God Is Dead: Why I’m Roleplaying an Atheist

I came out of the movie God’s Not Dead proclaiming, “That’s it, guys, I’m becoming an atheist.”

God'sNotDead

But let me back up a bit. Context is important.

In my opinion, the best line from God’s Not Dead came when a pastor texted our hero, Josh Wheaton, with the following advice: “Don’t try to be clever. Be content to tell the truth.”

And I cheered inside. Because this, this, my friends, is what the Christian church needs to learn. That’s a solid message. When you’re talking to a non-Christian, don’t try to trap them, don’t use cute religious slogans, don’t attack the worst arguments of the other side. Just listen well, ask good questions, think about why you believe what you do, and be prepared to talk about it.

Don’t try to be clever. That’s where I cheered.

But you know where the rest of the theater cheered? The part of the movie where Josh willfully ignores the pastor’s advice and uses what my dad called a “gotcha” tactic, a rhetorical trick that relied on a personal attack to embarrass the professor in front of his students.

The theater literally burst out into applause. And I wanted to yell, “Listen to the convenient mentor character, guys! Didn’t you hear him way back in Act One? This is not the way to do things!”

 

Although it's not like we're the only ones trying to be clever. But still.

Although it’s not like we’re the only ones trying to be clever. But still.

For the most part, there was nothing wrong with Josh Wheaton’s defense of Christianity (though it should be noted that his proposal, “We’re going to put God on trial” worked out a lot better for him than it did for Job). It’s important for Christians not to tremble in their TOMS at secular arguments against God’s existence.

But the main thing I learned from God’s Not Dead is that the church could stand to learn a few things about empathy.

My friend Chandler once wrote a blog post defining roleplaying and storytelling in general as “an exploration into empathy.” And that’s it exactly. We can’t love our neighbor as ourselves if we’ve made no attempt to understand our neighbors.

Which is why I left the movie deciding to roleplay an atheist.*

Over the next few months, I want to research the best arguments for atheism (you know, just in case there are better ones than, “Stephen Hawking says the universe is self-existent, and he’s smarter than you, cocky freshman punk”).

I want to put myself in the place of an intellectually honest, decent atheist who wants to talk to a Christian about our differing beliefs. Come up with the best possible arguments against my faith and let those inform the way I think. Understand people better, love them more, learn to listen to them.

I’ve done this once before. For an apologetics-type class, we had to write a “dialogue paper” containing a conversation between a Christian and a non-Christian on any faith-related topic. So I did what any cocky junior punk would: I made my future self the atheist.

What started out as a stunt to make the paper more fun changed how I thought about people who disagree with me. Because I had to write the arguments coming out of my own mouth, with reasons why I believed that way. I couldn’t dumb myself down. I couldn’t make myself an uncharacteristically awful person. I couldn’t let myself get away with obvious holes in my logic, because I wouldn’t make them in real life.

It taught me that people who I disagree with aren’t that different from me. Not really.

And that’s where I think God’s Not Dead missed the mark. The atheists in the movie are very different from me. They are not the kind of people I’d want to be friends with. They verbally abuse their girlfriends, ask ridiculous questions of Christian celebrities, neglect aging mothers, threaten students, slap and shove their daughters, and show absolutely no emotion when someone close to them is diagnosed with cancer.

Who will you side with: the wholesome, intelligent clean-cut college student who is remarkably good with visual aides, or the bitter, hot-tempered professor who dates a student and treats her like dirt?

Who will you side with: the wholesome, intelligent, clean-cut college student who is remarkably good with visual aides, or the bitter, hot-tempered professor who dates a student and treats her like dirt?

Do some people do these things? Sure. But not all of the (many) subplots needed to show this pattern. Storytelling and character development can be more subtle than that.

One of my favorite moments of the film was when the Muslim father wept after throwing his apostate daughter out of his home. The camera waited there with him in his genuine sorrow, and I said a quiet thank-you, because they showed a human side to a character who rejected Christ.

I wish there had been more moments like that in the movie. Because those moments tell us that people are complex, that the image of God is in all of us, and that people are worth loving.

