Inherit the Wind (1960)

Inherit the Wind is a reasonably faithful rendition of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, in which John T. Scopes was charged with teaching evolution in a public school, contrary to state law.  However, the fact that the names are changed is an indication that the producers of this movie wanted to take a few liberties.  In particular, the Scopes character in the film is Bertram Cates (Dick York); Scopes’ defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy); William Jennings Bryan, who participated in the prosecution, is Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March); and H.L. Mencken, the famous reporter who covered the trial, is E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly).  This can become a little confusing, so here are the identities of the three major characters displayed for quick reference:

Henry Drummond = Clarence Darrow = Spencer Tracy.

Matthew Harrison Brady = William Jennings Bryan = Fredric March.

E.K. Hornbeck = H.L. Mencken = Gene Kelly.

While the town in which the trial takes place is full of minor characters who are fervent fundamentalists, there is another major character with strong religious views in addition to Brady, and that is the Reverend Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins).  In what is clearly a Hollywood contribution, Brown’s daughter is Cates’ fiancée, and she is torn between her love for Cates and her desire to please her father.

Clarence Darrow considered himself an agnostic.  It can be debated whether H.L. Mencken was an agnostic or an atheist, but he seems more the latter.  The distinction between the two matters more in the movies than it does in real life, which is complicated by the evolving connotation of the word “agnostic.”  In the early part of the twentieth century, it had a harder edge to it than it does today, for merely to doubt the existence of God was scandalous back then.  By the late 1960s, it had already begun to lose some of its bite, and this is even more so today.  For example, in the novel Brideshead Revisted, published in 1945, Sebastian refers to Ryder as an atheist, but Ryder corrects him, saying he is an agnostic.  In the 2008 movie version of this novel, however, Ryder explicitly denies being an agnostic, saying he is an atheist, just the opposite of what was in the novel.  Why would the producers of this movie make this change?  I suspect the reason lies in the shifting sense of the word “agnostic.”  An agnostic Ryder would no longer compel our interest.  In order to have dramatic value, he had to become an atheist.

In any event, as far as the movie is concerned, neither Drummond nor Hornbeck refers to himself as either an atheist or an agnostic.  Drummond is referred to as both by others, and Hornbeck is referred to as neither.  However, one gets the sense that Drummond is an agnostic while Hornbeck is an atheist, which corresponds to what we suspect about Darrow and Mencken.

Ordinarily, there would be nothing remarkable about that.  Atheists and agnostics do not typically go around announcing which word more accurately applies to them.  But as noted above, such things matter in the movies, especially when this movie was made.  Any character that acknowledged being an atheist would typically be required to affirm the existence of God before the movie was over.  An agnostic, on the other hand, would not be required to capitulate.  He already admits that there might be a God.  All he would have to do is admit it just a little bit more in the final reel.  And if there is no definite assertion by the character as to the nature of his doubt or disbelief, he might be able to get by without having to do either.

Had this movie been made shortly after the Scopes Monkey Trial, Drummond and Hornbeck would have been made to seem superficial and arrogant, while Brady and Brown would have been treated more sympathetically.  By 1960, however, evolution had become mainstream, and fundamentalism had been marginalized.  As a result, Brady and Brown are made to look ridiculous.  Of course, it is hard to portray anyone who believes in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis as anything but ridiculous.

The Reverend Brown is a man who will not hesitate to assert that someone is going to Hell.  Saying it about Drummond would be expected, but we find out that he said the same of a little boy who drowned without having been baptized.  And then he condemns his own daughter to Hell while giving a fiery speech before a crowd.  Of course, the Bible says the vast majority of people will go to Hell, so you could reasonably give long odds on that about anyone.  But saying such about a little boy or one’s own daughter seems especially cruel.  In short, Brown exemplifies the idea that someone can be so religious as to be evil.

Brady, on the other hand, who actually comes to Brown’s daughter’s defense during that speech, admonishing Brown for saying such things, is negatively portrayed in a different way.  In Brady’s case, we see an intelligent man destroyed by his insistence on the literal truth of the Bible as the word of God.  A less intelligent man can hold such views without any difficulty, but the cognitive dissonance Brady experiences during the trial proves to be too much for him, especially when Drummond puts him on the stand as an expert on the Bible.  The movie even suggests that the strain kills him, since he collapses on the floor of the courtroom right after the trial has ended.

It almost seems like shooting fish in a barrel to hear Drummond challenge Brady as to how some of the stories in the Bible could be literally true, such as Cain taking a wife, when up to that point, Eve was the only woman that existed.  Unfortunately, most of Drummond’s arguments against the Bible go awry.  For example, Drummond asks Brady how long the first day was, the implication being that since the sun was not created until the fourth day, there would have been no way to measure the length of the first day.  In short, the first day might have been the equivalent of millions of years.

That’s cute, but speaking of days before there was a sun is no worse than speaking of years before there was a solar system.  If scientists can say that billions of years passed before there was an Earth to orbit the sun, in terms of which the length of a year is defined, then there is no reason a fundamentalist could not say that three days passed before there was a sun, in terms of which the length of a day is defined.  Brady, however, fails to point this out, and so Drummond’s fallacious argument goes unchallenged.

To make matters worse, this is preceded by a misunderstanding on Drummond’s part.  He asks Brady how all the holy people in the Bible could be holy when they were doing all that begetting.  Drummond says, “What is the biblical evaluation of sex?  It is considered original sin.  And all these holy people got themselves begat through original sin.  Well, all that sinning make them any less holy?”

I have never heard that one before.  The original sin was eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden.  God never forbade sex within the confines of marriage.  Brady should have known that.  And it would have been his chance to put Drummond in his place by pointing it out.  Maybe the actual Darrow and Bryan thought the original sin was sex, or maybe it was just a misconception on the part of the people who made this movie (or wrote the script for the play on which it was based).  But whatever the case, this is one of the weaker scenes in the movie.

There is another scene that is weaker still, and once again, Drummond opens himself up to withering criticism that Brady simply fails to take advantage of.  Drummond is questioning one of the students in Cates’ class.  In an effort to show that science and technology are not intrinsically evil, Drummond says, “You know, Moses never made a phone call.  You figure that makes the telephone an instrument of the devil?”

Brady interrupts:  “Your honor, the defense makes the same old error of all godless men.  He confuses material things with the great spiritual value of the revealed word.  Why do you bewilder this child?  Does right have no meaning to you, sir?”

Drummond responds:  “Realizing that I may prejudice the case of my client, I must tell you that right has no meaning for me whatsoever. But truth has meaning, as a direction.  But it is one of the peculiar imbecilities of our time that we place a grid of morality upon human behavior so that the action of every man must be measured against an arbitrary latitude of right and a longitude of wrong in exact minutes, degrees, and seconds….”

So right and wrong have no meaning, only truth and falsehood.  In other words, all that matters is whether it is true that one man killed another man, not whether it was wrong for him to do so.  Is it “arbitrary” that we say it is wrong for a man to rape a child?  It is a common stereotype of the atheist that he is amoral:  God is dead, so all is permitted!  Why this movie plays right into that stereotype, I do not know.  The real Clarence Darrow did not hold such a view.  He believed that man had emotions that told him whether something was right or wrong, what most people would call a conscience.  In the Loeb and Leopold case, he argued that the defendants lacked those emotions.  But in this movie, we almost get the sense that it is Drummond who lacks those emotions when he says that distinguishing between right and wrong is an “imbecility.”  In any event, it is even more disappointing that Brady does not seize upon this opportunity.  He could have argued that by Drummond’s own words, without God there would be nothing to restrain man, that we would all end up acting like animals.  But he fails to take advantage of Drummond’s stance that moral words such as “right” and “wrong” are meaningless.

I already noted above that Brady is demeaned as a man whose intellect collapses under the strain of trying to reconcile reason and common sense with the myths of the Bible.  But it is worse than that.  Leading up to the final day of the trial, Brady is infantilized.  Now, it is not uncommon for a married couple with children to start referring to each other as “Mom” and “Dad.”  So, the first time Brady addresses his wife as “Mother,” we think nothing of it.  Furthermore, lovers often call each other “baby” as a term of affection, so we normally wouldn’t think much of that either.  But after Brady is put on the stand and subjected to a grilling by Drummond, he becomes pathetic, saying to his wife, “Mother, they laughed at me.”  She holds him in her arms and says, “Hush, baby.”  Then he says, “I can’t stand it when they laugh at me.”  She continues holding him and rocking him, saying, “It’s all right, baby.  It’s all right.”  He whimpers, “They laughed.”  And she continues, “Baby, baby.”  However much these old movies were at pains to put the atheist in a bad light, an even lower place in movie Hell was reserved for anyone who was too religious, and this scene exemplifies that principle.

