Archived entries for society and religion

I’m not really here

As an atheist, the reason why I go to church is not for religious reasons but a social one. It’s the antidote to my geeky tendency to stay at home and “socialise” from behind a computer screen.

In Talk To The Hand, Lynne Truss’s treatise on the rudeness of today’s society, she hypothesises that one possible cause of impoliteness stems from an increasing focus on individual rights, and the right to assert one’s personal space, freedoms and liberties even when in public. Therefore going out is no longer a social experience, but an exercise in managing one’s “bubble” necessitating new forms of etiquette that explain how to maintain one’s state of isolation without raising the ire of others (think mobile phones on the train).

Social Networking makes many bold claims about increasing peoples’ connectedness, but this too, is done entirely in isolation, with each person sitting alone in front of their own computer.

Truss spends a chapter talking about the historical impact of the telephone: one could, for the first time, speak to somebody that wasn’t physically present. The Internet has added yet a third layer on top of that – you no longer transmit yourself directly through your own physical voice, but with mere words. The book points out the rudeness of talking on the phone in the presence of others, but now now you can be texting somebody while talking on the phone, adding yet another level of “unpresence” to conversations.

Church, which is still predominantly conducted as a physical gathering, forces me to participate in a community, as week by week I see the same people. People who I may not want to talk to. Ironically, the small talk that I fear in “meatspace” is exactly the kind of thing that passes unremarked in a constant stream in cyberspace (via Facebook).

It’s ironic. A big criticism of religion is that it requires a belief in the intangible, the metaphysical, and yet religious institutions are the ones offering real community experiences.

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This post is a part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.

Re-present

I’d like to start a discussion about changing attributes of fictional characters, which has cropped up a lot recently in cases like black Hermione in the stage production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, Jodie Whittaker as the next Doctor in the TV series, calls for a female James Bond… the list goes on: Myles Morales, Thor Girl, Ghostbusters, etc., etc. (Isn’t it interesting how it’s predominantly a “nerd culture” problem, although that’s not what I’m going to be talking about.)

I tend not to wade into internet arguments, because I have friends that straddle both sides of the fence, and I like to always keep an open mind. But this one’s been around long enough that I’m comfortable taking a position on it. Maybe I’m going to cop a lot of flak for it, but it’s been a while since I’ve put up a decent, meaty post, so it’s probably about time.

I guess it shouldn’t come as any surprise that people only seem to be able to take a binary view of the matter – either it’s OK to update any character with different attributes (because it’s all just make-believe, right?), or it’s not, because to change anything messes with some kind of mystical sacred bond between creator and creation (or rather, then ownership that the consumer feels towards both of them because they spent their hard earned on it).

Of course, the rational position is never so clear-cut and lies somewhere in between, so let’s try and pull together some things that we can use to make a call on whether or not a character should be changed.

The Everyman

The first concept I’d like to present is the Everyman (with apologies for the gendered nature of the term, but that’s yet another whole kettle of fish). This trope describes how authors and writers get us, as readers and viewers, to relate to their stories. It’s when we find a character so relatable that we can put ourselves into their shoes, and be them or be like them. Therefore, the protagonist of a story becomes a conduit for engaging with the narrative plot and setting, via empathy from the reader. Books remain popular in spite of TV and movies because consuming the written word requires imagination, and people imagine themselves in the role of the protagonist.

Some are more obvious than others: I still remember a conversation I once had with a former colleague after I first finished reading Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. He asked me whether I noticed anything about the main character. Remembering details is not one of my strong points, so I told him I had no idea. “Ender is never physically described,” he replied. Now I never verified this claim, but taken at face value, the character becomes an avatar that the reader can project themselves into, so that the author could emotionally hook them into the morality tale inside an epic space opera.

However, an everyman is not every man (or woman, or child). Naturally, there must be some attributes that make the character unique, or special, in service of the plot. Ender Wiggin was a small child. His being a child was an essential component of the story that Card was trying to tell, because of the innocence that children possess. Gender, less so. And ethnicity, not at all. But it should be easy to see that as more plot-essential attributes are added, the less relatable a character becomes. This is why there are very few (successful) speculative fiction novels about aliens set in alien worlds with no parallels with our own.

Another example that hits close to home for me, as a Transformers fan, is the Michael Bay live-action movie franchise. These movies are universally panned by fans and critics alike, and yet in spite of that, they have been extremely commercially successful. During the production of the first movie, Stephen Spielberg (one of the producers) told the screenwriters that “a boy and his car” should be the focus of the story.

Now this may seem like an odd choice for a franchise about huge transforming robots, but as a successful filmmaker Spielberg probably has some insight that the rest of us don’t. This is just my guess, but I reckon that at some point the special effects budget dictated that they couldn’t give the robots enough screen time to make them relatable, so therefore a human cast was brought onboard to do the emotional heavy-lifting. The fans’ crushing disappointment then, was most likely in no small part due to having to shoulder the role of… well, Shia Labeouf, when they were expecting to emulate their heroes, the Autobots – who in the sequels, were themselves cast into horrible, unrelatable stereotypes.

