialog is there because it is true to the book, not to be a way for Brad Pitt to pontificate.

        • noncarborundum
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

          I think part of the problem may be in the way Pitt delivers the dialogue rather than in the dialogue itself – but that may be because I don’t have a high opinion of Pitt as an actor.

    • gravityfly
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Incidentally, Pitt, although raised a Southern Baptist, doesn’t believe in God anymore:
      nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/brad-pitt-20-percent-atheist-80-percent-agnostic-article-1.394661

      He also said this elsewhere:

      “When I got untethered from the comfort of religion, it wasn’t a loss of faith for me, it was a discovery of self.”
      celebatheists.com/wiki/Brad_Pitt

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

        Well now I like him more – he does charity work & he’s an atheist!

      • Posted March 11, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Brad’s wife, Angelina Jolie, is also an atheist. Brad Pitt said the lines that were in the book, and wasn’t trying to make himself look good. Some historical pieces say Bass was an abolitionist from Canada. The way he was dressed in the movie suggested that he was perhaps a Quaker.

  14. Tom M
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I enjoyed this point:

    “I am intensely interested in the question of the circumstances in which faith—defined as belief in an issue that is disproportionately strong compared to the weak evidence for that issue—is beneficial.”

    I agree that this is an intensely interesting question, one that many other skeptics fail to properly appreciate. Even if the faith claims are false, or are delusions, psychologists have long known that some delusions are very much beneficial (see the work on positive illusions). In fact, some evolutionary accounts of religion (as you no doubt know) say that religion exists because (in a non-teleological reading) it has certain benefits, both psychology and pro-social.

    Of course, it may be that religion does more harm than good all things considered (though I personally think no one has come close to properly testing that complex question). But even if it were true, I sometimes wonder about how skeptical I should be with my students. They are socially liberal and aren’t hurting anyone, but it’s possible that lead them to religious disbelief (as opposed to say a certain amount of skepticism) is actually bad for them. I agree that your question is to be taken seriously and still need to think about it more myself.

    • Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      Agree that this is very important issue, that neglected by a lot of atheist or skeptics.

      Regardless of the sayings of Sophisticated Theologians or other ivory-tower-ish people, religions do have impact on millions of laymen in many ways.

      Being a slave is similar to those being in total poverty, when daily food is not always available, or when you have to pay a lot (with your body, your dignity, your self-respect) to gain it.

      In those situation, anything to give comfort, be it a piece of cloth, a whiff of balsam, or a slight hope, original or fake do not matter.

      Religions have been these cheap balsam for centuries, similar to glue-sniff for street-children.

      I believe it will be good for some good people both in religionistan and atheistville to understand this, while ivory-tower-ish speaks gets you tenure and fame, Reality is what science and true spiritual-yearning really count.

      And in reality, a lot of human beings are closer to street dogs rather than professors. While that’s rather sad, it is also real. And street dogs have very different needs and yearnings compared to professors.

      cheers,

  15. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I think this post and question illustrates perfectly the warped and masochistic nature of the book in question. It is grand scale meta-physical stockholm syndrome founded on a bedrock of rampant racism and greed.

    I can only think of it in very simple terms; Were I a slave would I like to know the truth about religion?

    Yes, always yes. No matter the consequences of learning the truth, be that total and utter hopeless despair, it simply is the only way to go for me. Even though I will be powerless in the situation, I still prefer the hard truth. At least it would allow me a slight possibility of ending my own existence on my own terms, and in the process deprive my masters the benefit of my blood, sweat and tears.

    Right after I do everything that is in my power to take care of my family, of course.

    But how does that differ from belief in God, which can, despite God’s nonexistence, effect psychological benefits?

    In a strict sense, it doesn’t. If only religion solely entailed belief in a deity without all the bigoted words and worldviews that accompanies it, it wouldn’t pose a problem for me as a principle.

    But that would pretty much entail a god completely without attributes.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      “the warped and masochistic nature of the book in question”

      Which book do you refer to. Because if you are talking about “12 Years a Slave” you clearly haven’t read it.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        My bad, I was referring to the bible.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

          And now the universe is stable again. Clarity gained.

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:42 am | Permalink

            :-)

    • Notagod
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      Your comment is along the lines that I consider the situation as well.

      If as a slave I work as hard as I can to avoid punishment, that also gives that master incentive to acquire more slaves. If I don’t work and die in the process the master has no incentive to continue gathering slaves. If I am caused to believe the christian’s lies, the master is the one that benefits the most.

      • Posted March 13, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        Hear, hear. I’m also thinking that if the slaves didn’t have the sedative of religion, more of them might have committed suicide, or risked death by revolting. Those ‘ways out’ might have caught on like a firestorm. Those would be assets lost to the slave owners. Naturally, not at all beneficial to the slave owners. Religion is a way to brainwash people and get them to behave a certain way.

