24 thoughts on “Avatar And Pantheism

  1. Andrea Harris

    I agree with most of that except where he says Avatar has a “deeply felt” religious theme. I think the pantheistic religion in the movie is as shallowly felt as every other ideal pushed by Hollywood movies. Nothing is ever thought through: not the implications of disloyalty and adultery encased in all those “TRUE LOVE means leaving the guy you’re supposed to marry for some cuter, if less stable, fellow” romantic comedies, or the all-we-need-is-love-and-wealth-redistribution theme in any movie that has an obnoxious rich person receive their comeuppance at the hands of a pure-hearted poor hero or heroine, and not the notion that the way to true goodness is taking off our clothes and worshipping trees in the forests that every single movie featuring “free” spirits vs. stuffy old churchfolk brays. Th

  2. Andrea Harris

    Crap. My stupid laptop buttons are oversensitive and I hit the “submit” button by mistake. My last sentence was going to be “These people want to have their Blackberries and eat them too.” And to continue: I’d like to put all these Hollywood back-to-nature moralizers in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but a toothbrush and an extra change of underwear. I’ll bet you nothing would be left of any of them within a month but a few picked-clean skeletons.

  3. roga

    The best part about the movie’s “pantheism” or “gaiaism” or whatever is that it blows a fatal hole in the metaphor. Obviously, if the biomass of Earth were sentient and communicative as the biomass on Pandora was, one would have to approach things like, say, mining and forestry, quite differently. In the context of the movie’s world, the response of the main characters is quite ethical and reasonable. Although, on the other hand, the response of the businesspeople is clearly allegorical and lacks any depth whatsoever… Giovanni Ribisi’s momentary pauses for effect notwithstanding, of course.

    The problem for the holier than thou set is that it bears no parallel to reality. If you are not dealing with sentient plant life, then it makes perfect sense to cut down the tree. Likewise, it makes perfect sense to replant the tree and foster a diverse forest ecosystem around it once you are done with the area, provided of course you own the property and hope to continue to be able to make money off it for generations. And if you are mining, it makes a great deal of sense to reclaim the land when the mine closes, so you don’t get a bad rep for you company and therefore end up shut out of other rich resources by the people who live nearby. The fatal conceit is the idea that reality must support your faith, that ideally science must find a justification for your beliefs, when in fact the converse is true.

    Likewise for the Na’Vi. We hear things like “We don’t have anything they want.” A perfectly true statement for a people who apparently never get sick thanks to the protection of their planetary organism and live quite fantastical lives flying on their neurologically-joined pets and not-breaking their “natural carbon fiber reinforced” bones and and living harmoniously within just heirarchical tribal structures and transferring their consciousness intact to the biomass organism when they do die. And if that was representative of the lives of pre-technical humans or, say, modern Islamic societies, then it would be a valid metaphor to the intrusions of the Western world into our developing neighbors.

    But it’s not. The fact is, poor people do live brutal lives, both at the hands of nature and at the hands of their neighbors. They do want medicine, education, surplus food, and cell phones; regardless of whether they particularly like the people they are getting them from. And they are led by demagogues who twist their words, feed them false information, and promise things that they have no intention of delivering.

  4. Bill Hensley

    Very true. Disney, in particular, has been devoted to hard sell New Age proselytizing for years. It really does get tiresome.

    Roga is right that this naive sort of modern nature worship is out of touch with reality. I opined a while back that unrealistic attitudes toward nature have become common in our society as we have moved away from our agricultural roots. People simply ignore the fact that without wide scale “exploitation” of nature our modern society couldn’t exist.

  5. Mike Puckett

    “And to continue: I’d like to put all these Hollywood back-to-nature moralizers in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but a toothbrush and an extra change of underwear. I’ll bet you nothing would be left of any of them within a month but a few picked-clean skeletons.”

    Huzzah Andrea!

    I have said the same thing for years. Those that profess unconditional love for Natue are those most removed from it on a rational basis.

