God’s Not Dead (2014)

Once I have decided to watch a movie, there is only one piece of information I want to know in advance, which is when the movie was made, because that provides the context that might be needed to appreciate the movie and understand it.  Of course, I already have other pieces of information in advance, such as the title, but basically, I like to watch the movie without having any more advance knowledge than necessary.

There is, additionally, my reason for selecting the movie for viewing.  In particular, I recently decided to watch movies that featured an atheist as a prominent character, in order to see how the treatment of atheism has evolved in a hundred years of American cinema.  The result of this endeavor resulted in my essay “Atheism in American Movies.”  Naturally enough, God’s Not Dead (2014) was on my list.

Normally, when I review a movie, it is neither necessary nor desirable to talk about myself.  But this calls for an exception.  I majored in philosophy in the late 1960s, and my favorite philosopher was Friedrich Nietzsche, who was the one who originally said, “God is dead.”  Needless to say, I was an atheist and have been ever since, although now my favorite philosopher is Arthur Schopenhauer.

The movie is set on a college campus.  Josh Wheaton is a freshman.  (I wonder how long it will be before we start designating first-year college students as “freshpersons.”)  He signs up for an introductory course in philosophy.  He is warned by another student not to take the course from Professor Radisson, but he is undeterred.  During the first class, Radisson says he doesn’t want to waste time debating the existence of God, so he demands that every student in the class write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and sign it.  Josh refuses to sign it.  I must admit, Nietzschean atheist though I was, I wouldn’t have signed it either, but for very different reasons.

Radisson tells Josh that for twenty minutes in the next three classes, he will have to defend the proposition that God exists, with the implication that if he fails in this endeavor, he will flunk the course.  On the first day that he has to defend his belief that God is not dead, Josh essentially advances the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which is that an eternally existing God is needed to explain how a contingent world arose out of nothingness in a big bang.  On the second day, he advances the teleological argument for the existence of God, also known as the argument from design.  The thrust of this argument is that God is needed to explain life.  Evolution alone will not suffice.  On the third day, he addresses the problem of evil, in which the all the sin and suffering of this world seems to be inconsistent with the existence of an all-powerful, loving God.  His answer is that evil is the price we pay for having free will, which includes the freedom to accept Jesus as our savior, which will allow us to dwell in Heaven for eternity.  He also presents the moral argument for the existence of God, which is that God is needed as a foundation for morality.

Naïve me.  I thought that Radisson’s presentation on the first day was just a pose.  I thought what would happen was that in the end, Radisson would give Josh an A for having the courage of his convictions, for being able to defend his views in front of the classroom, knowing that he was being judged by a militant atheist.  Boy, was I wrong!  That became clear after the first presentation, when Radisson becomes physical and threatening, presumably because he feels threatened by Josh.  (Maybe I should have suspected something when I saw Radisson’s goatee, which is often seen in popular images of the Devil.)  After the third day, Josh gets the better of Radisson when he asks him why he hates God, and we find out that he hates God because God let his mother die when he was young.  Then Josh asks him how he can hate someone who doesn’t exist.  Golly!  Radisson never thought of that.

The rest of the movie shows how sweet and wonderful Christians are, and how mean and selfish atheists are, including Chinese communists.  Of course, not everyone who believes in God is sweet and wonderful.  You have to believe in the real God, because a Muslim kicks his daughter out of the house when he discovers she is an apostate who secretly listens to sermons on Christianity.

Radisson is hit by a car, receiving fatal injuries.  But that’s all right, because God kept Reverend Dave in town by not allowing any car he got into to start until he was needed at that intersection where Radisson was hit.  And so it is that in the long tradition of atheists in movies, Radisson repents and lets Jesus into his life just before he dies.

I learned something from watching this movie.  I learned that it was made by Pure Flix Productions, a company that specializes in the genre of Christian paranoia, and it does so with a simple-mindedness that makes Sunday school look like a Jesuit seminar.  At the beginning of this essay, I said that I try to keep my knowledge about a movie to a minimum before I watch it, except for such things as the title and the date in which the movie was made.  I now add one more item to that list.  From now on, before I watch a movie, I want to know if it was produced by Pure Flix, because if it was, there is no way I will subject myself to another movie like this one.

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Contact (1997)

Long before the movie Contact was produced, I had known people who made some sort of connection between intelligent life on other planets and the existence of God.  Maybe that is not quite right.  It’s hard to say exactly, because no one ever presented the connection as a valid argument, consisting of premises about extraterrestrial beings and ending with the conclusion that God exists.  No such argument was ever forthcoming, because it would have been palpably absurd on its face, even to them.  Instead, they just seemed to feel that the existence of aliens had religious significance, but they could never quite to bring themselves to spell it out.

Apparently, it was people just like that who made Contact.  The movie is mainly about making contact with extraterrestrials through the transmission of signals through space, but religious stuff keeps showing up, not because there is any logical connection between the two, but simply because some people seem to feel that connection, even though that feeling never seems to rise to the level of coherent thought.  Mostly what we get is the association of ideas.

