Humanizing Humanists: Sylvia Broeckx’s Hug An Atheist

Humanizing Humanists: Sylvia Broeckx’s Hug An Atheist September 2, 2013

Hug An Atheist debuts Saturday September 14 at 7:45pm at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco as one of seven films in the fifth annual Atheist Film Festival.

Imagine you wanted to dispel someone’s phobias about the members of an unfairly maligned and stigmatized group of people? How would you do it? One method is obvious. You would simply take them to meet these scary people and hang out with them in relaxed contexts that are part of their everyday settings so that the wary can see how remarkably harmless, ordinary, and even affable they really are. You would let them casually chat about their views on their values, their kids, their loves, their griefs, and their sense of meaning in life.

And in that process you would just let these people naturally and nonchalantly prove how sensible, sincere, and thoughtful they are. It only should be a matter of time before it would become clear to the misinformed that these people are just interested in creating and having the same good things that seemingly everyone else wants. And you would hope that after having the experience of connecting to these people simply as people, they would be humanized and no longer possible to demonize.

When Belgian filmmaker Sylvia Broeckx learned about the hostile attitudes that atheists faced in America, she set up an indie gogo campaign to raise the money to make a documentary that humanized us by introducing viewers to us.

And the end result is a terrific resource for us atheists to give to friends, families, and religious communities to explain ourselves to them.

Hug An Atheist is not a polemic against theism. It’s not filled with arguments against the existence of God or complaints with religious organizations. Supernatural ideas come up more as either nuisances to deal with or paltry suggestions to dismiss than as problems. While occasionally throughout the film, the atheists in it will reflect about when they were religious and make comparisons and contrasts to their current views, there is not much discussion justifying or explaining the thought processes that made them into atheists. The film’s point is neither to justify nor advance non-belief in gods. While they take the time regularly to rebuff familiar religious answers to questions or religious challenges to atheists, the point is to show how atheists think and live in positive and honest terms, how they make sense of their lives and their values, and how they deal with some of the most central and universal questions of human life.

Where the film starts is with former pastor and recent deconvert Teresa MacBain laying out the conundrum she was in when she found herself doubting her faith while still believing that doubting was sinful. Then Bridget Gaudette talks about how naively confident in her faith she used to be before she deconverted and became an atheist. Then Erin Korbylo expresses her realizations, when still a Christian, that there was a dissonance between her actual beliefs and operative morality and behavior, on the one hand, and what she was supposed to be thinking and doing according to her religious beliefs, which led her to abandon the ill-fit religious beliefs. Finally, Jennifer Beahan is very expressive about how painful and jarring it was for her to look at the world through atheist eyes for the first time.

Taken together, these women make for a striking amalgam that represents many atheists. Formerly confident in their faith, sometimes even to the point of arrogance, they came to realize dissonances between their religious beliefs and the rest of what they discovered to be true and good in the world, and they had to cope with both feelings of religious failure and fears of a hopeless unknown outside their faith. What is clear about this amalgam atheist is that she did not want to be an atheist and having been indoctrinated religiously she had little idea at first about what positive alternatives could possibly lay beyond the faith. She didn’t like what she now believed about the falsehood of her former religious beliefs. But it wasn’t about what she liked, it was about what she couldn’t avoid realizing.

And while the film quickly moves on to atheists being atheists and away from focusing very much on their being former believers, this efficient first minute recap of these atheists’ religious origins is a shrewd departure point for the film. Because it tells the average (theistic) viewer something that’s true about a lot of atheists: we really wanted to believe but just couldn’t. We didn’t hate God and set out to destroy him. We weren’t just eager to sin. And it’s not just that we have never heard the Gospel. We were just like them. But we just couldn’t bring ourselves to believe it anymore. And it also makes clear that for many atheists we were willing to face our atheism before we knew how to make any sense of it.

This is, I think, the bravest thing about many atheists. We tend to be the ones most likely to say, about some of the weightiest matters, “well this is just true, and maybe I don’t know where to go from here, but I have to just start with honesty”. And that’s where the film starts and proceeds the whole way through. With that honesty. With atheists rather passively finding themselves just not believing. And then the opening credits of the film feature a song that lays out where we’ll go from this starting point. Here are key lines from the song:

So I tried and I tried to achieve belief. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I’ve been feeling fine (In fact, often better than fine.). Though, now both my shoulders have started hurting from walking around under such a burden, to reconcile everything that we learn with everything that we were taught. But with all we know now, how can you say “Oh you’ve just got to take it all on faith” and “Don’t think too much. Just hush and pray, exactly as we’ve always done.”

