Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Of Creationism, quotation marks and moose stew

A link to something I enjoyed reading: Roger Ebert’s blog post “This is the dawning of The Age of Credulity”, along with the hundreds of comments that have accumulated on it. Taken together, the piece and the comments cover such topics as Creationism-vs-Evolution, Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay “A Modest Proposal”, Poe’s Law, and how the Internet (and the mad pace of modern life in general) has reduced our capacity to process understated humour. Lots of food for thought there.

Anyway, here’s the background: a few weeks ago Ebert wrote a deadpan piece titled “Creationism: Your Questions Answered”, in which he purported to explain the beliefs of Young-Earth Creationists. (It’s valid to ask what this piece was doing on his film-review site rather than on his more general-interest blog, but I’ll tread past that question.) Now, anyone who has followed Ebert’s writings over the years will know that he is emphatically not a Creationist himself (though I don’t think he describes himself as an atheist either). The piece was intended as a gentle parody: though its tone was poker-faced, there was enough in it (in my view, at least) to make his intentions obvious. ("Q. Why would God create such an absurd creature as a moose? Ans. In charity, we must observe that the moose probably does not seem absurd to itself.")

So Ebert probably didn’t expect that people would interpret this to mean that he subscribes to such ideas as the Earth being created in finished form on the night of October 23, 4004 B.C., or the remains of the Ark being visible on Mount Ararat. But this is exactly what happened, with the piece sparking thousands of comments from indignant rationalists on blogs across the WWW. The “Age of Credulity” piece is his response to the uproar, and it makes a very valid point about the
decay of our instinct for satire and irony and the growing tendency to take everything we read or hear at face value.
To sense irony, you have to sense the invisible quotation marks. I suspect quotation marks may be growing imperceptible to us. We may be leaving an age of irony and entering an age of credulity. In a time of shortened attention spans and instant gratification, trained by web surfing and movies with an average shot length of seconds, we absorb rather than contemplate. We want to gobble all the food on the plate, instead of considering each bite. We accept rather than select.
I’ve written earlier about my dislike of smileys, which too often serve as convenient “laugh here!” signposts, and about the common inability to appreciate delicate, understated humour (which we may as well acronym DUH), but even given my frustrations about these things I have to admit that Creationism is a special case – one where parody can be self-defeating. As Poe’s Law states:
Without a winking smiley or some other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing. In other words, no matter how bizarre, outrageous, or just plain idiotic a parody of a Fundamentalist may seem, there will always be someone who cannot tell that it is a parody, having seen similar REAL ideas from real religious/political Fundamentalists.
Anyway, if you have the time and inclination, go through the comments on the Ebert piece as well – many of them are very entertaining and/or illuminating.

P.S. Coincidentally, the moose is the favourite animal of a famous Creationist whose every campaign speech and interview is being closely followed around the world these days. On the comments section of one of the blogs I read, there was a persuasive reply to Ebert’s moose question:

Q. Why would God create such an absurd creature as a moose?
Ans. So I can kill it and make stew. The Lord be praised – Sarah Palin


  1. The arguments against creationism and the like are often quite humorless and condescending. A case in point is the Stanley Kramer film 'Inherit the Wind' which drags on long after the audience 'gets' the argument.

    What the votaries of science overlook is that religion is the "opium of the masses". People indulge in it because they find it comforting and not neccessarily due to ignorance of science.

    Woody Allen's greatest film 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' is probably the most subtle in presenting the debate between belief and unbelief. The film transcends the moronic 'science vs religion' debate and instead poses the provocative question - 'Should we prefer God over truth?'. During the film, we get to know the lives of men who would answer that question quite differently. The audience is not coerced to make up its mind.

    The problem with a lot of 'rationalist' commentators is their ironically evangelical urge to make up the mind of their audience.

  2. Shrikanth: Oh, personally I associate "humorlessness" much more with religion. But you're also making the big mistake of using "Creationism" and "faith/belief" as interchangeable terms. In this post (and the pieces it links to), what is being talked about is belief in the literal truth of everything written in the Bible (which, if you bother to take a quick glance through the Old Testament, would indicate belief in the tyrannical actions of a very jealous, vindictive and whimsical God - nothing very comforting or inspirational about that).

    We're not talking here about "comforting" belief in some sort of abstract higher power, or about larger questions of Faith: we're talking about very specific idiocies like the Garden of Eden, the Ark, etc, and about people who are completely convinced that the Earth and the Universe were created in 4004 B.C. (etc etc). Many of these people, incidentally, don't bother to transcend what you call the "moronic" religion-vs-science debate - they hold their own scatterbrained and ignorant views up as scientific fact, finding ways to "explain" things like fossils etc to fit their new-earth fantasy.

    I assure you, no Creationist would even understand the question "Should we prefer God over truth?"

