Thursday, May 22, 2014

God's Not Dead?

I am hearing quite a bit of buzz about the movie "God's Not Dead" recently. I have not watched the movie, but I have seen the trailer. Honestly, that was enough for me. However, I see some of my friends talking about it, probably in part because the movie itself encourages people to share the message "God's Not Dead" with people. Philosophy, Christianity and movies are things that I do know something about, so I feel I have an obligation to say my piece on this, since I have been bothered by it.

Not your average graffiti in my town.

I used to think that non-believers knew deep down that there really was a God, and they were just denying it for some emotional reason. I have come to acknowledge that it was a special mix of arrogance and ignorance that could lead me to have that kind of attitude. I have matured over the years, and no longer hold that point of view; I would feel bad being so dismissive of someone's ideas. Yet from what I can tell this is the central point of this movie, and that makes me really concerned when I see people buy into it. It's one thing for me to be naive having not put any thought into a subject, but for a motion picture to to go through conception, writing, casting, and production with the same undeveloped thinking - and for people to accept that perspective with cheering - is totally indefensible.

"Silly atheist, you obviously haven't thought this through!"

I have studied philosophy at a secular university, and in fact I have considered furthering my studies so that I could teach philosophy at a university myself. I still haven't ruled that out as a longer-term plan. And I can say that no philosophy professor would ever set up a challenge to his students like the one Radisson does. Asking your philosophy students to commit to a conclusion (i.e. that "God is dead") before discussing the subject is not only backwards, but antithetical to what any teacher is trying to do. A professor, especially of philosophy, is always trying to get students to think, and draw their own conclusions. One would not be trying to prevent them from thinking by telling them what the answer must be. Now, it's not like he would lose his job - it's more like such a person would never get this job in the first place with that that kind of approach - that person wouldn't be interested in teaching. Imagine if an engineer started every project insisting that the only material that could be used is Lego, and everyone must follow the instructions that came in the box; or if a culinary teacher forced all the cooks to obey a cookbook. It simply makes no sense.

"But don't philosophy professors actually say that God is dead?" Well, that phrase is a quote from Nietzsche, a philosopher, so this is true in a sense. There are many philosophers and philosophies that one must understand, even at an introductory level. But Christians don't seem to like that quote; even though most Christians have never actually read Nietzsche and do not understand it. Nietzsche was not commenting on the existence of God. But to elaborate, here is another quote from Neitzsche (one of my favourites) that I think better demonstrates Nietzsche's problem with God:

"I would only believe in a God who could dance."

Neitzsche also said "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." Nobody seems to have a problem with that one.

I can't do justice to Nietzsche here, but he objected to a god who must be entertained by man. This character, "God", is of no use when trying ask questions about universe - as one does in philosophy. Remember that science is actually a discipline that branched off of philosophy, and it gets by using formulas that describe many things in our world without including God in the calculation. Neitzsche is claiming that this use of God to confound our discourse is no longer acceptable and that the character must die. A god who can't dance would be the angry God of the Old Testament, an incompetent and codependent spirit that is jealous whenever he is excluded from a discussion. And I think most Christians don't believe in a god like that anyhow these days. Yet the word "dead" evokes an emotional response, and most Christians won't get past that.

Of course there are some very good arguments for the existence of God. It would be valuable if Josh Wheaton actually used some of them in this movie, but he does not. He argues using points that would be refuted by any first year philosophy student. If the writer of this movie was intellectually honest, he would be talking about the arguments for God that I learned in PHIL 1000 twenty-some years ago. But that would open of the prospect of his audience having to think, which is not going to pull in the audience he wants.

So, given that the entire premise of the movie is unbelievable, (i.e. Radisson's challenge is unlikely and based on flawed philosophy) what is it that people are claiming to enjoy in this movie. Depth of characters? Interesting writing? Deep psychological personal struggles? It seems to be, given how the critics have treated the movie, that it has none of these. Then why do people claim to like such an obviously terrible movie?

"'God's Not Dead' is like a Michael Bay movie - but without the explosions!" - Some Critic

I think it is essentially an exercise in cheer-leading. If you're a Christian, Josh Wheaton is simply the captain of your team. Radisson leads the big, bad "Atheist" team. The fans don't need to understand the rules of the game, and they don't really care as long as they have a team and can wave a banner. When the home team wins, every one is happy, and they throw a big rock concert to celebrate. This would all be okay with me, if the whole thing wasn't so patronizing to evangelical Christians, dishonest to philosophers and thinkers, and downright insulting to non-believers. But it really is all of these things, and that's not cool. Even when I agreed with the principals, I wouldn't have liked the movie.

So, I hate to get personal, but what does this say about someone who enjoyed this film? Obviously, I don't expect everyone to be a philosopher or a skeptic. I don't want everyone to go to university. Really, I don't even think all my friends need be movie buffs like I am. But I do expect everyone to be respectful of others. If you can't possibly understand what it is like to be a non-believer, you shouldn't project your own fears and doubts on them. This movie is dismissive of genuine questions asked by earnestly seeking people in favour of religious pom-pomming, and to trumpet this movie is to flaunt one's own willful ignorance. If someone thinks that this movie could in any way be used as a tool of evangelism, it shows just how out of touch they must be - they have probably never had a conversation about religion with a non-believer. If this is you, I still love you, but I am very disappointed in you. You can do better.

As always, I welcome discussion on this, either private or public.