Note: This article contains spoilers about Flight and Life of Pi.
Since I’ve become more open about my atheism, I’ve found my responses to theism in popular culture have changed. I notice theism more and my response to it in a movie can run counter to my impressions of the movie itself.
When it comes to a fictional universe, I accept that gods can exist. The writer has created a universe in which gods are real and I have no difficulty accepting those gods within the context of the story. Immersing yourself in fiction is the suspension of disbelief, after all.
Even if a story is set in the “real” world, if the existence of god is an important part of the story, I can go with it. I don’t immediately find myself pulling away from a story because of that element.
I can’t deny, though, that I notice it.
I recently watched Flight and Life of Pi and while I thought both films were very good, the religious themes in both of them were obtrusive. I found myself wondering if I reacted to those themes more because I was an atheist.
In Flight, Denzel Washington’s character is an alcoholic airline pilot and at one point, his character makes statements that identify him as an atheist. Many characters around him are deeply religious, which is not entirely unexpected as the film is set in and around Atlanta.
Washington crash-lands a plane in a nearly impossible fashion and in doing so, he saves a lot of lives. The idea that what he did was a “miracle” comes up several times. Because Washington is a drunk, it seems, he cannot also be a gifted pilot. God must have intervened that day.
Life of Pi is about a story we are told will make us believe in god.
Of course it can’t make me believe in god. The story is fiction. I can make up a lot of stories that, if true, could make someone believe in god. It would work great as long as the listener didn’t do any fact checking.
The question I was asking myself was whether or not that story, if true, could make me believe in god.
It couldn’t, of course. To suggest that god had a reason for saving one life and telling one story while ending the lives of so many others defies logic. There is no proof of god to be found.
Nor is there proof of god to be found in one pilot’s ability to avert disaster when many other pilots have failed in similar circumstances. Why would god guide the hand of one pilot in order to push him on the road to sobriety while ignoring thousands of other drunks who are every bit as needful of help?
To think of the movies strictly in those terms, however, ignores the idea that the films are telling a story and we don’t have to accept the existence of god as these characters do to appreciate their journey. Life of Pi, in fact, acknowledges that the story doesn’t, in fact, convince us that god exists.
Rather, it suggests that Pi believes in god because he prefers that version of reality to the one where there is no god. What he experienced did not prove the existence of god but rather proved that he preferred to believe in the existence of god.
For my part, that is the best excuse I can possibly imagine for a theistic point of view. I’ve had conversations with people who have admitted they don’t know for sure that god exists but it gives them some comfort to believe in god.
OK, sure. I can accept that. They are, at least, honest about their doubts. They have questioned and continue to question. I have a lot more respect for that than I do for someone who accepts god without question.
The two films are very good. Life of Pi, in particular, is an amazing work of art. It is filled with imagery that will stay with you for a long time.
The theistic themes in both of them, however, were distracting to me and would, I think, be equally distracting to other atheists.
I can suspend disbelief but I can’t turn off my brain completely when the subject of god is raised. The journey both of these characters take is a spiritual one and that kind of journey is somewhat dishonest to me. They are on a journey to find god when what they really need to find is themselves.