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The movie Noah has just been released, but as I intend to wait until I can get the DVD from Netflix, I have not seen it yet.  Quite frankly, I do not have much enthusiasm for the prospect of watching it.  Though I have seen a lot of biblical films, I have yet to see one that I enjoyed. And so I started wondering:  What is it about biblical films that I do not like?  Is it that the stories in the Bible never happened, at least not the way they were set down?  That cannot be it, for I like all sorts of movies about things that never happened.  Perhaps it is because the movies diverge from the original myth, which is one of the criticisms I have heard leveled against Noah.  But dramatists have been changing stories to suit their purposes since Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon, and often for the better.  Maybe it is the existence of supernatural beings that bothers me.  But that did not ruin Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for me, or, for that matter, The Exorcist (1973), a movie that definitely presupposes the truth of Christianity.

Maybe it is not truth that is critical, but morality.  Bill Maher has condemned the movie Noah in that it depicts God as a “psychotic mass murderer.”  In fact, such criticism is hardly limited to the story of Noah.  There is much in The Old Testament attributed to God that we regard as immoral today.  But I enjoy movies about immoral people, so why not immoral gods?  The gods of Greek mythology are often immoral, but that never spoils our enjoyment of the stories told about them.

I believe the problem is one of attitude.  Biblical movies invariably suffer from the oppressive weight of reverence, the sense that we are supposed to stand in awe of God, that we must bow our heads, fall to our knees, and worship him in all his glory.  I get queasy just thinking about it.  Some people are atheists because they are unable believe that God exists; some are atheists because they are unable to believe that God is good; but some are atheists because they are unable to get down on their knees and abase themselves before the face of God.  This last reason, though it seldom gets as much attention as the first two, I believe to be characteristic of atheism in general, whatever the primary reason for disbelief.

Moving beyond biblical movies, it is primarily this feature that distinguishes religious movies that atheists might enjoy from ones they cannot.  A good example of this is The Godless Girl (1929).  Judy and Bob are high school students.  Judy is a militant atheist, who holds meetings ridiculing religion, accompanied by a monkey as a prop, whom she refers to as our cousin.  Bob is a Christian fundamentalist who leads a bunch of like-minded fanatics on a raid of one of those meetings.  A melee breaks out, during which a girl dies accidentally.  Bob and Judy are sent to a reform school.  After enduring much brutality, they escape and fall in love.  While bathing in a river, Judy admires the beauty of nature, made no less beautiful by a naked Judy, and she thinks how she might almost believe in a God who created it.  Bob, on the other hand, recalling all horrors of the reform school, says there is no way he can believe in a God who would allow such things to happen.  So far there is balance between the two.  But notwithstanding the fact that this is a pre-Code movie, I knew that it would be required that Judy pray to God before the movie was over.  I thought of San Francisco (1936) and The Spiral Road (1962), where the atheists in those two movies eventually kneel and humble themselves before God, and so I braced myself for the inevitable.

They are captured and returned to the reform school.  Bob is handcuffed to the bench in his cell, but Judy is handcuffed to a pipe above her head.  Within the movie, this was just another act of cruelty perpetrated by the guard.  But from outside the movie, it just did not make sense, since handcuffed like that she would not be able to use the bucket, but would have to foul her pants when she needed to defecate.  I suspected there was a reason this was put in the movie, but I could not figure out what it was.  But soon all was revealed.  A fire breaks out in the reform school, and Judy is forgotten about as the flames close in around her.  In desperation, she prays.  It is a conditional kind of prayer, not exactly expressing full belief, but more importantly, she cannot kneel.  She thus retains her dignity, literally standing tall, and thus figuratively as well.

After Judy is saved by Bob, they rescue the brutal guard, whose dying wish is that they be pardoned, and so they are.  As they ride away from the prison, Bob curses the foul place, but Judy says that it was in that prison that they learned to believe, and let believe.  It is not clear exactly what each believes at this point, but they will clearly tolerate each other’s views, whatever they may be.  More importantly, because we were not treated to a vulgar display of humiliation and self-abasement on the part of Judy, this is a movie an atheist can enjoy, regardless of what Judy may or may not believe in the end.

