atheism

Finally, an atheist protagonist – Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective

Last week I ventured out to a hole-in-the-wall bar for an acquaintance’s birthday party, and as you do when you’re at these things, began chatting up a couple strangers. The two I spent the most time with happened to be brothers, and we got to talking about our favorite television series’. After going through the usual suspects – The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Shield (okay, that one was new for me…I’ve never heard anyone rave about The Shield) – the younger brother started in on HBO’s new series, True Detective, which he cautiously described as one of the better series he had ever seen. That praise of course piqued my interest, especially since several of my friends had been raving about it for a few weeks. But what really got me hooked was this stranger’s mention of the series’ overt atheism, which he described something like this:

“It’s clear the writer [Nic Pizzolatto] is a militant atheist or something, and he has McConaughey’s character go on these long diatribes every few episodes about atheism and how religion is irrational. I actually find it kind of annoying – I mean I like it because it fits with my personal beliefs – but I’m not sure how well it fits in with the rest of the action.”

So I took up the suggestion of my new-made bar friends and started binge-watching True Detective. It is very, very good – smart, suspenseful, and addictive. And sure enough, Matthew McConaughey, who stars as one of the show’s two protagonists (the other being the excellent Woody Harrelson) is indeed playing an outright atheist. Check out the clip below, which is pretty typical of his diatribes (they actually come only two or three times in the series, at least through episode five – so I haven’t found it as annoying as the bar guy made it sound):

Now I found this a little surprising for two reasons. First, for the obvious one that atheism isn’t discussed too readily on television these days. And secondly, because I was under the impression McConaughey was a seriously religious man. Where did I get that impression? From this section of Keay Davidson’s biography of Carl Sagan, discussing the film adaption of Sagan’s novel, Contact, in which McConaughey starred:

“A religious man himself, McConaughey refused to utter the one sentence that Ann Druyan had hoped would make the film: ‘My God was too small.’ The line was sacrilegious, McConaughey told her. The more she talked to him about it, the more she realized the depth of his intelligent and sincere faith; in time they became good friends.” (Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life; page 410)

So how do you go from refusing to say a line because it’s sacrilegious, to playing an outspoken atheist on one of the country’s most watched networks? My theory is that McConaughey has matured a bit, and realized it’s fine to play characters that don’t share his own religious views. I also think the change in national climate toward non-belief has helped – playing an atheist was a pretty strange thing when Contact came out, possibly less so now. Of course, the other possibility is that his friendship with Druyan has led him toward skepticism (The¬†Hollowverse still lists him as “appearing to be Catholic” however)…

[Update 3/3: You can go here for a recent interview with McConaughey, where he confirms he does believe in God, and watch his Oscar acceptance here (congrats!) where he also thanks God.]

How does the atheism impact the character in True Detective? Well, it is actually an isolating factor for him – the show takes place in rural Louisiana – but on the other hand the writers do associate atheism several times with intelligence. More prominently, I think, the atheism helps give his character an unfriendly edge – he’s certainly not a happy guy – bordering on nihilism. I’m a little concerned religious believers watching this will think that’s the type of personality atheism must in all cases lead to – sure you’re smart and can figure things out, but now you’re a brooding, unhappy, dismissive, lonely, and arrogant guy. But maybe I’m projecting a bit. There’s no actual reference to his character’s personality being driven by anything other than a bad, bad past.

But enough of this. You should stop reading and go watch True Detective. I’m firing up episode six now…

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“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

That pretty line above is from poet Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s used skillfully by physicist Sean Carroll in his keynote speech at the 2013 American Humanist Association Conference in San Diego just a few days ago. The talk is titled “Purpose and the Universe” and if you’ve never heard Carroll lecture before, I recommend sitting down for an hour and giving him a listen. He’s entertaining, likable, and has a knack for lucidly explaining concepts like quantum field theory in just a few slides.

Highlights for me included:

  • Carroll’s claim that the “laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known.” He’s of course not saying that physics is done or that there aren’t undiscovered particles or fields, but that we do know a complete regime of physics, and anything else we discover won’t have any real application to our lives. He explains exactly how we know that, and why we can rule out certain alternatives (assuming quantum field theory is correct). The completeness of this regime has obvious explanatory power, and can absolutely demolish particular claims that would require a different set of physical laws – one obvious one is astrology and another, which is equally implied by the laws but harder for many to accept, is life after death (see this blog post by Carroll for more on that).
  • Carroll’s disagreement with many of his atheist/humanist colleagues that science will be able to supply answers to questions of purpose, right and wrong, and ultimate meaning. These concepts, Carroll thinks, must be judged more practically and cannot be reduced to the laws of physics (though any answers we come up with certainly shouldn’t be incompatible with the laws of physics).
  • Learning that the underlying reality of the universe is made up not of particles but of waves and fields. The act of observation distorts the field in a certain way so that we “see” particles, though at its base nature is simply a collection of vibrating fields.
  • Special guest Richard Dawkins (who was in town to moderate a panel on “Religion as Child Abuse”) asking a question at 1:00:56 and making a slight correction to one of Carroll’s slides. How cheeky.