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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Nature of Existence Companion Series

An expanded look into the meaning of everything

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 1, 2011 -- There is a telling moment in “The Nature of Existence Companion Series” when a preacher on a college campus is confronted by a student who has another explanation for the meaning of existence, one not found in the Bible. The student holds up a copy of Douglas Adams' “A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” and proclaims the answer to that all-enveloping question about the meaning of everything is the computer, Deep Thought's answer, 42. It's an answer that is no weirder than some others, it seems. This companion set of seven DVDs covers the same ground as the original film The Nature of Existence, but in at length (the total time of all the films combined is over 14 hours), and a lot more depth. For those who complained the original 94-minute documentary didn't go into enough depth, this package of films satisfies that complaint.

Rather than trying to cover all of this material, I'll just list the subjects covered and hit a few points that caught my interest. Read my review of the original film (linked above) for a sense of what it is all about. This is more of the same, a lot more, from many of the same people interviewed in the original film. The original film skimmed the surface of these same subjects, while this collection of films covers more subjects and covers them at length. Some of the more famous people interviewed for this series include Irvin Kirshner, director of “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” Ann Druyan, wife of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, and co-producer of the movie “Contact,” Julia Sweeney, star of the stage and movie monologue “And God Said, Ha!” Also interviewed were noted atheist and author Richard Dawkins and noted science fiction author Larry Niven (“Ringworld”).

The first DVD, “Existence and Purpose,” covers the questions, “Why do we exist?” “Why does the universe exist?” “What is our purpose?” “How do we find happiness?” “What is love?” “How can we stop conflict?” “How can we improve humanity?” “Is the world a better place with humans?” and “What is the best philosophy for living?” As in the original film, these questions are answered by a wide variety of people, from ordinary people to religious and scientific experts, authors, mystics and artists from around the world.

The second DVD, “Religion and Spirituality,” deals with these questions: “What is religion?” “What is the origin of religion?” “Should the Holy Book be taken literally?” “Why are there multiple religions?” “Should religious ideas be challenged?” “Can people make their own version?” “How do we reconcile outdated religious beliefs?” “Can supernatural beliefs coexist with religions?” “What is spirituality?” Answers to these questions are all over the map, of course. The question about what spirituality is was often answered as if a different question was asked, that is, “What is the difference between spirituality and religion?” The discussion about people making their own version of a widespread religion got me to thinking about something I hadn't really considered before, that is, everyone picks and chooses aspects of any major religion to follow and chooses to ignore other parts. Some people say they don't do this, but they do. I was also surprised by how many religious people said that religion should be challenged.

The third DVD, “God & the Devil,” deals with these questions, “What is God?” “Who is the Messiah?” “What does God need?” “Where does certainty come from?” “What is the greatest danger facing mankind?” “Who is the devil?” Answers vary from Bible-based to secular-based. Magus Peter H. Gilmore, high priest of the Church of Satan reveals that he doesn't actually seem to believe in either God or Satan (at least not as they are described in the Bible). He says people who worship the Satan of the Bible are “disturbed.” Gilmore seems more like an atheist in his answers. So why would an atheist be involved in any kind of church? The Church of Satan website has this, it is “openly dedicated to the acceptance of Man’s true nature — that of a carnal beast, living in a cosmos which is permeated and motivated by the Dark Force which we call Satan.” That would be what? The dark side of the force?

The fourth DVD, “Truth and Faith,” deals with these questions, “What is truth?” “How do we determine truth?” “Where do the inner voices come from?” “Are beliefs innate?” “What is faith?” “Can religion and science coexist?” “Did humans evolve?” A few minutes of this DVD has material which is identical to material in the “God & the Devil” DVD. There are some repeats in several of the DVDs in this series, but this repeated segment seemed longer than most.

The fifth DVD, “Sin and Free Will,” deals with these questions: “What is sin?” “When does life begin?” “When should life be terminated?” “Should politics and religion mix?” “Do we have free will?” “Is there fate or predestination?” Here, there were major differences of opinion, even among scientists and among Christian preachers about when life begins. Most, but not all Christians believe life begins at conception, and neither do all scientists. The funniest comment came from an old Jewish saying, “The fetus becomes a person when it graduates from medical school.” One interesting discussion argues persuasively that the whole abortion issue is really about sexual power and property.

The sixth DVD, “Morality and Sexuality,” deals with these questions: “Why is God interested in human sexual behavior?” “Should people have premarital sex?” “Is it wrong to masturbate?” “Is sexual orientation a choice?” “What is morality?” “Is there a moral yardstick among all cultures?” “Should women be treated differently from men?” and “What is the source of altruism?” As before, the answers vary greatly, even among scientists and different branches of the same religious traditions.

