Religious Movies for Atheists

The movie Noah (2014) was released a few years ago, and I suppose I shall watch it eventually, but quite frankly, I have not been able to work up much enthusiasm for it.  I have seen a lot of biblical films.  In fact, I believe I have seen just about every Moses or Jesus movie ever made. But I have yet to see one that I enjoyed. And so I started wondering:  What is it about biblical films that I do not like?  Is it that the stories in the Bible never happened, at least not the way they were set down?  That cannot be it, for I like all sorts of movies about things that never happened.  Perhaps it is because the movies diverge from the original myth, which is one of the criticisms I have heard leveled against Noah.  But dramatists have been changing stories to suit their purposes since Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon, and often for the better.  Maybe it is the existence of supernatural beings that bothers me.  But that did not ruin Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for me, or, for that matter, The Exorcist (1973), a movie that definitely presupposes the truth of Christianity.

Maybe it is not truth that is critical, but morality.  Bill Maher has condemned the movie Noah in that it depicts God as a “psychotic mass murderer.”  In fact, such criticism is hardly limited to the story of Noah.  There is much in The Old Testament attributed to God that we regard as immoral today.  But I enjoy movies about immoral people, so why not immoral gods?  The gods of Greek mythology are often immoral, but that never spoils our enjoyment of the stories told about them.

I believe the problem is one of attitude.  Biblical movies invariably suffer from the oppressive weight of reverence, the sense that we are supposed to stand in awe of God, that we must bow our heads, fall to our knees, and worship him in all his glory. I get queasy just thinking about it.  Some people are atheists because they are unable believe that God exists; some are atheists because they are unable to believe that God is good; but some are atheists because they are unable to get down on their knees and abase themselves. This last reason, though it seldom gets as much attention as the first two, I believe to be characteristic of atheism in general, whatever the primary reason for disbelief.

Moving beyond biblical movies, it is primarily this feature that distinguishes religious movies that atheists might enjoy from ones they cannot.  A good example of this is The Godless Girl (1929).  Judy and Bob are high school students.  Judy is a militant atheist, who holds meetings ridiculing religion, accompanied by a monkey as a prop, whom she refers to as our cousin.  Bob is a Christian fundamentalist who leads a bunch of like-minded fanatics on a raid of one of those meetings.  A melee breaks out, during which a girl dies accidentally.  Bob and Judy are sent to a reform school.  After enduring much brutality, they escape and fall in love.  While bathing in a river, Judy admires the beauty of nature, made no less beautiful by a naked Judy, and she thinks how she might almost believe in a God who created it.  Bob, on the other hand, recalling all horrors of the reform school, says there is no way he can believe in a God who would allow such things to happen.  So far there is balance between the two.  But notwithstanding the fact that this is a pre-Code movie, I knew that it would be required that Judy pray to God before the movie was over.  I thought of San Francisco (1936) and The Spiral Road (1962), where the atheists in those two movies eventually kneel and humble themselves before God, and so I braced myself for the inevitable.

They are captured and returned to the reform school.  Bob is handcuffed to the bench in his cell, but Judy is handcuffed to a pipe above her head.  Within the movie, this was just another act of cruelty perpetrated by the guard.  But from outside the movie, it just did not make sense, since handcuffed like that she would not be able to use the bucket, but would have to foul her pants when she needed to defecate.  I suspected there was a reason this was put in the movie, but I could not figure out what it was.  But soon all was revealed. A fire breaks out in the reform school, and Judy is forgotten about as the flames close in around her.  In desperation, she prays.  It is a conditional kind of prayer, not exactly expressing full belief, but more importantly, she cannot kneel.  She thus retains her dignity, literally standing tall, and thus figuratively as well.

After Judy is saved by Bob, they rescue the brutal guard, whose dying wish is that they be pardoned, and so they are.  As they ride away from the prison, Bob curses the foul place, but Judy says that it was in that prison that they learned to believe, and let believe.  It is not clear exactly what each believes at this point, but they will clearly tolerate each other’s views, whatever they may be.  More importantly, because we were not treated to a vulgar display of humiliation and self-abasement on the part of Judy, this is a movie an atheist can enjoy, regardless of what Judy may or may not believe in the end.

