Thursday, March 27, 2014

What can we learn from "God's not Dead"?

No, seriously.

I mean it, what can we learn from the intellectual travesty that is God's Not Dead?

Oh for pity's sake, stop laughing already! It might be unquestionably is a self-defeating, dishonest, and intellectually bereft film; but, for a film that centers around arguments and "logic" that would fail a highschool intro-to-critical-thinking class, it's actually surprisingly instructive.

Not about logic. Or philosophy. Or even the finer points of theology. No, God's Not Dead is a compilation of terrible arguments and worse stereotypes, presented as if it's something new and thought provoking...the dimwitted but loudmouthed jock of films, that blunders onscreen and spends a long time attempting to prove how clever it is -- but in the end leaves any thinking person embarrassed to be in the vicinity. And yet, it's still an instructive film, on a number of points.

1. It illustrates the power of the absurd, right-wing Christian persecution fetish. The very premise centers around an outlandish scenario of atheist-on-Christian persecution: the evil atheist professor, Dr. Radisson, demands that the heroic Christian student either turn his back on god, or else defend his beliefs in (and win) a one-on-one classroom debate with said evil atheist professor. As justification for such an absurd scenario, the movie creators cite a list, that stretches back decades, of a few dozen cases of alleged-Christian classroom persecutions. A few dozen instances nationwide -- even if they were all real (they're not*) -- across decades, while unacceptable, is hardly the stuff of widespread persecution. A professor dragging a student in front of a classroom for a one-on-one debate on which his grade hangs is an abuse of authority and a violation of the most outrageous sort. And a complete figment of the creators' (highly active) imaginations. The main premise of the film is the persecution of Christians. It emphasizes throughout the persecuted minority status of Christians. As David Johnson notes, in the film:
Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of the 80 students in the class, Josh is the only one that has ever set foot in a church. In reality, 78% of all Americans are Christian—almost 4 out of every 5. Yet at this American university, only one in every 80 students has ever been to church? This fits quite nicely with the narrative propagated by many conservative media outlets that the white Christian is a persecuted minority in America—despite the fact that they make up a majority of the population, control the highest rated news media outlets, the lion’s share of the nation’s businesses and money, and have dominated political power since the nation’s founding.
The promotions appeal to the persecution mindset:


It's all about the heroic, persecuted Christian fundamentalist daring to take a stand against the secular persecutor. It's something along the lines of sitting in your basement and crafting weapons to destroy the invading cylons: a battle that's only happening in the minds of the "defenders". Christians aren't under siege. Christians don't live in "shame" or fear, nor do they have to (or are pressured to) "apologize" for their beliefs. In no way is the most powerful, well-represented and vocal majority in our nation somehow simultaneously a persecuted minority.

It would be comical, if so many didn't take it seriously. But, just like Fox's "War on Christmas", this mythical battle is lucrative for the producers, and they do everything they can to impress upon Christians that they, that ruling majority, are in fact the trod upon minority. Which brings me to my next point: their view of actual minorities.

2. God's not Dead illustrates powerfully the fundamentalist view of those who disagree with them.

- Radisson  doesn't actually disbelieve in god. He just hates him. This is something you hear a lot in fundamentalist circles. Atheists aren't actually atheists, they're just rebellious believers. Of course, I've yet to meet one such idiot who can explain why someone would willingly piss of the kind of god who burns people forever simply for not hearing about, and thus not believing in, him...even if you don't like the guy, even if you hate him with a passion, when you truly believe that he is all powerful; that there is no way to escape his clutches; that he will cook you on the great barbecue of righteous retribution for all time; that all you have to do to escape such a fate is abjectly grovel...who would piss off such a tyrant? What could they possibly hope to gain? The movie doesn't really address this. Like Pat Robertson's assertion that annoyance at being proselytized at work is the result of being raped as a child or demonic possession, there's something else at play here. You shouldn't take the Evil Atheist at his word. It's not a matter of disbelief, but of angry belief. He's simply lying when he says otherwise.

- Just as the powerful majority is a persecuted minority, as one of the most hated (and least criminally inclined) minorities in the country, atheists are really the guys and gals with power, and we're evil. 

- Which brings me to my next point. Atheists suck. I mean, really suck. We have no moral compasses. An atheist will dump his significant other when she's diagnosed with advanced cancer. He'll treat his spouse like shit. He'll treat his dementia-afflicted mother like shit (while his Christian sister nobly swoops in to the rescue). They harass the shams of Duck Dynasty (some of the better actors in the film). And did I mention how they persecute poor, beleaguered Christian students, who only want to get through class without being bullied and harassed? You know, the crux of this steaming pile of crap.

- Atheists are also pretty stupid. Radisson -- the philosophy professor -- seemingly knows nothing about philosophy. If you're interested in a list of his logic fails, see here. It's pretty sad.

- Terrible things happen to atheists, and, you know, they really had it coming, didn't they? I mean, they're such a-holes that violent or miserable ends are pretty much a given. Radisson's prolonged death is the result of a hit and run. The reporter has advanced cancer, and is dumped by her (horrible, evil, no good, very bad atheist) boyfriend. Don't worry, though: they both come to Jesus! This is a rather disconcerting display of inquisition mindset: unbelievers have to die terribly, but it's a beautiful thing, because in dying terribly they come to Jesus. Like the Inquisitor's flames, bleeding out on the road or dying of cancer isn't a tragedy: it's the gateway to heaven.

