My evangelical parents and siblings recently went and saw God’s Not Dead. This made me profoundly uncomfortable. I haven’t seen the movie, but I have seen the trailer, and that’s enough to tell me that the movie’s representation of what it is to be an atheist bears absolutely no resemblance to me.
Beyond its depiction of atheists, the movie’s entire premise is so unrealistic as to be ludicrous. Wikipedia describes the movie’s plot as follows:
Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a naive freshman college student, enrolls in a philosophy class taught by an infamous and dictatorial professor. Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) demands that all of his students must sign a declaration that “God is dead” in order to get a passing grade. Josh refuses and will go to any lengths to defend his belief in God, but he needs to take this class to meet his academic requirements. And so the professor strikes a bargain: Josh must defend his position that “God is Alive” in a series of debates with him in order to stay in the class. If he loses, he flunks. When Josh accepts the challenge, he gets more than he bargained for—jeopardizing his faith, his relationships, and even his future.
I’ve been attending state universities as an undergraduate and now graduate student for almost a decade, and let me tell you, this is not how college works. Professors cannot require students to deny God’s existence to pass a class.
Actually, after hearing things like this growing up in an evangelical family, church, and community, I myself set off for university a decade ago expecting to come face to face with liberal atheist college professors eager to attack my faith. And you know what? That’s not what happened. To this day I do not know the religious beliefs of any of my professors, including those whom I found most influential. I do know some of their political beliefs, but even the most left-leaning professors always framed their classes in such a way as to allow for diversity of thought and opinion. No professor ever told me what to believe. Instead, they encouraged me to think. And that was it.
In fact, I was so taken aback by the difference between what I’d been taught to expect and what I actually experienced that I wondered out loud to a friend at one point whether my inability to detect my professor’s attempts to brainwash me might mean I was actually being brainwashed. (Of course, the alternate theory was that my professors were not actually trying to brainwash me.)
I was also told growing up that atheists are not really atheists at all, they’re just angry at God. Or, they’re denying the existence of God because they don’t want to be held accountable for their actions. In fact, the idea that atheists might literally not believe in a God was foreign to me.
And now I am one. Me, a dreaded atheist.
I don’t believe in a god. Horrors, I know! But in contrast to what I was taught about atheists growing up, I don’t disbelieve because I’m angry or don’t want accountability. Instead, I disbelieve in God in the same way that I disbelieve in fairies. I honestly don’t think there is a god. I have concluded, based on the knowledge available to me and my life experiences, that there most likely is no god. This isn’t about a grudge or a vendetta, and this isn’t something I could snap my fingers and change even if I wanted to.
I’m not fully open to my parents and siblings about my lack of belief, though I’m pretty sure they suspect it. I also know that my mother, at least, is unhappy with the length of time I have spent in academia. She sees this as me putting worldly wisdom over spiritual wisdom, and drinking at the font of secular knowledge rather than at the font of God’s word. I also know that movies like this shape their perception of me, and that’s discouraging. Will they ever be able to actually understand me and who I am if they view me through such distorted lenses?
Ironically, I actually agree with the movie’s title—God’s not dead. I would suggest that God’s not dead because there never was a God to start with, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what they’re going for. I would also suggest that God’s not dead because the concept of God is alive both in people’s minds and in many communities and societies, but again, I don’t think that’s what they’re going for.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here studiously avoiding discussing this movie with my parents and siblings. I dislike conflict, and even more than that I dislike one-dimensional caricatures and inaccurate stereotypes. I hate knowing what they think of me, hate feeling judged and looked down on. I’m sick of the boxes, I just want to live. But apparently that’s too much to ask.