For example, Jodie Foster plays Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer.  When Ellie was a young girl, she had a ham radio.  At one point, she asks her father if she can contact her deceased mother through her radio.  And after her father dies, she tries to contact him through her radio.  So an association is made between radio transmissions and life after death.  We regard this as merely a child’s desperate hope of finding her parents again, which would be just fine as a stand-alone scene.  But further such childlike associations recur throughout the movie.

While listening for signals from outer space in Puerto Rico, she meets Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), who is an almost-priest whose spirituality expresses itself as a concern for human values that he believes are being jeopardized by technology.  Ellie and Palmer have sex, and in the afterglow, during a little pillow talk, he says:  “So I was lying there, just looking at the sky. And then I felt something. I don’t know. All I know is that I wasn’t alone. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared of nothing, not even dying. It was God.”

There it is in a nutshell:  He looks up at the sky; he has a feeling of the sublime; so there must be a God.

By this time in her life, Ellie has become an atheist.  She says, “And there’s no chance that you had this experience because some part of you needed to have it?”

Her remark is to the point, of course.  Most people have a religious need.  That need is satisfied by whatever their parents told them when they were little children, and that suffices for life.  If they lose their faith in the teachings of childhood, their religious need will manifest itself in something else, sooner or later.  But some people have no religious need at all.  They simply quit believing whatever they were raised to believe, and nothing ever takes its place.  They look up at the sky, and all they see are stars.  If they think about life on other planets, it inspires no religious awe.

As a way of forestalling rational objections, Palmer says, “I’m a reasonably intelligent guy, but this…. My intellect couldn’t even touch this.”

And that’s the end of that.  His epiphany transcended such things as reason and common sense, so it cannot be questioned.

Later in the movie, when the world finds out that signals from the vicinity of the relatively close star Vega show signs of intelligent life, we are informed that attendance at religious services has risen.  And we see Robert Novak on Crossfire saying, “Even a scientist must admit there are some pretty serious religious overtones to all this.”

It would be tedious for me to object to every piece of poppycock in this movie, but I cannot let this one pass.  A lot of religious people believe that intelligent life on this planet can be explained only if there is a God.  Let us assume they are right.  In that case, there being another planet with intelligent life on it is no big deal.  What God did once, he could easily do again.  On the other hand, atheists believe that evolution can completely explain intelligent life on this planet.  Let us assume they are right.  In that case, evolution could just as easily produce intelligent life on another planet as it did on this one.  In either event, one more planet is just one more planet.

Ellie and Palmer get into a debate about the existence of God.  She appeals to the principle of Occam’s razor:  “Occam’s Razor is a basic scientific principle which says: Things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be right. So what’s more likely? An all-powerful God created the universe, then decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or that he doesn’t exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t feel so small and alone.”

Palmer says he would not want to live in a world where God does not exist.  Ellie, in turn, says she would need proof.  Palmer asks her if she can prove that her father loved her.  She is stumped.

Anyway, it turns out that the aliens have sent us schematics for building a transportation machine that will allow someone from Earth to visit that planet orbiting Vega.  After a lot of paranoid politics and neo-luddite terrorism, Ellie gets to go.  She zips through a wormhole and ends up in a world based on what is in her mind, memories of a beach in Pensacola and of her father.  The alien who has taken on the image of her father explains everything to her, how lots of civilizations from different planets have interacted this way.  Ellie wants to know why more people from Earth can’t see what she’s seen.  The alien answers, “This is the way it’s been done for billions of years.”

In other words, this advanced civilization does not ask why things have to be this way, even though the original civilization that set things up has long since disappeared, and so Ellie shouldn’t ask why either.  Does that not smack of the same sort of answer people give when they defend some feature of their religion they cannot justify?  This is just one of the ways in which a connection is being established between the aliens and religion.  We are not supposed to question the ways of God, and we are not supposed to question the ways of the aliens.

When Ellie gets back, it turns that while she has been gone for eighteen hours by her time, only a split second has passed here on Earth.  This is the reverse of the usual twin paradox, in which more time passes for the people on Earth than it does for the astronaut traveling at speeds near that of light, but the reason for this anomaly soon becomes clear.  It is so that her story can be doubted.  Because she ostensibly was only gone for a split second, a lot people don’t believe her story about what happened.  In particular, Michael Kitz (James Woods), who is sort of the villain of the piece, calls her story into question.  He says she just hallucinated it, that the whole thing is a hoax.  He demands that Ellie produce proof, and she cannot.  He indignantly asks if we are supposed to accept her story on faith.

Now Ellie is in the position of someone who believes in God but cannot prove it.  And now we know why the aliens demanded that just one person go on that trip to Vega instead of the Vegans coming to Earth.  In that case, everyone would have seen the aliens on television.  There would have been no doubt as to their existence.  But this way, the aliens recapitulate the objection that Ellie had earlier, that God did not leave proof of his existence.  So all the objections earlier enunciated by Ellie about God are turned against her with respect to the aliens.  Ellie’s response to these objections harks back to the mystical experience Palmer had while stargazing, almost a beatific vision.

