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. Check it out:
In one of my reviews of the movie God’s Not Dead I severely criticized the end of the film, in which a pair of Christian pastors act like EMTs of the Gospel–trying to administer salvation to a dying non-Christian with all the seriousness and urgency with which real EMTs would try to keep someone physically alive. I complained about the exploitative ways in which opportunistic evangelical Christians will try to use any physical, emotional, spiritual, or intellectual weakness they can find in someone as an opening to convert them. I railed against the way Christian ministers prowl hospitals looking for vulnerable people to prey upon.
But, nonetheless, I have defiant responses from evangelical Christians who say, “I don’t care if you don’t like it, but if we can save people’s souls from damnation, we’re going to do it. It’s more important than the feelings of atheists.” Similarly, on Facebook, I complained that evangelical Christians’ idea of loving their enemies is so thoughtless and selfish as to be reminiscent of the time Homer Simpson gave his wife Marge a bowling ball for her birthday even though she wasn’t a bowler (even being so audacious as to put his own name on the bowling ball–purportedly “so she would remember it was from him”). My point was that Evangelical Christians routinely love people merely as a means of converting them. The gift they want to give you is what they want (your conversion), not necessarily what you want.
They turn people into projects. They listen to your troubles, they give you charity, they slobberingly “love on you”, but all only with one fundamental end goal in mind: making you one of them. What they really love is not you but Christianity (or, as they would put it, Jesus). They love their tribe. They love the idea of you belonging to it.
They are not interested in respecting people on their own terms, they are not interested in people figuring out how they themselves as individuals might flourish best even if that means living outside the one size fits all models for life provided by Evangelical Christianity, and they are not interested in mutually learning from those they are trying to evangelize. They hate the “worldliness” and the “sin” of those they see as salvation projects. They categorically reject all life paths that deviate from their Evangelical Christian one as fundamentally the path of destruction.
God’s Not Dead epitomizes this Evangelical Christian idea of love. Its idea of inclusiveness is to say “Don’t worry, it’s not the Muslim girl’s fault she was born into a Muslim family, she can become a Christian too!” and “Look at how awful atheists are, but also realize that deep down they are just hurting and want Jesus too–and if they’re not, God will pay them back with hell, so don’t worry!”
There is no genuine ability to find the common humanity between people that is necessary for genuine love across principled differences. There is no attempt to say, “well maybe you and I construct our abstract beliefs differently and have some sincere differences in values, but in our own ways we each embody real virtues and good will that can connect us anyway”. That’s what learning to actually love those who are your ideological enemies would entail. Love of enemies might even add a distinctly Nietzschean dimension and be something like an appreciation for those who challenge you the hardest because they push you to become your best.
In a film where Christians were true to Jesus’s command to love their enemies, the filmmakers would have chosen to portray an admirably sincere, smart, and fair atheist professor who brings out the best in his Christian student by motivating him to think harder, rather than making the atheist professor gratuitously rotten (even in ways that had nothing to do with making him a tough intellectual foil or a challenge in the classroom). The film could have encouraged Christians to appreciate others who are different and how even their seeming enemies can be aids to their own personal growth. The film could have encouraged the Christian audience to see the common humanity and good will that can be shared even between people who see the world differently.
But many evangelical Christians–not all of course, but certainly the Christians making and supporting this movie that vilifies atheists with no nuance, and allows the atheists’ only moments as sympathetic to be those in which they are either hurting or outright receptive to becoming Christians–only see one reason and one way to love non-Christians: as potential Christians.
In fact, I find it striking how readily and bitterly many such Christians abandon pretense of even being nice to me when I present myself unequivocally as opposed to their faith on this blog. All the taunts about how I’m going to hell. All the angry insistences that I just shouldn’t care so much about them and should leave the whole subject of religion alone if I am not going to believe as they do. Again, there are some Christians and some Catholics who are able to rise above this mindset. I do not mean to stereotype. I have some wonderful friendships with Christians, including a number with whom I argue extensively about religion without damage to our mutual love. I will even go so far as to say that one of the very most non-judgmental, welcoming, loving, and civil discussants of religious matters I have ever met was someone who also had some of the most extreme religious views of any one I know. So I unequivocally can affirm that not all Christians fail in this regard.
