As a palliative to Adam Gopnik’s recent atheist-bashing piece in the print version of the New Yorker, the same magazine, at its online”Culture Desk,” has published a piece by physicist Lawrence Krauss: “Why Hollywood thinks atheism is bad for business.”
The piece takes off from the much-discussed Oscar acceptance speech of Matthew McConaughey, who won the Best Actor award for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Here’s a low-quality clip, which is the best I can do. What caused all the “controversy” was his thanks to God and his claim that “it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.”
Conservative talk-show hosts like Beck and Limbaiugh praised McConaughey for his piety, and claimed that it went against the grain of Hollywood’s pervasive atheism. To be sure, I didn’t see much negative reaction to what McConaughey said (and, truth be told, I didn’t find the speech so bad), and arguments like those of the Christian Post, that it showed Hollywood’s atheism because the applause was “tepid,” aren’t borne out (listen to the approbation in the clip above). Frankly, if McConaughey wants to parade his beliefs in a two-minute Oscar acceptance speech, who cares? He’s not imposing them on anyone else.
Krauss, however, takes the opposite view of Limbaugh and Beck, arguing, based on his experience (he was a producer for the film “The Unbelievers,” featuring him and Dawkins), that Hollywood is in fact biased in favor of religion. That’s because religion sells:
But Matthew McConaughey’s words of gratitude are far from the only sign that God is, in fact, alive and well in Hollywood. This month, major movie studios are doing more evangelizing than Pat Robertson, with the release of two Biblical blockbusters. Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” which arrives in theatres at the end of March, dramatizes the famously incredible story of a man and his ark, while the unambiguously titled “Son of God,” released last week, provides the umpteenth dramatization of the Biblical story of Jesus. For those that like their religion more saccharine, April will bring “Heaven is for Real,” the film adaptation of the best-seller about a young boy who, after nearly dying on the operating table, convinces his family that he actually visited heaven during surgery. The evidence? He describes his experience in terms that bear a remarkable resemblance to the visions of heaven he had likely been exposed to at home.
When a non-religious person—part of a growing minority in the United States and the rest of the developed world—points out that these stories are facile at best and demeaning at worst, they risk being condemned as “strident,” or at least disrespectful of religious sensibilities (as Adam Gopnik mentioned in his piece on atheism in a recent issue of the magazine, and as I have experienced first hand). But since piety is profitable, studio executives have carefully tended to their Christian audiences, especially after the success of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” in 2004.
In fact, I look forward to “Heaven is for Real,” and its inevitable successor “Proof of Heaven,” based on the best-selling (and largely discredited) book of Eben Alexander. What a fine double bill that would make at an atheist meeting, complete with a bucket of popcorn and a gallon of Coke!
At any rate, it’s good to see some explicit atheism in The New Yorker, though Krauss’s piece does sound a bit self-pitying at times, citing the usual statistic that Americans distrust atheists more than anyone else, and stating that nonbelief is universally decried. (That’s about as useful as stating that broccoli is green.) But in the end, Hollywood is a business, and it will make movies designed to sell. There is no “freedom of speech” requirement in the movie industry, though Krauss implies that movies are marginalizing atheists:
No one can fault Hollywood for recognizing that religion, like violence, is often profitable at the box office. But this logic leads to a prevailing bias that reinforces a pervasive cultural tilt against unbelief and further embeds religious myths in the popular consciousness. It marginalizes those who would ridicule these myths in the same manner as we ridicule other aspects of our culture, from politics to sex.
It is not “logic” that religious movies make money: it’s a simple fact. Krauss’s victimhood stance seems a bit unseemly to me, but perhaps not to others. Further, listening to the speech above, I found Krauss’s reaction a bit over the top:
Similarly, McConaughey’s decision to open his acceptance speech with thanks to God—as in many similar statements, usually made by victorious athletes in post-game interviews—was widely regarded as a sign of humility: a mark of virtue, in other words. I would argue that it would be far more humble to suggest that his hard work, the incredible physical transformation he underwent, and the dedicated cast and crew who supported his acting experience all directly led to his winning the award, rather than his being specially “blessed” by a God who chose him for that privilege.
This reminds me of Dan Dennett’s well known and wonderful essay “Thank Goodness,” where, after a cardiac event that nearly killed him, he thanked the doctors, nurses, and researchers that were behind his eventual cure, and gave God no credit. Krauss continues:
And yet, to say this out loud—in a culture many believe to be hostile to religion—is often taken for rudeness. Whatever one might hear on the right about a war on religion, in this country we still care more about catering to religious sensibilities, even in liberal Hollywood, than we do about encouraging the open questioning of the claims of the faithful.
First of all, McConaughey did not open his acceptance speech with thanks to God: he started by thanking the Academy, the other nominees, his director, and another associate. Then, at 1:30 in the video, he talks about God “gracing his life with opportunities”, adduces the Argument from Gratitude (all to audience applause and cheers), and then thanks his father and mother for his upbringing, as well as his wife, his kids, and other people I don’t recognize.
After all that, it seems a bit churlish to reprove McConaughey for not deliberately dissing God and thanking the other cast and crew. For, I think, that’s what Krauss is suggesting McConaughey should have done: what else would have been construed as “rudeness”? After all, it’s not construed “rudeness” when other recipients ignore God and thank their associates, co-workers and family. What only would have been “rude” is to say that he had not been blessed by a God.
One other comment: Krauss suggests that the idea of a war between religion and secularism in America is wrong; but I just don’t get his argument:
It is an article of faith among the religious right in America that we are in the midst of a war on religion (in which “religion” usually means Christianity), even though considerable evidence suggests the opposite. This defensive misperception is what led, earlier this year, to a proposed law in Arizona that would have legalized discrimination against gay couples on the ground of “religious freedom,” when in fact there was no evidence to indicate that the religious beliefs of any business owners had been legally infringed upon in the state.
In the minds of those who believe themselves to be targets of this war, the pernicious influence of Hollywood often looms large. Sunday’s Oscars—hosted by an openly gay celebrity, with two winners from a film about AIDS patients in the nineteen-eighties—might seem to confirm the culture industry’s reputation for liberalism and libertinism.
Well, maybe Hollywood isn’t at war with religion, but the rest of us, including Krauss, are. Heathenism has been let out of the bottle, and it isn’t going back in. In fact, “The Unbelievers” is the very sign of this conflict. If there’s not a “war,” who are we opposing?