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Deepities On Parade: “Oh My God” Reviewed

Oh My God poster Well — it’s pretty.

No, really. It’s very, very pretty. If you view this movie purely as an example of the “rich, beautifully-filmed global travelogue of the astonishing variety of human experience” genre, a la Baraka, you may have a reasonably good time.

But if you actually pay attention to its content about religion, then… well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, atheist or otherwise, I strongly suspect it will send you screaming into the night.

A documentary about religion by Peter Rodger, “Oh My God” is an attempt to display the vast, enormously diverse variety of religious beliefs and experiences around the world, as expressed by religious leaders and ordinary citizens and second-string celebrities (with an annoying emphasis on the celebrities): from tribal rituals to abstract modern theology, from gods that are the literal creators of all physical existence to gods that are “infinite energy,” from the divisive hatreds of different faiths to the ecumenical singing of “Kumbaya.” And it’s an attempt to make some sort of sense of it all: to answer the big questions about religion, or at least to explore them in a serious manner.

Oh My God LADAKH-BOY-MONKS When it comes to the first goal — job well done. We sure do see a lot of different religious experiences in this movie. But when it comes to the second goal… errrr, not so much. The movie shows a lot of different religious experiences — but it doesn’t shed much light on any of them. It poses serious, important questions, like, “Why do people fight over religion?” “Why is there suffering?” “Is God even real, or just something we made up?” But it utterly fails to come up with any serious answers. The answers it offers are vague, and shallow, and haphazardly organized, and poorly thought-out. They give the illusion of substance and depth… but when you think about them carefully for more than six seconds, that substance dissipates like mist in the wind.

I recently saw Daniel Dennett give a talk at an atheist convention, where he introduced a concept he called “deepities”: thoughts that seem deep and profound, but on closer examination actually mean nothing. Specifically, Dennett defines a “deepity” as “a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless.” (“Love is just a word” was the example he gave.) It’s like the mice said in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Sounds good, but doesn’t tie you down to actually meaning anything.”

“Oh My God” could easily have been re-titled “Deepities On Parade.”

“God is in the open spaces between us.” “God is the essence of nature.” “God has something to do with the excitement of the unknown.” “We need to feel God, not to understand God.” “God is that which is bigger than we are.” “God is goodness.” “God is like an energy which gives love and happiness.” “God for me is more of a direction, an indication of a course, rather than a continent or a destination.” And, of course, “God is love.”

Woo. Deep. Sounds good, but doesn’t tie you down to actually meaning anything.

But that’s only the beginning of what frosted my cookies about this movie. More seriously:

Oh My God India The director journeyed to the ends of the earth to ask people, “What is God?” He gathered dozens of answers to this question, ranging from concrete creator gods to vague, abstract deepities.

But in virtually none of the answers do we get a reason for why the believers believe — or any evidence or reasons for why they think their beliefs are probably correct.

It’s all, “It’s written.” Or, “I feel it in my heart.” Or just nothing. Just, “This is what I believe,” with zero thought or explanation offered as to why. The epistemology is in the toilet. The closest approximation to an actual “Here’s why I think God exists” reason is a Catholic priest offering the First Cause argument. And he offers it in the most simplistic, half-assed, Theology for Dummies way imaginable: essentially saying, “Well, gee, all this had to come from something, didn’t it?” Any competent atheist could shoot it down in seconds. (“If things don’t just come out of nothing and everything has to have been created, then who created God? And if God always just existed or somehow came into being out of nothing, then why can’t that be true for the universe?” See how I did that?)

Scarlet letter Pursuant to this: The movie gives atheists extremely short shrift. You’d think a movie asking the question, “What is God?” would pay a bit more attention to people whose answer is, “God is a non-existent imaginary being made up by people.” But no. Atheists in this movie are a sparse scattering of discordant voices in a ringing chorus of faith. Most prominently represented, for some reason, by Bob Geldof. (Nothing against Bob Geldof… but he’s not exactly a leading light of atheist thought.)

