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Film Review: Contradiction

WRITTEN BY MARK KOLSEN, GUEST WRITER FOR AAI NEWS TEAM

In Contradiction, Jeremiah Camara’s intelligent film about religion’s seduction of African-Americans, Lawrence Krauss says “the rise of non-belief is the rise of science.”

Krauss refers of course to natural sciences like cosmology and evolutionary biology, disciplines now giving us empirically based theories for the origin of the universe and man; and to social sciences like sociology and psychology, which are now explaining how the brain generates religious beliefs and behaviors. These new scientific discoveries, Camara recognizes, “are clashing with biblical doctrine,” and exposing the contradiction between truth and African-Americans’ irrationality. In the film – to take just one example – we hear the muddled African-American view that god must have created us, that we could not have evolved from “monkeys” because on earth “we still have monkeys.” This illogic is followed by Richard Dawkins’ concise, scientific explanation of the human family tree.

Contradiction seamlessly mixes this science with history. Camara traces religion’s stranglehold over African-Americans’ reason (today 76% of all African-Americans say they pray daily) to the institution of slavery, when African-Americans either went to church or faced their masters’ wrath. Slaves adopting Christian beliefs and attending Christian churches received special treatment, even if the ‘beliefs’ were dictated by their masters. And Camara nicely documents the similarities and differences between the roles religious belief and churches have served in African-Americans’ lives.

But what makes Camara’s film so special is neither its science nor its history. Rather, Camara’s film is spellbinding because he takes us right into the faces of both believers and non-believers, in a way quite unimaginable were his subjects white. It’s not that Camara is uncomfortably confrontational: on the contrary, his deep, mellow voice, eloquence and friendly style remind me of Chicago’s Harold Washington, who seemed totally non-threatening but who also, after 5 minutes’ conversation, made you wonder why other people were laughing at you. As Camara asks African-American believers honest questions they can’t reasonably answer, they respond to Camara with unembarrassed smiles and cheer. Would any white congregation be so willingly cheerful in verbalizing their ignorance and/or stupidity? And, as we hear from the educated nonbelievers in the Black community, would any of their white counterparts be so openly scathing in their criticism of white believers? In our age of political correctness and divisiveness, Camara’s interviewees are refreshingly honest, though this honesty also reflects religion’s successful subversion of African-Americans’ self-critical faculties.

To be clear, while Camara wants to lay open the symptom, his real mission is to finger the cause. Why, compared to other groups, are African-Americans most committed to their faiths? Camara convincingly demonstrates that religion especially affects them because it offers ‘pie in the sky’ to economically struggling people, people who even think more about Jesus’s suffering than Martin Luther King’s suffering. (Yes, Camara is told, King died for African-Americans’ freedom, but it’s Jesus’s blood that will “wash away our sins.”). Prayer is the first line of defense against this suffering. And as for African-Americans’ increasing attendance at the churches flooding their neighborhoods: the mindless fear-inducing sermons of unqualified African-Americans preachers is the premium African-Americans (especially black women) pay for – the “insurance policy” protecting them from eternal damnation and Satan’s lurking presence. (Anton Scalia, take note: a good preacher can allay your fears too).

In the end, through a variety of other images – especially his hilarious clips depicting the “six types” of African-American preachers – Camara’s film serves as the cultural supplement to Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Just as Piketty reminds us that capitalism inherently produces inequality and misery, Camara reminds us that in a capitalist society, religion is the opium of a powerless people. In Camara's words, “Extreme poverty and extreme religiousness go hand in hand…dependence of supernatural intervention has become a way of life in African American communities,” where African-Americans pastors encourage parishioners to abandon self-sufficiency and instead rely on divine miracles to improve their lives. To those who criticize our “culture of dependency,” Camara clearly lays the blame at the feet of the African-Americans churches. Yet, herein lies my only disappointment with the film: in Chicago, African American ministers have a well-publicized, cozy relationship with the Mayor’s office. To what degree do African-Americans churches – and the poorly schooled ministers who rule them – serve the larger political and economic interests of the capitalist system and America’s ruling class? A big question perhaps beyond the scope of this film, but I hoped Camara would at least suggest an answer.

