WRITTEN BY MARK KOLSEN, GUEST WRITER FOR AAI NEWS TEAM
In Contradiction, Jeremiah Camara’s intelligent film about religion’s seduction of African-Americans, Lawrence Krauss says “the rise of non-belief is the rise of science.”
Krauss refers of course to natural sciences like cosmology and evolutionary biology, disciplines now giving us empirically based theories for the origin of the universe and man; and to social sciences like sociology and psychology, which are now explaining how the brain generates religious beliefs and behaviors. These new scientific discoveries, Camara recognizes, “are clashing with biblical doctrine,” and exposing the contradiction between truth and African-Americans’ irrationality. In the film – to take just one example – we hear the muddled African-American view that god must have created us, that we could not have evolved from “monkeys” because on earth “we still have monkeys.” This illogic is followed by Richard Dawkins’ concise, scientific explanation of the human family tree.
Contradiction seamlessly mixes this science with history. Camara traces religion’s stranglehold over African-Americans’ reason (today 76% of all African-Americans say they pray daily) to the institution of slavery, when African-Americans either went to church or faced their masters’ wrath. Slaves adopting Christian beliefs and attending Christian churches received special treatment, even if the ‘beliefs’ were dictated by their masters. And Camara nicely documents the similarities and differences between the roles religious belief and churches have served in African-Americans’ lives.
But what makes Camara’s film so special is neither its science nor its history. Rather, Camara’s film is spellbinding because he takes us right into the faces of both believers and non-believers, in a way quite unimaginable if his subjects were white. It’s not that Camara is uncomfortably confrontational: on the contrary, his deep, mellow voice, eloquence and friendly style remind me of Chicago’s Harold Washington, who seemed totally non-threatening but who also, after five minutes’ conversation, made you wonder why other people were laughing at you. As Camara asks African-American believers honest questions they can’t reasonably answer, they respond to Camara with unembarrassed smiles and cheer. Would any white congregation be so willingly cheerful in verbalizing their ignorance and/or stupidity? And, as we hear from the educated nonbelievers in the Black community, would any of their white counterparts be so openly scathing in their criticism of white believers? In our age of political correctness and divisiveness, Camara’s interviewees are refreshingly honest, though this honesty also reflects religion’s successful subversion of African-Americans’ self-critical faculties.
To be clear, while Camara wants to lay open the symptom, his real mission is to finger the cause. Why, compared to other groups, are African-Americans most committed to their faiths? Camara convincingly demonstrates that religion especially affects (and attracts) them because it offers ‘pie in the sky’ to economically struggling people, people who even think more about Jesus’s suffering than Martin Luther King’s suffering. (Yes, Camara is told, King died for African-Americans’ freedom, but it’s Jesus’s blood that will “wash away our sins.”). Prayer is the first line of defense against this suffering. And as for African-Americans’ increasing attendance at the churches flooding their neighborhoods: the mindless fear-inducing sermons of unqualified African-Americans preachers is the premium African-Americans (especially black women) pay for – the “insurance policy” protecting them from eternal damnation and Satan’s lurking presence. (Anton Scalia, take note: a good preacher can allay your fears too).
In the end, through a variety of other images – especially his hilarious clips depicting the “six types” of African-American preachers – Camara’s film serves as the cultural supplement to Thomas Piketty’s recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Just as Piketty reminds us that capitalism inherently produces inequality and misery, Camara reminds us that in a capitalist society, religion is the opium of a powerless people. In Camara's words, “Extreme poverty and extreme religiousness go hand in hand ... and dependence of supernatural intervention has become a way of life in African American communities,” where African-Americans pastors encourage parishioners to abandon self-sufficiency and instead rely on divine miracles to improve their lives. To those who criticize our “culture of dependency,” Camara clearly lays the blame at the feet of the African-Americans churches. Yet, herein lies my only disappointment with the film: in Chicago, African American ministers have a well-publicized, cozy relationship with the Mayor’s office. To what degree do African-Americans churches – and the poorly schooled ministers who rule them – serve the larger political and economic interests of the capitalist system and America’s ruling class? A big question perhaps beyond the scope of this film, but I hoped Camara would at least suggest an answer.
If Contradiction presents already familiar arguments, you should still treat yourself to the experience. My top 7 not-to-be missed scenes (in no particular order):
1. Martin Luther King III’s pathetic response when Camara asks if the hours African-Americans spend in churches inhibit their productivity;
2. from “A Raisin in the Sun”: the scene illustrating Graydon Square’s assertion that to African-American children, god is “the big black woman with a belt”;
3. Norm Allen’s matter-of-fact observations on the inverse relationship between education and religious belief;
4. Dan Barker’s portrayal of slave submission and its similarities to prayer, as well as his funny piano rendition of “Poor Little Me”;
5. Camara’s short but touching interview with Brooklyn pastor Phyllis Brown, who candidly admits her altruism is about love for her people, and is not contingent upon her attending any church;
6. The nonplussed responses of churchgoers to Camara’s simple question: What did you learn in church today?;
and 7. his interviews with hip-hop singer Graydon Square, whose sharp, right-on the-money commentaries are alone worth the price of admission. (A sample: “[At church, pastors tell blacks that] if they don’t believe in my particular skydaddy, then you’re not gonna get free ice cream…tell that to people in Nigeria, in Liberia, to people in certain parts of South America.”)
Contradiction should not be seen merely by atheists. Children should also have the opportunity to view it. In fact, if I were emperor, I would mandate that every grade school child see it in order to understand the social and political conditions which foster humanity’s irrational addiction to religion. That wish is itself pie-in-the-sky, but for his hard work and intelligence, I thank Jeremiah Camara for providing me with a first-rate teaching resource.
AAI News Team's guest writer is Mark Kolsen, Managing Editor of the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter