When Atheists Get it Wrong: The Ledge

October 6th, 2011 | Posted by:

Vlad Chituc’s column, When Atheists Get It Wrong, is intended to critically examine bad claims and arguments, not to tear down their author or damage atheism writ large, but to critically assess those arguments and positions to build up better, more accurate ones, in order to promote a stronger atheist movement. As a reminder, the views of this blog post do not necessarily represent those of Chris Stedman, the other NPS panelists, or any of the organizations with which they affiliate.

In case you missed the buzz early this summer, The Ledge is an indie-film written and directed by Matthew Chapman — the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. Billed as atheism’s Brokeback Mountain, and “the first drama in Hollywood history to feature an openly atheist hero in a story about religious conflict,” The Ledge was met with high hopes and initially positive reviews from within the atheist community. But outside the narrow confines of our movement, the movie fared much worse; it was largely panned by critics, with an 11% on Rotten Tomatoes, and was released to DVD last week after failing to receive a broader theatrical run.

But presented now with a convenient opportunity to judge the movie for myself, I ordered the DVD from Netflix and watched it with a friend last night. I regard this now as a bad decision.

I’m actually confused why the film received such a positive reception from many leading atheists; Greta Christina heralded the film as “smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous… and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable,” yet it was none of those things.

In fact there was very little about the movie that didn’t feel contrived or forced. The characters were profoundly one-dimensional, the narrative arc and structure were completely tired and predictable, and all attempted flirtatious dialogue was intensely awkward and difficult to sit through.

The film opens with a snarky and unlikeable performance by our protagonist, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), who appears to be the trashy love child of Heath Ledger and the guy who played Sawyer from Lost. He recounts the totally believable chain of events that leads to this totally believable dilemma—if he doesn’t jump from this building, then this girl he’s known for a few weeks will die.

So classy

I found a dildo, and we should have sex. Also here's the new girl, Shana.

It begins with our heroine, Shana, played by Liv Tyler. She’s introduced to us in Gavin’s office by a coworker whose only role appears to be awkwardly flirting with our hero. You know, to let us know just how much of a ladies man he is. Because atheists are really well known for that.

We later discover that Shana was once a battered drug-abuser through our hero’s flirtation attempts, littered with cringe worthy advances such as “you have a very sexy mouth,” “note to self: decline blowjob if offered,” and “if you do the charitable thing and start having sex with me immediately, the heart will fix itself.”

But predictably, our poor, one-dimensional female lead — who lacks any semblance of agency while serving as little more than an object of the men’s competing desires and, spoiler, you get to see her topless — is rescued by the only well-played character in the film: Shana’s unbelievably fundamentalist husband,  Joe (Patrick Wilson). Joe is shown to be closed-minded, homophobic, and by the end so admittedly unconcerned with Christian doctrine as relayed to him by Gavin, that the religious conflict becomes ham-fisted and clumsy at best.

The film is no longer a struggle between atheism and religion, but that of between the average atheist and a hateful and crazy man who just happens to be Christian. I can’t help but notice the parallel in contemporary atheism’s treatment of religion in general, which is unconcerned with any actual doctrine or influence of religion, but fixated on extremism caused by either insanity or unrelated political and cultural factors. Despite many atheist’s exploitation of the tragedy at Oslo as an example of the potential evils of Christianity, the shooter was explicitly advocating a secular Christianity for political identity only, to use a recent example.

And similarly, the broader point that even atheists are willing to give up their lives for lofty ideals, loved ones, or whatever, is handled poorly just by dint of how unbelievably it’s raised. Spoiler alert: Joe is going to kill Shana unless Gavin jumps, so Gavin sacrifices himself. Even putting aside the fact that the romantic chemistry is so unbelievable, forced, and of nothing near the depth and level required for that kind of sacrifice, the police figure out where Joe is and save Shanna after Gavin dies, making his sacrifice unnecessary to begin with.

The entire film is an excuse to martyr an atheist, just to make the clumsy point that we’re capable of sacrifice, too. And it’s an unnecessary point, shallowly made, through an awkward and formulaic structure and cast of characters.

The Ledge is not the atheist’s Brokeback Mountain. It fails to make even a single likeable character, let alone humanize the purported plight of the modern atheist.

It frankly isn’t even a good film.

But atheists would be best served by a normal character whose atheism just isn’t a big deal. We have House and Dexter, but we’d be better off with a Will and Grace. These things grow organically simply as part of an interesting character or story — not shoehorned in to preach a point.

