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Archive for December, 2010

As I write this post, Christmas is just days away, and despite the overworked (though still valid) lament that it’s all about commerce, hundreds of millions of Christians will take the time to go to church and turn their thoughts to the Divine.

This will undoubtedly drive a small group of true believers nuts.

I’m not talking about Jews like me. When I was growing up, Christmas wasn’t a time for minority outrage; it was a blissfully quiet day when we might go out for Chinese food and then to a nicely uncrowded movie. I’m not talking about Muslims, either; Islam recognizes Jesus as a great prophet, and while some extremists are still furious about the Crusades, most Muslims find Christmas pretty uncontroversial.

I’m talking about the New Atheists — people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. What makes them New is that they’re not merely non-believers. They’re evangelists—missionaries out to convince religious folks that belief in God is not only misguided, but ignorant, superstitious, dangerous and just plain stupid.

I should say at this point that I’m more or less an atheist myself. Actually, I’m technically an agnostic. I don’t claim certain knowledge that God doesn’t exist, and doubt there would be any way to prove such a proposition (for the record, I don’t buy any of these “proofs“). But as an old friend pointed out to me a few years ago, I must at least have a default assumption about God’s existence, and that assumption is what scientists call the “null hypothesis,” meaning that he doesn’t. Carl Sagan once said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” — but he didn’t specify what counts as an extraordinary claim. For me, the notion that a supernatural, invisible, all-powerful being exists seems pretty extraordinary. The idea that he, or He, is aware of my every thought and has a plan for my life is even more far-fetched.

But the New Atheists are the genuine article. They’re quite convinced that God doesn’t exist, and they’re not shy about letting you know it. “Tolerance of pervasive myth and superstition in modern society is not a virtue,” it says on their website. “Religious fundamentalism has gone main stream and its toll on education, science, and social progress is disheartening. Wake up people!! We are smart enough now to kill our invisible gods and oppressive beliefs. It is the responsibility of the educated to educate the uneducated, lest we fall prey to the tyranny of ignorance.”

Joseph Stalin, non-religious mass murderer

They are indeed smart. Most of them are scientists, and anyone foolish enough to try and match wits with non-scientist Hitchens is asking for trouble. Many of the points they raise, moreover, are valid. Terrible crimes have been committed, and continue to be committed, in the name of religion. These things are well worth fighting against — but anyone who thinks they’re uniquely the product of religion has clearly never heard of Stalin or Pol Pot or Augusto Pinochet.

It’s also true that some religious people push a worldview that is actively hostile to science, and it’s nothing short of appalling that so few Americans accept the theory of evolution by natural selection—in large part thanks to the doubts sowed by religious fundamentalists.

But it’s also true that plenty of scientists are also religiousFrancis Collins, for example, the director of the National Institutes of Health and a self-described born-again Christian. To their enormous discredit, some New Atheists claim that Collins, a topnotch geneticist, is somehow unqualified to run a major research institution because of his beliefs. It reminds me of the claims when John F. Kennedy was running for president that he would take orders from the Pope because he was a Catholic.

What’s most annoying about the New Atheists is their attitude that if only you were as smart as they are, you simply couldn’t believe in God. Daniel Dennett has even coined a term to replace “atheist” that would embody this particular attitude. He proposes that they call themselves “brights,” demonstrating monumental arrogance and a tin ear all at once.

Tonight I’m going to a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a transcendentally beautiful work inspired by religious belief. I’ll be going with, among others, one of my dearest friends, an ordained Presbyterian minister. We’re both appalled by evil done in the name of religion. We’re both disturbed by religion-inspired attacks on science. He knows I don’t believe in God. I know he does. Neither of us thinks the other is stupid or misguided. Neither of us feels the need to be in each other’s face about our beliefs. We do sometimes talk about where we’re coming from on the topic, and while we don’t agree, we somehow manage not to get all worked up about it.

So we’ll just enjoy each others’ company and the Bach. Thank g…oodness I’m not a New Atheist.

—Michael D. Lemonick

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Nikolai Khalezin in his semi-autobiographical play “Generation Jeans.”

Belarus is called the last dictatorship in Europe.  The government censors the arts, so performance troupe Free Theatre Belarus performs secretly, in converted houses, to avoid arrest.  Back in 2008, New York-based playwright and performer Aaron Landsman visited the group in Minsk.  He was astonished by how the group remained prolific under such difficult circumstances – artistic director Natalia Kolyada told him that even though they enjoyed performing at festivals abroad, they would not defect. Listen to the story here:

Today The New York Times is reporting that Kolyada and her husband Nikolai Khalezin have been forced into hiding following an incident at a protest rally.