But that does not mean that the atheist in this movie is off the hook, for it is in the last scene that amends must finally be made for all the irreligion that has come before:  the agnostic must display an affinity for religion, and the atheist must be disparaged.  As they debate whether Brady was a great man or a bigot, Hornbeck accuses Drummond of being a hypocrite and a fraud, an “atheist who believes in God,” saying, “You’re just as religious as he was.”  Drummond in turn tells Hornbeck that he pities him, telling him his life is meaningless, because he doesn’t need people or love.  “You poor slob.  You’re all alone.”  Well, gosh!  That’s telling him.  Of course, the real H.L. Mencken was married at the time of this trial, and he loved his wife.  But the need for the movie atheist to be put down must take precedence over reality.  Actually, one might think of this as progress.  By the late 1950s, it was no longer necessary for the atheist to acknowledge the existence of God, although it still did happen in some movies.  Rather, the atheist could remain an atheist, but he had to be unhappy.

Anyway, after a few more words along those lines, Hornbeck leaves the room.  Drummond puts Darwin’s Descent of Man together with the Bible, smiles, and walks toward the camera as the movie ends.  And so, in typical Hollywood fashion, the movie tries to have it both ways.



Of all things the New Testament says we are supposed to do, the injunction of pacifism found in Matthew 5:38-39 is the most troublesome:  “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:  But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  A lot of people are not sure what to make of that.  This ambivalence is reflected in the movies.

Pacifism in the Modern City

If a movie is set in the twentieth century, and the characters in the movie live in a large city, pacifism will be given short shrift.  For example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), passengers on a train are being fired on by some enemy spies and soldiers.  One of the passengers, a politician, says he doesn’t believe in fighting and wants to surrender.  Another passenger replies, “Pacifist? Won’t work. Christians tried it and got thrown to the lions.”  The pacifist steps outside the train waving a white handkerchief, trying to surrender, but he is shot.  He dies, mumbling that he doesn’t understand.  To keep us from supposing that he will pass through the pearly gates and be rewarded for adhering to the words of Jesus, those who wrote the screenplay made him an adulterer, and a cad at that, one that betrays the woman who thought they were going to be married.  Moreover, we also get the impression that he is a coward, that his pacifism is not based on religious principle, but on fear.  A couple of years later, Hitchcock made Foreign Correspondent (1940), in which the head of a pacifist organization turns out to be a Nazi spy.

In some cases, the pacifist is a man of good moral character, but shown to be naïve. For example, in The War of the Worlds (1953), a pastor decides that he just needs to offer the Martians peace.  He starts walking toward the flying saucers, reading the Twenty-Third Psalm, and just as he gets to the last line, the part about the goodness and mercy of the LORD following him all the days of his life, that life is brought to an abrupt end as one of the flying saucers zaps him with a death ray.

In general, pacifists in a modern city are portrayed as either knaves or fools.

Pacifism in the Old West and in Rural Communities

More sympathy can be shown for pacifism in Westerns.  In a couple of such Westerns, the pacifism of the protagonist seems to have nothing to do with religion at all.  For example, there is Destry Rides Again (1939), in which James Stewart, as the title character, becomes a deputy sheriff, even though he forswears violence and eschews guns.  There is no indication that his aversion to killing has anything to do with religion. But when his friend, the sheriff, is murdered, Destry finally has to strap on his gun and kill the bad guy.  In Shane (1952), Alan Ladd, as the title character, also wants to hang up his gun, but not on account of any religious beliefs.  Rather, he feels guilty about his past as a gunfighter.  But at the end of the movie, when he learns that the another gunslinger has been hired to get rid of the homesteaders, he realizes that he must put on his gun once more.  It is easier for the hero to reluctantly give up his pacifism if, as in these cases, it was not based on religious belief to begin with.

When religion is involved, the man who is a pacifist usually is so on account of a woman.  There is nothing shameful about a woman being a pacifist, so if a man becomes a pacifist because of his love for her, we make allowances.  In High Noon (1952), Gary Cooper, who admits that he hasn’t been a “churchgoing man,” marries Grace Kelly, who is a Quaker.  He has promised her that he will give up being the town marshal and become a storekeeper.  But then he finds that there is one last job he must do, which involves killing other men.  As a result, she decides to leave him.  But in the end, she gets a gun and kills one of the men herself.  In Friendly Persuasion (1956), there is an entire family of Quakers.  This time, Gary Cooper is married to Dorothy McGuire, who is very religious.  We have to wonder if Cooper would even be a Quaker were it not for his wife.  In any event, the results are mixed. There is some resistance to evil, but it is kept to a minimum, and the central characters seem to survive mostly by luck, with their ideals mostly intact.

In Sergeant York (1941), Gary Cooper is Alvin York, who doesn’t want to fight in World War I because killing is forbidden by the Bible.  This is an exception to the rule that if a man is a pacifist for religious reasons, he has fallen under the influence of a woman. There is a woman he wants to marry, for which reason he decides to settle down and give up his wild ways.  But his conversion to Christianity is the not the result of her, but of a bolt of lightning that almost kills him just as he was on his way to get some revenge. Interestingly, his pacifism is not based on the injunction by Jesus quoted above, telling us to turn the other cheek.  Rather, it is based on the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  This compensates for the fact that he does not have a woman as an excuse for his refusal to fight in the war.  Pacifism is more manly if based on the Ten Commandments than on the words of Jesus.  Ironically, it is the words of Jesus that free him from his pacifism:  he decides that killing for one’s country is just rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, so that makes it all right. Although this is not a Western, it is set in the backwoods of Tennessee.  Pacifism is more acceptable in a rural community, where the characters lack big-city sophistication.  A city slicker may be a draft dodger, but never a pacifist.  In any event, Gary Cooper certainly has had his share of pacifist roles.

Billy Jack (1971) is set contemporaneously in a small Arizona town near an Indian reservation, the title character (Tom Laughlin) himself being half Indian.  He tries, with limited success, to restrain his lethal, martial-arts skills under the influence of a woman that runs a hippie, counter-culture school, preaching love and peace.  It is with great sorrow that Billy Jack has to kick so much redneck butt.

Reversing the Formula

In Westerns and in movies set in rural communities, the pacifist is typically allowed to redeem himself when he realizes he must resist evil and fight back.  That is a satisfying formula. Somewhat disconcerting, however, is the reverse of that formula:  the man decides to become a pacifist at the end of the movie, giving up his gun forever.

Angel and the Badman (1947).  An example of this is Angel and the Badman.  The “badman” in this movie is Quirt Evans.  Since he is played by John Wayne, we wonder, “Just how bad can he be?”  I mean, has John Wayne ever played a villain in the movies?  It turns out, much as we suspected, that for all the talk about his being a bad man, it seems to be just that, talk.  Apparently, he once worked as a lawman for Wyatt Earp. Then he became a cattleman for a while.  But one day, Wall Ennis, the man who raised Quirt like a father, was shot down by Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot) while another man grabbed his hand as he was going for his gun.  That’s when Quirt sold his herd and began plaguing Laredo, hoping to goad him into a gunfight in front of witnesses.  It is this that gets him on the wrong side of the law.

For example, when Laredo and his gang rustle some cattle, killing all the cowboys who were herding them, Quirt and his boys bonk Laredo’s gang over their heads, knocking them off their horses.  Then Quirt’s gang takes off with the cattle and presumably sells them.  I guess the idea is that the cattle were already stolen, so what Quirt did was not really so bad.

Before that, however, at the beginning of the movie, Quirt beats Laredo to some land he wanted. Laredo’s gang chases him until he collapses from a gunshot wound.  Some Quakers help him get to a telegraph station to make the claim and then take him in so that he can convalesce.  One Quaker in particular, Penny (Gail Russell), is the “angel” in this movie.

Dr. Mangram (Tom Powers) comes over to take the bullet out.  He makes a snide remark about the way the wicked always seem to be able to survive gunshot wounds, while the godly succumb to infection. Penny’s father chastises him, saying, “You so-called atheists.  You always feel so compelled to stretch your godlessness.”  With this brief exchange, the movie expresses a common attitude toward atheists when this movie was made.  First, the atheist is rude and churlish, entering the house of a family he knows to be devout and mocking their religion. For a long time in the movies, atheists were never allowed to be congenial and easygoing.  Movie atheists had to let everyone know just how much they despised religion. Second, this movie was made at a time when a lot of people believed that there really was no such thing as an atheist, that their denial of God’s existence was a self-deluding pretense.  Hence the use of the term “so-called” to modify the word “atheist.”

Another feature of the stereotypical movie atheist is the emphasis on science and logic, at the expense of sentiment and feeling.  Dr. Mangram says to Penny’s mother, “You can carry this head-in-sand attitude just so far in the world of reality.”  She replies, “We assure you that you will finally realize that realism untempered by sentiments of humanity is really just a mean, hard, cold outlook on life.”  She is right, of course.  But that is precisely the sort of thing David Hume might have said.

[Note:  I watched the worthless 2009 remake so you won’t have to, and to see if there were any script changes of interest.  About the only one worth mentioning occurs when the father refers to the doctor as a “nonbeliever” instead of a “so-called atheist.”  That atheists exist is today undeniable, making the qualifier “so-called” untenable.  But in that case, just to refer to the doctor as an atheist would be too harsh, whereas “nonbeliever” seems less confrontational.  And it seems to go with the doctor in the remake, whose character is softened up somewhat.]