  16. Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Personally I draw a line between my public commentary and my teaching of biology. In the former I am more like the grandson Jerry alludes to, who sees no value, and possibly real harm, in disabusing a believer at her last hour. That does not keep me from sharing my opinions about politics on my blog or in letters to the editor, of which I write quite a few. With students, my job is to deal with the evidence and not to lead them to particular stances outside the domain of the subject. But I am not above putting some facts in strong relief, such as the very high rate of spontaneous abortion in humans, or the astonishingly high frequency of chromosomal anomalies. (“Mother Nature does not get high marks for meiosis.)” It is a no-no to push ideas about religion or the lack of it in a science class, as much for me as it would be for a creationist teaching chemistry for example.

    • Larry Esser
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      It may be of no use to disabuse someone of their faith in their last hour of life, but how it would cause “real harm,” as you put it, is not at all clear. For someone who’s about to die, how would using reason to come to the understanding that no evidence for any “god” means we can’t say there is one be harmful? It’s a true statement, so it may not be pleasant, but “harmful?” In what way?
      As an added thought, it might be the best thing for someone, even at the very end of their life, to think things through clearly, so that, while they are still alive, they are not delusional. That seems a far better way to live, even at the last.

      • eric
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

        I imagine unsought deathbed atheistic proselytization causes the exact same “harm” as any other unsought deathbed proselytization – i.e, the harm is forcing an upsetting, unwanted, and discomforting conversation on someone who is helples to move away from you. Who has specifically or implicitly requested happy conversations in their last days.

        Heck, it doesn’t even have to be happy. My aunt wanted to dwell heavily on her funeral arrangements in her last days, so the people around her did. Forcing her to have a conversation she didn’t want to have – be it about atheism, politics, or football – would’ve been inconsiderate and, frankly, self-centered.

        • Larry Esser
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          Urging someone to use their own reason is not “proselytization.” It’s encouraging them to think. Then it’s up to the person who is being urged to do that to decide what–if anything–they will do about it. As far as “happy” talk, delusional does not mean happy. It means delusional. Your aunt was not delusional–wanting to talk about funeral arrangements is quite understandable for someone who knows they are soon going to die. She sounds like she had a mind and used it! Good for her.

          • eric
            Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

            If they don’t want to think about theology, why are you insisting that they do so?

            There are may ways to pass ones’ intellectual time. Read a novel, watch TV, talk about baseball. Or, in my aunts’ case, micromanage her own funeral. Don’t you think its self-centered for someone to come into that situation and basically tell her “forget that stuff, you shouldn’t be spending your time on it. What you really ought to be spending your brain time on is thinking about what I want to talk about – namely, the (in)validity of theism.”

            • Larry Esser
              Posted March 12, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

              Stating that there is no evidence for any “god” so we cannot say there is one is not “theology” any more than it is proselytizing. It’s just stating a fact. In fairness, it would be best to say this if the person who is dying is talking about theology. Then say something.

        • Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

          I think that puts my reasoning better than I could have. I would not want it on my conscience that I made somebody’s last moments miserable by insisting on an unwelcome message.

          • Notagod
            Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

            Just to note, the message would be just as unwelcome if it were a christian proclaiming god in the presence of an atheist that was close to death. Well, unless the atheist would get some joy out of laughing at the christian.

            • eric
              Posted March 11, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

              Yes agreed. I think the general argument is to respect the person’s desires in terms of how they want to spend their remaining time with loved ones. If they want to talk about X and don’t show any interest in talking about Y, don’t make your conversation about Y just because that’s what YOU want to talk about.

              In short, put their conversational priorities above your own.

  17. Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    My opinion is that teaching the slaves that there was no god would have been a good idea because it would say “It is entirely up to you.” yes, people likely would have died in greater numbers, but simply surviving just to survive by accepting the status quo and doing nothing has never made much sense in my opinion. Of course, I may have too much of an ideal on what it means to be human.

    • Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      An example of bad, bad parenting: those folks that taught their teenage daughter, now dead, that instead of running and trying to hide OR instead of saying, O, … … ANYTHING ELSE !, … … to stay sitting at the Columbine High School Library table spewing her defiant, religious saviour – mother – muck to shooters ( of her ).

      from Page 3 in Dr Miles’ Women’s History of the World introduction: “ … … why women’s history at all ? Surely men and women have always shared a world, and suffered together all its rights and wrongs ? It is a common belief that: whatever the situation, both sexes faced it alike.

      But. But the male peasant, however cruelly oppressed, always had the right to beat his wife. The black slave had to labor for the white master by day, but he did not have to service him by night as well.

      This grim pattern continues to this day, with women bearing an extra ration of pain and misery whatever the circumstances, as the sufferings of the women of war – torn Eastern Europe will testify. While their men fought and died, wholesale and systemic rape – often accompanied by the same torture and death that the men suffered – was a fate only women had to endure.

