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.
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:
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?)
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.
It 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.
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.
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.