Anyway, Quirt and Penny fall in love.  She is willing to follow him anywhere, but he is not sure he wants to be tied down.  So, this struggle goes on throughout the movie, while she acquaints him with the views of the Society of Friends, such as that a person can harm only himself, even if he appears to harm someone else.  One day, she gets him to leave his gun behind while they go for a ride.  As this is shortly after the cattle-rustling incident, Laredo and his boys show up and give chase until the wagon goes over a cliff and into the water.  Penny almost drowns.  Quirt gets her back to the house and Dr. Mangram is sent for. When it looks as though Penny is likely to die, Quirt decides to kill Laredo.

Right after he rides off, Penny comes to.  She seems to be completely well.  Mangram is stunned.  “I can’t understand it,” he says.  “I can’t understand it at all.  There must be some logical, scientific explanation.  I am too old to start believing in miracles.”  And thus does the movie refute the atheist.

As noted above, a common feature of the Western is the gunslinger with a guilty past. He wants to hang up his guns, but there is one last thing he must do.  Another recurring feature involves revenge.  The hero relentlessly pursues his goal of getting his revenge against a man who killed someone he loved.  But when the moment arrives, he renounces his revenge.  However, the man he was pursuing somehow gets what is coming to him anyway.

And so it is with Angel and the Badman.  Quirt rides into town and calls out Laredo, who is in the saloon with the sidekick who helped him gun down Wall Ennis.  Suddenly, Penny’s parents ride into town in a wagon with Penny in the back.  She gets Quirt to hand her his gun.  Just then, Laredo and his companion step out into the street.  Quirt turns around unarmed.  And then Marshall McClintock (Harry Carey), who has been threatening to hang Quirt and Laredo throughout the movie, shoots Laredo and his friend, killing them both.  Quirt tells McClintock that from now on he is a farmer.

It is worth noting that, although Penny and her family would have been disappointed with Quirt if he had killed Laredo, they are just fine with the way McClintock killed Laredo instead.  And so, these pacifists are parasites, who manage survive in a violent world because someone else is willing to do the killing for them.

Wagon Master (1950).  Another such movie is Wagon Master.  Now, whereas we all know that Quakers are pacifists, John Ford made the bizarre decision to have the pacifists in this movie be Mormons, something Mormons are not known for.  And not only were Mormons willing to use guns to defend themselves, but for a long time, they were also associated with evil.  In Roughing It (published in 1872), Mark Twain tells of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where Mormons are said to have slaughtered a bunch of people they didn’t like.  In both A Study in Scarlet (published in 1887) and Riders of the Purple Sage (published in 1912), Mormons threaten physical violence to force women into polygamous marriages.

One day some Mormon missionaries knocked on my mother’s door and started telling her about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In all innocence, and without the slightest trace of irony, my mother said, “Oh, you mean like in Sherlock Holmes?” They must get that a lot.

Some early films depicted Mormons in those negative ways.  In A Victim of the Mormons (1911), for example, a Mormon seduces a woman in Denmark, persuading her to come to America with him. She changes her mind, but he drugs her, locks her up, determined to force her to become one of his wives.  In the 1918 version of Riders of the Purple Sage, Mormons are referred to explicitly, but the 1925 version of this novel avoided referring to the bad guys as Mormons, and every adaptation since has done likewise. There has never been an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet that includes the part about Mormons referred to as such.

At this point I must make a parenthetical comment.  These early movies depicting Mormons in a terrible light are not unique.  Films of that period did likewise with other groups of people.  The 1920 version of The Last of the Mohicans portrays Indians as being especially vicious.  During a massacre, white women are raped and children brutally tomahawked.  One Indian, upon finding a woman he wants to rape, snatches a baby out of her arms and tosses it high in the air, just for the fun of it. The Birth of a Nation (1915) expresses a dread of Negro lust for white women, along with many other degrading stereotypes.  Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) portrays Mexicans as vicious dope fiends, bayonetting children and raping white women.

And then something happened.  Perhaps it was censorship, or perhaps it was public outrage, but as with the 1925 version of Riders of the Purple Sage, the movies began pulling back from these loathsome stereotypes.  There was still plenty of prejudice in the movies after that.  Native Americans were still portrayed as savages.  African Americans were mostly reduced to playing coons.  Mexicans were seen to be lazy and lawless.  But all this was mild compared to those early films.

In 1940, 20th Century Fox produced Brigham Young.  Instead of avoiding the subject of Mormonism altogether, this movie attempts to rehabilitate it, showing it in a positive light.  There is, of course, the embarrassing doctrine of polygamy that must be dealt with, for to ignore it would only make things worse. But the subject is handled in a lighthearted way, and with no sense that women were being forced into such marriages.

Returning now to Wagon Master, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) pooh-poohs the whole thing without quite denying it. When asked if he is a Mormon, he says:

That’s right, son.  That’s why I keep my hat on all the time.  So my horns won’t show. Why, I got more wives than Solomon himself.  At least, that’s what folks around here say.  And if they don’t say it, they think it.

And thus we in the audience are indirectly chastised for thinking he and other men in his party have more than one wife.

In any event, the transition to Mormons-as-pacifists in Wagon Master would seem to take this effort at rehabilitation too far.  John Ford, who directed this film, would have been better off just making up a pacifist religion instead.  Unlike the Quakers in movies, who enunciate some principle of pacifism, as did Penny in Angel and the Badman, we hear no such explicit pacifist doctrines espoused in Wagon Master. Instead, their pacifism is mostly implied.  None of the Mormons have guns, not even the rifles and shotguns you would expect them to have for shooting game.  There is a little boy who turns up with a pistol that had belonged to someone’s grandfather “before he got religion,” but that is the exception that proves the rule.

Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.), who are not Mormons, and who wear guns, are hired by the Mormons to be wagon master and guide.  Along the way, they run into some Indians, who do have guns.  It turns out that they are friendly, however, just like the Native Americans that have replaced the Indians in movies over the last several decades.  And that was a lucky break, because had they been anything like the Indians we saw in other John Ford Westerns, you could bet that an unarmed wagon train traveling through Indian territory would likely get the men scalped and the women raped.

These Mormons are not so fortunate, however, when it comes to some bandits they encounter.  The bandits kill one of the Mormons and threaten to steal their seed grain, without which, we are told, the Mormons in this group and those yet to come would all starve.  But Travis and Sandy use their guns to kill the whole lot of them.  After Travis and Sandy have killed all the bandits, Travis throws his gun away, as if he knows he will never need it again and can now be a pacifist just like the Mormons.

Paradoxically, neither Travis nor Sandy had ever killed anyone before they encountered the Mormons.  So, not only do the Mormons survive because others do their killing for them, but there would have been no need for any killing at all had they been armed.  The five bandits would have been no match for dozens of armed Mormons, and so the bandits would have just moved on without trying anything.  If we didn’t know better, we might think that the moral of this movie is that pacifists, by refusing to defend themselves, not only depend on others to protect them, but they also end up being the cause of the very killing they have forsworn.

Movies in which someone overcomes his reluctance to kill, when he realizes it is necessary to do so, are quite enjoyable, which explains why so many movies are based on that formula.  But movies that reverse that formula, movies in which someone who had previously been willing to defend himself against those that would do him harm, but who embraces pacifism in the final reel, are not so popular, which is why they are few in number.  If we enjoy these movies at all, it is only because we are touched by these adorable cultures, so sweet in the purity of their beliefs, even though we would never want to belong to such a community ourselves.

Religious Movies for Atheists

The movie Noah (2014) was released a few years ago, and I suppose I shall watch it eventually, but quite frankly, I have not been able to work up much enthusiasm for it.  I have seen a lot of biblical films.  In fact, I believe I have seen just about every Moses or Jesus movie ever made. But I have yet to see one that I enjoyed. And so I started wondering:  What is it about biblical films that I do not like?  Is it that the stories in the Bible never happened, at least not the way they were set down?  That cannot be it, for I like all sorts of movies about things that never happened.  Perhaps it is because the movies diverge from the original myth, which is one of the criticisms I have heard leveled against Noah.  But dramatists have been changing stories to suit their purposes since Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon, and often for the better.  Maybe it is the existence of supernatural beings that bothers me.  But that did not ruin Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for me, or, for that matter, The Exorcist (1973), a movie that definitely presupposes the truth of Christianity.

Maybe it is not truth that is critical, but morality.  Bill Maher has condemned the movie Noah in that it depicts God as a “psychotic mass murderer.”  In fact, such criticism is hardly limited to the story of Noah.  There is much in The Old Testament attributed to God that we regard as immoral today.  But I enjoy movies about immoral people, so why not immoral gods?  The gods of Greek mythology are often immoral, but that never spoils our enjoyment of the stories told about them.

I believe the problem is one of attitude.  Biblical movies invariably suffer from the oppressive weight of reverence, the sense that we are supposed to stand in awe of God, that we must bow our heads, fall to our knees, and worship him in all his glory. I get queasy just thinking about it.  Some people are atheists because they are unable believe that God exists; some are atheists because they are unable to believe that God is good; but some are atheists because they are unable to get down on their knees and abase themselves. This last reason, though it seldom gets as much attention as the first two, I believe to be characteristic of atheism in general, whatever the primary reason for disbelief.