But it is telling what numbers of Christians are out there who write off me and other unapologetic atheists as unworthy of respect, let alone love. It is telling how many recoil in self-pity and feelings of persecution over intellectual and moral challenges, rather than persist in the unconditional acceptance Jesus supposedly modeled for them.
As a former Christian, these responses to non-Christians always strike me as the most indicting failures of Christians to be Christians. If you don’t know how to hang out with the supposed sinners and your society’s outcasts and your putative enemies or to treat them as equals, and not judge them, then you really don’t know how to do the really hard and impressive thing that Jesus models and commands from you. There’s nothing impressive about your love when it takes the form of a desire to assimilate. That’s basic tribalism you are exhibiting. Christianity is only a step away from tribalism in that it invites outsiders into the tribe. This is where, as a universalistic religion, it represented one of the cultural moves past merely ethnic religions and merely ethnic loyalties. But even at its inception it was decidedly not, and often remains not, the kind of universalistic religion that is tolerant of other religions. This is a jealous religion. A sizable segment of Christianity believes all the world must be Christian or there is something fundamentally wicked and damaged about it.
This is why I have a hard time with people who tell me I should stop opposing religious beliefs that “hurt no one” and should only be agitated about those with political consequences (like hostility to gays). They say I should keep quiet about my objections to theological beliefs I think are false. I should leave alone those who merely believe Jesus died for their sins so they can to heaven, because that’s just their private business. They just want hope. They don’t hurt anyone.
But, it’s not just their private business. I am fully supportive of their legal rights to believe and worship as they wish. They can express their faith however they want, so long as they don’t try to abuse their other roles in life to bully people to live according to their faith, lest they be denied equality. They shouldn’t as legislators base laws on their faith rather than their reason. As doctors, their patients’ medical needs and legally backed up values legally should come first. As providers of adoption or flowers they shouldn’t be legally allowed to deny gay people their services. As employers they shouldn’t dictate the private lives or constrain the health care options of their employees who may not share their faith. They shouldn’t trample all over the rights of people to exercise their own religious consciences, including the right to have no religion.
In other words, I do not want you to exploit your positions of power over others to gain leverage to impose your religious beliefs on people who do not share them. I want you to respect that others don’t share your beliefs and to make the compromises of a civil and secular society in which we respect each other’s rights to disagree and treat each other as equals. This means I want you to restrain your faith so that it does not make you incapable of performing roles that involve sometimes putting your personal views aside in order to treat others fairly.
And within the private sphere where you’re allowed to say whatever you want, I am also allowed to express my views without you falsely crying persecution. I have every right and every moral justification I need to raise my intellectual objections to your ideas that I think are false and to level my moral and social criticisms of your behaviors. I am tired of you defending your manipulative and pushy forms of proselytization as justifiable on account that you are simply being true to your sincere beliefs. You claim that since you really believe souls are at stake you can’t be blamed for doing everything in your power to convert people or to get people to live as (your interpretation of) your faith teaches. You are bound by conscience, can’t be criticized, and feel no shame or self-doubt when confronted by pissed-off atheists or other non-Christians about your behavior. The reason I am not letting you get away with this is that it’s so irresponsible and hypocritical. You cry, “you cannot complain about how I act on my sincere beliefs” while you show no fucking respect for other people’s beliefs or emotional boundaries. You so regularly try to exempt yourselves from any ethical, politeness, or even legal rules that would require you to treat others who don’t share your views as equally worthy of respect. Then you want tolerance for whatever you do, no matter how bigoted it might be, by pleading the sincerity of your convictions.