To make a movie about atheism for the sake of making a movie about atheism — plot and structure be damned —  is a recipe for disaster that in The Ledge went predictably awry.

vladVlad Chituc is a senior at Yale University, studying Psychology and Philosophy with an interest in how we form beliefs (particularly moral and religious), and an interest in metaphysics and moral philosophy on the side. He has served as the Community Service Coordinator and President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale (formerly the Yale Humanist Society), during which he participated in the Inter-Religious Leaders Council and worked closely with the Yale Chaplain’s Office to foster relationships with liberal members of the Yale religious community. In his spare time, Vlad enjoys listening to hipster bullshit and writing sarcastic articles and music reviews for the Yale Herald.

mirandaToday’s guest post comes from Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC) member Miranda Hovemeyer. Miranda is a first year Master of Arts in Religion student at Meadville Lombard Theological School who is an improvisational comedian, vintage radio enthusiast, and works as a respite care provider for disabled children. Miranda, who is SHAC’s Special Events Coordinator, is a Community Ambassador for One Chicago, One Nation (OCON) an initiative of the Chicago Community Trust,One Nation, Link TV, the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). This program, which I spoke to organizers Hind Makki and Erin Williams about a few months back, aims to facilitate religious pluralism. Below, Miranda discusses her role as a Community Ambassador and her experience of being asked to speak at the OCON launch.

This past Saturday I was honored to speak at the 2010 “Takin’ it to the Streets” festival. The festival began with the induction of the One Chicago, One Nation Community Ambassadors, of which I am a member. We are a group of people from various walks of life who are working together toward a common goal: making Chicago a more peaceful city. One Chicago, One Nation is under the direction of IFYC and IMAN. In attendance at the induction ceremony were Mayor of Chicago Richard M. Daley, Illinois state Senator Jackie Collins, IFYC Executive Director Dr. Eboo Patel, IMAN Executive Director Dr. Rami Nashashibi, along with many others.

I was personally invited to speak on behalf of the secular community, which I found to be a somewhat difficult task. My speech sought to address the ways in which the religious and secular worlds can and should work together toward common goals. Before I went up on stage I was told by some of my fellow Community Ambassadors that I was going to have an important message, but a tough crowd. This turned out to be all too true. Certain parts of my speech were similar to the scenes in popular movies when someone does or says something completely unexpected. When I mentioned how Secular Humanists don’t believe in god, all at once the DJ stopped the record with a scratch, someone spewed water out of their mouth in a style similar to Old Faithful, and all that could be heard was a perfectly tuned chorus of crickets chirping.

Takin' it to the StreetsOk, so maybe I am exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad, but I am a comedian so I always try to see the humor in everything. The truth is that my fellow Community Ambassadors warmly accepted my speech. The people who were most taken aback were the older crowd of devout religious individuals, who really weren’t sure what to make of me. Their confusion became clearer to me when I was congratulated by my fellow Ambassadors, but largely ignored by the older, more religious attendees. It didn’t bother me, however, because mine was a message that people may need some time to ponder.

Later on in the day, as the heat grew and music filled the air, I was confronted by an older Muslim woman who had been in attendance for my speech that morning. She caught me off guard when she told me how much she’d enjoyed my message, then asked whether or not I had any copies of my speech, which I gave her. She told me that my speech had incited a discussion between her and some of her friends about whether or not a person who believes in god can be good. My message, she claimed, had firmly changed her mind about the goodness of secular people, and she thanked me for sharing my story. So maybe my theory that people can be good with or without god, and can work together to improve their world, is one that will just take time to sink in, but with a little contemplation will someday be our reality.

Below is a copy of Miranda’s speech, which she has agreed to let me reproduce here:

I’d like to talk to you today about faith. I know you probably already have your own ideas about the word faith. Maybe what comes to mind is a faith in god, or a faith in your own religious tradition, but the faith I want to talk about today isn’t that kind of faith.

The faith I want to talk about is the faith between you and me. I have faith in every single one of you. I have faith that you can take what you’ve learned here as a community ambassador from IMAN and IFYC, and go out and heal the world. BUT, do you have faith in me?

Takin' it to the Streets

You see, I don’t believe in god. I’m what’s called a Secular Humanist. Many of you may not know what that means… and you’re not alone. Secular Humanism is a rich tradition founded upon the conviction that people can be good without god. We do our best to improve the lives of others in our world because we have faith in the goodness of humanity.

