Cover of "The God Who Wasn't There"
Cover of The God Who Wasn’t There

As many of you probably know, I’m also available on LiveJournal, and on that site, I’m a member — mainly as a lurker — of a number of communities. One of them is critical of Christian fundamentalism, though (typically) from people without a generally-critical-of-religion viewpoint. (It does get a little refreshing to see people talking about the content, rather than just a general “You believe differently than me so you’re obviously wrong” type of statement.)

A while ago, someone posted a link to The God Who Wasn’t There, a recent documentary looking at the historical accuracy of the Bible, whether or not there was a historical Jesus, and all that sorta stuff. Apparently, it was posted to Google Video — I’m not sure if it was the full film or an edited down “Greatest Hits” version or not — I didn’t follow the link since I’d actually already seen the DVD.

Unfortunately, while the film really could (and should) have been very, very interesting, the demeanor of the film really ruined it. The filmmaker, Brian Flemming, grew up as a hardcore Christian who had recently come around to being a hardcore Atheist, and as can be common, tends to take an OVERLY harsh view of his former beliefs. It seems to be the syndrome where if someone feels that they were conned, they lash out even more at the con itself, a displaced anger at themselves for falling for it. (This is one of the reasons why I tend to find Michael Shermer‘s writing difficult to stomach — he’s got so much rage and anger about religion and pseudo-science because he used to believe in a lot of that stuff and feels deeply hurt and taken advantage of that in speaking out against it — which is good! — he tends to go over the top and get very smug and condescending — which is bad.)

So, anyway, as a comment to his post, I posted:


I rented that documentary — and I really didn’t like it. The director had that kind of furvor of a person who had just become an atheist and therefore All Christians Are Really Dumb, which, well, gets kind of irrirtating. Some of the information was interesting, but I could have really done without, say, the scene where he goes and harasses his old parochial school principal for, well, basically, having religion. It’s kinda funny, because I think the director’s trying his best to come off as Witty And Worldly And Religion’s Michael Moore or something, but, well, he just comes off as an asshole.

The poster later replied to my comment with: So he’s a bit of a snot. This makes him wrong?

Unfortunately, by the time I saw the comment notification email, the original post had been deleted, so I didn’t get a chance to reply. But it still churned up enough thoughts and feelings I wanted to clarify, so I replied anyway — just not to him, since, well, I couldn’t.

First — I do want to make it clear, which is one of the things that I think he might have been alluding to — I AM an Atheist, so my complaint about the film isn’t one where I disagree with the filmmaker (and presumably the poster). But to actually answer his question — no, it doesn‘t make him wrong, but I fear that his approach will turn way more people off; his film’s basically (pardon the irony) preaching to the converted.

A film like this, made better and more even-handed would be not only excellent and interesting, but perhaps even a useful tool in “converting” people to Atheism. Granted, though, I don’t think that is necessarily the Goal or anything — my own personal view towards religion is that while I’m a pretty strong Atheist, and pretty Out Of The Closet on that front, whatever makes you happy and gives you a sense of purpose — as long as it doesn‘t involve forcing beliefs on other people, thereby cutting into their sense of happiness/purpose — is absolutely wonderful. I suppose, sure, like most religious people, I’d PREFER it if everyone ended up being an Atheist (just like most Evangelical Christians would PREFER it if everyone were an Evangelical Christian and so forth), but it’s just not important to me. Whatever works for you is great. I’ve never been religious at all — my family is typically relatively laid back with regards to that stuff. My grandmother is quietly religious while my grandfather was openly Atheist, and growing up, if I ever asked what our religion was, my parents would just say “Christian” — no sect/franchise/whichever. And around 6th grade, I just thought about it and decided that, well, I was an Atheist. So there you go.

However, it seems that, with the original Poster, his plan (here I go, putting words in his mouth… and, also, a gender, since I don’t know for sure if he IS Male…) WAS to use The God Who Wasn’t There as a “conversion” tool — which seems to me likely to turn more people off than do any good. Atheists already have a reputation, at least somewhat unjustified, as being a cranky, condescending group of Egghead Know-Nothing-Know-It-Alls, and this film doesn’t exactly dispel that stereotype. For example, right off the bat, to “prove” that religious belief is crazy, he brings up that Charlie Manson thought he was God, and a lady who cut up her infant to get the Sin out — sure, it’s a parody of the standard trope of “Hey, look at what Atheists do — look at Communist China and the USSR! Therefore, Atheism is morally bankrupt and a scourge against mankind!”… which, well, is pretty much idiotic on both terms. I don’t have any intent to commit any Great Purges or send anyone to gulags, and I don’t think that theists have any intent to rip fetuses out of starlets. So, OK — can we just dispense with that all together? It doesn’t do anyone any good.

And, well — the ending segment which I offhandedly mentioned in the comment is at best ill-advised. Basically, he goes to the principal of his old Catholic school and takes him to task for “brainwashing” students with a particular ideology and myth… or, you know, being a CATHOLIC SCHOOL. And, of course, the principal doesn’t see anything wrong with that since, after all, he’s a pretty religious person, being, well, a PRINCIPAL of a CATHOLIC SCHOOL and all, and the segment basically comes down to Flemming asking him over and over if he’s Sorry He’s A Christian and how horrible it is that He’s A Christian, and etc. etc. It’s just foolish and makes him come off as a mean-spirited thug. Not exactly the most convincing person to tell you that a huge part of your life is wrong. Nor is it the most convincing argument, either:

“You’re wrong!”
“… I am?”
“YES! You’re WRONG!!!”
“…but why?”
“Well, OK, fine, I accept that I’m wrong — can you tell me WHY exactly I am wrong?”
“Because you disagree with ME about things that we can’t really know conclusively either way and I know that I’m RIGHT so you must be WRONG!”