      Women’s history springs from moments of recognition such as this, and … … And the awareness of the difference … … the awareness of the difference is still … … still very new. ”

      “Simply surviving ?” Whatever keeps me … … alive ? I shall do that. I shall teach my granddaughters … … to do that, too.

      Blue

      • Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        no idea what your point is, Blue. I would suggest that using grammar and coherent points would help, rather than a stream of consciousness.

      • Notagod
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        Your comment is understandable to me but, I’m fairly certain that in extreme circumstances of pain and suffering that has no possibility of alleviation I would prefer death to prolonging the suffering only to die a little later on.

  18. stevenjohnson
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Brad Pitt’s attack on slavery (speaking as “Bass”) is taken nearly verbatim from the memoir. And yes, the fears expressed by the character were reasonable.

    One of the most useful additions to the screenplay was a scene where one character said that Ford, the truly religious man by common lights, had to be aware that Northup was a free man kidnapped. And Ford did not act because he would lose the money invested in Northup. Epps by contrast was very likely suffering from mental health issues.

    I don’t know where this leaves the issue of the value of religion for slaves, at least in terms of psychology. But I can’t see why a slave wouldn’t want their child to be “Christian,” rather than to have them be targets of Bible verses aimed at unbelievers. There’s an awful lot of ammunition, starting with commandments to Joshua to leave none alive. Christianity is exactly like Islam, a huge if indeterminate proportion of conversions were imposed forcibly. After that, believers were bred.

    • Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      I hadn’t read the memoir, so I didn’t know this. I therefore retract my criticism of the scene in my post above.

      • stevenjohnson
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        For what it’s worth, I’m sure Mr. Northup very much wanted to reconstruct “Bass”‘ words in words as eloquent as possible and eschewing any embarrassing vulgarity. I can’t claim the power to read authors’ minds, yet I’m oddly sure that he wanted “Bass” to be as respectable and forceful a white voice for condemnation of slavery as possible. Standards of eloquence and vulgarity have changed and the result today may not have the impact desired. (I put “Bass” in quotes because the character may have been fictionalized to some degree for the safety of Northup’s helper.)

        • gbjames
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think Bass needed that kind of protection. He was long gone from the area by the time the book was published. There’s no reason to assume fictionalization here.

    • merilee
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      I haven’t read the memoir, either, but found Brad’s part in the film a bit smarmy. Maybe it couldn’t be helped. It’s at least good that he added so much publicity to the film project. Ejiofor was superb; I’m sure he would have won the Oscar if not competing with McConaughey’s character in Dallas Buyers. I found the young slave woman, played by Lupita, overacgted, though.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        I felt that Brad Pitt was the one major actor who did not quite disappear into his character. I always felt I was watching Pitt reading his character’s lines. Acting-wise, not up to his superb performances in “Twelve Monkeys” or “Interview with The Vampire”. In contrast, although I immediately recognized Alfre Woodard & B Cumberpatch I quickly adjusted to seeing them as their characters, not as them. (And it took me at least 10 minutes to recognize Michael Fassbender!!)

  19. Greg Esres
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    “that they really were going to a better place after they died.”

    I wonder how sincerely this view is really held, given that those who believe it tend to strive mightily not to die.

    I’ve seen it observed a couple of times that Christians in hospices show much more fear of dying than the non-believers.

    • Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      When I went to college in the American south, I was struck by the degree of outward competence that many of my evangelical friends exhibited. These were hypercompetitive people whose days were loaded with tasks and commitments, and they were obsessed with getting good grades and piling up a list of achievements. I was jealous of them – I did well in the subjects and activities that I liked, but I did not seem to possess the discipline to plow through the less desirable tasks.

      I realize now that, while they were deluded, the religious framework that dictated their reality offered very powerful external motiviations. They knew for certain that their purpose in life was to please a perfect being, who was monitoring their every action. They knew that at the end of life, they would be sent to either a bad place or a good place. Our time here on Earth was essentially a giant audition to be considered worthy enough to achieve permanent happiness in the thereafter. Crazy, yes, but no dithering in existential angst for these people.

      So many of them burn through 30-40 years of their professional lives in this manner, probably doing well in their chosen vocation. But as their lives wind down,the powerful external motivators of the Cosmic Judge with the Grand Prize must become an ever greater source of anxiety. The final examination is nigh – did I do enough to please the Boss? Did I tick all the right boxes on the Heaven Checklist?

      Hell is very real to these people, and many of them worry that they haven’t done enough to get promoted to the C-suite.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        “These were hypercompetitive people whose days were loaded with tasks and commitments”

        I’ve only known one evangelical who thought this way, and I’ve lived in the South all my life, went to a private prep high school and a private college.