The seventh DVD, “Prayer and Afterlife,” deals with these questions: “What is prayer?” “What is meditation?” “Does God intercede in tragedy?” “Why is there suffering?” “Is there an afterlife?” “Where is heaven?” and “When is doomsday?” As before, different answers come from a variety of scientists, psychologists, gurus, and spiritual people, from atheists, Catholics and other Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists, pagans, a Jainist, a Satanist, to Darryl Anka, channeler of alien called Bashar (who made more sense than some of the Christians).

A few outlandish statements struck me while watching the DVDs, which led me to do some fact-checking on my own. One of the “Ultimate Christian Wrestler” team repeats an outrageous comment originally attributed to Texas mega-church evangelist Rev. John Hagee. Hagee said God sent Hurricane Katrina to stop a Gay Rights parade scheduled for that same day in New Orleans. Now anyone who thinks about this at all for more than a second or two would realize that Hurricane Katrina didn't just hit New Orleans, but a wide swath of the Gulf Coast. The worst property damage was in Mississippi towns along the beach that had nothing to do with New Orleans parades. According to some sources, the parade, much smaller than normal, was held anyway. The gay bars, bath houses and the areas where most gay people live, such as the French Quarter and the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods were mostly unaffected by the flooding. So if God aimed the Hurricane at New Orleans gays, he missed the mark and killed many poor Christians instead, oops.

Another inflammatory remark was made by a scientist interviewed in the film who said, basically that atheists are smarter than religious people. This is apparently based on cherry picking some surveys that support that belief while ignoring others that support the opposite view. I reviewed the data. Some studies do indicate atheists are smarter than agnostics, which in turn are smarter than liberals and way smarter than conservatives or those who believe dogmatically in anything. A closer look at some of these studies indicates they prove the rather obvious point that rich people tend to be a lot better educated than poor people. Rich people also tend to have better nutrition, better medical care, better preschool care, better access to books, the internet, and other media, even better prenatal care. This, in turn, has a positive effect on their I.Q. tests as well as a negative impact on their religious beliefs, which are not fostered in most colleges. One would think from these studies that better educated people would be less religious, but even this isn't necessarily so. One study indicates that church attendance among Mormons is significantly higher among the more educated church members, and much lower among the least educated Mormons. In my experiences dealing with atheists they do tend to think of themselves as smarter, as do agnostics to a lesser extent. If you consider all the relevant studies of the relationship of religious belief to intelligence one might come to a different conclusion: That is, that religious belief, or non-belief is probably a non-factor when it comes to intelligence.

There is an interesting discussion on the fifth disk about various revisions of the early Bible, which still has references to multiple gods in the book of Genesis. John Atack, author, former Scientologist and cult expert argues the Torah originally had a references to a Babylonian goddess Ashera who was the mother of the god, JHVH, Yahweh or Jehovah, who became the one Hebrew God. The others were written out of the Bible, Atack says. However, according to an Encyclopedia Britannica article, scholarly attempts to definitively trace the Hebrew God Yahweh back to the older Babylonian gods remain unproven. In short, some of the more outrageous comments in the film are probably not true. Interviewees are talking off the cuff, sometimes about things they haven't thought much about, let alone researched before. Sometimes what they say is factual, sometimes not. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they make no sense.

At first, I thought some of the Christians, like the Ultimate Christian Wrestlers, were the most dogmatic in their beliefs, but after watching the whole series, the Orthodox Jews seem the most dogmatic, even embracing the absurd notion that the earth and the universe are only some 6,000 years old, the same view as held by some fundamentalist Christians. The discussion of the age of the earth and evolution in the fourth DVD, “Truth and Faith” for me illustrates the impossibility of reconciling science and certain religious beliefs such as young earth, young universe and anti-evolutionary beliefs.

Science and some religions can coexist only if they are kept in entirely separate intellectual compartments. Some religious beliefs can coexist simply because they don't make any scientific claims. Whenever religious people try to dispute scientific concepts as well established as evolution and the age of the earth, they are doomed to fail, because religion and science are two different things. If science were merely a set of beliefs and a body of knowledge, it would be much like religion, but it is more than that. Science is also a method for acquiring new knowledge that is testable through experiment and which produces theories which can correctly predict future findings about the universe. People who challenge science on the basis of the Bible are in fact challenging modern science not with religion, but with ancient science from the early civilizations of the Middle East, and that is no contest at all.

As a whole, this set of seven DVDs has a lot of material, too much to view in a short amount of time. Some of the individual DVDs seem long, too, well over two hours. Your attention starts crumbling after a while under this avalanche of words, some of which are sound bites. A chapter at a time might be a better way to view this, in short, digestible chunks. Each chapter can be viewed as a kind of self-contained unit for purposes of discussion, educational or otherwise. This DVD set is well worth the effort if you are interested in these “big” questions about the nature of existence, religion, ethics, morality and systems of belief. This series rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)