Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Theory of Everything and Atheist Tropes

My wife and I saw The Theory of Everything last week, and I didn't get a chance until just now to sit down and write about it. Since it's been gestating in my mind, this is going to be more than just a straight-up review, as one of my concerns going into this film was how they were going to handle the atheism of Stephen Hawking (the subject matter of this biographical picture, for those who don't know what this is about).

Why would I be concerned about this? After all, it's just one aspect of the man's life, and some would argue that it's not even the most interesting part. It probably wouldn't be too wild of an assumption to say that even Hawking himself wouldn't find that aspect of his life to be all that important. He's not an atheist activist. If anything, he's an activist for science and reason, and this has led him to conclude that there simply is no need for a God's existence. So, what's the big deal?

I think it's important for the same reason that Johnny Cash's Christianity was important in his biopic, Walk the Line. It's not all there is to the man, but he came from a spiritual household, and music and spirituality were intertwined for him. Also, one of the best parts in that movie is when his record company tells him that he shouldn't perform in a prison because his audience wouldn't like it, since they're mostly Christians. Cash's response to any Christians who think that he should stay away from sinner? "Then they're not Christians!" It's there, and it would have been a disservice to completely neglect Cash's religious feelings. I can't speak for everybody, but I certainly didn't feel that the movie was preachy.

I didn't want some sort of anti-religious screed for this movie, but I didn't want the movie to skip over what his conclusions were when it came to the God question. (I skip the phrase "how he feels" because Hawking himself has said, and the line is in the movie, that it "doesn't matter" how he "feels".) I feel that it's important for a few reasons:

1. The man is easily the most, if not one of the most, prominent scientists, and his area of expertise is
how the universe came to be. You'll hear a lot of talk from certain religious quarters that somehow the idea of God is bolstered by science, even though nothing could be further from the truth. Hawking understands, and is able to explain, how the universe came to be, and if he doesn't see the need for a creator, then you need to do more than dismiss him with a wave of the hand if you're to challenge him on that - especially from a scientific perspective.

2. As most people know, he has ALS, which had doctors predicting that he'd be dead within a few years of the diagnosis. (That diagnosis was in the early 1960s.) A common thing that atheists hear is that people find their belief in God when they are suffering hardships and need Him the most. (Which never strikes me as a good argument - it's essentially an admission that the idea becomes more appealing when you're in a state that makes you less rational.) Call me crazy, but being confined to a wheelchair and having a computer do your talking for you strikes me as a pretty severe hardship. Yet the man doesn't complain, and I even remember an interview where he described himself as being "lucky" because so many people with ALS have it even worse than he does. The fact that he has this disease and remains so positive is a pretty clear demonstration that there isn't a "need" for a God even psychologically speaking.

3. Atheists make up a small percentage of the population, and we don't get to see many of us portrayed in a positive light in the media. Oftentimes, in fiction, atheists are seen as being "broken" somehow, and the resolution of the story is that they eventually find their way back to belief in God. You get that, or you get an atheist who's cynical and generally pretty surly. The worst though is the one who claims to be a "skeptic" even though he/she lives in a world where the supernatural is consistently meeting the burden of proof. Of course, with Hawking, we're not dealing with fiction, but considering the way Hollywood usually handles atheists, I was worried that even though they'd present his views correctly, there would be some sort of undercutting of his ideas in the last few minutes. did it do? Turns out that my concerns were unfounded. Not only is it a terrific film in general, but it dealt with Hawking's atheism exactly how I would have hoped. It's a part of his overall story. Even better, the religious people in his life, like his wife, were treated with respect. The movie made both of their feelings known without taking sides. Maybe some would argue that point, as the movie ends with Hawking giving his answer to what his life philosophy is since he doesn't believe in a God. However, the movie is primarily about him, and his philosophy might be atheistic, but it certainly isn't anti-theistic. I get the feeling that Hawking doesn't give the God question all that much thought, but he'd be willing to if given some compelling evidence.

