Wise words on Atheism, Musicals and more from Trey Parker and Matt Stone

I read  a brilliant interview with Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park, Team America, and The Book of Mormon) the other day, and I had to share some of my favourite quotations with my own commentary. The interview was conducted by A.J. Jacobs… who wrote the hilarious and stimulating ‘The Year of Living Biblically‘ which I have actually managed to cite in a couple of presentations and a refereed journal. I would check him out, as well as the full interview here.

Here we go:

Here are some things that Trey Parker and Matt Stone hate: Scientology, liberals, radical atheists, conservatives, the Motion Picture Association of America, Glenn Beck, the TV show Whale Wars, and Sean Penn. Also this interview.

This quotation pretty much sums up the ethos that has been spilling out through South Park over the past few years. I am loving the fact that our new flat has a Sky+ box, which means that I have a constant supply of South Park episodes from Comedy Central to keep me happy. This is, I think, the central charm of South Park… nothing is off-limits. These guys will ridicule any position which anyone holds to rigidly… and rightly so. They don’t do this maliciously, but make serious points about what causes us offence, and why. The vast majority of time, when we find ourselves taking offence when someone ridicules our own perspective, it is either because their criticisms ring true and we lash out, or because we hold to the view so rigidly that the sheer presence of someone who disagrees with that view calls it into question. We need to be constantly made aware of our tendency to do this, and for that I respect these guys greatly.

“Whatever libertarianism is, it’s not Glenn Beck. It’s barely us, but it’s not Glenn Beck,” Stone said.”Whatever side Glenn Beck is on, we’re not on it.”

Enough said really…

But the 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.”

Exactly.

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.”One of South Park‘s best episodes featured Dawkins as a substitute teacher who ends up having kinky sex with the boys’ creationist teacher, Miss Garrison (formerly Mr. Garrison, pre-sex-change-operation). The show ended five hundred years in the future, when Dawkins-worshipping atheists are at war over whether their religion should be called the “United Atheist Alliance” or “Unified Atheist League.”You could argue that their so-called moderation is actually just nihilism. They take potshots at both sides without ever committing to any direction of their own. And there’s some truth to that. So what do they believe in? The central thesis of The Book of Mormon is that storytelling, myths, and fiction are the only things that can save us.

To comment on the above, this is pretty much exactly where I stand on the ‘New Atheism’. And so does the philosopher Julian Baggini, in his article ‘The New Atheist Movement is Destructive‘. Sure they get a lot of people talking about religion, and sure they do a lot to advance a kind-of positive worldview which isn’t based on supernatural postulates. However, one always has to wonder ‘to whom are they preaching?’ Time and again I am forced to conclude that it is other atheists… who seem to purchase their books and DVDs by the dozen, and revel in attending sceptical conferences around the world to join together around the central fact that ‘we don’t believe anything’. Pointing out evil deeds which have been done in religion’s name, inspired by religion, or perpetrated by religious people is not going to convince people that religion is necessarily bad. Likewise, pointing out the ‘human’ origins of religions will similarly have little effect. As Amarnath Amarasingam writes:

Another notable characteristic of new atheist writings is the tendency to present to readers basic historical information about religion, particularly Christianity, as if it were new information. It seems that religious illiteracy is now so pervasive that simply revealing what theologians and scholars have known and published for decades is enough to create skepticism (Prothero, 2007). Having settled on the belief that religion is about blind faith, the new atheists present this information as if it will be crushing to the fragile faith of believers. Hitchens (2007: 102, 105, 115), for example, lavishes on readers such unremarkable insights as: religion is man-made, the Exodus likely did not happen, and Moses could not have written Deuteronomy because it discusses his own death. Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years. John Haught (2008: 31) similarly notes that Hitchens ‘‘seems unaware that exegetes and theologians have known about these discrepancies since antiquity, but they have not been so literalist as to interpret insignificant factual contradictions as threats to the doctrine of biblical inspiration.’’ In other words, just because religious people have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.

A particularly instructive case would be the ‘Church of All Worlds’, which my friend Carole could tell you a lot more about. Essentially this religion is based upon a 1961 science fiction novel by American author Robert A. Heinlein entitled ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’. The religion was dreamt up by college buddies and it has now blossomed into a fully-blown religion. All adherents are aware of this man-made origin, yet it makes absolutely no difference to the fact that it seems to work for them, and is what they want to do with their lives…

This has been a rambling way of saying that I agree once more with Parker and Stone’s stance on the new atheists. You can be an atheist without wanting to shove it down others’ throats. You can even respect other people’s beliefs…

Moving on:
“There’s the Family Guy structure, which is ‘We’re just going to keep doing crazy shit, and maybe there will be a thread through it, but it doesn’t really matter,’ ” said Parker. “Our structure is, we’ll come up with this funny thing, and then make this funny thing go on for twenty minutes. Sometimes it makes really crappy television and sometimes it makes cool television.”

I don’t know how many times I have had the argument about Family Guy with friends… it just isn’t that funny. Each episode has a couple of funny moments, but it is essentially a glorified sketch show which would have to rank far below South Park, The Simpsons… hell, even 30 Rock in my estimation.

And finally two quotations which I just appreciated in general:

Parker especially says his worldview has darkened. “I was always a very happy, optimistic person,” he said in the little room off the cafeteria. “I’ve only become an angry person in the last two years. I’m becoming Carl Sagan. I used to be like, ‘Oh, the wonders of the universe.’ Now I’m starting to say, ‘Humanity’s fucked. The universe is going to collapse on itself. Everyone’s doomed.’ I think it’s just getting older.”

Parker and Stone say they don’t know what’s next, either. In seven years, will we see a Dianetics-based Broadway show? Probably not, for fear of being pigeonholed as the “guys who make musicals about religion.” Same with a Koran-based one. “You might have trouble getting people to invest in that,” Stone said. “I would watch it, though.”

I must apologise that this had been so long and rambling. I’d encourage you to read the full interview. And to take my comments with a pinch of salt…

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

3 responses to “Wise words on Atheism, Musicals and more from Trey Parker and Matt Stone”

  1. Carole Cusack says :

    Chris, I have always loved ‘South Park’ and really approve of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s ‘take no prisoners’ attitude to religion (have you seen the films – ‘Cannibal: The Musical’ and ‘Orgazmo,’ which is about a naive young Mormon porn star Joe – they are hilarious, nearly musicals with improbable, bad-taste plots, which give no quarter). However, re CAW the big news is that Alex and I had lunch with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and his friend and agent in Australia, She D’Montford, who runs a Pagan church in Queensland, on 8 November at Yuga, a favourite cafe and florist in Glebe, where Sicilian-Australian Ben cooks fabulous food. He was courteous, open-minded and great company, and he stands firm on the value of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land narrative for the contemporary spiritual scene. It was a tremendous way to meet someone who has been an e-mail acquaintance since mid-2009. It was a very happy and intellectually stimulating three hours.

  2. tucobenedictopax says :

    I must have missed the wise words, cause I’m reading just two clueless pompous dicks spouting ignorant bullshit, here.

    • JAck says :

      To tucobenedictopax: Frankly the only people i think are dicks are the very people that Matt Stone are talking about.

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