Representation

That last point leads nicely into the other concept I believe to be relevant: representation. This is the question of “who wants to be that character?”

We obviously relate most to those who are most like us, whether that’s our physical attributes, socio-political (or even literal) environment, or emotional state. So there more like us a character is, the more engaged we’re likely to be. That’s all very well and good for books, where, as I said before, it allows some imagination on the part of the reader. The problem lies in visual media, i.e. comics, theatre, TV and films, where creators have no option but to make certain choices about what a character looks like. Hence we get Asa Butterfield as Ender, for instance. He could have been any race, but Hollywood cast a white boy because of their deeply entrenched capitalist status quo that maintains whites represent the “largest market share”[1].

It should be apparent how alienating this decision is to people of other races. That’s not to say it’s wrong. The singular nature of race means that no matter which one is chosen, the rest are then excluded. The mistake is in thinking that these choices somehow become an essential part of the character. With each attribute that is added to the “core essence”, the group of people who identify with the character becomes smaller, but the degree of identification becomes stronger, and therein lies one of the key reasons why some people insist characters can only be a certain way. Taken to its logical conclusion, this also flips our earlier question on its head, turning it from “who wants to be that character?” into “who does the character want to be?”

That’s why diversity in representation is needed, so that everybody gets a chance to see themselves portrayed in print or on screen, which will grow the market rather than shrink it.


Hopefully all this gives us some guidance as to whether changes to a character are justified: let’s take a look at the cases mentioned at the beginning of this essay:

  • Black Hermione: does the character’s race have any plot implications whatsoever? Nope. Next!
  • Female Doctor Who: this is an interesting one. The Doctor isn’t actually an everyman – that’s the role of the companion. The character serves as a lens for us to observe the human condition. Given the topicality of gender roles, it is entirely appropriate because the character is nothing more than a plot device in spite of being eponymous (kinda like Zelda in The Legend of Zelda videogames).
  • Female James Bond: this is an example of “limited appeal”. Bond was specifically concocted as a suave, sophisticated alpha-male archetype that men wanted to be, and women wanted to be with (back in those sexist, misogynist days). Given Bond’s anachronisms, he should be retired, not replaced. So that’s a firm “no”.

Do you agree?

 


[1] It should be noted that international earnings are starting to exceed US domestic earnings, putting paid to this theory; see: Why U.S. Audiences Matter Less To Film Box Office Success

On Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran

When I first heard the news that Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran had received the death penalty, my initial reaction was indifference. My stance was that as much as I disagree with capital punishment, they had the misfortune to be caught for criminal activity in a country where it is practised, and that’s just too bad; there are plenty of other issues I would rather to direct my energies toward.

But then I found out I had a friend who knew Andrew directly (school friends, I think). He and his friends made impassioned pleas for people to look beneath the façade, to see the story of repentance and redemption. These guys, by their own admission, weren’t exactly always model citizens, and but for some “second chance” opportunities that they were lucky enough to have received ended up on the right path instead of the wrong one. For example:

 

Practically everyone who was in favour of the execution seemed to think that Chan and Sukumaran deserved what they got for doing what they did – that is, trafficking drugs. Most cite supporting arguments like how drugs continue to ruin many peoples’ lives, etc.

The problem I have with this view view is that it supposes that drug users are victims and in no way complicit for their role in the drug trade. Everybody knows that the drug trade, like every other business, works by supply and demand. Only, in this case, demand is generally attributed to addiction.

Now addiction’s supposed to be this physiological condition where people get hooked onto substances, after which they no can no longer help themselves and basically become victims. However, recent science is starting to uncover something interesting about addiction:

If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens.

Excerpt from the Huffington Post: “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think”

The article goes on to provide a thorough argument for the theory that addiction is a symptom of a lack of human connection. That is, addiction doesn’t exist when people have good social relationships. So bringing this back to Chan and Sukumaran: how hard is it to believe that they “got caught up in the wrong crowd” and did what they did because of a lack of positive social connections?

When they were jailed, they found themselves in an environment where they were able to form positive relationships with jailers and fellow inmates. Everything you read about their decade in prison points to the fact that they were thoroughly rehabilitated, and made positive contributions in their new environment.

All of which brings me to the conclusion that addicts and criminals are not so different from each other. Yet society is quick to assign blame to one and portray the other as the victim, when in reality they are both victims of (social) circumstances.

On reflection, this missive was needed much, much earlier, but as with most complex issues, it has taken a long time for me to process and come to an understanding that I felt comfortable sharing (not to mention the usual laborious process of converting my thoughts into a coherent piece of prose). So although it’s too late for Andrew and Myu, I hope that those among you who felt they deserved to die read this and consider how blessed we are to be friends. Maybe you saved me from a similar fate in the past, or will do so sometime in the future… and I you.