Moving beyond biblical movies, it is primarily this feature that distinguishes religious movies that atheists might enjoy from ones they cannot.  A good example of this is The Godless Girl (1929).  Judy and Bob are high school students.  Judy is a militant atheist, who holds meetings ridiculing religion, accompanied by a monkey as a prop, whom she refers to as our cousin.  Bob is a Christian fundamentalist who leads a bunch of like-minded fanatics on a raid of one of those meetings.  A melee breaks out, during which a girl dies accidentally.  Bob and Judy are sent to a reform school.  After enduring much brutality, they escape and fall in love.  While bathing in a river, Judy admires the beauty of nature, made no less beautiful by a naked Judy, and she thinks how she might almost believe in a God who created it.  Bob, on the other hand, recalling all horrors of the reform school, says there is no way he can believe in a God who would allow such things to happen.  So far there is balance between the two.  But notwithstanding the fact that this is a pre-Code movie, I knew that it would be required that Judy pray to God before the movie was over.  I thought of San Francisco (1936) and The Spiral Road (1962), where the atheists in those two movies eventually kneel and humble themselves before God, and so I braced myself for the inevitable.

They are captured and returned to the reform school.  Bob is handcuffed to the bench in his cell, but Judy is handcuffed to a pipe above her head.  Within the movie, this was just another act of cruelty perpetrated by the guard.  But from outside the movie, it just did not make sense, since handcuffed like that she would not be able to use the bucket, but would have to foul her pants when she needed to defecate.  I suspected there was a reason this was put in the movie, but I could not figure out what it was.  But soon all was revealed. A fire breaks out in the reform school, and Judy is forgotten about as the flames close in around her.  In desperation, she prays.  It is a conditional kind of prayer, not exactly expressing full belief, but more importantly, she cannot kneel.  She thus retains her dignity, literally standing tall, and thus figuratively as well.

After Judy is saved by Bob, they rescue the brutal guard, whose dying wish is that they be pardoned, and so they are.  As they ride away from the prison, Bob curses the foul place, but Judy says that it was in that prison that they learned to believe, and let believe.  It is not clear exactly what each believes at this point, but they will clearly tolerate each other’s views, whatever they may be.  More importantly, because we were not treated to a vulgar display of humiliation and self-abasement on the part of Judy, this is a movie an atheist can enjoy, regardless of what Judy may or may not believe in the end.

In a sense, this aversion to the posture of worship and reverence extends well beyond the nonbeliever and into the general population.  The typical hero in a movie may believe in God, but the subject rarely comes up.  He certainly does not regularly attend church on Sundays. And as for Bible study in the middle of the week?  Don’t be absurd.  Unless the movie is biblical, or at least set in the distant past, if a character is excessively devout and pious, he usually turns out to be a hypocrite or a fool, as in Elmer Gantry (1960) or Inherit the Wind (1960).  Of course, women in the movies are allowed to be more religious than men without suffering any disparagement, and in such a case, her husband can go along, so to speak, as in Friendly Persuasion (1956) or Tender Mercies (1983).  But if it is the man who is more religious than his wife, then watch out, especially if he has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fingers. In any event, if the general audience enjoys seeing excessively religious figures in a bad light, then all the more so can such be enjoyed by atheists.  But movies mocking the devout are not really religious movies, and thus do not count, just as movies about the Devil, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Angel Heart (1987) do not count.  Finally, irreligious movies like Bedazzled (1967) or Religulous (2008) do not count either.

Rather, what I have in mind are religious movies that are inspirational, generating those feelings often associated with religion in a positive sense, and yet in such a way as can be enjoyed by an atheist.  The Razor’s Edge (1946) is well known and requires little comment. The fact that the principal character gets much of his inspiration from his trip to India, thereby stepping outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, may account for its being palatable to atheists. Groundhog Day (1993) would make an excellent Christmas movie were it not for the fact that the story is firmly attached to February 2.  Much like the notion of reincarnation, Bill Murray has to keep reliving the same day over and over again until he makes enough spiritual progress to move on.  Except for one brief upward-looking gesture on the part of Murray, when a homeless man dies, the role of God, or belief in such, is practically nonexistent.

A less well-known movie is Strange Cargo (1940).  God, in human form, slips into a penal colony and joins a bunch of prisoners in an escape, along with a prostitute. Each of them, with one exception, comes to repent his wickedness and transcend his selfish nature.  God seems to act only as a catalyst, employing no supernatural powers, and even has to be saved from drowning by Clark Gable.  Needless to say, this God demands no worship, reverence, or self-abasement.

Finally, there is an unusual religious movie that an atheist can enjoy, although it is not inspirational (at least, I hope not), and is not ruled out by any of my criteria, like being about the Devil or being sacrilegious.  The movie is Gabriel Over the White House (1933), set in the early thirties, during the Great Depression.  The president is like Warren G. Harding, a man of dubious morals. He believes in limited government, saying unemployment and organized crime are local matters, which gives him more time to fool around with his mistress. Being reckless, he crashes his car while speeding, and ends up in a coma. Gabriel infuses the spirit and wisdom of God into the president, and then wakes him up. He becomes a dictator with the symbolic trappings of Lincoln. He disbands Congress under threat of martial law, puts the unemployed to work, suspends habeas corpus, has gangsters rounded up and executed by firing squad, and that is just his domestic policy.  Then he demands that the European countries pay their war debts, which they will be able to afford, because they don’t need a military anymore, they just need to do what America says, or else they will be destroyed. Having established peace and prosperity, he dies.  And what is important is that throughout this fascist fantasy, though inspired by God, he never goes to church or gets on his knees to pray, and thus the movie is devoid of any sense of reverence or worship.

So there are religious movies an atheist can enjoy, but they are for the most part set in modern times, because the general public is not too keen on seeing displays of sincere piety and devotion in the modern setting either. The public’s tolerance for this sort of thing, however, increases the further back one goes into the past, until we reach biblical times, where it is deemed appropriate and even expected, and thus likely to prove insufferable to an atheist. It is for this reason that I look forward to watching Noah with a sense of dread.

The Final Judgment of Atheism

The unacknowledged but implicit standard about the true and the good belongs to us atheists. All statements about physical reality and moral worth must meet with our approval.  And that means we are also the ultimate arbiters as to what counts as acceptable in matters of religion.

Now, what would most meet with our approval would be if there were no religion at all, but being atheists, we are nothing if not realistic.  Not everyone can live knowing that there is no God that watches over us and cares about us; knowing that there is no immortal soul, but that death is the end; knowing that there is no such thing as karma, but that the world is full of wicked men who live quite comfortably and will never be punished for the evil that they do; and knowing that suffering has no purpose, that there are countless innocent victims whose pain and misery is meaningless and serves no higher good.  We wish that people did not need to believe in God, the immortal soul, karma, and a purpose for suffering, but they do, and allowances must be made for that.

And because of this almost universal need for religion, it follows that atheists must ever be held in low regard.  We must be thought wrongheaded, if people are to believe in what we deny.  Thus it is that our judgment, not only as to what is true and good, but also as to what counts as an acceptable religion, can never be admitted, however much it may be followed in practice.

A religion is acceptable as long as it never contradicts what atheists believe, apart from the supernatural fluff that may be appended.  For this reason, Republican politicians would probably benefit from having an atheist as an adviser.  Consider the case of Scott Walker, who decided to “punt” when asked about evolution.  On the one hand, Walker knew that to do well in certain primaries, he needed the votes of fundamental Christians.  On the other hand, there is no way that in 2016 this country will elect a president who believes in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis.  Since it is better to risk losing a primary to Mike Huckabee than to guarantee a loss in the general election, he should have asked himself (or his atheist adviser), what kind of answer would satisfy the atheists?  Then, without hesitation, he could have said that he believes in evolution, but that evolution is guided by the hand of God.  As long as he was not specific about exactly what that hand of God did, he would have been fine.

In general, references to God’s interference with world affairs must be kept to a minimum if they are to pass muster with atheists.  As long as it is not overdone, we do not insist that such claims make sense, for we realize that religion cannot be rationalized.  Saying, “There but for the grace of God go I,” for example, is equivalent to saying, “Thank you, God, for not doing to me what you did to him,” but only an atheist would carry out that implication, and such is not to be expected from the religious person who utters that expression of humility.  Also, saying it was a miracle that a baby survived a plane crash is permissible, even though an atheist would wonder what kind of grudge God had against all the other passengers, who died. With magnanimous self-restraint, we atheists tolerate the characterization of this kind of chance event as a miracle, provided it is about something good, in this case, the survival of a baby. Under no circumstances, however, must God’s interference with the world be punitive.  We atheists do not approve of any remarks by religious leaders that such things as September 11 or hurricane Katrina were God’s punishment for America’s iniquity.  And it is through atheist disapproval of such remarks that people of faith can be sure that these disasters were not the acts of a vindictive God.