And that doesn’t just give the short end of the stick to atheists. It gives the short end to serious believers: believers who genuinely want to question their beliefs in order to better understand them. It’s not just atheists who are going to spend this movie tearing their hair out and screaming, “That’s such bullshit! That’s so vague! That’s so simplistic! Why do you believe that? Does that even make sense?” It’s also the kind of believers who read atheist blogs.

Maybe more to the point: Atheism is presented in this film as just another set of opinions about religion. There’s no exploration of why atheists don’t believe in God: no discussion of the lack of good evidence for religious belief, the positive arguments for atheism, the fact that every piece of “evidence” for religion comes from the insides of people’s heads, etc. You know — the actual reasons atheists are atheists. Atheism is presented as just another unsupported belief about God; just another thread in the great tapestry of human spirituality. (The black thread, I guess.)

Which leads me to what is probably my most serious complaint about this movie:

Nobody in this movie — absolutely nobody — makes a connection between this “We don’t have to prove anything” nature of religion… and the violence and war committed in its name.

A significant portion of this movie is devoted to why there’s so much hatred and conflict perpetrated in the name of religion. The ecumenical purveyors of vague deepities aren’t the only believers represented here. Also well-represented are the fervent believers that their religion, and only their religion, is the right one. The missionary to the African tribe, who’s convinced that every single person who hears about Jesus but doesn’t believe is going to Hell. The Muslim fundamentalist, who thinks that killing homosexuals is a good action in the sight of God. The “spirit-filled born-again Christian” gun seller in Texas, who doesn’t care whether people are Baptist or Methodist or non-denominational or Catholic or Jewish… as long as they believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, since he’s the only way. (And who also believes that God wants his followers to be well-armed.) The movie is very willing to be critical of religion when it’s bigoted or hateful or hostile. I’ll give it that.

But it’s almost entirely unwilling to look at the ways that the very nature of religion contributes to this hatred and violence. It pretends to examine the question of why there’s so much conflict in the name religion… but in fact, it totally punts it. It totally fails to connect the dots between how slippery and unverifiable religion is, and how hotly people defend it. There is no mention of the weird psychological paradox that when a belief is unsupported and unsupportable, people will rationalize and attach to it even more passionately… and there’s no mention of how this phenomenon is self-perpetuating, since people get more deeply attached to their beliefs the more they’ve committed to them. The film beats its breast in agony over the violence and war caused by religion… but in a maddening twisting of the brain, it’s entirely unwilling to see religion itself as even part of the cause.

Oh My God Bali PriestIt drove me up a fucking tree every time someone in the film insisted that the religious wars and violence and hatred and division aren’t really religion’s fault. No, no, of course not. It’s the fault of religious leaders, greedy and selfish and power-hungry, who manipulate the people. Or it’s the fault of religious followers, who don’t understand the true meaning of God (insert deepity here), who are driven by fear and ego and tribalism into thinking that their version of God must be the only right one, and into hating people who believe differently. Or the wars and violence and so on are really about something else: land, power, money, etc.

Of course religious wars and hatreds are complex — multi-factorial, as the social scientists say — with lots of causes feeding into them. But to deny the role that religion plays in religious conflicts is a textbook example of ignoring the elephant in the room. It’s like looking at an enormous steaming pile of elephant shit in the room, and going, “My goodness, where could all this elephant shit have come from? It must have been brought here by a greedy, selfish, power-hungry elephant trainer. Elephant? No, I don’t see any elephant here.”

What’s more, the film has an annoying tendency that’s far too common among progressive believers. It happily points the finger of blame at religious extremists, saying, “Those violent believers cherrypick the texts of their faith and ignore their true meaning”… without acknowledging that the peaceful ecumenicalists have no more basis for thinking that their understanding of their religion is the “true” one than anybody else, and are cherrypicking just as badly as the extremists, and are just as willfully blind to the parts of their religion that they don’t personally like. Near the end of the film, the director/ narrator says, “If only we open our hearts to tolerance and peace and love, which is what every single religion preaches…” AAAAAH! No, they don’t! That is just flatly not true! I don’t care how much you want to believe that God is Love — not every single religion preaches that!

