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.

So...how 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:

1 comment:

Deech Verdecia said...

Well, you just bumped up this movie into my top 5 of wanting to see! Good review!