For those of you who are inclined to infuse the existence aliens from other planets with religious significance, this movie is for you.  For those of you who have no need of religion, this movie will make you feel like an alien from another planet.

The Ledge (2011)

The Ledge is a good example of what happens when a story is made to fit the Procrustean bed of a preconceived philosophical dilemma.  Actually, make that a preconceived sophomoric philosophical dilemma.  The result is that characters in this movie find themselves in situations that would never really happen, and even if they did, they do things that no one would ever do, and even if someone was dumb enough to do these things, we wouldn’t care, because no one cares what happens to people that stupid.

The movie has two plots, and the principal characters of each intersect on the ledge of a skyscraper, where one man, Gavin, is about to jump, and another man, Hollis, is a detective trying to talk him out of it.  The movie begins with the Hollis-plot.  Hollis goes to a fertility clinic to donate some sperm, whereupon he finds out that he is sterile owing to a genetic defect, and has been so all his life.  This means that the two children his wife had were not his.  As we find out through subsequent scenes interspersed with the Gavin-plot, Hollis and his wife were wondering why they could not have children.  So, they went to a fertility clinic to be tested.  His wife Angela went by herself to get the results, at which point she found out that Hollis was sterile.

Get ready for some unbelievable stupidity.  First, Angela did not tell Hollis, because she was afraid she would lose him.  In other words, we are to believe that she thought that once he found out that he was sterile, he would no longer love her.  All I can say is that any man who would stop loving his wife because he found out that he was sterile is a husband worth being rid of.  But the whole thing is preposterous.  Couples go to fertility clinics all the time, and when one of them turns out to be infertile, they have all sorts of choices available to them, such as adoption, surrogate mothers, or in vitro fertilization, but divorce is not usually one of them.

Second, if you can get past that, here is another stupidity.  Angela decided to have children anyway, and to make sure they looked like Hollis, she decided that Hollis’s brother should be the father.  So, she had Hollis’s brother go to the fertility clinic to be tested to see if he has the same genetic defect, right?  And when it turned out that he was fertile, she had him donate sperm so that she could be artificially inseminated, right?  Wrong!  She had an adulterous affair with Hollis’s brother until she got pregnant.  And that worked out so well that when she was ready to have a second child, she started having sex with him again.

All right, let’s move on to the Gavin-plot.  Gavin hires Shana at the hotel he manages.  She and her husband Joe just happen to live on the same floor of a nearby apartment.  Joe is a Christian fundamentalist to an absurd degree, whereas Gavin is an atheist.  Joe finds out that Gavin and Shana are having an affair.  He calls Gavin on the phone and tells him that either Gavin or Shana must die for having committed adultery.  If Gavin does not jump off the ledge of the skyscraper by noon, Joe will shoot Shana.  Joe says he has the courage to die for his beliefs.  This test will determine whether Gavin has the courage to die for his beliefs.  Actually, if he jumps, Gavin will not be dying for his beliefs, but to save the life of the woman he loves.  But by this point, the whole idea is so dumb that we don’t really care. Anyway, at noon Gavin leaps to his death, and that is so dumb we don’t really care either.  After all, any normal person would have simply called the police and told them what the situation was.

There is a subplot about Gavin’s roommate Chris.  Gavin took pity on Chris and let him move in with him when he lost his job on account of being HIV positive.  Chris has a lover whom he wishes to marry, but the rabbi won’t perform the ceremony.  Therefore, religion, be it Christianity or Judaism, is shown to be bad.  Atheism, on the other hand, is shown to be good.  There is a ludicrous scene where a maid in the hotel finds out her father died and becomes hysterical, and Gavin gets down on his knees and pretends to pray to God to save her father.  That is so we will think him magnanimous.  And when Gavin leaps to his death to save the woman he loves, knowing there is no afterlife, that is supposed to prove just how noble he is.

To an atheist like me, you might think that The Ledge would be refreshing, considering all the movies that have portrayed atheists in a bad light.  But the movie was too lopsided and simplistic to be of any value, either intellectually or aesthetically.

After it is all over, Hollis goes home, intent on reconciling with his wife and accepting her children as his.  Angela wants to say grace, but Hollis says, “No, not tonight.”  The idea is that he’s had all the religion he can stand for one day.  However, they will presumably say grace in the future.  As to whether they will be having Hollis’s brother over for dinner any time soon, I cannot say.

Brideshead Revisited:  The Book and the Adaptations

The message of Brideshead Revisited  is that people who don’t believe in God are superficial.  Charles Ryder, the narrator of this novel, exemplifies this principle.  He is all about art and the pleasures of the palate.  That is to say, his interests are in the realm of the appearances.  He leads a sensuous existence.  He becomes fascinated with the Flyte family.  They are a bunch of Catholics, though of various sorts, from the devout to the lapsed.  But in any event, believing in God as they do, their lives have depth and significance.  Almost unconsciously, Ryder is drawn to the Flytes for that reason.

