Bill Donohue and the Catholic League Attack Matthew Chapman's New Atheist Film, "The Ledge"

By Chris Mooney | July 6, 2011 1:48 pm

I kinda suspected this new film, The Ledge–the topic of the latest Point of Inquiry–would raise a culture war brouhaha. When do you know you have such a brouhaha? Well, one early barometer is often Bill Donahue–whose conservative Catholic League is always trying to police depictions of religion in the public square.

And now Donahue has weighed in on the film–negatively, of course. Here’s his statement [warning, spoiler alert below]:

People of faith, especially Catholics, are used to being trashed by Hollywood, but they are not accustomed to films that promote atheism. Yes, there was “The Golden Compass,” an atheism-for-kids effort which the Catholic League successfully boycotted (in fairness, it was the book upon which the movie was based that triggered our response, not the screen adaptation). “The Ledge” is different in that its backers are selling themselves as the real pioneers: they expect it to be a ground-breaker. In short, they are relying on its potential fan base accessing the film through Video on Demand (it opens in only two theaters).

The characters in the movie are utterly predictable. Gavin’s loss of faith deepened after his wife blamed him when their daughter was killed in an accident. Because he believes in nothing, he is the good guy. Gavin has an affair with an evangelical’s wife—you guessed it, the evangelical is a close-minded homophobe—leaving the poor gal (played by Liv Tyler) in a mess. You see, she was once a prostitute before her husband (himself a former alcoholic and drug abuser) introduced her to God. In any event, after Mr. Intolerant, the evangelical, discovers the affair, he tells Gavin to jump from a ledge or he’ll kill both of them, including himself.

Matthew Chapman is the writer and director. “God-fearing straight men have had a monopoly for a very long time,” he says, “and many peculiar decisions have been made.” Among the most peculiar, historically speaking, is something Chapman doesn’t want to admit: it was the Judeo-Christian ethos of America that accounts for the unprecedented levels of justice and freedom enjoyed by non-believers.

Chapman is an atheist and the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. Darwin, it should be noted, was a self-described agnostic. He once said to a dogmatic atheist, Edward Aveling, “Why should you be so aggressive? Is anything gained by trying to force these new ideas upon the mass of mankind?” Too bad Chapman didn’t learn that lesson.

Doesn’t that make you want to see the movie? Interestingly, I don’t recall any characters in the film being Catholic–rather, and as Donohue himself states, the religious character is an evangelical.

Again, for our Point of Inquiry episode on this film, listen here.

P.S.: I take one thing back–Hollis, the cop in the movie, played by Terence Howard, is a Catholic. And an extremely positive character…which Bill Donohue managed to miss somehow.

P.P.S.: Matthew Chapman sends this response:

In a thinly veiled threat, narrow-minded and parochial Bill Donahue brags at the top of his article that the Catholic League successfully boycotts films it considers anti-religious, while at the bottom claims that it is the “Judeo-Christian ethos of America that accounts for the unprecedented levels of justice and freedom enjoyed by non-believers.” If Bill travelled a little more he’d know that there are many countries where attempts to censor criticism of religion are considered both archaic and repulsive and where non-believers have a far better time of it than in America – along with gay people, women, and the poor. I actually cut some lines of dialogue from “The Ledge” about the devastation caused by Catholic edicts against condom use in AIDS infested Africa. (Note to self: Must put them back in the DVD extras.) As for using a quote from my great-great-grandfather (out of context) chastising an overly aggressive atheist, one has only to watch Bill barking people into submission when he slips his leash and comes on TV to see how laughable that is. I’ll debate Bill any time any place – and let the public judge who has more reason and compassion and who has more aggression and dogma.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, point of inquiry

Comments (11)

  1. HU

    I watched half of the movie this past weekend. I was about to watch the other half but you spoiled it without warning in this article. Please place spoiler alerts on this thing. Shame on you.

  2. Chris Mooney

    i’m very sorry…i’m not used to doing spoiler alerts, but this was stupid of me. fixed it.

  3. plutosdad

    Has anyone watched this? From the previews it looked pretty boring, I am not a big fan of these “crazy stalking man goes after a woman and her lover” movies, it’s Unlawful Entry with a twist. Actually I’m sure other movies have had the twist where the crazy guy was the husband not a 3rd party, and I’m sure there have been movies where a crazy guy was motivated by religion.

    Also I hope there is more to his atheism than “this bad thing happened in my past and I don’t believe in God anymore” that is the same accusation we have to hear from theists all the time “you are just angry” as though we are ruled by emotion and bitter and can’t think.

    The only thing that makes me think it might be interesting is the posts you have made about it, I would not have thought twice about seeing it, it looked like another dumb thriller with some preaching added in for good measure. Is it actually more than that?

    re: spoiler, i didn’t see anything in your post or the quote that wasn’t already in the preview

  4. I would take Donohue to task for writing: “it was the Judeo-Christian ethos of America that accounts for the unprecedented levels of justice and freedom enjoyed by non-believers.”

