Bad movies are not hard to find. Yet there are few movies that are so strikingly bad they stick with you, those select few that are perversely entertaining precisely because of their badness. Likely the most notable example of this is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a film that has garnered a cult status in the fourteen years since its initial release as many, myself included, return to it time and time again attempting to figure out how an actual human person conceived this idea and thought it was worth committing to celluloid. There are others, like Battlefield Earth, that stick with you due to a combination of ham-fisted effects, misguided camerawork, and a nonsensical narrative. There are few bad movies have stuck with me more than two relatively recent films, 2013’s The Unbelievers and 2014’s God’s Not Dead, both made to present a certain view of religion, which, while diametrically opposed to each other on their surface, are united in their lack of cinematic merit and overall worldview, despite immediate appearances.
In 2013, a documentary following notable atheists and scientists Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins was released entitled The Unbelievers. The film is ostensibly meant to follow them around and give us a glimpse of their lives and beliefs, but anyone who knows the slightest bit about either of these men knows that, at the core of their beings, there lies a devotion to propagating an absolute split between science and faith where science is the vanguard of progress and faith is a refuge for backwards, intolerant souls who are unwilling to face the reality of existence clearly enough. It’s a false dichotomy, to be sure, but one that is obnoxiously repeated throughout the film’s brief runtime. Of course, the irony of the atheists’ actual less-than-progressive beliefs in many areas does not dawn on either the films’ principles or its director. They mock Muslim protesters for not having any women amongst them, yet virtually no women appear in the film, which features essentially a sea of white men. There is also an echoing of far-right talking points about the inherent value of Western Civilization over against other cultures and ways of thinking, showcasing a colonial, and truncated, view of the world that disregards the aesthetic, the non-Western, and any mode of being whose value cannot be empirically calculated.
In 2014, God’s Not Dead’s primary plot is simple enough: a college student attempts to prove that belief in God is rational to his staunchly atheistic professor. There are a lot of other, minor characters who come and go, but all serve the same essential function: to showcase that an evangelical interpretation of Christianity is good and right and that all those who do not share such views are either morally compromised or intellectually lacking, if not both. At 113 minutes, the film is an endurance test for all but the most evangelical of viewers.
In addition to their retrograde ideological worldviews, both films are poorly made. God’s Not Dead features poor acting, a variety of subplots that are introduced and subsequently dropped for no apparent reason, and seemingly every line of dialogue plagiarized from at least one book on Christian apologetics. Furthermore, it relies on stereotypes instead of actually fleshing out believable characters who could resonate with an audience not already won over to the film’s message. Of course, after watching The Unbelievers, at least the over the top caricature that is the atheist professor does not seem too far off. Meanwhile, The Unbelievers props up its somehow interminable seventy-seven minute runtime with multiple extended montages of Krauss and Dawkins sightseeing, participating in book signings as songs by R.E.M. and Radiohead play in the background. There are so many clips of previously recorded television appearances and public speeches that most of the documentary could have been assembled by anyone with access to YouTube and iMovie. Assuming this movie cost more than a few thousand dollars to make, I have no clue where all that money went.
On the surface, the viewpoints these two films propagate could hardly be more different from one another. The protagonists of each film would view one another with distaste, seeing them and their beliefs as emblematic of an intellectual and moral rot that is prevalent within our society. Krauss and Dawkins see Christians as intellectually deficient, or at least lacking a certain curiosity and awe that would strip them of their more primitive beliefs, hindering the progress of humankind. Meanwhile the protagonist of God’s Not Dead would believe that these atheists are not looking at all the evidence, which clearly leads to acceptance of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Yet while the dissimilarities are obvious, what becomes clear upon further reflection is that lying beneath is the exact same view of the world as a place where facts, logic, and the search objective truth are what matters most. They are both fundamentalists, but for different systems of belief. Our lead character in God’s Not Dead does not speak of religious belief as Kierkegaard does, as requiring a leap of faith to overcome its lack of immediate intellectual sense, but rather as requiring nothing more than the right evidence: “Science supports [God’s] existence!” he climatically claims. Of course, Dawkins and Krauss would be appalled by such a remark and showcase exactly why science supports their atheism, but both parties would be misguided.
Here’s the thing that both films miss: religious belief is not something to be proven or disproven – it is something to be believed or not believed. When I say that Jesus is the Christ and that God is the ground of my being, I am not making a normative statement that is objectively true or can be proven through a good enough argument, but I am making a statement of faith, personally affirming the meaningfulness of the Christian faith for myself. God is not a fact to be argued for, not an object for us to grasp, but that transcendent reality which grasps us, freeing us from the bondage of the past, offering us the opportunity to become a “new creation” in the words of St. Paul.
The principals of both films turn God into an object that can be managed, a figure to be analyzed, rather than the eternal Thou who cannot be objectified, only born witness to. While Dawkins and Krauss have no interest in doing justice to the divine, they nevertheless mischaracterize the nature of faith, although tragically, it is a mischaracterization that all too many Christians have perpetuated themselves. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that there are no proofs for the God of Israel, only witnesses. For him, faith is not something to be deduced, but something that we intuit, not a piece of knowledge, but an attitude towards life that allows us to perceive the grandeur of existence, standing in awe of that which is beyond our grasp. When we talk about our belief, we must perceive this wonder inherent to our world, becoming witnesses of a God who we cannot prove, but only believe in.
 Also, both The Unbelievers and God’s Not Dead are united in displaying a blatant Islamaphobia. In the former, footage of violence committed by Middle Eastern terrorists is intercut to make it seem as if this is simply what all Muslims do, that it is pretty much inevitable if one takes their faith seriously enough. In the latter film, there is just one Muslim character and he throws his daughter out of his house after finding out she has converted to Christianity, implying that this is just what Muslims do – act intolerantly towards anyone who does not share their religious views. Again, the irony of the filmmaker’s intolerance goes unnoticed by anyone in the movie. The Unbelievers does feature one ex-Muslim speaker, showing that both films share the belief that the only good Muslim is a former Muslim.
Latest posts by Micah Wimmer (see all)
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