Sunday, April 27, 2014

Creation Care Part 1: Where Religion and the Environment Intersect

Given the tumultuous and often contradictory natures of religion and the environment, the creation care movement has arisen in an unusual predicament. Guided by religion and undeterred by previous difficulties, creation care members seek to unite a moral obligation to the environment with climate change advocacy. This new movement operates in an important gap, often appealing to the youth, that could offer appealing solutions and arguments for grassroots progress on the environment. Interested in the opinions and demographics of this group, I performed an online survey of members on a few creation care mailing lists. In this post, I will discuss a few of the open-ended answers that were particularly interesting. This week, I am examining answers to one question about the compatibility of science and religion. Future posts will look at apocalypticism, interpretation of biblical verse, and optimism about the future.

Political cartoon retrieved from this blog

60 participants completed the survey and 52 submitted complete responses. A few prominent patterns emerged that provide insight into the beliefs of creation care members. These responses could not be generalized to the entire creation care movement, and the Judeo-Christian creation care movements are certainly far different from other iterations such as Muslim or Hindu creation care. But, the prominence of these patterns do indicate the possibility of shared opinions and frameworks for future inquiries. Overall, survey takers were confident about their knowledge of climate change and its consequences. They also expressed a mix of worry and hope towards the possibility of mitigating climate change's consequences.

Creation Care logo from Climate Progress

Survey takers were asked about the compatibility of science and religion. After coding for compatibility, unsure, and incompatibility, there was a consensus among the 52 surveys. All participants responded that they saw science and religion as compatible. Although it is common for scientific and religious frameworks to be in competition with one another, these creation care members viewed them as completely compatible. There are some religiously-oriented climate denial groups, such as the Cornwall Alliance, that undermine efforts to protect the environment. Oftentimes, a belief in climate change is associated with denying God's ultimate power over the apocalypse. Associations with religious identity and conservative politics often encourage thinking monetarily instead of environmentally.

The respondents, though, who identity as members of creation care groups, do not fall along traditional correlations. Participants identified across the political spectrum, but they all agreed on the importance of protecting the environment because of underlying religious identifications. Science and religion both support the potential risks and encourage action. Skepticism and doubt can cause pervasive apathy and negative consequences that creation care has found a way to overcome.

Image retrieved from this blog

One respondent noted that "science and religion are best friends." One commented that "they are completely compatible and if they appear to not be, then there is an error in the interpretation of the religious truth or of the scientific data." This respondent believes that it is not possible for science and religion to be contradictory. Many respondents echoed similar themes about finding God's work within scientific inquiry. "Science is an explanation of how God works and allows me to become more deeply rooted in Him and his beauty." Another simply wrote, "Science is Man's search for God in Nature." The closest a respondent got to noting incompatibility was the statement, "sometimes they are cranky with each other."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Weak and the High Maintenance: Female Stereotypes in Advertising

This was not the intended blog post for this Sunday, but a few recent advertisements have been on my mind, recently. Their repetition on the TV channels I watch and on Hulu has increasingly bothered me in their portrayal of the female. I will link to them both here and then discuss the problems that emerge in the persistent stereotyping (especially gender stereotyping) that occurs in media.

The first commercial is from Verizon, which advertises that if you buy a phone, you'll get a second free. Then, the commercial explores various options for who the second phone should be given to. Attempting humor, the commercial proposes that a girlfriend may enjoy the free phone, "but don't tell her that it's free." The face of the female fades from happy to disgruntled. This commercial plays on the "high maintenance" girlfriend trope where females are not happy or satisfied unless a lot of money has been spent. Shows such as Bridezillas, MTV True Life, arguably every Real Housewives version, emphasize this theme of women as spoiled, needing immediate and constant care, and focused on the material. These stereotypes overpower a more dimensional representation of the female outside of material goods and characterize all women as high maintenance. This description itself is inherently offensive. One's provides maintenance to a car or an object, not to a person. There is the association with a female as an accessory, a tool, an object needing maintenance, improvement, and upgrades in order to function. This also implies that the partner (oftentimes male) in the relationship is the only one with purchasing power. This clip from Bridezillas, featuring Remy and Rob, illustrates the dynamic quite well.

The Verizon commercial bother me, because it ignites these stereotypes as women as only valuing the material, lacking purchasing power, and only superficially strong in their demand of items they cannot provide for themselves. Even in the portrayal of strong women who declare they deserve certain items or treatment, there is an underlying weakness in the women who rely on others for self-validation, respect, and attention.

The second commercial focuses more on the vegetarian as weak, but the non-present character is given a female gender. This is a commercial from Walmart about setting a table for an Easter lunch. The planner describes why certain people are placed in certain spots noting that her vegetarian sister is at the opposite end of the table "so she can't see the ham." My first reaction was one of disgust that a commercial would rely on stereotyping vegetarians as too weak to even see meat. Though this is just a small statement, a lot of information is imparted in a short amount of time to the viewer. The audience is surely meant to consider the planner quite respectful. But, the implications are that vegetarians (and perhaps specifically female ones) cannot stomach the sight of food they cannot consume.