If Ryder were just a man who enjoyed the arts and liked to dine on good food and drink, it would not be so bad.  But he lays it on so thick, with language so flowery and ornate, that one cannot help but think that he takes himself way too seriously.  For example, when he encounters Lady Julia Flyte after not having seen her for some time, he says:

She was not yet thirty, but was approaching the zenith of her loveliness, all her rich promise abundantly fulfilled. She had lost that fashionable, spidery look; the head that I used to think quattrocento, which had sat a little oddly on her, was now part of herself and not at all Florentine; not connected in any way with painting or the arts or with anything except herself, so that it would be idle to itemize and dissect her beauty, which was her own essence, and could only be known in her and by her authority and in the love I was soon to have for her. Time had wrought another change, too; not for her the sly, complacent smile of la Gioconda; the years had been more than ‘the sound of lyres and flutes’, and had saddened her.

I don’t know about you, but if I found myself sitting at a table with someone who talked that way, I would plead a headache and bolt for the exit.  Her head was no longer quattrocento indeed!  And did you catch the bit about la Gioconda?  He’s not satisfied with comparing her to the Mona Lisa, which would be absurd enough for anyone but Nat King Cole.  He has to refer to that painting by its Italian name, just to put us ignorant philistines in our place, who had to Google the name to find that out.

Of course, Ryder talks this way because the author, Evelyn Waugh, put those words into his mouth.  Perhaps this was Waugh’s way of ridiculing people like Ryder who don’t believe in God, showing them to be affected as a way of compensating for a life that is hollow and without significance.  But then, since Ryder’s narration takes place after his conversion to Catholicism, it appears that if someone is insufferably pretentious to begin with, his believing in God isn’t going to make much difference.

As far as the adaptations go, there is a change that I found interesting.  When Ryder is dining with the Flyte family in the novel, Sebastian refers to Ryder as an atheist, but Ryder corrects him, saying he is an agnostic.  The 1981 mini-series follows the novel in this.  But the movie version produced in 2008 reverses the dialogue, so that when Sebastian says that Ryder is an atheist, “Bridey” (Lord Brideshead) says, “An agnostic, surely,” to which Ryder emphatically denies being an agnostic and asserts that he is indeed an atheist.

I suspect that the reason for this reversal of terms is due to the change in connotation of the word “agnostic” between 1945 and 2008.  At the time the novel was written, the word “agnostic” was sufficiently scandalous and shocking for a character like Ryder.  By the late 1960s, it had lost its edge.  It suggested someone who was wishy-washy, someone who didn’t want to appear naively religious, but was still hoping for some kind of afterlife all the same.  By the turn of the twenty-first century, this shift in meaning had become even more pronounced.  Only by changing Ryder into an atheist could his conversion to Catholicism actually seem to amount to something.

The Spiral Road (1962)

The Spiral Road is set in the Dutch East Indies in 1936.  As required by their medical school contracts, several young doctors arrive in Indonesia to spend five years treating the natives for tropical diseases, such as cholera, plague, and leprosy.  The brightest of these, a gold medal winner with high honors, is Anton Drager (Rock Hudson).  On the day of their arrival, the doctors are told they will attend a dinner where they will meet the hospital staff and their families.  At the dinner, Mrs. Kramer, the wife of the director, tells Drager that the social life in the Dutch colony can be quite enjoyable, but he says he didn’t come to this part of the world for dance lessons or to join the Country Club.  She says, “You make it sound like a fate worse than death.”

Most people would regard Mrs. Kramer’s remark as merely a manner of speaking, but Drager states that he does not believe in fate.  This would be like someone saying, “We can thank our lucky stars that it didn’t rain today,” to which someone says with a straight face, “I don’t believe in astrology.”

“What do you believe in, Dr. Drager,” she asks.  “Anton Drager,” he replies.  After an arrogant answer like that, one suspects that Mrs. Kramer might not be too disappointed that Drager has no interest in the social life in Batavia.  Through subsequent conversation with her and then with her husband, we learn that Drager is quite ambitious.  He wants to work with Dr. Brits Jansen (Burl Ives), who is the best in the field of tropical medicine, but who hasn’t published anything in years.  Drager hopes to publish jointly with Jansen, so that when he returns to the Netherlands after five years, he will be very much in demand in the field of research, for which there will be significant remunerative benefit.  Kramer agrees to send Drager to Jansen.

On arriving in the area where Jansen usually works, Drager meets Harry Frolick, a river master, and Captain Wattereus of the Salvation Army.  Frolick goes out of his way to mock Wattereus’s religion, becoming so physically aggressive about it that Drager has to grab Frolick and push him away, knocking him to the ground.  After Frolick leaves with a prostitute, Drager remarks, “Well, that was a ridiculous exhibition.”

“Poor Harry,” Wattereus says.  “He’s going through a hell all his own, trying to prove God doesn’t exist.  For if God doesn’t exist, Harry’s sins don’t exist.  That’s why he’s so violent and unhappy.”

