A Challenge to the “New Atheists”
by Madhava Smullen
The cover of Wired magazine’s November 2006 edition depicts a glowing bright light in the darkness above planet earth. “The New Atheism,” it proclaims in bold, black letters. “No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science.”
This comes courtesy of three “Angels” of the Brights movement, an umbrella term to make atheists sound more positive: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
And it’s quickly clear that they are not from the “Let’s agree to disagree” school. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong, they say; it’s evil. These guys mean business.
But the article makes it clear that although articulate and intelligent, the “New” Atheists are not bringing much new to the table. Dawkins is using the same witty yet empty comebacks – “You can’t disprove the existence of a flying spaghetti monster” – as Bertrand Russell used in the 1950s. (“Believing in God is like believing in a tiny orbiting teapot.”) Sam Harris is blaming world strife on religion. And Daniel Dennett is sweeping stuff under the rug. “Yes, there could be a rational religion,” he says. “We could have a rational policy not even to think about certain things.”
In the end, even the article’s atheist author is perplexed. “The New Atheists have castigated fundamentalism and branded even the mildest religious liberals as enablers of a vengeful mob,” he writes. Is another fundamentalist group really what the world needs?
In contrast, Srila Prabhupada saw the importance of both science and religion, and introduced the science of spirit to help us discover the real goal of life.
For more on this topic, read the Back to Godhead article titled Not Such A Bright Idea.
by Madhava Smullen
After the visual tour-de-force of deity meditation that was Darsana, it made sense to the Mediterranean BBT that their next book should be about the person who gave us darsana: Srila Prabhupada.
When the BBT trustees responded, “Why do we need another book of Prabhupada pictures?” photographer Nitya-tripta Dasi set out to show them by searching through every photo of Prabhupada available. This book had to be like nothing that had been done before. It would be a deep, personal meditation, boasting a unique selection that would keep the viewer feeling fresh on every page.
“I had to select 193 photos out of about 90,000,” says Nitya-tripta matter-of-factly. “To make matters worse, they had been scanned directly from a bunch of haphazardly arranged binders stored at the Bhaktivedanta Archives since 1978. Film rolls were mismatched, photos had been misfiled over the years. It was a mess.”
Nitya-tripta set to keywording every image, then giving each one a starred rating, and finally creating virtual folders to store them in, until she could view 90 related pictures instead of 90,000. The gruelling task took 6 months for black and white photos alone. But many of these pictures were Nitya-tripta’s old friends from the traditional darkroom, and she was inspired by the thought that now she could use the digital darkroom to enhance them and accentuate devotees’ meditation on Srila Prabhupada.
“We photographers were nervous around Prabhupada, so we made mistakes often,” says Nitya-tripta, who appears photographing her guru in the last photo of Srila Prabhupada. “In that photo, I was keeping my camera in front of my face out of nervousness and didn’t realize how close I was until I finally removed it and saw that I was just 3 feet away from Prabhupada! I tried to get out of there quickly, a dangerous mission as there was a vibrant kirtana all around him, and I had to time my escape through a wall of swinging mrdangas.”
Digital technology helped get around photographer mistakes and bring pictures closer to the mood of the moment. For instance, a strangely bluish photo showed Prabhupada emerging from ISKCON press-the photographer had been using indoor film inside and forgot to switch to outdoor film. With Photoshop, the photo’s exposure was easily corrected.
You’ll never guess that some of the photographs in Srila Prabhupada are actually a clever composite of several. One shows Prabhupada on a moving walkway at LA airport, devotees chanting and dancing beside him. “In one picture in the series, the way the devotees moved and looked at Prabhupada was perfect,” says Nitya-tripta. “In another, Prabhupada’s expression was the best. So I just combined the two. Sometimes in photography, it’s just a matter of getting the right moment.” She grins. “Digitally, I can combine two right moments.”
Srila Prabhupada’s life, of course, was a collection of right moments. And it’s obvious from the book’s many delightful casual shots that its makers were intent on showing that. “Prabhupada’s life wasn’t just on the vyasasana,” Nitya-tripta says. “He was a true guru, one who taught us something with everything he did and said.”
