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Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, Team America and The Book of Mormon, have often been lionised by the ‘New Atheist’ movement for their lambasting of aspects of Scientology, Mormonism, Christianity, Islam, alien abduction theories and other beliefs. But their personal views have a little more subtlety than most people would probably assume, given the tone of their various productions, and their disdain is not so much for religion on its own but for unthinking belief and forceful proselytising. In a recent interview with Esquire, Stone and Parker took time to criticise Richard Dawkins and his minions, and many of the South Park duo’s thoughts on beliefs – and in particular, the need for story-telling and rituals – resonated pretty strongly with me. Some highlights from the interview:

[T]he truth is that Parker and Stone, the creators of the decade’s most extreme mass entertainment, are shockingly … temperate. They say it themselves: “There is a middle ground, and most of us actually live in this middle ground.” Consider the short film that launched South Park — The Spirit of Christmas.

On one side, Jesus demanded that Christmas be about remembering His birthday. Santa shouted that Christmas was about giving. They kung-fu-battled until they were rolling on the ground, strangling each other.

“The boys were in the middle saying, ‘This is f**ked up,’ ” said Parker. “Any side who thinks they’re totally right is f**ked up. That’s the heart of every show.”

…Religion has its upsides — a position that rankles hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

“He’s such a dick,” said Stone. “You read his book and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I agree with that. But it’s the most dicky way to put it… I think the neoatheists have set atheism back a few decades. And I’m a self-described atheist.”

…You could argue that their so-called moderation is actually just nihilism. They take potshots at both sides without ever committing to any direction of their own. And there’s some truth to that. So what do they believe in? The central thesis of The Book of Mormon is that storytelling, myths, and fiction are the only things that can save us.

…”I’m concerned about people being happy,” said Stone. “With religion I was always like, Does it matter if it’s true if it makes you happy?”

“As storytellers for fifteen years, we started looking at religions for their stories,” Parker said…”[T]here’s something about dressing up and playing the part. To me, that’s religion. You can write down how to make the perfect cup of coffee. But to make it really good, you have to play something fictional, you have to dress up, you have to think, This is the most important thing.”

You can also listen to Stone and Parker explaining their feelings about Richard Dawkins and ‘whiny’ atheism in this audio interview from earlier in the year (warning: plenty of NSFW language):

By the way, at the end of the interview they mention that they’d love to see a book on atheism by Penn Jillette. Turns out they got their wish.