Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Saudi Arabia declares all atheists are terrorists in new law to crack down on political dissidents

Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

In a string of royal decrees and an overarching new piece of legislation to deal with terrorism generally, the Saudi King Abdullah has clamped down on all forms of political dissent and protests that could "harm public order".

The new laws have largely been brought in to combat the growing number of Saudis travelling to take part in the civil war in Syria, who have previously returned with newfound training and ideas about overthrowing the monarchy.

To that end, King Abdullah issued Royal Decree 44, which criminalises "participating in hostilities outside the kingdom" with prison sentences of between three and 20 years, Human Rights Watch said.

Yet last month further regulations were issued by the Saudi interior ministry, identifying a broad list of groups which the government considers to be terrorist organisations - including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as "calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based".

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism.

"These regulations dash any hope that King Abdullah intends to open a space for peaceful dissent or independent groups," Mr Stork said.

Human Rights Watch said the new regulations were also a setback to campaigns for the protection and release of a number of prominent human rights activists currently jailed in Saudi Arabia. It said Waleed Abu al-Khair and Mikhlif al-Shammari recently lost appeals and will soon begin three-month and five-year respective sentences for criticizing Saudi authorities.

The organisation said the new "terrorism" provisions contain language that prosecutors and judges are already using to prosecute and convict independent activists and peaceful dissidents.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Awful list of ’7 things that prove God is real’

Writing for CharismaJ. Lee Grady has a list of 7 things that prove God is real.
Seven?! And they PROVE God is real?! Man, this list should be really good. (Hell, I only need one reason!) But let’s see how he plans to convince atheists he’s right…
1) Babies
How can anyone deny the reality of God when they see a baby?
I’ll just let The Onion rebut this one
2) Thunderstorms
I love to sit on my back porch in Florida and listen to the rumbling of thunder. It reminds me of God’s majesty and power.
Yeah… thunder. Which, scientifically speaking, is the sound made whenever God goes bowling. Thunderstorms have nothing to do with God. I know this because I did what Grady didn’t: I looked it up.
3) Flowers
There are more than 400,000 species of flowers in the world, and most of them are not edible. Their job is to simply make the world beautiful. Did they just haphazardly evolve over time, or did a loving God create each individual shape and color scheme for our enjoyment?
Entire books have been written about how and why flowers evolved as they did. Needless to say, making the world beautiful is a pleasant byproduct but not the main purpose of how flowers came to be. This is just another example of willful ignorance on Grady’s part. He could learn about this stuff, but he chooses not to because making up stories is much more entertaining — and doesn’t conflict with his faith.
4) The Bible
There is nothing like the Bible because it carries the same consistent message throughout all of its 66 different books.
Right… except for a couple of contradictions here and there
If a Muslim had written a similar list and used “The Koran” as justification, Grady would immediately dismiss it. And that’s why we should dismiss Grady’s special book here, too. The Bible doesn’t prove God exists any more than the Harry Potter series proves that Voldemort exists.
5) The global spread of Christianity
Our faith is spreading because it is the truth — and history shows that when this truth is mocked and scorned, it actually spreads faster!
I’m sure Constantine and the Crusades and wealth and power had nothing to do with the spread of Christianity at all… Grady is falling prey to the simple and false idea that if a lot of people believe something, it must be true. Which is really the worst reason to believe in anything. By that logic, Jay Leno was the funniest late night talk show host ever.
6) Jesus
The most amazing thing about God is not that He exists, but that He loved us so much He was willing to send His Son to earth to save us from ourselves.
Yep, the proof of God is that he gave birth to a child* and then tortured him to teach us a lesson.
*Citation needed.
7) My personal friendship with God.
… the best evidence is how He forgave me, changed me and put unexplainable joy in my heart. And I can prove that.
Look, I’m glad Grady has a friend. If he didn’t, it’s possible he’d be even more insufferable. But the idea that he feels something will never convince anyone else that God is a real, tangible being. Once again, if a non-Christian ever gave this reason as to why Grady should believe in their higher power instead, he wouldn’t consider it for a second. And yet he thinks it’s solid proof of his God’s existence.
If this is the best “proof” Christians can offer — and it really is since the evidence just isn’t there — all it shows is that they got nothing. It’s not just unconvincing; it’s an embarrassment, a snapshot of how much apologists have to stretch the truth to fit into their pre-conceived narrative.

