Today the movie God’s Not Dead comes out on DVD, and thousands of church leaders will dutifully run out to purchase their copies to show to their churches sometime in the coming weeks. They will enthusiastically watch it and gush about how wonderful the film is and how beautifully it captures their faith. Because movies like this will provide the only depiction of atheism most evangelical Christians have ever seen, these stories are powerful for them. They reinforce all the stereotypes their preachers have passed on to them, and by the end of the movie they will cry and cheer and obey the movie’s instructions to text “God’s Not Dead” to everyone they know. If there’s one thing religion does well, it’s teach people to do as they’re told en masse.
There’s so much I could say about suffering through this glorified youth group skit turned feature length film. Much has already been said by friends of mine and I could add far too much more myself. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving (just like heartburn). Even during my Christian days I’m certain I would have been nauseated by this terrible movie’s wooden dialogue, forced drama, and two-dimensional characters. Even its original inspiration is beyond pathetic: This story idea began as a variation of a couple of (now infamous) chain emails about a brave young college student who argued with his atheistic professor about the existence of God (“and that young man was ALBERT EINSTEIN”). I’m going to resist the urge to quibble over the content of the debate itself so that I can stick to only two topics: What I learned about atheists by watching this movie and what I think is the greatest iniquity committed by this pandering cinematic train wreck which, incidentally, sold out four weekends in a row in my hometown. Unfortunately, people I love will view me through the lens of this movie, which makes responding to its portrayal of atheists a personal matter for me. I’m not just lettin’ this one go.
Atheists Are Such a Pitiful, Miserable Bunch
God’s Not Dead portrays three or four primary atheist characters: The pompous bombastic university professor (surrounded by a supportive gang of snickering atheist colleagues), a self-absorbed businessman, his snarky, condescending journalist girlfriend, and a stern Chinese father of an exchange student. Observing their behavior, I learn the following:
1. Atheist professors are predatory, and they are out to convert everyone into ideological clones of themselves. Clearly the concept of people committed to “freethought” and “liberal arts” is utterly foreign to the writers of this flick. Ironically, while no secular university I’ve ever heard of would hesitate to fire a professor who demands a signed renunciation of religion from his students, I have heard of Christian schools which demand written statements of belief from both their students and faculty. In real life only one of these two cultures threatens people with everlasting torment for not believing the right things, and it’s not the group being caricatured in the movie.
2. Atheists are selfish, self-absorbed, greedy jerks. Dean Cain’s ambitious acquisitions shark is cold-hearted and callous to everyone he knows including his girlfriend, his sister, and even his own aging mother. He won’t lift a finger for anyone who won’t first offer him something in return, and when his girlfriend discloses that she is dying of cancer, he brushes her off as an inconvenience. His behavior is as despicable as the professor’s and clearly he has no heart at all.
3. Atheists are cocky, self-sure, and totally enamored with their own superiority. Professor Radisson openly mocks the brave young Christian hero to his face in front of the class and in front of his colleagues. But he doesn’t just do it to the poor freshman kid; he also mocks his own girlfriend (Do atheists marry at all in this alternate reality?) to her face at a dinner party while his atheist cohorts sip merlot and laugh condescendingly at her. Truly cringeworthy.
4. Atheists will openly threaten you, bow up, get in your face, stare you down, and even chase you down a hallway and grab you to force you to listen to their angry diatribes because your faith makes them so angry!
5. Atheists are clearly incapable of love. If you’re hurting or sick they’ll abandon you. They cannot be inconvenienced with other people’s problems because as we learned in #2, they are only interested in themselves and what they can get from you.
6. Atheists lack ethical boundaries, so they’ll date students against virtually every university’s rules and then later remind them that the reason they liked them in the first place was just because they were hot (see #5).
7. They disbelieve in God because something bad happened to them. See, since everyone is supposed to subscribe specifically to Abrahamic monotheism by factory default, the only reason anyone could wind up thinking there is no God is because of personal trauma and disillusionment leaving them damaged and spiteful. And really, deep down they don’t disbelieve in God at all, but rather…
8. Atheists are angry at God. You can just hear it in all of their voices. They’re all so constantly angry (unless they’ve got an alcoholic beverage in their hands). They only say they disbelieve but what do they know? Poor deluded empty soulless people! They only think they don’t believe but in reality they’re just angry at a God they really know exists. Never mind if they say they don’t believe. You know better than they do. Bless their cold, empty deluded hearts.
9. Atheists are miserable because they believe life is meaningless. There’s no point to life and nothing is of lasting value beyond their own lives, so you might as well just do what you wanna do and who cares about anyone else? Even as I type this I can hear the voices of at least a dozen friends and family members who have sincerely asked me how I can have any meaning to my life or reason to get up in the morning because they can’t understand how I could have any. This movie totally validates that for them.
