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Film Review: Star Trek

By James Zimmerman

The erstwhile Star Trek franchise beams back into theaters this spring with its eleventh feature film. But this isn't exactly a continuation of an on-going story-this time, the Enterprise goes where every action hero is going these days: back to the beginning.

Kicking off with Lucas' disappointing trilogy of box office smashes that explored the origins of Darth Vader, movie studios have dutifully followed suit by offering theater-goers the origins of Batman, Superman, James Bond, Wolverine, and others.  Captain James Tiberius Kirk can now be added to this on-going fad.

But don't hold movie studios' slavish following of the latest gimmicks against this deeply cool film.  Star Trek (annoyingly left without a subtitle, or even so much as a Roman numeral) tells a compelling, riveting tale and, this time, does so with all the state-of-the-art special effects wizardry the legendary epic has long deserved.

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Losing Miller's God

By August Berkshire

On April 8, 2009, I went to the College of St. Catherine, a Roman Catholic university in St. Paul, to attend a presentation by evolutionary biologist Kenneth R. Miller. The lecture was entitled "Finding Darwin's God," after his book by the same name, which came out about ten years ago.

I remember reading Finding Darwin's God awhile back. The first half of the book was an excellent defense of evolution and critique of creationism. The second half of the book was a poor defense of god belief. I remember thinking that if Miller had only applied the logic from the first half of his book to the second half, he would be an atheist.

Miller was one of the star witnesses on the side of science in the "intelligent design" case in Dover, Pennsylvania a couple years ago. He's now come out with a new book, Only a Theory.

"Darwin's God" that Miller refers to is evidently a supernatural creator that Darwin implies exists in the final sentence of Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Miller sees an overall god-intelligence in the universe, but not the day-to-day micromanaging of evolution that Intelligent Design advocates allege. This god is supposedly the First Cause and set nature's laws in motion - including genetic mutation, natural selection, and heredity; in other words, evolution - and then stepped back and let the universe run itself. So, this god works through unguided evolution to create new species.

What Miller didn't tell us during his talk was that by the end of his life Darwin had become an agnostic. In other words, Darwin himself had lost Darwin's God.

One of the reasons Darwin abandoned the all-powerful, all-loving Christian god was because of the cruelty he saw in nature.

After Miller's lecture I spoke with him and asked him how he, a Catholic, could reconcile the cruelty in nature with the idea of a loving god.

I first asked why God couldn't have made all creatures vegetarians, so that some animals wouldn't have to painfully and cruelly kill and eat others. Miller said that that would mean that God would be stepping in and interfering with the natural evolutionary processes that he had set in motion. (Evidently God avoids miracles these days.)

I then asked Miller about painful human birth defects where the child dies very young. Why couldn't God have arranged it so that all genetic mutations were neutral or beneficial mutations? His answer was the same: that that would mean that God would be stepping in and interfering with the natural evolutionary processes that he had set in motion.

It seems that Miller understands the theological problem with a god who has to constantly intervene in his creation. He once stated "[I]f God purposely designed 30 horse species that later disappeared, then God's primary attribute is incompetence. He can't make it right the first time." ("Educators debate ‘intelligent design' " by Richard N. Ostling, Star Tribune, March 23, 2002, p. B9.)

It seemed to me that this god wasn't of much use. "So in other words," I said, "this world operates exactly the way we would expect it to operate if there were no god." Miller agreed, citing retired Vatican astronomer George Coyne who said that the universe doesn't need God.

Again, I asked him how he was able to reconcile the problem of natural evil with a loving god. He said that he was able to do so, but he didn't provide details as to how. I told him I have never been able to do it.

Other people were waiting to talk with Kenneth Miller, so we parted company, agreeing to disagree.

As I walked back to my car, I thought: Miller has all but admitted that there is no actual evidence for a god, and that certainly a god wasn't involved in the daily process of evolution. And yet Miller believes in a god. This must mean that he believes on a basis other than evidence. In other words, on faith. Evidently the belief came first and the rationalizations second.

Miller was raised by Roman Catholic parents and is "coincidently" a Roman Catholic himself. Of all the varieties of god belief he could have chosen, he "just happened" to pick the one he was raised with. Indoctrination has trumped evidence. To me, this seems like a very unintelligent design.

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Film Review: Earth

Earth, 96 minutes, released April 22, 2009

Directed by Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield

By James Zimmerman

Disney attempts to recapture the success of their 1950s series True-life Adventures (their collection of multi-Oscar winning nature documentaries) with the release of Earth. Earth is the first in a line of proposed projects under the Magic Kingdom's Disneynature independent film label, created in 2008.

Striving to present events in chronological order over the course of a single calendar year, Earth has been billed as "following the migration paths of three animal families." But that's only part of the story, as the three families (polar bears, elephants, humpback whales) combined account for only about half the screen time. Interspersed throughout, Earth shows the mating rituals of New Guinean birds-of-paradise, the predator-prey relationship of wolves and caribou, the demanding search for water across the African continent and, in a humorous segment, a family of ducklings' first "flight" out of the nest.

