God’s Not Dead

philosophy, religion, theology 2 Replies

I decided to witness the car-crash that I’ve been assured that God’s Not Dead is, first-hand, so in order to maintain some semblance of sanity, I posted tweets fairly frequently during the movie. And stopped it a lot to go do something else, lest the overload of ignorance do long-term damage.

It took probably about 2 1/2 hours to watch the whole 2-hour movie. God’s Not Dead is a Christian Movie, which means that the primary purpose is to extol the virtues of ‘being Christian’, and that things like ‘a good script’, ‘an interesting narrative’, or just ‘represents things fairly’ are, at best, a distant second. However, like the vast majority of Christian propaganda, it ends up saying some truly awful things about Christians. If you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious: a movie is entirely the creation of human hands and thoughts. While a small number of things in a movie are accidental or incidental, the vast majority of events and objects in a movie happen or are placed there intentionally. These events and objects generally reflect a view about the world, especially in a movie that’s ostensibly about and set in the real world. We don’t need to assume that any particular character, alone, represents the views of the authors, we can simply see how the world works, and the story that’s being told. Who gets rewarded? Who gets punished? Who ‘wins’ in the story? Whose point of view is affirmed, and whose is denied? These can all be clues about the view of the authors (who, in this case, are Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman). It’s also important to note when things differ between the film and reality.

A character who is a scientist could demonstrate that they know very little about science. This could mean that:

  1. The character has been written as a fraud (which can be known if and only if the character is revealed as such, or if other scientists demonstrate a more complete knowledge)
  2. The author simply doesn’t know anything about science/scientists.
  3. The author is intentionally misrepresenting science/scientists for reasons unrelated to the plot.

Reason 1 is a perfectly fine reason: fraud happens, and is a pretty good motivation for characters to act.
Reason 2 is somewhat problematic: if one is going to represent an alleged ‘expert’ in a movie, shouldn’t the author do at least a little work to credibly represent their expertise, and not merely hope that a statement of their credentials conveys that they’re experts? Because (alas) merely having credentials does not guarantee any level of competence, nevermind expertise.
Reason 3 is a major problem: this is the realm of bald propaganda, whereby a subset of reality is being intentionally misrepresented in order for the audience to take that misrepresentation with them when they are finished viewing the movie (or reading the book, as the case may be).

If you ever have the misfortune to watch God’s Not Dead, it’s worthwhile for you to keep these three possibilities in mind. They inform the below comments quite a bit.

The movie starts off with a pretty awful premise, that the nemesis of the movie is entirely uneducated with regards to philosophy. It’s claimed that he is a philosophy professor, but it should be apparent to anyone passingly familiar with the topic that he isn’t. Professor Radisson (played by Kevin Sorbo) starts off the first class with a list of philosophers on a whiteboard, which includes the four names I’ve listed above. One problem: none of the four have written anything academic in the discipline, that I’m aware of, and only Rand self-labeled as a philosopher. Certainly none of them are considered to be philosophers by other philosophers. Radisson is never shown up as a fraud (at least with regards to philosophy).

Radisson then goes on to characterise ‘atheism’ as a strong claim, and ‘agnosticism’ as a weak claim, when the two positions are about very different things. In short, a/theism is about whether or not there is a god (a claim about existence), and a/gnosticism is a claim about whether or not we can know if a certain claim is true. I can be a/gnostic about a whole heap of things, not merely gods. For an alleged philosophy professor to get this wrong really tells you volumes about the quality of education at Hadleigh University, the fictional university where this all plays out.

But actually… This tells us volumes about what the Christian creators of this movie know about Philosophy (as an academic subject) vs philosophy (as used in the vernacular). It would seem that none of the script-writers had ever attended a philosophy course, and no one else on the staff had corrected them before filming started. Or there’s the third reason.

Again, this is something that’s never, ever going to happen in any university in either the US or Canada. This could quite reasonably be interpreted as infringing upon the rights of the students to practice their own religion. Several religions would certainly consider this to be a blasphemous statement. In as much as I don’t really care what the internal rules of a particular religion are, forcing an adherent to break those rules is going to cause psychological distress. A student attending university has, I think, a reasonable expectation that they won’t be exposed to psychological distress (an expectation that is frequently violated, and is starting to become more and more widely reported when it happens), and the actions of this alleged professor are simply heinous.

The irony is, of course, that the only universities that require something like this are religious schools. This kind of weird role reversal occurs with astounding frequency amongst believers: ‘yes, it would be a horrific thing if I were required to do something that ran against my values. Oh but that religious institution that requires students and faculty to do things against their values is totally reasonable’.

This was just mind-blowing: Radisson agrees that if Wheaton “changes the minds” of the students of the class (i.e. they decide that God’s Not Dead), then Wheaton doesn’t get a low mark. There are oh-so-many problems here.