    I don’t believe in ‘Conquring Nature’ per se but I believe within our own little bubbles, we must be supreme over it and able to assert our dominance at a moments notice.

    Nature is beautiful but she is a bitch at times too. She will enthrall you and feed you but she will devour you too if you don’t keep your wits about you.

    Of course the crowd you mention has not wits to keep.

  6. Frank Glover

    “I’d like to put all these Hollywood back-to-nature moralizers in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but a toothbrush and an extra change of underwear. I’ll bet you nothing would be left of any of them within a month but a few picked-clean skeletons.”

    Which was my problem with the way Battlestar Galactica ended. About 47k people, accustomed to a high-tech lifestyle, choosing to dump their technological resources into the Sun, and do pretty much that.

    With similar results for most of them, I have to think…

  7. Brock

    Engineer in Houston,

    Pardon Moff’s French, but I will now quote Moff:

    Of all the varieties of irritating comment out there, the absolute most annoying has to be “Why can’t you just watch the movie for what it is??? Why can’t you just enjoy it? Why do you have to analyze it???”

    If you have posted such a comment, or if you are about to post such a comment, here or anywhere else, let me just advise you: Shut up. Shut the fuck up. Shut your goddamn fucking mouth. SHUT. UP.

    Read the whole thing.

  8. cthulhu

    Saw it today. Very frustrating movie: the 3-D and other special effects were awe-inspiring, but the story (as I feared from the the advance buzz) had major suckage. [SPOILERS AHEAD] It could have been a genuinely interesting story if, for example, the Sully character had a real decision to make; say, his brother back on Earth hadn’t been killed, but had been rendered incapable of making the trip, and therefore Sully would have had to make decisions that affected people he cared about on BOTH SIDES. That’s the essence of good drama: make the protagonist have to make a truly wrenching decision and suffer the consequences. With the cartoon bad guys and his disgust at the movie’s state of the Earth, Sully’s decision was easy.

    Also, all of the Native Americans I know (including the one I’m married to) are contemptuous of the one-dimensional, “noble savage” view that Hollywood (and the vast majority of white “liberals”) espouse of Native Americans. This “newage” (pronounced as rhyming with “sewage”; thanks to Penn&Teller for this wonderful coinage) view of Native Americans, as embodied in the movie’s Na’vi culture, was never less than nauseating.

    Cameron should have quit with Terminator 2, really his last good movie.

  9. Engineer in Houston

    Brock – it’s not that I haven’t picked apart movies in the past. Mr. Douthat just seems to go to great (meandering) lengths to not really make a solid point. It’s a movie – and Cameron has created an alien culture that includes religion, borrowing facets of several from Earth. But it’s still fiction. IMHO, Douthat seems to go a bit overboard in relating this aspect of the movie to a broader “movement” in Hollywood. IOW, I think he’s extrapolating. Considering how much of a high-impact, visual 3D treat Avatar is (and that doesn’t say that there’s not a lot else to talk about), it doesn’t seem out of place to suggest that Mr. Douthat might want to “chill” a bit.

    By the way, in the future, before taking a Ready, Aim, Fire approach in responding to a post – and after spending more than a microsecond in trying to understand what a poster means – try coming up with a socially inept response of your own, instead of copy/pasting someone else’s socially inept response.

    And chill …

  10. Darkstar

    I’m not about to watch (or spend a penny on) this movie, but I do have a question about the backstory.

    As I understand from second-hand reports, the humans are at the planet of the Na’Vi (sp?) to mine a mineral for use in a war. (I take it this mineral is an energy source like petroleum or uranium, but that’s not the question.)

    Who, or what, is the enemy in this larger war? Other humans, or another species?

  11. Starless

    Slightly OT: Did James Cameron pay Keith Cowing off? He seems to be spending an inordinate numbers of posts getting all droolly/man-crushy over this movie and its Utopian/Nobel Savage Planet idealism.

