Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Perhaps 'God's Not Dead' (2014 film) but these arguments for him don't have legs

“God’s Not Dead” (2014) is a horrifically bad film, certainly from a philosophical perspective and also from an entertainment perspective.

It misrepresents what everyone, theist and atheist, over the age of 18 actually believes. The hero of this film, which is set on a college campus, is an undergraduate Christian who is convinced of the vague proposition that there must be meaning to life and that the universe must have a creator, but who – certainly at first, and regrettably still at the end – cannot articulate anything beyond this (although his public speaking presentation skills do improve a bit). The young pastor doesn't say anything much of use to a young woman who has just been beaten by her father and thrown out of her house, other than that he's glad she's a brave Christian, and when someone lies dying by the side of the road, the pastor encourages him to accept Jesus before he meets God instead of attempting to stop him from bleeding out. The "other side" fares no better in its representation. The atheist professor refers to religion as a "mind virus," but he is not merely an adversary – he is clearly of Satan. He does not have a kind, humble, or humorous word for anyone. He persistently humiliates his girlfriend in front of his colleagues. With a sociopathic stare, he says that he is the “god” of his classroom and threatens to sabotage a teenager's academic career because the teenager persists in asserting theistic beliefs. Unaccountably, he allows the student to give lectures on theism during his philosophy class that is supposed to be about atheism. At first timid, the student gradually becomes bolder at asserting his beliefs in this venue, until at last he yells at the professor, “Why do you hate God?” and the professor screams back in front of the large audience, “Yes, I hate God! All I have for him is hate.” The kid whispers: “How can you hate someone if they don’t exist?” Touché.

This extreme character dysfunction is heightened by the context of the deep, unredeemed suffering of many characters. The plight of the girlfriend of the satanic atheist professor is presented from her perspective, as she quietly puts up with a terrible amount of verbal abuse before finally quietly leaving him. Another woman is diagnosed with cancer and submits to a body scanner that she is told will rip any bits of metal out of her body; her supposed boyfriend leaves her without a single sympathetic word when she gives him the news. A Muslim girl begins listening to Billy Graham sermons in secret, and when her father catches her, he hits her so hard in the face that she flies off the bed, and when she asserts that Jesus is her savior, he hits her again, carries her downstairs, places his hand around her neck, then slams the door on her forever. An undergraduate receives paranoid phone calls from his father instructing him to publicly adopt the atheist stance so that he can fit in and succeed.

The end of the film presents the call to action to send a text message containing the film's name and message, "God's Not Dead," to everyone one knows, during a rock concert song that contains the interminable visual of millennial concertgoers repeatedly twiddling their phones as a reminder that one is not supposed to be watching the film anymore. The message manages to be both underwhelming (being not dead is the best God can do?) and unsupported (if he's not dead, why doesn't he appear in the movie?).

The film is short on actual philosophical arguments. The undergraduate would-be lecturer begins by saying that God's creation of the world – at least according to the minimalist description of it that is presented in the Bible, "Let there be light" – is compatible with the Big Bang theory.

This is followed by a torturously bad approach to the question of whether the universe was created. The only reasonable sentence in the discussion is: “Both the theist and the atheist are burdened with answering the same question of how did things start?” The undergraduate acknowledges that positing God as the creator of the universe simply raises the question "Who created God?" He answers that God is "uncreated," yet he does not accept the competing atheist account that the universe is uncreated. He concludes: “To the extent that you don’t allow for God, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find any credible alternative explanation for how things came to be.” The sociopathic atheist professor, rather than pointing out that the mere positing of an act of divine creation does not in itself explain how anything came to be, simply sneers: “Well, I imagine you’re pretty pleased with yourself.”

