Depiction of Atheist Characters in Modern Hollywood Movies

Home Research Paper Depiction of Atheist Characters in Modern Hollywood Movies
Depiction of Atheist Characters in Modern Hollywood Movies

In recent decades, atheism was on the rise all over the world and in the United States accordingly. With the open access to scientific and philosophic studies, brought by the invention of the Internet, people, especially of the young generations, began looking at religion more critically. As the result, the number of those who identify themselves as non-religious, agnostic and atheist rises rapidly. This tendency became even more prominent due to the popularity of the so-called “New Atheism”, represented by such authors as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others. In their books and media appearances, these authors approached the issue of faith in popular, satirical and thought provoking way, based on modern scientific theories. Atheist worldview suddenly became more popular; however, the mainstream media still continue to treat this ideology through the lenses of the Cold War propaganda. With the sudden rise of the number of non-religious people, atheism needed to become more acceptable in the media. Many authors and filmmakers turned into outspoken advocates of the atheist worldview. Interestingly, the most prominent atheist filmmakers were working in the field of genre cinema: science fiction, comedy and satire, both promoting their ideas and making fun of the organized religion in their works. The atheist ideology is represented in mainstream media by both sides of the discourse in negative and positive way, and in recent decades, comedic and sci-fi genres provided a voice for the atheist artists and advocates in modern Hollywood cinema.

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To understand why a prominent ideology such as atheism has negative reception in the public discourse in the United States, we should address the historic context. During the Cold War, religiosity of the US society was opposed to the “godless” atheistic worldview – the state ideology of the Soviet Union (Kirby 2). Even the word “atheism” had a negative connotation. As researcher Dianne Kirby points out in her introduction to the book “Religion and Cold War”, western ideologists used the faith aspect as an element of opposition to communist outlook:

Marxist atheism provided a window of vulnerability, the Achilles’ heel of communism from the West’s religio-political perspective. …anticommunist rhetoric emphasized freedom of religion and Christian ideals, which, combined with its emphasis on democracy and freedom, enabled anti-communism to assume a doctrinal status with a claim to moral superiority, owing to its spiritual component as opposed to the base materialism of communism (2).

Thus, atheism became ideologically affiliated with communism, making it a part of the enemy agenda, and such perception of the non-religious rooted deeply in the media. As the depiction of the Cold War conflict in the media has been simplified to the categories of good and evil (with Western worldview being the embodiment of “good” and godless communism of the Soviet Union becoming the symbol of “evil”), the negative attitude towards atheism in mainstream media is not surprising (Kirby 2). Atheist characters were depicted as immoral, violent and villainous. Therefore, with the ideology itself becoming more popular and accepted, the change of its media portrayal constituted a challenge for artists.

In cinema, the image of an atheist often had negative connotations, as the reasons of people becoming an atheist were often personal trauma or tragedy and grievance with God (Cherette 62). These characters were depicted as self-indulgent, nihilistic and overall unlikable, to the point of becoming comical villains. In the 2010-s, there was a rise of popularity of new Christian cinema, led by the PureFlix studio (Cherette 60). While these films, such as God’s not Dead franchise (2014, 2016, 2018), The Case for Christ (2017) Old Fashioned (2015) and many other, were relatively commercially successful, they are in their essence pieces of religious propaganda, clumsily disguised as family entertainment. In these movies, the atheist characters were often demonized, even Christian researchers, such as Blain Charette criticize them for their clearly biased depiction of atheists. Charette writes about atheist characters, as depicted in “God’s not dead” film franchise:

The principal antagonists, the philosophy professor of the first film and the ACLU lawyer who prosecutes the case in the second film, are portrayed in an exceptionally unsympathetic manner. Both films in a rather simplistic way represent characters from a single, biased perspective. The sympathies of the audience are bluntly steered towards the Christian characters, while the non-Christian characters are made into objects of blame, loathing or pity (62).

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While such films are examples of pure propaganda, often disregarded and criticized even by Christians themselves, the depiction of atheists in many ways reflects the negative perception of this ideology in the United States, as an unfortunate relic of the Cold War propaganda.

However, with the rise of popularity of the “New Atheism”, the depiction of atheists in media became less biased. In the article “How the Media Got Secularism – With a Little Help from the New Atheists”, researchers Richard P. Cimino and Christopher Smith point out that “at the turn of the millennium, atheism was covered not only as a quasi-religious phenomenon but also as a political identity and lifestyle choice that is one among many voices in a pluralistic America” (Cimino & Smith 6). As is evident from the number of films, depicting atheism and atheists in a positive way, more Hollywood creators became open about their atheist views, and a new generation of authors emerged, who opposed the pressure of deeply rooted attitude towards atheist worldview. These artists often used genre cinema, like science fiction and comedy, to share their ideas openly.

