Non-theist cinema?

by Jay_Schweikert2 min read8th Jan 201249 comments

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There isn't much in the way of explicitly atheist cinema* -- that is, movies that contain the explicit or implicit message that religion is nothing but superstition, and where this point itself is a central part of the story. The only popular films that jump to mind here are The Invention of Lying, and to a lesser extent The Man from Earth (overall a phenomenal movie, but far less well known). Sure, there are lots of popular movies that make fun of organized religion, or what some people might call religious "fanaticism" (e.g., Dogma, Saved, The Life of Brian, Jesus Camp). But pretty much all of these come away with the message that it's fine to be "spiritual" or whatever, so long as you don't hurt other people, and don't get too crazy about what you believe. As much as some "conservative" pundits love to accuse Hollywood "liberals" of being godless, there sure aren't many movies where godlessness is really taken seriously.

And that's unfortunate, in my view, as movies are probably the most prevalent and influential art form for the general public, and because many people will form their views on abstract concepts based on the percepts that movies provide (related to the issue of generalizing from fictional evidence). One need only glance over the examples on the tvtropes page "Hollywood Atheist" to see that movies and television aren't exactly putting the best foot forward for our kind.

But perhaps there's a bit more hope in the way of non-theist cinema, as opposed to overt atheist cinema. Of course, any story without gods is a non-theist story, and there are plenty of movies that don't touch on gods or religion at all. But what I'm talking about are movies where one would normally expect to find religion, but where no religion is to be found -- in other words, movies that seem to be depicting the alternate world where humanity never fell prey to this particular superstition, and where the concepts of god and religion simply don't exist.

The movie that inspired this particular thought was 50/50, the recent comedy-drama where Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a man dealing with potentially fatal cancer. It's a great movie, but what struck me afterwards is how completely absent any mention of god, religion, the afterlife, etc. was in a movie about a man, along with his friends and family, potentially facing his own death. There are lots of characters, lots of conflicts, lots of different perspectives on what he's going through, but nothing at all from anyone amounting to a "spiritual" response to the situation (at least that I recall).

And it got me thinking, what other sorts of issues are there where we would normally expect religion to pop up, such that a story without it would be decidedly non-theist, as opposed to incidentally non-theist? And are there other major movies that you think tell such a story? I ask both because I'm always eager to hear about new movies I might enjoy (or old movies I might appreciate more), but also because I think this sort of non-theist cinema might be a good bridge to people who would instinctively rebel against anything openly atheist. In other words, show people that a "godless" world really isn't all that crazy, that people get by just fine and find ways to face conflicts, etc. Anyway, just thought I'd poll the membership and see what people thought about this idea. Looking forward to seeing the responses!

*I'm well aware that there's quite a bit of atheist and non-theist art in other mediums -- sf literature most prominently. But I'm focusing on movies (and perhaps to a lesser extent, television) because those are the main forms of "public art" in our culture, and the mediums most likely to influence how the public at large views these concepts.

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Some atheistic films not mentioned in the OP:

Agora, Bad Boy Bubby, Chocolat, Inherit the Wind, The Ledge, The Wicker Man, Planet of the Apes, The Magdalene Sisters, There Will Be Blood, The Tree of Life, The Golden Compass, The Apostle, Black Robe, Breaking the Waves, Creation (about Darwin), The Crucible, Contact, Hanna and Her Sisters, Paul, Saved, Whatever Works, The White Ribbon, God on Trial, Watchmen.

I'm not familiar with all of these, so I'll definitely try to look into some of them. I certainly didn't mean to imply that the movies I mentioned were the only explicitly atheist movies out there -- just that it was quite rare in major motion pictures. The Golden Compass is a good example that simply slipped my mind, and perhaps There Will Be Blood and Watchmen -- the latter two at least have prominent characters who are atheists, even if atheism isn't really part of the story itself. But the point is well-taken -- there's more out there than I mentioned.

However, I would question why some of these are on the list. Saved pretty clearly comes away with the message that God is real, but that he wants us to tolerate and appreciate our differences. Contact (at least the movie) suggests that Occam's Razor isn't all it's cracked up to be, and seems to liken belief in God to belief in Ellie's trip (which is sympathetic). And while I confess that I haven't seen all of the original The Wicker Man, isn't the protagonist a sympathetic Christian?