        I’d bet, on average, an evangelical student is a indifferent one, since that belief system is correlated with so many other social ills.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        There are a couple of ways you can acheive the same with secular folk — be hyper critical of them; this is how you make a perfectionist. Is it healthy? No!

        Take ballet – it’s sort of the same thing as above but disguised as fun. :)

      • derekw
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Did you ever ask them why they were motivated? What their personal convictions were about their studies or careers? Because your answer seems to be your personal observation of what you thought their motivation to be and very unlike the standard evangelistic response.

  20. chband
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on a program called The Open Mind in 1957 to discuss “The New N-word”. What is new N-word? The N-word that complains/awakes.
    Here’s the link: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/02/clarence_thomas_childhood_in_georgia_images_and_video_of_the_south_show.html

  21. Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Epictetus was a slave. He had a few things to say on the matter.

    • eric
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      So was Philemon. IIRC, the bible’s message on that one is “hey owner, I found your escaped slave and converted him to Chrisitanity. I’m shipping him back to you, but because he’s Christian now, treat him better than your other slaves.”

      Nice biblical morality there.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      That guy was one of the luckier slaves in Rome. It appears that he was a domestic slave that probably did more secretarial work. He most likely was educated to do this work by his owner and his owner even allowed him to study philosophy. I bet you won’t find many Roman city slave (the slaves that cleaned up the city infrastructure) or rural slave (that worked on farms) that were philosophers.

      • Posted March 12, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        So, because other slaves existed who had it worse off than Epictetus, his enslavement was a trifling, and … what exactly is your point? That Epictetus can’t relate to ‘real’ slaves? That his philosophy is irrelevant?

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 12, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          My point is he is an outlier. Most slaves would not have had the luxury to contemplate such things as I’ve argued up thread. Asking slaves to think about god type things – not something they have the energy for.

  22. Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    It is hard to believe Westerners genuinely care about Africans or Africa or slavery. You will hardly hear a word in the West about the ongoing religious genocide and enslavement in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram

    Meanwhile, right now in Mauritania 20% of the population is enslaved by the followers of Islam. The BBC has a piece right now on this topic but fails to equate religious belief to present day slavery. Because offending Islam is thought worse than slavery by lets face it, the political left.Ensuring it will go on.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26513804

    Christopher Hitchens – Hell’s angle: “The rich world has a poor conscience.
    It wants, in fact it needs to think that someone, somewhere,
    is doing something about the Third World.”

    • Dave
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      Well, part of the problem lies in the fact that when “The West” does try to do something about human rights abuses in the developing world, we’re typically accused of being profiteering imperialists seeking to impose our neo-colonialist values on other cultures in order to “Grab their [insert name of valuable natural resource here]“. These accusations are often made by the very same people who a moment ago were castigating us for not doing anything. When the USA and its allies toppled the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein, it was supposedly “All about oil”. When Tony Blair sent British troops to suppress the head-chopping militias in Sierra Leone, the usual suspects declared that it was really “All about diamonds”. We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, and for that reason I think many people in the West have lost all enthusiasm for interfering in Third World hellholes. Faced with that sorry reality, what exactly do you think we should be doing about Boko Haram or Mauritanian slavery??

      • Notagod
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        The rich and powerful in the United States would be asking if they have any oil.

        Those that made the decisions about invading Iraq did it for oil. The christians in the USA that signed up to fight in Iraq did it in large part for mythology.

        • Greg Esres
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

          “Those that made the decisions about invading Iraq did it for oil. ”

          Having read two books about the decision-making leading up the invasion, I note that oil was never discussed. Indeed, we had all the oil we needed from them by purchasing it.

          • Dave
            Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

            Yes, that’s one of the most ludicrous aspects of the “It’s all about oil!” mentality – the idea that having occupied Iraq, all that black gold was then siphoned-off straight to the USA, and used to fill-up Jimbob’s SUV free of charge.

            Iraq, like most other Arab oil states, has virtually no economy apart from the one based on oil. They HAVE to sell it, or they’re all back to making a living camel-herding in the desert. Left in the ground, their oil is as useless to them as the sand they stand on. Saddam Hussein needed to sell Iraq’s oil to fund his war machine and his terror-state. He would have been happy to sell the USA and other western countries as much oil as we wanted. It was the West that imposed sanctions on him and REFUSED to buy it. Now the post-Saddam Iraqi government has to sell oil to fund whatever it is they do. Either way, the idea that the oil is carried off to the west like plunder from a sacked city and we don’t have to pay for it any more is completely infantile.

            All that I’ve just said above about Iraq applies equally to oil-rich Nigeria. But no doubt if the USA sends military aid to help crush Boko Haram, it won’t be long before the usual suspects are bleating “It’s all about oil!!”

