UPDATED March 27, 2014: I have now seen the film God’s Not Dead (the trailer to which occasioned the review below) and I have written a much longer and more detailed criticism of the film, A Philosophy Professor Analyzes God’s Not Dead’s Case For God that develops in-depth the themes below. I also have written another review primarily focused on surprising themes not entirely in the film’s trailer, How “God’s Not Dead” Makes Christians Look Even Worse Than It Makes Atheists Look. Having seen the film, I can now confirm that the initial review of the film (found below), which was based only on the trailer, also still holds up as accurate in retrospect.
UPDATED MAY 10, 2014: In response to the wide interest in my posts on this film, I am now challenging fans of the film (and offering theists and atheists of all stripes) to study with me, a real atheist philosophy professor. We will dig in to the real arguments for and against God, from real philosophers, theist and atheist, in a new class which you can take either in one month (June 2014) or for three months (summer 2014). Check it out.
Since I am both a philosophy professor and a professional atheist a lot of people have been sending me the trailer to the upcoming movie God’s Not Dead which brings to the big screen a million cringeworthy internet forwards to tell the tale of a brave young Christian intro philosophy student who stands up to a bullying atheist philosophy professor with a god complex (in more sense than one). After years of reading Christian revenge fantasies about people like me being humiliated by unbroken pieces of chalk, nonsensical linguistically equivocating young Albert Einsteins, and a United States marine who has a charming predilection for settling philosophical arguments with his fists, I figured I would give my pugilistic retort to the trailer of this film promising to give us atheist philosophers our big screen comeuppance (and so “mercifully” offer us salvation).
If I am viewing the trailer correctly, the core story can be pieced together with little work. The whole message the trailer (and I’m expecting the film) is aiming to Christians who feel intellectually embattled is abundantly clear: “All those intellectual arguments that you get from educated atheists, philosophers, and scientists are all just smokescreens for their emotional problems with God. Real science is on your side and they know it. They hate God in their hearts for some unfair reason. You have God in your heart and know about how wonderful he really is. So if you can just be brave and wave away all their excuses and confront them about why they really say they don’t believe in God, you can save them.”
It’s fascinating to see the Christian persecution complex project onto the screen a bizarro world of inverted reality. The philosophy classroom, which, outside of religious fearmongering, represents intellectual awakening, open-ended speculation, and personal liberation for so many is feared like the Roman coliseum. It represents tyranny and death to people like them. Why? Because for depressingly many Christians anyone who dares to apply the same standards of rigorous analysis to Christian beliefs that they would apply to any other truth claims about the world is trying to hurt them personally as Christians. Because it is so hard for them to separate their beliefs from their identity, anyone challenging their beliefs is challenging them as a person. They are their beliefs. There is no separation between heart and mind and person possible.
And, being bad at critical distance, they project their own personality onto others. The philosophy professor who challenges me must be doing so from his heart too. And did I say “challenges me”. Whoops. I meant challenges “God”. You know, close enough. Questioning the validity of my beliefs equals questioning me as a person. Since how one relates to ideas is inextricably an expression of a person’s heart, this professor must have his heart turned against me. Since God is basically my own inner voice and sense of self, this professor hates me and God together.
And so, how do we represent this? Explicitly we tell the tale of a professor who has personal animosity towards a student and his God. He is presented as an authoritarian bully because it would cause too much cognitive dissonance to show a student struggling with an honest, well-educated, charming opponent who simply had sincere, good reasons to challenge his faith, but was also openminded and curious in discussion. That would represent a scenario in which there were genuine choices here, one where the atheists and the doubting philosophers are thoughtful people with an alternative, plausible, earnestly developed narrative of the world and a spirit of egalitarian inquiry. That would imply that maybe they don’t need saving but are worth seeking out and that Christians might grow through dialogue with those who passionately and intelligently can disagree with them and challenge them.
No! We can’t have that! They’re wounded insecure petty people with broken hearts that cause them to bully others! As soon as they can be confronted with their hatred of God (and me!) they can be redeemed!
Of course the Christian in the story just wants people to decide for themselves! Hasn’t Christianity always been about thinking for yourself?! Just ask the Dark Ages! Or the Inquisition! Or John Calvin! Or all those universities that used to ferret out atheists and fire them! Or whoever made this movie where the philosophy classroom is presented, in Orwellian manner, as a place where people don’t really think for themselves but just lie because they hate God. And then go back to church and stop worrying their pretty little heads about “intellectual” matters once a bold Christian fearlessly gives them the Gospel.