Drager disagrees, saying, “To me, Frolick is just a poor idiot who can’t hold his liquor.”

Now, either explanation could be correct, for all we know.  It could be as simple as Drager says.  But then, such extreme hostility toward religion on Frolick’s part makes us suspect he is an atheist who is still struggling against the remnants of religious upbringing that are still within him.  This is a recurring theme throughout the movie:  explanations involving people’s beliefs in the supernatural versus physiological explanations only.  Now, these explanations in terms of beliefs depend in no way on those beliefs being true.  Even if there is no God, Wattereus’s explanation for Frolick’s behavior in terms of his internal struggle against religion could still be correct.  Later, when Drager catches up with Jansen, who is in a village trying to eliminate the plague that has beset a village, Jansen tells him that he will often have to appeal to magic to deal with the natives.  As easy as this is to understand, Drager appears to be unconvinced.

Later, when Drager tells Jansen of his dispute with Wattereus over the correct explanation for Frolick’s behavior, Jansen says, “I take it you don’t believe in God.”  Now, just as you do not have to believe in God to accept Wattereus’s explanation, not accepting that explanation does not mean you are an atheist.  So, there is no logical reason why Jansen should conclude that Drager does not believe in God.  As a matter of fact, Drager says he does not believe in God, so Jansen’s conclusion turns out to be true, but that does not make his reasoning valid.  So what is going on here?  The movie is equating an explanation in terms of beliefs with holding those beliefs.  By identifying atheism with a simplistic understanding of human nature, the atheist can be dismissed as a fool.

Along these lines, when it comes to physiological explanations, Drager is shown to be excellent.  He is able to diagnose leprosy at a glance, which amazes Jansen.  In other words, the movie makes it clear that in the realm of the physiological, Drager is brilliant.  Therefore, when physiological explanations alone do not suffice, it follows, according to the perverse logic of this movie, that atheism does not suffice.

After learning that Drager is an atheist, Jansen says that atheism is fine for civilization, but there are no atheists in the jungle.  This is a variation on the old saw that there are no atheists in foxholes.  People who make that sort of argument reason as follows:  people need to believe in God, especially when they are afraid of dying; therefore there must be a God.  This is just one more conflation of the efficacy of a belief with the truth of that belief.

The whole reason the subject of Wattereus came up in the first place is that he runs the nearby leper colony, and Drager and Jansen are taking the man Drager correctly diagnosed as having leprosy to live there.  Jansen tells Drager that Wattereus and his wife Betsy are his best friends.  When they get there, it turns out that Betsy has leprosy.  She is behind a curtain surrounding her bed, so we are left to imagine that she has been horribly disfigured by the disease and is in much pain, as well as being blind.  Jansen gives her an injection to make her sleep.  Outside the hut, Jansen tells Wattereus, “She’s worse.  There she lies dying, mutilated, rotting away, and I can’t do a thing about it.”

Later, when Drager and Jansen are alone, Jansen tells how when he first met them, they were already out there, taking in lepers, but they were doing nothing to protect themselves, because, Betsy said, “God protects us.”  But he took one look at her hands and knew that she had the disease.  “Well,” Jansen said to her, “Your God’s made a fool of you…, because you’ve got it.”

He says he almost got satisfaction in telling her.  She was tending to a leper when he told her, but she just looked up at him and smiled. “I’ve never seen such beauty and peace,” he says.  In other words, Jansen was much like Drager when he first came to the jungle, and this is just one of the ways in which living in the jungle makes people believe in God.

When a movie presents you with a setup like this, you know that the subject of mercy killing will inevitably arise.  Drager asks Jansen if he ever thought about putting her out of her misery.  Jansen says he did once, about three years earlier, but he couldn’t do it.  Drager offers to do it himself.  Jansen then explains why he couldn’t do it. He says he had the needle to her skin.  She could still see and talk at that time, and she knew, so she asked God to forgive him even for thinking about it.  That was when he realized that “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh way.”  Jansen says that he realized he must not play God, and he makes it clear that it would be wrong for Drager to do so as well.

This is not much of a moral dilemma.  If Betsy did not want to be euthanized, then that was her decision.  What we would like to know is what Jansen would have done if Betsy had begged him to kill her.  Would he still have said it was wrong to play God?  But that kind of scene belongs in a completely different movie.  This movie is not interested making us think.  It is interested only in presenting us with an utterly lopsided advocacy in favor of God and religious belief, and in showing us just how wrongheaded the atheist is.

After several months, Els (Gena Rowlands), Drager’s fiancé, shows up for a visit.  After one thing and another, they decide to get married.  During the ceremony, the bride and groom are both supposed to repeat after the minister a ritual affirmation that includes the phrase “in the sight of God.”  Drager tries to leave it out, but the minister isn’t having it, so Drager is forced to utter it.  It would have been more interesting if Drager had repeated the phrase the first time indifferently, as most atheists would, but this is a movie atheist, don’t you know, so such things matter to him.  Later, Els says it was sneaky of him trying to leave God out of the ceremony.  He jokes, “I was in a hurry.”

