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:
I grew up as an Evangelical Christian on Long Island, which was a fairly secular place. Outside of my church almost every one I knew where I grew up was Jewish or some kind of nominal Catholic or nominal Protestant. It was ingrained in me that members of my “non-denominational” set of churches (the Church of Christ churches) were essentially the only actual Christians. I didn’t even think of my nominally Methodist or Lutheran or what have you friends as nominally Christian. They were non-Christians. Catholics weren’t Christians, they were Catholics. There were a few intense Pentecostals around who were the only ones to really appear to be sincere Christians outside of my church’s group, but there was something creepy and off-kilter about them to me.
And I was an outspoken kid. By 12 years old I was trying to convert my Jewish friends to Christianity. At 14 years old I turned a sex education guest lecture into a chance to argue on behalf of abstinence-only education. At 15 I studied up on creationism to try to debunk everything my biology teacher said. At 16, I began producing a Christian publication, called The Point, through my church and trying to distribute it to my peers. When a teacher questioned whether I had the right to hand out religious literature at our public school, I contacted the Rutherford Institute who sent a letter to my principal on my behalf and was offered a table in the hallway to distribute The Point between classes.
Since few shared my enthusiasm for the Gospel and since I had that run-in with being challenged on my ability to hand out The Point in school, I felt fairly isolated, embattled, and on the verge of persecuted for my beliefs.
But except for a little bit of mild taunting and teasing for my anti-abortion views, I was not ever actually attacked in any significant way. I wasn’t even ever stopped from passing around The Point. I had numerous friends, almost none of whom shared my intensity of convictions, but all who were patiently tolerant with me and my eccentric extremes of belief and of all my attempts to proselytize them. Even when I destroyed one of my friend’s pornographic tapes after he let me borrow it and I felt guilty after using it, he was sanguine about the whole thing and agreed with me when I suggested that we should start being accountability partners in “our” struggle against pornography. And many of my friends and other peers gladly read The Point and supported me when I contacted a lawyer to write a letter to the school insisting I had the right to distribute it there. For a while I had several great, close friendships with wonderful atheists (at least three of whom I wound up being hurtfully and ignorantly judgmental of, for faith-based reasons, effectively ending our friendships). And when it came time to sign each other’s yearbooks my senior year, numerous people wrote incredibly touching things about admiring the strength of my convictions and how I stood up for them.
So I was hardly persecuted. I was many times more judgmental of my peers than they ever were of me. But that didn’t stop me from buying in completely to the narrative that Christians were persecuted for our faith.
It was ingrained in me through so much Evangelical Christian messaging that most Christians were phony Christians because not having every single aspect of one’s life explicitly infused with Jesus meant not being real about your faith. It was ingrained in me also that not having our entire culture and government infused with Jesus basically amounted to living in a place fundamentally hostile to Christians. And, finally, it was ingrained in me that all my friends’ souls were at stake and that loving my friends primarily meant saving them. Loving people generally, as we were commanded to do, as Christians primarily meant saving them. To my credit, I’m glad that meant I took seriously the challenge to thoroughly investigate the rational foundations of my faith in order to know I what I was trying to convince others of was true. This led me to abandoning my faith when it failed to prove itself true through thorough rational scrutiny. This is why I have little sympathy with those Christians who put little effort into seriously questioning their faith and yet want to claim to have no choice but to put spreading it above all other ethical, legal, or politeness concerns. But I already wrote all about that Monday, so I won’t repeat myself here.
The point of all of this is to say that I grew up in the embattled evangelical Christian culture that demonizes secular universities and thinkers. I had a relative who whined about a mean atheist philosophy professor who dared challenge her faith and I bought her side of the story. I fought with my biology teacher on behalf of creationism. I fought with the safe sex teacher. I deliberately chose an evangelical Christian college in order to cocoon myself from godless influence.
Tom Gilson spends a long criticism of one of my analyses of God’s Not Dead nitpicking over the fact that I address issues not explicitly raised in the film. Rather than writing detailed responses to many (or even a manageable few) of my ideas he puts a lot of energy into pointing out that I didn’t write a proper movie review but talked about things not there.
To clarify, I know the anti-intellectual, anti-philosophical, anti-secular persecution complex of the evangelical Christian church intimately. I know that this movie is a cinematic expression of the same revenge fantasy that evangelicals gleefully circulate among themselves because it shows an egghead atheist professor getting cold-cocked by a marine. I know that this movie is a safety blanket to their intellectual insecurities. I am well aware that “as a movie” it technically could be seen as just a movie about one bad man named Professor Radisson who happens to be a philosophy professor and who happens to be an atheist, etc., etc. It might be read that way and not be a statement about philosophy itself or atheists ourselves.
It might be, but it’s not. The film’s agenda is so obvious that it may as well be retitled Message Movie. This movie is not interested in subtle characterization or telling a good story. It’s interested in saying, “Fight back, persecuted Christians! Don’t succumb to the pressure to be silent about your faith! Reason and God are on your side!” Professor Radisson is not just a fictional character, he’s an extreme embodiment of everything Evangelicals fear from an atheist intellectual. He’s, basically, a mythical figure. (Kevin Sorbo was typecast, I tell you!)
So, when I wrote my post, I made a choice. Even though I knew I was writing on a hot topic with a lot of interest (three of my God’s Not Dead posts have turned out to be three of my four most clicked on posts of my own original writing ever on this blog), I decided to write for a narrow set of people. I made the post 9,500 words long (then expanded it to 12,000), which I expected to be prohibitive and unappealing for most people. And I spoke to a specific person—me at 18. All the young Christian apologists who might be inspired by this movie, who are where I was 18 years ago. Being a teacher, and identifying with these young people strongly, I wanted to take the teaching opportunity afforded by the attention the film garnered in order to explain to them why the fears of philosophy and atheists expressed so vividly in the film were upside down and backward. I wanted to explain how things really work in philosophy classrooms to make sure they don’t feel unduly embattled and wind up closed minded when they wind up in situations where their faith is challenged, the way I did in sex ed and biology class or in even thinking of secular universities.