Being Disney, the film-makers use every trick of the trade. With footage largely culled from the BBC program Planet Earth, we are treated to expansive aerial scenes of migrating throngs of animals, slowed down footage of great white sharks breaching out of the water to capture their meals (a taste of nature so captivating it deserves-and gets-repeated showings), time-lapse segments of a forest floor greening and flowers opening up their enticements to their unsuspecting pollinators. Filming took place in 64 countries, including Nepal, where the producers were given access to spy planes enabling them to record the first ever footage of aerial shots over Mt. Everest. The documentary covers the planet from north to south-it begins on the Arctic ice and ends on the shores of Antarctica. In between we are shown forests, waterfalls, oceans, jungles, mountains, and deserts and there is scarcely a moment when the screen does not amaze-from the small close-ups of a duckling scrambling to its feet to the low-earth orbit shots of the sun rising over the orb of the planet. All told, at $40 million, this is the most expensive documentary ever created.

James Earl Jones provides narration, and besides fawning over the beauty and light-heartedly commenting on the funnier moments, he offers several truly fascinating bits of information. While we watch the uneasy alliance between elephants and lions at a small, lone watering hole, Jones notes that the elephants, with their superior size, dominate by day, but the lions, with their legendary feline vision, dominate the night. He also points out that half of the world's oxygen is produced, not in the rain forests, but in the coniferous tree line where arctic meets temperate.

The narrator takes the opportunity to comment on environmental issues; not surprising as this film was released on Earth Day, and its subject matter lends it to such discussions. The warnings and respect the film's creators dispense, however, are subtle: the main message here is the planet's beauty, after all, and the dialogue is careful to not turn off those who do not consider themselves green. They are successful in this regard; it's much easier to win people over to caring for the earth when showing them footage of the precious and spectacular planet, rather than forcing them to listen to a politician.

Earth is appropriate for children, though some might be scared by scenes of animals capturing their prey. In true Disney fashion, the scene cuts before anything brutal happens, but there are brief shots of carnivores tagging their prey with the paws and clamping down on the necks of their victims. If you do go, and your little ones haven't gotten too antsy by the end, stay for the credits: a split-screen shows the audience how some of the unique and difficult scenes were captured on film (perhaps this is Disney attempting to preemptively answer the charges of staged shots that marred the True-life film White Wilderness). Both informative and humorous, these brief glimpses at the cinematographer's adventures is among the most entertaining of the entire documentary.

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April Meeting Review

By George Kane

On April 19, the featured speaker at our public meeting was Jerry Dincin of Chicago, the new president of the Final Exit Network. FEN is a four year old organization that supports the right of individuals to choose the time of their death. Minnesota Atheists has supported this issue since 1999, when we presented an award in absentia to Dr. Jack Kevorkian after a Michigan court convicted him of second degree murder for assisting in the death of a man with terminal ALS.

Dincin told a story of legal persecution even more extreme than the Kevorkian case. While Kevorkian directly participated in the suicide by administering a fatal injection, the Final Exit Network meticulously avoids any active role in suicides. Although FEN provided the information needed to end one's life painlessly, the client alone was entirely responsible for every step in the process. They took care to avoid ever recommending suicide to a client. The only support the FEN provided was hand-holding, to provide psychological comfort. Kevorkian was a provocateur, who tried to win the battle over assisted suicide by daring the state to prosecute him. The Final Exit Network, to the contrary, meticulously avoided violating any laws.

But the state of Georgia saw things differently. In February they arrested four officers of the Final Exit Network for assisting in a suicide by a member who suffered from cancer of the throat and mouth. Most astonishingly, Georgia decided to shut the FEN down by prosecuting it under Georgia's Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) law. State and federal RICO laws were written to combat the mafia. In a coordinated operation, Georgia conducted raids in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Montana, and seized $550,000 in FEN bank accounts. The seizures forced them to raise $50,000 for legal expenses so far, and have effectively put the FEN out of operation.

Dincin expects the Final Exit Network and the arrested officers to be cleared of all charges, but that is not likely to happen any time soon. Unlike nearly every other state, Dincin explained, the laws of Georgia do not give defendants the right to a speedy trial. FEN may be kept in legal limbo, with their assets frozen, indefinitely.

An impromptu appeal from Steve Petersen collected over $200 for the FEN's legal defense fund. Members who wish to donate to their legal defense should call 866-230-2471 or email info@finalexitnetwork.org for instructions.

Dincin stated that the Final Exit Network supports clients "who are suffering intolerably from an irreversible condition which has become more than they can bear." The program of Final Exit Network accepts members with cancer, ALS, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer's disease, congestive heart failure, emphysema, and other incurable illnesses.

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