The student later addresses – I hesitate to say "engages" – a single sentence by physicist Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” He lacks the wit to immediately respond with the obvious rejoinder, "Well, how did gravity get created?" Instead, he must go home to think about it, where he prepares for the next class with an argument by Christian mathematician John Lennox who says that the assertion that the universe “needs” to create itself is a circular argument that fails to explain “how and why it was created” such that it exists to "need" to do anything. This makes sense – but, again, positing God does not fix the problem, but merely pushes all the same problems onto God.

Next, the student embraces the idea of evolution and creation simultaneously, without flagging the tension between the two ideas. He says that God was needed to set life in motion before any living things could begin to evolve. He then implies that the Bible is a better authority on evolution than the 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin, since Darwin once got something wrong. Darwin stated that "Nature does not jump," meaning that evolution was gradual, when, in fact, when seen from the perspective of eons, evolution does move faster at some points than at other points. So, since Darwin was wrong on that point, one should therefore place faith in the Bible's creation story – because, I suppose, the Bible never gets anything factually wrong – while somehow modifying the Biblical narrative to allow for evolution as a subset of the creation story, a process that is "divinely controlled from start to finish” rather than a “blind unguided process".

Next, the student raises the problem of evil. He asserts that God gives people free will, which enables evil, but that this is only a temporary problem, since God's agenda is for people to eventually go to heaven “with their free will intact”. Someday, he says, God will destroy evil altogether. This account makes no sense whatsoever. First of all, evil is not defined here; depending on the definition of evil, perhaps God could have created a world where evil was impossible – either logically impossible, because there are no laws that can be broken, or physically impossible, because evil acts cannot actually be performed. But secondly, even taking the more usual assumptions that it's valuable for humans to have free will even though the exercise of free will can lead to the violation of moral rules and the initiation of human suffering, it is not obvious why God needed to create a cosmological system wherein either the possession of free will or the existence of evil is needed for people to go to heaven. It isn't clear what people would do with their free will in heaven, especially after that fine day when God abolishes evil, which indirectly abolishes free will. Then people will no longer have free will either in heaven or on earth, which invalidates the whole point of the exercise (as described by the student lecturer), which was to allow people to commit evil on earth so that they could have free will in heaven. Thirdly, when the atheist professor raises the standard objection to the problem of evil – that no possible theological contortion can be a morally adequate justification for allowing suffering, an objection that many religious people also recognize as fatal to the enterprise of theodicy – he then abandons his own victory by immediately changing the subject.

The last subject, at the professor's initiative, is “moral absolutes.” He allows the student lecturer to neatly dispose of this by pointing out that the professor probably has an opinion against academic cheating, which therefore is a "moral absolute". (The concept of a "moral absolute" is never defined. Depending on what one means by "absolute" – regarding the origin of a normative belief or rule, the extent of its intended application to others, and what makes a belief or rule specifically a moral one – the professor's assumed stance against cheating may or may not be a moral absolutist stance.) The student then appeals to a paraphrase of Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible.” In addition to the lack of a moral "standard," he also claims that there would be "no real reason" to be moral (which seems to appeal to human motivation or logic, which is a different matter), and that furthermore, everything would be “meaningless” and humans would be reduced to the moral equivalent of “goldfish”.

His conclusion is that atheists such as his professor want to “take away the choice” of people to believe. Perhaps a few do, just as countless theistic individuals and religious institutions have historically coerced their followers and even exacted the death penalty for noncompliance, but this is surely an ad hominem argument that has nothing to do with whether the audience has been presented with sound philosophical arguments for or against God's existence. For the record, the audience received no such thing.

Update I

In 2017, when a man destroyed a monument of the Ten Commandments that the State of Arkansas had recently erected outside their Capitol, God's Not Dead producers Troy Duhon and Robert Katz pledged $25,000 to the governor’s office to replace it. A separate fundraising initiative by State Sen. Jason Rapert seeks $100,000 to be used for related considerations like security for the new monument and possible additional monuments in other places.

Update II

A sequel to this movie starring Melissa Joan Hart, the former star of "Clarissa Explains It All," was released in 2016.

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