Yes, they are worth loving. They are every bit as valuable as you are, Christian teenager. Those people out there who disagree with you—they do not exist to contrast with your righteousness or drive home a point or make you feel like a hero for defending God. They are people. They matter, even if they never agree with you, never change their minds, never admit that God’s not dead after all.

I believe the people involved with God’s Not Dead would affirm those things. I just think their movie could have done a better job at making us feel them.

If Josh Wheaton had taken the quiz I posted recently, I’m guessing he’d be in the “Mighty Exegetical Flyswatter of Truth” camp.

As a fellow flyswatter, I understand the struggle. It’s hard to get both sides of speaking the truth in love in their proper balance, to meet people away from the podium and speak about faith in a way that won’t get you any applause, to take the risk of putting yourself in someone else’s place.

Sometimes, it’s easier to be clever.

And that's how I'd answer this question. Which is not, probably, what the creators of this Facebook graphic were going for.

And that’s how I’d answer this question. Which is not, probably, what the creators of this Facebook graphic were going for.

*It’s probably good to note that “roleplaying” an atheist is not the same thing as “becoming” an atheist. It’s the equivalent of when a writer tries to “get inside the head” of a particular character. What I’m doing is picking a very specific kind of atheist (because it’s not like we can generalize and say they’re all the same and have the same reasons for not believing in God): one who’s very much like me. Then I’ll think about how Atheist Amy would defend her lack of belief. The point is not to have better apologetic ammunition, but to develop compassion and understanding.

What did you think of the movie? (If you have suggestions for my study of atheism, I’ll take those too.)

16 comments

  1. I’m going to see it tomorrow. My daughter saw it and said a lot of the same things you did. Thanks for keeping it real. I pretty much agree with every post I’ve read of yours since I started following your blog, so I’m going to prophetically say you hit the nail on the head again 😉 LOL.

  2. “Over the next few months, I want to research the best arguments for atheism… I want to put myself in the place of an intellectually honest, decent atheist who wants to talk to a Christian about our differing beliefs. Come up with the best possible arguments against my faith and let those inform the way I think. Understand people better, love them more, learn to listen to them.”

    I’m going to say up-front that I haven’t yet seen this film, and quite honestly it’s not terribly high on my priorities list. Some of my family saw it and liked it, but based on what little I’ve seen of it I fear it’s probably not done in a style that I would consider overly helpful. But as I said, I’ve not seen it. I just want to probe a little bit into the statements you make above, possibly because it reminds me of another individual I’ve read about recently. You may or may not be familiar with the story of Ryan Bell, sometime blogger and liberal Christian (as he admits) who is in the process of “trying on” atheism for a year. So no going to church, praying, reading the Bible, etc. Now I assume that’s not the direction you’re going, but the above statements cause me to ask some of the same questions I asked myself when I first heard his story:

    1) You have, I assume (though I suppose I could be wrong however unlikely I find that), not been ignorant of atheistic argumentation up until this point. Is it just a particular kind of mindset you want to get into? Do you feel you will find something more than you have found before that will help you empathize with atheism better?

    2) Apropos 1, aren’t you assuming atheism is primarily intellectual rather than primarily a spiritual state of affairs? Is that the picture that scripture gives us in places like Psalm 14 and Romans 1? It seems to me that scripture considers non-belief to be definitionally irrational. I wonder if you don’t grant too much nuetrality to the atheist.

    3) Do you believe that Christian theologians and apologists do not generally read and address the best arguments from the other side? Is it not possible to put yourself in the shoes of another and address them in a loving way without capitulating to their argumentation or letting them get away with poor reasoning?

    4) Don’t you think there’s a distinction between the way we should respond to the run-of-the-mill atheist you might run into on the bus or at the coffee shop and the vocal and militant professional atheist (like, say, the college professor who preaches against Christianity) who are actively involved in darkening the minds of students (including Christian young people) and other members of society? It seems to me these aren’t just honest seekers but active enemies of the faith who would like to see it destroyed, or at least marginalized. Defending the faith in these moments doesn’t seem like it can be reduced to “gotcha” moments to me, even if they’re not always done in the best way.