Religious countries most corrupt

From Epiphenom:

Using standard assessments of national corruption, Hamid Yeganeh & Daniel Sauers of Winona State University, USA, have found that countries with the most religious people also have the highest levels of corruption.

Now, in itself this is not a new observation (I pointed out as much back in 2008), given that some of the most religious countries are also the most corrupt. But what is new is that the relationship holds even after controlling for the effects of socioeconomic development. And they showed that religious denomination doesn’t matter – all religions are the same.

Religion, of course, is supposed to promote good behaviour. So what gives? Well, the authors give several potential explanations.

It might be that religion provides a solace to those on the receiving end. But they point out that religious societies are hierarchical, where the elites end up with a lot of power that goes unchallenged. That’s linked to the tight alignment of religious organizations to political and governmental ones in less developed countries.

It also might be the case that religion increases by discriminating between the faithful and unfaithful, thereby encouraging cronyism and nepotism. 

They conclude
“Considering the variety of corruption measures, the reliability of data, and the large number of included countries, we have to conclude that religiosity not only does not
impede corruption but tends to promote it… Based on the above-mentioned arguments, we may conclude that while religiosity provides guidance on morality, some of its characteristics practically promote corrupt business behavior.”

Hell and happiness

From Epiphenom:

Believing in hell seems to make people unhappy. That's the conclusion that Azim Shariff (University of Oregon, USA) and Lara Aknin (Simon Fraser University, Canada) have come to as a result of a series of studies. Now, that's actually more surprising than you might at first imagine, so it's worth checking out just what they did.

First off was a correlation among nations. They looked at how many people in each country believed in heaven, and subtracted from that the numbers that believed in hell - giving a number that perhaps reflects the 'heaven surplus'. They found that countries with a high heaven surplus tended also to have a happier population.

Next they looked within the same database, but at individuals. They found that people who believed in hell tended to be less satisfied with their lives and tended to experience 'well being' less often. Belief in heaven had an equal and opposite effect.

You can probably think of quite a few alternative explanations for those correlations. So what they did next was a priming study.

They asked 422 American adults to write about hell, or heaven, or what they did yesterday. Then they asked about how happy they were feeling (ignoring the responses from those who guessed the underlying purpose of the study).

What they found was that "Participants who wrote about Hell reported significantly less happiness and more sadness than those who wrote about Heaven, or those in the neutral writing condition." In fact, the interesting finding was that writing about heaven had no effect on happiness - all the differences were purely down to hell making people sad.

Atheists were also susceptible to the effect - writing about hell made them feel sad, too.

Now, Shariff and Aknin are quick to acknowledge that this study isn't definitive. The first two studies were correlational (and in fact the first really looked at heaven beliefs, not hell beliefs), so you can't rule out the possibility that sad people choose to believe in hell. 

What's more, there are enormous cultural differences in what is understood by the term 'heaven'. Traditional Chinese religions don't have the dualistic concepts familiar to us in the west. 

And their priming study was done in the USA, so may not apply directly to other countries. And the magnitude of the effect was not huge.

Still, it's hard to escape their conclusion that "Nevertheless, our finding that certain religious beliefs are consistently related to lower levels of well-being adds nuance to the general finding that religion is tied to greater well-being."

That leads to the question: "why?"

They suggest that there is a trade off between the effect of hell belief on the individual, and the effect on societies. The individual takes on a hell belief that makes them unhappy, but makes society better (through inhibiting bad behaviour) and so provides a payoff in the long run.

There are holes that could be picked in this idea. The obvious one is that free-riders could feign belief in hell and so get the benefits without the costs. If the costs of hell belief were meaningful, in time everyone would be a free-rider (of course, it could be that the sadness induced by hell beliefs doesn't have any meaningful effects on fitness, from an evolutionary perspective - evolution doesn't care if you're sad!).