Jansen does not like to work with married men in the jungle, but Els eventually convinces him to take Drager back.  He agrees.  It turns out that during the intervening months, Drager has been compiling Jansen’s notes on leprosy into a coherent manuscript.  At first, Jansen is angry, but after reading most of it, he agrees that it is good.  But Drager tells him to read the last chapter, in which Drager concludes that management of all medical centers presently under control of religious and charitable organizations be taken from them and turned over to the administration of the government health service.  In particular, Drager believes that Wattereus is too sentimental, allowing people to stay in his leper colony long after their disease is in remission, causing the colony to be overcrowded.  But Jansen points out that their families will never take them back, that the leper colony is the only family they have.  Through the discussion, it becomes clear that Drager really doesn’t care about people beyond their role as patients with a disease to be cured.  All he really cares about is getting back to Holland and publishing the manuscript jointly with Jansen, as a means of becoming a successful researcher.  Jansen takes the manuscript away from him and says he will have him replaced.

The replacement is brought up by Inspector Bevers, who tells Drager that before he can take him back, they will have to check on Frolick.  When they get there, the camp is deserted, except for Frolick, whose hair and beard make him look like a wild man.  It is clear that he has gone mad.  He tries to kill Drager with a machete, and Drager has to shoot him.  Back in Batavia, Kramer is trying to understand what drove Frolick mad.  Drager says it was a psychotic state induced by excessive use of alcohol.  We have already seen that Frolick was an alcoholic, and there were bottles of gin everywhere.  But Bevers has a different theory.  The madness was caused by Burubi, the witchdoctor.  True, Burubi probably supplied Frolick with the gin, but we also saw a dead lizard surrounded by a circle of blood, as well as an effigy of Frolick cut into pieces.

So, here we are again:  Drager insisting on a purely physiological explanation; Bevers saying that black magic was involved.  It is a cliché to point out that voodoo can’t harm you, if you don’t believe in it; but if you do believe in it, it can kill you.  Superstitious natives have been known to go into shock and die when presented with an effigy of themselves with a pin stuck in it.  Through isolation and excessive alcohol, Frolick’s mind had deteriorated to the point that he came to believe in the witchdoctor’s black magic.  But Drager cannot accept this simple truth.

Drager is still stressed by having to kill Frolick, but he and Els decide to go to dinner.  Wattereus happens to be in town for his monthly checkup, and he joins them.  He laments that he might have been able to do something for Frolick.  Drager replies that all he had to do was work a miracle, turning whiskey into water.  That’s a pretty good line.

Wattereus argues that it was not the alcohol that drove Frolick mad.  Rather, after the natives deserted him, Wattereus continues, Frolick was forced to stand alone, and that’s what broke him.  Throughout the movie, there have been remarks by Drager to the effect that he is a rugged individualist, someone who relies solely on himself.  Now Wattereus is implying that this kind of stance toward the world is untenable.  He says of Frolick, “He cut himself off from God, and from people, at least the love of people, the only sources of strength a man can call on.”

This is another conflation that this movie makes, and it makes it in a big way:  love of God and love of people.  The idea is that because the atheist thinks he does not need God, it follows that he thinks he does not need people.  Of course, Drager is an atheist who, as a matter of fact, thinks he does not need people, but that is only because the people who made this movie wanted him to be that way.  Not only is there no logical reason why the two should be related, they are not so related as a matter of fact.  But in this movie, love of God and love of people are inextricably intertwined.  This is emphasized by an epilogue at the end of the movie, a quotation from the Bible, I John, 4:12, that makes this connection:  “No man hath seen God….  If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

But Wattereus is not through.  He moves on to the next step:  “And he was defenseless against the wilderness.  But then we began in the wilderness, all of us lost and afraid. But with a choice:  to take the spiral road upward, leading to God, or to remain in the darkness and degenerate back to the animal.  I know how terrifying it is to look into the face of a human being, someone you know, but can no longer recognize, and to see in it the image of what we can become.”  In other words, Frolick was not practically unrecognizable because he hadn’t shaved, bathed, or combed his hair in a month, but because he didn’t believe in God.  It was his atheism that caused him to become like an animal.

Drager has another explanation.  He tells about how just before he came out to the Dutch colonies, a God-fearing, gentle shopkeeper committed a brutal sex crime.  It seems he had been receiving hormone treatment for chronic prostatitis, and an accidental overdose was apparently responsible.  And so, Drager continues, if an injection can turn a saintly man into sinner, then the reverse should also be true.  Eventually someone will discover the right chemical to turn a sinner into a saint.  “It will be the first biochemical explanation for faith, like putting God into a test tube.  Religion would become nothing more than a matter of glands.  One simple shot.  Ten cc’s of saint serum and heaven on earth.”

After Wattereus leaves, Els chastises Drager for humiliating him, but Drager is clearly fed up with it all, saying he just wanted to clear the air:  “You heard him.  Spouting all the spiritual gibberish about poor Harry, the man without God, punished for his sins, struck down by some heavenly fist.”