In a sense, this aversion to the posture of worship and reverence extends well beyond the nonbeliever and into the general population.  The typical hero in a movie may believe in God, but the subject rarely comes up.  He certainly does not regularly attend church on Sundays. And as for Bible study in the middle of the week?  Don’t be absurd.  Unless the movie is biblical, or at least set in the distant past, if a character is excessively devout and pious, he usually turns out to be a hypocrite or a fool, as in Elmer Gantry (1960) or Inherit the Wind (1960).  Of course, women in the movies are allowed to be more religious than men without suffering any disparagement, and in such a case, her husband can go along, so to speak, as in Friendly Persuasion (1956) or Tender Mercies (1983).  But if it is the man who is more religious than his wife, then watch out, especially if he has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fingers. In any event, if the general audience enjoys seeing excessively religious figures in a bad light, then all the more so can such be enjoyed by atheists.  But movies mocking the devout are not really religious movies, and thus do not count, just as movies about the Devil, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Angel Heart (1987) do not count.  Finally, irreligious movies like Bedazzled (1967) or Religulous (2008) do not count either.

Rather, what I have in mind are religious movies that are inspirational, generating those feelings often associated with religion in a positive sense, and yet in such a way as can be enjoyed by an atheist.  The Razor’s Edge (1946) is well known and requires little comment. The fact that the principal character gets much of his inspiration from his trip to India, thereby stepping outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, may account for its being palatable to atheists. Groundhog Day (1993) would make an excellent Christmas movie were it not for the fact that the story is firmly attached to February 2.  Much like the notion of reincarnation, Bill Murray has to keep reliving the same day over and over again until he makes enough spiritual progress to move on.  Except for one brief upward-looking gesture on the part of Murray, when a homeless man dies, the role of God, or belief in such, is practically nonexistent.

A less well-known movie is Strange Cargo (1940).  God, in human form, slips into a penal colony and joins a bunch of prisoners in an escape, along with a prostitute.  Each of them, with one exception, comes to repent his wickedness and transcend his selfish nature.  God seems to act only as a catalyst, employing no supernatural powers, and even has to be saved from drowning by Clark Gable.  Needless to say, this God demands no worship, reverence, or self-abasement.

Finally, there is an unusual religious movie that an atheist can enjoy, although it is not inspirational (at least, I hope not), and is not ruled out by any of my criteria, like being about the Devil or being sacrilegious.  The movie is Gabriel Over the White House (1933), set in the early thirties, during the Great Depression.  The president is like Warren G. Harding, a man of dubious morals.  He believes in limited government, saying unemployment and organized crime are local matters, which gives him more time to fool around with his mistress.  Being reckless, he crashes his car while speeding, and ends up in a coma.  Gabriel infuses the spirit and wisdom of God into the president, and then wakes him up.  He becomes a dictator with the symbolic trappings of Lincoln.  He disbands Congress under threat of martial law, puts the unemployed to work, suspends habeas corpus, has gangsters rounded up and executed by firing squad, and that is just his domestic policy.  Then he demands that the European countries pay their war debts, which they will be able to afford, because they don’t need a military anymore, they just need to do what America says, or else they will be destroyed. Having established peace and prosperity, he dies.  And what is important is that throughout this fascist fantasy, though inspired by God, he never goes to church or gets on his knees to pray, and thus the movie is devoid of any sense of reverence or worship.

So there are religious movies an atheist can enjoy, but they are for the most part set in modern times, because the general public is not too keen on seeing displays of sincere piety and devotion in the modern setting either.  The public’s tolerance for this sort of thing, however, increases the further back one goes into the past, until we reach biblical times, where it is deemed appropriate and even expected, and thus likely to prove insufferable to an atheist. It is for this reason that I look forward to watching Noah with a sense of dread.

Originally posted to disinterested spectator on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 05:56 PM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Progressive Atheists.

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Comment Preferences

  •  if you're an atheist who's into catastrophe movies (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pierre9045, PSzymeczek

    the Rapture movies are great fun - total mindless nonsense of course

    We're shocked by a naked nipple, but not by naked aggression.

    by Lepanto on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 06:18:50 PM PDT

    •  How could I have left that out? (0+ / 0-)

      If you are referring to The Rapture (1991), I should have included that in my essay.  Mimi Rogers’ defiance against God did my heart good.  I guess you also mean Final:  The Rapture (2013).  If not, or if you meant something else, let me know.

