Saturday, October 28, 2006

Movie / Root of All Evil

Richard Dawkins is the foremost advocate of the doctrine of Evolution, and a professional athiest. A telegenic Oxford biology professor and prolific author, he is funded by Microsoft billionaire Charles Simonyi. Thus who better to ask why our world is being torn apart by fundamentalist religions, based on faded scriptures, that have gone beyond ignoring Science and are actively attacking it?

This 90 minute documentary is a film version of two shows prepared for British television, screened back to back minus the commercials. In it he visits many religious sites, interviews religious leaders, and insults them all by asking why do they believe and teach such obvious nonsense? To the most liberal one, the Bishop of Oxford, whose views seem pretty sane, he asks, why are you in religion at all?

His tour takes him to Lourdes (France), Ted Haggard's New Life Church in Colorado Springs, the Western Wall and Dome of the Rock (al-Aqsa Mosque) in Jerusalem, a Hasidic school in London, a rehearsal of a "Hell House" drama production, and more. He limits himself to the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and there is no discussion of Eastern religions (which are far more compatible with Evolution).

It is impossible to summarize the ideas expressed in this provocative film, which will be best remembered for Dawkins' aggressive questioning, every bit as dogmatic and self-assured as those he is attacking. He spends some time analyzing horrendous biblical passages, and looking at bones in a museum, but his discussion of Evolution is so minimal and watered down that it won't change anyone's mind.

Dawkins' job title at Oxford is "the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science," and with such prestige and backing he must have considerable resources at his disposal. Yet, alas, I must give this film a D-, or maybe an F, for failing to help the public understand Evolution and why it matters.

Rather than a travelogue of Richard sparring with Imams, this should have been a high-budget documentary on the Theory of Evolution itself, with him standing up like Al Gore in front of $3 million worth of graphical animations, interviews with top scientists, and tours of biotech labs and factories, to actually make the case for why one should abandon bogus religious beliefs! For him to just presume he's right, rather than show us why, is preposterous.

If he felt any need to debate religious leaders, rather than appeal directly to the common man, he should have prepared his talking points better. One could conclude that US evangelical leader Ted Haggard defeated him in debate, and that in all cases both he and they made no effort to formalize their assumptions, and talked past each other, usually in their case with well-honed debate points.

Despite these failings, the film has a driving energy. It is fascinating (and terrifying) to see all these intolerant beliefs on display, his included. An Islamic activist in Jerusalem tells him he'll be damned for failing to demand that women be covered. And Haggard kindly warns that the issue for the next generation will be the Islamisation of Europe. (Translation: Once we're taken over by folks who behead women who appear uncovered in public and men who trim their beards, you'll wish you had me back, who only wants to behead gays and adulterers.)

The film has no promotion budget, appearing at only one art house with an audience of 14 on opening night. Dawkins could have reached a wider audience more efficiently by releasing these two shows on YouTube and appearing on Colbert to promote them. There are enough bizarre moments to provide a field day for TV comedians!

Not Rated. No sex, no violence. However it could bore to death anyone who is not a left-leaning intellectual. There are scenes of people boarding buses in Jerusalem, and he could have intercut footage of bomb attacks, to add dramatic intensity to his long rant on religious extremism, but did not.

At a deeper level of substance, for anyone still reading, he makes a brief stab at suggesting that a basis for morality might be derived from genetics, as seen in cooperative social behaviors of chimpanzees. Yet this contradicts the famous view of his prior books that social altruism is a myth. Further, to provide full scientific disclosure, he must own up that Mother Nature spiced the broth with a small percentage of social predators (e.g., psychopaths), in an evolutionarily stable state (ESS), and hence that aggressive creeps who enslave people and lead them to their doom are part of Nature's Plan.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Movie / Jesus Camp

If you liked Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth you'll love Jesus Camp, an up-close look at right-wing evangelical preachers indoctrinating (aka brainwashing) young kids in the American heartland. I thought this would be an undercover expose, but apart from the ominous soundtrack, it was clearly intended to be, and is, a rocket-propelled grenade fired at American liberals by the evangelicals themselves, using the (liberal) film makers as a vehicle.

Jesus Camp is a straight face documentary of the charismatic Rev. Becky Fisher, her ministry to kids, and her "Kids on Fire" Bible camp in North Dakota. But hers is not your old-time revival. She has her 7-9 year olds pray in tongues, repent their sins, pray to a life sized cardboard figure of GW Bush (who has surrounded himself with godly people), and she passes out fetus dolls so all can tearfully pray for righteous judges who will end abortion. All of which seems perfectly normal to her. Summarizing some views as expressed by her and her young followers --

Muslims are indoctrinating their kids to carry AK-47s and become suicide bombers, so Christians need to keep up. Evolution is not science. Global warming is bunk since temperatures have only risen 0.6 degrees. Galileo did the right thing by giving up science for Christ. When prayer was taken out of our schools, they went to hell. Harry Potter should be put to death for being a warlock. I will serve God all the days of my life. There are dead churches where people sing 3 hymns and hear a sermon, but God prefers churches where folks jump up and down. America is supposed to be God's country, but we've got to break the power of Satan over our government. (Scene of kids breaking coffee cups labeled "Satan" with hammers.) I love this (material) American lifestyle, but it's a sick old world.

Near the end there's an interview with Rev. Ted Haggard of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, leader of an organization representing 30 million evangelicals, who the Bush Admin confers with weekly. (According to subtitles Colorado Springs is an area of intense evangelical activity.)

He believes the message is simple. Science tells us we are blobs of chemicals created by an impersonal process of natural selection, whereas the Bible tells us that God loves us, cares about us, and has a plan for us. This is an easy sell, particularly to kids searching for meaning in their young lives. The Bible tells us everything we need to know. "If the evangelicals vote, they determine the election. It's an exciting life."

And, as voice over news reports remind us, Samuel A. Alito Jr has been confirmed to the US Supreme Court, so obviously God has answered their fervent and unrelenting prayers.