Krauss on atheism in Hollywood

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?


  1. gbjames
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    I think Krauss’ point is not that atheists aren’t at war with religion but that the country as a whole isn’t. And he’s right about that. We Gnus are still a rather small minority.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      There’s also a lot of ambiguity in the term “war.” A war of ideas being fought on the common battlefield of reason is very different than a war between opponents who constantly strive to use force and law to repress the other side.

      • gbjames
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        I don’t think anyone is using the “guns and bombs” version of the word “war”.

        • Scientifik
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:08 am | Permalink

          Maybe not “guns and bombs” but “hanging, jailing and ostracizing” version of the word.

          • gbjames
            Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

            Citations, please.

            I don’t recall any atheists advocating for the hanging, jailing, or ostracizing of believers. (If by “ostracizing” you mean anything equivalent to “shunning” as preformed in many religious sects.)

            • Scientifik
              Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

              I’m not suggesting that there’s a war on religion. I agree with Lawrence Krauss that the opposite is true, that is, there’s a war on atheists (who continue to be persecuted, hanged and ostracized).

              • gbjames
                Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

                That’s different. Never mind. I misunderstood your point.

                I feel like Emily Litella.

              • Scientifik
                Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

                LOL! A good one!

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    While decrying McConaughey’s speech as isolating or claiming victim hood is a bit over the top, his remains something atheists should rightly point out as flawed in thanking god for meticulously monitoring his career. I joked that this why things are so crappy in the world – god has been spending all his time on McConaughey’s career.

    Further, people who appreciate language should raise an eyebrow at the whole muddled speech. CBSNews nicely parsed the speech for us.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Oops link fail. Let’s try again. I’m on my phone. the right link

      • jsoon71
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        Was that the right link? I didn’t see any parsing, just basically a repeat of what he said: He needs God, family, and a hero (who is himself in the future). From your comment, I was expecting some sort of analysis.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

          Weird, I think this was replaced. There was a hilarious article there initially that parsed every confusing sentence.

    • Scientifik
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      McConaughey’s speech is a failure to reason and care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings. McConaughey’s reasoning is: “God helped me won a best actor award, hurray! oh the loving good lord, he reciprocated my love, it’s a scientific fact!!”

      Yet millions of children die each year, despite the most honest prayers of their parents…

    • Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      also doG manages Denzel Washington (I tithe therefore The Book of Eli…) and many pro athaleetz

      no time for the wee things like childhood parasites

  3. eric
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    I’m inclined to agree with you (that Krauss is whining a bit). I have no problem with Hollywood making religious movies nor actors thanking God in their speeches…and frankly, neither should he, because the alternative of some form of censorship would be much, much worse.

    You might as well complain that there are too many vampire spinoff novels being written. By all means critique these pieces on their quality (or lack thereof). But whining about the author’s choice to write them or the production company’s choice to make them seems a bit silly.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      ” the alternative of some form of censorship would be much, much worse. ”

      Those are hardly the only two possible positions on the subject.

      • eric
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        Okay, what’s your alternative position? You’ve got:

        1. Support their free speech rights to thank God/make religious movies.
        2. Don’t.

        Now I have no intention of seeing any of the religious movies mentioned above, but I will certainly support their right to make them if they choose. Like Anne Rice spinoffs, they’re just an art form I will choose not to patronize – but I think the US freedom to allow them to be made is far better than an alternative which limits that freedom.

        • gbjames
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

          Well one alternative is to publicly discuss the matter, to make sure that people understand what’s going on and to encourage producers to not run away scared from releasing films like The Unbelievers for public distribution.

          • eric
            Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

            What does the idea of supporting an atheist movie you want to be released have to do with “I have no problem with Hollywood making religious movies nor actors thanking God in their speeches?”

            • gbjames
              Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

              It has to do with the false assertion that there is no alternatives but censorship.

              Are we participating in the same thread?

              • eric
                Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

                Its not an alternative because you can do both; support free speech and rally support for the art you like.