In this story, it is the atheist philosophy professor who wants to dictate to people what to believe by fiat. Come on, everyone! No thinking, just write down that God is dead and let’s move on! (Nevermind that that’s the modus operandi of dogmatic faith—the very thing that Christianity has thrived on for centuries. Can we go back to the 18 years worth of scenes in this kid’s life where he was implored without evidence to simply believe in God? Can we go back to all the threats of what a terrible life living without God would entail? Can we show the scene where his Sunday School teacher threatened children with hell or where his parents made passing remarks about how terrible atheists were? Can we watch him swallow thousands of propositions dogmatically, by “faith”, and see how stifling he found that? In other words, can we be honest here? If we want to show a place where people are just told to believe and not ask questions, can we make it the place where that actually happens—the church–and not the place where all that training in fear and mental subservience is systematically undermined–the philosophy classroom?
But the best part of this bizarro world picture is our philosophy professor tyrant himself. He feels humiliated at any one who stands up to him, takes relish in the prospect of failing his insolent student who dares to question him, and literally calls himself a “god” and reveals that being god means being someone no one gets to stand up to (no matter how right they are!) because he can wield vindictive punishment at whim.
I love this because the philosophy professor, hilariously, is a condemnation of all the attitudes of another figure you may recognize. You know—the all powerful guy with the fragile ego who supposedly cannot tolerate anyone who disobeys him again? You know who I am talking about. He has a real god complex. He supposedly threw the first pair of humans out of paradise, cursed their children with sin and misery, and made childbearing excruciatingly painful all because they ate a fucking piece of fruit he told them not to and which would (horror of horrors!) let them know about good and evil for themselves? He will not stand to have anyone think for themselves! He demands people just assert things without any evidence, with no rational appeal to their intellect! If they don’t believe and write down what he tells them and love him for it, He relishes not just failing them but torturing them for eternity! He is a super petty, insecure, bully who stands for no insolent, humiliating disagreement or freedom of thought and thinks he can do whatever he wants because no one can check his power? Oh, wait! That’s right! It’s your God, Christians! Just seeing him brought to life in this perverted representation of a philosophy professor reminds me why I’m so relieved the bastard does not exist!
In real life–not in bizarro inverted Christian persecution complex land but in real life–throughout Western history the underdog hero of the freedom of conscience speaking up against dogmatists has routinely been the one challenging religious authoritarians and has been called a heretic, a blasphemer, a heathen, an apostate, a reprobate, and, worst of all, an atheist for it, time and time again. And among the greatest champions of freedom of thought and conscience have been philosophers, often defying the clergy and theologians of their day as much as the theocratic ages they lived in would allow. It always has been this way, all the way back to when they put Socrates to death on a charge of atheism for daring to force the powerful people of his day to give coherent, rational accounts of what they believed (and exposing they couldn’t).
Finally, the attempt to evade the intellectual issues and make this about the philosophy professor’s heart is absurd. More than 83% of philosophy faculty and philosophy PhDs are not theists. Nearly 70% either lean to or outright accept atheism. Less than 12% outright accept theism and only more 4.7% just lean towards it. This is not a grand conspiracy of people trying to suppress their true belief in the Christian God whom they hate so much for killing their parents with cancer when they were 12. A good many philosophers couldn’t care less about the God question. And none of the atheist ones I have ever met are afraid and trembling with a quivering lip, in fear of humiliation, at the prospect of a student questioning their position on God. Like, we do this for a living. You don’t scare us. And hardly any of us see it as our job to make you into atheists. Our job is to train you to be able to think about philosophical issues. It’s not to coddle you in your prejudices, nor to give you new prejudices. It’s just about thinking.
The idea that any representative sample of atheist philosophers is filled with people who got into philosophy precisely to suppress and deny what they thought to be true about basic reality is a joke. Psychologically it makes no sense. Who would go into philosophy secretly believing in God just to pretend they don’t believe in it? Presumably while knowing they would have to try to sell this lie semester after semester to intro students (or maybe even their peers if their work touches on God related concepts)? The kind of self-torture and denial you think these hurting philosophy professors must be subjecting themselves to could only be plausible if you narcissistically assume that their whole minds revolve around your faith and its concerns.
Sure, some people come to atheistic realizations for emotional reasons. And they have every right to. It is a destructive lie to tell people that a supernatural benevolent omnipotent being is on their side and they can just pray to Him for help whenever they need it and He will take care of them. If they are disillusioned and traumatized when that being doesn’t stop billions of people from starving to death, hundreds of millions from dying in genocides, or themselves from being raped, molested as children, or stripped of the people they love in their youth, they have every right to be angry—not at the non-existent God they were misled to believe in but at the people who sold them a fairy tale that didn’t prepare them for reality.