            • Notagod
              Posted March 11, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

              Rachael Maddow has done a couple of special reports on Iraq for MSNBC, Why We Did It and Hubris: Selling The Iraq War that aline with my position regarding the invasion of Iraq by the United States. But, I rely mostly on the actions of the “Decider In Chief” to form my position. Which includes Duhb’s christian beliefs about Geebus coming, his position on Iraq prior to being elected, the lies about weapons of mass distruction, and the actions of the Bush regime leading up to and subsequent to the invasion.

              It is naive to insist that oil wasn’t a major factor in the process.

            • gbjames
              Posted March 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

              I would suggest, Dave, that you check out Maddow’s Why We Did It, as Notagod suggests. It was all about oil, although not in the way you characterize it. Your “completely infantile” charge makes sense only against a cardboard representation of the situation.

              • Dave
                Posted March 11, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                And why exactly is Maddow’s opinion the definitive word on the issue?

                And as for the other accusations, they are just standard manifestations of Bush Derangement Syndrome :

                “Duhb’s christian beliefs about Geebus coming, ” So what about them? I didn’t notice him pushing the nuclear button to trigger Armageddon while he was in office. Perhaps I missed it?

                “his position on Iraq prior to being elected,”
                of course, no other politician in history has ever changed his position on any issue after taking office.

                “the lies about weapons of mass distruction, ”
                There were no “lies”. I don’t doubt there was an abundance of wishful thinking, willingness to believe what he wanted to believe, and probably a generous dose of incompetence thrown in, but none of those things qualify as “lies”. If the WMD charges were all deliberate lies concocted as part of Bushhitler’s Machiavellian plan to justify the invasion of Iraq and the theft of all its oil, then why didn’t he arrange for some WMD to be planted and “found” after the invasion? Why tell a lie about WMD when you know it’s guaranteed to be shown up when none are ever found?

                “and the actions of the Bush regime leading up to and subsequent to the invasion.”

                Well, I could say “such as…?” but we’re already way off topic and perhaps we should get back to discussing slavery!

              • gbjames
                Posted March 11, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

                Because she has evidence to back it up.

                Don’t take my word for it, watch it. It isn’t that long.

    • Posted March 12, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the replies: Sorry it took so long to get back.

      Nigeria does have oil, but that isn’t one of the grievances of Islamic Separatist militant group Boko Haram. It is entirely religious. Boko Haram is hiding right now, so it will be only a matter of time before the genocide continues.
      What should the US do? Dave asked.
      Not ignore it in the press. The US is rumored to have drones there, and Obama has a 7 million dollar bounty on Boko Harams leader.
      Jerry Coyne confronts Islam (bravo), but honestly he is a rarity for public intellectuals. Stone walling, denial, deflection and excuses is what critics of Islam are up against.

      Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau has said, Allah has made him invincible. Even as an atheist, I see no physical evidence to doubt him

  23. Sastra
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    In this case I can see no advantage that would have come from trying to convince slaves that their faith was false.

    Or am I wrong?

    No, you’re (probably) not wrong. The Little People Argument works if we’re actually talking about “Little People.” That’s why it’s so insidious.

    Rather than being an argument for the existence of God (and the falsehood of atheism), the Little People Argument is similar to the Dying Grandmother Gambit. It’s an argument for why atheists need to shut up. We ought to keep our views to ourselves because people who believe in God are “little” people who aren’t as strong, wise, or privileged as atheists are.

    They can’t handle the truth. No, they’re too simple, too weak, too needy, too entrenched, and too childlike to be reasoned with as equal adults. When push comes to shove, they don’t really care about whether their beliefs are true. Believers only care whether they’re useful.

    Therefore, if we leave them alone, we’re respecting that. Good atheists respect little people and their need for faith. Never try to take away faith: it’s like kicking away a crutch.

    Okay. If we look at extreme situations where religious believers are in serious emotional and/or physical trouble and turmoil — a deathbed, the pangs of fresh grief, or the brutality of slavery — then this argument often makes sense. It introduces circumstances which would entail stepping back from debating any controversial issue, including arguing FOR the existence of God. We’re in therapist mode. We’re dealing with the walking wounded and we step lightly.

    The Little People Argument usually fails when it’s actually addressed TO the so-called “Little People” (“oh, do you really not care whether God exists or not, dear child?”) It also falls apart when it’s applied to perfectly normal human beings who are undergoing the same life stresses atheists go through.

    And it doesn’t just fall apart but is revealed as deceitful and surreptitious when one considers how powerful, smug, and cocky religious belief actually is, and the unearned privilege it’s granted in our culture. Believers instead look down at atheists as Little People who can’t handle the truth. So who’s kidding whom?