              • gbjames
                Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

                It is an alternative in the sense that you don’t NEED to do both. (even if it might be good to do both)

        • Notagod
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

          All he would have to do is state that people can watch his “special thanks givings” on the “Late, Late, Late, Late Show” which airs late in the early, early morning.

          I don’t mind if he has his say it’s just that it isn’t something that is appropriate for prime time – think of the children for some of their damned christian gods’ sakes?

    • darrelle
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      I just don’t get this. You seem to be saying that you think that it is wrong for people to complain about movies. How about songs, paintings, books, sculptures, advertising legislation?

      By your reasoning you shouldn’t criticize other people for criticizing anything because the only alternative is some kind of censorship.

      I think you are seriously misrepresenting Krauss specifically, and the “dangers” of criticism in general.

      Your example of vampire novels is not sufficiently similar enough to be useful and does not make any point favorable to your argument.

  4. Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:50 am | Permalink


    • francis
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink


  5. Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Question: Is there or has there been a TV series (sitcom or drama) that has an atheist as the protagonist, e.g., wondering how and whether to come out to her devoutly religious family? If not, seems like the time is ripe for such a story since atheists are where gays were about 25 years ago maybe. Once atheism (more broadly naturalism) is legitimized as a topic in prime time, and non-believers portrayed as being just like everyone else, that will pave the way for wider acceptance. What TV did for gays could conceivably be done for secularists.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      I think “House” qualifies.

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        If you watch carefully there is an undercurrent of god using House in His Mysterious Way.
        For instance there was the episode where a young boy is dying of something that Science Can’t Cure and his father thinks it’s his punishment for being a self obsessed businessman and decides to give away all his money as a way of asking forgiveness.
        Then House cures the boy and the man thanks himself for his sacrifice that convinced god to spare his son.
        Don’t forget the episode of Bones where she has an ongoing NDE experience where she meets her dead mother. Bones dismisses it as anoxia or something but the episode still ends with her mother giving her information that she could not have known otherwise.
        So there are atheists on mainstream TV, it’s just that they’re presented more as zoo animals than anything else.

        • Barry Lyons
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

          Yes, zoo animals. But as I posted here elsewhere, Matthew’s Perry character on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was quite outspoken about his atheism.

          Hey, I just found the atheism montage on YouTube I’d mentioned earlier! It’s too bad that it ends with a false moment. I don’t know why Sorkin “caved” here. After all, if Matt is a committed atheist, he wouldn’t have said what he says in the final moment. Still, hats off to Sorkin for this (and the great writing):

        • gbjames
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          Point taken.

        • Notagod
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          I watched Bones fairly regularly early on but they started showing Bones as being swayed by trivial christian arguments around the time Dr. Brennan was becoming romantically involved with Booth. At that time I wrote a comment to the fan page stating that an atheist wouldn’t be persuaded by such trivial arguments and that I thought they would lose viewers if they continued with that kind of portrayal. A couple of replies followed along the line of; Emily Deschanel is a christian and she doesn’t need to act like an atheist so I should just STFU.

          Incidentally, I just looked at Emily Deschanel’s wiki page to check her religious status:

          Deschanel was raised Roman Catholic, but is no longer a Catholic, and has stated that she is now “more of a spiritual person, if anything” and an agnostic.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Community has an atheist character. They talk about her atheism bit I don’t think she struggled with coming out to her family.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      “The Mentalist” hero is an atheist and repeatedly expresses contempt for religious belief.

    • davidintoronto
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Dr. Temperance Brennan on “Bones”; Brian (the dog) Griffin on “Family Guy.”

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        Oh and Brian the dog had an episode where he came out as an atheist & the town turned on him and he became a pariah. I thought that was a great episode!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:37 am | Permalink

      To add to the atheist heroes/anti-heroes, there is also the “Bones” accommodationist series with an atheist and a catholic in the lead roles.

      Still, the atheist is allowed to be a hero. (Effectively dysfunctional at times, but so is the catholic.)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        Oops, if I had updated while composing I would have seen that I was late with my contribution.