Els says that was not what Wattereus meant, saying, “All he said was we all need faith in some power greater than ourselves, that we need each other, that without it we’re alone, and we can’t live alone.  No one is strong enough.”

Els is right in one respect.  Wattereus was not saying that God will strike down people who don’t believe in him, but rather that man cannot live without believing in God.  Drager says it’s the same thing.  On that they disagree.  But where they do agree is on the conflation, just reiterated by Els, of loving God and loving people, needing God and needing people.  It is only their attitude toward that conflation that constitutes their disagreement, with Els saying we need God/people, and Drager saying he doesn’t need God/people.

Drager says, “I’ve heard stuff like that since I was a kid, and it scared me then.  Love one another, love God or he will destroy you.  I heard it all.”  He tells how his father, who was a hellfire-and-damnation preacher, would “beat me regularly trying to teach me to love God.”  Drager says he was afraid at first, but then he stopped it once and for all.  At the age of ten, while his father was ranting from the pulpit, Drager says he dared God to kill him, saying to God, “I don’t love you, God.  Do you hear me?  I hate you….”  He says he kept that up every Sunday for a month.  But nothing happened.  And then he knew, “God couldn’t touch me.  He couldn’t hurt me.  And if he couldn’t hurt me, he couldn’t help me.  Nobody could.”

Note the conflation right at the end:  God can’t help me, therefore people can’t help me.  Needless to say, when he explicitly follows up on this by saying he doesn’t need anyone, Els draws the conclusion that he does not need her.  He is reluctant to go that far at first.  She says she wants to understand what is happening to him.  He says he is angry that Jansen won’t let him publish the manuscript with him, and he is upset that he had to kill a man.   And he tells her that he had an affair with a native woman while in the jungle, “No words, no questions.”  In other words, he may need sex, but he does not need the person that goes with it.  Finally, he tells Els that he does not need her, that she should go back to Holland.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, something has happened to Dr. Sordjano, who happens to be a Muslim.  Drager is sent to check on him, to bring him back if he is still alive, and to shut down the camp.  When Drager, Inspector Bevers, and their crew arrive, they find a situation similar to that of Frolick.  When Sordjano dies, Drager refuses to leave, saying, “I’m not Frolick, and I’m not Sordjano.  I don’t need liquor, or a prayer rug, or the Bible.”

After Bevers leaves, Burubi starts with the black magic, causing the men who were left with Drager to desert.  After several weeks, Drager is reduced to the same state that Frolick was in, shaggy hair and beard, wild look in his eyes.  When he sees his reflection in the water of a stream, he does not recognize himself and he fires his gun at it.  This recalls Wattereus’s comment about looking into the face of someone you know but don’t recognize, seeing the image of what we can become without God.  Later, when Drager gets stuck in a pond, he sees his face again and says in horror, “It’s me.”  Then there is the scene we all knew was coming.  He prays to God, asking for help.  Immediately thereafter, he calls out to Els, establishing the conflation one more time of needing God and needing people.

Well, God sure acts fast, because just then a rescue party shows up.  Drager collapses in Jansen’s arms.  Later, back in Batavia, Els is by his bedside.  He is delirious but holds her hand tightly.  He starts calling out her name, louder and louder, so that Jansen and Wattereus come running in to see what is happening.  Just then, he comes to, takes Els in his arms, and says, “Thank God.”  He says that, he does, right there in front of God and everybody.

Boy, if he could have just held out another five minutes in the jungle, his dignity would have been saved, and we would have been spared the most degrading, atheist-humiliation scenes ever filmed.

Atheists in American Movies

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.

7th Heaven (1927)

The movie 7th Heaven begins with a prologue:  “For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights—from the sewer to the stars—the ladder of courage.”  Presumably, this was intended to be inspirational, but there is a hint of blaming the victim in that message.  In other words, if someone is in the depths, the sewer, as it were, then it’s because he is a coward.  Nor is this cowardice on his part something he cannot help, but rather, he could choose to be brave and rise to the heights, if he wanted to.

Anyway, Chico (Charles Farrell) works in the sewer in Paris shortly before the outbreak of the Great War.  He aspires to rise, literally and figuratively, to the position of street cleaner, but with seemingly little hope of doing so.

Diane (Janet Gaynor) is mistreated by her older sister Nana.  Well, I suppose “mistreated” is a bit of an understatement.  When we first see them together, Nana is lashing Diane with a bullwhip, apparently because Diane is not happy about the way they steal stuff to support themselves.  That is what you might call melodramatic.  Then Nana sends Diane out to fence the watch they just stole and then to get some absinthe.

While Diane is gone, a priest shows up at their apartment.  Nana tells him she is not interested in hearing him spout religion, but he has a different mission.  It seems that Nana and Diane have an uncle and aunt who have returned from the South Seas.  They are rich and they want to take their two nieces into their home.  The next day the aunt and uncle show up with a Colonel Brissac.  The aunt takes Diane in her arms, but the stern uncle first wants to know if they have been good girls.  Diane admits they have not been good girls.  Well, that’s too bad.  Now the uncle wants nothing to do with them.  Did I mention that this movie was melodramatic?