Free Theatre Belarus is due to start performances of “Being Harold Pinter” in New York City early next month.  The work, which already played in London to praise, is based on transcripts from Belarussian political prisoners and incorporates writings by Harold Pinter.  Meanwhile, Tom Stoppard, Ian McKellan and others protested the Belarussian Embassy in London.

– Jenny Lawton



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What, you think you’re too cool for Christmas records?  You’re going to like this one, and so will your grandma.

The LA-based a cappella group Sonos has just released December Songs, filled with music for the season – several originals, plus some strange and soulful covers of classics.  The group’s “Ave Maria” is an especially beautiful, surprising arrangement of the hymn, which morphs from traditional madrigal to pop anthem:

Sonos stopped by Studio 360 last year and performed some of the group’s best-known work: inventive covers of pop songs, including Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.”  They told Kurt that they sometimes get grief from purists (Sonos happily uses special microphones, loop pedals, and digital effects to alter the sound of their voices).  But they also get major props from us for pushing the form in new directions:

– Jenny Lawton

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Ah, Christmas. Time to sit around the fire with eggnog and tell stories of… extraterrestrial spies?

This holiday week, Studio 360 presents a new kind of holiday tale.  “Human Intelligence” is by none other than Kurt Andersen, and was published this year in Stories: All-New Tales, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.  Studio 360’s Jonathan Mitchell created this audio cinema adaptation.

Ed Herbstman (narrator) is a co-founder of the Magnet Theater in New York City.  John Ottavino (Nicholas) has performed in 36 states and 7 countries, including a role in the Tony Award-winning production of “A Doll’s House” on Broadway.  Melanie Hoopes (Nancy) is a writer, actress, and the host of “Laurie Stanton’s Sound Diet.”

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Earlier this week, one-of-a-kind comedian/musician Reggie Watts rocked WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space for a special “Studio 360” all about Theoretical Physics. That’s right…Theoretical Physics.  Here at 360, we like a little science sprinkled in with our arts and culture.

It turns out that Reggie Watts – an improviser who seeds audiences with disinformation (some of it in musical form), confusing them into fits of sublime, disoriented laughter – is also a well-versed physics enthusiast.  Watch him raise the curtain on our show, and tune the crowd to his unique frequency:

Over the course of the evening, Reggie talked physics with Kurt and astrophysicist Janna Levin – they even had a sort of informal science smack down (you can watch the full show here).  Reggie closed the evening with another song – a hip-hop ballad dedicated to perhaps the most ambitious topic, ever: the universe.

– Michael Guerriero

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Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden

David Plowden spent his childhood obsessed with trains. He would ride them just for the thrill of it, often without any direct destination in mind. A couple years ago, Plowden told Kurt “I rode all over the place, to the despair of my uncles and aunts and my mother’s friends who said, ‘What’s he going to amount to?  He rides trains!’  And my mother said, ‘I don’t know what he’s doing, but he does.  Leave him alone.  He’s gathering grist for the mill.’”

You can hear their full conversation here:
[AUDIO=http://audio.wnyc.org/studio/studio011108f.mp3]

Plowden began taking pictures of steam engines because he knew they were becoming obsolete and he wanted to make sure they were well-documented — he had no intention of becoming a photographer.  By his his twenties, photography (documentary and art) had become a career — he assisted O. Winston Link and worked closely with Ansel Adams, among others greats. Plowden’s travels by train eventually led him to the Midwest, where he made a distinguished career capturing the beautiful expanses of the Great Plains, as well as the desolate railroad towns the once welcomed the railways.

Requiem for Steam is Plowden’s love letter to the steam engine, full of moving portraits of the machinery, the rails, and the people he’s met on a lifetime of journeys.

– Max Bass and Jenny Lawton

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Last weekend, Studio 360 was all about art as medicine. We had stories about how music helps patients recover in a burn unit; why a children’s cancer doctor turns to fiction writing; and medical students learning how honing their narrative skills will make them better doctors.

When we were doing research for the show, we called our colleagues in the WNYC archives – a treasure trove of nearly a century of media made or collected at the station. Here are a few things found in the stacks – click on the images to see them up close:

This three-record set came with a guide to exercises including the “Liberty Bell march” (No. 1) and the “Salut d’amour” (No. 3 – not unlike the now-hip “sun salute”?).

Try out the “Salut d’amour” yourself – listen here:

And to finish your workout, two exercises from Dr. Erich Klinge (recorded sometime between 1903 and 1926) – Nos. 9 and 10, in bracing German!

Special thanks to New York Public Radio’s Andy Lanset and Marcos Sueiro Bal.

– Jenny Lawton

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