        My apologies.

      • davidintoronto
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        “Still, the atheist is allowed to be a hero.”

        At least it’s a step up from what I call “Touched by an Angel atheists” (from the Roma Downey TV series). These are characters who are just angry at god because of some personal disappointment or tragedy. But eventually, kindly counsel snaps them out of their misguided “atheism.”

      • HBB
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        How about Dr. Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory? He’s got an interesting tension with his evangelical (and Texan) mom whenever she appears on the show.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      The gay character Kurt came out as an atheist in the popular tv show “Glee” — and without too many negative consequences. Since this same character is sometimes credited for the spiraling acceptance of homosexuality among teenagers, we can look at this as a positive.

      In many cases though an atheist character is a mixed blessing. Obviously, if the nonbelief is basically just introduced as a set up for a later “happy ending” where the atheist finds God after all, this doesn’t count. But more subtly atheism is often used as a marker for someone who has either been damaged or hurt (the “angry at God” meme) or someone who is cold, uncaring, and lacks emotional depth (House.) In Kurt’s case, there was an underlying theme that he had lost faith in God when religions condemned his homosexuality. Had the churches been more accepting (more “Christian”), the implication is that they wouldn’t have forced him away.

      • gbjames
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        Those are good points.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

        Oh, yeah — I just thought of another television atheist main character. “Dexter.”

        Not quite the role model we’re looking for.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        There’s a joke a heard that is relevant to your comment.

        A gay guy says to his parents that he is an atheist. His parents start freaking out. He then says, “nah, I’m just kidding, I’m gay”. His parents are relieved that he’s just gay and not an atheist!

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      River Tam and Malcolm Reynolds from “Firefly”.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        Yeah, the episode where River tried to fix the bible with all its contradictions was cool but Mal’s atheistic attitudes toward the preacher seemed like just another symptom of his damage.

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          Mal definitely lost faith specifically due to the outcome of the war. But that’s a thing that happens.

          And refreshingly, though he healed in other ways, he never had a “come to Jesus” moment even with a preacher on board, standing by.

          To what extent we owe this latter fact to Firefly’s abbreviated run, we may never know.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

            I do enjoy Mal’s, “You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t” and Joss Whedon is an atheist so it would seem you would see some atheists showing up here & there in his work. I wonder if he didn’t get the boot with Wonder Woman, what that would’ve looked like. There is a funny ending of Robot Chicken where the characters all die and the survivor is crying, “there is no god!”. It ends with Seth telling Joss, “this is why you got kicked off of Wonder Woman”.

        • Filippo
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          Well, if Mal is damaged, what shall one say about Jayne (Jane?)?

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

            Jayne (the hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne :D) doesn’t have much of an inner life I don’t think. Everyone on Mal’s boat is damaged by River & Mal seem to be the only outward atheists.

    • Sameer
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory is an atheist.

      • Notagod
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        My favorite and my only consistently watched show, with news being an exception.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, he came home to Pasadena from Texas after his born-again mother told him that evolution was “his opinion”. He was going to stay there and teach evolution to creationists.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      McConaughey himself plays an atheist cop on HBO’s “True Detective”. But he’s one of those nihilistic, misanthropic atheists that nobody likes.

    • Toni
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Bones. Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) is a atheist.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      The new PBS version of Sherlock Holmes portrays Sherlock as an atheist, albeit a self-admitted highly functioning sociopath, but a very likable protagonist.

      • Filippo
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        And whither the Sherlock in “Elementary”?

      • Sastra
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        Brilliant, but socially maladjusted, misanthropic, and brutal or indifferent towards other people’s feelings. Like House, Sheldon, Dexter, and others. Apparently the scriptwriters think “atheism” helps establish this sort of character.

        Because telling people there’s no God is mean, and not believing in God is shallow.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      I think Han Solo must’ve been an atheist. He has the line, “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

      • Doug
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

        Mike (Rob Reiner) on “All in the Family” was an atheist. Was he TV’s first one? Also Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) on “Moonlighting.”

