Saturday, November 7, 2015

Religion and Atheism Abound in Bollywood's PK

When the alien known as PK arrives on Earth, the first thing that happens is a man in the desert steals his device for phoning home, leaving him stranded. Hearing that god is the answer to all troubles, PK goes on a search for god. He encounters the people and practices of many faiths and makes friends and enemies along the way.

So goes the plot of the 2014 Bollywood hit film PK, which turns out to be--at least on one level--a surprising statement of atheism from an industry known for strict conventions and from a country known for religious conservatism.
(Sorry, this trailer is in Hindi, but you can find a trailer and the movie in English on iTunes.)

The plot hearkens back to any number of stories in which an extraterrestrial comes to Earth and, baffled by our curious Earthling ways, teaches us about ourselves and reveals new ways of being. I think of Robert Heinlein’s most influential novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), in which Valentine Michael Smith, a human being raised by Martians, encounters terrestrial estrangement and teaches us to grok love. And consider David Bowie’s classic album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), in which a rock-and-roller serves as the conduit for messages from alien beings to humanity five years before the world is to end due to human excess.

With its critique of religion, PK is more in the vein of Heinlein. The titular alien’s encounters with con men as well as believers rarely end well, for the religious always seem to be concerned with decidedly unholy concerns: power, money and exceptionalism. Their methods are also questionable: blind faith, trickery and violence. These aspects of religion are familiar to all of us, whether through reports of Islamist terror in the daily news or through passing the collection plate each Sunday in church. In PK’s words:
“The god you made up is just like you: petty, takes bribes, makes false promises, readily meets the rich, keeps the poor waiting, thrives on flattery, makes you live in fear [. . .] The god you believe in, abolish him.“
On the surface, PK’s message is that old distinction between religion versus spirituality. Its proponents assert the superiority of vague spirituality and decry stuffy religious dogma while almost always subscribing to the traditional superstitions that make up the latter. This position sounds genial, open-minded and subversive, which is why people like it, but actually it subverts nothing, which is, I suspect, why the makers of PK chose it as the superficial message of their film. They could appear to criticize organized religion and avoid offending the masses while on another level also advancing . . .

. . . atheism.

The film makes several arguments against religion that are regularly employed by atheists in debates against Christian apologists--such as how the truth claims of competing religions contradict each other--but the key argument in the film appears during a standoff on national television between PK and the guru Tapasvi. The guru adopts a typical apology for religion:
“What do you want, huh? A world without God? Do you have any clue how people suffer? No food to eat, no place to live, no friend to talk to . . .  People kill themselves, slit their wrists, jump off buildings . . .  Why? Because they have no hope. If bowing before God, smearing holy ash, and wearing amulets gives them hope to live, then who are you to snatch away that hope? And if you snatch away their God, how will you fill that void?”
PK’s answer is oddly indirect--and even endorses Enlightenment-style Deism--but viewers are sure to think of a more direct response to the guru’s challenge. Throughout the film, we have watched PK suffer, and it was real people, often strangers, who gave him food and shelter and became his friends. He himself at one point gives the only money he has to a poor man who needs it to pay for a meal on his wife’s birthday. The film is bursting with religion, but not once does it depict any supernatural event large or small--not so much as a holy glow or miraculous chance turn of events. Instead, what it shows is human goodness without the need for gods or their self-proclaimed mediators on Earth.

In other words, secular humanism.

This is one answer to which many like myself have turned in response to the death of God. As a life stance, it has the benefit of being an observable practice with tangible results. People can help people, and indeed they often do--no god necessary. Why is it that the religious must do good in the name of God instead of just doing good?

I’ve watched very little Bollywood and I only watched PK because most of the other offerings on board a long flight didn’t look interesting, but it turned out to be laugh-out-loud funny, romantic and thought-provoking. PK criticizes religion and shows that real acts of human kindness can fill the void left by an imaginary god’s disappearance.

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