Anyway, maybe I'm just missing something, but these ones confused me. Otherwise, I appreciate the examples!

[-][anonymous]9y 0

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Yeah, I might be remembering some of these wrongly.

Another atheist flick is Begotten. And maybe Gummo.

Well Inherit the Wind is rather notorious for it's historical inaccuracy.

My freshman college class watched a private screening of Agora. It's pretty inaccurate, historically speaking, and generally portrays both sides of the "war" negatively. However, it does show one of the main characters updating her beliefs on the solar system.

Agora drove me crazy because it could have been good and was so terribly inaccurate.

How can someone have such a good memory?

Maybe he has been keeping a list of them (eg. http://www.listology.com/user/99980/content ) or posted regularly about them somewhere?

[-][anonymous]9y 0
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Toy Story

Toy Story, you see, is a tale of coming to terms with atheism. It's an atheist allegory. Buzz Lightyear, of course, is a member of the dominant group (the masses of identical Buzz Lightyears) who fervently and insistently believes that he is in intimate contact with a higher power -- Star Command (namely, God). Woody, the atheist, spends the duration of the movie trying to convince Buzz that Star Command not only isn't real, but does not communicate with him. Instead of Star Command, Woody advocates that Buzz believe in other people (Andy) who he should focus on interacting with rather than a non-existent higher power. When Buzz finally does realize that Star Command doesn't exist and that he is just a toy, he becomes deeply depressed until Woody points out the wonderful nature of life and that he can derive as much meaning from being a meaningless toy as he did from being under the control of Star Command.

And then there's Toy Story 3, which is about coming to terms with death. With all kinds of metaphors - pleasant but bland afterlife in the attic, utopias (both false and real) created by toys that took matters into their own hands, literally staring into infernal and facing oblivion with grim acceptance, and eventual reincarnation into a similar life to the one you had before.

Not quite what you were getting at, but I liked "The Religion Episode" of Glee (I cannot in good conscience suggest it to someone who didn't already enjoy Glee, at least as a guilty pleasure, although I do think it's a reasonable stand-alone episode).

The episode made some effort to be balanced (including a similar "it's okay to have religion as long as you're not too crazy." But the central emotional issue is about an atheist kid whose dad is dying, and how he copes with it. Notable things about the episode include:

1) It generally gives more weight to the atheist than religious arguments (both in a scene where actual arguments are presented, and in general tone)

2) It is interesting that the atheist character is gay, and has already come out and is proud of it, but the situation with his father forces him to "come out" as an atheist, when people start offering him prayers and other well-intended religious comfort.

3) The climax does not involve the inherently negative idea of "God doesn't exist," but rather "My relationship with my father is sacred, for its own sake."

4) The series' antagonist turns out to be an atheist. At first this looks like they're going to pull an Evil Atheist thing. But as it turns out, being an atheist is Sue Sylvester's single most positive trait. She's an atheist because she prayed for her down-syndrome sister to get "better", which never happened, and eventually concluded that she lived in a world beyond the reach of God. But she has a good relationship with her sister. And she ends up being fairly reasonable in her interactions with the religious characters. She's told "Don't shove your atheism in our face," and her response is "fine, but don't shove your religion in mine."

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And there's the My Little Pony episodes on curses and bayesian updating.

And there's the My Little Pony episodes on curses and bayesian updating.

What, what? Do I need to start watching this show?

First, I should admit that (as Nornagest points out) that there actually ARE gods in the show, and magic. So it wasn't strictly relevant to this thread. But the magic and gods follow a set of rules that are comprehensible given the laws of their universe (which is an important plot point).

My honest appraisal of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, is as follows:

It is a show marketed to little girls about ponies who are friends. On some level, you ARE going to need to be okay with this. No matter how good the show is, it's still a show marketed to little girls about ponies who are friends. "Okay with this" isn't even really enough - to enjoy the show, part of you needs to in particular enjoy the absurdity that goes along with enjoying it.