  24. Stan Pak
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    I think the comparing slaves to dying gramma is incorrect here, for with gramma we actually know (she knows too) that the death is imminent and nothing can change it. Slaves, on the other hand, even if they situation was dire and seeming hopeless, it would be probably less dire if they would have that one shackle less on their necks. Uprising is always an option, which history of Spartakus or black uprisings in the South US prove. Information is a key to control the populations, and Bible was a tool helping to marinate brains of the poor to accept their misery. It was that last piece which killed hope in these people.

  25. Travis
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I think the nature of placebo effects are more contentious than your description suggests (perhaps just because it wasn’t the focus of your article). If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend reading the Science-Based Medicine articles about placebo. Steven Novella’s “Placebo Effects Revisited” is particularly enlightening. In short, evidence suggests there is no physiological benefit from placebos and even the psychological benefits (dulling of pain, nausea, etc.) are dubious.

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/placebo-effects-revisited/

    • Posted March 13, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      Travis, thank you for making this comment and sharing this link. I am a regular reader of this blog and a physician myself. I also have contributed to SBM in the past and have spent a lot of my own reading time trying to understand the scientific realities of the placebo effect (more accurately placebo effects).

      I don’t often comment here but felt the same compunction to make a comment to better clarify Dr. Coyne’s point at the end there.

      Put simply, (overly simply), placebo effects are primarily either an artifact or a delusion. In some instances they are legitimate physiological modifiers, but not in any way more exciting than how anxiety increases catecholamine release (and the subsequent downstream physiological changes that entails).

      In case of highly subjective outcomes (e.g. pain) they can have beneficial modulatory effects since there is a secondary higher order processing involved in the perception of pain. But in no way would this actually directly addresses the underlying cause of the pain itself.

      In case of mental health concerns calling something a “placebo” may be an impossibility because interaction with anything causes physiological change in brain neurocytoarchitecture and can thus produce a direct effect. Which is why studies comparing anti-depressant medications to placebo can find that there is no difference when looking at mild-to-moderate depression; our diagnosis and classification of depression is necessarily crude due to our lack of relevant technological sophistication and “placebo” treatments still involve changing in interaction which in certain subsets of depression are likely to produce salubrious changes in the brain itself. In other words, it is comparing two different active treatments. That is why no study demonstrates this equivalence in severe depression.

  26. Dominic
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I seems indeed a snub that he was not given best director Oscar.

    I cannot help thinking of Darwin’s experiences in Brazil (chapter 2 Voyage of the Beagle)-
    “While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner. Yet I will pledge myself, that in humanity and good feeling he was superior to the common run of men. It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit. I may mention one very trifling anecdote, which at the time struck me more forcibly than any story of cruelty. I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.”

  27. The Militant One
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    While faith may, at times, be beneficial to the individual, it also stunts critical thinking skills and teaches a person to believe nonsense as valid evidence. And this is not only detrimental to the society as a whole (Can you say anthropomorphic climate change?) but can be detrimental to the individual, as well.

  28. revelator60
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I think you are correct Jerry.
    I would also add that atheism generally tends to arise most strongly in an educated populace, whether among the philosophes in enlightenment-era France or in the more secular areas of the present-day United States. And as Richard Dawkins has noted, before Darwin came along atheism was a much harder sell.
    Therefore widespread atheism would have been impossible among the antebellum slave populace, who were raised to know as little as possible or only what their masters wanted them to know. Try and imagine how differently you would think with such educational deprivation! And any oppositional forms of culture–such as the religions their ancestors practiced in Africa–would have been stamped out, though stray elements of African culture lingered on, especially in music.

    The Bible was all that the slaves had. From it they were able to cherrypick enough to make their horrifyingly harsh lives bearable. It was the best of a bad lot. It is flattering to think that “If I was a slave I would like to know the truth about religion,” but in reality, if I was forced to do menial labor all day and was driven like a pack horse, I probably require comfort, especially if kept in a state of ignorance. In any case, the truth was hardly accepted even by the freest, wealthiest members of society. Even someone like Thomas Jefferson–well acquainted with atheist thought–was tainted by his status as a slaveholder. In that specific respect, he was not a great advertisement for religious freethinking. Slavery thoroughly blighted American intellectual history, and hypocrites out of great men. It was Dr. Johnson, a definite Christian, who said the following about the American revolution: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

    • revelator60
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Typo–that should be “and made hypocrites out of great men.”

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      It goes without saying that our common knowledge and culture has changed immensely since then and that today’s alternatives weren’t present.

      Furthermore in that situation one has take into consideration not only the well being of oneself, but also family and fellow slaves. If I knew that the penalty for my actions undoubtedly would be bestowed upon my loved ones, then of course this new knowledge wouldn’t spur me into action.

      But I would still want to know.

  29. Sigmund
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I remember listening to a talk a couple of years ago by Steven Pinker, where he used an analogy of religion being like a national lottery; you invest some degree of hope in both the lottery and the religion with virtually no chance of winning.