These casual pictures were a treat for graphic designer Haladhara dasa, who had always seen Prabhupada as an official figure, having joined ISKCON in the late ’90s. He especially loved one of Prabhupada standing in line with several suited businessmen at the airport, waiting to check-in-so much that he had to have a poster of it on his wall. “Each member of our team had their own favorite photos that had to be in the book,” says Nitya-tripta. “It was a strong team effort, full of constant fresh input.”
The Mediterranean BBT didn’t want to create a static chronological or historical document. They wanted their book to tell a dynamic, subtle story, one that spoke to the individual reader. For this to work, they had to choose the book’s text carefully, selecting a minimal yet poignant mixture of quotes from Prabhupada himself, his books, and his disciples. In a unique move, they even left out the sources-a deep meditation was the priority.
“This book is all about meditation, and it was the most amazing meditation for me,” Nitya-tripta says. “While I was working on it, I lived in a small studio room, and as I selected pictures for the book, I’d print them out to size and tape them to my wall. Soon, my little room was wallpapered from floor to ceiling with pictures of Prabhupada.”
She found herself constantly remembering Srila Prabhupada. “I was overflowing with thoughts, feelings and emotions. I realized how fortunate we all are to be connected to Srila Prabhupada, and how we need to always go back to the basics of what he was trying to achieve with his movement. Sometimes we forget.”
Perhaps Srila Prabhupada will help us all to remember, as devotees across the world establish or re-establish a personal connection with this great saint through its mesmerizing pages.
Purchase the book here.
by Madhava Smullen
It’s a strange world to be a theist in these days.
Back in late 2006, I wrote Not Such A Bright Idea*, my response to an emerging atheist movement called “The Brights.” Since then, a flurry of atheist groups and books have erupted throughout the world, to great success and critical acclaim.
The Atheist Alliance International holds an annual convention where it bestows the Richard Dawkins Award on “an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the non-theist life stance.” With this, the author of the New York Times bestseller The God Delusion cements his reputation as the most famous God-basher of modern times. Yet his cohorts in the popularly monikered “Unholy Trinity” haven’t been lazy either: Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great have both racked up their authors a healthy bushel of moolah. And yes, The Brights are still going strong.
But the real question is, how effective is all of this? Have the blasphemous tirades of Dawkins et al really made our faith go weak at the knees?
The reason why is intriguingly ironic. Recently I was browsing the Bright’s website when I came across their official calendar. Promoting their “naturalistic world-view,” it depicted scenes from nature that were supposed to show that our universe is amazing in itself, without God. But instead they filled me with a sense of how wonderful Krishna is. I almost felt that He was speaking, with His signature sense of mischievous fun, through these “atheist” statements. One of the most prominent quotes, from Einstein, read, “What I see in nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”
Elated, I looked for similar patterns elsewhere, and found them. In God is not Great, Cristopher Hitchens declares that atheists don’t need scripture, because they have literature: “The serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot…” Yet the authors he holds as ethical guides were themselves famously guided by their deep belief in God – Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in particular. If Hitchens is inspired by their thoughts and teachings, isn’t he indirectly inspired by God, too?
Sam Harris continues the trend in Letter to a Christian Nation with his sarcastic “Despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue.” A blow for fundamentalist Christians, maybe. Yet Vedic history attests, in great detail, to the world being millions of years old.
But for me, it’s Dawkins who really pounds the nail into his own coffin. In The God Delusion, he claims that “there almost certainly is no God,” arguing that because the universe has so much information in it, a hypothetical creating God would have to be “enormously complex and thus enormously improbable.”
Yes, Mr. Dawkins, you are correct. Someone give the man a round of applause! From the Srimad-Bhagavatam, we understand that Krishna is indeed enormously complex, so much so that we can’t hope to comprehend him with our flawed senses. And yes, such a Creator would seem enormously improbable to those whose eyes are not “tinged with the salve of love,” as the Brahma-Samhita describes. But does that mean that such a God would not reveal himself to a sincere servant?
All this left me thinking… Do even the most fervent ramblings of avowed atheists inevitably point back to God in the end?
Perhaps, dear Mr. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, if you searched deeper, you could find the answers to your questions from the very source you seek to destroy.
*Back to Godhead Magazine, Nov/Dec 2006