The Human Spark

Actor Alan Alda (image source: Wikipedia) hosts a new series about human origins

Last night, I was looking at the TV listings and saw that there was a show called “The Human Spark” on. It turns out it’s a three-part series about human origins and why modern humans have the special, hard-to-define “spark” (intelligence, creativity, etc.) that sets us apart from other primates. I watched the first part and it is very well-done. (Check the PBS listings here or your local listings for repeats of part one and airings of the next two parts).

Alan Alda goes around the world asking questions of experts and seeing first-hand some evidence of human ancestry, trying to figure out why we got that “spark” that makes us human, while other animals (including close relatives like Neanderthals) did not. The premise of the show is thus evolutionary in nature, so I’m sure there are some young-earth creationists out there who aren’t happy. If you’re like me and aren’t an expert in science, but are interested in where we came from (and think it has nothing to do with “Let there be light”), you should like this series.

What drew my attention to the show, I have to admit, is that it’s being hosted by Alan Alda. Alda played Hawkeye on the ground-breaking show M*A*S*H (a sitcom/drama about the Korean War which lasted longer than the Korean War itself did). Hawkeye has always been one of my favorite TV characters (probably because my dad liked him) and I had read that Alda is involved in charity work. I also thought I had read he was an atheist. I checked into it and it turns out he considers himself as “not a believer” but doesn’t like the words atheist or agnostic. According to a piece on the Edge Foundation website (found via Wikipedia)

I still don’t like the word agnostic. It’s too fancy. I’m simply not a believer. But, as simple as this notion is, it confuses some people. Someone wrote a Wikipedia entry about me, identifying me as an atheist because I’d said in a book I wrote that I wasn’t a believer. I guess in a world uncomfortable with uncertainty, an unbeliever must be an atheist, and possibly an infidel. This gets us back to that most pressing of human questions: why do people worry so much about other people’s holding beliefs other than their own?

He did start out as a believer, though. Even though he rejects the labels atheist and agnostic, he has made a conscious movement away from religious belief. Perhaps he is more of a secular humanist, since he doesn’t believe in God or heaven.

For a while in my teens, I was sure I had it. It was about getting to heaven. If heaven existed and lasted forever, then a mere lifetime spent scrupulously following orders was a small investment for an infinite payoff. One day, though, I realized I was no longer a believer, and realizing that, I couldn’t go back. Not that I lost the urge to pray. Occasionally, even after I stopped believing, I might send off a quick memo to the Master of the Universe, usually on a matter needing urgent attention, like Oh, God, don’t let us crash. […] But my effort to keep the plane in the air by talking to God didn’t mean I suddenly was overcome with belief, only that I was scared.

In any case, Alda seems to be genuinely interested and fascinated by this series. As am atheist/non-believer , I also find myself more interested in topics like evolution and human origins than I used to be, so this show is right up my alley. The site for the show has video clips (which aren’t embeddable, unfortunately, but you can view them on their site) as well as other information. The first part in the series will be repeated several times over the next few days, so if you missed it but are interested, check your local listings.

EDIT: The show is airing on PBS, the link was there but I never said it in the text. Sorry about any confusion!

In smears we trust

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent an email noting several recent articles railing against their move to sue to keep "In God We Trust" and the god-filled Pledge of Allegiance out of the Capital Visitor Center (my take on the issue here ).

One article that caught my eye in particular was in the Examiner , a site I had recently quoted from. (See a few quick notes at the end about the Examiner and sources in general). The author directly addresses FFRF and its co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor directly, saying:

you are wrong about something… there are not 15% of Americans who identify themselves as non-religious. At best, (or worst, depending on your point of view) only 5% of our population claims atheist/agnostic status.

The Examiner article by Doug Billings cites no source refuting the claim, only makes an unsupported counter-claim about atheists and agnostics (making it seem like that’s the same as non-religious, which it’s not). I can (and did, in the comments) cite a well-publicized source identifying 15% of Americans identifying as non-religious. The ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) data was collected by Trinity College in Connecticut. Although their charter prohibits discriminating based on religion, they were founded by Episcopals  and have "Trinity" right in their name, so they don’t on the surface appear to be anti-Christian, and yet they still claim 15% of Americans self-identify as non-religious.

The majority of the rest of the article/opinion piece is just a name-calling rant against non-believers, including this image:

and referring to Annie Laurie Gaylor’s point about the country not being founded on Christianity by saying "In another gleaming example of her intellectual shortcomings […]". Everyone has a right to their opinion, but they should not pull statistics and alleged facts out of the air on a site run by a news agency, where such items are accepted by some as news articles.

