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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

what does God need with a starship? atheism and nonbelief on DVD

The conventional wisdom among conservatives is that Hollywood is liberal and godless… but just try finding a movie coming out of the studios that features a real, live, out-of-the-closet, honest-to-, well, God atheist. You might have to go all the way back to 1929, to Cecil B. DeMille’s last silent film, The Godless Girl, an epic about social injustice and intolerance that features, in its female lead, a vocal, even militant atheist. (It’ll be available on DVD this month in Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 [buy at Amazon], a wonderful four-disc, 48-film box set, complete with a 173-page book of analysis and criticism; it’s a project of the indispensable National Film Preservation Foundation.)
That’s not quite fair. There’s also Fearless (1993) [buy at Amazon], from director Peter Weir, about the nonreligious spiritual awakening of an atheist played by Jeff Bridges, who most definitely does not find God after surviving a horrific plane crash. Mostly, though, Hollywood treats atheism as a sickness to be cured, as with Jodie Foster’s faithless scientist in 1997’s Contact [buy at Amazon] [read my review] — the movie deploys some very unfair metaphors meant to depict atheism as intellectually untenable; or in ways so roundabout and allegorical as to be all but unrecognizable as a critique of faith and god-belief to those not already experienced in thinking in such ways; see The Truman Show (1998) [buy at Amazon] [read my review], also from Peter Weir, a profound walloping of the concept that free will can coexist with an all-knowing deity. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) [buy at Amazon], the worst of the Trek movies, is notable mostly for its thumping of “God” himself, reducing the holy being to just a crazy-ass alien bent on ruling the universe or something, just like all the other crazy-ass alien baddies the series ran into; Kirk’s pondering of “God’s” attempted theft of the Enterprise produced the now-classic line, “What does God need with a starship?”

When Hollywood movies do explicitly touch on religion, it’s often to condemn not belief but the uses to which it is put: the brilliant 1992 political satire Bob Roberts [buy at Amazon [read my review] gives us a right-wing presidential candidate who wraps himself not just in the flag but in Jesus, too; Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) [read my review], one of the funniest movies ever made (a new “immaculate edition” is coming to DVD in November), denounces unthinking dogma. Priest [buy at Amazon], which caused a huge stir upon its release in 1995 for its depiction of men of the cloth who are not at all celibate, is a powerful attack on the secrecy of the Catholic Church and the unreasonable lifestyle it requires of its clergy. The story of that film was fictional, if based on reality; less outcry accompanied the more recent documentaries Twist of Faith (2004) [buy at Amazon] and Deliver Us From Evil [buy at Amazon] (2006), harrowing real stories of the crimes of pedophile priests, the complicity of the Church, and the suffering of survivors; and Jesus Camp (2006) [buy at Amazon] [read my review], about the brainwashing fundamentalist Christian children endure at the hands of their so-called “spiritual” leaders.

None of those movies actually flat-out deny the existence of any gods. One that does: 2005’s The God Who Wasn’t There, from indie filmmaker Brian Flemming (available for sale at the film’s official site). A personal documentary in the style of Super Size Me or the films of Michael Moore, this is Flemming’s story of “what happened when I went looking for Jesus.” Raised as a fundamentalist Christian but now an, ahem, devout atheist, Flemming assembles a slew of comparative literature experts, historians, and others to place the tale of Jesus in its proper context: as mythology. Flemming dares to term Pat Robertson a “radical cleric”; points out the horrific Christian obsession with “blood sacrifice” (as proven by the wild popularity of The Passion of the Christ, the goriness of which Flemming, um, dissects on a scene-by-scene basis); demonstrates the utter ignorance of contemporary Christians of the history of their own faith, and of the concurrent “hero” and god myths that bear a remarkable resemblance to that of Jesus; and, in short, states plainly and offers plenty of evidence for the contention that “moderate Christianity makes no sense” and that Christianity of any stripe is “crazy.”

Hollywood may be full of liberal heathens, but I’ve never heard anything like that in a studio movie.