Both of these commercials highlight the importance of stereotyping in the world of advertising. When a company has only 30 seconds to compare one's attention and express the benefits of a product or service, stereotyping is a potential strategy. Originally conceptualized as the images that one sees in one's head, stereotyping is now defined as a mental shortcut that associates certain characteristics with others. There are racial, gender, ethnic, religious, political, and geographic stereotypes, all which connect a person to a host of underlying associations. Stereotyping makes sense if one's goal is to impart information as quickly and as succinctly as possible. The human brain is lazy and would rather use mental shortcuts to absorb, process, and respond to information. Popkin called this "low information rationality" where people tend to use the least amount of information possible to make their decisions. He connected this specifically to voting, where people may vote in elections based solely on a party affiliation, a rumor about a candidate, or even their aesthetic appearance over delving in deeply into issues and more complex information.

Apologies for the video quality. South Park's "Museum of Tolerance"

Though stereotyping may make sense for advertisers, other media theories, such as cultivation, encourage us to reconsider the potential consequences of long term, frequent consumption of media tropes. If females are consistently portrayed as weak, high maintenance, powerless, vulnerable, and other "feminine" characteristics, how can we expect a new generation that is more open to feminism and equality? There are certainly many factors that influence people's attitudes, opinions, and behaviors, but it may not be surprising that a media that reflects and stereotypes females in such as way may also be contributing to other gender-based issues. There are many examples I could pull from, but I will encourage people to look at this video from Fox News about women being paid "what they're worth."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Media Representations of Atheists as the Scrooge Trope

Sitting in on a class on media and religion, I was shocked to hear student responses to the question, "how would you describe this atheist?' The responses such as sad, angry, evil, cynical, and confused described Dr. House on the TV show House. We had just watched an episode where Dr. House is faced with a potential miracle where someone comes into the hospital hallucinating that an angel told him to go to the hospital. Finding that the illness he had did not include hallucinations as a side effect, there are implied themes of potential truth behind the patient's visions. Throughout the episode, House remarks negatively towards religion and the patient's employment as a priest. His cynicism and complete disdain for even considering religious explanations is highlighted prominently. I cannot fault the students for describing Dr. House in these ways. On the show, he is portrayed as a curmudgeon who is cynical and removed from meaningful relationships. What hadn't occurred to me until that moment is that this TV show may be communicating that these are qualities of atheists as a whole, with Dr. House serving as synecdoche.

Retrieved from FluffyAtheist's YouTube

I began to see this cynical portrayal as a pattern. I attended a play titled, "Freud's Last Session" which details a fictional therapy session between Sigmund Freud (a prominent atheist) and C. S. Lewis (the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and converted Christian). Freud is presented as a old, cynical man who has little left to live for and takes much pleasure in undermining Lewis's belief. Lewis, on the other hand, is presented as youthful, moving quickly around the stage, and speaks with hope and optimism about the world. The two are foils, dichotomies of one another, religious belief only one aspect of this dichotomy. Though they are presented in a type of balance, the implication is that when Lewis leaves, he leaves Freud to die, set in his ways, and without religious comfort in his final hours.

Scene from Freud's Last Session at the Chicago Mercury Theater

I would also like to point my readers to this film (trailer below), which presents a fictionalization of an encounter of a student with a professor who asks students to argue against God's existence. When the student challenges the professor, he makes the student debate him. What is most revealing about this trailer (in addition to the appearance of the stars of Duck Dynasty) is the exclamation from the student, "Why do you hate Him? Why do you hate God?" This exclamation reveals a disconnect between actual atheism and the perceived attributes of atheists. If someone is an atheist, they do not hate or have emotions towards God; He does not exist. It would be very hard at me to be mad at a unicorn, Big Foot, or people yet unborn. These things do not exist, so emotions cannot be directed towards them. People who believe in God or religion sometimes perceive atheists as jilted followers who have somehow been wronged and now take vengeance upon God by being atheist.

Retrieved from the Denison Forum

These three examples provide evidence of a potential theme of representing atheists as stereotypes of what we might call the Scrooge trope. Curmudgeons, only concerned with the material, dismissing happy emotions, hope, and relationships in favor of cynicism, solitude, and pessimism. Media effects literature might encourage me to conclude that these pervasive themes may be influencing the general public in their repeated and frequency consumption of media messages. Though these are fictionalizations that cannot be faulted for narrative short-cuts or simplifying characters. I believe it is harmful, however, to creating a more integrated and open space for people to "come out" as atheists. Though atheism is on the rise and secular humanism is becoming a prominent philosophical worldview, much of the perceived "Culture War" is really Christian and faith-based groups trying to isolate and legislate against non-believers. In a country where some states still hold laws against atheists holding public office and a world where they can be killed for not believing (Oh, look! It may have even happened in Texas), these media representations are performing even more harm upon the image and presence of atheists.