Although they openly call for people from around the country to apply to be examiners to submit local news, and did have some atheist-related news on them, it is important to note that they have as their owner Philip Anschutz , funder and proponent of the Discovery Institute .

This does not mean that all information on the Examiner site is false or slanted, just that it’s important to remember for all information you get, to consider where it’s coming from, including from my site and blog. I’m obviously going to pick stories that are related to atheism, freethought, etc., but I do attempt to be as unbiased as possible when it comes to presenting facts. I also cite my sources, and when it’s not obvious from the name of the source if they have a slant, I point it out when I’m aware of it, and normally try to find out and report on it when I’m not.

We all, including myself, should be careful about the information we use: not to limit where we look, but to judge its worth and try to verify when possible. Otherwise we might be like the author of the Examiner article who may actually believe he is telling the truth, when it instead comes out as an unjustified and inaccurate smear against those who aren’t religious.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert— religious, atheist, or a-religious humor?

One thing I’ve liked about The Colbert Report (remember not to pronounce the t’s in your head!) The Daily Show and is that they fairly often bring up religion, nearly always poking fun at it. When I was still not-a-Christian-but-still-not-a-full-blown-atheist-yet, "This Week in God " (here’s another one that I hadn’t seen) in particularly made me feel like it was okay to make fun of religion — that it wasn’t off-limits to criticize the stranger parts of religions and the actions of their adherents.

So I’ve often wondered, what do Stewart and Colbert really think about religion? Not what they think will be a good punchline for a joke, but their actual beliefs? Are they trying to get people to question religion, or at least the more dogmatic aspects of it? I used to think they were atheists or agnostics but just didn’t want to come out and say so (and risk offending certain segments of their audience). But through the years, more clues have surfaced.

I no longer watch each show "religiously" as I used to (I used to participate in Colbert Nation’s forums on a daily basis), but still catch them from time to time. And one show I caught was when Jon Stewart interviewed former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor .

Indecision An Indecision Exclusive!
Sandra Day O’Connor Pt. 1

Funny Political Video Political Games Joe Biden Jokes

In terms of this post, the key part of what Stewart says takes up from a line that Sandra Day O’Connor had mentioned earlier in the interview. Jon Stewart says

As a secular, godless humanist, I think, myself […] I’m an activist host […]

I think the second part is meant as a joke, but the first part doesn’t seem like it to me.

On the blog Unreasonable Faith was a post about a just-published interview with Jon Stewart in the religious magazine Sojourners (free registration required to view article) in which Stewart talks about his views on religion. A few quotes:

It may be true that the Hebrew prophets used humor […] to create social change, but it was also used by Borscht Belt social directors. We’ve got a lot more in common with them than the prophets. […] Because we’re in the public eye, maybe people project onto us their desires for that type of activism coming from us, but just knowing the process here as I do, our show is maybe the antithesis of activism, and that is a relatively selfish pursuit.  […] People have always said to us, “You want it both ways; you want to be taken seriously but then not.” And I always say, “When do we want to be taken seriously? We’re just doing our show.”

So I think that answers part of my question: at least as Stewart is concerned, he’s not trying to get on a soapbox (although in some episodes, it seems he might on politics at least) but just saying what they think about current events, in a (hopefully) funny and interesting way obviously.

About religion specifically, Stewart said:

I have trouble with dogma more than I have trouble with religion. I think the best thing religion does is give people a sense of place, purpose, and compassion. My quibble with it is when it’s described as the only way to have those things instilled. You can be moral and not be religious, you can be compassionate, you can be empathetic—you can have all those wonderful qualities. When it begins to be judged as purely based on religion, then you’re suggesting a world where Star Jones goes to heaven but Gandhi doesn’t. […] When people say things like, “I found God and that helped me stop drinking,” I say, “Great! More power to you. Just know that some people stop drinking without it.”

So to me, it sounds like Stewart is personally agnostic or an atheist, but it’s not something that he wants to get on a soapbox about. If religion works for you, fine, but it’s not the only choice out there. To a large extent, I agree with this sentiment. But, at the same time, there are a lot of people who believe their Holy Book (Bible, Quran, or whatever) is 100% God’s truth and must be followed.

Most people who’d be likely to view The Daily Show probably already aren’t die-hard fundamenalists/orthodox followers of their religion, but maybe it does have an effect on the people who are less religious and don’t normally think about such things. But whether they’re trying to do so or not, Stewart’s show does a good job I think at showing people that religion has some crazy, and sometimes harmful, ideas in it.  It’s something you don’t come across very often in the mainstream media, and it’s definitely refreshing.

Colbert is a more complex situation, and this post is already plenty long. I’ll revisit him sometime soon (spoiler alert: "word" has it he’s a Sunday School teacher!).