Mainstream Hollywood cinema in most cases avoided depicting atheist characters, due to this topic being problematic. Representation of an atheist character in a neutral or positive light turned out to be a complicated task for modern film directors. Despite the rising popularity of this worldview, there were still settled negative prejudices towards atheists in the society. There were different approaches to this issue. The straightforward way was to create biopic films about famous historical figures, which supported, in some measure, such ideas. The most notable examples of this approach are the portrayals of famous scientists like Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (2014) and Charles Darwin in Creation (2009). However, the religious aspects of these characters’ worldviews are rarely in the center of the narrative in these film. As they are designed to appeal to a wider audience, these aspects are often considered off-putting and questionable. Dennis Overbye criticizes the depiction of Hawking’s view in The Theory of Everything:

The movie doesn’t deserve any prizes for its drive-by muddling of Dr. Hawking’s scientific work, leaving viewers in the dark about exactly why he is so famous. Instead of showing how he undermined traditional notions of space and time, it panders to religious sensibilities about what his work does or does not say about the existence of God, which in fact is very little (Overbye).

Unfortunately, the film focuses more on Hawkins’s struggle with his disability and his troubled personal life, than on his views and scientific discoveries.

In this context, genre cinema proved to be a more effective choice to bring forward ideas and characters with such opinions. Genre films face much less critical and public pressure, often being disregarded as a material for serious philosophic discussion. In these movies, it is much easier for the filmmakers to create fictional and unnatural scenarios, in which they can convey their message indirectly. In the 1980s and 1990s, notable atheist characters began to appear in big-budget Hollywood films, with the most notable being Eleanor Arroway (Jody Foster) in Robert Zemeckis’s science fiction film Contact (1997) based on the novel by an outspoken atheist and advocate of science Carl Sagan (Stone 3). The movie tackled the religious aspects of the first contact between humanity and alien life forms. It opposes Arroway and her atheistic worldview to a number of influential Christian figures, but even Christian scholars admitted that her character is well developed and likable enough to become relatable for a majorly Christian audience. As pointed out by researcher Bryan Stone, “Ellie is an atheist because she doesn’t find any empirical evidence for the existence of God, but because the film develops her character so well, even the most devout theists will find themselves liking her and taking her side” (3).

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Interestingly, it is the theological discussion, and not the sci-fi plot that becomes the center of the film’s narrative, which is also a surprising choice for a mainstream science fiction movie with an all-star cast. At the same time, the Christian characters can seem simplified for the sake of making them the film’s variation of “villains”. Thus, the film reverses the model mentioned above, which villainizes the opposite side of the argument and reduces the conflict, which makes it unfortunately similar to PureFlix propaganda, however much more sophisticated. Still, despite somewhat safe and uneven depiction of the relations between atheism and faith, Contact is an important milestone in bringing a sympathetic atheist character to the mainstream audience.

Another director, well known for his atheist views, who often works in the sci-fi genre, is Ridley Scott. In his films Blade Runner (1982), Prometheus (2012) and Alien: Covenant (2017), the characters, both human and androids, created by human scientists, question the authority of their creators. Not only does Scott create heroes that are openly skeptical of their creators, they even go so far as to destroy them. Replicants in Blade Runner murder their creator, and android David (Michael Fassbender) in Alien: Covenant exterminates the whole civilization of aliens called Engineers, who, according to the film, are responsible for the creation of the human race. David also performs horrible experiments on developing the new life, engaging in the role of the creator himself. As researcher Peter Nicolai Halvorsen mentions in his analysis of Scott’s science fiction, it “seems to deal with religious or philosophical questions in the light of the debate between fundamentalists and new atheist scientists” (132). We should note that atheism of Scott’s characters is rather militant, and the sci-fi scenarios provide them with a possibility to destroy their creators. While both the lead replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and android David are the antagonists, they are clearly the most complex and deep characters of both films. The charismatic performances make them even more relatable and the director himself seems to side with these rebellious characters, who confront their creators. The anti-theistic motifs can be seen in other non-sci-fi films of Ridley Scott – a historic epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005), where the Christian priest is depicted unsympathetically, ready to condemn his beliefs to save his life. The protagonist of the film, Balian (Orlando Bloom), while not openly addressing his own religiosity, is amused by the priest’s hypocrisy, becoming an atheist in the making. In another notable film, Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Scott uses the Bible character of Moses (Christian Bale) and his story to depict God as a violent and capricious child. Overall, the films of Ridley Scott contain numerous references to Christianity in both visuals and ideas; along with that, his characters, which often openly confront and ridicule the higher powers, show the director’s attitude towards religion.    