  1. This is not a course on critical thinking, or on argument evaluation. The students are simply going to be judging based on their own uninformed intuitions. This isn’t in any way a ‘fair’ test of Wheaton’s power of rhetoric.
  2. The vast, vast majority of students in the room are religious (unless, somehow, Hadleigh attracts atheistic students at a rate several orders of magnitude higher than other schools). No minds need changing: they just wrote down “three little words” in order to skip having their grades penalised.
  3. Even if this was a course on critical thinking, and the students weren’t biased in favour of religion, Wheaton is giving his presentations in the first three classes of the semester.

    The students simply aren’t placed to fairly judge whether or not Wheaton succeeds in his project to “defend the anti-thesis”. Radisson, we are led to believe, is an experienced lecturer and should be aware of all of these problems, but apparently isn’t. 

I have no comments to make about the prominence of Apple products in a movie about dogma, group-think and propaganda. None at all……

The short response to this is: yes, it can and has been done. However, in order to ‘disprove’ something, it needs to be clearly defined beforehand. This is typically where most theists exit the discussion, secure that their version of god can’t be disproved, mostly because they have no real understanding of what it is they think that they believe in.

About 38min into the movie, one of the classmates claims to be quoting Dawkins and says that “if you tell me god created the universe, then I have the right to ask you who created god”, in response to Wheaton insisting that unnamed atheists believe that the Big Bang had a natural (i.e. not god) cause, and declaring that this is unreasonable for them to do so. His argument is, in essence, ‘we never see things pop into existence, and therefore it’s ludicrous to infer that the universe just popped into existence’.

Ironically, this is based on a failure to understand the difference between the operation of things within the universe, and the universe itself. We have no idea what rules govern universe-creation, or what conditions are necessary for the creation of a universe. We only know that within a universe-like-ours, everyday objects (i.e. not subatomic particles) don’t just pop into existence. This tells us nothing at all about whether or not a universe can pop into existence. But hey, he’s only parroting standard Creationist blather, with only a week (at best) of research on the topic. It’s not like the writers of this movie had a significant amount of time to research that this argument has long been refuted. Oh. Wait. They had as much time as they wanted… His oh-so-clever rhetorical twist of the question is “if the universe created you, then who created the universe?”, which screws up in two significant ways.

  1. Creation isn’t necessarily a regress. That is, in fact, the question under dispute.
  2. The universe isn’t a ‘who’, it’s a ‘what’. The correct form of this (crappy) argument would be ‘if the universe created you, then what created the universe?’
  3. The correct form of this argument is entirely reasonable, such that it doesn’t presuppose any particular type of creator, unlike how “who” presupposes a creator with the characteristics of an agent or person. Moreover, casting this question as a “what” is exactly what many cosmologists are interested in doing: trying to figure out the initial conditions of the Big Bang.

All his ‘turning it around’ does is evade the question in order to escape the burden of proof. A decent philosophy professor would not allow this to occur.

Sorbo, reenacting his ‘evil Hercules‘ role, points out to Wheaton that Stephen Hawking believes that the universe was created via non-supernatural processes. Wheaton, intellectually honest at least, says that he was unaware of that and evil Hercules… Sorry, Radisson gloats. It’s worth bearing in mind that

  1. Who cares? Discussions in philosophy aren’t decided by jousting quotes.
  2. Hawking wasn’t on the reading list for the class.
  3. “I don’t know” is a thing that many professors (of philosophy or otherwise) spend a lot of time convincing students to say as a point of intellectual honesty. Sneering at a student for that… It’s just crass.
  4. These lists are happening far more often than I intended when starting……

It’s at this point that Radisson should be reported to the school authorities for going so far beyond the acceptable limits of his job. Nevermind the fact that Radisson has no control, at all, over whether Wheaton gets into Law School (which makes the claim ridiculous on its face), that now we have a member of faculty threatening the well-being of a student. At the least, this should be considered to be bullying, and should result in Radisson being fired. Minimum. That the writers of this movie consider it plausible that a university professor would go to these lengths is just incredible.

(I had misheard the character “Mina” as “Nina” throughout the film… )

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot where Radisson emotionally abuses his live-in girlfriend everytime they’re on camera together. He belittles her as not just a pretty face, and/or as a foolish Christian (moments before this particular scene, he ‘excuses’ her admission of Christianity as her being “a work in progress”). This particular line occurs at a dinner party (which Mina is basically catering while Radisson just sits and holds court), and Radisson is basically mocking her in a room full of other academic types, all of whom are apparently ok with this kind of emotional abuse happening right in front of them.