If Contradiction presents already familiar arguments, you should still treat yourself to the experience. My top 7 not-to-be missed scenes (in no particular order):
1. Martin Luther King III’s pathetic response when Camara asks if the hours African-Americans spend in churches inhibit their productivity;
2. from “A Raisin in the Sun”: the scene illustrating Graydon Square’s assertion that to African-American children, god is “the big black woman with a belt”;
3. Norm Allen’s matter-of-fact observations on the inverse relationship between education and religious belief;
4. Dan Barker’s portrayal of slave submission and its similarities to prayer, as well as his funny piano rendition of “Poor Little Me”;
5. Camara’s short but touching interview with Brooklyn pastor Phyllis Brown, who candidly admits her altruism is about love for her people, and is not contingent upon her attending any church;
6. The nonplussed responses of churchgoers to Camara’s simple question: What did you learn in church today?;
and 7. his interviews with hip-hop singer Graydon Square, whose sharp, right-on the-money commentaries are alone worth the price of admission. (A sample: “[At church, pastors tell blacks that] if they don’t believe in my particular skydaddy, then you’re not gonna get free ice cream…tell that to people in Nigeria, in Liberia, to people in certain parts of South America.”)

Contradiction should not be seen merely by atheists. Children should also have the opportunity to view it. In fact, if I were emperor, I would mandate that every grade school child see it in order to understand the social and political conditions which foster humanity’s irrational addiction to religion. That wish is itself pie-in-the-sky, but for his hard work and intelligence, I thank Jeremiah Camara for providing me with a first-rate teaching resource.

 

AAI News Team's guest writer is Mark Kolsen, Managing Editor of the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter

Atheist Dentist Searches for Meaning - A review of Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

WRITTEN BY LIZ EMERY, GUEST WRITER FOR AAI NEWS TEAM

In The New Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, British historian Peter Watson explains how atheist thinkers and artists have sought meaning and purpose in life ever since Nietzsche declared that “god is dead.” Joshua Ferris, in his latest novel, depicts an atheist dentist who struggles with the same question. As Liz Emery observes in the following review, we can all relate to this very funny, very real, story.

 In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Paul is a terminally caustic dentist in New York who fills cavities, watches baseball games, and pushes people’s buttons. The majority of the story’s plot, dialogue, and Paul’s constant self-musings occur within the hours spent at his understaffed dental practice, which, in an effort to save money during construction, lacks a private office and any resultant confidentiality said office might provide. Through conversation with his head hygienist, Mrs. Convoy; his office assistant and ex-lover, Connie; and O’Rourke’s own hilariously cynical, honest (and downright egocentric) inner monologue; we come to see who Paul Conrad O’Rourke, DMD, is—and, by his own admittance, he isn’t much at all. 

On the surface, Paul actively spurns any and all religious affiliation. In truth, however, he is intensely superstitious and, by his own admittance, creepily leeches onto the uber-conservative religious families of his girlfriends in an attempt to feel included as a part of some greater whole. Because Paul’s father committed suicide, and because Paul is who he is, Paul is constantly sorting out a litany of psychological issues, including loneliness, lack of belonging, and the suffocating feeling that when he wakes in the middle of the night, as he usually does, everybody else in the world is asleep. When he arrives at his office, he can’t bring himself to say hello to his staff, despite asserting to the reader that he wants nothing more than to offer a cheery good morning to all. Instead, he says, “Where’s the day’s schedule?” to Connie, or “You’re alone today,” to Mrs. Convoy. He peers into the mouths of his patients, pleads with them to floss, and then goes out to have a cigarette. When he returns from smoking, his conversations with Mrs. Convoy, who is uncannily aware of his every movement, are typically structured around the strange but effortlessly executed dialogue tactic of, “She said ‘x’, I replied. She said, ‘x’, I replied.” The two spar endlessly over Mrs. Convoy’s obnoxiously sincere Christianity and Paul’s certainty in the pointlessness of maintaining proper dental hygiene.

When Paul goes home, he ruminates over how there is nothing New York City offers besides drinking and eating endlessly (no wonder America is a nation of “fat alcoholics and the nurses and therapists who tend to them”), and so he spurns professional gatherings, meetings with friends, and does nothing but watch the Red Sox—religiously, you might say—on Thursday nights and then regrets not going out afterwards. When he awakes in the wee hours after the game is over, he checks his email, despairs over the lonely darkness of the early morning, and then watches the previous night’s game until dawn breaks.