So we may not have faith in the same god — we may not have faith in any god — but we have firm faith in the power of humanity to do good and to make Chicago a more peaceful and loving place, and I have FAITH in the community ambassadors.

You might be wondering why I’m here — why I chose to get involved with the interfaith movement if I’m not religious. The answer is, I chose to get involved because the initiative is interFAITH, not interreligious, and I have FAITH.

I remember being at the first One Chicago, One Nation Community Ambassador meeting and one Muslim woman asked the question, “how do we attempt to work with people who don’t believe in god, or people who have no faith?” To which I responded, “even though some of us don’t believe in god, we DO share a common faith, and that’s faith in humanity.”

And we also share faith in the same goal, and that goal is getting out there and engaging with the community, both religious and secular, and working to improve Chicago, our amazing city.  If we can have faith in each other, then there is no one we can’t reach.

Today’s guest commentary comes from Eat The Damn Cake‘s Kate Fridkis, who we interviewed earlier this week. Kate recently attended a screening of the film Sex and the City 2, and we asked her to comment on the film’s purportedly insensitive attitude toward Muslims. Below is Kate’s reaction.

sex-and-the-city-2-posterSex and the City 2 was exactly what I expected it to be. Tired, emaciated, glitzy, and full of shoes and dresses with shocking shoulder pads. But I’ve watched the whole series and as a result, I feel obligated to go to the movies. Not that I can’t appreciate any aspect of the experience. Seriously, if I had that many outfits in my closet, I might like changing my clothes every five minutes too!

What I wasn’t quite prepared for was the regurgitation of that familiar comparison between “western” sexuality and “Muslim” prudishness. In “Abu Dhabi” (actually filmed in Marrakesh), the foursome experience every luxury imaginable, but are shocked by the strangeness of the natives’ attitudes towards women’s sexuality. There is certainly plenty that can be said about sexism, women’s oppression, and a need for cross-cultural evaluations of the concepts of sexual liberation, independence, and autonomy, but Sex and the City 2 instead rehashes some of the old arguments: America is the land of the sexually free, and its opposite is all Muslim countries, which are the lands of the sexually oppressed and repressed. Yet there is something extremely erotic and exotic about these places – like a scene from Arabian Nights.

And all Muslim women are definitely unhappy with their condition. In fact, when given the chance, women in the movie throw off their burqas and reveal the same blindingly sequined, garish fashion that the stars of the movie are wearing. This is their show of solidarity.

Overall, there is the distinct sense that Muslim culture exists both to gratify American tastes for the old-school exotic, while simultaneously providing grounds for self-righteous shock at the seemingly antiquated approach toward sex, and the subsequent self-satisfied pride at being associated with a culture that knows how good sex really is.

I can’t pretend, though, that parts of Abu Dhabi don’t actually cater to and attempt to consciously create this impression for Western visitors! And I can’t pretend that Sex and the City 2 should be held responsible for being as silly about Muslims as it is about everyone and everything else. But maybe there should’ve been more effort made here, since it’s obviously a sensitive and difficult topic.

Sex-and-the-City-2Okay, so I haven’t been paying any attention to the ramp up to the release of Sex and City 2 because, well, I’ve zero interest in seeing it. But then I came across this article the other day on the Huffington Post pointing to a review by Stephen Farber at the Hollywood Reporter that says the film is “anti-Muslim” and that it is “at once proudly feminist and blatantly anti-Muslim, which means that it might confound liberal viewers.” Sky News elaborates: “One scene even features the four main characters being rescued by Muslim women who strip off their burkhas to reveal the stylish Western outfits they are concealing beneath their black robes.” And Hadley Freeman of the Daily Mail adds: “Not since 1942′s Arabian Nights has orientalism been portrayed so unironically. All Middle Eastern men are shot in a sparkly light with jingly jangly music just in case you didn’t get that these dusky people are exotic and different.”

A poll on the article has viewers split down the middle about whether the film sounds offensive or not. It’s probably a bit premature to say, but it doesn’t sound promising. It’ll be interesting to see how people react to the film, and whether or not the filmmakers come out and say anything about the criticisms already being leveled against it.

For a nice list of positive representations of Muslims in film and television, check out this list put together by Koldcast TV.