    Pinker called the national lottery a “stupidity tax” – meaning, I think, that those who understood the odds refrained from buying the ticket, and those who had no idea of the laws of probability (the stupid, I guess) invested in tickets – with the proceeds going into the national or state taxation system.
    I wondered at the time whether it was possible to turn the analogy around. Pinker had meant it as a way of criticising religious belief but was it possible to see this ‘stupidity tax’ as a way of understanding a ‘positive’ effect of religious belief?

    What I mean is that while Pinker failed to see any advantage in buying lottery tickets that have virtually zero chance of resulting in a win, I could see an advantage.
    I have known lots of people who ‘religiously’ (ahem) buy a lottery ticket each week. While they never win (and most likely will never win) they seem to get some degree of psychological positivity from the thought of winning. Every week as the number draw approaches they can indulge in an imaginary spending spree, solving all their debts, buying a big house and car, and taking their family on a dream tropical vacation.
    And then the numbers are drawn … and the wishes put aside until the next time when their weekly ticket avails them of yet again another drop of hope.
    Of course we are simply talking of a something psychological or even physiological here – a rush of endorphins, perhaps, when they imagine winning. But perhaps for some people that rush of endorphins, despite the fact that it’s only based on a thought of winning, is the only time they can feel good each week.
    It is well known that the biggest purchasers of lottery tickets are those with the least money – but lottery ticket prices are usually priced low enough that even the poorest can afford to indulge once a week.
    Is this why people, and in particular people in the worst circumstances like the slaves in this movie, stick with religion?
    They have no way of knowing they have a winning ticket, and in their heart they probably know they haven’t, but that’s not what they are purchasing when they profess their faith. They are, like the poor single mother with her lottery ticket, really just buying that weekly drop of hope.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      I guess one could speculate that they subconsciously buy an analogue weekly endorphin kick, but the obvious difference between the two cases being the sense of hope.

      I think it is one thing to hope for rewards in this life and to hope for salvation in the next.

      If the indoctrination was done in such a manner that there for the victims were no real difference between this world and the next, then of course it inspires hope and joy.

      But I wonder what heaven looks like from the perspective of a slave when the master is right there with you.

    • eric
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      I have known lots of people who ‘religiously’ (ahem) buy a lottery ticket each week. While they never win (and most likely will never win) they seem to get some degree of psychological positivity from the thought of winning.

      You’re right in seeing both cases as an issue of informed consent: if people really understand the odds, and they spend the money anyway, that is different (and more defensible) than if they don’t understand the odds.

      However in both cases, I think the population of people who understand the odds and “purchase anyway” is much much smaller than the population who don’t understand what they’re buying. (In the case of religion, understanding the odds = don’t believe but do it “for the social benefit”). In fact in both cases I think the group that understands the odds/does it for the social benefit is much smaller even than the group of people who claims that. Because, in both cases, there’s going to be a group of true believers who are also somewhat ashamed of their belief in ‘mixed company.’

      So, pretty good analogy…but it provides no reason to take it easy on believers, in either case.

      • Gordon
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Someone has to win and the ticket costs about the same as a beer. Long odds, yes, but less weight gain. That logic works for me even if not the odds. If I hit the big one I will buy you all a virtual drink.

    • Posted March 12, 2014 at 5:28 am | Permalink

      I won 10 large in a lottery and met the 1 mil winner who spent 50 cents on a whim.

      know anyone who made it to heaven?

  30. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    An absolutely first-rate scholarly study of the use of Christianity to rationalize Christianity is “The Arrogance of Faith” by Forrest Wood (sic).

  31. Doug
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    This will seem patronizing to some, but I’ll say it anyway. Religion is a crutch, and some people need a crutch. If believing that their children are living on in Heaven helps the parents in Sandy Hook get through the day, I would not try to kick that crutch out from under them. (If they ASKED me my opinion, then I would be honest, but I wouldn’t feel any need to “correct” them otherwise.)

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 11, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Probably good as long as when someone asks you, you don’t go all Rusty Cohle on them :D like Rusty does when Martin keeps pushing him about his beliefs:

      I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted March 11, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        Apparently McConaughey is thumbs down on another season.

        Maybe he’s a method actor…

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 11, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          Or he can only take playing that character for so long. You’d be so grumpy playing him.

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted March 12, 2014 at 3:31 am | Permalink

            I’d love a role like that. Perfect for letting of some existentialist steam.

  32. BillyJoe
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    ” Placebo effects have been shown to be beneficial…even in things like knee surgery (yes, they’ve done “sham” knee surgery, where patients think they’ve been operated on for knee problems even though they’re just cut open with nothing done subsequently—and, surprisingly, this gives results as good as a genuine operation)”

    Actually, placebo effects are not beneficial in cases of real pathology (though they can help temporarily to improve, in a very limited way, subjective symptoms such as pain and nausea).