      •  Lepanto may mean the Left Behind series: (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        2001    Left Behind: The Movie
        2002    Left Behind II: Tribulation Force
        2005    Left Behind: World at War

        I don't know anyone who's seen any of them, so I won't offer a comment.

        Dick Cheney 2/14/10: "I was a big supporter of waterboarding"

        by Bob Love on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 06:48:09 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Frailty (2001) (nt) (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    worldlotus, koosah

    "Woe unto ye beetles of South America." -- Charles Darwin, about to sail on The Beagle, 1831

    by Katakana on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 06:20:25 PM PDT

  •  Stigmata. And Constantine. (nt) (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    •  I'll put them in my Netflix queue (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Yasuragi, worldlotus
      •  Constantine is based on comic, just so you know. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Meant to add Dogma but see that you did not care for it.

        Dogma & Constantine are two of my keeper films (willing to own).  To me "keepers" either inspire, makes one ponder, teach, escape, transfix, feel in a profound way. Whether they were box office hits or cult classics...or not.

        I think Dogma brilliant & hilarious & was somehow a "breath of fresh air" when it came out.

        Constantine was a delightful surprise; one hard for me to categorize.  But one I will watch more than once-much like a book that one re-reads at intervals over life's journey..

        Life of Pi & Cloud Atlas are amongst my keepers. Both contain elements of spirituality depending on the eyes watching them.

        Stigmata is not one of my keepers.

  •  I find Kevin Smith's two religious movies to (5+ / 0-)

    interesting comments on Christianity.  Dogma and Red State hardly seem like the work of a guy who considers himself a sincere Catholic, but Smith does. He recently said his (atheist) wife gets a bit techy with him when they fly places. He always says a prayer to keep her safe and she doesn't think it's necessary.  Heh.  

    Love the idea of Alanis Morissette as God in Dogma.  

    "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." ~Edward Abbey

    by koosah on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 06:48:20 PM PDT

    •  I find them to *BE* interesting comments... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      "Preview" is your friend!

      "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." ~Edward Abbey

      by koosah on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 06:51:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  "Dogma" is centered around a certain (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      worldlotus, Yasuragi, koosah, PSzymeczek

      type of thinking, where the point is to figure out the rules and do the bare minimum, or get around them.  I enjoyed that part of it a great deal.

      The dossier on my DKos activities during the Bush administration will be presented on February 3, 2014, with an appendix consisting an adjudication, dated "a long time ago", that I am Wrong.

      by Inland on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 08:06:54 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I think Smith is indeed a Catholic (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      koosah, quarkstomper

      one that truly loves that part of his identity, to have written such a brilliant commentary of what is commonly considered the Catholic religion, and all the subtext behind religious dogma.

      "In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” -Confucius

      by pierre9045 on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 08:47:48 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I dunno if yer into this sort of thing... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ... but I'm a huge fan of [director] Ken Russel. He uses some pretty heavy handed religious imagery in his films, though I'm pretty sure this is not what you had in mind when talking about "religious movies."

    Here's an [R-rated] YouTube I found introducing him:

    Everything Right is Wrong Again - TMBG (lyrics)

    by GreenPA on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 06:48:46 PM PDT

  •  The Oppressive Weight of Reverence (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    koosah, Yasuragi

    Your comment about the oppressive weight of reverence reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayer's radio drama about the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King.  In her commentary to the published script of the play, she speaks of her struggles to keep the stained-glass intonations out of the actors's performances.  Her play was highly controversial at the time because she had the characters speaking in colloquial modern-day English instead of the King James Version received by Moses on Sinai.  She even had a couple of the disciples using American slang!  Blasphemy!

    I'm curious how you feel about Kevin Smith's film Dogma.  It pokes fun at some aspects of Christianity, Catholicism in particular, but I don't really see it as an irreligious movie.  But then, I have a weird sense of theology.