After the uncle, aunt, and Colonel Brissac leave, Nana becomes furious with Diane.  I must admit, she does have point.  I mean, it was one thing if Diane felt bad about stealing.  But when all she had to do was tell a little lie, saying that she and Nana had been good girls, and they then would have escaped the squalid conditions in which they lived, I had to wonder if maybe Diane didn’t deserve a whipping.

Apparently, Nana certainly thought so, because the next thing you know, she is chasing Diane through the street, whipping her.  When Diane falls down, Nana starts choking her.  She is saved by Chico, who threatens to kill Nana, if ever she whips Diane again.  Nana leaves.  Chico walks away from Diane, who is still lying in the gutter.  A friend of Chico’s praises him for saving her life, but he says that a creature like that would be better off dead.  Harsh, but if Diane were to have to live that way for the rest of her life, she would be better off dead.

However, he starts to feel sorry for her.  He picks her up and brings her over to where his companions are.  Then he offers to share some of the bread they have, but she shakes her head no.  He tells her that her problem is that she is afraid to fight, which recalls the message of the prologue.  He, on the other hand, says he is not afraid of anything, regarding himself as a remarkable fellow.  He then turns to one of his friends, asking him if he believes in “Bon Dieu” (the good God).  When his friend indicates he does, Chico asks if this Bon Dieu made the woman he just saved, born to be beaten and strangled in the gutter.

He is, of course, advancing the argument from evil:  If there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is the world full of so much evil, so much sin and suffering?  But just as we are thinking that his atheism has some depth to it, he reveals a rather naive attitude on the subject.  He tells his friend that he gave God a chance twice.  First, he went to the finest church in Paris, paid five francs for candles, and then prayed to be taken out of the sewer and made a street cleaner.  But God didn’t do it.  Second, he spent another five francs, asking God for a good wife with yellow hair, “The only thing Bon Dieu threw my way,” he says, “is that!” indicating Diane (who is a brunette).  “That’s why I’m an atheist,” he says.  “God owes me ten francs.”  In this way, the movie seems to be saying that the objections that atheists have about religion are childish.

The priest that brought the supposedly good news to Nana about a rich uncle and aunt overhears Chico’s lament.  It just so happens, the priest tells Chico, that he has been made a street cleaner.  So, it looks as though God paid off on the first deal.

Meanwhile, Diane finds the knife Chico was using to cut bread and tries to use it to kill herself.  Chico stops her and asks why she tried to do that.  She gives an answer similar to the remark he made earlier, that her life is not worth living.  But now he talks her out of it.  In other words, his tough talk is just talk.

Then, it turns out that Nana has been arrested.  Out of spite, she points the finger at Diane, saying her sister is no better than she is.  The policeman starts to arrest her.  But Chico stops him, saying she is his wife.  The policeman says he will let her go, but he takes down Chico’s address so that a detective can check on him later to see if they really are married.

At this point, we figure that stealing must not be all that Nana was doing.  Presumably, the policeman caught Nana engaged in prostitution, for the only reason Diane’s being married would stop the policeman from arresting her would be if he suspected her of the same thing.

In any event, Chico agrees to let Diane stay with him until the police are satisfied.  Of course, he is a perfect gentleman and sleeps on the floor, letting Diane sleep alone in his bed unmolested.   Eventually, the two fall in love and decide to marry.  She says there must be a God, because he brought Chico to her.  He tells her not to worry her pretty little head about that.  He will be the one who has all the big thoughts.  Later, however, he says he will give God another chance, depending on whether their marriage remains true.

But then war breaks out, and Chico is compelled to enlist.  Nana shows up and starts trying to whip Diane again, but now Diane has the courage to fight, thanks to Chico’s encouragement, and she gets the bullwhip and starts going after Nana, who runs away for good.

After several years, Diane gets word that Chico is dead.  Colonel Brissac, who has been trying to get Diane to have sex with him, says he will take care of her.  The priest tells her she must not question the will of God, but she does question it.  Essentially, faith in God in this movie correlates with one’s fortunes:  when good things happen, there must be a God; when bad things hand, there is no God.

Brissac takes her in his arms to comfort her. Suddenly, Chico shows up.  He is not dead.  At first, we fear that he will be angry seeing Diane in Brissac’s arms, but it turns out he is blind.  Diane goes to him.  He says that all the big thoughts he had were really the Bon Dieu, saying, “He was within me.  Now that I am blind, I see that.”  Well, I’m not blind, so maybe that’s why I don’t understand that at all.  Anyway, she says she will be his eyes.  But Chico says he believes his blindness is only temporary, because he is a remarkable fellow.  Inasmuch as a heavenly beam of light then shines upon them, we can suppose that Chico is right.

The overall thrust of this movie is that we should have faith in God, because things will all work out in the end.  It is an optimistic theology, to say the least.