But it is a legitimately good show, for a few reasons. For one, the animation is genuinely good (this is particularly obvious to me because I've studied animation, you will probably notice on a vague unconscious level but not realize why you like it). The show's creator, Lauren Faust, has previously worked as storyboard artist on Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home for Imaginary friends, also excellent shows. It's funny, and fun in a way that taps into my primal, childlike self.

Faust also had some articulate, nuanced, intellectual goals for the show. Most of these goals relate to young girls, giving them positive inspiration in a way that most girl-oriented shows don't. This may not matter to you, but understanding her background can give you a lot of appreciation for the show that may not be obvious.

Most relevant to Less Wrong, is that the main character, Twilight Sparkle, has two great instrumental powers. One of them is new to her, and she is still developing, and that is friendship. Twilight begins as an emotional shut-in who must learn to build a community in order to solve problems. But her other great power is her scholarship and rationality. She's constantly studying. When presented with a problem, her first response is to study the existing literature, see what the greatest minds of her generation have discovered, and then apply her own problem-solving skills if the existing literature is insufficient.

This applies whether she is trying to unravel a curse that's afflicting her village, studying a bizarre phenomenon she doesn't understand, or having a maximally fun sleepover party. (She has never had a sleepover before, she doesn't know how to have a sleepover, and she solves this problem by finding a book on sleepovers and following its recommendations. Her sleepover does not go well due to interpersonal conflict, but not once does anyone say "reading a book about how to party is lame.")

Does she say the phrase "Bayesian Updating"? No. This show's primary purpose is to sell toys to impressionable children, and all of Lauren Faust's lofty feminist and rational goals have to be worked in that framework. This is a show about ponies who are friends. It's probably not the best possible show about ponies who are friends. But yes, it's pretty good.

They are about this by way of negative example. In Feeling Pinkie Keen, for example, Twilight Sparkle pulls a Straw Vulcan by refusing to accept some very very strong evidence of things... and, instead of the writers colluding with her, she gets called on it by her friends (this not a spoiler - it happens essentially right away).

Other episodes prominently featuring errors of deduction (that get pointed out, not just plot holes/idiot ball): Bridle Gossip, Lesson Zero, and Griffon the Brush-Off.

Also, in Fall Weather Friends, Twilight Sparkle performs much better in a race than one would expect for a novice because she read up on how to do it well.

I'd agree with Raemon's comment, especially the last two sentences - it's not the best possible show about ponies who are friends, but it's good enough to demonstrate the upper bound on the quality of such shows is much higher than generally suspected.

but it's good enough to demonstrate the upper bound on the quality of such shows is much higher than generally suspected.

Good way of putting it.

Before you get too enthusiastic about MLP:FiM's nontheist bona fides, bear in mind that one of the main characters is essentially a grad student under the local sun goddess.

While the situation is complicated by the fact that the sun goddess is also a (figurehead?) queen, the gods and magic in the show are treated largely the way they are in the Discworld books: as parts of life to be accepted and dealt with just like the rest of the world.

Well, I can't say I've ever been a fan of Glee (although the parodies of it on Community are enough to make me glad the show exists), but that sounds interesting enough that I might check it out, if I could find the episode on Hulu or something. Honestly, I would never have thought that "Glee on atheism" would be particularly well done, but I'll take your word for it!

The Dark Knight is essentially a film about morality, including textbook trolley scenarios, tests of individual integrity and the relation with the state, etc. The Joker argues that all plans, all goals and life in general is meaningless and the other characters disagree. But at no point do they say "the joker is clearly wrong because God has a plan, and killing people is innately bad because God says so." This perhaps makes it one of the best discussions of non-theistic morality in popular culture.

My favorite morality quote from that series (in this case, from Batman Begins) is:

I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you.

Apart from that I find Batman's morality rather reprehensible. In particular letting super-villains live to kill another day is evil.

I am... confused.

You are strongly arguing elsewhere that letting someone die isn't a particularly significant moral choice... at least, it is so much less a moral choice than killing them that even comparing the two is an obnoxious fallacy.

But you are also arguing that letting someone live who will later kill people is evil.