Just as we atheists will allow for an occasional miracle, but not for acts of punishment on the part of the Deity, so too do we allow for belief in Heaven but not Hell.  It is for that reason that in the typical movie about Jesus, we almost never hear the Son of God talking about people going to Hell for their sins, even though there are several passages in the Bible where he does just that.  Sometimes the relatively harmless expression “gates of Hell” will be heard when Jesus is giving Peter the keys of the kingdom, but in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), even that part of the speech is omitted.   (An exception to all this is The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), in which Jesus spends half the movie fulminating about all those who are damned to Hell.)

Regarding movies about Jesus, we atheists are always deeply moved when Jesus saves the adulteress by challenging those in the mob to let the one without sin cast the first stone.  That is the atheist’s ideal conception of Jesus, a man of forgiveness.  And so, no Jesus movie would be complete without that scene.  But we do not like it at all when we read those parts in the Bible where Jesus says that it is a sin to get a divorce, and that to marry someone who was divorced is to commit adultery.  That is why we never hear these words coming out of Jesus’s mouth in the movies (not even in the exceptional Gospel According to St. Matthew).

And that means that in the debate between Protestants and Catholics as to whether divorce is a sin, the Protestants are right and the Catholics are wrong.  In like manner, because atheists believe in birth control, it follows that in this matter too, Protestants are right and Catholics are wrong.  This is why the criterion of atheist sanction is so valuable.  Protestants and Catholics, by themselves, can never solve these problems.  The Protestant believes that God agrees with him just as surely as the Catholic believes that he and God are in agreement.  And as God is not forthcoming on these issues in a way that is acceptable to both sides, they cannot be resolved by appealing to the will of God.  But atheists are forthcoming in these matters, and that gives Christians an objective criterion for determining what God really thinks.

And this leads to the question as to whether ISIS represents true Islam or not. Appealing to the imams and other authoritative Muslims gets us nowhere, for they no more have direct access to the will of Allah than do the members of ISIS.  Nor do we get anywhere by taking surveys of the Islamic countries, for such surveys reveal wide support for practices that people of other faiths, such as Christianity, find abhorrent.  As with the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics, disagreements between Christians and Muslims cannot be resolved by appealing to either God or Allah without begging the question.

Fortunately, the issues can be settled by atheists.  ISIS does not represent true Islam because we atheists disapprove of what they are doing.  True Islam, just like true Christianity, must conform to the atheists’ final judgment as to what is right and what is wrong.

The Arrogance of Atheism

It was in my sophomore year in college, in the late 1960s, when I quit believing in God.  So, the next semester, when I was filling out the usual form for something or other, I came across the question asking for my religious preference, and I put in the word “Atheist.”  I happened to mention this to a friend of mine, and he cautioned me against it.  “John,” he said, “the whole point of a college education is to turn you into an atheist.  If you let them know you already are one, they will immediately give you a degree, and you will have to go out and get a job.”

I didn’t take that seriously, of course.  But a few days later, my father happened to see the form, which I had left on my desk for the time being.  He was appalled.  First he cautioned me against the imprudence of such action, for it might incur the hostility of some dean or professor at the university who saw the form.  Then, a few days later, he brought the subject up again, and tried to make me feel bad, pointing out that I would only be hurting those whose simple faith helped them endure a cruel world.  Finally, he went for the jugular.  “Girls have to believe that sex is God’s way of bringing love into the world,” he said gravely.  “If they find out you are an atheist, you’ll never get any.”

That last one did give me pause.  In the years to come, I would learn that it was no good pretending to be religious for sexual purposes.  (I once even went so far as accepting an invitation from a girl to go to church with her one Sunday.  I thought maybe I could fake it just long enough to get laid.  God punished me.)  At the time, however, I figured no coed would see the form, and I could always decide about what to tell the girls later.  So I handed it in unchanged.

You see, I have to confess that I had taken no small amount of pleasure in writing down the word “Atheist” in that blank.  This was back in the day when atheism was not the commonplace it is now.  Today, if you go into a bookstore, you are likely to find an entire shelf or two full of books about atheism.  Such did not exist 45 years ago.  First you had to find out that certain philosophers were atheists, such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Marx, and then you had to search out their writings, for the titles typically gave nothing away.  And if atheists were rare on the bookshelf, they were practically non-existent on campus.  In fact, I was the only one I knew personally who did not believe in God.  To have labored under an oppressive system of beliefs for almost twenty years, and then to have thrown off that burden and freed myself from it was exhilarating.  But in addition to that, I had done something that most people had not, nor ever would, and much as it pains me to admit it, I felt a little smug about the whole thing.

My sense of pride in this matter was only enhanced by the reaction of others. “There’s no such thing!” one girl said to me, when I mentioned that I was an atheist.  In other words, what I had accomplished in getting rid of God was not merely rare—it was impossible.  She was disgusted with my iconoclastic audacity, so I gave up on the idea of asking her out; but she had so stroked my vanity in refusing to believe that I did not believe, that I felt more than compensated by whatever I might have lost in the way of carnal desire.

It was not long, as you might imagine, before I heard the old saw that there are no atheists in foxholes.  Of course, if there really were an all-powerful, loving God, there wouldn’t be any foxholes.  But that aside, the truly ironic aspect of this remark is that it conforms to the atheist’s explanation for the existence of religion, which is that fear of death is a major reason people believe in God. But the point of the no-atheists-in-foxholes assertion is not to prove that there is a God, but to deny that the there is anything exceptional about the atheist.  It is not that the atheist is strong enough to get through life without God, the reasoning goes, but rather that his contempt for religion is a temporary condition, predicated on having a comfortable life, at a time when death is remote.  As reflected in such movies as San Francisco (1936) or The Spiral Road (1962), the foxhole theory presumes that when the atheist finally comes up against suffering or death, he will be brought to his knees just like everyone else.  To be regarded with such horror that one’s professed disbelief in God is rejected out of hand as just so much bluff and bluster cannot help but make one feel like some kind of Nietzschean superman.

There can be no doubt that some atheists are arrogant to the point of being obnoxious.  They give full vent to their contumely, never missing an opportunity to sneer at the silly superstitions of mankind.  But there is an inescapable arrogance in being an atheist that cannot be avoided no matter how polite or considerate one tries to be.  In asserting one’s atheism, one explicitly denies the existence of God, but implicitly asserts one’s superiority, in effect saying, “You need religion as a crutch, while I have the strength to face life standing on my own two feet.”  The atheist gives offense whether he wants to or not, and it is small wonder that it is a common religious fantasy that he will crawl in the end.

Consider the case of Rebecca Vitsmun, a survivor of the deadly tornado that went through Moore, Oklahoma a couple of years ago.  She tried to avoid affirming her atheism, looking down shyly, and saying, “Uh huh,” when Wolf Blitzer asked her if she thanked the Lord.  Only after being pressed, and in spite of herself, did she finally admit to being an atheist.  The reason for her reluctance is simple.  She did not want to make him or anyone else feel bad. It is to be noted that his belief in God did not offend her, but only embarrassed her.  And this is a fundamental asymmetry between belief and disbelief:  no one ever denied believing in God for fear of hurting the feelings of an atheist, but many an atheist has concealed his views on the matter, lest he make others feel uncomfortable by expressing them.  And this only adds to the atheist’s conceit:  when you have to lie about who you are to keep from hurting people, it is hard not to regard them as inferior.

Lately, however, there has been a disturbing trend.  Atheists have started to organize.  This reminds me of something else from my college days.  Those who did not join a fraternity or any other campus organization were called independents.  But then there was an organization for independents, which seemed a little paradoxical.  In a similar manner, there is something so individualistic about being an atheist that the idea of forming a group seems to go against the grain.

That aside, if it were just a matter of atheists seeking out like-minded people for social purposes, there would be no cause for alarm, even if I would not be inclined to join such a group myself.  What does concern me, however, is the way atheists as a group are in danger of becoming thought of as a minority, as a group that suffers discrimination.  At the present, this trend seems to be only in its infancy.  We have hardly reached the point where anyone is talking about affirmative action for atheists.  But the trend is there nevertheless, and I want to nip it in the bud.

Let us consider, for example, some recent remarks made by Joe Klein regarding his observation that there were no organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals in the wake of that disaster in Oklahoma. One diary on Daily Kos points out that Klein was mistaken, and that his oversight was the result of his prejudice that religious people are more caring than atheists. That much is fine, but there is in addition an expression of indignation, along with the suggestion that Klein should apologize.

Think of the implications.  Joe Klein has hurt our feelings.  We have been offended, and need an apology.  No, I won’t have it.  Remarks like those made by Klein are unworthy of my notice. I enjoy being disdainful of the opinions that people of have of atheism, and I will not ruin it by putting on a pout and sulking because someone has not given us atheists the respect we deserve.

Then there is the matter of chaplains for atheists in the military.  Part of the fun of listening to someone say that there are no atheists in foxholes is the smirk I have on my face when he says it.  But if he also brings up the fact that atheists want chaplains of their own in the military, it will completely put me out of my countenance.  As someone who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, and therefore has never seen combat, I suppose it is not my place to begrudge those in the military a little spiritual counseling, if that is what they need.  But I cannot help but deplore the way this wounds my pride, nevertheless.