The “debate,” such as it is, between people of faith and people of none has moved in recent years, once again, into the classroom, with the war between those who would teach impressionable students religion in the guise of “intelligent design” and those who, well, wouldn’t. Just out on DVD is the wickedly funny documentary Flock of Dodos [buy at Amazon], from evolutionary biologist and filmmaker Dr. Randy Olson, which destroys creationistic concepts with a wit and an ease that often eludes expert defenders of evolution. Olson is all pro-science, but scientists don’t escape Olson’s withering, sarcastic glare: the inability of those on the factual, reality-based side of the evolution issue to express themselves in ways that the majority of the public without PhDs can understand comes under attack, too. Maybe they shouldn’t just be showing creationists this delightful movie.

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  • JSW

    Richard Dawkins’s BBC documentary The Root of All Evil is also out on DVD.

  • MBI

    The problem with a full-out atheist movie is that atheism isn’t a philosophy, it’s a lack of philosophy. It’s defined by what one doesn’t believe, rather than what one does. A film that attacks theism but doesn’t offer an alternative (such as humanism) is just depressing, and it’s for that reason that I’m less than enthused to go out and rent “The God Who Wasn’t There,” despite the fact that I’m sure it’s a very necessary movie. Now, surely, there are plenty of humanist movies, just as there are plenty of movies where God is clearly absent. But most filmmakers aren’t going to go to the trouble to tear something down, especially as controversial as the very idea of spiritual presence, when it’s easier to promote the alternative.

  • Titus

    Gnostic christians love the “Why does God need a Starship” saying which we attribue to Jehovah-Allah whom we call Yaldaboath. Why does God need a human sacrifice of his son Jesus?

  • JT

    Bill Maher is making a movie that is coming out next year called Religulous that will talk about the absurdity of religion.

    Also, the documentary JSW mentioned, “The Root of all Evil” is on Google Video, and it is amazing just like all of Richard Dawkins’ work.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m gonna blog about the Maher movie shortly.

    The problem with a full-out atheist movie is that atheism isn’t a philosophy, it’s a lack of philosophy.

    I’m not sure I agree with that. It rather depends on what kind of atheist you are. If you’re of the strong variety — the “I believe there are no gods of any kind” kind — then I think it’s safe to call that a philosophy.

    But that’s irrelevant to my point. There’s no reason why a movie cannot have characters that explicitly state “there are no gods.” Except that very few filmmakers are brave enough to do that.

  • There’s a difference between a “full-out atheist movie” and a movie that portrays an atheist character without condemning her/him… a difference which most filmmakers probably realize many Americans won’t understand. I don’t know that I’d want to see a film that was made specifically to push an atheist belief system any more than I’d want to see one pushing a theist belief system, but I would love to see more of them where disbelief in God wasn’t treated as automatically hinting at a flaw in the character. (The most annoying thing is when they have an atheist character immediately break down and start praying the moment they hit a tough spot in life.)

  • I think most of the blame falls more on the file financiers than on the film makers. I’d imagine there are as many film makers brave enough to produce a work starring a character as their are authors who do so. But books and movies need to recoup their production costs.

    Look at the first His Dark Materials movie The Golden Compass coming this December 7th to a theatre near you. The movie isn’t out yet obviously, but by all accounts most of the atheistic/anti-theistic elements have been toned down compared to the books. I’m as militant as atheists come, but even I’ve got to say that is more pragmatic than cowardly. A book might cost, I don’t know, $100,000 to publish. But a movie might costs $100,000,000 to get on screen.

    Anything had an atheist character or message that was too direct or positive, not even “militant”, would lose a large chunk of it’s potential audience. There is already a movement against The Golden Compass before anyone has even seen it. Regardless of any toning down it underwent, I think any adaptation of Pullman’s work is a positive sign, even if it’s not quite what it could be. I’m hoping the movies get some kids to check out the original source material LoTR style.

  • The problem with a full-out atheist movie is that atheism isn’t a philosophy, it’s a lack of philosophy.

    Atheism is a belief, like any other. It is the belief that there is no god. And since one of the definitions of philosophy is “…a belief (or system of beliefs) accepted as authoritative by some group or school” then I would say it qualifies.

    Personally, I have always considered my self to be agnostic (basically I don’t care if there is – or is not – a god(s)) but in more recent years moved to a more anti-theist leaning (and even more so since seeing Dawkings’ programme The Root of All Evil? (which, I’ve heard, he did not choose the title.))

    The more movies that don’t even discuss the subject, the better. That way no one gets offended (unless, of course, you think that your god is offended when he/she/it isn’t mentioned all the time!)

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