I am bewildered by how these could both be true. If it's evil to let the Joker live, why isn't it just as evil to not evacuate a city in the path of an oncoming flood? It seems in both cases, it's a choice not to intervene in order to prevent future deaths that I don't cause.

You are strongly arguing elsewhere that letting someone die isn't a particularly significant moral choice... at least, it is so much less a moral choice than killing them that even comparing the two is an obnoxious fallacy.

I have said something similar. Substitute "it is so much less a moral choice" with "it is an entirely different moral choice and equivocation is unacceptable". I wouldn't rule out a (contrived) scenario where the former was a more significant moral act. They just aren't the same thing.

But you are also arguing that letting someone live who will later kill people is evil.

In the particular circumstances under consideration, yes. So assume all the work done to capture or thwart the supervillian without killing them exceeds the work that would have to be done to just shoot them. The actors in play must also be supervillians and superheroes respectively - complete with makeup and flamboyant malicious schemes. Further assume that 'evil' means 'sub par moral act' - it is a sign bit not a measure of degree of 'badness'.

The above should be taken to indicate that I have not expressed a fully general claim about "letting someone live who will later kill people is evil". I've made a claim about the preferred moral behavior of superheroes with respect to supervillians.

I am bewildered by how these could both be true. If it's evil to let the Joker live, why isn't it just as evil to not evacuate a city in the path of an oncoming flood? It seems in both cases, it's a choice not to intervene in order to prevent future deaths that I don't cause.

I am, all else being equal, in favor of evacuations. I would need to know more details about the circumstances and what abilities and responsibilities the individual you are judging has before I contributed any moralizing myself. (If it was the mayor of the city, for example, and he kept it all hushed up when he could have evactuated easily then he's probably more evil than the psychopath that created the flood.)

OK, thanks for clarifying.

Apart from that I find Batman's morality rather reprehensible. In particular letting super-villains live to kill another day is evil.

I agree in general (the movie would have been over quicker if someone had just shot the joker), but its more complex in the context of the dark knight as its about restoring trust in the rule of law in Gotham and Batman dispensing vigilante justice diminishes that, so there may be a net utility loss.

Why do you like "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you" so much? Sounds like him just rationalising his way around his no killing rule, which depends on a false action/inaction distinction.

Why do you like "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you" so much?

For a start because it is slightly less insane than actively saving the supervillians.

Sounds like him just rationalising his way around his no killing rule, which depends on a false action/inaction distinction.

I reject your claim. There is a difference between killing and not saving. One of the most obvious differences is one that you seem to have forgotten since your first paragraph:

but its more complex in the context of the dark knight as its about restoring trust in the rule of law in Gotham and Batman dispensing vigilante justice diminishes that, so there may be a net utility loss.

Not making superhero-level interventions to save supervillains is not vigilante justice. As such the supposed "net utility loss" from vigilante justice does not occur. The same applies to many (albeit not quite all) of the ethical considerations with respect to murder. (I refer to things like "Don't murder even when you think it is the best thing to do because you are likely to incorrectly calculate probabilities of getting caught, etc.)

Batman doesn't have a "you have to save everyone" rule. He does have a 'no killing' rule. It's easy to tell the difference between the two decisions. Anyone claiming that not saving someone is the same as murdering them is just wrong.

I also declare, among other things, that going to Africa and hunting Africans with a sniper rifle is ethically distinguishable to not donating to charities that will save the same lives. It would be fair to say that one of the reasons that the quote appeals so much is that it rejects the obnoxious "not saving is murder" fallacy that springs up around here all too often.

(I also declare, among other things, that going to Africa and hunting Africans with a sniper rifle is ethically distinguishable to not donating to charities that will save the same lives.)

I know that this is one of those questions that can take a long answer, so feel free to answer in summary form. But why do you think that?

I know that this is one of those questions that can take a long answer, so feel free to answer in summary form. But why do you think that?

I might expand later but briefly: Because I significantly negatively value Africans being hunted for sport. I'm arbitrary like that.

What if we sold African hunting licenses for enough money that for each victim, enough money would be raised for a charity that would save two African children's lives?