    For one thing, it’s my understanding that our legal system is based on a combination of English Common Law and Roman Law. As I recall, it was Christians (so-called) who hung witches at Salem and burned them all over Europe. So much for Christian justice and freedom.

    Secondly, our democracy is based on the systems of government developed by the Greeks and Romans, and on the English parliamentary system.

    So Donohue’s claim of “the Judeo-Christian ethos” accounting for justice and freedom today is just twaddle.

  5. As Catholic, I’m often ashamed of the people of the Catholic league. If we live in an open and free society, and Catholics, as well as other Christians, are free to express themselves, and make all sorts of religious oriented movies, I think that atheists too have the right to present atheism in a positive light.

    It is also true that many people have lost their faith due to homophobia within religious communities, and often lack of rationality in many religious circles. The Catholic League should learn, for once, to stop trying censoring movies which are inconvenient to us Catholics. We should look within our own Church, work hard to correct many of the wrongs it has inflicted, and live more according to the teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ, especially in the genuine search of the truth. Let this movie be an opportunity for self-introspection and self-correction, and let’s stop demonizing atheists.

  6. TTT

    Does the Catholic League really exist? It seems to be just the Bill Donohue League.

  7. FWIW The always apoplectic Donohue is a serious embarrassment to many Roman Catholics – both current and former, priesthood and laity alike. You know what they say about the most vocal homophobes; maybe Bill is a closeted atheist, or something? Come out, Bill!

  8. @Roger Harris, #4:

    Unless you’ve forgotten your history, many of the USA’s founders were not atheists (they comprised Quakers, Deists, theists, and some actual “Christians”). It is correct, rather, to note that they used their belief in God to inform them of their morality, and this is made evident when they proscribed that the teachings of Jesus had a moral foundation that could be followed, just not as a essential Christian foundation. That is, they removed the religiosity of the argument and made the effect of the argument into law. This is why you have freedom of speech, for no faith was to govern another as happened in several of the colonies (Providence/ Rhode Island and Massachusetts being two big examples).

    Note that religious teachings (i.e., Jesus’) tend to prohibit the overbearing of the religious over one another, to live in common with your unbelieving neighbors, to take in the poor and the wealthy as one, etc. This is sorely missed by several highly vocal, and highly influential, evangelical partisans, like Donohue.

  9. Ian

    Erm, I’m stuck here – your title includes the word “Attack”, yet all I read is Bill Donohue’s criticism of the movie.

    Matthew Chapman says: “I actually cut some lines of dialogue from “The Ledge” about the devastation caused by Catholic edicts against condom use in AIDS infested Africa (Note to self: Must put them back in the DVD extras.)”

    Would it be possible for Matthew to include in his DVD extras the fact that the Catholic Church provides 25% of HIV/AIDS care in Africa, and that ‘raving liberal’ Dr Edward C Green in his book ‘Broken Promises’ states that the overemphasis on condom use in Africa is having a detrimental effect in combating this disease.

    Perhaps Chapman’s DVD extras could also include this report from a recent conference on HIV and AIDs hosted by the Vatican:

    Edward C. Green, the former director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University, told the conference that there was a growing international consensus that AIDS can be controlled only by changing patterns of sexual behavior. This is not simply a moralistic point of view, but one based on practical effectiveness, he said.

    He cited the case of Uganda, where a government emphasis on sexual fidelity and abstinence helped reduce the HIV infection rate from about 14 percent in 1991 to about 4 percent in 2003. But over the past eight years, he said, the focus on sexual responsibility has diminished. Drugs and condoms are now viewed as the solution, and the HIV rate has begun to rise again, he said.

    Green said that while faith-based organizations have worked successfully to change high-risk behavior, they sometimes are denied international funding because they won’t support condom distribution.

    “Willingness to promote condoms should not be a litmus test for working in AIDS prevention,” he said.

  10. Locrian

    I saw “The Ledge” and loved it. For those, like Dummy Donahue, thinking this film examines religion, it’s not really the focus of the film. It’s more focused on prerequisites and not knowing what you will do or what the outcome will be.

    For the believers, YOU CAN NOT KNOW where you are going. Most likely there is no afterlife. You should be examining after watching “The Ledge” why you think praying to the ceiling is going to affect your entrance into heaven. You should be asking things more along the lines of “Is there really a heaven?” And, “Out of all the people on Earth who ever lived one minute, why am I so important? And why would such a murderous and inept god be the one to judge me?”

    For us atheists, Gavin is not your typical atheist, more like just an unbeliever who knows enough about religion to logically reject it.

    Neither Gavin nor Joe represent a religion or non-religion; they’re individuals wrapped up in themselves and the situation they’ve BOTH created. As crazed as Joe is, he certainly doesn’t represent EVERY bible-thumper we’ve met.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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