    The conclusion of that clinical trial was that real knee surgery was no better than sham surgery. What this meant was that particular type of knee surgery was ineffective. Surgeons have subsequently given up doing that type of surgery.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 12, 2014 at 5:55 am | Permalink

      I’m looking at a hip transplant in the next month or so. If I wake up to find a scar but X-rays show only “placebo” surgery, I’m going to be royally pissed.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 12, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        Yuck, sorry to hear that.

        Good luck, gb!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 12, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, you don’t want those new fangled placebo hips. Stick with the tried & true hips. :)

        Enjoy your new hip – everyone I know that has the surgery is happy they had it done!

  33. Thanny
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    I have to disagree about the possibilities of slave rebellion, and thus the conclusion that removing the palliative of religion would have provided no aid in ending slavery sooner.

    Slavery was ended in Haiti by a successful rebellion, and Turner’s attempt very nearly ended slavery in Virginia (they almost voted to end it just to avoid further rebellions).

    Increase the motivation to revolt by denying false palliatives like religion, and a few more rebellions (whether successful or not – Turner’s group did, after all, kill 55 white people) could have easily turned slavery into more trouble than it was worth to the US south.

  34. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 12, 2014 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    I think living a lie is not usually helpful and always morally problematic. But sure, it is a grey area, likely some circumstances can always be proffered where it is helpful.

    Added to that, the last generation of slaves and their descendants was or should be wrathful of the deceit.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 12, 2014 at 3:55 am | Permalink

      To sum up then:

      No, I don’t think it was a good thing to let the slave owners make deceitful propaganda for their cause. (Even if likely most of them believed in it themselves.)

      Even better would have been to head off religion before it was used to support slavery. I read on Nat Turner (interesting tidbit) that his rebellion enforced a discussion about slavery. The proslavery side won, and some of that support was again likely to come out of religion – and its usefulness to quell protests!

  35. Posted March 12, 2014 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    another in a long line of examples of the real utility of religion – command and control

  36. harrylime
    Posted March 13, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Nephew here. I agree with your assessment — not my choice for best picture of the year (that would be “Her”…followed by “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Before Midnight,” “Blue Jasmine” and “Mud”), but far worthier than most of the competition.

    Performances are its strong suit. Ejiofor acts so eloquently with his eyes, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o summons a ferocity not easily shaken. Her Oscar was richly deserved. Pitt’s walk-on as the white savior is absurd, but other cameos (Paul Giamatti’s, Alfre Woodard’s) are effective and Hans Zimmer’s score deftly incorporates traditional folk music to add to the film’s texture.

    I think it’s fair to say that McQueen — who’s made “Hunger,” “Shame” and this film (all featuring Fassbender) — is resolved to expose the horrific realities of starvation, addiction and slavery, even where doing so runs counter to the tenets of traditional entertainment. You don’t find wide character arcs in his movies, but you do witness the body pushed to the brink of endurance — something Hollywood seldom has the courage to portray. When Spielberg makes “Amistad,” the brutality is confined to the first ten minutes; then we get two and a half hours to “recover” as white lawyers wax poetic in court. Nothing like the scene where Nyong’o’s Patsey is shown enduring a barbarous whipping. Just when we think we’ve reached the threshold of suffering (hers and our own), the camera pivots to reveal her mutilated back. Now it’s no longer academic or historically removed. Now the fraudulence of every bloodless slave narrative has been laid bare.

    It may not be a masterpiece, but one should make every effort to see it.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 13, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that, Harry. I’ll make sure to catch it…

    • Posted March 15, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      I also thought it was a very good and worthwhile movie and deserving of Best Picture. Also shocking enough to wake us up from our willful blindness about the terrible legacy of slavery and of racism in the world today.

      It’s a completely different kettle of fish from Django Unchained. For me, the latter’s outrageous, comedic scenes and fantastic storyline made it less traumatic than 12 Years a Slave, the images of which have haunted me a good deal.

  37. Posted March 16, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Only just seen 12 Years, and haven’t read through the 137 other comments, so I might be echoing someone else. I felt that Brad Pitt talking against slavery wasn’t there to make him look good, it set him up as a trust worthy character. Given Solomon previously being betrayed, he needed a reason to trust someone to get a letter out for him.

    It also got me thinking – since reading Sam Harris’ Lying I have made a commitment not to lie, as I felt he argued successfully that lying is always the worst option. But what of the case where Solomon lies after the aforementioned betrayal? I got the hardback of Lying for Christmas, and haven’t read the extra commentary yet, but that film’s given me pause for thought on the issue.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 16, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Good point. I was mostly convinced by Sam’s Lying (hmm… that may not sound right!) but you make a good point. I wonder what Sam would say about this example.


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