What if we sold African hunting licenses for enough money that for each victim, enough money would be raised for a charity that would save two African children's lives?

I don't support your right-to-hunt-Africans initiative.

It is very presumptuous of you to assume that I have an intiative like this. What I was really asking you is if there is any utilons offset that would change your mind - but I guess that really just amounts to asking if you are a utilitarian.

What I was really asking you is if there is any utilons offset that would change your mind - but I guess that really just amounts to asking if you are a utilitarian.

"Utilitarian" is a misleading word. In that context you mean consequentialist - those are the ones that care about maximising utilities.

[-][anonymous]9y 4

An alternate approach you can take is to look for fantasy movies where there are gods, but they're treated more like Sufficiently Advanced Wizards, because they actually, demonstrably exist. There's not a whole lot of difference between that sort of setting and a completely non-theistic one.

I'm having some trouble thinking of movies like that, though. I can think of books, like the Discworld series or most books set in a Dungeons and Dragons setting. I can think of webcomics, like Errant Story. I can think of a fair amount of anime and manga. The Stargate franchise definitely counts, and has a few movies (albeit mostly direct-to-DVD). I'm drawing a blank on movies, though.

(Come to think of it, Stargate SG-1 might count as straight-up atheistic; the "gods" are all godlike aliens on a megalomaniacal power-trip, and in one of the later seasons, the main villains are the gods of a religion that looks remarkably similar to Christianity in one of its violent old-school variants.)

SG-1 usually had a very anti-theist message, as long as you group all gods together, but the writers went out of their way at least once to exempt the Christian God when the earthborn characters wondered if God might be a goa'uld: "Teal'c: I know of no Goa'uld capable of showing the necessary compassion or benevolence that I've read of in your bible."

However, the overall thrust of the show was pretty anti-diety, and the big bads of the last few seasons were very, very medieval-priestish.

SG-1 usually had a very anti-theist message, as long as you group all gods together, but the writers went out of their way at least once to exempt the Christian God when the earthborn characters wondered if God might be a goa'uld: "Teal'c: I know of no Goa'uld capable of showing the necessary compassion or benevolence that I've read of in your bible."

The Christian God being a Goa'uld would break the theme anyway. They tended to divide up pantheons by species.

They tended to divide up pantheons by species.

Not exactly. The Norse gods are different aliens, but the Goa'uld cover Egyptian gods, Shinto gods, etc.

Parts of it, but some characters are definitely Christian, especially the replacement for O'Neill.

Ikiru, Tokyo Story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Goodbye Solo. Not sure how well those apply to your criteria--it's been a while since I last saw them. I would search through South Korean, Japanese, and European cinema because they're more likely to have what you're looking for.

Edit: Wow, I completely forgot about Ingmar Bergman. His movies are exactly what you're looking for. The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries are classics.

What about The Truman Show ? It pretty much explicitly destroys several religious tropes.

Gratuitous plug: I wrote a blog entry on this subject a while ago. This is part of a much more general pattern that popular media reinforces magical and wishful thinking and direct portrays making conclusions based on the evidence as a bad thing.

A most interesting and highly recommended film is Jesus of Montreal. Claimed as "one of ours" by both theists and atheists.

[-][anonymous]9y 1

The lack of religion was what cued me in to the ending in The Village.

Ironic, given the existence of "Signs."

[-][anonymous]9y 1

I always felt that the movie "A Serious Man" was non-theist. The main characters are all Jewish, but the story itself (how he fails to find meaning in the answers given to him by the rabbis, the constant stream of bad things happening to him despite his good nature) points to a world in which there is not a loving God looking out for his own.

I would recommend watching it, as it is a sad yet poignant movie.

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I liked Frailty. Without giving too much away, it demonstrates how any agent with god-like powers could make you believe whatever it wants you to believe. Therefore if you ever find yourself in a universe in which gods and powerful demons exist and have an interest in influencing your life, you could fall into a situation where you have no means of determining which gods or demons are best aligned with your long-term goals. Also, a sufficiently cogent propaganda campaign could have a good chance of convincing you to commit atrocities.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Nobody said it had to be a good movie. ;)