Aborting anti-abortionist arguments

Yellow Balloons with "Yes" in celebration of Ireland passing laws in favour of abortion rights

Photograph by Informatique

Ireland recently passed laws to allow abortions in circumstances where the mother’s life is at risk (link). As reported in the article, the trigger for the change was a case where a woman died from blood poisoning after being refused an abortion.

Typically, the ensuing reporting painted a picture of outrage from those against the change, but it strikes me that “pro-lifers”, like climate change deniers, are an over-represented minority view. Unlike climate change though, it does strike me as surprising that many churchgoers tend to put themselves into the anti-abortion camp simply because they feel it is the right side to be on.

I felt that this was worth considering.

First, a thought experiment. Supposing God’s character is exactly as detailed in the bible, this suggests that He supports “life” (I realise this is a big call, since it begs the questions of why there are deaths due to natural disasters, earthquakes, etc. but sadly that’s just too much for one blog post). That in itself is vague, so let me break it down as follows: assuming the child is not yet ready to be born, a complication arises during pregnancy such that both mother and child’s lives are at risk.

  1. If an abortion is denied, both mother and child die
  2. If an abortion is granted, the mother’s life is saved

In the first outcome the net result is total death; none survive. It is only in the second outcome that one life is preserved at the cost of another. A God that is “pro-life” should therefore desire the second outcome. So what objections could there be to this? I can think of two:

  • Those who believe “nature” should be allowed to take its course (oftentimes expressed as “submitting to God’s will”). Those who fall into this category are simply ignorant hypocrites – humans have been interfering with natural processes for as long as recorded human history (and then some). In fact, interfering with nature is pretty much one of our defining characteristics as human beings, e.g. agriculture, domesticating animals, etc.
  • Those who object to the act of “killing”, even for the sake of saving life. Again, this is hypocritical as human sacrifice is prominent in the bible, particularly in the Old Testament (e.g. God commanding Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering – although this was not actually carried out), but also Jesus’ crucifixion. There are also some lengthy discussions on the nature of murder, but even these allow killing in the act of self-defence.

Having said that, let me come back to the point I made near the beginning of the post where I said that only a minority of Christians would actually hold these views. Certainly, of all the Christians I have ever encountered, none would deny a woman an abortion if it meant saving her life. So I will take liberties here and state, without proof, that any Christian who understands their faith and has actually considered the issue, should arrive at the same conclusion.

And what about abortion under other circumstances?

This may seem like a cop-out, but I would categorise anything apart from the above scenario as no longer just about abortion, but enmeshed with a bunch of other judgements about sexual immorality. For example, those who would condemn a woman for choosing to have a “voluntary” abortion will usually also have some very strong opinions about promiscuity, sex outside of marriage, or responsibility. Pretty big issues, so another time perhaps…

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This post is part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.

In-tolerance we must

NOTICE: intolerance will not be toleratedI once read a question on Quora where somebody asked why Christians in America feel like they’re a persecuted minority. The answer written by Robert Hegwood is intriguing: in a nutshell, he describes how Christians were used to living a certain way of life, behaviours that had been acceptable – expected, even – for a long time, but because of the rise of Atheism they now find themselves suddenly forced to dispense with hundreds of years of accumulated history (dating back to before America existed), simply because it offends modern sensibilities. Christians are essentially being forcefully told “you can’t do that any more”.

Is it fair to ask a person, or even a significantly large group of people, to change, when what they were doing has been acceptable for decades prior? Supporters of Atheism will likely bring up all kinds of anachronistic behaviours, and social norms of past eras which now seem ludicrous, to justify a general purging of all belief even if they aren’t practiced any more. Granted, situations like the recent riots in response to a sacrilegious Youtube video do little to help, but using this as a argument for banning all religion is like pointing to soccer hooliganism as a reason for banning all sport.

Religion is more than fad or fashion – it is peoples’ way of life, moral compass, worldview and belief system. One could reasonably argue that religious belief is no more or less dangerous than a political ideology. Both have their good and bad – wars have been fought for both causes – so why is one “politically correct” (ba-da-boom) while the other isn’t? It brings to mind the famous Stephen Roberts quote:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

… except I contend that we are all religious. I simply believe that an atheist’s “god” is ideological rather than metaphysical. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying an atheist “worships” their ideology as one would a deity, but a rational person must accept the existence of a system greater than themselves, of which they are necessarily a part – whether they choose to accept that or not. I don’t buy existential nihilism, which – to bring this post back around full circle – Nietzsche believed to be a widespread phenomenon of Western culture, and that it was an unsavoury yet inevitable phase that humanity must go through on the path towards transcendence.

In other words, let’s not get too carried away with this current zeitgeist of non-belief – it is just part of humanity’s journey, not the destination.

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This post is part of the series An Atheist in God’s Kingdom.



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