Nevertheless, Shariff and Aknin reckon that this might explain why hell beliefs are on the wane. In the past people believed in hell in order to keep society safe. But, with the establishment of rule-following, well policed and governed nations, the need for hell ebbed away - so people dropped their sadness-inducing beliefs.

Do migraines cause religion?

From Epiphenom:

Stop sniggering there at the back. I'm serious!

This is a study on nearly 25,000 Norwegians conducted over 10 years (the Nord-Trøndelag Health Survey (HUNT)). The purpose of HUNT is to track changes in health in the whole population over several decades - and one of the things they measured in the latest survey round (HUNT 3, conducted 2006-2008) was religious attendance.

After controlling for other factors related to headache (age, gender, educational level and chronic musculoskeletal complaints), they found that those who had headaches in 1995 were more likely to be frequent attenders at religious services in 2006 (by frequent religious attenders, they mean in the Norwegian sense - i.e. at least once a month!).

Now, this was entirely down to migraines (rather than regular headaches), and the effect was quite large. Those who had migraines more than 7 days a month were 50% more likely to be frequent religious service attenders 10 years later than those who were migraine free.

What was really interesting was that there was no relationship to current headache levels. So it's headache in the past, rather than current headache, that's associated with current religious service attendance.

And it was something particular about religion, too. There was no relationship with visiting concerts, cinema and/or theatre.

Now, they didn't measure religious service attendance in the earlier surveys. So there's a little bit of ambiguity here. But on the whole, it's pretty good data and it fits with some theoretical expectations.

The study's authors point out that other research has found that patients with chronic pain often report that they turn to religion.

Indeed, in the HUNT study itself they have previously found that regular churchgoers had lower blood pressure. And one of the symptoms of raised blood pressure is... you guessed it - headache!

I'm not entirely convinced, however. In particular, why does current headache not link to religious service attendance?

I'd like to see how headache changed among individuals between 1995 and 2006. Some people stopped having headaches - was that linked to frequent religious service attendance?

If not, then why would people with headaches turn to religion?

Christian Right has major role in hastening decline of religion in America

Of those aged 18 to 35, three in 10 say they are not affiliated with any religion, while only half are “absolutely certain” a god exists. These are at or near the highest levels of religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the 25 years the Pew Research Center has been polling on these topics.
As encouraging as this data is for secular humanists, the actual numbers may be significantly higher, as columnist Tina Dupuy observes. “When it comes to self-reporting religious devotion Americans cannot be trusted. We under-estimate our calories, over-state our height, under-report our weight and when it comes to piety—we lie like a prayer rug.”
Every piece of social data suggests that those who favor faith and superstition over fact-based evidence will become the minority in this country by or before the end of this century. In fact, the number of Americans who do not believe in a deity doubled in the last decade of the previous century according to both the census of 2004 and the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008, with religious non-belief in the U.S. rising from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 14.2 percent in 2001. In 2013, that number is now above 16 percent.
If current trends continue, the crossing point, whereby atheists, agnostics, and “nones” equals the number of Christians in this country, will be in the year 2062. If that gives you reason to celebrate, consider this: by the year 2130, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christian will equal a little more than 1 percent. To put that into perspective, today roughly 1 percent of the population is Muslim.
The fastest growing religious faith in the United States is the group collectively labeled “Nones,” who spurn organized religion in favor of non-defined skepticism about faith. About two-thirds of Nones say they are former believers. This is hugely significant. The trend is very much that Americans raised in Christian households are shunning the religion of their parents for any number of reasons: the advancement of human understanding; greater access to information; the scandals of the Catholic Church; and the over-zealousness of the Christian Right.
Political scientists Robert Putman and David Campbell, the authors of American Grace, argue that the Christian Right’s politicization of faith in the 1990s turned younger, socially liberal Christians away from churches, even as conservatives became more zealous. “While the Republican base has become ever more committed to mixing religion and politics, the rest of the country has been moving in the opposite direction.”
Ironically, the rise of the Christian Right over the course of the past three decades may well end up being the catalyst for Christianity’s rapid decline. From the moment Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, evangelical Christians, who account for roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population, identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. Michael Spencer, a writer who describes himself as a post-evangelical reform Christian, says, “Evangelicals fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith. Evangelicals will be seen increasingly as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.”