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 7, 2014 at 5:42 am | Permalink

          The Mike character on All in the Family was a good one. Sadly, as a kid I identified more with Gloria. I wish she had been the atheist, but it was the 70s & we were lucky there was a show like All in the Family at all. At least when they brought Stephanie on, I related to her. I believe we are the same age.

  6. john matthews
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    It seems odd that someone who is playing one of the greatest Atheist roles in TV history (True Detective) is such a strong believer.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      How come?

      Is it equally odd when heterosexual actors portray homosexual characters?

      • Greg Esres
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        Heterosexuality isn’t an ideology. In general.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

          Neither is acting.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

            An ideology is often more important to a person than a profession.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

              Apparently not for McConaughey.

              I’m a bit puzzled. Would you guys prefer that he had turned down the role on ideological grounds?

            • eric
              Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

              Greg, Hollywood has numerous examples of actors playing “cross-religious” roles. To name just one of the more famous examples, the song White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin and the movie starred Danny Kaye (alongside Bing Crosby, who was not Jewish).

              Do you think only communists play the role of Marious Pontmercy or the other students in Les Miserables?

              To end on a somewhat ironic note, I’d also point out that even the religious nut Mel Gibson also techincally played someone of a different religion in “Passion of the Christ.”

      • john matthews
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        Not really sure this a fair comparison. It would be like a homosexual playing homophobic heterosexual who is the hero of the story.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

          So it is a christian portraying a christianiphobic atheist that rubs you the wrong way?

          I’m not quite sure I follow.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          Which would make it cooler. It’s NPH playing Barney – a gay man playing a misogynistic heterosexual ladies man.

    • Tulse
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      I do think his speech is ironic given that True Detective has done so much to bring public attention to atheism (albeit a strain that is profoundly pessimistic and bleak).

      • Greg Esres
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        “albeit a strain that is profoundly pessimistic and bleak”

        Perhaps the believer thinks he’s doing God’s will by portraying atheism in a negative light.

        • Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          Video compilation of Rust Cohle’s sunny world view. with ad (sorry).

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

            Sounds like he could use a cat, some coffee and some decent weed.

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

          According to some, the atheism of the existential crisis is “the good” atheism in distinction to that mean old “New Atheism”.

      • Merilee
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        I was disappointed in his specch, because I also think he is so good in True Detective( and Dallas Buyers’ Club) and I wanted him to be someone I could admire as a man, but there is nothing very shocking about it. The many actors who have played Hitler ( or any other whackos, for that matter) would not subscribe to Nazi views…

    • gbjames
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      That’s why it is called “acting”.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      I just started watching True Detective so I haven’t figured out all the characters yet & I’ve entered in medias res so to speak.

    • Siaj
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      And what a performance!

      Some of my favorite quotes:

      “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?”

      “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. A secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody. When in fact, everybody’s nobody. I think 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.”

      —Rust Cohle

      • Tulse
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        And this is where I part company with Cohle, because his view is not just atheistic but deeply pessimistically misanthropic. He’s just like the religious in expecting humans to get their meaning and significance from some objective properties of the universe — the only difference is that he realizes the universe doesn’t provide them.

        If Cohle took his philosophy to its full implications, he’d see that the very lack of meaning in the universe itself is meaningless. If everybody is nobody, then being a nobody doesn’t actually matter. It is only a deeply egotistical and self-centred perspective to think that if the universe doesn’t directly provide you with purpose, you have somehow been cheated.

        Frankly, I’m very grateful that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, and no Sky Daddy that has determined the worth and measure of our lives, as that seems to me to be no different than slavery. I want to be the one to determine what my life means, and not have that dictated by someone or something else. Otherwise, how can I even say it is my own life?

        • Sastra
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

          Yes. I wasn’t familiar with the character but I just watched Stephen Q Muth’s clips and read the quotes and frankly Cohle sounds like a religious wet dream: THIS is how a REAL atheist would think and act.

