The painful experience of previewing an episode of the PBS special “The Question of God” starring Armand Nicholi, direct from Harvard University, with a spirited conversation among the usual suspects for “serious” TV, reminded me sharply why I always hang on to the remote. I would have browsed on after five minutes of this tired, old-fashioned Friday-night-at-the-frat-house parley and scouted out the Texas A&M/Utah game on ESPN, which has the merit of being honest so far as it goes. After all, what do we expect from TV? No one is allowed to say anything that is true, non-trivial, and relevant upon any subject on TV or in a book nowadays in America, the land where speech is free and worth every penny.
As we hear the incredibly silly arguments of C. S. Lewis, the author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the unconsidered views of Sigmund Freud, hardly the finest spokesman for Atheism, we are reminded of Walt Whitman’s warning about discussions of God. No one who spoke to the Question on TV came close to where that argument lies in the Twenty-First Century. I was seriously concerned that no one would utter a true statement until an African-American pointed out that one million Black men, more or less, are in prison and religious people don’t seem to disapprove. [After looking at a transcript of the television show I remembered that one of the TV characters noted that we don’t know right from wrong, which is true; but that doesn’t mean the discussion could not have been closer to the point.]
Apparently, Americans of above average intelligence can be duped into believing they are listening to a serious discussion if the background music is sufficiently fine and photography sufficiently elegant. For me, the only thing wrong with the film was the talk in the foreground, which could have contributed enormously to the experience by not being there.
What I want to ask is: (1) Why should the participants in the show care what Freud and Lewis think about something that they are perfectly capable of thinking about themselves, and (2) why should we in the Rotunda of a Big Houston Church care what the people on TV think as we too are capable of thinking for ourselves. Finally, when someone asked Prof. Nicholi what he thought, he had a chance to make up for everything. He related the story of undergraduates asking him the same question, which he ducked. What he should have said was, “Why should you care what I think?”
I will not address the Question in this document. I have done that. Instead, let me address the preponderance of comments and questions from our local previewing audience that quickly drove me in desperation out of the church, into the rain, and back to where I belong. There is no chance of making the slightest dent in the intellectual armor of a large group of conventionally minded people most of whom are absolutely sure they can tell right from wrong, which they cannot. I do not enjoy telling large groups of people (or even small groups) who think they know nearly everything, that they know almost nothing and practically all of that is wrong. I am ignorant and stupid, but I feel truly sorry for people upon whom a display of nearly perfect nonsense can be foisted off as “thoughtful” commentary merely by paying close attention to completely irrelevant details like old footage of Freud, the manner of death of the two old men, and, as I said, good photography and nice background music.
The commentary I stayed long enough to suffer was principally about the Question of Right and Wrong. Noticeably, every person who spoke or murmured assent was under the impression that for him (or her) the Question had been answered. It remained only to determine how they got to this point of presumed infallibility. In particular, the (universal?) concurrence on the very great wrongness of Adolph Hitler, who appeared briefly on our screen as the great villain, was especially maddening. These people are not big enough to shine Hitler’s shoes, nor do they have the foggiest notion of what Hitler was about. It is by no means clear that anyone alive today is definitely a better person than Adolph Hitler. Nor is it clear that Adolph Hitler is better than anyone now alive. The problem of right and wrong requires constant application of our most vigorous thought and will never be solved completely.
For instance, almost everyone in the audience subscribes to the capitalist model of social intercourse. From the anarcho-communist point of view, for instance, everything they believe in is wrong. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. The question is an open one. Probably, most of the audience think that the question of the validity of the Ten Commandments has been settled. This is a huge mistake. Probably they believe that the United States has a right to defend itself against people who object to five percent of the world’s population consuming twenty-five percent of the world’s energy as opposed to taking steps immediately to remedy this bizarre and patently unfair inequity.
To be quite frank, I do not remember the questions and comments of our local audience sufficiently well to say what was wrong with every one of them; but, if I had a transcript, I could do it. I wonder how many noticed the dishonesty in Lewis’s exercise in inculcating credulity in small children to soften them up for the superstitions of Paulist Salvationalism. I wonder how many noticed the dishonesty in this PBS television special. One final bone of contention: Probably, they would agree that Prof. Nicholi has a right to look South, say, while everyone else faces North. I would not.
Thomas L. Wayburn, PhD
September 3, 2004
Postscript. It is worthwhile to disqualify Christianity quickly as Christianity has nothing to do with the Question of God and should not have been mentioned. No more should Judaism or any organized religion of which I am aware. When Christians say that Jesus rose from the dead, it is not merely untrue, it is nonsense. The statement is an example of bad syntax as death is defined to be the permanent cessation of all vital activity. Apparently, every organized religion finds a way to invalidate itself. The prosecution need not gather evidence against. Sufficient evidence is provided by the apologist. I cannot resist saying that, if one must appeal to authority, which is a fallacy, Nicholi might have chosen Bertrand Russell and William James with happier results.