Even more important than presenting atheism accurately, the movie showed what the scientific view of the world really is. There are a lot of strawmen versions of that in the media, as people with a scientific mindset are usually shown as being closed-minded and practically worship science as a religion, rejecting out of hand anything that doesn't fit into their paradigm. What this type of representation misunderstands is that an evidence based worldview allows for the possibility for pretty much anything, provided that there's evidence for it. If anything, it's the most open-minded point of view. One of my favorite parts was when Hawking explained how once he tried to prove his black hole theory, his next mission was to set about DISproving it! This is the key thing that's different from a religious-based versus a reason-based worldview. You don't go looking for things that prove you right, as that's nothing more than an exercise in confirmation bias. The point is to accept the idea that you can be wrong about anything, and, as Hawking said, how you "feel" about what's true is irrelevant.

I realize that I'm really narrowing in on one slight aspect of the film, but there are plenty of professional reviews out there if you want that sort of a thing. As I stated already, the movie is fantastic. I found myself tearing up pretty regularly throughout. If I wasn't getting misty-eyed because of his hardships, I was getting emotional because of his triumphs. He's definitely an inspiration for a number of reasons, and I'm glad to add Stephen Hawking to my list of personal heroes.

I do think that the film should have ended with his rap battle against Einstein though:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Soundgarden and my black days

More than a couple of decades ago now, I was sitting in a hospital bed in London, England. I had come down with Hepatitis A after returning from a trip to Egypt a few weeks before, and I was recovering as my skin slowly went from being yellow to its more natural color of Caucasian Flesh. (Crayola, you owe me a royalty if you use that as a name for a crayon color.) I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, as I not only had that to deal with, but I was heartbroken over some girl. There was also a sense of general melancholy that would have been there if either of my other two problems had been nonexistent, as the news coming from the television in my hospital room reported that Kurt Cobain had committed suicide.

Essentially what had become my theme song was Soundgarden's "Fell on Black Days". I had purchased the Superunknown CD, which included a bonus track not available on the U.S. release, about a month before. While I liked the entire disc, this was the song that was speaking to me in particular.

Yeah, I know, there are few things worse than people feeling sorry for themselves. It certainly could have been worse, especially considering that Hepatitis A is the one that you eventually get over, and yeah, I can't even remember the last name of the girl that had me all obsessive. What do you want from me? I was twenty - not too different from a teenager. There's just something about those ending lines when you feel like your luck is in the crapper:

I sure don't mind a change 
But I fell on black days 
How would I know 
That this could be My fate?

I think that I sometimes forget to list Soundgarden when I'm asked what my favorite bands of all time are. But when I look back on it, and when I think of how much I still enjoy their music when I bust out those old CDs, they certainly belong somewhere in my top ten. I mentioned that I had bought Superunknown when it came out, even though I was studying aboad. I didn't have a whole lot of extra spending money, but I made sure that I got this one on the day it came out. (And yes, I still have it.) And of course, I saw them live when they were touring for that particular album.

That wasn't the first time that I saw them. When I was in high school, and slightly before the whole "Seattle Sound" thing went crazy, I went to a "Day on the Green" concert at the Oakland Colosseum. The headlining band was Metallica, but also playing were Queensryche, Faith No More, and Soundgarden - which was the only band I didn't know. (Funny side note - I was probably most enthusiastic for Queensryche, but let's just say that of all those bands, their CDs are the only ones that I don't still currently own.) I don't remember too much about that show, but I remember thinking that they were pretty cool. And I definitely remember when they performed "Big Dumb Sex", and I'd like to think that I was savvy enough to get the fact that they were being ironic.

It probably wasn't too long afterwards that I purchased Badmotorfinger. I suppose the reason why I sometimes neglect to think of Soundgarden when thinking of my favorite band is that they were overshadowed by Pearl Jam. That was the band that always sprang to mind when I thought of what my favorite current bands were. They certainly got more attention in the media, especially after Kurt Cobain died. And if anybody remembers Rock 'n' Roll Comics, they might recall that Soundgarden never got their own issue; instead, they were a backup in the Pearl Jam comic. (I still have that somewhere as well.) And to further prove this point, you can check out my tribute to Pearl Jam that I wrote more than five years ago! I guess that you might say that Soundgarden got a little bit "Outshined". Ahem. Heh. Heh. Hurm...moving on...