Even more prominent are the atheist voices in the comedy genre. This is not a unique tendency, as Iain Ellis points out “Over the past 40 years, the most assertive, active and angry opponents of the religious right have been our humorists” (5). The writer indicates that satirical tradition of addressing religion has its roots in the writings of Mark Twain, and is recently represented by comedic voices such as Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais and other openly atheist comedians (Ellis 5). For example, Bill Maher’s most notable film is a documentary “Religulous” (2008), directed by Larry Charles, in which the comedian interviews various individuals connected with Christianity in the United States, making fun of the religious people (Religulous). By doing so, the comedian appears smug and unlikable, and the intent to make atheist worldview more acceptable to the mainstream audience was a failure. As for fictional comedic cinema, which focuses on the atheist characters, the following films should be addressed: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) directed by Terry Jones, The Invention of Lying (1999) directed by Ricky Gervais, and an animated comedy Sausage Party (2016) by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is one of the earliest and most memorable portrayals of a skeptical character in comedy. The titular Brian (Graham Chapman) in the film lives in the times of Biblical Jesus. He is mistaken for the messiah and after a series of comedic misunderstandings is crucified. In the most notable scene of the film, Brian addresses the uneducated crowd with the seemingly anti-religious message of individualism and non-conformism; however, the audience seems to miss the essence of his ideas. Despite being comparably mild and inoffensive by today’s standards, the film remains noteworthy for the character of Brian, a straight man put against a deluded crowd.

The Invention of Lying presents a fictional world where lies do not exist. In this universe, the character of Mark, performed by Gervais, tries to comfort his dying mother, and makes up the concept of an afterlife, which snowballs into the creation of a religion. The fantasy scenario helps the filmmaker to highlight the self-delusional nature of religion, which promises comfort and hope in exchange for reason. Mark’s lie turns into a real religion of the world, with him being its prophet, and at the same time the only person who knows the truth. He represents the emerging archetypal depiction of an atheist as a straight man in the world of delusion. The film itself does not confront religious beliefs aggressively, as can be expected from an openly atheist comedian like Gervais, but accepts its positive effects on the society.

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Sausage Party is another comedy with a strong anti-religious message. Just like The Invention of Lying, it uses metaphorical concept to bring forward its ideas. Anthropomorphic food characters living in a supermarket, who believe their purpose of existence is to be bought by humans, who they deify, inhabit the film. Older “immortal” foods created the belief in the holiness of people to bring comfort and hope to their otherwise hopeless existence. As time passed, their original ideas changed and distorted. The message of how different religions create political and ideological tensions in the world is obvious in the film. When the film’s protagonist – Frank the sausage, voiced by Seth Rogan, discovers the true fate of the food in the world of humans, his beliefs are being shattered. However, his attempts to bring the newly acquired truth to his friends face opposition. Critic Sam Adams writes:

This is the smug atheist’s take on organized religion as a palliative for the simple-minded. Knowing the truth is not good enough. When Frank tries to use his newly acquired knowledge to rouse the rest of the supermarket’s inhabitants to act, they reject him outright. He is tearing down their ideology and offering nothing in its place, and they would rather exist in a world with clearly defined rules and rewards. Given a choice between something and nothing, people will believe in something every time (Adams).

With Frank, the filmmakers create a straight-man atheist character who tries to enlighten people in the world of dangerous delusions, who is ignored until it is too late. Frank is a characteristic atheist, opposed to simple-minded folks who condemn his attempts to inform them. While the film carries its raunchy and vulgar shock-humor and grotesque violence, like many other adult comedies, it is also effective as a not-so-subtle religious debate.

The depiction of the atheists in the media, and in cinema in particular, went through a long evolutionary process in the last decades. From demonized figures in the Cold War and modern Christian propaganda, to neutered scientist characters in faith-friendly biopics, to charismatic, if often villainous, iconoclast figures in science fiction and finally, the enlightened straight men, opposed by simpleminded crowd in comedies. The latter seems to translate the ideas of knowledge, enlightenment and ironic attitude towards organized religion in the most successful manner, as straightforward and smart atheists in the comedic films are the most relatable and easy to sympathize with. Genre films, especially science fiction and comedy, utilize atheist characters in the most successful way, and taking into consideration the consistent popularity of theses genres, this is the most effective way to promote the ideas of atheism to the mainstream audience.