    I fully believe that we need to treat everybody with love and respect, and I believe that our conduct should reflect that. We don’t need more loud-mouthed apologists who misrepresent the other side. I truly think the highest form of love and respect Christianity can show other worldviews is to understand their best arguments and accurately represent them, and to show in love why they fail. The people with whom we interact absolutely /are/ people and they absolutely /do/ matter and they absolutely /are/ every bit as valuable as I am, quite possibly more. And if they remain apart from our great mediator they absolutely /will/ be lost. So I ask these questions not to be combative but because I worry in our desire reach out to others in love we forget that the greatest love we have is not simply in an irenic spirit but the message of Christ crucified in the place of sinners, over and against every other worldview which can only lead to pain and misery. Goodness knows I’m guilty of not expressing this truth far too often.

    In Christian charity,
    Jake

    1. Jake, thanks so much for your thoughts.

      Interestingly enough, I had heard about Ryan Bell, and was torn between thoughts of, “That’s a really bad idea,” “Is this a joke?” and “Um, that’s not really possible.” What you described is not what I’m trying to do at all. (I added a footnote to try to clarify, as it wasn’t very clear.)

      As to your points…

      1). Actually, this is really just a concerted effort to learn more…but without the attitude of “I must learn about your belief system so that I can exploit it with my airtight apologetics!” Which I have had in the past.

      2). I do agree that nothing we believe is entirely intellectual. And, like I said, I’m not “trying on” atheism. It’s really more like putting myself in someone else’s shoes. So, for example, I might read a book by an atheists philosopher without going into attack mode but I wouldn’t stop going to church. It’s really not that radical at all.

      3). I think that most theologians I read do go for the best arguments from either side. Which is great. But it’s not always the case (read the comments section on many Christian blog posts, for example, or check out Facebook arguments from the Ham vs. Nye debate). My first instinct is to react against what I can most easily refute. I don’t want to go with that instinct.

      4). I agree that there are different ways to approach different situations. I didn’t actually have a problem with the scene where Josh talks to Professor Radisson in private and asks him why he hates God. But I did have a problem with the fact that, *knowing* the deep personal pain of Radisson’s mom dying of cancer, Josh asks the question again in front of the whole class. It wasn’t an honest question anymore, because he’d already asked it and gotten the answer. It was a tactic. I agree that sometimes we need to confront people with hard questions, even personal ones, but I think we have to be careful about the context of those questions, and the reasons we’re asking them. Am I being too cautious? Maybe. But I’ve learned from personal experience that God doesn’t always tell us “Thank you for defending me” when we do it in the wrong way.

      Thank you for your words about loving others. Hopefully this clarified what I meant a bit more. And if you have follow-up questions, go for it! I happen to love questions.

  3. I have not seen the movie, but I’d say go for it Amy. I think there is a lot to be gained for studying things first hand for yourself and not depending on other people’s views (even if they are trusted, clever people). I guess I would also just say that I do think people who are atheists have spiritual reasons not just intellectual reasons for believing what they do, and there is a spiritual element to those things. But I also think (he he) “All truth is God’s truth” and so if you’re sincerely searching for truth and God’s spirit is illuminating truth for you, you don’t have to be afraid of suddenly turning atheist because of studying atheism empathetically. I am assuming you have read Phil Vischers “adventures in atheist land” blog posts/podcasts. Also, “Unbelievable?” by premier christian radio has some great dialogue with atheists that might bring up arguments you hadn’t considered as yet. I am interested to see what you uncover! (When I did that assignment, I emailed an atheist friend and had him tell me some of his main concerns with Christianity. But then I had to turn the paper in, so I had to make up his responses to my responses. But I emailed him the paper so he could see if he felt represented. He thought it was an interesting exercise and was quite impressed a Christian college was doing that. Which was cool).

    1. Steph, I have heard the Phil Vischer podcasts on atheism. Thanks for the tip on Unbelievable! I will check that out.

      And I think I remember you talking about how you did the assignment. That’s so cool. I’m trying not to stop learning after college, which is the temptation.