Finally, there is a recent article advocating changing the name of the National Atheist Party to the Secular Party of America.  The reason for making this change is that the word “atheist” has too many negative connotations, and that a term that is “richer and more positive” is what is needed, in order to be more inclusive.  Groan.  When I was a child, I learned that there were derogatory words that were used to refer to certain groups of people, and that I should avoid such slurs, and use polite words instead.  But as I got older, the polite words somehow became quasi-slurs themselves, and we were admonished not to use them as well, while new terms were then deemed appropriate.  It all seemed a little silly to me, but since I am nothing if not magnanimous, I went along with it in good humor.  “If that’s what makes them happy,” I said to myself, “then I suppose it won’t kill me to change the way I speak.”  But I confess that I was just a little bit contemptuous of all this need for political correctness.  And thus it is that I now cringe at the idea of atheists trying to avoid the very word that I was once so proud to write down on that form when I was in college.  The next thing you know, we will be asking religious people to tiptoe around us, never saying the A-word, because we regard it as demeaning.  If that day ever arrives, I will be embarrassed to admit that I am an atheist (or whatever politically correct term is then being used in its place).

One of the pleasures of atheism is the arrogance that naturally comes with it. Let’s not spoil it with a lot of whining about how we just aren’t being treated right.

The Godless Girl (1929)

In The Godless Girl, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Judy (Lina Basquette) and Bob (Tom Keene) are high school students. Judy is a militant atheist, who holds atheist rallies, accompanied by a monkey as a prop, whom she refers to as our cousin. Bob is a Christian fundamentalist who leads a bunch of like-minded Christians on a raid on one of those meetings. A mêlée breaks out, during which a girl accidentally dies. Bob and Judy are sent to a reform school. After enduring much brutality, they escape and fall in love. While bathing in a river, Judy admires the beauty of nature, made no less beautiful by a naked Judy, and she thinks how she might almost believe in a God who created it. Bob, on the other hand, recalling all horrors of the reform school, says there is no way he can believe in a God who would allow such things to happen.

So far there is balance between the two. But notwithstanding the fact that this is a pre-Code movie, I knew that it would be required that Judy pray to God before the movie was over. I thought of San Francisco (1936) and The Spiral Road (1962), where the atheists in those two movies end up getting on their knees and humbling themselves before God, and so I braced myself for the inevitable.

They are captured and returned to the reform school. Bob is handcuffed to the bench in his cell, but Judy is handcuffed to a pipe above her head, forcing her to stand with her arm extended upward. Within the movie, the difference between the way Bob and Judy are handcuffed seems to be just a matter of chance. But from outside the movie, it just did not make sense, since handcuffed like that she would not be able to use the bucket, but would have to foul her pants when she needed to defecate. Actually, having handcuffs on prisoners while locked in their cells does not make much sense anyway. I suspected there was a reason this was put in the movie, but I could not figure out what. Soon all was revealed. A fire breaks out in the reform school, and Judy is forgotten about as the flames close in around her. In desperation, she prays. It is a conditional kind of prayer, not exactly expressing full belief, but more importantly, because of the way she is handcuffed, she cannot kneel. She thus retains her dignity, literally standing tall, and thus figuratively as well.

After Judy is saved by Bob, they rescue the brutal guard, whose dying wish is that they be pardoned, and so they are. As they ride away from the prison, Bob curses the foul place, but Judy says that it was where they learned to believe and let believe. It is not clear exactly what each believes at this point, but they will clearly tolerate each other’s views, whatever they may be. More importantly, because we were not treated to a vulgar display of humiliation and self-abasement on the part of Judy, this is a movie an atheist can enjoy, regardless of what Judy may or may not believe in the end.

A Slight Problem with Ethical Relativism

Though the moral character of atheists is neither better nor worse than the moral character of people that believe in God, yet there does seem to be a difference in conviction.  And that is perfectly understandable.  A common conception of God is that he is infinitely wise and good, and in one way or another, through sacred text, revelation, or one’s own conscience, God informs us of what is good and what is evil.  People with strong religious beliefs will tend to be firm in their convictions about right and wrong, owing to their sense that they have the word of God on which to rely.

Others, while still believing in God, are less sure about the reliability of sacred text, the revelations of others, or even their own conscience, which often urges them down one path, only to later reprimand them for not taking another.  They figure there are things commanded or forbidden by God, but they just aren’t sure what they are.  This uncertainty leads to tolerance of other religions, in which one regards them as different expressions of the one God common to all, thereby reinforcing one’s doubts in matters of morality, for different religions command and forbid different things.

Taking this to its ultimate conclusion, those totally lacking in belief are fully aware that they must rely on themselves alone when it comes to morality. Through some combination of instinct, experience, cultural influence, and prudence, they muddle their way through various moral difficulties, hoping that they are doing the right thing.

Not being absolutely sure about what is right and wrong leads naturally to the conclusion that nothing is absolutely right or wrong.  Atheism does not entail ethical relativism, but they tend to go together.  From the fact of cultural relativism, that different cultures have different views as to what is right and wrong, there tends to be an inference to ethical relativism, that what is right or wrong is relative to a particular culture, with no culture having a greater claim on the truth in such matters than any other.

When I was young, ethical relativism was cast in the most reassuring terms. Through such examples as belching Arabs and promiscuous Polynesians, I found the idea of moral relativism to be quite congenial.  Other cultures with their different ways seemed benign, even cute. When I got to college, I eventually majored in philosophy, where I discovered that the issue was far more complicated than I ever imagined.  However, I remember one textbook in ethics that had a chapter on ethical relativism. It posed such questions as to whether it was all right to marry more than one wife, kill a hornet, commit incest, or have slaves, if you treat them well.  The point was that each of these actions were regarded as forbidden in some cultures or religions, while others held such things to be morally permissible.

These issues were a touch more serious than the examples to which I was first exposed, but they were not alarming.  I could imagine living among people who believed differently from me on such issues without too much discomfort, although I might find not being able to kill a threatening hornet somewhat inconvenient.

The past was more problematic, for history is replete with examples of societies that once practiced all sorts of cruelties and atrocities with a clean conscience and even a feeling of righteousness about it all.  But as they were in the past, there seemed to be the sense that they could be safely ignored.  It was only modern cultures that need be considered.

Well, we have come a long way since those halcyon days in which one could accept the tenets of ethical relativism as proof of one’s sophistication and enlightenment.  Nowadays, when one thinks of the differences between one culture and another regarding what is right and wrong, it is things like genital mutilation, child brides, forced adultery, and honor killings that come to mind.  And now, as if we needed one more example, we have the situation of boys being held as sex slaves on military bases by some of our Afghan allies, while our own soldiers are being told to accept such practices as just a cultural issue, in what might be the most perverted application of moral relativism ever embraced by our society.  I find it impossible to say, “Well, in that culture, such things are morally permissible.  We must not be judgmental and presume to impose our values on others.”  Instead, I want to say, “That culture is morally depraved.  And it needs to be crushed!”

How about this for a moral absolute:  It is wrong to chain an eleven-year-old boy to a bed so that he can be repeatedly raped no matter how much he screams.  It is easy enough to agree that this is absolutely wrong, although I have no theoretical justification for such a claim.  At best, all I can say is that it feels like a moral absolute.

As long as I am in my absolutist mode, I am also appalled that relatively little attention has been paid to this story.  On the other hand, there has been an excessive amount of coverage on Pope Francis.  As long he was getting so much coverage, it would have been nice to hear him say a thing or two about boys being kept as sex slaves on our military bases, especially since he could have tied it in with the rape of boys by priests, but he said nothing, alas. Perhaps in the next debate Carly Fiorina might talk about the boys being raped with their legs kicking and hearts beating, but I doubt it.

Of course, unlike fetuses, there are no videos of boys being raped, and we tolerate a lot of things as long as we don’t have to see them.  Logically, there should be no difference between seeing pictures of boys being raped and only hearing stories about them, but such is human nature.  After all, that is why ISIS made pictures of their beheadings instead of merely telling us about them, because they knew it would disturb us more and possibly goad us to war with them.  And that is why the CIA destroyed the images of torture so that our moral outrage would be much less.

But videos do not tell the whole story.  After all, it is not American little boys that are being raped, but only little boys in Afghanistan, who are probably going to grow up to be terrorists anyway.  As Jeb Bush might point out in the next debate, at least President Obama is keeping us safe.

Reflections on a Progressive Pope

The expression “love of God” is ambiguous:  it can refer to God’s love of man or to man’s love of God.  The expression “fear of God,” therefore, suffers from the same ambiguity, but not heretofore in any practical sense.  That is, since it makes no sense to speak of God’s being fearful, inasmuch as he is all-powerful, the phrase can only refer to man’s fear of God. Interestingly enough, a God fearing man is generally understood as being a man who fears nothing else, though what that fear accomplishes is hard to say, since it is not unusual to see a Western featuring a whiskey drinking, tobacco chewing, woman chasing, two-fisted, God fearing man.  A sniveling coward, on the other hand, who frets and worries over every little thing, would never be called a God fearing man, not because he does not fear God too, but because he is not man enough to qualify for that characterization.

