God's Not Dead - An Atheist's Review
I went to see this film with another atheist friend of mine. Why? To see what it was about. To see if it was a ruse that was really created by an atheist. What we found, however, was more of the same that the Christian movie genre is known for - blatant appeals to fear and emotion, one logical fallacy after another, poor arguments, bad rationalizations and misconstruing atheists in general. It also successfully denigrated Islam, Asian cultures and other Christian stereotypes in blatant and obvious ways.
We got to the theater early for the first showing. We were the only two people in the theater. As it got closer to movie time, a few more people trickled in, but there couldn't have been more than 15-20 people in the entire theater, including us. What was more disturbing was the fact that a few mothers brought in all of their children to watch, and given the content of the movie, I found it slightly inappropriate. The low turnout could be due to the fact that we saw it on a Sunday morning, and the majority of Christians may have been dutifully in church. Whatever the reason, I hope that the low attendance is indicative of the films low success. It genuinely wasn't something worth watching - even for entertainment purposes.
This is what the worst philosophy teacher EVER wanted his students to write
The Premise and Analysis
The film begins with college freshman Josh Wheaton going to his first round of classes. He is warned away from an Introduction to Philosophy class by one of the registrars due to the fact that he is wearing a cross necklace. The professor (played by Kevin Sorbo) is a blatant anti-theist. He opens his class by asking his students to write "God is Dead" on a piece of paper so that they can skip the first three sections of class debating the existence of god. First of all, no philosophy professor I know would ever behave in such a manner. I have taken philosophy classes in both Christian and secular colleges, and the professor's religious belief has never entered into the equation - at least not to the end of the term. Philosophy is all about openly discussing and debating ideas, and by broadcasting their own beliefs, professors can isolate students who feel differently, making open communication difficult. Josh refuses to write on the paper - and he is told the alternative. He has to argue the existence of god in three presentations with the professor, and if he fails to do it successfully, he will fail the class outright. This is also unrealistic.
Kevin Sorbo has got to be the worst Atheist ever - even though he is religious in his personal life, which possibly explains it. While many atheists are indeed angry at some of the things proposed and carried out by religion and the people who follow religions, we are not angry people. I enjoy a good debate, but I don't go around calling people names because of my atheism. I try to be open and receptive to conflicting ideas. Sometimes I'm more successful than others, but I'm a human being.
Josh, against the advise of his parents and his girlfriend (who dumps him because of it) decides to proceed. His arguments are predictable and overplayed, and he is harassed at every turn by the professor. All atheists in the film are portrayed as angry, irrational and immoral people, while most of the Christians (with the exception of Josh's girlfriend who dressed somewhat provocatively and left him in the dust for standing up for his beliefs) are portrayed as patient, caring and genuine people. There is the definitive projection that all of the atheists are lost, lonely and broken people, which is so far from the truth that it is blatantly funny.
Eventually, Josh "beats" the professor by getting him to admit in front of the class that he hates god, therefore agreeing that he believes he exists. Professor Radisson is not an atheist. He's an anti-theist, and any professor worth his salt would know who is/is not a philosopher. Josh converts at least one of his classmates, unsurprisingly, after a standing show of support for his dedication. Professor Radisson is struck by a car, and happens across Pastor Dave, who prompts him to convert before dying - which he does - exemplifying the "no atheists in foxholes" fallacy, which is ANOTHER blatantly untrue statement. The Newsboys perform, and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Sure, except for those of us who enjoy reality - not inaccurate caricatures, logical fallacies and falsehoods at every single turn.
The Movie Trailer
Would you be inclined to see this movie?
My friend and I played atheist bingo with a scorecard of fallacies and fallacious appeals to be checked off when appropriate throughout the film. Needless to say, we covered the entire board by the time the movie was over, and were even able to write down extras just for additional points.