    It's not a movie, but have you ever read Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett?  It's a humorous take on the End Times, particularly on films like The Omen and stories about the Antichrist.  Even though it bases it's assumptions on Bible Literalism (the book's prologue is set in 4004 BC), it is a very humanistic book.  And funny.

    Read my webcomic, "Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine" at

    by quarkstomper on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 06:51:20 PM PDT

  •  You missed the main reason I don't like (11+ / 0-)

    biblical movies.  When I walk out of Lord of the Rings, it is over when the movie is over.  No one takes Sauron seriously and I don't have to risk inadvertently insulting someone by talking about how silly the movie is.  When the movie is over, its over.

    Similarly, for non-biblical movies, when they mirror life too much the fun also ends.  How many ex-Clancy fans no longer read his books after the surreal experience of the Bush administration?  Bush wrecked Clancy for me, I can tell you that much.

    Bottom line: Fantasy is no fun when you can't be sure if the people around you realize it is a fantasy.

    And we love to wear a badge, a uniform / And we love to fly a flag But I won't...let others live in hell / As we divide against each other And we fight amongst ourselves

    by ban48 on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 06:54:09 PM PDT

  •  I always thought it was Jesus in 'Strange Cargo' (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    With things like drawing out the poison, and especially at the end with hanging onto the floating wood in the ocean in the classic 'crucifixion' pose. One of my favorite movies akshully, some excellent performances, a great collection of marvelous 30s character actors, and Joan Crawford looked stunning (especially for a woman running through a swamp). I'm really surprised others remember it!

    Other religious films I can think of offhand; I actually did like much of 'Passion of the Christ', 'Ben Hur', 'Clash of the Titans' (both old AND new!), and 'Jesus of Nazareth' be ause it portrayed a Jesus with a message that I could actually believe in.

    "When does the greed stop, we ask the other side? That's the question and that's the issue." - Senator Ted Kennedy

    by Fordmandalay on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 07:14:36 PM PDT

    •  Jungle eroticism (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Your remark about Joan Crawford running through the swamp and still looking good reminds me of The Most Dangerous Game (1932).  As Fay Wray runs through the jungle, her clothes keep getting snagged and torn, so that she is most scantily clad by the end, looking much better than she did in the castle.

      I’ll look for the Jesus imagery the next time I watch it.

  •  I actually liked Ben Hur (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    roberb7, PSzymeczek

    There's a scene, early on, where Jesus (although he's not named as such) stares down a Roman Centurion.

    Only the Son of God could stare down a Roman Centurion!

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 07:25:26 PM PDT

  •  "Saved!" - a non-mocking look at fundies. (4+ / 0-)

    Saved! (2004) is about a devoutly Christian teen girl who has sex with her best friend to "cure" him of being gay, and gets pregnant - and how this affects her entire Christian community.

    Rather like "Galaxy Quest," it does poke fun at the excesses of the zealous uber-believers, but it does so with the respect of an insider, and it also shows what people get out of that belief.

    Best line in the film: After the biggest self-righteous "good girl" literally throws her Bible at Mary and hits her, Mary picks up the book and snaps, "This is NOT a weapon!" (I only wish more Christians believed that one.)

    Thank God, the Bob Fosse Kid is here! - Colin Mochrie

    by gardnerhill on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 07:36:26 PM PDT

  •  Life of Brian (6+ / 0-)

    Look on the sunny side of life

    •  Yes! Yes! Yes! (0+ / 0-)

      My favorite Easter movie.

      Ben Hur, even before I saw Charlton Heston descend into Alzheimer's-induced gun fetishism, made my stomach churn, even when I still went to church as a kid.  I've always found displays of forced reverence extremely painful to watch, which is how I wound up an atheist, I suppose.  That and I just can't understand how anyone could take as positive and loving a philosophy as the one created by Jesus, graft on some supernatural elements stolen from a cult of bull-worship, and then turn around and use it as justification to oppress, burn, torture and hate "others," whoever those others are at the moment.  It's a strange phenomenon.

  •  How come no one is mentioning (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close?

    Two films about angels among us without too heavy a load of godliness.  I love them both, though Faraway is a bit ragged.  But Wings of Desire is one of the most beautiful films I've seen.  NB:  Do not confuse it with City of Angels, allegedly based on it: if it was based on WoD, it was done most disrespectfully, completely missing the meaning in the original.

