Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Atheist Lead In 'Orange Is The New Black'

'Orange is the New Black' may sound like some sort of 'Sex and the City' in prison type of show, but it's actually really good!

It's great to see a show where men are the minority, dealing with real issues and things anybody can relate to - not just stuff that's 'by women, for women'. It's not a chick flick. It's a normal show that just happens to mainly star women, just like every normal show where most of the cast are men.

Religion plays a part in the show and for the most part is handled well. There's a chapel in the prison that has to be shared between the various faiths and denominations, so time allowed for its use is split up evenly. There's a preacher who seems to be a rock of compassion for those who need her, the Spanish community pray at mealtimes and it's left at that, there's a Buddhist yoga instructor, and there are a couple of extremist nuts that give faith a bad name.

That's all fine. It reflects reality. It's OK to show the messed up side of religion. It's good even. This stuff needs to be highlighted so it can be dealt with. All the while the moderate and compassionate normal people of faith are also on screen to show that they aren't all nutcases, there should be no reason for viewers to complain.

I don't know the beliefs of the shows writers and producers, although episode 12 seemed to be an example of the main character Piper acting as a voice for their views.
As I say, for the bulk of the series, they've been respectful and handled faith well. The cast includes Kate Mulgrew, who is well known to be a devout Catholic, and also Laura Prepon who is a Scientologist, as well as a number of other people of various faiths, so the producers probably are sympathetic to the belief systems of other people.

So I don't want to come down too hard on the show for the things that were said in Episode 12. It might have been the writers speaking through Piper, or it might have been just another character expressing a poorly thought out world-view. Piper is hardly the beacon of reason and morality anyway - being involved with drug dealers and cheating on her fiancé.

Whichever it is, I'm just a little concerned that what she said might be taken by viewers as good rational sense. So I'm gonna go over it and try to clear up the mess. WARNING: MINOR EPISODE SPOILERS

The conversation began as the known Christian extremist, homophobic, racist nutcase known as Pennsatucky, who so far had been a bit of an adversary for Piper, in an attempt to make peace asks her what she believes in.
"Well, I've always thought that agnostic was sort of a cop-out. But you know, if I had to label it, I'd say that I'm a secular humanist. Which is not to say I'm not spiritual"

That first line there 'agnostic was sort of a cop-out', stinks of the influence of Christopher Hitchens. I personally don't see the problem with someone who says "I don't know" if they honestly don't know! Why pick a side? Why feel that you have to?
Once you pick a side, you have to be able to justify why you went with one and not the other.

The next part seems to try to put a safe label on herself so she can stay agnostic. Secular doesn't have to mean 'non-believer'. It can just mean keeping away from the subject of faith altogether.
Then she seems to hint at having some sort of spiritual belief. Now I can't figure out how to square comfortably believing in something spiritual without also being open to there being a God. It might be true that there is only spirit and there is no God - that is an option - but both rely on the same kind of evidence and it seems strange that someone would deny God but accept spirit like that.
You do often notice many atheists mentioning their souls. They seem to accept that it is there, but not God. Maybe on the sort of 'I have to see/touch/feel it to believe it' kind of thinking a lot of them go by, the soul is pretty obvious but God isn't. I don't see how once you've accepted one supernatural element in your life, you can say another one isn't there based on the sole fact that it is supernatural. It's a self contradiction.

I'll leave out the humanist part for now. The moral argument explains that without God there are no objective grounds for humanism, but that's no reason for someone to choose to be one. I'd prefer non-believers to be humanists anyway - at least we're all on the same page when it comes to caring and equality.

After this, Pennsatucky asks Piper to pray for forgiveness, which at first she is reluctant to, but in the name of peace gives it a go.
"Dear Mr. Christ, I know that I've done some things recently that have not been, have been up to your standards. And I feel pretty ashamed. And I've done some things lately I feel pretty lousy about. And I'm wondering if maybe you could make things right between us? If I could be forgiven, that would be really Um That would be really comforting. Amen."
Her prayer actually seems to touch her and it's a lovely moment. It didn't have to be an actual acceptance of Jesus for it to be acceptable obviously, but her realisation that she needed forgiveness could be an important moment for her as a character in general.

The main speech comes later when Pennsatucky tried to baptise Piper officially. Piper refuses saying that she wants to get along and end the rivalry, but this is a step too far for her. She doesn't want to commit to something she doesn't really believe in. I find that completely reasonable.

It's the little speech she gives next that really was the mishmash of nonsense that needs to be broken down. Her 'secular humanist' stuff was nothing and if it was left at that, there'd be no reason to call out the episode on it, but the following spiel delivered as logic and sense is the kind of popular opinion that's so full of embarrassing tripe that it can't be left alone.
I'll take one more opportunity here to say I love the show and am giving the writers the benefit of the doubt on whether they were trying to be preachy or not.
"I believe in science, I believe in evolution. I believe in Nate Silver and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Christopher Hitchens, although I do admit, he could be kind of an asshole. I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get wacked with machetes. I don't believe a billion Indians are going to hell, I don't think we get cancer to learn life lessons, and I don't believe that people die young because God needs another angel. I think it's just bullshit, and on some level, I think we all know that.
I mean, don't you? Look, I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all of the random shitty things that happen to us. And I wish I could get on that ride, I'm sure I would be happier. But I can't. Feelings aren't enough. I need it to be real."
To someone who hasn't got much of a clue about theology, or history, or even science, this stuff might sound convincing. It almost works on a couple of the Christian nuts she says it to.
But for someone who does have a vague idea, it falls apart from the start! 'I believe in science' is a popular atheist slogan. But what does that mean!?! Science and God are not incompatible. Science and Christianity are not incompatible. Christians invented science! Many of the greatest scientists in history were Christian or theists or deists: Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein to name some of the better known ones.
Which leads on to the next bit: "I believe in evolution". Darwin was a Christian until the age of 40, though later because of bad experience with organised religion, he converted to agnostic deist. Even if he wasn't, evolution is entirely compatible with Christianity. It's a complete non-issue for Christians. Saying "I believe in evolution" doesn't come into the conversation.
Next a couple of name drops. Tyson is gaining popularity lately for the atheist propaganda show 'Cosmos', which has a naturalist conversion agenda disguised as science. But he's the kind of person that says the silly stuff Piper said. Hitchens, though he wrote and spoke plenty on the subject of religion, is not respected among theological circles. He offers nothing of use to the conversation and it's embarrassing to philosophers both theist and atheist alike that he's gained so much popularity. I don't know who Silver is. Sorry.
The next part about God helping award winners and ignoring victims of violence is strange. Yeah, some people thank God for their victories, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was responsible. It makes much more sense that God leaves the awards to the competition judges and the violence to the sadists equally. If and when he steps in is a different question that has no simple answers, but is in no way covered by Piper's sentiment.
There's some other stuff about theological questions and ideas that most people don't subscribe to beyond the armchair fairytale swallowing Christians. Real theology deals with it just fine.
She finishes up by repeating the opinion that religion is just for people that need 'comfort' but there's nothing real to it. It's another popular opinion that people who haven't really thought about the subject repeat like a mantra.

Essentially her whole speech is a string of nonsense that people who think they are being logical repeat ad nauseam because it sounds clever. Unfortunately it isn't and anyone who has done a little reading can spot the rubbish a mile away.
It's a shame that this stuff gets so much airtime on popular shows without being shown up for the silliness that it is. A little understanding of what Christians actually believe would clear up the mess. There's no need to actually believe it, just one to actually know what it is that you don't believe.