Which leads me to my final point.

Oh My God Peter Rodger director At the end of the film, director Rodgers offer these “final thoughts”: “A lot of people turn to God when they just can’t cope anymore. Maybe it doesn’t matter if God is real for that person or not. What matters is that he or she believes he is real. It is their faith that counts.”

No.

No, no, no, no, no.

I reject this sentiment with all my being.

It fucking well matters what is real. It matters, probably more than anything. What people believe is interesting and important, sure. But the actual reality of the universe is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it. Pretty much by definition.

And this abdication of the responsibility to understand reality, this utter dismissal of reality in favor of pretty stories and profound-sounding deepities, this casual shrugging off of the question “What is real?” as if it were irrelevant trivia, is probably the thing I find most maddening about religious belief.

No matter how beautifully it’s filmed.

Oh My God. Documentary. Directed by Peter Rodger. Starring Ringo Starr, Hugh Jackman, Bob Geldof, Seal, David Copperfield (I wasn’t kidding about the celebrities), and dozens more. 93 minutes. Rodger Pictures. Unrated. Opens Friday, Nov. 27.

Comments

  1. says

    Hear, hear! Re: the “abdication of the responsibility to understand reality” – I have a friend I became reacquainted with after about 20 years who subscribes to this “What is real?” nonsense and it drives me freakin insane.
    The second I start steering a discussion of religion in the direction of “reality”, the whole thing immediately gets derailed with a barrage of deepities and typically ends with the “agree to disagree” shut-up truce.
    Very frustrating. Thanks for the great post.

  2. Mark A. Siefert says

    What did you expect? Despite the claims of the Christian Reich, Hollywood doesn’t like atheists any more than the Republican Party does. (When was the last positive portrayal of an atheist you saw on TV or in a movie?) The only difference is that the New Agey celebrities who are the movers and shakers in Tinseltown tend to prefer the “cosmic muffin” notion of God over the hick conservative’s “hairy thunderer.”
    Of course, in the end, both notions are utter bullcrap.

  3. says

    Mark Siefert wrote:
    “What did you expect? Despite the claims of the Christian Reich, Hollywood doesn’t like atheists any more than the Republican Party does. (When was the last positive portrayal of an atheist you saw on TV or in a movie?)
    Dr. Ellie Arroway in “Contact” — she’s was a positive portrayal of skeptical scientific atheist.

  4. says

    “The epistemology is in the toilet. The closest approximation to an actual “Here’s why I think God exists” reason is a Catholic priest offering the First Cause argument. And he offers it in the most simplistic, half-assed, Theology for Dummies way imaginable: essentially saying, “Well, gee, all this had to come from something, didn’t it?” Any competent atheist could shoot it down in seconds. (“If things don’t just come out of nothing and everything has to have been created, then who created God? And if God always just existed or somehow came into being out of nothing, then why can’t that be true for the universe?” See how I did that?)”
    I had one blog argument with somebody advancing a variation on this (in this comments thread, starting at Comment 4), basically, that existence ultimately needed an “uncaused cause”, and that the “uncaused cause” was none other than God. To this day, I can’t quite fathom what this person’s reasoning was – basically some version of Zeno’s Paradox that argues an infinite chain of causes is ultimately impossible.
    In any event, if I’m not mistaken, modern scientific cosmology has mooted the eternal universe hypothesis, since most evidence points to the idea that Time and the Universe actually had a discrete beginning. Not a theistic beginning, mind you, but a beginning nevertheless. As with most cosmology and cutting-edge physics, I’m afraid the nature of the proofs for this idea are a bit beyond me.

  5. says

    Dr. Ellie Arroway in “Contact” — she’s was a positive portrayal of skeptical scientific atheist.