  4. Okay, I’ll bite… Again.

    The professor in “God’s Not Dead” was far from “intellectually honest.” In point of fact, he was thoroughly dishonest — both with his students and with himself.

    Sometimes it is useful – even necessary – to confront such blatant dishonesty in a way that might compel the “atheist” to examine the intellectual vacuity of an utterly untenable position.

    I often wonder whether we believers have “empathized” to such an extent that the two-edged sword of the Spirit – in so far as God works through human agency – has become dull. Let’s not forget that the gospel has always been and will (necessarily) always be an offense to some committed unbelievers.

    That said, one of my heroes of the faith, Francis August Schaeffer, had the uncanny ability to discern someone’s “point of tension” and address that spiritual conflict in an intellectually responsible way, all the while demonstrating genuine Christian love. I wish I knew how to do that.

    1. Oh goodness, I completely agree that the professor wasn’t intellectually honest. I just mean that some atheists are, and we shouldn’t expect them all to be as awful as Radisson.

      Okay, so this is what I’ve always kind of thought about confrontation: people who are firebrands of flaming truth need to remind themselves to love. And people who are fluffy marshmallows of love need to remind themselves to speak the truth. I tend to be more on the flamethrower side, so I emphasize love. And I thought the movie was leaning that way too and could use some countering.

      That said, to be honest, American Christianity probably errs more on the side of love and tolerance, which is also not good. So maybe this movie will get people moving more toward balance.

      I’d still say that the screenplay of God’s Not Dead was a little too extreme–not necessarily in what Josh said, but in what it told us about atheists (they’re all awful, most of them will only convert if they’re dying, etc.). I don’t want Christian teenagers believing those things, seeing one-dimensional caricatures of people who need to be argued into heaven. However, I don’t think you have to walk away from the movie thinking that, just that you could. And I’m happy that it seems to be creating some good discussion.

      1. I’m in complete agreement about the stereotyping of atheists, though I’m not convinced that each non-Christian portrayed in the movie was necessarily intended by the writer(s), producers, or director to be a representative atheist.

        But consider: in your upbringing, a few of your “teachable moments” with Mom or Dad were, I suspect, quite confrontational; but always, ALWAYS prosecuted with and wrapped in unquestionable, inexhaustible love. (I /know/ there /must/ have been one or two of those moments, even though you and your sister were as close to angelic cherubs as any two youngsters could be.) But back to the movie… Is it not possible that the only way to crack the wall of Radisson’s monumental egocentrism and staggering hubris was to adopt his own tactics on his own ground; the very place in which he felt most secure and in control?

        1. Yes, it is possible to confront others in love. And I’m glad Josh didn’t come across as smug or vindictive, even if I wouldn’t quite say that it was clear he was acting out of love.

          As for whether it was okay for Josh to use Radisson’s own tactics against him…something in me flinches at that. Because what feels like a personal attack in a debate setting seems a bit below-the-belt. More importantly, I’m biased because I know from personal experience that it can feel really good to confront someone dramatically and publicly when the truth is on your side. And I also know that it’s not always the right thing to do.

          God can use truth, even truth not spoken in love. But what does it do to the confronter? And the relationship between the two people?

          Did God use Josh’s last aggressive push into Radisson’s personal reasons for hating God? Sure. But he could have used other means.

          Like what if the pastor encouraged Josh to pray for Radisson, and Josh told him he was doing that? Or if the Chinese student had been the only one to stand at the end, and Josh had still remained true to his faith even when everyone in the class made fun of him and abandoned him? Or if Josh had stayed calm and let Radisson get all worked up while remaining polite but steadfast in his convictions?

          Those things didn’t happen, but if they had, the Holy Spirit could have used those to bring conviction just as much as humiliation by a student. Just because God uses what happens doesn’t always mean it’s the right thing to do.

          On the other hand, I’m pretty biased because of my own personal experience. So maybe there are times when God calls specific people to say seemingly harsh things. (Like, you know, all the prophets.)

          1. AMEN!

            By the way, several of your “what ifs” would have made the storyline much more compelling, I think, and less clichéd and superficial.

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