Last month I attended the launch event for the One Chicago, One Nation (OCON) project, a collaboration between the Chicago Community Trust, One Nation, Link TV, the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). This program aims to facilitate religious pluralism and, like our own recently announced Share Your Secular Story contest — which just started accepting submissions yesterday — features a contest component. Whereas we are looking for stories, OCON is seeking film submissions and is giving away $50,000 in prizes! (Okay, so they’ve got just a bit more bank than us.) But, as I learned when I recently sat down with two of the project’s prominent organizers, Hind Makki and Erin Williams of IFYC, the prizes aren’t the only reason OCON is important.

NonProphet Status: Thanks for speaking with me. Tell me: what are your personal motivations for being involved in this project?

Hind Makki

Hind Makki of IFYC

Hind Makki: I’ve done interfaith dialogue since the 90′s and have done community service within my community. These experiences taught me that when I combine the two, it enriches both my own faith and my relationship with those around me. I want to share those experiences with others in Chicago.

NPS: So, tell me straight up — why should people apply to be a Community Ambassador for the OCON project?

Hind: Community Ambassadors (CAs) will be get to work as a part of a network of 99 other leaders throughout the city and the Chicagoland suburbs. As a CA, you’ll be connected to city, religous, civic, and educational leaders and will get the chance to build relationships with members of Chicago’s diverse communities. CAs will get to promote interfaith cooperation in their own communities, as well as get connected to existing Chicagoland interfaith networks — it’s a truly unique opportunity to get involved in Chicago’s exciting interfaith communities.

NPS: That sounds awesome. So, tell me more about this film contest. What kinds of things can we expect when the winners are announced?

Erin Williams: For the OCON Online Film Contest, which is hosted by Link TV, we’re looking for films that tell the stories of people from different backgrounds who are working together for the common good. The film contest reminds me of the Walter Lippman line that says: “The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do.” We’re hoping people will find inspiration in the stories of Chicagoans working collaboratively and then imagine new ways to do similar good work in their own communities. The filmmakers don’t have to be from Chicago, although the films should be based in or about greater Chicago. The categories for the film contest include comedy, documentary, drama, under 60 seconds, music video/spoken word/animation, and mobile digital media, and submissions are open until April 23rd. Filmmakers submit their films online at Link TV’s One Chicago page. Some of the winning films will be used in Chicagoland community conversations, which are intended to create connections in diverse neighborhoods and motive collaborative action.

NPS: Wow, that sounds exciting. Looks like I might have to get my act together and submit something. Speaking of — as you know, I’m a secular humanist. I’m not religious, and this project is about religion. Tell me why OCON is important to secular folks and why we should get involved.

Hind: Chicago is a city of many faces, races, neighborhoods, beliefs and backgrounds – I can’t imagine this city without all of its components. Likewise, the world of religious diversity is composed of religious people, secular people, agnostics, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, etc. I can’t imagine a world of religious pluralism without secular folks.

Erin Williams

Erin Williams of IFYC

NPS: That’s good to hear, and it echoes my beliefs on engaging with difference. So, I want to close out this interview on a somewhat unrelated note. I’m always looking for new music — what album are you listening to right now?

Hind: My coworker recently returned a CD that I let her borrow because I wanted her to listen to it. That was two years ago. It was in her desk the entire time! I popped it in my car a couple of days ago and now I can’t stop listening to Sahra by the Algerian King of Raï, Khaled. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve been listening to the Official World Cup song for the last 48 hours — almost literally back to back as I get obsessive about this stuff — K’naan‘s “Waving Flag.”

Erin: I haven’t been listening to albums as much as I’ve been listening to individual songs. Some of my favorites are “The Cave” by Mumford & Sons (I like the version from their bookshop sessions best), “Airplanes” by Local Natives, Ane Brun‘s “Rubber & Soul,” “Akheer” by Juggy D, and “re: Stacks” by Bon Iver.

NPS: Oh man, I love Local Natives and Bon Iver, and “Waving Flag” was one of my favorite guilty pleasure songs of 2009. I’ll have to check out the others. Thanks for speaking with me, and good luck on the project!

For more information on OCON, be sure to check out their website. Aspiring filmmakers: remember, if you’re interested in submitting to the film contest, the deadline is April 23, 2010. To apply to the Community Advisor program, which sounds like an exciting opportunity to get involved in Chicago’s robust interfaith community, be sure to get your application in by March 19, 2010 — which is coming up soon, so don’t delay!