          They’d love more negative atheist role models.

          • Siaj
            Posted March 6, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

            Ironically, in the show, Rust is the good guy, the guy with integrity and morals. Hart, the family man, the believier, is a mess and has no decency or morality.

            I guess the take home message is that belief in god doesn´t necessarily make you a better person.

            I guess you would have to watch the show to get the whole picture.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        From what I’ve seen, the series is really well written and well acted. It seems TV is getting better and better and appears to be the choice medium for even famous movie stars. It used to be that people started in TV but aspired to movies & movie stars rarely did TV shows.

        • Siaj
          Posted March 6, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

          Very well written and visually appealing. Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) is a genius.

  7. Peter Ozzie Jones
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink


    That’s about as useful as stating that broccoli is green.

    There is a purple variety . . . just like all swans are black down here!

  8. sean
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    “Heaven is for Real” is particularly disgusting.

    I have a son who is 3years 6 months and he says all kinds of odd stuff. He often fetches a picture of his great grandmother, brings it over to me and tells me in great detail about meeting her, and “seeing her in the store” etc… I am sure if my son was raised in a church he would talk about angels a lot more.

    There is no way you can trust anyone’s memory after they have been pumped fill of drugs and starved of oxygen etc, but to then take your 4 year old on Book tours making millions of dollars from your child’s mishap is particularly disgusting.

    I guess we should not expect anything more from the intellectual bankruptcy that must permeate to be a evangelical minister.

    But the fact that society is playing along and funding the movie is really depressing.

  9. Scientifik
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    “It is not “logic” that religious movies make money: it’s a simple fact.”

    The logic is following “let’s make a religious-themed movie, because there’s a huge market for it”

    And that’s what Krauss justly criticizes:

    “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.” – Lawrence Krauss

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      Very few Hollywood movies are explicitly religously themed. Being to specific alienates as many as it wins over.

      “The Passion of the Christ” was a sincere, pro-religion work that pissed off a lot of people.

      The real problem is the small touches that infect a large number of films, little bits that show “God Loves Us”, “There is an afterlife”, “prayers are answered”, and “religious people are virtuous and kind”. Often these are not essential to the film, but added in as pablum.

      • Latverian Diplomat
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

        Dang, the example I intended was “The Last Temptation of Christ”. “Passion” did piss off a lot of people, but it was a commercial success and the criticism of it did not take the form of public picketing. Sorry.

  10. Larry Esser
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    The idea that the Arizona law that would have allowed discrimination against gay people came about because of wanting “religious freedom” is laughable. It wasn’t freedom of religion they wanted, it was freedom of bigotry. They’ve had it for centuries, now they are losing it and it’s driving them crazy.

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      The purity component of conservative morality inevitably leads to bigotry. One must avoid contact with the “impure”. There’s no bright line separating the two.

    • Posted March 6, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      But that is the way theists interpret the situation, and that is the argument they make: “If I’m not free to harm others by exercising my bigotry, then my religious freedom is being impinged.”

      Yes it’s bs, but that is what they do.

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

    The film industry is still making a few atheist-themed movies (many have played at San Francisco’s five annual Atheist Film Festivals and many are from this list

    However, IMO they seem to have peaked in public popularity (or at least exposure) in the 1990s with films like “Contact”. From what I’ve seen of it “Son of God” is not very good. (“Ben-hur” remains IMO the best Jesus film, directed by a Jew and co-written by a gay atheist, Gore Vidal, albeit the latter without screen credit.)

    I found Matthew M’s speech a bit narcissistic, while I found it more palatable when Beyonce Knowles thanked God in the documentary of her concert tour.

  12. Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Even when not overtly religious, Hollywood films often convey the concepts of fate, destiny, and a higher purpose or plan to the universe or our personal lives. THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU was the most egregious recent example, but so is any romance where ‘star-crossed’ lovers who were ‘meant to be’ inevitably come together. Dogged belief in a cause or personal goal is usually portrayed as sufficient for success.