    A little more OnT: Anyone who saw The Abyss (and to some extent, T1 and T2) would understand that Cameron has made a major part of his career with relativist, anti-technology, ’60s-’70s environmentalist screeds. The cornerstone of which is worship of Gaia worship and the Simon purity and nobility of “indigenous peoples”.

    Bring back the True Lies Cameron.

  12. McGehee

    Cameron has made a major part of his career with relativist, anti-technology, ’60s-’70s environmentalist screeds.

    Seems to me he should have made this anti-technology screed using muppets.

  13. Starless

    Seems to me he should have made this anti-technology screed using muppets.

    Hey, now, muppets can work in scifi.

    Farscape would be a good comparison for Avatar. You have the pantheism with the living ship and plant-woman, a multi-culti crew of good guys, more humanoid-than-not bad guys, the only human around is ignorant and has to learn the ways of creatures different from himself — a rag-tag group fighting (well, trying to avoid) The Man. And yet Farscape didn’t often stoop to simplistic, retread memes. What Farscape had going for it, beyond the technically good elements (story, F/X, dialogue) was that none of the characters could claim unquestionable moral superiority. IOW, it didn’t rely on lazy thinking. From what I’m seeing about Avatar is that it panders to the same-old, same-old.

  14. Der Schtumpy

    “We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.”

    That’s a pretty broad stroke. Perhaps the writer should have said, as an intro, I think man is a beast with… Or maybe even, IMHO, man is a beast with…

    But to assume that as a species we all fit his definition is laughable. Most of modern western people can’t be considered predators because someone else kills their meat and they swoon at the sight of blood. They don’t own a gun, or even a pocket knife. (that second one slays me too) They eschew dark alleys and parking decks after 8 PM. Mostly because that makes them KNOW they are prey again. Predators? Ha, at best modern, western man is a jackal, or hyena. Living off the kills of others and easily scared away from the food.

    And ethics seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. Or maybe the buffalo. It still exists but in very small amounts. Without God there is no sin, and in a sinless world ethics is hard to find, and why would it not be so?

    I know there are exceptions right here, don’t get your hackles up.

    But them what of you who are atheists or even agnostic, likely grew up with parents, grandparents and teachers who did believe. So your ethics aren’t self taught. Or your ethics fall, at least, within the confines of the current laws. You may not believe in the Ten Commandments or Him who wrote them, but the people who taught you your ethics got them from that list most likely. At a minimum, most basic laws are written from the stand point of right and wrong as set down in those commandments. Or is it that you don’t steal, murder, rape, rob, or commit adultery because of your own internal moral strength? PUHlease!

    And while immortality sounds like a good idea, remember that even Woodrow Wilson Smith got tired and pushed that button eventually. And he was tricked into un-pushing it. Living 100 or even 200 years sounds like fun, but immortal? No thanks, too tedious methinks.
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    As to the Hollyweirdos tearing at the existing or commonly accepted God(s). I think Flip Wilson had that one right. To paraphrase him, “The Devil makes ‘em do it”.
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    To all here, Merry Christmas, a belated Happy Hannukah and an early Happy New Year.

  15. BDavis

    That’s the essence of good drama: make the protagonist have to make a truly wrenching decision and suffer the consequences.

    That’s my problem with a lot of movies. If the hero is confronted with the equivalent of a burning orphanage, there is no decision to be made, and hence, no drama.

  16. cthulhu

    Der Schtumpy blathers: But them what of you who are atheists or even agnostic, likely grew up with parents, grandparents and teachers who did believe. So your ethics aren’t self taught…Or is it that you don’t steal, murder, rape, rob, or commit adultery because of your own internal moral strength? PUHlease!

    Very strong scientific evidence exists that ethics are an integral part of human nature as produced by evolution; for a popular treatment, see Steven Pinker’s excellent The Blank Slate. You should be extremely careful arguing that ethics require an external source such as the Judeo-Christian god instead of being part of a strong, multifaceted human nature; see Marx, Lenin, and Mao for examples of where that leads. I.e., if ethics are external rather than internal, then what’s to stop the final nightmare scenario of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? A strong internal human nature is the downfall of all totalitarian regimes, including Christianity (see, for example, why the Catholic Church decided to require celibacy for priests; hint – it had to do with very earthly reasons).