Paul C. O’Rourke is single. On his knees, he weeps at the thought of a baby or puppy and all the tragedies he could endure at the expense of loving one. Although he is obsessed with his girlfriend’s family, he severely lacks good conversational taste and does things like telling tasteless Anti-Semitic jokes when his girlfriend’s family is sitting Shiva. He has no friends because he appears to be fundamentally unlikeable and spurns what pseudo-friends he does have. His family is dead (well, his mother is in a mental hospital); he has no children or pets, and for someone who self-admittedly “only wanted to be smothered in the embrace of an inclusive and coercive singular “we”, he is remarkably alone.

Then comes the website. Someone pretending to be Paul, with intimate knowledge of his life, has put up a website for Paul’s dental office. The impersonator begins commenting on various sports threads as Paul, and perhaps most disconcertingly, includes quotes and links on the website, the sports threads, and now Twitter, which reference an entirely unheard-of group of ancient people called the Ulms (don’t waste your time Googling—there’s no such thing). As Paul comes to find out via sparse email interactions with the perpetrator, the Ulms are a displaced, abused society comparable to the Jews—except their hallmark of persecution is doubt in God, instead of faith— and Paul is apparently one of them. Now he’s being invited to search out his Ulmish destiny.

Of course, in the meantime, the anti-Semitic comments Paul’s impersonator posts on the dental practice’s website and Twitter account are angering a lot of people, including Connie and her Jewish family. As Paul tries to placate Connie’s family and discover who his doppelganger is, and as Paul tries to determine whether the Ulms are a legitimately disenfranchised part of biblical history, he is forced reluctantly on a journey of self-discovery, where he ultimately has to confront the fact that despite eschewing all religious convictions, he and others like him still have an deep-seeded human need to connect.

And what better way to illustrate the fallibility of human need, desire, and design than from a dentist’s chair? Teeth that crumble. Infection galore. When Paul visits a settlement outside of New Delhi on a charity mission to fix the teeth of impoverished children, he spends a whole page describing God’s glorious design: “Pulp necrosis, tongue lesions, goiterlike presentations… trench mouth, incurable caries… Those tender infant mouths never stood a chance…. Mrs. Convoy said we were there to do God’s work. As for God’s work, I said, ‘Seems like we’re undoing it.’” Paul doesn’t soapbox, simply describes the mess he sees, and denies any possibility that it points to a higher power. And you get it, you get Paul—you understand his cynicism, his constant irritation at Mrs. Convoy’s benign insistence on God’s good dental intentions. (“What exactly have you been doing?” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “Why do you feel the need to lie to me?” I’d tell her, and she’d say, “Scrutiny does not kill people. Smoking kills people. What kind of example do you think you’re setting for your patients by sneaking off to smoke cigarettes?” I’d tell her, she’d say, “They do not need a reminder of ‘the futility of it all’ from their dental professional.”) Without preaching or pontificating, Ferris makes the human mouth the perfect breeding ground for one bitter and sullen atheist’s festering.

In an easy-reading, non-politicized way, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour addresses some of the most common questions asked of atheists: Who do you belong to? What are your morals? Can you love someone of another faith? Does faith in doubt constitute some sort of transcendental belief, regardless of the disbeliever’s protests? Through Paul, Ferris approaches potential answers to these questions in a genuine, believable conversation without ever approaching didacticism. Perhaps because he asks the questions from such an honest perspective, or perhaps because Paul is such a whip-funny asscrack, the character’s take on the eventual decay of any ultimate purpose in life, via the hilarious metaphors of gum disease and cavity rot, is totally convincing. Even if Paul doesn’t find answers to all of his questions, the gut-wrenching desire with which he searches mirrors that fundamental human yearning for a greater understanding.

If nothing else, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a laugh-out-loud funny reminder that, regardless of belief or nonbelief, the only ultimate meaning to eating, drinking, fornicating, flossing, or watching a baseball game is the meaning we give it. At the very end of the novel when on another charity trip to New Delhi, a brief but incredibly poignant moment occurs: Paul runs into a child with a smile so beautiful he calls it “God-given”—and then later realizes it was work he performed on the child himself, years before. Perhaps that in itself answers all of Paul’s questions for us.

 

Our guest writer Liz Emery is a writer for the news team of the Richard Dawkins Foundation.