    I’m always amazed at how many of my non-believer friends & family still adore IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      Most non-believers are able to recognize that it is fiction!

      That’s how I manage to have enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings so many times.

      • JBlilie
        Posted March 7, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink


  13. DV
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Sure Beck and Limbaugh praised McConaughey for thanking God. I’d like to know what they think about God endorsing McConaughey’s work on a film that makes heroes of homosexuals with HIV.

    • Filippo
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      I don’t imagine Limbaugh has held forth lately on the sanctity of marriage and respect for women.

  14. Barry Lyons
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I have no way to prove this, but I’ve always thought that Aaron Sorkin’s previous series, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (I loved this one-season show), was a turn-off for certain viewers because of the explicit atheism espoused by Matthew Perry’s character, Matt Albi, who, inexplicably (to me) was in love with Hannah Hayes (Sarah Paulson), a fundamentalist Christian. Really: when Albi goes after Hayes for singing “for a bigot” (reference to Pat Robertson), the Nielsen ratings dial in all those homes had to have taken a dive. Later in the series, there’s a wonderful montage of Albi and Hayes going at it, with Albi getting the better of their ongoing debate (obviously, seeing that Sorkin is no friend of religion).

    But how many fictional atheists have we seen from Hollywood in recent years? I know Dr. House was an atheist, and, interestingly, Matthew McConaughey’s character in this new series, “True Detective”, is an atheist.

  15. Pamela Turner
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    If the applause for Matthew McC’s speech was tepid, I think that had more to do with his “I’m my own hero ten years in the future” rant, which seemed shockingly egotistical, rather than for the thanking god part.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Or they just couldn’t follow his whole speech which essentially says he’s chasing himself. 😉

  16. darrelle
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I’m a little confused by this post. If you think there is a war between atheists and believers, and that you are a participant in that war on the atheist side, what could be wrong with another atheist complaining about an actor thanking god? Or saying something like “it would be nice if instead an actor said something like ‘no gods helped me so no thanks to them?'” Why should whether or not it is polite be of any particular concern?

  17. Kevin
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    A Kubrick-esque torture film would be one based on me having to watch “Heaven is for Real” and “Proof of Heaven” in sequence.

  18. Andrikzen
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I heard McConaughey’s comment to be no more than the gratuitous celebrity shout-out to God, which is becoming more of an expectation these days; saying, hey, I’m OK, I’m in the club.

    What is equally disconcerting to me is the number of TV’s shows dealing with supernatural, paranormal, living dead, walking dead, mostly dead, and returning from dead themes and I’m not talking Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie either.

  19. JimV
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    My armchair-psychology guess as to motivation was that he and/or his agent were concerned that his passionate arguments for atheism in his role in “True Detective” would offend people and hurt his box-office chances, so he took the opportunity to have a “Sister Souljah” moment.

  20. Posted March 6, 2014 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    As I pointed out on Krauss’s FB page when he posted this article, he got this bit

    A recent study done by a group of psychologists in the U.S. and Canada found that atheists, as a group, were the least trusted of all listed categories aside from rapists.

    wrong. Respondents were actually more likely to suspect the miscreant of having the attribute ‘atheist’ than ‘rapist’.

    The graph in question and a lengthy discussion can be found here

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      I recently read Confessions of a Sociopath where the author describes her life as, what we’d probably call, a high functioning sociopath. She is a mormon & she said this religion not only provides her with rules for how to behave well but also has the benefit that people trust her because she goes to church & teaches Sunday school.

      This speaks to the bias that holy people are good people and it also shows that if you do not have empathy or very low empathy, religion helps you; people without sociopathy do well without religion telling them what is right & what is wrong.

  21. Posted March 6, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Was McConaughey’s speech really worth comment? No, I don’t think so.

    But I think Krauss’s points are generally valid and accurate.

    What I take from his claim that secularism and religion aren’t at war is that secularism is neutral. Secularism is not a side. Religious people should also be advocating for secularism. The best way to insure the most freedom for the greatest number of people is to embrace secularism.

