Thursday, 17 November 2011

South Park creators: Dawkins and the New Atheists have set atheism back a few decades

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South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker
When it comes to religion, the South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are equal-opportunities offenders, and it's an approach that has made them heroes to many atheists in age of heightened sensitivity around matters of faith. Last year, they stood up to the censors over the depiction of Muhammad alongside other religious figures in the 201st episdode of South Park (an episode which itself railed against hyper-sensitivity and censorship), and numerous faiths and belief systems have been lampooned during the show's 14-year history, including, famously, Scientology in the 2005 episode "Trapped in the Closet". More recently, the pair's latest project, the multi-award-winning Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, has seen them train their sights on the testament "revealed" to the 19th-centurt American prophet Joseph Smith.

In addition to fearlessly tackling supernatural beliefs, Parker and Stone have also satirised atheism, and in the 2006 South Park episode "Go God Go" saw Richard Dawkins enter into a passionate affair with South Park's transsexual teacher Mrs Garrison, having converted her from creationism to a belief in evolution. Much of the episode is set in the year 2546, when the world has become entirely non-religious, and several godless factions, each inspired by Dawkins, are at war over their interpretations of atheism.

Dawkins himself was unimpressed by his potrayal ("I’m buggered if I like being portrayed as a cartoon character buggering a bald transvestite. I wouldn’t have minded so much if only it had been in the service of some serious point, but if there was a serious point in there I couldn’t discern it."), and many atheists surely disagreed with Parker and Stone's characterisation of atheism as sharing religion's potential to descend into militancy and fundamentalism.

If you were one of those people, you may be slightly unhappy with Parker and Stone's latest take on Dawkins, which they put forward in an interview with the men's magazine Esquire. Asked about their positions on contentious issues, the pair point to the dangers of certainty and the importance of nuance:
'[T]he truth is that Parker and Stone, the creators of the decade's most extreme mass entertainment, are shockingly ... temperate. They say it themselves: "There is a middle ground, and most of us actually live in this middle ground." Consider the short film that launched South Park — The Spirit of Christmas.

On one side, Jesus demanded that Christmas be about remembering His birthday. Santa shouted that Christmas was about giving. They kung-fu-battled until they were rolling on the ground, strangling each other.

"The boys were in the middle saying, 'This is fucked up,' " said Parker. "Any side who thinks they're totally right is fucked up. That's the heart of every show."'
 They then proceed to apply this view to the debate over religion, and the work of Dawkins: 
'Consider, too, The Book of Mormon. For a play that includes the insertion of a holy text up a missionary's rectum, it actually offers a nuanced view of religion. Mormonism may be odd, but it produces kind, thoughtful, mostly happy people. "They always look like they're just about to break out into song anyways," Stone has said.

Religion has its upsides — a position that rankles hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

"He's such a dick," said Stone. "You read his book and you're like, 'Yeah, I agree with that. But it's the most dicky way to put it... I think the neoatheists have set atheism back a few decades. And I'm a self-described atheist."'
It is, of course, a common accusation levelled against Dawkins that his critique of religion is excessively forthright and lacking in nuance. What do you think of Parker and Stone's comments? Do they have a point, or are you disappointed that they have bought into the trend of depicting the "New Atheists" as unreasonable and aggressive?
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