    Also, I don't think the votaries of science are "overlooking" that religion is the opium of the masses. Dawkins himself acknowledges the point repeatedly in his books, and there's nothing at all condescending about his belief that most people don't need this opium - that if they had greater access to the truth and if religion wasn't drummed into their heads from a very early age, they would be able to deal with the world as it is. I don't know if I agree with that view myself, but it says a lot about Dawkins' lack of condescension.

  3. Thanks for the fine reply.
    The humorlessness of those who believe in the literal truth of scriptures is far too obvious and universally acknowledged. Hence, I didn't comment on that. Moreover, Ebert's post was a poke at evolutionists.

    Removed the reference to Dawkins in the earlier comment having realized that I'm not familiar enough with his work.

    I haven't personally interacted with anyone who subscribes to the Bible's take on creation. However, I suspect that a great deal of the fundamentalism is probably a reactionary response to what is perceived to be the condescension of the unbelievers. Perhaps a more accomodating attitude may mellow them down and make them more receptive to alternative ideas about creation.

  4. I haven't personally interacted with anyone who subscribes to the Bible's take on creation. However, I suspect that a great deal of the fundamentalism is probably a reactionary response to what is perceived to be the condescension of the unbelievers.

    Shrikanth: I think this is something that those of us who aren't too familiar with American society, especially the Bible belt, greatly underestimate. It's true that you and I, living where we are, are unlikely to have interacted with Creationists, but opinion polls in the US regularly indicate that anywhere between 50 to 60 per cent of the population genuinely believes in the Adam-and-Eve creation myth, the Flood, etc. Speaking in terms of absolute population, the US is quite likely the most fundamentalist country in the world (again, defining fundamentalism as belief in the literal truth of a Creation story).

    And I'm not sure most of this fundamentalism is a reactionary response to the condescension of unbelievers - I think most of these people are so insulated (from the rest of the world, from other faiths and other ways of living) that they have never even had occasion to question the ideas they were brought up with - and it's all the more difficult when a religion is founded on the demand for unquestioning faith in a particular ancient text.

    Sheer ignorance and myopia play a frighteningly large role in all of this. Which is why bringing a Woody Allen film (full of complex and searching ideas about faith vs science) into the discussion is pointless in this particular context. To appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors, you need to have already reached a certain level of enlightenment and developed at least some scepticism about any religion that claims to provide its followers the One True Path. After that, you can get into the business of debating the merits and demerits of Faith.

    Anyway, it's nice to have these discussions - I've been thinking a lot about some of these issues lately, especially the very limited perception we have of American society. Many of us make the huge mistake of thinking that just because we're so familiar with Hollywood films and other popular culture, we know the US, but that isn't the case at all.

  5. "And I'm not sure most of this fundamentalism is a reactionary response to the condescension of unbelievers - I think most of these people are so insulated (from the rest of the world, from other faiths and other ways of living) that they have never even had occasion to question the ideas they were brought up with - and it's all the more difficult when a religion is founded on the demand for unquestioning faith in a particular ancient text"

    Expanding this view, does not one find parallels to this in most religons especially Hinduism. What is the Ram Setu issue but a variation of the Creationism school of thought i.e. whatever is written in the holy book is the final truth? Opposing the project because Lord Ram and his army had built a bridge may seem a little hogwash for rationalists. But you will find most Hindus endorsing the same view. In fact I distincly remember my teacher drilling in our heads that the Palk Strait was built by Rama. Creationism in schools - India version?
    Even the supposed dating of the birth of Rama, Krishna and other heroes in the Hindu pantheon can be called an attempt to needlessly justify the myth as a history. And unlike the USA, India is home to diverse peoples and its citizens have got exposure to differant religons with their differant viewpoints.

    This Creationism phenomenom is not just restricted to the USA but is prevelant almost everywhere. In India one does not find much writing on it mainly because it is the dominant view. The rationalist movement is not strong enough to challenge it let alone act condescendingly towards it!! With regards to this, one has to applaud the USA.

  6. @dhananjay...
    though we're digressing quite a lot, I must say your reference to creationist thought in India is somewhat misplaced. Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals. An overwhelming majority of Hindus haven't read any of their *holy* texts. Popular Hinduism is essentially a motley collection of legends and myths that have stood the test of time. So drawing parallels between Hindu fables of creation and the story of Genesis (which is endorsed by the most widely read book in the world) is rather inappropriate.

  7. Dhananjay: you make some good points there. A friend recently pointed out that in the US, the theory of evolution is at least widely articulated and disseminated (even if many people living in the Bible Belt don't know anything about it beyond the vague notion that it says "humans descended from monkeys"!). Whereas in India you get the impression that most people haven't even heard of evolution, and the existence of a higher power is almost taken for granted because, after all, what else could explain the world?