  17. Bill Hensley

    cthulhu, if you’re using Marx, Lenin and Mao to argue against the Christian view of human nature, you’re going to have to spell it out for me a bit more. 20th century Communism is a perfect example of the consequences of man’s fallen nature, and the failure of humanistic philosophies to restrain evil. And, yes, Christians are sinners, too. Even true believing Christians, and not just those who are Christians in name only. All of us are in need of God’s grace, as well as his commandments.

  18. cthulhu

    quick summary: Der Schtumpy argued that humans need the Judeo-Christian god to hammer in ethics. Marx / Lenin / Mao argued that humans need other humans (read: Marx / Lenin / Mao) to hammer in (Marxist) ethics. Evolutionary biology and I argue that human nature has its own inborn ethics that cover pretty much all the big bases of ethical behavior, and that incidentally are diametrically opposed to most Marxist ethics. Go read The Blank Slate for more details, in much more elegant prose and arguments than I can muster here.

  19. Mike Puckett

    Wait a minute.

    Didn’t Cameron push something doing with a Ossuary and Jesus’s supposed Bones a few years ago. I seem to remember a bunch of hubub and the thing being severely and devistatingly fisked and then dropping of the radar.

    More evidence of an anti-Christian bias in Cameron?

  20. Bill Hensley

    Der Schtumpy argued that humans need the Judeo-Christian god to hammer in ethics. Marx / Lenin / Mao argued that humans need other humans (read: Marx / Lenin / Mao) to hammer in (Marxist) ethics. Evolutionary biology and I argue that human nature has its own inborn ethics that cover pretty much all the big bases of ethical behavior, and that incidentally are diametrically opposed to most Marxist ethics.

    Thanks, cthulhu. I disagree with Der Schtumpy that our ethics are purely external. It is true that there is an external standard – the character and nature of God, expressed in the commandments he gave us. But classic Christian doctrine also says that God made man in his image, which means we know right from wrong. However, we rebelled against God and became corrupt. So now the natural state of man is that even though we know right from wrong (i.e., have an inborn conscience), we frequently do the wrong thing anyway. And I think that description matches the observational data pretty well.

  21. J. Bradford Stanley

    So which God are we talking about? TricksterGod, who created the Universe in six days to look 13.5 billion years old, complete with faked fossil evidence, and then dictated a book to tell the Truth? If we believe the visual evidence TricksterGod craftily left everywhere rather than the Book, which he also craftily filled with logical inconsistencies, we’re damned for all time, because them’s the Rules and even TricksterGod has to follow them. This would be the same just, kind and forgiving TricksterGod who created us to worship Him, and whatever else we do if we don’t worship Him we’re again damned, because them’s the Rules, etc. etc. Mankind would be lost without the ethics taught to us by TricksterGod. Worship Him. Or else.

    This Truth has been brought to you by the sons and daughters of the Holy Trinity, who admit and in fact embrace their imperfection while they call for the extermination of those damned Terrorists who have the oil we need and refuse to sell it on the Free Market. The Free Market is not a human invention; it’s included in the Divinely-Inspired Canon – almost any page will prove it given a little preparation time and the right translation – and the Terrorists will know it, by God, when we’re through with them.

  22. Bill Hensley

    Hmmm. No, I think that would be the God who, though he had no need of anyone or anything, created us and gave us life. He is the God who knows us better than we know ourselves, and yet loves us more than we love ourselves. This is the God who desires us to love him and obey him but who, even though he is all powerful and could coerce us, gave us free will to choose. He is the same God who because of his patience forbears to destroy us even when we blaspheme him. And, most amazing of all, this is the God who in order to reconcile us to himself laid aside his glory, became a human being, and died to take the punishment that we deserve – so that we could live forever with him.

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