Speaking of which — that’s the one thing I’ve always found kind of amusing about the OTHER side of the fence — mainly, how Evangelical Christians of A Certain Stripe (*coughcoughLeft Behindcoughcough*) tend to view Atheists. They seem to view us as folks who are Atheists because we hate God. I suppose that… might… be true… for some people… maybe… but for me? Not so much — I got no real beef with God. I just don’t think he exists. If given evidence to the contrary, I’d be more than happy to re-evaluate my stance on those matters. That’s always struck me as funny the Left Behind books and their ilk; they still need to convert people AFTER the Rapture.

OK — I can see maybe not being convinced with some of the early stages — after all, the stuff with Gog and Magog isn’t quite concrete and there can be different ways to interpret that. And, the whole stuff with the rise of the Antichrist? Well, unless it turns out that the Antichrist is like, going around saying “Hey, vote for me, I’m the Antichrist!”, it might be a little hard to peg him as such until too late. HOWEVER — the sudden disappearance of all the children and devout Christians from this planet? That’s… um, just a pretty good CLUE that the Book of Revelations, and by extension, the rest of the Bible might JUST be right. So, you know, if/when the Rapture comes, I will be the first person to admit that I Was Wrong, And Not Just Wrong But SOOO Wrong And Completely Turned Around On The Subject And Very Foolish. I’m just looking for proof or evidence, and well, I’m pretty sure something like that would at least have a pretty good shot of holding up in court.

By the way, for some really great writings about these books, if you’re so inclined, the blogger Slacktivist has some great stuff on those as he goes through and reads them — he’s a brilliant theologian and it’s interesting to watch him tear apart the awful theology of LaHaye and Jenkins.

One last thing I have to add, apropos of nothing, I’ve never had a religious pendant or anything, never being religious and all, but I think it would be kind of cool to have a small, tasteful Atheist symbol — the A in the Atom. I’ve always thought that was a really elegant design, and it’d be kinda cool to have a small one like some Christians have with cross necklaces. Of course, the one thing I’d want more than that is one of those pendants with the SubGenius Three-Tiered-With-Pipe Cross. I love that symbol even more, and, well, it’s probably at least slightly more accurate about my ultimately super-wacky beliefs.


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  1. Dumb Scientist

    Well, I’ve already pretty much agreed with the comments you put on my site, but this article was interesting too.

    And, very much in synch with my current views. I think I watched a little of the documentary you’re talking about… and wow was he acting like an arrogant ass.

    The only interesting thing (if I’m thinking of the right movie) was the part where he blasphemed the holy spirit openly. I think that was kind of an interesting way to point out a particularly egregious absurdity in the Bible. No one actually believes that blasphemers are doomed to Hell, while Hitler could have been saved if he repented at the last minute.

    Or do they?

  2. Rev. Syung Myung Me

    Thanks for the kind words! And I think you ARE indeed thinking of the right film — though it’s been a while since I’ve seen it; if, by chance, it’s not the same film, there’s a scene in this one — it’s one of the turning points of the filmmaker’s own atheism, is when he realizes the idea of the one completely unpardonable sin is not believing in the Holy Ghost is kind of silly.

    And as for the Hitler example, well, that’s always been one of my big “Huh?” moments with Christianity in particular, the idea of “works aren’t enough”. Or, rather, from a sociological POV I can understand it (it’s a tribing mechanism, where using that it sets up a definite Us Versus Them kind of thing — “Oh, sure, you THINK Jimmy’s a Good Guy, but really, he’s not one of us, so he’s not REALLY a good guy, or at least not as good as he could be), but from a theological standpoint, not so much. For me, the basis/point of religion should be “Hey, be a good person”, y’know, all that stuff that Jesus guy talked about about loving your fellow man and turning the other cheek and whatnot. And, I can see a purpose in the IDEAL of “All is not lost, you may have set fires to nurseries in the past, but if you accept God, you can come back around” — as it implies that once they accept God, they’ll follow His rules and be a good person. But sometimes it seems sort of… Get Out Of Jail Free-y. (This is probably why I like the idea of the Buddhist Hell, where everyone goes there for a certain length of time based on how they lived — since, yeah, everyone does bad stuff, sure, but there’s a difference between, say, stealing paperclips from the office and killing 12 million people in camps.)

    I think that even Evangelical Christians realize this can rub people the wrong way — as even when, say, Jack Chick does tracts about Faith Not Works, he always slips in bits about how the Works Character in question is also a pretty big jerk who’s just putting everyone on by pretending to be a Nice, Good Guy. Although, I do get the impression that a Jack Chick would indeed say that had Hitler repented, he would indeed have gone to Heaven — but luckily for Jack, he’s got an out, as I’m pretty sure that he’d THEN point to the fact that since Hitler killed himself, that’d be, like, evidence he didn’t REALLY take Christ into his heart, and was just trying to Get Out of Jail Free. Though — I could be mis-representing his theology (in EITHER direction!), so don’t necessarily take my word for it.

    But, as for the film, the saddest thing is that I really think there IS an OUTSTANDING film in that topic, it’s just that the topic is so charged, it sometimes can be hard for people to be objective, or at least, not SO emotionally charged they become an arrogant ass. The film “Hell House” actually does a pretty good job at this, though it focuses on just one aspect of Christianity (the Haunted Houses that some churches put up to scare people into the Lord) — and one I’d definitely recommend. But likewise, I’ve, to date, avoided “Religulous” because from a lot of reports I’ve heard, it’s more of “Beat up on the kooks!” and less actually looking at WHY people believe. Admittedly, it IS easier to just make fun…8)

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