    But after the “alien technology” craft takes them “away”, Ellie Arroway and her companions return, and describe encounters with people they thought dead. Their experiences sound remarkably similar to certain Hollywood depictions of the after life. And there’s no evidence they ever went anywhere. Their recording equipment recorded nothing. Yet they continue to believe in this unevidenced experience for the rest of the story.

  6. Spacesocks says

    I saw the trailer last night at the theater. I think that this kind of “there are no real differences between any of the ‘true’ religions” ecumenicalism is just as annoyingly dogmatic as fundamentalism (except obviously with less killing, which is good). My “favorite” part was when Hugh Jackman says, “If you put Buddha, Jesus Christ, Socrates, Shakespeare, Arjuna, and Krishna at a dinner table together, I can’t see them having any argument.” Facepalm. Yeah, way to value diversity. Let’s just smush everything together and then pretend it all boils down to the same happy platitudes.

  7. Randall says

    Actually, it’s true. If you sat Buddha, Jesus, Socrates, Shakespeare, Arjuna and Krishna at the same table they couldn’t possibly argue.
    I’d be surprised if any two of them spoke the same language.

  8. Snoof says

    (When was the last positive portrayal of an atheist you saw on TV or in a movie?

    Dr. Ellie Arroway in “Contact” — she’s was a positive portrayal of skeptical scientific atheist.

    So, more than ten years ago?

  9. says

    Well, the main character of House is supposed to be an atheist (on the show, although I think he is in real life, too). As far as I know, he hasn’t had any woo experiences like Dr. Arroway (either on-screen or in reality).
    All that aside, I’ll give this movie a pass, as I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to refrain from yelling, kicking things, throwing popcorn in the air and just generally giving atheists a bad name. Not that such behavior wouldn’t be justified, mind you, but it’s best to avoid temptation.

  10. amhovgaard says

    Both House and Bones are portrayed as damaged, cynical, more or less incapable of normal human emotional reactions and social contact – and of course, way too intelligent to be “normal”. But since the other TV/movie atheist stereotype is a sociopath, I guess that counts as “positive”…

  11. JL says

    “When was the last positive portrayal of an atheist you saw on TV or in a movie?”
    Brian Griffin from Family Guy.
    Capt. Mel Reynolds from Firefly.
    Capt. Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek TNG (yeah, an old example, but I only recently got into Trek).

  12. Alex says

    If you could get any theist to confide privately, I always imagine that they would say “Yes, I know that religion, my religion, all religion, causes war and suffering.
    But all believers want to achieve peace and harmony. And religion is the only way to get there.” [end of thought process for all time] They cannot be definition and design see any other way of thought that could possibly result in a better world.
    And this makes me feel hopeless and tired.

  13. says

    What I find most interesting is that the producers of this film clearly didn’t have any idea they were doing this. No doubt, they thought that they were producing something profound and meaningful – and if you pointed out to them that their masterwork consists of a collection of vacuous platitudes and happy-clappy glossing over the real differences among competing religions, they’d be nonplussed.
    This says a lot about the epistemology they brought to the project. As Greta observed, religious moderates and liberals are just like religious fundamentalists – they start out with the conclusion they intend to reach, namely that all religions are the same – and then do just enough research to circle back around to that point. Their conclusions may be different from fundamentalists, but their methods are very much the same. But the more that atheists are willing to call them out on this, the harder I think it will be for them to get away with it.

  14. Bruce Gorton says

    JL | November 30, 2009 at 10:06 AM
    Brian is an alchoholic. Admittedly the rest of the Family Guy crew are screwed up – but still not really a positive portrayal.
    Mal is the “Dead sister” type atheist, which has its own problems.
    Picard is cool though.
    A name I would add to the list, even though it is British, Nick Angel of Hot Fuzz.

  15. says

    “Mal is the “Dead sister” type atheist, which has its own problems.”
    Never heard it put that way…right on the money though. If the Independent’s command hadn’t surrendered and hung him out to dry at Serenity Valley, he’d likely still be kissing that crucifix he sported around his neck.

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