I've heard people tell me that as they get older, they like things to be a little bit more mellow. That might still happen to me, but as of now I continuously find myself heading in the opposite direction. I can't stand it when one of my local radio stations has its "Acoustic Sunrise" on Sunday mornings. Acoustic? Acoustic? I need something to wake me up, dammit! I don't want to go back to sleep!

With that said, I find myself gravitating toward Soundgarden when I need a blast of something loud. I ordered their new CD of rarities and B-sides, Echo of Miles, but I wanted a fix while driving yesterday, so I put in Badmotorfinger. I think that I was banging my head to "Slaves and Bulldozers" with as much enthusiasm as I ever did.

My love of the band continues to the present day, and it's even rubbed off on my four-year-old son, Logan, who will sometimes request that I play the band. He was a big fan of their song that they did for The Avengers, "Live to Rise", and you can see him, when he was about two, rocking out to that song below:

He (and I) also enjoy their latest studio release, King Animal, and we've spent many trips back from pre-school listening to it. His favorites are "Been Away Too Long" and "By Crooked Steps". (I'll never understand why some parents complain that they have to listen to kids music in the car. I've always just played what I'd normally play. Luckily, he gets enthusiastic about at least some of it.)

So, why do I like this band so much? First of all, I think that it's time to acknowledge that Chris Cornell has one of the best rock voices ever. He's got a range, and he can go real throaty and soulfull in one song to a bloodcurdling metal wail in the next. (And sometimes in the same song.) Also, and I think that guitarist Kim Thayil has something to do with this, but they have a certain sound about them that you can't trace back to another band. Sure, they have their roots in loud 70s rock, but there's definitely something unique about them. Think of all the copycat bands out there that wound up sounding like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, etc. I can't think of any that copied Soundgarden. Maybe that's because they're unique enough that it would be painfully obvious if somebody did.

Are their lyrics a touch on the dark side? Sure, they can sometimes lean that way. However, sometimes the dark stuff is what you need to get you to see the light. Back when I was living through my own "black days", part of what got me through is that song. Contrary to what some folks might think, songs like that aren't depressing. Instead, they make you realize that you're not the only one who goes through that kind of thing. It's the artist's way of letting you know that you're not alone, and knowing that is what gets you through it.

And it's not all dark. When I'm coming out of a funk, the lyrics to the song "Dusty" are always a nice way to reflect on that mood:

And nothing's gonna put me out 
It's backing down and under 
I'm down on the upside now 
It's turning back around 
Turning back around

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Might I suggest a divorce?

Image Source
My wife and I talk about divorce every now and then. No, we don't talk about getting a divorce, but we sometimes talk about the concept. When I told her that I was thinking of writing a blog post on the subject, she told me that I should do it, but I wasn't so sure that it was a good idea. Why? Because I figure that there's no way for me to write about divorce as a concept without at least some friends and/or family members taking it as a sign that there is trouble in my marriage and that we're thinking of getting a divorce. And even if I'm sure to write a disclaimer, like I'm doing right now, that we're thinking of getting a divorce, it'll sound a bit too "doth protest too much", which would be a sure sign that we're talking about a divorce. Why else would I be so defensive about it?

What's the right amount of times I can deny that my wife and I are discussing divorce which will put people's minds at ease that we actually are not discussing divorce? Should I toss one more in? Okay, one more, and then I'll do it just one more time at the end. Hopefully that won't seem like overkill. So, here goes:

I assure you that my wife and I aren't discussing divorce.

Why do we talk about divorce (not getting a divorce - shoot, that's one denial too many now, isn't it)? Oftentimes, it's because we know people who seem to be in rather loveless marriages where they don't even like each other to the point where it seems like they might be better off divorced. Of course, we'd never say this to their faces because nobody really knows what's going on between two people aside from those two, and "get a divorce" is the sort of advice you should only give when you know one of the partners is a serial killer.