    But at the same time, as Shrikanth mentions in the previous comment, Hinduism doesn't have fundamentals in the sense that Christianity does. The closest thing to the principal book of Hinduism is the Rig Veda (which begins with those famous lines wondering how the universe came into being and whether God existed before or afterwards - contrast this with the set-in-stone certainties of the Old Testament). But most Hindus, even religious Hindus, haven't even read it. In Hinduism, having faith doesn't demand that you believe the literal truth of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas and countless other ancient stories (many of which contradict each other, which would make it difficult to believe all of them anyway!). Whereas in the more conservative parts of the US, being a Christian goes hand in hand with unquestioning devotion to the Bible.

    (Of course, this is not to deny the existence of Hindu fundamentalists. After all, fundamentalists exist in nearly every religion - though as Shashi Tharoor pointed out in a recent column, Hinduism in its original form is such an open-ended, inclusive religion that the moment you introduce fundamentalism into it, it ceases to become Hinduism.)

    Also, as you imply in your comment (unlike the USA, India is home to diverse peoples and its citizens have got exposure to different religions with their different viewpoints), it's easier to be insular and cut off from the rest of the world if you're living in the US (the most powerful country in the world) than if you're living in India. Even the most religious Indians - the ones who are potentially fundamentalist and would want to shut their eyes to anything beyond their own religion - have to constantly deal with the uncomfortable fact that there are many different types of people, with different beliefs, around them.

  8. Agree with both of you with respect to the open endedness of Hinduism. However since the past 150 years there has been a sustained attempt beginning from Savarkar who coined the term Hindutva to provide a structure to it (a narrow and non inclusive, if I may say). It is these self appointed architects who are heavily into historical revision which is so similar to Creationism.

    Btw, Ebert did pull a fast one with that blog of his. I was surprised to see his body of writing on non film matters. Makes you respect him even more.

  9. @Srikanth and Jabberwock: The very point of a creation myth becomes important in the case of Hindutva, as Dhananjay points out, because it is aiming to build in fundamentals and destroy the diverse character of Hinduism. The attempt to provide historical justification, however flimsy, is not only a war of Hindutva against other religions, but also against other Hinduisms. And therefore it is important to challenge this version of creationism and not simply dismiss it because it is not recorded in a book that is widely recognised as the source of scriptural law for the religion. There is precisely the attempt to provide such dogmatic status to certain texts and certain readings of certain texts.

  10. @rtp and dhananjay
    the recent attempts to "build in" fundamentals into Hinduism are in my opinion a reactionary response to the perceived threat from semetic cultures and the gradual (again, perceived) deracination of the country's youth.

    While we're on this, here's a quote from Disraeli, the 19th century Conservative politician.

    "In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines."

  11. ...it is important to challenge this version of creationism and not simply dismiss it...

    RTP: Not dismissing or underestimating it. I see manifestations of it around me all the time, such as when a religious grandmother takes the Bhakti-tradition depiction of Krishna in any of several mythological serials to be historically truth. Frustrating, but what can one do beyond a point?

    Shrikanth: I don't quite like the use of the word "arbitrary" in that Disraeli quote, but "abstract principles" are just fine by me, if they give individual rights precedence over blind and unthinking tradition.

  12. Krishna -the lovable child good from Bhakti and Vaishnava traditions can be traced to one of the Puranas- Bhagvata. Since Vyasa is also believed to have compiled or (at times, even authored) the Puranas, that should make them contemporaneous with the Mahabharata. However, the earliest existing versions can be dated to the Gupta era only. This is not to suggest that Krishna as the cowherd is part of the original Mahabharat, but just to point out the historical precedent to the Bhakti tradition.

  13. Also, think of this. The world's major religions end up being perverted into a means to some political agenda. Hinduism and Hindutva; Judaism and Israel; Islam and well, global terrorism. The Christian right in America are simply another brand of powerbrokers manipulating the masses through a dangerous mix of religion and politics.

    The modus operandi is simple. First, proclaim the absolute truth of a religious text. Second, become the only conduit beween ordinary God-fearing people and a God as described in the religious text (the Bible, in this case).

    In the case of creationism, the underlying motive is simple: Get people to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Once this is achieved, the Bible becomes the ultimate tool of power in American politics. It's no longer the old Democrats v/s Republican fight; it's a war between 'our God' and everyone else.

    Simply put, arguing against creationism is not going to be a logical, rational exercise. It demands a fight against a conspiracy of power.

  14. Totally unrelated, but I wanted to know if you've been watching the promos of Hello, the hindi movie based on Chetan Bhagat's novel (One night at the call centre). How is Salmon Khan playing Chetan Bhagat the author in the movie if he appears in the cameo as a superstar who gets off a helicopter and proceeds to dance and take off his shirt? Am I missing something?

  15. Came across this post from famous blogger Seth Godin, which sparked a storm for being confused and contradictory. Check out the trackbacks.


    Apparently, nobody noticed that he starts off with a link to Swift.