But a remark made by Pope Francis a little less than a year ago introduced the possibility that the phrase “fear of God” might actually refer to God’s fear as well.  In his effort to soften the position of the Catholic Church on divorce and homosexuality, the pope said, “God is not afraid of new things.” Ironically, by denying that God is afraid on these matters, he opens up the possibility of God’s being afraid in other areas. Could the Deity be a man fearing God?

Of course, ever since Feuerbach, or perhaps even Xenophanes, it has been known that talking about God is just an indirect way of talking about man, and that what the pope is really saying is that Catholics in general, and the bishops in particular, should not be afraid of new things. But while we may understand the pope in this manner, surely the pope does not mean to be so construed.  Presumably, then, the idea is that God has the courage to declare that divorce and homosexuality are not sins.

There are only three ways to understand this.  The first is that God changed his mind.  He used to think divorce and homosexuality were sins, but now he realizes he was mistaken.  But that would mean that God is fallible and mutable.  Who wants a wishy-washy God, one who is always changing his mind about whether this or that is a sin, depending on who talked to him last, and, in any event, when he does change his mind, can we be sure if he has it right this time?  The whole point of having God be the foundation of morality is so he can lay down eternal truths about right and wrong.  If God is going to vacillate about such things and have to admit that he was mistaken, people will quit taking him seriously.

A second possibility is that we were mistaken about what God thought was a sin.  According to this way of thinking, God has never been opposed to divorce or homosexuality.  Putting men to death for lying with each other was never his idea, but just the ravings of a bunch of homophobic Jewish priests.  And he doesn’t know why Jesus kept saying that divorce was wrong except in the case of fornication, because he told him and he told him that no-fault divorce was the way his Father in Heaven wanted things all along. But if we were mistaken about what God thought in the past, how do we know we are not mistaken about what God thinks now?

A third possibility is that God does not change his mind per se, but that what is a sin at one stage of civilization may not be a sin at a later stage.  That is, back when Jesus was alive, divorce was pretty rough on women, and thus they had to be protected from being abandoned by men.  But now that we have child support, community property, alimony, and equal rights in the workplace, divorce is no longer the problem it used to be, and thus is no longer a sin.  It is not God that changed, but the circumstances.  In the case of homosexuality, however, most would prefer the second option, which is that this never was a sin, that we were mistaken about what God thought on the matter all along, and not that God once wanted homosexuals to be put to death, but given the different circumstances of the modern world, God is now all right with letting them live.

No matter which option we choose—God changed his mind, we were mistaken about God’s will, or there are different sins for different circumstances—every change is one more nail in God’s coffin, for it is impossible to avoid the impression that it is no longer God who tells us what is or is not a sin, but rather it is we who are deciding whether something is a sin, and adjusting our conception of God accordingly.  It is one thing to say man has free will when it comes to choosing whether or not to sin; it is quite another to say man has free will when it comes to choosing what is and is not a sin in the first place.  Freedom to believe what one wants about God soon leads to freedom from God altogether.

Part of the appeal of religion comes from the sense that there are eternal truths, that they were revealed to man long ago, and that we know what these truths are.  We may smile with amusement when the Catholic Church continues to use the Latin Mass, even though Jesus never spoke Latin, and no one else speaks it anymore either, just as we do when Protestants think that the King James Bible is the only translation that is sacred text.  But using the same words that have been used for centuries gives people a sense that they are receiving the unchanging word of God.  The footnotes provided by a modern English translation of the Bible may reflect the latest scholarship, but they do not inspire much reverence.

The Ten Commandments are revered as being the word of God, in no small part because they were written down over three thousand years ago.  Part of the problem with Mormonism is that it is only two centuries old, and even its founder, Joseph Smith, had to claim that his Book of Mormon was ancient in order to have any chance of being taken seriously.  And if someone comes along today and tells people that he has been talking to God, and has written down everything God said to him and published it in an e-book, he will be dismissed as a crank.  What is modern, up to date, and new is inimical to religious feeling.

Therefore, the Catholic Church faces a dilemma:  either it can refuse to change, thereby alienating people who are divorced and living in sin, or who are homosexuals; or it can change to suit the times, thereby vitiating the feeling that one is conforming to the eternal word of God.  If it chooses to modernize, it will keep more of its members, but will there be anything left for them to believe in?  Being an atheist, I prefer that the Church change its views on divorce and homosexuality, not only because tolerance in these matters is a good thing, but also because the more a religion changes, the weaker it becomes.  The more the Church changes the word of God, the less likely people are to believe that it is the word of God.

So, if God is not afraid of new things, maybe he should be.

As progressive as this pope seems to be regarding homosexuality and divorce, he may not be as progressive as people first thought regarding animals.  One of the things children want to know is if their pets will go to Heaven when they die.  As a bachelor, I am not sure what I would have said if I had had a child who asked me that question, but my guess is that I would have told a bald-faced lie and said, “Yes.”  I suspect many parents do the same, regardless of their religious beliefs.  And thus it was a big story for a while when it was reported that Pope Francis said, in response to that question, “Heaven is open to all creatures.”

However, it turns out that Pope Francis did not say that.  Instead, Pope Paul VI said, “One day we will again see our animals in the eternity of Christ.”  I am not sure what to make of that. When I was a child, I used to imagine Heaven as a place where our souls went when we died, and they were shaped like our bodies, and that my dog’s soul would be there, shaped accordingly as well.  Somehow, I don’t think that Pope Paul VI’s phrase about seeing our animals “in the eternity of Christ” exactly matches my childlike vision.  It sounds more like one of those vague statements we sometimes hear from politicians.

In any event, what Pope Francis said was, “Sacred Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this marvelous plan cannot but involve everything that surrounds us and came from the heart and mind of God.”  That is nothing but the usual general statement about God’s divine plan, which is used to justify this world with all of its shortcomings.  And so, the heart-warming story about Pope Francis saying that pets go to Heaven turns out to be apocryphal.

But now it appears that the pope thinks that people are placing more importance on animals than was intended by God in his marvelous plan, according to an article by Thomas D. Williams:

Francis also had strong words for what is wrong with the world and the way people’s values get twisted.

According to the Pope, the worst problems in the world today are poverty, corruption and human trafficking. He also expressed his astonishment when he read about what people spend money on.   “After food, clothing and medicine,” he said, “the fourth item is cosmetics and the fifth is pets. That’s serious.”

In fact, for an “environmental pope,” Francis seems to think that people pay altogether too much attention to pets.

“Care for pets is like programmed love,” he said. “I can program the loving response of a dog or a cat, and I don’t need the experience of a human, reciprocal love.”

The Pope said this kind of trade-off is “worrisome.”

So, not only did the pope not say that pets go to Heaven, but he also seems to think less attention should be paid to them right here on Earth.

At first, being an atheist and in the habit of disregarding the pronouncements of religious leaders, my initial reaction to simply to dismiss the pope’s remarks.  But then it occurred to me that there was much wisdom in what he said.

When I was twelve years old, my parents asked me if I would like to have a dog.  I said, “Yes,” of course.  Then they said, “You will have to be the one who feeds the dog and takes it for a walk.”  I willingly agreed.  This was unfair.  I had no idea what my future life as a teenager would be like, and so I had no idea what kind of sacrifice this would entail.  But my parents knew, and they took advantage of my innocence and extracted from me a commitment at a time when I was hardly of age to enter into a binding contract.

At first, everything was just fine.  I fed my dog and walked him, played with him, and loved him.  But then I went through puberty and discovered the importance of girls.  And then it was that I began to experience a conflict in priorities.  For example, there was this one day in which Charles, one of my friends, pulled up beside me in his car one Saturday afternoon while I was walking the dog.  “Hey, John,” he said.  “Donna’s parents will be gone for the weekend.  She’s going to have a bunch of her girlfriends over there, and she wanted me to get a bunch of guys together and come over so we can party.  As soon as you’re through walking the dog, I’ll give you a ride over there.”

“I can’t,” I said, “because at five o’clock I have to feed the dog.”

“Oh,” he said.  “Well, that’s too bad.  Donna said she had a girl all picked out just for you.  But don’t you let that worry you none.  I’ll be making out with her while you’re still opening that can of dog food.”  And at that point, he peeled out, the tires blowing dust into my face as he sped off.

It was just as the pope said.  I needed “the experience of a human, reciprocal love,” and instead, all I got was the love of my dog when I emptied the can of Alpo into his bowl.  Petting a dog is no substitute for petting a girl.

My dog died when I was a senior in high school, and it broke my heart.  But a year later, while I was in college, my parents began talking about getting another dog.  Some people may have their values twisted, as the pope said, but mine weren’t.  I laid down the law.  “This will be your dog,” I told my parents sternly.  “You will walk it and you will feed it.”  They nodded in agreement. This turned out to be a much better arrangement.  I could love the dog the way a grandparent loves a grandchild.  But when there was a girl available to give me the reciprocal, human love I needed, I was able to give her my full attention, while my parents were home taking care of their dog.