It is absurd to let you get away with saying both, “I am intellectually entitled to believe however I want by faith and to willfully ignore counter-arguments if I wish” and “I am compelled by my beliefs to turn other people into proselytization projects, to pressure them into denying their homosexuality, to raise my children in a bubble protected from evolution and any kind of sex education that is not abstinence only, etc.” When you are going to live by your beliefs and promulgate your beliefs and dictate to gay people, and/or including your own children, about how they must live, you had better be able to give a rational accounting of why your beliefs are right, one at least plausible to people who don’t share your faith and far preferably one that is downright airtight.
Morally, you don’t get to “simply believe”. That’s a copout. That’s irresponsible. It’s an attempt to declaim all blame for every harm your false beliefs can traceably do on the grounds that you believed sincerely, when in the first place you did not subject your beliefs to adequate rational scrutiny to determine whether you should believe them sincerely. You do the very opposite, you passionately commit your heart, mind, soul, and strength in advance of all evidence and in the teeth of new counter-evidence, in order to maintain your beliefs. So I don’t want to hear that there’s nothing you can do but what your beliefs tell you to do. It’s morally unacceptable when you wind up hurting people because you were intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and morally reckless. With great faith should come even greater moral accountability and scrutiny, not less. The dogmatic self-satisfaction of the faithful who dismiss the arguments of the heathens as irrelevant deserve no respect on the account of the “sincerity” that their contemptuousness has.
So, if you act like a vulture and try to exploit the sick and the dying or the susceptibility of children in order to manipulate them into conversions, I don’t want to hear that it’s just you acting on your sincere belief that without Christ people go to hell. You are responsible for those sincere beliefs about hell that you use to terrify children into obedience and abstinence with. You are responsible for those sincere beliefs that make you indifferent to whether non-Christians have intellectual autonomy and the ability to reason clearly and uncoerced about spiritual matters.
I oppose false hopes, false moralities, and false beliefs, even when they don’t have immediate negative political consequences, because they are tangible obstacles to the better hopes, better moralities, and better beliefs that would be grounded in reality and revisable as new information comes in and new ideas are advanced. Your belief in heaven is not only some harmless safety blanket when it comes intertwined with a vicious belief in hell that has countless consequences for how you judge and treat other people. Your belief that Jesus died for your sins is not just your idiosyncratic psychological mechanism for forgiving yourself when it has you dividing the whole world into the saved and the unsaved. Your belief God is sovereign over all things is not just your harmless way of feeling like the world is not too chaotic and out of control for you to handle when it leads you to the mindset that Christ must be Lord over very aspect of private and public life and, accordingly, you start domineering people socially and politically. These beliefs filter into ethics. They have to be seriously opposed by people who have good reasons to think they’re false and that the ethics that stem from them are bad.
Legally and politically I have no desire to take away your rights to speak, Evangelical Christians. I eagerly defend your freedom of speech. I just dare you to actually listen as much as you speak and to actually respond to what is said instead of just pummeling the straw men in your mind. There is more to life than politics. What we believe matters. What our ethics and larger values are matters. We are all entitled to think freely, in an open-ended way, bound only by reason and evidence in forming our conclusions. Christians, to one extent or another, try to bind reason to either Jesus or the Christian tradition. In doing so, they are responsible for any bad thinking, bad ethics, or bad manners that falls out from that. Just appealing to the sincerity of their beliefs is insufficient when they are so abominably lazy and dishonest in how they form their beliefs.
Having criticized some Evangelical Christians’ approaches to evangelism so vigorously here, in a follow up post I decided to give ten bits of sincere advice about how Christians might evangelize that are both more ethical and, likely, more effective. And 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 with me.
Also on the themes of this post see:
Love Religious People (a post reflecting on how to love one’s enemies.)
Why I Define Faith As Inherently Irrational and Immoral
There is more to analyze in this film. So I have also written three other posts about it. How God’s Not Dead Makes Christians Look Even Worse Than Atheists, Why I Wrote A Bad Movie Review of God’s Not Dead, and a 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
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