In a sense, this aversion to the posture of worship and reverence extends well beyond the nonbeliever and into the general population.  The typical hero in a movie may believe in God, but the subject rarely comes up.  He certainly does not regularly attend church on Sundays. And as for Bible study in the middle of the week?  Don’t be absurd.  Unless the movie is biblical, or at least set in the distant past, if a character is excessively devout and pious, he usually turns out to be a hypocrite or a fool, as in Elmer Gantry (1960) or Inherit the Wind (1960).  Of course, women in the movies are allowed to be more religious than men without suffering any disparagement, and in such a case, her husband can go along, so to speak, as in Friendly Persuasion (1956) or Tender Mercies (1983).  But if it is the man who is more religious than his wife, then watch out, especially if he has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fingers. In any event, if the general audience enjoys seeing excessively religious figures in a bad light, then all the more so can such be enjoyed by atheists.  But movies mocking the devout are not really religious movies, and thus do not count, just as movies about the Devil, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Angel Heart (1987) do not count.  Finally, irreligious movies like Bedazzled (1967) or Religulous (2008) do not count either.

Rather, what I have in mind are religious movies that are inspirational, generating those feelings often associated with religion in a positive sense, and yet in such a way as can be enjoyed by an atheist.  The Razor’s Edge (1946) is well known and requires little comment. The fact that the principal character gets much of his inspiration from his trip to India, thereby stepping outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, may account for its being palatable to atheists. Groundhog Day (1993) would make an excellent Christmas movie were it not for the fact that the story is firmly attached to February 2.  Much like the notion of reincarnation, Bill Murray has to keep reliving the same day over and over again until he makes enough spiritual progress to move on.  Except for one brief upward-looking gesture on the part of Murray, when a homeless man dies, the role of God, or belief in such, is practically nonexistent.

A less well-known movie is Strange Cargo (1940).  God, in human form, slips into a penal colony and joins a bunch of prisoners in an escape, along with a prostitute. Each of them, with one exception, comes to repent his wickedness and transcend his selfish nature.  God seems to act only as a catalyst, employing no supernatural powers, and even has to be saved from drowning by Clark Gable.  Needless to say, this God demands no worship, reverence, or self-abasement.

Finally, there is an unusual religious movie that an atheist can enjoy, although it is not inspirational (at least, I hope not), and is not ruled out by any of my criteria, like being about the Devil or being sacrilegious.  The movie is Gabriel Over the White House (1933), set in the early thirties, during the Great Depression.  The president is like Warren G. Harding, a man of dubious morals. He believes in limited government, saying unemployment and organized crime are local matters, which gives him more time to fool around with his mistress. Being reckless, he crashes his car while speeding, and ends up in a coma. Gabriel infuses the spirit and wisdom of God into the president, and then wakes him up. He becomes a dictator with the symbolic trappings of Lincoln. He disbands Congress under threat of martial law, puts the unemployed to work, suspends habeas corpus, has gangsters rounded up and executed by firing squad, and that is just his domestic policy.  Then he demands that the European countries pay their war debts, which they will be able to afford, because they don’t need a military anymore, they just need to do what America says, or else they will be destroyed. Having established peace and prosperity, he dies.  And what is important is that throughout this fascist fantasy, though inspired by God, he never goes to church or gets on his knees to pray, and thus the movie is devoid of any sense of reverence or worship.

So there are religious movies an atheist can enjoy, but they are for the most part set in modern times, because the general public is not too keen on seeing displays of sincere piety and devotion in the modern setting either. The public’s tolerance for this sort of thing, however, increases the further back one goes into the past, until we reach biblical times, where it is deemed appropriate and even expected, and thus likely to prove insufferable to an atheist. It is for this reason that I look forward to watching Noah with a sense of dread.

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