For no special reason, I began reflecting on the evolving treatment of atheists in American movies, and the next thing you know, I was writing this essay.
As one might expect, for a long time it was pretty much standard that if someone in a movie was an atheist, he would have to end up believing in God before the movie was over. A good example of this is 7th Heaven (1927). An exception to this rule might be The Godless Girl (1929). Of course, having the woman be the atheist in a movie is exceptional all by itself, but for the present purpose, her praying to God toward the end of the movie is only tentative and conditional, not unequivocal as in San Francisco (1936).
With Strange Cargo (1940), a few new wrinkles are added. First of all, the atheist in the movie is not explicitly declared to be such. He is referred to as “superman” (in the Nietzschean sense), so it is safe to infer his atheism. Nevertheless, whenever the atheism of a character in a movie has to be inferred, he may be able to evade the standard treatment in the movies for explicit atheists at that time. Second, God exists in this movie as a character. Whenever it is made clear in a movie that there is a God, the atheist is thereby refuted, so his admission that there is a God is not necessary. Third, this atheist is a minor character, for which the rules can be relaxed, just as during the heyday of the Production Code, not every gangster had to be punished, only the protagonist or principal villain. Fourth, it is implied that the atheist will come to a bad end.
In Angel and the Badman (1947), we have another atheist who does not have to admit to the existence of God by the end of the movie. However, he does start to have doubts about his atheism. And he is also a minor character.
These exceptions reserved for minor characters came to be extended to major characters by the late 1950s. In The Quiet American (1958), the protagonist remains an atheist throughout the movie, but things end badly for him and he is unhappy. In the 2002 remake, however, things end happily for the protagonist, but he is no longer an atheist.
Agnostics are treated differently than atheists. An agnostic already admits that there may be a God, so all he usually had to do back then was admit to the possibility just a little bit more. Two good examples of this are the movies based on the agnostic Clarence Darrow, Compulsion(1959) and Inherit the Wind (1960). In both cases, the Darrow character emphasizes his agnostic position at the end. The atheists in those two movies, however, are subjected to the new rules. They do not have to admit that God exists, but they have to either have doubts or be unhappy or both.
During most of the 1960s, things were still pretty rough on movie atheists, but they were allowed to be more blasphemous than ever before. In The Spiral Road (1962) and Cool Hand Luke (1967), the protagonist in each movie is allowed to defy God, challenging God to kill him. When nothing happens, the protagonist takes that as proof that God does not exist. For such blasphemy, however, a heavy price had to be paid. In each movie, the protagonist, with tears in his eyes, begs for God’s help by the end of the movie.
The Best Man (1964) is an interesting transitional movie. Two men, played by Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, are vying for their party’s nomination for president of the United States. They both want the endorsement of a former president, played by Lee Tracy. Tracy asks Fonda if he believes in God. It turns out that both men are affiliated with a Protestant church, but they are both atheists. Cliff Robertson, on the other hand, definitely believes that there is a God. Fonda’s character is basically a good man, aside from his philandering, while Robertson’s character is unscrupulous, even though he is faithful to his wife. Usually, it would be the atheist who is portrayed as not having any scruples, but not here. In a sense, the movie does not end happily for anyone: neither Fonda nor Robertson gets the nomination, and Tracy’s character dies of cancer. But while Robertson’s failure to get the nomination is exactly what he deserves, the bad outcomes for Fonda and Tracy do not come across as punishment for not believing in God. Fonda and Tracy never express any doubts about their atheism, but this especially notable for Tracy, in that this is the first movie in which an atheist knows he is about to die but still remains an atheist, accepting his death as final.
In 1968, the Production Code, which required that religion not be mocked, came to an end. And so, it is not surprising that a new era of atheism in the movies began around that time. In particular, Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969) is the first movie in which the protagonist is an atheist at the end of a movie that ends happily. Well, he is in prison when the movie ends, which would be an unhappy ending in a drama, but as this is a comedy, we don’t take that seriously. Furthermore, he is carving a piece of soap to look like a gun and asks whether it is raining outside, so we figure he is going to escape anyway. In general, with this movie there began a new outlet for atheism. Comedies with atheists in them who express no doubts and do not end up being unhappy started being made on a regular basis, many of which were also made by Woody Allen. It may be that atheists in comedies seem to be less threatening than their counterparts in dramas and thus do not require refutation, as it were.
In the 1990s, two new outlets for atheism in the movies emerged. One is biography, such as The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999). Inasmuch as biographies are (supposedly) about things that really happened, they are more difficult to object to than a piece of fiction might be, although objections no longer seem to be a consideration by this time. The second outlet is the documentary, such as Hell’s Angel (1994). Documentaries are (supposedly) about reality too, but they tend to advocate a particular position, even to the point of being argumentative. This argumentative element has become even more pronounced in the present century, entering into fictional films as well.
Argumentative movies about atheists introduce a new characterization of the nonbeliever. He hates God. In The Ledge (2011), a religious fanatic and an atheist get into an argument about the existence of God. At one point, the Christian says, “What did God do to you to make you so angry at him?” In God’s Not Dead (2014), a Christian student in a philosophy class is debating the existence of God with his professor, who is an atheist, and he finally gets the better of this professor by asking, “Why do you hate God?” This is an argumentum ad hominem attack, of course, but it is a special form of that fallacy, which may be termed psychoanalytic, in that the reasons the atheist gives for not believing in God are said to be rationalizations of his hatred of God, whom he blames for his miserable life. Perhaps this ad hominem attack is just turnabout’s fair play. After all, atheists have long argued that religious belief arises out of a fear of death, rather than some dispassionate contemplation of the cosmological or teleological proofs for the existence of God.
Many of the old formulas still apply, of course. There are still movies in which atheists either finally admit there is a God or end up being unhappy. In The Sunset Limited (2011), for example, which is definitely argumentative, we have the latter situation. Black (Samuel L. Jackson) is a Christian who loves life, and White (Tommy Lee Jones) is a miserable atheist who wants to commit suicide. White’s atheism is depicted as obtuse. He willfully refuses to consider the possibility that God exists because he just doesn’t want to. Though he is a college professor who has read over forty thousand books, yet he has never read the Bible. This is artificial. A lot of atheists have read the entire Bible and are more knowledgeable about what is in it than many Christians. But White is the way he is in this movie because that is the way the author, Cormac McCarthy, wanted him to be. All the better to refute the atheist as wrongheaded.
As a side note, atheists in movies are mostly men, but invariably white. Just try to imagine this movie in which the roles are switched, with Tommy Lee Jones playing the joyful Christian and Samuel L. Jackson playing the pigheaded, miserable, suicidal atheist.
In many cases, however, atheists are free to say and do what they want with impunity. Nevertheless, a lot of people have strong negative views about atheists, believing they are untrustworthy and prone to immoral behavior. For this reason, it is difficult for an atheist to be in a movie without that fact becoming a major consideration.
Let us try a thought experiment. Imagine that early in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), someone casually asks Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) if he believes in God, and he replies, “No, I’m an atheist.” Then imagine that everything else in the movie is just the same. Other movies one might try imagining the protagonist mentioning just casually that he is an atheist while the rest of the movie remains the same are Rocky (1976), Superman (1978), and Forrest Gump (1994). This is hard to do, because the fact of the protagonist’s atheism would demand that it be dealt with in some way, falling under the principle of Chekhov’s gun.