    Incidentally, both films are set in Berlin, with Wings of Desire being before the wall came down, and Faraway So Close set afterwards.  It offers some very cool insights into life there before and after.

    What we need is a miracle; what we need is some time; what we need is an angel of Mercy in this life... Are you tough enough: can you take the heat? Are you tough enough: to walk in the burning street -- Johnny Clegg

    by Yasuragi on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 08:20:34 PM PDT

  •  Okay, so far no one has mentioned... (0+ / 0-)

    The Big Kahuna (2000).  I'm an atheist, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  I'm no movie critic, and seldom go to movies at all, but what it had for me was a message of tolerance.  I think that's also the message in the current "New Yorker" article about the Branch Davidian massacre at Waco.  Any thoughts, folks?

    "There is no way to give to honest toil its just reward--its full share of all wealth produced--but by the full application of the single tax. And righteousness and justice require it to be done." --A. Moll, 1897

    by Zwenkau on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 08:56:20 PM PDT

  •  Bill Maher is a mass murderer of comedy. ;) n/t (0+ / 0-)

    Pope Francis: the Thumb of Christ in the eyes of the Pharisees.

    by commonmass on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 10:43:17 PM PDT

  •  The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    by Pier Paolo Pasolini.   Brother Sun, Sister Moon, by Franco Zeffirelli, the story of St. Francis.  The fifth episode of Paisan, 1946  film directed by Roberto Rossellini.

    "There ain't no sanity clause." Chico Marx

    by DJ Rix on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 12:05:30 AM PDT

  •  Somehow I couldn't get past the third paragraph. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Some people are atheists because they are unable to believe "God" is good?  This statement implies that they do believe that a god exists.

    Some people are atheists because they are unable to kneel down and abase themselves before the face of "God." This also seems to imply belief.

  •  I'm finding most of the objections to Noah (0+ / 0-)

    are due to its perspective on the story not being from a "Christian" point of view. A bunch of fundies got the fact that Noah isn't their story rubbed in their face. I kind of love it.

    Several reviews (including one from a theologian friend of mine) have noted how Jewish the movie is. My theologian friend, incidentially, really loved the film.

    Dawkins is to atheism as Rand is to personal responsibility. uid 52583 lol

    by terrypinder on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 04:49:44 AM PDT

  •  BTW Saved (0+ / 0-)

    Saved should be on your list, as it's pretty much spot on despite it being a comedy.

    Dawkins is to atheism as Rand is to personal responsibility. uid 52583 lol

    by terrypinder on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 04:50:34 AM PDT

  •  Contact was supposedly a good movie (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    based on Carl sagan's novel of the same name.

    Earth decodes a message from outer space on how to build a machine that, it is supposed, will allow earth to make contact with the alien race.  Jodie foster plays the main character and an atheist and there is a major plot arc involving how this message is perceived by religious people and the influence they wield in the endeavor...

    I don't want to give too much away, but this is a great film for atheists and an interesting look at religion facing the question of extra terrestrial contact...

    If you didn't care what happened to me, and I didn't care for you, we would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain, occasionally glancing up through the rain, wondering which of the buggers to blame, and watching for pigs on the wing. R. Waters

    by No Exit on Mon Mar 31, 2014 at 06:35:25 AM PDT

  •  I know the series Cosmos is not (0+ / 0-)

    considered a box office movie per se,  but watching it every Sunday night makes it very clear that what we have learned about our universe through science is FAR more inspiring than any cosmic explanations that ANY religion has offered mankind.

  •  While I'm not an atheist (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'm not a Christian either, and I frequently have a hard time with overtly Christian movies and books -- sometimes even when they're being deliberately subversive of the story.  (Life of Brian is one exception to that.)

    I'm curious: did you see Prince of Egypt?  And if so, how did you find it?

  •  Last Temptation of Christ (0+ / 0-)

    An interesting alternative version of biblical "history"  which at the time infuriated some Christians, but in a way was subtly making a point in their favor.  I did not find it offensive to my Nontheism.

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