Wheaton, when he says this, isn’t exactly wrong regarding the argument being circular (and thus logically invalid), but that doesn’t entail that “the universe was not created by supernatural being” is either circular or wrong. This issue largely arises when a theist makes the claim that their god does not require creation (as Wheaton does) which is an example of Special Pleading, and to counter it one typically asserts that ‘well, how about the universe wasn’t also created’. Wheaton’s reframing this into a nonsensical circular argument is his rebuttal to that idea. Radisson, allegedly a professor in philosophy, presumably with a PhD in the topic, fails to address this.

Mina, fortunately, is self-aware that emotional abuse is not a Good Thing, so seeks counselling. With her reverend. *sigh* Reverend Dave points out that she’s looking to Radisson’s approval, upon which she can build up her own self-worth. Which is bad, because self-worth should be generated internally. And, to be frank, this is excellent advice. But then Reverend Dave u-turns, and starts talking about how she should be building her self-worth on a foundation of the approval of god. Which is bizarre, because he just said that self-worth should be generated internally. Let’s say that she takes his argument seriously: he’s saying that because god loves her *so* much (that he required his son/himself to be gruesomely murdered, but let’s leave that alone for now), she should feel that she has worth. Notice here that this argument applies to everyone, without exception. Hitler should feel the same kind of self-worth. Stalin. Pol Pot. Charles Manson. That your self-worth has nothing, at all, to do with your words or deeds or thoughts, and that you should consider yourself loved unconditionally by the greatest power to ever exist. I’m sure that nothing at all could go wrong with viewing yourself that way.

Another way the perpetrators of this movie express their views (and yes, perpetrators: at this point, this movie feels like a crime has been committed against humans and art….) is by who has healthy relationships, and who doesn’t. Muslims beat their child and kick them out of their home if they don’t conform. Atheists are just horrible people, either entirely consumed with the pursuit of wealth, or else emotionally abusive to the religious people in their life. Pity the humanist, Ally: her clock fails to wake her in time, her car is broken into, her GPS is stolen, her boyfriend is the aforementioned atheist who is entirely consumed with the pursuit of wealth (so he won’t take the 30 seconds needed to give her directions, yet will waste several minutes lecturing her about wasting his time…..), and then, of course, it turns out that she has cancer. While I’m quite certain that all religious people are wrong about their conception of their god, I’m especially glad that the asshole worshiped by the makers of this particular film does not exist.

At this point in the movie, Mina (having been assured by Reverend Dave that all she needs is god) enters the university to dump the toxic trash that is Radisson. Of course, he’s engaged with no less than 3 other (what looks like) faculty, entertaining them with a story about how someone claimed that Dawkins was in error. Dawkins, when talking about things outside of his field, is often (almost invariably) in error, so I’m not sure why the allegedly well-educated philosophy prof would consider this so incredulous.

It takes about 80 minutes for the movie to get to any actual philosophy. Which is weird, because we’ve spent a good chunk of this movie either in a philosophy classroom, or following an alleged philosophy professor. And so we’re treated to a not-even-sophomoric not-even-a-rebuttal of the 2500-year-old Problem of Evil (aka Theodicy). Wheaton’s claims that god ‘intends to one day destroy all evil’ is completely irrelevant to temporally bound creatures. Moreover, if it were the case that I knew that my neighbour was abusing a child, but I said to people “Oh, I intend to eradicate that by involving the police, in maybe 5 or 6 years”, I would not be commended, but condemned.

Moreover, Wheaton doesn’t even explain how Free Will is connected to the Problem of Evil, he just mentions it and moves on. In response to some puerile beligerence from Radisson, Wheaton then illustrates a common conceptual issue amongst theists: the difference between ‘the absolute’ and ‘the objective’. Temperature is an excellent illustration of this: there is, empirically, a bottom to any temperature scale (regardless of what that scale is). Temperature, as the measure of the movement of molecules within a given volume, reaches ‘bottom’ when all motion of those molecules stops completely. This is known as “absolute zero“. However, it’s also -273.15 degrees Centigrade, or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. But…. Do we have an “absolute 400 degrees”? Is 20 degrees centigrade “wrong”? When describing the weather outside today, is it incorrect to say that it’s 80 degrees Fahrenheit (if that is empirically the case)? No, to all of these things. The lack of an absolute measure does not mean that there is also a lack of an objective measure. While there may be some dispute about whether we should be using centigrade of Fahrenheit, once a system is agreed to the actual numbers are easily agreed upon: because they are objective. Ethics is similar.

As mentioned above, I can’t fault Wheaton for being ignorant of this (what with it being his third philosophy class ever), but I can certainly fault the writers who either as a matter of lazy ignorance didn’t bother to actually read about the topic that they were writing about, or chose to intentionally obscure that the paragraph I wrote above is old, old news in philosophy.