Just as an added bonus, I also learned from this movie that Muslims beat their children while Christians show everyone endless patience, kindness, understanding, and empathy (excepting only the young hero’s shallow girlfriend who inexplicably dumps him for being heroic I guess). I also learned that if a car won’t start you can get it to run by praying for it, provided that you believe hard enough that your prayer will be answered. Furthermore, I learned that most difficult life decisions can be solved with a Bible citation.
Perhaps above all what we learn from God’s Not Dead is that college is a threatening place. It’s a scary place where the bad guys are the educators. Just let that sink in for a minute. Just like in that notoriously fabricated chain email, academia is a threatening place where you go to have your beliefs attacked by evil professors who want to force you to give up your cherished beliefs. Surely that is a healthy approach to higher learning which will help advance our common endeavors as a society, right?
The Chief Failure of This Film
In the end the central injustice of this movie is its failure to fairly represent a class of people whom Christians purport to love. But it’s not loving people well to misrepresent them this badly. This movie caricatures, dehumanizes, and depersonalizes people like me, portraying us in the worst possible light. How could I not find this movie disgustingly offensive? Every single atheist in this film is a spineless, uncaring jerk. This is how you love someone like me? You made atheists the bad guys! And not even complex bad guys. You made us two-dimensional cartoon villains who rub our hands together menacingly, tweaking our pencil-thin moustaches above our sinister grins. Children should be afraid to come near us. Employers should think twice before hiring us. And clearly women should steer clear of dating us because obviously we lack hearts.
This is not love. You cannot love people while ignoring everything they tell you about themselves. You are not loving people when you refuse to listen to their stories. You are not loving them well when you decide before hearing them that you already know all that you need to know about them, overruling their own self-descriptions and self-identifications because you are convinced you know better than they do what’s going on inside of them. When you continually speak of people in terms to which they cannot agree, you are not showing them respect or validating them as real people. This movie represents a grievous failure to love people like me. If you watch this and then beg me to go watch it as well, it tells me that in some way you accept its presentation of what I am like even though I’m telling you it’s not accurate. If you say you are to be known by how you love, then this should upset you. The words may be there, but the thing your words promise is not.
So if you are a Christian and if you are able to make it through this film without cringing at the stereotypes and misrepresentations it presents, I cannot imagine you will be able to see me for who I really am or relate to me in any way that is based in reality. If you harbor such a grotesquely caricatured straw man picture of what I’m like, then I dare say you won’t be able to hear a word I’m saying. If this movie doesn’t irritate you the way I know it would have irritated me when I was a Christian, you need to spend some time getting to know real flesh-and-blood non-believers. I’ll wager you wouldn’t ordinarily have much motivation to do that (except in order to engage us in debate). But someone you love may be an atheist, and I’m trying to warn you that as long as this movie doesn’t make you nauseous for all its misrepresentations and clichés, you aren’t gonna love your loved one well. You’re going to need some real conversations in which you ask some sincere questions and let your loved one tell you about themselves and their own thought processes without trying to cram what they say into a pre-conceived doctrinal grid. Is loving them worth that to you? Are you secure enough in your faith to even have such a conversation with someone like me?
A pastor once invited me into his church in order to interview me in front of his whole congregation for the Interview an Atheist at Church project. I felt like it was a great conversation. A portion of that talk can be found below. It made the rounds a little over a year ago, and if you haven’t seen it before, please give it a look. I gave this talk nearly a year before the movie came out and I could swear it’s almost as if they took each thing I said not to do and put that on their to-do list in the film. At any rate, here’s the short version of that talk.
One more detail I must add. [***Spoiler Alert***] I originally titled this article “God’s Not Dead, but the Atheist Sure Is!” Because in the end they kill off the atheist. Are you kidding me? Could you be any more transparent in your wish fulfillment? In the end, most of the atheists see that the Christians are really the ones who are right, and they convert. But it takes getting hit by a car for the antagonist to see the error of his ways. He prays the obligatory prayer that Evangelical theology teaches is required for salvation as he lay there in a pool of his own blood. And as he’s choking out his last breath, the preacher who miraculously showed up at just the right moment to lead him in this prayer (but not a moment earlier so that he could have maybe prevented his getting hit) smiles and says:
It’s alright. In a few minutes you’re gonna know more about God than I do.
I’d like to say that comforted the poor dying former atheist (or was he even that, really?) but it was hard to make that out between the gurgling sounds and pained expressions. But judging by the swell of music this was supposed to be a kind of happy ending. I know they’ll say it’s because now his soul is safe in death, but I can’t help but think of the joke the dog tells in the movie UP:
A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, “I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead.” Ha! It is funny because the squirrel gets dead!
This ending is happy because the atheist gets dead. He “gets saved,” of course, although not in any sense that’s measurable. And the atheist girl who gets cancer “gets saved” as well, although not from the cancer. Even the Muslim girl “gets saved” although her dad still won’t look at her because of his religion. But now all of these people think correctly about a narrow field of topics, so they’re approved. Happy ending. Now go text everybody.