    I think it’s also important to acknowledge that while I would like faith to go away, and I can advocate for that, I also admit that people must be free to practice religion if they wish, so long as they don’t try to inject it into policy or otherwise impose it on the public (I know you can argue that keeping it really, truly private is nigh on impossible). In this sense in not at “war” with religion.

  22. Barry Lyons
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Per my earlier comment with the “Studio 60” clip, here’s a “religious bashing” clip from “The West Wing” that a friend just sent me. Clearly, Aaron Sorkin has been expressing his irreligious sentiments for years now (though I don’t recall anything at the moment from “The Newsroom”):

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted March 7, 2014 at 3:41 am | Permalink

      Wow! That is a cracking speech, the sort of reply we’d all love to be able to turn out spontaneously when up against religious bigotry and fundamentalism.

  23. Gordon
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    ” Heaven is for Real” taught me that atheists are a very forgiving lot. It was left in our spare bedroom and the only people I recalled using the room were some very strong atheist friends. They were very good about forgiving me for the blasphemy when I accused them of leaving it there. [I had forgotten that while we were away a relative of a relative had used the room and she was most grateful to get the book back – I suppose I should have exorcised the room but I’m not sure how atheists are supposed to do that].

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Secular exorcisms. There must be a market for that.

  24. Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Late to the party, haven’t gotten caught up.

    But, as much fun as his critique of Hollywood is, it’s Lawrence’s other recent work that’s got me a bit more excited:

    Researchers propose a new way to detect the elusive graviton



    • Kevin
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      Preprint is available (free):

      Interesting idea. Wilczek (co-author) is one of my favorite physicists alive. Down to earth, brighter than god.

      Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) is measured well by WMAP and will be measured better in the future so maybe they can directly get information about the quantization of gravity from long wavelength polarization from CMB.

  25. Sheila B and Zin
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I like Matthew McConaughey as an actor and was disconcerted by his Oscar acceptance speech. But then I read on his Wiki page that “In 2006, he rescued a cat from two youths in Sherman Oaks, California; the youths had doused the cat in hairspray and were attempting to set it on fire….”

    If this is true, then I think I still like him, Oscar speech notwithstanding.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

      I wonder how that looked when it went down. I wonder if he was all bad ass and if they youths recognized him.

      • Sheila B and Zin
        Posted March 6, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        I wonder too! There is also mention of him rescuing stranded pets after hurricane Katrina, but the citation provided was not accessible.

  26. Owen Recognizance
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I second commenter Andrikzen’s disquiet in response to all the supernatural ‘ghost-hunter’ shows, & the various zombie franchises.
    Thanking god in an acceptance speech is just a form of conventional piety, IMO. Also wanted to mention the contrast between The Golden Compass & the various cinematic versions of those C.S.Lewis stories with Jesus played by a lion. TGC fizzled after the first installment, whereas they made three or four of those Xtian allegories.

    • Posted March 6, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Arguably because the producers suddenly realised where the rest of the HDM trilogy was going…


  27. Liam
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Krauss seems to be using matt to gain more publicity

  28. Posted March 6, 2014 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Battlestar Galactica (new) has several atheist or non-religious characters …




    … including Cmdr. Adama, though at least one main character, President Roslin, finds religion (or at least pretends to). Gaius Baltar at first makes atheist declarations, but turns to faith as it serves his narcissism. An ongoing leitmotif of the show is the clash between secularism, the dominant religion (the hellenic pantheon), and the fringe monotheism. The enemy cylons are heavily motivated by their belief in their own, one true god. No clear side is taken by the show; many terrible deeds are done in the name of religions, while immortal beings of some sort seem present. Conflicts between the fundamentalist Geminons and the secular Capricans are played out. The hellenic concept of cyclical time/predestination — ‘all this has happened before, and will happen again’ — is presented as a given.

