Ross Douthat is peeved. You see, there’s a pantheistic trend in Hollywood films, and where there could be talk of Jesus and The One God, there is only Kevin Costner dancing with wolves and Lion King metaphysics. The most recent example of this is James Cameron’s Avatar.
Full disclosure: I have not seen this film yet, but I don’t think I need to have seen it to criticize the rest of this seriously weird column.
Douthat believes Hollywood keeps returning to pantheism because Americans respond favorably to this breed of spirituality. He even quotes a Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology, which found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains.
Here’s where it gets weird. Douthat believes that Americans’ preference for pantheism isn’t a sign that they are evolving out of the dark ages of monotheism into a more connected understanding of the universe and its complexities, but that we actually “pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society.”
Huh? Where is the poll saying that? So while the rest of human beings evolve, Douthat wants us to believe we are spiritually regressing. Yet The American Religious Identification Survey recently found the number of people who claimed “no religion” had nearly doubled nationally over the last 18 years to 15 percent. They were the only demographic that increased in all 50 states.
Depicting pantheism in film is just smart marketing. It’s familiar to Christians, so they’re not motivated to picket theaters with “JESUS RULZ” signs, and yet it’s also secular enough that atheists and agnostics don’t feel weirded out by all the celluloid bible-thumping.
If anything, the presence of all this pantheism in film shows that we’re a less religious planet that is more interested in the big questions of the environment and the universe than arguing over the fairy tales in our religious texts.
It seems Douthat skirts this most obvious reading of the pantheism trend because he’s terrified of nature.
Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.
Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
I can only imagine Douthat’s version of a Disney film would involve flesh-eating trees and necrophilic bunny rabbits.
It appears he never engaged in an eighth-grade, stoned philosophical conversation (possibly because no one wanted to offer him weed). This is when your basic questions about life and death are pondered (not, say, when you’re a middle-aged columnist for the New York Times). Yes, nature destroys, but from every destruction arises something. Nature is life, and really the only thing that matters, and that seems like an appropriate thing to enjoy and care for.
Or as Douthat calls nature: “cruel rhythms.”
Wow. Did this guy’s dad run over his pet turtle or something? Someone, send him a potted flower.