The one thing I’ve noticed about various intellectuals in the “new atheism” movement is that they can be very good at explaining science or philosophy in a dumbed down form (let’s face it, we’re not all university professors so I appreciate this approach), but when it comes to entertainment they often fall short. I remember seeing a couple of early examples of skeptic organizations trying to create TV Shows or TV spots that were supposed to grab viewer attention and, frankly, they were kind of boring and failed. Along come some Hollywood veterans like The Mythbusters and Penn & Teller’s Bullshit and suddenly you have shows that are great introductions to skeptical thinking which have spawned other like-minded shows.
I don’t believe we’ve seen that happen with atheism yet. We’re still in that awkward stage with very little entertainment and whole hell of a lot of information. There are films like The God Who Wasn’t There and Religilous which relate personal stories, but are not quite what I call entertainment, more like editorials. I’m not knocking these entries or the numerous documentaries on religion, these are valuable, but what would you recommend to a friend or relative who is trying to understand your atheism? What would you recommend as an introduction to unbelief that isn’t going to deluge the viewer with so many arguments they’ll tune out? Or, let’s face it, that will offend them so much they’ll ignore anything being said (I know Penn & Teller and Bill Maher can rub people the wrong way and the language is hard for some Christians to take).
Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God has been around for quite some time now, it was filmed in 2007 and premiered in 2008. I had seen clips of it and the TED version where she did the introduction to her monologue, but never the whole stage show until I rented it off Netflix. This is the DVD I would give to someone trying to understand atheism. There are laughs, there are tears and there a moments of revelation. Even if you disagree with the direction Sweeney went in her life, it all adds up. It’s not like she woke up one day and was–KAPOW–an atheist! It was a process of time and questioning and self-examination. It was, in a way, a spiritual journey as she confronted something bigger than herself–not God, but the universe and the implications of there not being a god (s).
I shared this with my “believing” wife, she tolerates my “biased” documentaries and other “atheist” entertainment, and she found much of it interesting because she also came from a Catholic background like Sweeney. Letting Go of God didn’t suddenly make her let go of God, but it gave her some insight in to how I felt and where I left god behind. The stage show is genuinely funny and very personal because it often has to do with family and their reactions to their “crazy” daughter asking all kinds of questions and then rejecting basic arguments for God that no longer make sense. Julia uses her talent to make it all come alive for the audience as she depicts her mother and a priest and various characters in her life she finally had to diagree with. There’s no mean-spirited attitudes, it’s all very sweet and, honestly, comes close to some of the presentations I saw as a kid at my church with Christian testimonies. Maybe that’s what we need, more atheist testimonies about lost faith. People think when someone becomes an atheist they fall down a set of stairs into a dark dwelling filled with depression and hopelessness and usually this is the farthest thing from the truth. In my situation, I felt like a big burden had been lifted. I no longer had to worry about heaven and hell and defending the contradictions of the Bible…I could relax and study and observe how things really were. It’s not always pretty, but knowing what you’re up against prepares you. It allows you to live life realistically versus jumping into prayer everytime something goes wrong.
Letting Go of God isn’t an entertainment blockbuster (it wasn’t meant to be, again, it’s very personal), but it does show a direction that can be taken to communicate with believers and even those who don’t believe but think atheism is horrid (because it goes too far). Really, I’m referring to creating similar story-like films (inspired by real life or completely new stories) with characters who happen to be atheist and how their unbelief affects their lives and others around them. This is territory that we need to tread into. Yes, we could start “The Atheist Hallmark” channel! The horsemen, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (now passed), are all great in what they have written and/or created, only I don’t consider them to be entertainers, but educators. I think life stories like Sweeney’s may make larger inroads to a believing public and the reason is that life stories are easier to be drawn into than logic and science and apologetics. Religion overrides logic to begin with, it is above questioning. Religion, in general, thrives on stories (almost every sermon I hear includes anecdotes and analogies). People will listen to a story over a lecture any day. Once someone starts to “get it” then maybe it’s time for heavier material like Dawkin’s The God Delusion.
I expect to see more direct films about atheism in the future, not just ones that hint at unbelief or that a freethinking audience can claim as their own for a freethinking theme. I think Julia Sweeney’s work is inspirational for doing this even as it is only a stage show. It works, it is early Freethunk! (my term for freethinking entertainment), and I know if you’re a Christian reading this, you may be adverse to seeing Letting Go of God. Don’t worry, it won’t make you an atheist. It’s simply a way of understanding atheism or your atheist friends. Now from there, if you go studying some of the things Julia studied, then don’t blame me or her…