We've even heard somebody say that "Divorce is simply not an option!" Well...why not?

I realize that with current divorce rates in this country, it's not like not enough people are considering it. I also think that people shouldn't rush into marriages, as those are more likely to end in a divorce. Still, there's a stigma about ending a marriage that I don't think should exist.

Here's the thing - I do consider divorce to be an option when it comes to my marriage. It's not an option that I'm genuinely considering. I can't even say that it's a fleeting thought. That's because I'm happy right now. But things can change. I could change. My wife could change. We both could change. We could grow apart. What if we get to the point where we can't stand the sight of each other anymore? What if we get to the point where everything becomes a loud, shouting argument with one another - which we would be subjecting our son to?

If it ever gets to that, and while I honestly can't ever see that happening, then yeah, we should probably start talking about getting a divorce. I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to salvage our marriage for the sake of both us and our son, but shouldn't there eventually be a point where we can be honest about whether we'd be better off separated or not?

When I think of all the people I know who are divorced, I don't look at a single one of them and think that they would have been better off if they stayed married. If anything, I think that some of them probably should have gotten divorced sooner. They probably could have spared themselves a lot of pain.

I'm also aware that for some people, it's a religious thing as to why divorce is not considered to be an option. That, to me, is just one more knock against religion, as it arbitrarily creates a boundary against something that could help a person. Yeah, God doesn't like divorce. He doesn't like a lot of other things too. But if God wants you to stay in a loveless, and possibly mentally damaging, relationship, then maybe it's time to stop giving a crap what this fictional character has to say.

Oh, and I'd just like to point out that in no way should this blog post be interpreted as my wife and I discussing getting a divorce.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

That ain't Doctor Doom

When it comes to adapting works of literature into motion pictures, one thing I'm not is an absolute purist. I'm probably one of the few English teachers who likes the movie version of Beowulf with Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother. Sure, it took a sharp turn from the plot of the original, but it was clearly commenting on issues that were brought up by the source material. (And let's all be honest and realize that even the 1000 year old version we've read in school isn't really the "original" version of the story either.)

I also don't mind making changes made in adaptations of comic books so long as it's all true to the heart of the original. For instance, X-Men: Days of Future Past changed up all kinds of things from the original story, mixing in all kinds of characters and introducing new subplots. However, with both the comic and movie, you can summarize them the same way: a member of the X-Men has to travel back in time to stop an assassination that triggers a post-apocalyptic future.

So yeah, I don't care if they change stuff around. Movies have different needs from novels and comic books, and changing things often makes sense.

Which brings us to the reboot of The Fantastic Four. I was looking forward to this because they basically loused up the last version of it. (To be honest, I never bothered watching the second one.) It definitely had elements taken right out of the comics, but it basically didn't work very well as a movie itself. It's most egregious sin though was ruining Doctor Doom, one of the best villains of all time. More on that in a minute.

Generally speaking, I avoid complaining about movies before I see them. I didn't jump on the "OMG! No Ben Affleck as Batman!" bandwagon, as I'm more than willing to give Batfleck the benefit of the doubt. I also didn't lose my shit when it was announced that Toby Maguire's Spider-Man would have organic webshooters. When it came to the reboot of The Fantastic Four, I didn't give a hoot that Johnny Storm was going to be played by a black guy. Comics fans can be a passionate bunch, but sometimes it seems more like they hate this stuff than love it based on what you read online. 

However, I'm now officially going to bad-mouth this movie, and it brings it all back to Doctor Doom. He sucked buttnuts in the last incarnation of the character. In this version, I don't even understand why they're calling him Doctor Doom, as I have to wonder if anybody's even read a Fantastic Four comic book. No, I don't care that they give him the more believable name of "Domashev". However, the one thing that's too egregious to ignore is that they're making him into an "very anti-social blogger".

Blogger? Blogger?! BLOGGER?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Doctor Doom is the despotic ruler of an entire country! His people have been brainwashed into worshipping him! He's a genius when it comes to science. He's a prodigy when it comes to magic. He knows everything, and it pisses him off like nobody's business that Reed "Mr. Fantastic" Richards might very well be smarter than him.