    BSG’s prequel, Caprica, also explores the atheist-polytheist-monotheist antagonism, and eventually divulges the origin of the cylon god.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted March 7, 2014 at 3:45 am | Permalink

      Another spoiler alert – don’t read the next post #28 if you (like me) have not yet seen “Gravity”. Thanks a bunch, MikeN

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted March 7, 2014 at 3:45 am | Permalink

        That should be #29

  29. MikeN
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Fr. Barron at Strange Notions says “Gravity” is a religious movie because

    1)Just as he is about to die, George Clooney says the Ganges River looks beautiful in the sunlight.

    2)There’s a St. Christopher medallion on the instrument panel.

    3)There’s a Buddha statue on the Chinese spaceship.

    4) And of course, Sandra Bullock prays and George Clooney’s ghost shows up.

    • Kevin Alexander
      Posted March 7, 2014 at 4:21 am | Permalink

      I just saw Gravity and I agree it’s about god and not just any god but the real true American God.
      1) It wasn’t meteors that forked up the shuttle, it was sciencey space junk.
      2) Sandra Bullock plays the inept panicky woman while Clooney is the steady wise Man who saves her while mansplaining to her her job.
      3)She pushes all the right buttons in the Russian spacecraft though she doesn’t know cyrillic then does the same in the Chinese craft.
      I expect that newspaper accounts of the whole episode would be ‘Good looking American woman miraculously saved from mistakes made by hubristic scientists who deny the existence of heaven while still trying to get there.’

  30. Posted March 7, 2014 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    As CJ Werleman says, if nwe are at war with Religion, is because it’s payback time!
    for centuries of Stonings, witch burnings etc.

  31. Friendlypig
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    I suffered a cardiac arrest whilst undergoing a medical procedure in 1994, and from personal experience I can tell you that there ain’t nuthin there. Should I produce a book of empty pages described my religious experience?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 7, 2014 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      Yes. The empty pages would be funny!

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted March 7, 2014 at 6:27 am | Permalink

        One of the things I like best about retiring is that I can lie in bed in the morning and drift in and out. With some practice I found that I could get some good out of body experience.
        One morning god lifted my soul up and out the window and took me for a trip around the Universe! Who knew it looks just like the Hubble pictures! He took me to the beginning and end of time and to the limits of existence. Then he said ‘Now you believe!’
        ‘Say that in Swahili’
        ‘Can’t do it can you.’
        ‘I’ve shown you the beginning and…’
        ‘Yeah, yeah. You haven’t shown me anything that I can’t imagine. Tell me something I don’t know like where did I leave my car keys’
        Then he played a neat trick. My long dead mother appeared. We hugged, it was very emotional. She whispered in my ear ‘You know this is all bullshit don’t you?’
        ‘Mom! You don’t use language like that.’
        ‘That’s cause I’m not your mom dipshit, I’m your imagination’
        Then I woke up.

  32. Posted March 7, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    The Movie Noa received “appendix” because pissed of religious people/associations.

  33. JBlilie
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t mind McConaughey’s speech. He’s just being himself — he’s always been a “good Catholic boy” and very public about his religiousity.

    I really think it’s a waste of time to complain about people’s honest expressions like this. It tends to support the view that atheists are bitter and unhappy and are “attacking” Xianity in the US. Sure it’s dopey and sappy; but so what.

    I would like to say that, having viewed Dallas Buyer’s Club this past weekend, he richly deserved his award, and that he has developed into a very good actor (see: The Lincoln Lawyer and Mud.) Much like DiCaprio — changed from a pretty boy into a real actor. Dallas Buyer’s Club is a superb movie, hgihly recommnded. One of those where you sit there at the end, staring at the credit roll.

    Where his religiousity really galls me is in Contact, though, again, he is very effective in that role.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 7, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      A friend wrote on Facebook that Matthew McConaughey was playing Matthew McConaughey in Contact.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 7, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      “Sure it’s dopey and sappy”

      “Where his religiousity really galls me is in Contact”

      Why are you so bitter and unhappy and “attacking” Xianity?

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