≡ Menu

Atheists and Christians Struggle to Define Their Art

Apparently, atheists and Christians have the same problem when it comes to art.

I surmise that from the following article at Debunking Christianity wherein the author,  Jonathan MS Pearce, asks, Why aren’t there more atheistic films? What’s an “atheistic film” you ask? The possible list is actually quite varied. For instance, Pearce cites what he considers “the first openly atheistic film”:

The superb The Invention of Lying by Ricky Gervais had some extraordinarily good scenes (the 10 Commandments scene is one of my favourite all-time scenes) and I would hail it as the first openly atheistic film.

Commenters submitted such films as Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bridge to TerabithiaThe Grey, Sidney Lumet’s, 12 Angry Men, Bedazzled, even Coneheads, for consideration in the “atheistic films” category.

Pearce also links to The Secular Web and a compilation of what they consider “atheist films.”  Interestingly enough, there’s only 5 listed, which I suppose proves their point that open atheism is a hard sell in Hollywood. Those films are

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian
  • Wise Blood
  • The Rapture
  • Contact

I’ve seen the majority of the films listed above and must say, I’m puzzled as to how they can be described as atheistic. But I’ll have to blog about that another time.

So what defines an “atheistic film”? Here’s where things get sticky. In fact, atheists seem to have the same problems defining “atheistic art” as Christians have with defining “Christian art.” For instance, Pearce suggests that “anything supernatural, magical or mysterious” cannot occur in an atheistic film, as supernaturalism contradicts an atheistic worldview. (Please note: I’ve suggested just the opposite in regards to Christian art.) Thus,

…in order to delve into such ideas of philosophy and religion, an atheistic film would more likely be a character driven drama than a special effects blockbuster with undertones of the supernatural or suspension of belief.

Notice the assumption that an “atheistic film” must “delve into such ideas of philosophy and religion” that, ultimately, articulate or demonstrate an atheistic outlook. This is the exact — though ideologically inverse — position of the Christian. Christian films and Christian fiction are also expected to “delve into such ideas of philosophy and religion” that comport to the biblical worldview. The problem being, in both cases, in order for a film or novel to be considered either atheist or Christian, dogma or beliefs must be articulated. In this way, atheists suffer the same intangibles as Christians in defining their art.

Pearce quotes (typos aplenty) one commenter wrestling with this tenuous intersection:

… i think the matter is related to how much an artist would want to put a clear and direct message in his film, without utlilizing ambiguity, which is not considered a good idea by most serious artists, i mean, the usual highbrow look towards films is that it is a fully rejected idea to make a film that hammers a point or a message and tries to squeeze down the audience throats… in my opinion, film watching (or reading books, or receiving any work of art in general) is a matter of exploration, the eventual work of art will be something that was jointly built by both the artist and the watcher, which requires leaving room for ambiguity, in order to give the viewer the chance to fill the gaps and personalize this work of art, that’s why, while i don’t specifically remmeber movied that directly make the case that God doesn’t exist, i certainly wouldn’t have considered such a film to be worth watching, at least for me, the artist has already mad ehis point, what is left for me to do?

I am SO fascinated by this. The commenter (I’m unsure what his/her religious or non-religious views are) shares the same position as me regarding the need for ambiguity in our art (see, for instance, An Argument for Ambiguity). So once again, it appears atheists and Christians are in the same boat when wrestling over how to incorporate beliefs and worldviews into their art.

Throughout the post and its comments, some recurring themes emerge defining what “atheistic films” might / should include: (1) a lead character who is an atheist, and (2) a dim view of religion. Once again, this is the diametric opposite of the Christian perspective. Just flip it: Christians define a “Christian film” as one which includes (1) a lead character who is [a believer], and (2) a [positive] view of religion. In other words, Christians and atheists are operating under the same premise, that art is a tool to further their ideologies.

Might I suggest that this is both groups’ problem. As long as we try to compress our worldviews into films and novels, not only are we turning our art into propaganda, we are making our worldviews “compressable,” doing terrible injustice to beliefs that are often far more nuanced and dreadfully important than any single book, novel, or character could encapsulate.