Ken Ham calls on Bill Maher to repent: 'I truly fear for his soul'


Answers in Genesis President and CEO Ken Ham recently called on atheist comedian Bill Maher to repent for his sins, saying that although God is merciful, it is possible the television personality could go to hell if he does not end his "God-hating comments" soon. Ham added that if Maher continues with his "present spiritual state," then he truly fears for the atheist's soul.
"So why does God allow Bill Maher to continue his increasing God-hating comments? He really is tempting God. It's as if he's saying, 'Come on God, I'm saying more and more outrageous things about You-come on-come and get me!'" Ham wrote in a blog post. "Bill Maher is blaming God for death because he does not want to accept that he is a sinner in need of salvation. He wants to be his own god-he shakes his fist at the God who created man and also provides the gift of salvation for those who will receive it."
Ham was responding to recent comments made by Maher on his HBO show, "Real Time with Bill Maher." The comedian, a known atheist, was discussing the upcoming film "Noah," a theatrical interpretation of the Bible's Great Flood story. In his commentary, Maher quipped that God was a "psychotic mass murderer" for wanting to destroy the world with a flood.
"[Noah is] about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it and his name is God. Genesis says God was so angry with Himself for screwing up when he made mankind so flawed that he sent the flood to kill everyone. Men, women, children, babies, what kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he's mad at? I mean besides Chris Christie," Maher joked during his show.
In his blog post, Ham suggested that Christians pray for Maher to come to repentance.
"Yes, God is longsuffering toward Bill Maher. But it is appointed unto Mr. Maher that he will die-and then God has the last say," Ham wrote, arguing that in Maher's "present spiritual state, he will not only die once but twice." He cited Revelations 21:8 that tells of unrepentant sinners suffering their "second death" in the "lake which burns with fire and brimstone."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mathematician: Is our universe a simulation?

Mathematician Edward Frenkel writes in the NYT that one fanciful possibility that explains why mathematics seems to permeate our universe is that we live in a computer simulation based on the laws of mathematics — not in what we commonly take to be the real world. According to this theory, some highly advanced computer programmer of the future has devised this simulation, and we are unknowingly part of it. Thus when we discover a mathematical truth, we are simply discovering aspects of the code that the programmer used. This may strike you as very unlikely writes Frenkel but physicists have been creating their own computer simulations of the forces of nature for years — on a tiny scale, the size of an atomic nucleus. They use a three-dimensional grid to model a little chunk of the universe; then they run the program to see what happens. 'Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued that we are more likely to be in such a simulation than not,' writes Frenkel. 'If such simulations are possible in theory, he reasons, then eventually humans will create them — presumably many of them. If this is so, in time there will be many more simulated worlds than nonsimulated ones. Statistically speaking, therefore, we are more likely to be living in a simulated world than the real one.' The question now becomes is there any way to empirically test this hypothesis and the answer surprisingly is yes. In a recent paper, 'Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation,' the physicists Silas R. Beane, Zohreh Davoudi and Martin J. Savage outline a possible method for detecting that our world is actually a computer simulation (PDF). Savage and his colleagues assume that any future simulators would use some of the same techniques current scientists use to run simulations, with the same constraints. The future simulators, Savage indicated, would map their universe on a mathematical lattice or grid, consisting of points and lines. But computer simulations generate slight but distinctive anomalies — certain kinds of asymmetries and they suggest that a closer look at cosmic rays may reveal similar asymmetries. If so, this would indicate that we might — just might — ourselves be in someone else's computer simulation.