I wrote about what was not in the film but which anyone looking at the paranoid evangelical Christian culture can see from thirty seconds of the film’s trailer. I expanded my counter-apologetics beyond addressing what was said in the film not because I demanded the film to provide a knock down proof for the existence of God and was triumphalistic when it didn’t, but because I knew my target reader would be impressed by the hints at ideas presented by the filmmakers and I wanted to give them a string of relatively brief overviews of serious responses from an atheist philosopher. And, yes, this even meant addressing things not in the film. I wanted to make a semi-comprehensive counter-apologetics overview in order to be thorough and meaty and provide answers to as many of a real student’s objections as feasible in a short space. I answered objections and assumptions that are common to evangelicals rather than to assume that the average reader was better than the worst objections and assumptions as a matter of thoroughness. If you didn’t need some things explained to you or you wouldn’t have raised certain objections or if Wheaton missed some of them, I didn’t care. They’re common and of apiece with what the film said, so I addressed it.
For example, Gilson might think that since Josh Wheaton never said you need God for evolution I should skip the point. I think since 78% of Americans don’t believe in the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection but rather are either creationists (4o%!) or say that “humans evolved, with God guiding” (38%) this had to be addressed. The God-based rejection of science is stupefying. Make fun of me for bringing it up and for calling Christians out on their anti-scientific habits of thought and argument all you want but the numbers are damning of the church.
Plus, I thought I heard Josh Wheaton, in the movie, make a quick remark to the effect that even if we accept that we evolved we could attribute this to God’s guidance in making it so we could evolve. I was taking notes as fast as I could while watching the film but couldn’t be certain what he said, so I just addressed the issue in general terms after addressing his explicitly present arguments from ignorance about abiogenesis.
Another thing I really feel the need to defend myself about in Gilson’s response and his commenters’ is the charge that I am hypocritical in saying that atheists are not atheists for emotional reasons while I clearly exhibit emotions in my rejection of the Christian faith. Gilson uses the hyperbolic title of my blog post, The Atheist Philosophy Professor Strikes Back! (Or, “You’re Right, God’s Not Dead, But He Will Be When I’m Done With Him!”) to prove that I “have an attitude towards God”. He calls the title “not funny”. Well, maybe I have a bad sense of humor, but this was clearly me kidding. When I’m really angry, I don’t speak in Star Wars references. I was responding to hilariously silly (and occasionally violent) forwards that made people like me the villain, with what I called a “pugilistic retort”. I had not lost control of my wits with rage. My opening paragraph is full of self-awareness. The whole post’s polemical style is tethered to substantive rational arguments the whole way.
And I chose to engage with this so much not because this movie is important or actually worthy of my intellectual efforts, but because the voluminous writing I do on straight up philosophy of religion and ethics simply won’t hook the readers the way these posts have. Posts plugged into the cultural zeitgeist make the relevance of philosophy apparent to people who don’t see out of that context. I am happy to use what people care about in order to educate.
Now, I admit that I do get passionate about philosophical matters sometimes, and I did in my posts on this film. I am emotionally invested in challenging the truth of Christianity and opposing its harms. I have every right to be. I was indoctrinated–brainwashed even–into Christianity and it tried to control my entire life. This is an institution of people that felt no compunction about manipulating me and domineering my entire sense of self and philosophy and politics and sexuality. The Christian churches and ministers I was exposed to were unequivocal, everything about me needed to submit to the faith. While a Christian I loved it, bought into it whole hog. It was a gut wrenching intellectual journey out of the faith. Emotionally I would have loved to stay. Were it up to my emotions, I would still be a Christian. But I had a mind and an intellectual conscience and they were swayed against my heart.
The fact that I am emotionally invested in helping others see what I came to see rationally does not mean that my justifications for non-belief either then or now are not rational. I am entitled to my emotions. I am entitled to argue with some spirit and rhetorical persuasiveness and (even) humor (and even bad humor). None of this proves I am “just mad at God”. Neither does the anger of most atheists have anything to do with being mad at God. We’re not mad at God. We’re mad at you. For lots of reasons. One of them being the way you keep saying we’re mad at God.
And I never said that only Christians and not atheists can be psychologized for the “real” reasons they believe. I think it’s all more complicated than that. A nice primer (but I have more to make explicit in a future post) is this post, in which I look at a variety of psychological ways someone could be led to or away from faith based on their relationships with their parents–sometimes as an aid in their rationality, sometimes as a hindrance. I even put myself on the couch in that post.
Finally, Gilson stripped out a lot of harsh adjectives used towards Christians in my post as a way to make me look like a hateful stereotyper myself. All those adjectives are ripped from the contexts in which I am attacking specific behaviors or attitudes exhibited by either the filmmakers, the characters in the film, or the subset of Evangelical Christians who support this movie and think it’s a true reflection of reality at its core. I meant to harm no good Christians in the writing of the previous review.
If you would like to see places where I target lots of harsh words at atheists, consider the following links:
Why I Criticize My Fellow Atheists
The Very Worst of the Atheist Movement on Display: Major Atheist Orgs Attack Star of David Holocaust Memorial
On The Uses and Abuses of Tragedies for Atheism
Stop Calling People Stupid
You Glance Out Your Window and See a Shackled Black Slave and a Slavery-Justifying Bible Verse. What Do You Think?
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.
And there is more to analyze in this film itself. 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.
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
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