“They also say, gentlemen, that the bird flies to the fowler. That’s true, and I’m ready to agree: but who is the fowler here, and who is the bird? That’s still a question, gentlemen!” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double
I’m just going to admit it from the get go: I like Lawrence Krauss. I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is I like about him, but if raddled memory obeys, he reminds me of my erstwhile thirteen year-old self thundering through our trailer park home with all the delicacy of a rhino, slamming those hollow schlocky doors (already donning a fist-hole smashed in it from some other previous owner’s tantrum), screaming banshee style “IT’S NOT FAIR!” at decibels detrimental and down-right dangerous to my very own ear drums let alone my poor step-mom’s. Beneath the surface of seemingly everything Krauss writes or talks about these days is a simmering adolescent fury that the world just so stupidly doesn’t think and see the world in exactly the same way he does. This is, truly, very profoundly unfair, an experience I thoroughly understand and fully commiserate with.
Lawrence Krauss is particularly furious in “Why Hollywood Thinks Atheism is Bad for Business” at The New Yorker. With his all seeing eyes he has stared down and nailed upon a cross the recondite religious agenda of (gasp) Hollywood. Yes, cries Krauss from the wilderness, it turns out that Hollywood is discriminating against atheists by the films they decide to fund and distribute. Now, never mind that probably less than five percent of Hollywood films per annum could even remotely be considered religious (whatever “religious” means); it’s still blatantly not fair, because, in Krauss’s eyes, anything more than zero percent glaringly reveals religion’s foothold on the dull imaginations of the American people (which is clearly disgusting). And, of course, never mind that Krauss’s fetish for trivial vapidities would be like writing a diatribe about The New Yorker because they recently published selections of Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal. (Clearly they must have been bullied into this by the Catholic mafia, perhaps even at gun point.)
The raison d’être behind Krauss’s “not fair” campaign: the crestfallen story of his very own kickshaw documentary—a rodomontade on celebrity atheism, The Unbelievers—not getting the proper theatrical release it most assuredly deserved. And he’s right. I mean, who would not want to pay 8 virescent American dollars to be evangelized by a group of officiously powerful, white, rich men on a screen so gargantuan you can detect puberty zit scars etched in their mugs? Goddammit! What’s wrong with the world? To Krauss’s further bewilderment is the pure fact that his docudrama features the “world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins” (sic). Someone as pretty and smart as Dawkins should have been a Hollywood nimbus. I know…this is flabbergastingly unfair. Turning down Dawkins on the big screen? Might as well decline a nude photo shoot with Miley Cyrus.
Mostly, though, Krauss expresses how his feelings have been hurt. Hurt. Hurt because he is sick and tired of atheists being considered second rate citizens. Americans are afraid of atheists, thinks Krauss; and this, again, is simply not fair. Krauss and his doughty garrison are, for god’s sake, good country people, too! And often a whole lot more ethically superior than these religious right Bible salesmen in Hollywood, not to mention those directors like Darren Aronofsky bent on making violent, barbaric biblical films. (That Krauss would even think about comparing the fate of his insanely puerile documentary with any work by the brilliant auteur Aronofsky must be taken as some sign of delusions of grandeur. Krauss’s article is nothing but a sales pitch for his kitsch.) And maybe Krauss has a point here; even if only the size of nothing. Here I can’t help thinking of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story Good Country People.
You ought to stop reading this and pick up the story for yourself to see how prescient O’Connor is, to see how her story might help us navigate our strange culture wars, but let me crudely run you through it. Hulga is a very proud atheist who happens to have a wooden leg from a childhood accident. She took a PhD in philosophy and devours books on science; she sees the truth of things, things as they really are; she doesn’t “have illusions,” she says, but is “one of those people who sees through to nothing.” On the other hand is Manley Pointer, the good ol’ country boy supposedly with high morals who sells Bibles to those needing the word of God. On the surface the two could not be more dissimilar. But, as Mrs. Hopewell, Hulga’s mother, notices quite quickly: Hulga and Manley have “the same condition!”, a serious condition of the heart, a physical ailment that mirrors a deeper, spiritual sickness unto death. Eventually, to Mrs. Hopewell’s baffled surprise, Manley and Hulga wander off for a pleasant picnic together. Wending through woods, “[o]’er the hills and far away,” Hulga arrogantly thinks she is seducing the poor, simple fundamentalist with her avant-garde progressive atheism, but the truth is that she is being psychologically worked over by the Bible salesman, the much more logically consistent and rigorous atheist and wit of the two.
In the end, the Bible salesman, with a clowning Mephistophelean curiosity, seduces Hulga into unscrewing her artificial leg, an artifact she holds so dear as to be her very soul. He takes it and runs, leaving her helpless and soulless and screaming …. “You’re a Christian!…You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all—say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian, you’re…” In a lofty and indignant tone the Bible salesman replies, “I hope you don’t think that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going!” “Give me my leg!” Hulga screams. She wants her soul back, I suppose. But the Bible man, in a wonderful turning of the tables, says, “…you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
I’d like to think Krauss is a little Hulga while the religious right, and the sorry and bizarre antics they too often pull—which Krauss’s article rightly criticizes—reeks of O’Connor’s famous Bible salesman, Manley Pointer. The irony, as hinted above, is that both Hulga and Manley swing inside the same heartbeat, as if agitated in a great empty drum of flesh (I purloined this line, with slight variation, from O’Connor’s Revelation). Krauss seems to be doing nothing more than fighting against the more profoundly logical atheisms of the pseudo-religious. His black and white intelligence, so characteristic of incurious philistines, cannot see the pseudo-religious for what they are: his Janus-faced soul-mates, imbibers of the same desire for Hollywood accolades. Both Krauss and the religious right look upon the absurdity of the world—its nothingness, if you will, with the inevitable rotting away of ourselves in some hole in the ground—and think: Why not use the most powerful name of all—“God”, or for Krauss, “Science”—to gain more power and more mammon and more fame? (Remember that somewhat popular story about a first-century Jew murdered by the machinations of both the religious and the irreligious? Lust for power brings foes together.) But, thank God, the world needs all sorts of people and opinions, especially good country people who, like Krauss, can see through to nothing, and still be good, even if this goodness is nothing but an artificial leg…awaiting the worms of the grave.