Creationists demand equal airtime with 'Cosmos'

Creationist Danny Falkner appeared Thursday on "The Janet Mefford Show" to complain that the Fox television series and its host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, had marginalized those with dissenting views on accepted scientific truths. "I don't recall seeing any interviews with people – that may yet come – but it's based upon the narration from the host and then various types of little video clips of various things, cartoons and things like that," said Falkner of Answers In Genesis who also complained that Tyson showed life arose from simple organic compounds without mentioning that some believe that's not possible. "I was struck in the first episode where he talked about science and how, you know, all ideas are discussed, you know, everything is up for discussion – it's all on the table – and I thought to myself, 'No, consideration of special creation is definitely not open for discussion, it would seem." 

Pat Robertson: Atheist women were likely raped, and that’s why they reject Jesus

Televangelist Pat Robertson on Monday offered viewers an explanation as to why atheist women refused to accept Jesus as their person savior: They were probably raped.
A viewer named Sandra told Robertson in a letter that she didn’t understand why an atheist coworker was “openly hostile at the mere mention of God” when the viewer tried to “bring her to Jesus.”
“Should I abandon the idea of being a positive influence on her and just let her perish?” Sandra asked.
“But to be that openly hostile to the word ‘God,’ it’s something beyond the normal human experience,” he said. “Something has happened.”Robertson speculated that the coworker could be controlled by “something that is demonic” or “something that is deep ingrained.”
“Maybe she had an abusing father, somebody who raped her and acted like he was preaching to her from the Bible,” the TV pastor continued. “You just never know what’s going on in somebody’s childhood.”
In the end, Robertson said that the viewer may have done all she could do for the atheist coworker.
“Just pray for that anointing,” he concluded.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Louisiana public school smacked down for imposing religious beliefs on students

A Louisiana public school faced the consequences of their actions last week when a district judge smacked them down for violating the religious liberty of students.
A Buddhist student in Louisiana who was persecuted by his teacher and school filed a lawsuit against Negreet High School In January, the ACLU on behalf of “C.C.” and his parents. 6th grade science teacher Rita Roark taught students that the Bible is “100 percent true.” She told them God created the Earth 6,000 years ago and called evolution a “stupid theory made up by stupid people who don’t want to believe in God.” What follows is a test question she gives to students.
ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
The answer Roark looked for was “The Lord.” But “C.C.,” a student in Roark’s class, couldn’t answer the question, nor would he have. That’s because C.C. is a Buddhist, not a Christian. Roark not only violated her student’s First Amendment rights by pushing specific religious beliefs on a classroom assignment, she also ridiculed her non-Christian student. She led her class in laughing at “C.C.” and called his Buddhist faith “stupid.” Roark also told “C.C.” that “you’re stupid if you don’t believe in God.”
Christian propaganda can be found all around school property. From pictures of Jesus, posters, Bible verses, and official prayers, Negreet High School clearly seeks to indoctrinate students and bully those who don’t practice the Christian faith. When parents confronted Sabine Parish Superintendent Sara Ebarb about the issue, she told them to either change their faith to fit in with “the Bible Belt” or find a school where “there are more Asians.”
Well, the ACLU took the school and the teacher to court. And last week, they won. District Judge Elizabeth Foote not only ruled against the school, she threw the book at them. In her ruling, Foote agreed that the school district clearly violated the constitutional rights of students by forcing Christian doctrine down their throats. She ordered the school to remove all of the propaganda from the premises. The ruling banned school officials from initiating prayers, using class work to promote religion, sponsoring a religious belief, or holding religious services at the school. Students are still permitted to pray in school and participate in religious clubs. But as the ruling states,
“The District and School Board are permanently enjoined from permitting School Officials at any school within the School District to promote their personal religious beliefs to students in class or during or in conjunction with a School Event… School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”
In short, Negreet High School and all other public schools in the district must obey the constitution and respect the rights of all students. Just like other public schools.
But that’s not all. The Sabine Parish school board is also being punished financially. They’ve been ordered to pay $4,000 in damages to C.C.’s parents as well as $40,000 in court costs. At a time when schools are facing budget cuts, the violations committed by Negreet High School are costly and wasteful.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bill Maher: God is a psychotic mass murderer

You're probably going to be hearing a lot about Bill Maher's latest "New Rule" in the coming days. Mostly because in it, he not only takes aim at almost every religion (Bahá'í, you got lucky) but also because he calls God a "psychotic mass murderer."