They also have every right to be morally appalled and disgusted at religious people who could trivialize the immense amount of pointless and gut wrenching waste and suffering that humans (and not to mention other animals!) endure by saying it’s all redeemed and consistent with the existence of a morally perfect being! That willful warping of one’s morality to imagine that a morally perfect being could deliberately be behind a world with so much horror for so many people and animals is disturbing. That’s not itself a refutation of the existence of God but it is strong evidence of the absence of moral seriousness on the part of people desperate to believe in Him.
“Aha!” You say, “See, atheistic philosophy professor, you really are emotionally just against God!” No, I used to be a Christian like you and I loved it. It was gut wrenching for me to just realize intellectually that the belief system was bankrupt. Then to realize how corrupt its ethical core was in so many ways. The anger came later. It is not at an imaginary being. My anger is at the institutional and intellectual sway that the rotten spirit of dogmatism and authoritarianism have over billions of people. It’s the same thing you hate in the specter of the philosophy professor that you gleefully want to see get his comeuppance in those pathetic e-mails you forward and this pathetic revenge fantasy movie based on them. I just saw, after seven years of trying to be the kid who shows the evil atheist philosophers up by using reason against them, who the real authoritarian liars were and where reason really pointed.
Finally–science supports God? Can you back that up, filmmakers with some actual scientific journal articles “supporting” God? Because the 93% of scientists in the elite National Academy of Sciences who are atheists really should be caught up to speed on those findings! The full half of rank and file scientists who happen to be atheists and the 18% who only believe in a “universal spirit” rather than “God” also need your qualified advice too! Oh yeah, and the half of all psychologists that are atheists and 11% more that are agnostics. They need your dramatic education too.
Oh that’s right, all these highly qualified intellectuals are just covering up for their wicked, God-hating hearts. Ever since that Garden of Eden people who have wanted to know things are just disobedient God-haters. They’re the ones in denial. Not you who know with your hearts.
Yeah, that makes sense of everything.
For more, read about how my atheism affects my philosophy class. And then take a philosophy class with me, online, In response to the wide interest in my posts on this film either for one month (June 2014) or for three months (summer 2014). Check it out.
UPDATE April 6, 2014: After seeing the film, I found much more to analyze about it, so I have also written these other reviews of the film:
And here is the table of contents to my nearly exhaustive 13,000 word treatment of everything the film says or implies about philosophy for any apologists impressed with the film to grapple with. If you just want to read my much shorter criticisms of a few particular portions of the film, you can use the table of contents that I wrote for the long post to find where I address just the topic of interest to you.
2. The Hypocrisy of Christian Statements of Faith
3. Why Leaving Theology Out of Philosophy Isn’t Persecuting Students
4. Philosophy Is Not Authority Based The Way Theology Is
5. The Students in the Movie Already Believed in God
6. How I Graded Religious Students Who Disagreed With Me
7. Demanding Philosophical Reasons For Religious Beliefs Is Not Religious Persecution
8. Arguments Over Cosmology (God vs. Naturalistic Eternalism)
9. Creating A Strawman of Philosophers is a Lazy Copout
10. Why Do Christians Say Atheists Disbelieve for Emotional Reasons?
11. Who Really Are the Humble Ones More Likely to Say “I Don’t Know”? The Christians or the atheists?
12. Why Do Some Atheists Say They Do Know There’s No God? Are Atheists Hypocritically People of Faith Too?
13. If Antitheists Are Bad People, Evangelicals Are Downright Awful
14. If Professor Radisson’s A Bad Guy, The Christian God is the Worst Possible Bad Guy
15. God of the Gaps and the Origin of Life
16. How Science and Philosophy Vindicate Metaphysical Naturalism and the Existence of Religious Scientists Doesn’t Vindicate Theism
17. Why Explaining Evolution with God is Anti-Science
18. Is Philosophy Dead?
19. Why The Film Didn’t Actually Care About Proving God’s Existence
20. The Problem of Evil
21. The Appeal to Need for Absolute Morality
(P.S. It is an honor that the filmmakers, when choosing an actor to play a philosophy professor went with the guy who was fit to play Hercules. I like to think this was typecasting. Hey–this also makes me realize, maybe when Professor Radisson says that there’s a god in the classroom and it’s him, he’s revealing he really is Hercules and the angry-mannered philosophy professor is just his real life alias! Maybe there’s more to this movie than the trailer let’s on and I’ve prejudged it unfairly…)