You know, they really suck too. The Muslim father is an abusive fanatic who attacks and then disowns his daughter. The Chinese father is an unsympathetic bully. In the end, it's Christians taking in and aiding these abused "others" -- rescuing them from the waywardness of their own faiths and cultures, and bringing them into the safety of western Christianity. It's patronizing and demeaning in the extreme.

3. Finally, it illustrates that a film doesn't have to be clever, profound, subtle in its messaging or even remotely intellectually honest to be successful. God's Not Dead is squarely a preaching-to-the-choir film: it paints non-Christian religious people and "others" as brutes and bullies, atheists as downright evil -- and Christians as long suffering heroes. It indulges in sadistic revenge fantasies and invokes violence against non-believers. It's not nuanced, and it doesn't try to be: western Christians and those they convert are awesome. Everyone else sucks. The movie's arguments are beyond horrible (relying entirely on strawmen, appeals to authority, and other fallacies) and its presentation of atheism utterly dishonest, but it doesn't seem to have impacted its run. Apparently, the choir doesn't demand quality; just preaching.

In conclusion, I think the film provides an interesting opportunity to examine a number of aspects of fundamentalism. I think it's particularly troubling for its handling of atheists -- while it's progress that fundamentalist religious violence against non-believers is being acted out in film rather than real life, the schadenfreude-laden scenarios indicate that the mindset is still there. It isn't enough for the film's producers to humiliate and convert the atheists: they have to kill them, rather cruelly, for all to be right in the world. That's more than a little troubling. So too is the insistence that atheists are monsters; this serves as an implicit justification for the previous point. Atheists deserve terrible deaths because they're terrible people. The stereotyped and racist portrayal of non-western, non-Christians is another point of concern. Fundamentalist Christians seem to have a penchant for Islamophobia, and this simply furthers it: Muslims are either evil brutes, or innocents in need of rescuing and conversion. And I haven't even touched the propagation of horrible logical fallacies and miserable arguments (because it's already been done very well elsewhere).

It's easy to dismiss God's Not Dead as a steaming pile, but I think that would be a mistake. It is a steaming pile, but I think it's instructive to consider what, exactly, it represents.

*The eagerness to embrace the persecution narrative clearly trumps the need for accuracy in this film. As Dr. Johnson notes:
The movie actually lists a number of court cases, in the credits, as the “inspiration” for the movie, to leave the viewer with the impression that this kind of thing happens all the time. In reality, of course, they are largely just the aforementioned “Christian-email-forward boogeymen.” Take the case of Raymond Raines, who Christians claim was picked up by the scruff of the neck and yelled at by his teacher and principal for praying over his lunch in public school at the tender age of five. In reality, he was ten (not five), he got detention (not picked up and yelled at), and it was for fighting in the cafeteria (not praying over his lunch). It’s all just part of that victimization narrative. The standard movie disclaimer says it all: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.”
Another instance movie makers cite involved a student whose homophobic presentations were interrupted by a professor. Particular cases of free speech infringement, however, aren't really relevant because -- troubling though valid instances are when they occur -- the scenario involved is entirely made up. While a few dozen teachers, professors and instructors over the last few decades might indeed have acted inappropriately (and that's not exactly unheard of in the other direction...), nothing like the absurdity of God's Not Dead's premise has occurred, nor do the producers even allege that it has. They just leave it to gullible audiences to assume that such is the case.


  1. There is nothing to see here move along. This blog post is the very thing this movie speaks to. Thanks.

    1. Wanderer, are you suggesting that a blog post critiquing the many flaws of this film is in someway comparable to an instructor violating a young person's rights in all the ways this film depicted Radisson doing?
      I genuinely hope I'm misreading this, because I fail to see how you could be more off the mark if this is what you're suggesting. My blog post is something I put up on my own little "corner" of the web -- no one is compelled to read it, nor will they in any way suffer if they choose to click away (unlike the movie scenario, where the student wants the credits and is at risk of failing the class if he ticks off his brutish professor). I am critical of the multitudinous logical errors, attempts at character assassination, etc. -- but, unlike the characters depicted in the film, I give actual reasons for my gripes, and try to persecute/bully no one. I attempt only to illustrate the flaws, to those interested in reading. How is that in anyway like what the film depicts?

  2. I manage a small movie theater and we've weathered every single one of these embarrassing jokes of cinema. It's soul crushing to see these adults come in and think of them crying during Son of Glob or Noah or Glob's Not Dead or whatever. Thinking adults. We had one dude complain about how Noah was different from the bible and trying to sound scholastic when enumerating his issues with it, all the while blissfully unaware that he was reading a translation of a translation of a translation of a stolen story of a stolen story. "Yeah, I think that Aranofsky guy took some pretty big liberties with the story..." You mean the made up, embarrassing fable in your stupid, hateful, homophobic book, you numbskulled cretin? And now it's okay for town/city council meetings to open up with jesusy prayer. Yup. Christians are TOTALLY being persecuted all the time. It must be so hard to be the largely in charge of the oligarchy and have the power necessary to build a group of justices that are okay violating the establishment clause.

    1. I hear you. The conservative justices just took a try at demolishing one of the cornerstones of our freedoms...a protection as useful for Christians as well as the rest of us.