And into safer arms we run, with a thorn in our side and the devil’s inside. So who are we running from? And into stranger arms we run. Such a thorn in our side, when the devil’s implied. Oh what have we done?

Just before the film’s title card comes up, Jennifer Beahan lays out the problem that explains the justification behind the whole film:  it is still socially acceptable in America to ostracize atheists.

Then American Humanist Association president Roy Speckhardt lays out the challenge for atheists: keep coming out of the closet so that it only becomes easier and easier for the next atheists to come out. And in this way, just a few minutes into the film, the anxieties and challenges atheists face are efficiently laid out. The rest of the film is about how we deal with them in ways far more upbeat, humanistic, pragmatic, resilient, reflective, soberly honest, and flat out ordinary than those who demonize us seem able to imagine.

The first segment tackles straight on the broad question about how we can be good without God. And early on the question is rebuffed. Greg Epstein insists that atheists are only asked this question in the first place because of prejudice. Then Annie Luevano seems similarly indignantly dismissive about the very question, calling it simply “Just basic ‘Being A Human Being 101′” and recites a couple variations on the Golden Rule as though that settles the whole issue.

Then a sequence follows in which I lay out my reasons for thinking that psychologically morality is going to be inevitably a part of human life, gods or no gods, because of our natural propensities for empathy, cooperation, and thinking in terms of fairness. Then various atheists talk about their natural inclinations towards being benevolent simply for the happiness that it brings them, and somewhat conscientiously bat around whether this makes them ironically selfish. Psychologist Luke Galen explains how despite some differences in moral attitudes on hot button topics related to sexuality and abortion, actual moral behavior is in practice almost the same for both atheists and theists. Then he attacks divine command theory, talking about how it does not reduce arbitrariness in morality at all but only makes it worse, and talks effectively about how there can be rational criteria for working out moral disagreements (social contract considerations, thought experiments about “what if everyone did that”, etc.).

And then Sylvia affords me more than three minutes to lay out the major steps of my argument that we really can talk about objective goodness and about what it means for human beings to flourish. I argue that our good is to powerfully actualize those powers that constitute our very being, and that we do that the most effectively when we are able to empower others and when we devise rules that enable the most people possible to flourish in their powers as much as possible. Then James Croft eloquently quotes Felix Adler about the ethical ideal of eliciting the best in others in order to elicit the best in ourselves.

And this section is bookended with a follow up from Greg Epstein, continuing his complaint against the audacity of asking whether people can be good without God. He argues, “We need to make it beyond the pale to ask people ‘can you be good without God’. And then the question becomes so much more interesting, the question is ‘what does it look like to be good without God? What does it look like to be a Humanist?'” And he talks about how in the near future we will see more people living their lives as humanists and the ways they live their lives will be something we can all be proud of.

And so the film turns to address exactly how it is that ordinary atheists live their lives as humanists.

The first topic is parenting and, primarily, how atheist parents deal with the subject of religion with their kids. And there is a common refrain from a number of atheist parents interviewed in the film about wanting to let kids think for themselves, wanting them to be educated about the range of religions out there, and not wanting to pressure them away from religion if they want to explore it. They talk about the pressures that their kids face from their peers for not being religious and in that context the subject of anti-atheist bullying abruptly punches the audience in the face. Here the ever wise Dale McGowan gives practical advice about how to deal with the problem of bullying, atheist comedian Maryellen Hooper talks about what she’s done to create community for her kids with other atheist kids, and Hemant Mehta talks about preparing atheist high school kids for the debates they face ahead. Finally the parents defend their practices of celebrating Christmas without Christianity and talk about approaches to the question of whether to pretend for their kids that there is a Santa Claus.

Then the film moves on to the subject of love, focusing on what irreligious weddings and marriages are like and using Annie and Paul Luevano’s emotionally moving and idiosyncratic wedding vows as a centerpiece. Here Greta Christina explores secular justifications for marriage and the ways it has been transformed and improved from its days as a form of property transfer to an institution so definitively about mutual, autonomously chosen love that now we even see same-sex marriages like her own.

And I was struck by how important the act of writing one’s own vows was to several atheists in this section. Obviously, not only secular people will write their own vows, but, just as obviously, being freed from feelings of obligation to arbitrary religious traditions makes this kind of an exercise far more likely and, in some ways, necessary for atheists than for others. And a couple writing their own vows has symbolic import that serves as something of a synecdoche for the secular life in general, since the focus is on people thinking for themselves and expressing in their own words what their values are and what commitments they want to make, consistent with those values.