On this, Christians and atheists may be on common ground.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on Reddit
{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Bobby May 31, 2012, 9:05 AM

    Agreed. Sometimes you really want to tell an atheist, we have a religion of belief. You have a religion of unbelief. There you go.

    And Christians are so NOT the only ones who preach from their art. I’d even give the edge to Christians in that at least we recognize it and try to do better (well, some of us).

  • Jim Hamlett May 31, 2012, 11:56 AM

    Mike, I’m with you on the need for ambiguity in art. In Christian art, I think it’s possible to have a clear presentation of worldview, and still raise questions/issues for which no answer is given. Leave that “adventure” to the reader, film goer, etc. Christian writers (or more accurately, writers who are Christian), need to make readers think–but not necessarily give all the answers (if they even exist).

    • Mike Duran June 1, 2012, 5:31 AM

      Jim, this idea of “making readers think rather than giving them all the answers” is a source of controversy among Christians and, apparently, atheists. My recent post Why Christian Fiction Should NOT Provide Answers evoked some spinoff posts that were none too kind to the notion. Bottom line: If we’re going to demand a category called “Christian” or “atheist” anything, it must “delve into such ideas of philosophy and religion,” which inevitably prevents nuance. thanks for commenting!

  • L. Simmons May 31, 2012, 2:24 PM

    Its a weird list of films there represnting atheistic art. Wise Blood, the book, was written by a devout Catholic. And Contact the movie veered from Sagans book to include a namby pamby New Age preacher, clearly softening the hard atheism. And 12 Angry Men??? huge stretch

  • Tim George May 31, 2012, 4:51 PM

    Always playing the devil’s advocate I guess but… A very popular TV series just ended its seven-year run (HOUSE) with a main character who was adamantly atheistic and preachy about it. Secondary characters like Dr. Wilson were allowed to have mildly agnostic and even wistfully hopeful ideas about a possible afterlife. But House’s intellect and personality was allowed to make the strongest argument for there being no God. Even in the final episode House’s crisis decision was to either let go and to slip into nothingness are to quit being selfish and decide to live to be with his best friend who was dying.

    With all that said, I guess it is virtually impossible to have a character with a firm ideology in which that ideology does not in some form or fashion takes center stage. So what are our options in fiction? Only allow characters these beliefs are so nebulous they are never articulated? I really am only asking questions as I don’t know what the right answer is.

    • Mike Duran June 1, 2012, 5:47 AM

      Tim, my point in this post was not so much to argue for ambiguity (which I have done and will continue to do), but to show that when we force a connection between a belief system (whether Christianity or atheism) and art, we inevitably paint ourselves into this corner. I’m surprised you don’t find this connection between “Christian art” and “atheist art” more interesting…

      • Tim George June 1, 2012, 5:57 AM

        But I do find it interesting. Which is why I’ll ask my question again: “So what are our options in fiction? Only allow characters whose beliefs are so nebulous they are never articulated?”

        Again using the illustration of the show House, did that story paint itself into a corner by having a main character who consistently espoused atheism? In some ways, agreeing with your premise, I think it did.

        • Mike Duran June 1, 2012, 6:26 AM

          “So what are our options in fiction?”

          1.) Articulate your beliefs and win some readers
          2.) Articulate your beliefs and lose some readers.
          3.) Admit the label “Christian ANYTHING” creates problems.
          4.) Just do art.

          • Tim George June 1, 2012, 6:30 AM

            I agree on the options and as for me, I choose number four.

          • Katherine Coble June 4, 2012, 1:42 AM

            I am emphatically a #4 person. Emphatically.

  • Corrin Howe May 31, 2012, 10:42 PM

    I’m surprised that Bridge to Terabithia is listed as an atheist film. I went to high school with David Lord Patterson, for whom the book is dedicated. And I was a co-leader with him in a church youth group shortly after we both finished college. At the beginning of Katherine Patterson books it gives a brief bio of how she is a child of a Japaneses missionary Presbyterian pastor.