He's not a frikken' blogger!

I know, let's make a version of Hamlet where King Claudius is the court's jester instead. Let's make a version of To Kill a Mockingbird where Bob Ewell is simply a guy who jaywalks. Let's make a version of Batman where Batman doesn't obsess over the loss of his parents! (Oh, wait...they did that.) 

Ya know, maybe you can create an interesting villain out of an anti-social blogger. But that's not Doctor Doom. It's something else. Blogging would be beneath Doom. And the man's not just anti-social, he's a complete narcissist, but he actually has the ability to back it up to some extent.

Shoot, I've even had good things to say about Daredevil, but I'm starting to think that unless it gets unbelievable word of mouth and manages to be a good movie (if not necessarily a good Fantastic Four movie) then I just can't see myself actually seeing this in the theaters, and dammit, I saw Green Lantern at the cinema.

The only positive thing I can think of all this comes from what Scott C. Harris had to say, and I paraphrase: hopefully this film will totally bomb and the rights to the FF will revert back to Marvel Studios, and then we can finally stop saying that The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Multiple monotheisms

A talking point that gets thrown around a lot when discussing the major Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that they all worship the same God. Usually, the point in bringing this up is to encourage tolerance and acceptance among the three groups. While I don't want to crap on the idea of people getting along, I do feel like this is a disingenuous talking point. It's not quite as bad as those who try to accommodate other beliefs with the "it's true for me and that's true for them" talking point, but it bears more analysis than it usually gets.

Sure, they all have something in common. They all begin with the same God who kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, told Noah to build a boat, and made a covenant with Abraham. They all accept the story where Judah Ben Hur told the King of Siam to let his people go (or something like that). So, same God, right?  I'm not so sure.

According to Jews and Muslims, God is one and indivisible. According to most Christians, God came down in human form as Jesus Christ, and he is split into the Trinity, giving you three gods for the price of one. (Christians will insist that they have a monotheism, but honestly I think that the Muslims and Jews make more sense when they think of that concept as being decidedly polytheistic.) So, the very nature of this same God they believe in is different. If I told you that I owned a certain kind of animal that was a mammal, and you said that you had the same one but it was a reptile, would you think that's the same animal? (That might not be the best analogy. Work with me here. The point is, how can a Trinitarian God and an indivisible one be the same thing?)

Perhaps you think that's a nitpick, but we can go on from there. Jews don't even recognize Jesus at all, but for Christians, he's easily the most important part of the whole concept. The sacrifice of Jesus was necessary for salvation and what everything in the Jewish scriptures was leading up to. Jews don't even believe that humanity needs the kind of salvation that Christianity claims that we do. Plus, tehy can give you an entirely different interpretation of their own scriptures. (But hey, what do Jews know about the Torah anyway?) So, supposedly it's the same God who has two completely different concerns regarding what his creation needs. How is this the same being?

The difference between Christianity and Islam is similar, as Muslims absolutely reject the idea that God came down in the form of a man and "died". They also do not accept that God can be split into a Trinity. Unlike Jews, they do believe that Jesus was a prophet and he plays an important part in their overall theology, but to say that a guy's not God is saying something drastically different than saying that he is God.

I'm not denying the historical link between all three of these religions, but they each define their deity in such different ways that it's like they're not even talking about the same thing. Even when you start to break it down by denominations/sects/schools of the three main faiths, you still wind up with a singular God who's described in so many different ways that it's hard to imagine that they're all talking about the same being. Are the Orthodox Jews correct and the creator of the world gives a crap about mixed fabrics? Seems like a different sort of personality from the being of Reform Jews who is more hip with changing times. One way or the other, he certainly can't be both.

Of course, Christians aren't off the hook. We can go as extreme as Mormonism (which is arguably more different from mainstream Christianity than Islam or Judaism when you've got a God who used to live on the planet Kolob.) And it sure doesn't seem like Methodists are talking about the same guy that the Westboro Baptist Church rant on about. Same name? Yeah. Same being? I can't find my way to that conclusion.