This is only of the oldest lies that theists tell themselves about atheists, that the reason that someone is claiming that “god does not exist” is because they actually hate god. The claim here is ignorant and vapid, and (at foundation) declares that the theist knows the mind of the atheist more intimately than the atheist themselves. At it’s foundation, when having a conversation with a Real Atheist, declaring that they secretly hate god makes as much sense as telling them that they secretly hate (as I would a real, existing being) Bilbo Baggins, or Ender, or Merlin: hating them necessarily requires that I believe that they exist. Anyone who actually hates god necessarily believes god to exist, and therefore is necessarily NOT an atheist. At the end of this rife-with-ignorance scene, Radisson angrily admits that yes, he does actually hate god. Ergo, Radisson is not, and never was, an atheist. The entire premise of this film is a lie. However, “as of June 18, 2014, the movie has a worldwide total of $62 million, against the $2 million budget“, so I guess that Christians don’t mind being lied to all that much…

The closing scenes of this particular movie tell us some significant things about the thinking of the two writers of this movie, Solomon and Konzelman, and I honestly find it difficult to decide which of the two scenes are the most horrific. Again, it’s important to notice how the world of this movie works: the writers are, essentially, god and can do whatever they want.

Radisson appears to figure out that he has been a giant flaming asshole to Mina, and seeks to reconcile. He catches sight of a partial headline that reminds him that Mina is going to see the Newsboys (orchestrated by god/the writers). It starts to rain, and our two reverends pull up to a red light. As Radisson crosses the street, a car blows through the red light and takes him out. Of course, the car doesn’t kill him instantly, it’s necessary for the two reverends to get out of their car to insist that Radisson accept Christianity as true. I mean, what’s so unloving about torturing someone into a position that they would not agree to if they weren’t in extreme pain and about to die? Moreover, Reverend Jude (buddy of Reverend Dave) insists that “what happened here tonight is a cause for celebration”, that there was momentary pain, but that we should now think about “the joy in heaven”. That by arranging for for someone to be in a certain place, at a certain time, and that a speeding car would kill them, God just murdered someone, and this is a cause for celebration. I’ve been at pains to keep my commentary here civil, but to Solomon and Konzelman I say “fuck you” and I’m profoundly gratified that the murdering god that they present to us is not real.

The second moment of horror might just slide past if one isn’t paying attention: once the band commends Wheaton for ‘defending god’, Ayisha taps him on the back and applauds his actions. She’s clearly happy, and in awe of Wheaton. Let’s zoom in on that: Solomon and Konzelman have written this such that the young woman who has lived in a home with a violently abusive person, who has hidden her Christian beliefs from that abuser, who felt that man’s hands around her throat that afternoon, and who has been kicked out of her family home is looking up to the middle-class white dude who risked nothing at all. Seriously: what in the actual fuck? Does being religious distort your view of reality that much that you believe that some punk kid arguing with a professor should be accorded more respect than a young woman whose life was actually at stake, and who is now homeless? The person who holds that view is not moral by any meaningful standard, and I would be gravely concerned for the well-being of the people around them.

While this movie has plenty of catchy tunes and smiling faces, the underlying message is ultimately terrifying: if god were real and were a just and loving god, then

  1. Atheists should die by hit-and-run
  2. Humanists should die of cancer
  3. We should revel in both of these things

I am appalled at everyone involved in the making of this movie.

Follow Brian on Twitter!

2 thoughts on “God’s Not Dead

  1. Randy

    Well, Brian, I’m glad you (apparently) didn’t suffer any brain damage from watching that movie but just from your description of it’s parts I’m not sure I didn’t.
    I don’t know if you’ve seen this but John Loftus in his Debunking Christianity blog has called for the ending of Philosophy of Religion classes. see ……http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.ca/2014/07/on-ending-philosophy-of-religion.html. I think this is the 1st post and there are more afterwards.
    This movie sounds like it could be used as an example of why PoR classes should be ended.

  2. Brian Lynchehaun Post author

    I’ve read Loftus’s claims, and yeah he’s got several posts on the topic. I’ve read a couple.

    The bottom line is that Loftus is largely talking out of his ass about what is and is not taught within PoR classes. While it’s true that the majority of people teaching it are religious, this is also true for people within the Philosophy of Math departments (it appears that they’re drawn to the Platonic Realm of Math, and they often use it to argue for their faith).

    There’s no disagreement that PoR is largely taught as Philosophy of Protestant Christianity in the US, but you don’t solve the problem by banning the subject. And this is a second key failure on Loftus’s part: there’s no such thing as a ‘Philosophy of Religion Department’ so it’s not even logically possible to “end” it: a ‘subdiscipline’ is just a way to collect essays and topics in a certain way. Any essay on Epistemology that touches on god is both a Philosophy of Epistemology paper and a Philosophy of Religion paper.

    He’s just woefully misguided in this Quixotic quest.

Leave a Reply