    I found your website via Twitter and will continue following. Thank you. I haven’t read enough to know, but I hope you will have an answer to me about a Christ follower writing in a mainstream field. After fighting the battle in my own church and international ministry, I move my “fight” to mainstream publishing. I personally believe that I have to be interacting in the mainstream to be relevant to mainstream. I trust that God is behind my desire and passion to write for local newspapers and fiction.

  • Michael Seese June 1, 2012, 3:29 AM

    I saw the film “The Rapture,” and I’m not sure I’d call it an atheist film. The main character has a crisis of doubt in her faith at the end; but another character who was not a believer finds God. And, the last 5-10 minutes — when the rapture comes — are terrifying. I would say that scene is the work of someone who believes deeply.

    • Mike Duran June 1, 2012, 6:08 AM

      I saw “The Rapture” too. Didn’t really like it, but’ll give it an A for effort. I don’t know what the worldview of the author is, but the portrayal of Christians is pretty over-the-top (so does this make it atheist?). nevertheless, the questions the director ultimately asks don’t neatly fall into either religious or non-religious camps.

  • Kenny June 1, 2012, 7:32 AM

    Christians have historically had far more influence on Hollywood than atheists have. As long as the majority of Americans continue to profess belief in some type of god, explicit atheism in films will be a hard sell.

    • Tim George June 1, 2012, 8:42 AM

      I would love to see some documented proof that Christians have more influence in Hollywood than atheists over the last 20 years. The problem is that many atheists, like many social liberals, valiantly avoid labels.

  • Jenni Noordhoek June 1, 2012, 9:19 AM

    And then there are self-professed athiests who don’t make athiest films, to complicate things. Joss Whedon, I think, is a good example of this.

    If he was trying to make athiest films, then why did he put Shepherd Book in Firefly? It would’ve been so much easier just to let Mal be angry at God without Book. So I classify him more as a guy who has problems with God who isn’t really going at filmmaking with a chip on his shoulder to annoy Christians…

    • Kevin Lucia June 2, 2012, 10:41 AM

      Joss Whedon (one of my favorite directors and writers, BTW), is the perfect example of someone who puts his Art first. Yes, he’s an avowed athiest – but not only did Firefly/Serenity have Shepherd, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel dealt with religion and supernatural good & evil ALL the time.

      And I think – my armchair opinion – that’s because Whedon realizes that MOST people ascribe to a faith, most people believe in a hereafter, many people struggle with those concepts, but still believe them important. So as an artist, he paints a portrait that comments on the human existence – in whole. And doesn’t allow his personal beliefs to influence overmuch.

      And ironically, in Aliens: Resurrection, he made Winona Ryder an android “programmed” with devout Catholic beliefs. Interesting…

      And yes. I’m a Whedon fan boy.

  • Katherine Coble June 4, 2012, 1:40 AM

    I guess my problem with either group Doing Art To Advance Ideology is that it is not…ART. It’s bombast.

    So whether you are writing some tortured church play where “Evil” is a team is people in sweatshirts who end up redeemed and standing in a different order to spell “Live” (I still have the “E” shirt from my friend’s awful play) or a sophomoric one man show about the death of God at Los Alamos, you are hitting your audience over the head with thoughtspeak.

    Art is in the real stories that live beyond agenda.

    • Barb Riley June 4, 2012, 5:47 AM

      “Art is in the real stories that live beyond agenda.”

      This is quote-worthy and should go on Mike’s sidebar. 😉

  • Jason H. June 6, 2012, 1:09 PM

    Great comments everyone. I have a wrench to throw in the conversation, however, and maybe I am confused by what is being implied. Does not all art have an agenda? Otherwise, why creat art at all? Even art created spontaneously, without symbolic meaning, has defined within itself a specific agenda – inherent in the freedom and restrictions placed upon the creation process. It seems the issue is not whether art has an agenda, but what the agenda is, how overt it is, and how the viewer responds to it. On the surface, it seems like supporting the idea to NOT do art to advance idealogy is still supporting art that advanced an idealogy – just a different one.

Leave a Comment