Left Behind

It’s been a while. I’ve started back at the Manitoban doing something very different, so that’s taken up a lot of time. I’m also applying to grad schools, a process that from what I’ve seen and heard is infinitely more stressful than actually doing a master’s degree.

I managed to steal away enough time to see the movie Left Behind this weekend. It still seems hard to believe that this is a real thing—if you want to give your Rapture movie mainstream credibility (as they apparently did), Nicolas Cage is a puzzling choice for lead actor. He has ascended to a higher plane of existence and cannot appear onscreen with mortal actors, even such luminaries as Chad Michael Murray and what’s her face, without appearing photoshopped in. The ontological whiplash alone is worth the price of admission.

They appear to have blown the entire budget on Cage, which means that there is little room left for such expenses as effects, writing, or a cast. This makes it a B-movie of a kind rarely seen in theatres nowadays, which means that if you’re looking to be entertained by wooden acting, unconvincing graphics, or bathetic and oddly composed shots, then you’re in for a treat.

Unfortunately, the movie takes a minor subplot from the early part of the novel and blows it up into feature length, which means that a lot of the real fun stuff with the Antichrist and the United Nations didn’t make the cut. It also means that the second half of the movie is pretty much a wash, once the characters have accepted that the Rapture has happened and begun to focus on the practical problem of getting the plane back on the ground safely.

Fred Clark has famously dissected the series page by page and frame by frame to show how its literary failings are necessitated by the narcissistic theology underlying belief in the Rapture and the End Times (a couple personal favourites: here, here, and here). There’s not much of that in evidence here, but that’s probably because there is hardly a hint of End Times theology in the movie. The Rapture happens, sure, but it’s treated more as an inexplicable disaster than a religious event. There are Christians, but it seems unlikely that anyone, even the most die-hard Left Behind fan, would not be annoyed by them. They don’t even attempt to make Nicolas Cage’s character seem unsympathetic for distancing himself from his Bible-thumping wife.

The result is a movie that is much more watchable than the 2000 Kirk Cameron vehicle, but that is stripped almost entirely of the peculiar worldview that is what makes the rest of the series so entertaining. It’s good for an evening of laughs, not so good as an entry into the politico-theological bestiary.

Apostasy squared: “New Atheism” considered harmful

Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience posts this list of recommended reading for atheists. The list, which prominently features Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, with a little Russell thrown in and Dennett conspicuously absent, is supposed to give readers “a basic handle on the intellectual foundations of atheism”. This is the New Atheism, the strange mixture of half-understood science, naive philosophy, and adolescent rage beloved of fourteen-year-old boys and others who might as well be. It evolved gradually over the last forty to fifty years and has recently been taking the world by storm. I date the New Atheism’s ascendancy from 2006, when Dawkins’s The God Delusion was published and became an instant bestseller. The rise of the Internet (particularly blogs and social media) is also crucial because it allowed fans of the New Atheism to organize—which was difficult in the past due to geographic spreading and the fact that many of these people are not very well-adjusted socially.

The central figures of this movement are Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, the Tufts philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, and the late political writer Christopher Hitchens. Each one brings his own distinctive style to the table. Dawkins began as a pretty good popular science writer with a chip on his shoulder about religion. It wasn’t until The God Delusion that he went full-blown cultural critic. God only knows (excuse the expression) if he’s done anything scientific in recent years. As far as I know he’s currently a full-time atheist.

Harris combines a mild-mannered demeanour with moments of bugfuck insanity, particularly when the subject turns to Islam and conflicts in the Middle East. This is a topic to which we’ll return. Hitchens was a drunken cryptofascist asshole who appears to have been roped into the movement largely by accident; most of his writing is about politics and touches religion only obliquely.

By far the most tolerable of the four is Daniel Dennett. This is probably because he’s the only one who has an agenda more sophisticated than the grown-up equivalent of telling the younger kids there ain’t no Santa Claus (Dennett has confessed to playing along on one occasion when he was mistaken for the jolly old elf). His book Consciousness Explained is an enlightening read about consciousness and the self. He is probably the least-read of the four; his books require a little more heavy lifting and he is less prone to sloganeering.

I’ve been a bit glib in the above summary. Partly this is my own frustration coming out, partly it’s a transparent attempt to bate the New Atheist fans into responding, but mostly it’s affectionate prodding. Although I would not consider myself a New Atheist (and I’m skeptical of the term “atheist” in general), I did at one time and I understand the thought process that leads people into this movement. I get why people pick up Richard Dawkins and fall in love with him, and I feel a certain amount of kinship with them. This is tempered by a desire to kick them in the ass until they read a goddamn book1, which would solve a lot of their problems. Continue reading