The rant kicks off with Maher explaining that he's sick of seeing ads for Darren Aronofsky's "floating piece of giraffe crap" "Noah." While he allows that the film "must be doing something right," since it's already angering both Christians and Muslims, the fact that 60% of adult Americans believe that the story of Noah is literally true is proof enough for Maher that "this is a stupid country."
But more important than the implausibility of the tale, Maher says it's immoral. "It's about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it, and his name is God."
And the sure-to-offend-Christians zingers keep coming from there:
"What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he's mad at? I mean, besides Chris Christie."
"Hey, God, you know you're kind of a dick when you're in a movie with Russell Crowe and you're the one with anger issues."
"If we were a dog and God owned us, the cops would come and take us away.""You know conservatives are always going on about how Americans are losing their values and their morality, well maybe it's because you worship a guy who drowns babies."
Lamenting that anyone would take their moral marching orders from the Bible, Maher wraps things up by hammering almost every religion as irrational, especially in light of conservative political ideology:
"I'm reminded as we've just started Lent, that conservatives are always complaining about too much restraining regulation and how they love freedom, but they're the religious ones who voluntarily invent restrictions for themselves. On a hot summer day, Orthodox Jews wear black wool, on a cold winter night Mormons can't drink a hot chocolate... isn't life hard enough without making shit up out of thin air to fuck with yourself?"
And there's a LOT more. Watch the clip.

Friday, March 7, 2014

European Judges rule against LDS Church

From The Telegraph:
The Mormon Church complain that forcing them to pay local property taxes on their temple is religious discrimination.

European judges have rejected the Mormon Church’s human rights complaint against the British Government, forcing it to pay local property taxes on one of its English temples after a nine year court battle.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a religious organisation registered as a private unlimited company in the UK, was told in 2005 that it was not exempt from paying business tax on its temple in Preston, Lancashire.

Because the public were not allowed access to the temple, which was reserved for the most devout Mormons, the High Court dismissed their appeal in July 2008.

However, the church refused to accept the decision, claiming that it amounted to discrimination on religious grounds and taking their battle all the way to Strasbourg.

Now the European Court of Human Rights has upheld the ruling of the British courts.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why Hollywood thinks atheism is bad for business

After Matthew McConaughey took the stage to accept his Best Actor award at the Oscars on Sunday, he began his acceptance speech by thanking God, praising the deity for giving him “opportunities that I know are not of my hand or of any other human hand.” Though McConaughey won for his gripping portrayal of a (straight) AIDS patient in “Dallas Buyer’s Club”—which the influential Christian Web site Movieguide panned for its “very strong and very lewd politically correct, pro-homosexual worldview”—religious conservatives cheered his acceptance speech as a brave strike against Hollywood’s pervasive secular bias, claiming that the Oscar crowd was “rattled” and “quieted” by McConaughey’s praise for the lord.
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.
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.
This impulse is an understandable one, but it does run contrary to the conventional wisdom about the film industry’s “anti-Christian” animus. My own perspective on this matter was shaped by my involvement in a feature-length documentary, “The Unbelievers,” which was released in New York last December. The film follows myself and the world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, as we toured the world carrying out discussions, and sometimes debates, about science, reason, myth, and superstition. (Full disclosure: I am also one of the movie’s executive producers.)
Now, it would be silly to suggest that a documentary about two scientists debating religion and rationality might pose strong competition to a hundred-and-thirty-million-dollar blockbuster starring Russell Crowe as Noah on the ark. But that recognition notwithstanding, we were assured in advance by people in the film industry that a movie about atheism—even one that featured various celebrities—would not be suitable for a general theatrical release, in spite of more than four hundred thousand people downloading the film’s trailer, and a poll of test audiences which suggested that more than ninety per cent of religious individuals who saw the film would recommend it to a friend.
This a-priori impression that atheism is not a suitable topic for popular conversation was summed up nicely by Ricky Gervais, who appears in our film, in a scene where he repeats the line with which he is consistently admonished: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so why don’t you just keep quiet about your atheism!”
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.