Politics, Religion, and Aaron Sorkin


The Pope resigned a little while ago. For the past week or so everyone has been interested in Catholicism and the nature of authoritarian religious leadership in a democratic society. More importantly, I think, people have been paying attention to the relationship between fervent belief and rational, critical thought. No one questions whether or not a Catholic has the potential to also be a deep thinker (that is, no one but Bill Maher and his super-crew of New Atheists, who refuse to accept religion on its own terms and continue to paint silly caricatures). Religion is such a complex, and enduring form of the human experience that it deserves attention and respect from everyone, whether they are believers or not. It’s good to see that even within all the negative op-eds about how backwards the Catholic Church is, and how terrible a person Pope Benedict was for being, well, a Catholic, the media has shined a light on someone who brought thoughtful faith to the forefront.

As Carol Zaleski noted in her piece for the New York Times, Benedict was “a profound religious thinker in the Augustinian tradition” who believed  “longing for truth is innate and universal”. He preached a religion that allowed science and philosophy and secular wisdom into the discussion. In short, he “opened a new era in the dialogue between religion and secular reason.”

I don’t know if all of that is true, I don’t follow Catholicism enough to truly have an opinion. I’ll take her word for it.

A midst all of this, I was recently reminded of another prominent Catholic who believed in thoughtful faith: President Jed Bartlet. Two episodes of West Wing that my wife and I recently watched (and I use recently loosely, school has really caught up with us) explored interesting and important elements of religion in American life. “Take This Sabbath Day”, my personal favorite, shows the struggles of compromising deeply rooted religious belief because you know too many people will disagree with you. It’s about my two least favorite subjects: the death penalty and irresponsible partying by public officials (kind of). The second episode we saw that touched on religion was “Shibboleth” about Chinese fugitives who claim to be escaping to avoid religious persecution.  “Shibboleth” was a little too Aaron Sorkin-y for me.

Let me explain “too Sorkin-y”. He, or as I like to call him, “The Sork”, obviously has a very complicated relationship with religion. Frankly, he doesn’t seem to like it much. Pretty much all of his shows portray religious people as socially dangerous fanatics who need a good atheist to slap them around once in a while (See pretty much every episode of Studio 60, and about every other episode of West Wing). What makes President Bartlet so fascinating is that he seems to be what “The Sork” wishes all religious people were. For one thing, he’s really smart. so much so that his staff gets annoyed at his super-intelligence. He doesn’t interpret the Bible literally, or at least the Old Testament. He holds his faith up high, and his altruistic moral values even higher. He makes great speeches chastising the pesky fundamentalists, and is really good at using scripture against them.

The biggest problem I have with Sorkin’s approach to religion is that he clearly sees a right and wrong when it comes to religious practice. There is a right way to believe in God, and that is a way that never offends or gets in the way of people who do not believe. I think most people can get behind that, but a professor of mine once wrote about how not to think about religious fundamentalism, which changed how I view varying approaches to religious belief. You see, Sorkin likes it when his believers act like atheists who are well versed in the Bible, much like how he likes his Republicans to act like Democrats.

And then there is this ridiculous scene from Studio 60:

If there is anything to be learned from this clip, it’s that Aaron Sorkin, much like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, doesn’t understand why people actually pray. And the worst part is, he probably doesn’t really care.

A Limited Philosophy

Super-studly PBS pundit David Brooks recently wrote in his New York Times column about the “Philosophy of Data”. He does that thing he always does – weighing the pro’s and cons and doing everything in his power to be reasonable. I love him for that. I love his skepticism of accepting a worldview based entirely out of data and statistics. He expresses his worry that we ” tend to get carried away in our desire to reduce everything to the quantifiable”, and then immediately begins to explain why even with all its faults, data-driven decision-making can do a lot of good in the world. Data can bring to light faulty assumptions, ripe for the changing. It can also  show us patterns we didn’t know were there. Data, according to Brooks, has the potential to revolutionize how we make decisions about the future, we just have to use it right.

If the data movement really is an emerging philosophy, i’m fascinated by the potential for new and interesting art to reflect such a potentially profound shift. When I first read this piece, the first thing that came to mind was the Bennett Miller film “Moneyball”. Moneyball is, in a sense, about a revolution. The genius of that movie comes from the genuine tension and drama that Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane experiences while diving head-first into untested waters. His willingness to throw away everything that’s ever been done before seems to come from a profound desperation. He feels cheated by a system that gambles the lives of young talent. He’s fed up with uncertainty, and turns to data for comfort.

Contrast this with another great baseball movie, The Natural. What a great film that is. Even though they both use the same game, the natural is about something very different. It’s about the magic of the game, the inspiration that comes through things like virtue and hard work. Moneyball is about realizing that those things don’t always pan out the way you hoped.

Miller’s film feels so current, which is why the idea of an emerging art reacting to the “Philosophy of Data” gets me all excited. We’ll get to see the good, the bad and the ugly of the movement. It’s a new romanticism, believing that maybe our problems really can be solved by data. Not the old, flawed data from the 80’s and 90’s. You know, The kind that Paul Simon wrote about, and that told everyone that New Coke would be a great success.

No. We’ve worked out those kinks. These statistics will change the world. Nate Silver has now shown us that we can confidently know who the president will be far before voting day. We are that much closer to touching the face of God.

Of course, this wont actually work. Nate Silver definitely has proven that voting trends and polling numbers can be used to create accurate predictions, and that will certainly continue to influence politics. Baseball is forever different because they now know how to build a cheaper, more effective team. There’s no transcendence to the philosophy of data. You don’t go to bed at night feeling better because you know we understand statistics more.If anything, there will be an added emptiness knowing that we know more, but still struggle to do more.

On the other hand, such a realization can make for some great art.