Even in the earliest days of Christianity, there were strikingly different views as to what Jesus even was. Some considered him to be fully God. Some considered him to be more along the lines of an "adopted" son. It's like they weren't even talking about the same thing, just many different ideas that they all wanted to call Jesus.

Despite the fact that all these Gods stem from the same source, there is reason to believe that this is hardly a unique phenomenon. The Norse goddesses, Frigga and Freyja, are considered different goddesses, but there is reason to believe that they might have evolved from one singular goddess. With enough time and distance between related peoples, its not so strange to have that sort of a thing happen. You'll also find similarities in gods from different cultures. For instance, the Slavic god Perkunas shares many of the same attributes as the Norse Thor, as they both control the thunder and lightning while riding goat-pulled chariots in the sky. It's not so unlikely that the two descended from a common ancestor, if you'll pardon the evolutionary wording of that statement. (It should be noted that they have a lot of differences as well - but I'd argue that their differences are no greater than the differences you'll find within the Abrahamic faiths.)

I realize that as of this point, I've probably completely lost most theists, as I'm treating Yahweh/Jesus/Allah the same as any other mythological deity. But if you're with me so far, then consider that there has been at least one study which shows that people who believe in God generally tend to think that God agrees with them on important issues. It's pretty rare to meet two theists who see God in exactly the same way, but even when they're close, they'll ultimately be describing somebody who's more their idealized self than anything else. I've noted this before when it comes to Jesus, as people (even some atheists and agnostics) will talk about how wonderful he is, but they're essentially describing a character that they've invented in their heads, only borrowing the bits of the New Testament that they like.

I realize that it's a very inclusive, accommodating point of view that creates this idea that all of these people are worshiping the same being. Some will take it even further and say that basically any idea, be it Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, deist, etc. of a deity essentially amounts to the same thing. While the motivation might be a good one, it ultimately trivializes one hell of a lot of history and a great deal of cultural diversity.

I once debated a Christian and I spoke of how there are other gods, but the Christian kept insisting that there is only one God. I tried to make it clear that while I understood that, according to his belief system, there is only one God, there have been thousands of gods that have been worshiped all over the world for a long, long time. He wasn't having any of it. But honestly, now I'm not even sure that I agree with as much as I was willing to grant him. Yeah, people might be using that generic term "God" and think that they're all talking about the same thing, but I can make an argument for many different monotheisms - perhaps even one for each theist out there.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Parenting - on "bad" language

I'm not a fan of the idea that there are some words that are "bad". Sure, there is language that is inappropriate for some situations, but nothing about a word makes it inherently bad. For me, it's more about what a person means rather than the actual words. For instance, I've heard some of the most racist things in my life by people who didn't utter a single racist epithet.

Lately, my four-year-old son has been a fan of watching YouTube videos. He especially likes watching the ones where a person plays a level of Super Mario Brothers while commenting on the game. Sometimes it's multiplayer, and they all riff off of each other and make all kinds of jokes. Sometimes the language gets a bit rough. Don't get me wrong - they're not dropping the F bomb, but they're saying words that I'm not ready for my boy to go around using in public. You know, stuff like crap, dammit, bastard, etc.

Fortunately, I haven't heard my son use any of those words yet. I figure though that it's probably only a matter of time before he does though. Part of me was tempted to tell him that he could no longer watch those videos. There would definitely be a lot of whining and complaining if I did that, and he'd feel like I was punishing him even though he hadn't done anything wrong.

I tried another tactic. I sat down and had a talk with him. I told him that the players use a lot of words that aren't very nice, and I don't want to hear him talking like they do. I told my son that so long as he didn't use those words, he could keep watching. However, if he started repeating what he heard on the videos, then he could no longer watch them.

How well did he understand that? I'm not sure. Was this a good strategy? I guess I'll find out. That was a few weeks ago, and he still hasn't said any of those words. It's working so far.

Ultimately though, I realize that I can't hide him from these things forever, and forbidding things is something that I think should be done as sparingly as possible - even though I realize that there are some things that I absolutely have to keep away from them for as long as I can.