Atheist films

Sometimes I feel that my local newspaper The Plain Dealer‘s motto must be “All Catholic News All the Time”. It has devoted an endless number of news stories to the decision by the local bishop to shut down a number of churches and consolidate those parishes with others. We had stories about the anguish of the parishioners, their defiance, their appeals to the Vatican to overturn the rulings, their elation when many of the appeals were successful, and their work in reconstituting the parishes. Many of these stories got front page, above the fold coverage.

I was frankly sick of it. There was a story to be told to be sure, but given that Catholics are an aging and dwindling community, this level of intense coverage seemed completely out of proportion to its importance. The newspaper also never fails to cover this or that celebration of some local parish and their annual parades in honor of their saints.

In addition, it has a special page every Saturday devoted to religious news along with an opinion piece by some local religious leader or, failing that, by one of their sports reporters who seems to be quite religious. Since a monopoly newspaper with dwindling circulation does not want to risk annoying any readers, these articles are largely innocuous, the usual banal, ecumenical, middle-of the road, ‘why can’t we all get along’, ‘all god wants is for us to love one another’, ‘even when tragedy strikes believe that god loves you and has a plan for you’, religious pap that one can find uttered by any mainstream church, mosque, or synagogue on their respective holy days.

I usually glance at this page and quickly move on but my attention was arrested last Saturday by an article reproduced from Religion News Service about atheist film festivals. Apparently one has been held in San Francisco for the last four years and is growing. The organizer says that their criteria for selecting a film is that “it shows at least one atheist figure in a positive light” and their pool of potential films is large enough now that they can turn away films that are too preachy or otherwise poorly made. The film The Ledge that I gave a negative review to fits the category of a poorly-conceived film.

It turns out that this is not the only film festival with an explicitly secular bent. Portland, Oregon will be hosting their third Humanist Film Festival,while Denver just hosted the International Freethought Film Festival.

Two films that were mentioned in the article were ones I would like to see. One is the documentary The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today, the courageous story of the late Vashti McCollum who defied intense hostility from her Champaign, Illinois community because she challenged the local school district’s policy of granting “release time” for the teaching of religion in school buildings during the school day to those students and parents who agreed to it. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court by an 8-1 vote ruled the policy unconstitutional. This was the first time that religious instruction in public schools was explicitly ruled to be unconstitutional under the U.S. constitution.

Here’s the trailer for that film.

Another film I’d like to see is the 2011 comedy Salvation Boulevard starring Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Ed Harris, Marisa Tomei, Sam Elliot, and Jennifer Connolly that, despite its cast, did not seem to have succeeded in making an impact. I missed it when it was released but it is due to be out on DVD in September.

Here’s the trailer:

In addition to films, atheist characters are appearing more frequently on TV as this list illustrates. One character not on that list is Dexter, perhaps because, as a serial killer, he is not quite sympathetic even though his targets are themselves killers.

A good sign of mainstream acceptance is when films and TV start showing characters either sympathetically or as simply regular people living normal lives. Gays have become mainstreamed this way and it looks like atheists are now entering that phase as well.


  1. David Hart says

    their criteria for selecting a film is that “it shows at least one atheist figure in a positive light”

    I would have thought that the criteria were that it had to show (1) two named atheist characters (2) who talk to each other (3) about something other than a god.

    /bechdel nerdery

    Oh, and can I be a terrible grammar nazi and point out that when you only have one criterion, you shouldn’t use ‘criteria’, which is the plural form?

  2. mcrumiller says

    Atheist characters have definitely been gaining more prominence in the media, but amusingly they are almost always portrayed along a false spectrum of rational versus emotional. For example:

    Sherlock (BBC show) – almost devoid of emotion, genius who follows rationality to the extreme, at the expense of human emotion.

    House M.D. – closet sociopath, genius, at the expense of having human emotion.

    Tyrion (Game of Thrones)–amusingly, in a world made-up religions, but he fits the same profile: incredibly rational, very human with emotions, but also somewhat hard and uncaring.

    I can’t really think of others, but it is definitely a theme that I’ve noticed. Characters are atheists because they rely on their senses and don’t believe in “myths,” but the show always sets up the story somehow that being rational results in their downfall or a reduction of their humanity.

  3. lorn says

    What’s that … Dexter not sympathetic … bite your tongue. I find the character to be very sympathetic.

    Media outlets, newspapers and such, often focus on one particular area simply as a matter of laziness. I talked to a reporter and he pointed out that the organizations who show up a lot tend to be organizations that make a point of spoon feeding the media outlet with their POV or information.

    In this case I bet the Catholic diocese have essentially written the stories that show up in the paper. Most papers are looking for content and a well written piece they can use or adapt for free will often get picked up. Of course once the editor gets in the habit of using the pieces written for or by the church they tend to keep on doing it.

    The lesson here is that Atheists need to produce, distribute, and promote their own stream of stories and announcements. They have to arrive in a timely manner so the papers have material to use when they need filler.

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