1. Strawman - the entire character of the professor was a stereotypical strawman atheist, that the upstanding Christian was able to tear down. The reason for this is simple - while I'm sure that atheists like Kevin Sorbo's character do exist, they're hardly the majority. No philosophy professor would act this way, make those demands of freshmen students or admit his hatred for a deity that he doesn't truly believe exists. It's ridiculous.
2. Appeal to Authority - neither Josh or the professor seem to be able to make any point in any argument without appealing to an authority, misquoting them or misrepresenting what that authority actually said.
3. Appeal to emotion - The film's sweeping soundtrack at the moment of the professor's accident and his following roadside conversion are designed to initiate an emotional response. It's designed to trigger a fear of death and the unknown, and prompt a reaction from the audience. Even though I'm an atheist now, I was raised in a Baptist home, and I felt familiar sensations rising in me while watching the film. It accomplished it's immediate purpose, but failed to convert me (again) overall because the fallacies are too obvious to someone accustomed to identifying them and pointing them out.
4. Burden of Proof - when Josh is first tasked to defend God's existence, the first things practically out of his mouth is "well, you can't prove that god DOESN'T exist. What many Christians fail fundamentally to realize is that atheists do not HAVE to disprove the existence of God. The Theists are the ones making a positive claim in asserting that God exists. It is up to them to prove it. It is fundamentally impossible to prove the non-existence of anything. Try it. Try to disprove that invisible unicorns exist. It can't be done. Shifting the burden of proof is a key tactic in Christian debates with atheists and agnostics, and they fail to see the key flaw in this type of reasoning, yet when you corner them and try to get them to disprove the existence of a rival god (like Allah) they are eager to point out that they don't have to. You can't have it both ways.
5. Argument from Ignorance - not being able to prove that something doesn't exist doesn't mean that it's a justifiable reason to believe that it does.
6. Special Pleading- All of the way through the film, Josh gets away with just saying something is true without being required to back it up with actual, I don't know, evidence. He asserts that Genesis got it right, while science got it wrong. He asserts that God didn't need to be created. He states things as fact, and is not called out on them nearly as often as he should be - even by other Christians.
While I never expected a movie of this nature to portray atheists fairly (or even correctly) I was surprisingly concerned when the film couldn't even define us properly. The arguments insisted that the atheist position is that there are no gods, then called agnosticism the "weaker" position of unknowing. The truth of the matter is that most atheists have a lack of belief in god/gods because no god has been proven. Strong atheism is the assertion that there are no gods, and such an assertion cannot be definitively proven in my opinion. It successfully shifts the burden of proof onto the atheist, instead of keeping it where it belongs with the theist. Additionally, atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. I classify myself as an atheist agnostic because I do not believe in any god, but I cannot know for certain whether or not a god exists based on an abject lack of evidence. This movie is not designed to make you think. It's not intellectual. It's emotional. It's designed to make you feel for the underdog and root for him to succeed despite all of the obstacles in his path. It's designed to make you happy when the die-hard atheist converts before dying, and puts your own mortality in check. It implies that no one would want to die without god in case they've been wrong - and effectively utilizes Pascal's wager in it's closing few sequences.
Don't waste your time or your money on this film. It is not the best film in this genre that I've seen. In fact, it's one of the worst. If you want to see a film about debating between atheists and theists, I would recommend "My Week in Atheism" - at least it's honest and real. It's a documentary, not a film. If I wanted to see a film, I'd go see Noah. At least it's entertaining, and God's not Dead wasn't even that, even if you went to see it just for comedic value (ironically, it is listed as a comedy/drama). God's Not Dead is basically an 1.5 hour spot promoting the Newsboys, where everyone converts and yay god. It's really not worth the effort - and I would say that even about a film of this caliper from the atheist side. Lastly, any film that would have to have a cameo appearance of a member of Duck Dynasty with their recent controversies is not one that I should have paid money to go see. While it was a bonding experience with my friend, it was a waste of energy to get out of bed. Find a movie that is at the very least intellectually challenging - not one that suspends thinking altogether by using bad arguments, fallacies and outright deception to deliver its core message.
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© 2014 Julie McFarland