I never got another dog.  Years later, one of my dancing partners, who had a couple of dogs herself that I would play with when I visited her, asked me why I did not get a dog of my own. “Why buy a dog,” I asked, “when you can pet one through the fence?”  Anyway, as I said, we were dancing partners, and while some dancing partners are also lovers, many are not, as was the case with us.  This did not seem to bother her.  “Dancing is better than sex,” she would often say.  But the two were not mutually exclusive, and besides, such a bold hypothesis should be put to the test, I figured.  So, one night, when the mood seemed right, I sat next to her on the couch while we had a discussion about the meaning of life or some such, and was just about to make my move, when her two dogs jumped up onto the couch and in our laps, demanding attention.

Once again, I found myself in agreement with the pope.  My dancing partner’s twisted values resulted in her caring more about playing with her dogs than receiving some of that reciprocal love she could have gotten from another human being, namely me.  The pope said, “I can program the loving response of a dog or a cat.”  He sounds like a computer geek in saying that, but one thing is for sure, you can’t program the loving response of a woman, and so I have to agree with him on that point.

Anyway, when my dancing partner had to go out of town for a while, she asked me to take care of her dogs while she was gone.  I agreed.  “You can sleep over here, if you want, to keep them company,” she offered.  And so, the only time I got to sleep in her bed was when I slept with the dogs.  But when she returned, she told me she had met someone and had fallen in love. He did not dance, and he did not have a dog, and so I guess without dancing and dogs to distract her, she found the space in her life for love.  Well, three’s a crowd, and it was not long before I was looking for another dancing partner.

One girlfriend I had, after asking me why I did not have a pet, and hearing my tale of woe, bought me a cactus.  It was the perfect gift for a bachelor who does not want the responsibility of taking care of a pet or taking care of a wife and children for that matter.  And so it was that when I saw the final episode of Mad Men, when Pete gave Peggy a cactus, I began to wonder if there were something archetypal involved.  Peggy had given up her baby, had never gotten married, and did not have a pet.  But now she had her cactus.  There was a sense of completion in that.  But then, Matthew Weiner spoiled it by having her and Stan hook up at the last minute. Sometimes a dramatist does not realize when his story has ended.

Well, I found out that the cactus had to be watered once every two weeks, and so I would mark that on my calendar, and then worry whether I would forget to look at the calendar.  And I would have to put it on the balcony in front of my apartment to let it get some sun.  But then I would have to worry if it rained, because it is not good to let a cactus get too much water.  This wore me out.  After three months, I came home one day to find that the cactus had been stolen.  A great burden was lifted off my shoulders.

But I had learned an important lesson.  I will never get another cactus.

On the Different Types of Agnosticism

The first time I found out that there was such a thing as atheism, I was in high school.  From a strictly logical point of view, that made things pretty simple. There were two kinds of people: those who believe that God exists, called theists, and those who do not believe that God exists, called atheists.

When I got to college, I met someone who called himself an agnostic.  He said he was so filled with doubt that he did not have any belief about the existence of God one way or the other. It was then that I realized there was a distinction between not believing God exists on the one hand, and believing that God does not exist on the other.  From this I concluded that:

A theist believes God exists.

An atheist believes God does not exist.

An agnostic has no belief about God’s existence either way.

Given these definitions, a stone would be an agnostic, for having no beliefs at all, a stone has no beliefs about the existence of God.  Therefore, we must restrict our consideration not only to people, who are capable of having beliefs, but also to people who have some idea of God and have thought about whether he exists or not.

So understood, these three concepts were mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of the ways in which one could have or not have a belief regarding God’s existence.  The distinctions were clear and easy to understand.  All was good.

Somewhat later, I met another person who said he was an agnostic because he did not know whether there was a God.  I was not sure what to make of this at first.  Up till then, I had understood these concepts in terms of belief, and here this person was introducing knowledge into the subject.  Now, sometimes people say they do not know something when all they mean is that they have no opinion on the matter.  For example, assume someone asks me, “Did Bob ever get married?” If I say, “I don’t believe he did,” I will be understood as saying that I think Bob is still single.  The syntactical form of my answer may make it appear that I deny having a belief, but the meaning conveyed will be that I do have a belief, and it is the belief that Bob did not get married.  To indicate that I have no belief one way or the other as to Bob’s marital status, I must answer, “I don’t know.”  In like manner, it might have been that this person was using an expression about not knowing only to indicate a lack of belief.

On the other hand, it could be that he meant to say something more than just what he did or did not believe, that he was stating an absence of knowledge as his reason for counting himself an agnostic.  In that case, he was saying that an agnostic is someone who does not know whether there is a God.  But this throws things out of kilter.  Given that sense of the word, the three terms no longer neatly partition belief or lack of belief about God; for it might be that no one knows whether there is a God, in which case everyone is an agnostic, from the most devout fundamentalist to the most militant atheist, from the Pope to Richard Dawkins.  Any definition of agnostic that includes everyone is too broad.

Perhaps we should amend this to saying an agnostic is someone who does not claim to know whether there is a God.  But that is still too broad a definition. I do not doubt that there are atheists who claim to know there is no God, and I have known a few religious people who claim to know there is a God, but most people make neither claim, whether they are theists or atheists.  In other words, this definition of agnostic gives the result that a lot of theists and atheists are also agnostics, provided they make no claims about knowledge regarding God.  But this is not the way most people understand these terms.  Whatever else these words may mean, we expect their meanings to be mutually exclusive.  But when “theist” and “atheist” are defined in terms of belief, while “agnostic” is defined in terms of knowledge or claims about knowledge, there will be substantial overlap, and the presumed mutual exclusivity will not hold.

Similar consideration applies for those who, like T.H. Huxley, emphasize claims about certainty rather than knowledge.  We get the same problem, which is that theists and atheists can be considered agnostics provided they make no claims about certainty, even though most of those same theists and atheists would take exception to being so classified.  In any event, we need not linger over Huxley.  He may have popularized the word, but I am more concerned with how the word is used today.

Until now, I have considered only those definitions of “agnostic” that apply to an individual.  That is, my definitions have been of the form, “an agnostic is someone who…,” followed by “does not believe…,” “does not know…,” “does not claim to know…,” or “does not claim to be certain….” But some definitions go beyond the individual and extend to all of mankind.  In such cases, it is “agnosticism” rather than “agnostic” that gets defined.  In particular, one definition of agnosticism is the doctrine that God’s existence or nonexistence is unknown.  In other words, it is the doctrine that nobody knows whether God exists.  And another definition is even stronger, claiming that God’s existence or nonexistence is unknowable, thereby making a claim not only about how things stand today, but for all time.

The traditional definition of knowledge is justified true belief. Let us assume just for the moment that God exists.  That means the second condition for knowledge of God’s existence has been met:  the proposition that God exists is true.  A theist is someone who believes that God exists, and thus the third condition has been met for him.  Therefore, it must be the first condition where the problem lies as far as agnosticism is concerned.  That is, according to this doctrine, the theist is not justified in believing that God exists.  The same holds for the atheist if we assume that God does not exist.  In that case, what the atheist believes is true, so it must be that he is not justified in believing there is no God, if agnosticism understood as denying knowledge in this area is correct.

In other words, if the agnostic were to allow that a theist is justified in believing there is a God, and if it is true that God exists, then all the conditions for knowledge will have been satisfied, and it will follow that the theist knows that God exists. Likewise, if the agnostic were to allow that an atheist is justified in believing that God does not exist, and if it is true that God does not exist, then all the conditions for knowledge will have been satisfied in this case, and it will follow that the atheist knows that God does not exist.  Therefore, in order to assert that no one knows whether God exists, the agnostic must maintain that no one is justified in believing in God’s existence or nonexistence.  Now, to say someone is not justified in having a belief is to say that he ought not to have it, because it is foolish to go around believing stuff without any justification.

This results in a paradox.  At first blush, it appears that agnosticism is a modest, humble position, simply making no claims about God’s existence. But now we find that on this interpretation of agnosticism, it appears to be rather contentious, for it asserts there is no justification for believing that God exists or for believing that God does not exist.  And if such beliefs are not justified, then there is something inherently wrong with being either a theist or an atheist, quite apart from the question of whether there is a God. And this is a far cry from the kind of agnosticism we considered in the beginning, defined solely in terms of belief, in which an agnostic might say, “I have no opinion about the existence of God, and everyone is entitled to believe whatever he wants.”

Thus we see that agnosticism can range in meaning from mere lack of belief regarding the existence of God to an assertion that God’s existence or nonexistence is intrinsically unknowable. The former allows the terms “theist,” “atheist,” and “agnostic” to partition the possibilities of belief regarding God; the latter does not.  The former is a mere statement of one’s lack of belief; the latter impugns the beliefs of others as not being justified. Either of these meanings can be embraced, and the corresponding positions consistently maintained. Unfortunately, these different meanings are not always carefully distinguished.