Hollywood, God, Stories, and Cosmos

Lawrence Krauss, physicist and cosmologist and author of The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing, responds in The New Yorker about Matthew McConaughey’s reference to God in his Oscar award acceptance speech.

Apparently there was a Twitter kerfuffle from right-wing commentators to the effect that the Oscar Awards audience didn’t applaud *enough* to McConaughey’s speech, as if to diss his reference to God.

Krauss responds that far from that expression of faith being an exception, it’s more the rule –- Hollywood makes films directed at the faithful (it’s in the business to make money, after all, and the faithful are in the majority), and it’s atheists who are demonized in popular culture, including films.

Jerry Coyne thinks Krauss protests a bit too much, but doesn’t disagree. Hemant Mehta has a more interesting insight into why there are no Hollywood films about atheism — religious stories are better stories. And there are so many of them lately.

Think about this: “Noah” is an interesting story. “Son of God” is an interesting story. “Heaven is for Real” is a *very* interesting story. Ditto with “The Ten Commandments” and “The Passion of the Christ” and, hell, even “Left Behind: The Movie.” I’m not saying the stories are true or that I liked those films or that they were good stories, but those stories are compelling to a huge number of people. They’re not films about Christianity, per se, but films inspired by it. In many cases, they’re about people who happen to be spiritual/religious. In all cases, though, they tell a story.


[T]he problem with movies about atheism: They all tend to be about why religion is wrong and atheists are right. And no one wants to watch that (except for those of you reading this).

This is consistent with McRaney’s notion that human begins have an impulse to try to understand everything in terms of narrative — stories. (The simpler the better. Science is hard!)

And this topic dovetails neatly with the impending premiere of the new Cosmos TV series, which this Washington Post article identifies with a generation of “atheists, agnostics, humanists and other ‘nones.’”

Among this group, many credit Sagan and the original “Cosmos” with instilling in them skepticism of the supernatural and a sense of wonder about the universe. Both, they say, encouraged their rejection of institutional religion.

Sagan was careful never to criticize anyone’s religious beliefs; he let the immensity and wonder of the universe speak for itself.

But a review in Slate of the new show finds this version more explicit and confrontational about the conflict between science and faith, as a “pushback against faith’s encroachments on the intellectual terrain of science” in the last thirty years. The new show’s method though is similar to the original’s:

Cosmos is offering viewers a way to reconcile science and faith: Don’t let your god be too small.

Cosmos is trying to encourage all remotely reasonable people, god-fearing or otherwise, to look up at the stars.

As I said in a previous post, the original Cosmos wasn’t a game-changer for me the way it seems to have been for others; it confirmed that path I was on, that the story of this immense, ancient universe, is a far better story than the creation parables of Bronze-age tribes. And the story through science is verifiable.

And I try to keep in mind that the notion of being an ‘atheist’, and railing against the silliness of religious beliefs (which is too easy), is a negative position which likely to sound mean and is not likely to evoke much sympathy, even from those on the edge. I need to try to promote the alternative: reason, evidence, reality, and the wonders that science has revealed, and will continue to reveal.

And science fiction can be a curative. Plan to bring the focus of this blog back to that.

I look forward to the new Cosmos series and wonder/hope it might be as influential as the original series was.

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