And both here and in discussions of secular funerals and memorials later there is an emphasis on how solemn ceremonies should be about, what Rebecca Hensler calls “the beloved individuals” who are at their centers. Weddings should be about this couple. Funerals and memorials should be about the life of this person. Much of the time spent in liturgical religious ceremonies can make the individuals being wedded or committed to the grave interchangeable with any other human beings, and they can make the ceremonies more about religious pieties than about the meanings of love or death. What these atheists seemed to crave is ceremonies that honor the lives of individual people and which focus on the meanings of the major events happening, with no proselytizing, distracting, and self-aggrandizing on the part of mediating religions. Until recently I thought I was alone in having these strong feelings about the problems with religious ceremonies. I really appreciated this particular emphasis in the film.

Then the film moves into people’s struggles with sickness and death. One of our newlyweds whose wedding we just watched suffers from fibromyalgia to the extent that it has hindered her ability to work and she recounts painfully the loss of her first husband to a young accidental death shortly after marrying him. Greta Christina talks about getting cancer. We are introduced to Ellen, who has cerebral palsy and talks enthusiastically about living constructively and with affirmative acceptance of her disability–before dismissing, with soberly bitter, no-bullshit sarcasm, the trivializing idea that her illness is part of some plan of an omnibenevolent God.

Rebecca Hensler of Grief Beyond Belief talks about her gut wrenching grief over losing her son Jude, who died in infancy four years ago, and she is one of several in the film who poignantly criticize superficial, supernaturalistic consolations people offer to the grieving: “When someone says ‘your baby’s in heaven, you’re going to see him’… Or ‘I feel Jude’s spirit he’s all around you.’ It feels a little like a dismissal. Here is the worst pain I have ever experienced. Here is something that still leaves me a sobbing wreck on a regular basis, years after my son has died. And if you say to me, he’s all around you, can’t you feel him? No, he’s not all around me. He’s gone. And I accept that. And don’t try to dismiss the worst of my reality.”

After several atheists offer their insights about coping with death, both their actual losses and the general fear of mortality, Bridget Gaudette talks heartrendingly about grieving for the living, talking about how she deals with her anguish over being traumatically disowned by her Jehovah’s Witness parents for being an atheist. Here Sylvia has such a soft touch for showing an evil of religion. This film is not about talking in generalities or using particular people’s pain to make broad political points. Sylvia just has us listen to one atheist’s matter of fact story about the way her parents treated her terribly. And, oh yeah, it just happens to be for religious reasons. The emphasis, here and elsewhere, is not to advance some argument about all or most religiosity or religious people. But it is just one of those things that atheists deal with.

Then Bridget describes her enthusiasm upon coming across a billboard saying “Don’t believe in God. You Are Not Alone”, which introduced her to secular community. And here the film swings, having subtly emphasized, through a dramatic example, how deliberately isolated, by religious family and friends and church, that deconverts can feel, there is a hopeful discussion of atheist and humanist community and how it can fill a crucial role in people’s lives. Jennifer Beahan amusingly reenacts in sing-song fashion her husband Jeremy giddily “bouncing” into the room one day saying ‘I found atheist church! I found atheist church!”

And at this point, the film does a nice job of explaining why some atheists are drawn to groups of other atheists. There are purely social functions that religions play in people’s lives to their benefit (on net) and without atheist or humanist alternatives a lot of atheists stay in church for those benefits or wind up isolated and alone. In this context, James Croft eloquently makes the case for a positive ideal of a place where we enmesh our lives with others with whom we share common values, but not necessarily common demographics.

And on this note, Sylvia ends with our atheists’ takes on the meaning of life and what gives them hope.

In conventional wisdom, atheism is an unpalatable way of life to be warned against. It is seen somehow as a choice to live a despairing, amoral existence. And so we atheists constantly get hit with the same questions, “What do you do about morality? about death? about love? about meaning? about hope?” This film is America’s chance to have a candid, but mostly non-confrontational, sitdown with forthright, passionate, articulate, pragmatic, and, most of all, fairly prototypical atheists who give representative, educational answers about how most atheists really think about the issues we are most often asked about how we live our lives and form our values. The film also serves, I think, as a potentially great resource for the doubters who are on the verge of owning up to their disbelief but don’t know what exactly is waiting on the other side for them–those people still in that position the first minute of the film puts its atheists in.

But we do need another documentary to complement this, one about the spiritually grueling ordeal many of us endure in getting across the divide to own our atheism in the first place. And we can use another one that deals straighter on and at length with the painful tensions that often exist between theists and atheists in families and in society. Actually, come to think of it, there are a lot of aspects of normal atheists’ experiences that deserve to be put to film.

Sylvia was judicious not to attempt to do all those things here though. This documentary is the one for non-believers to show their bewildered and angry families, friends, churches, and culture in order to humanize humanism for them.

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