Will Atheists Rally Behind "The Ledge"?

By Chris Mooney | July 8, 2011 11:57 am

Today in New York and Los Angeles, “The Ledge” premieressee here for our Point of Inquiry episode–a landmark, by any reasonable estimation, in the cinematic depiction of atheism. Tell me another movie that has top tier Hollywood stars in it (Liv Tyler, Terence Howard), that has been nominated for best drama at Sundance, and  that actually advances the case that atheists are ethical, good, and even heroic people?

When Mel Gibson made The Passion of the Christ, evangelicals rallied around the film dramatically and made it a huge success. Seriously, the film grossed over $ 600 million!

You might think atheists would see their chance to do the same…but then, atheists are not like Christians, in many, many ways. Psychologically–this is my opinion, but actually grounded in a lot of data–they are highly individualistic, not followers, not into heeding any authority, marching to their own drum. That is, of course, what makes them atheists and what makes them reject the dogmas of religion. And it is also what makes them regularly criticize their own.

You see this in the blog comments on The Ledge wherever you go–a lot of negativism directed towards the film. I know that those who comment on blogs are only a small proportion of those who read them, but–if you want to have an effect through popular culture, this does not bode particularly well.

The film may cascade to prominence anyway–Bill Donohue’s Catholic League has been baited into attacking it, which is great PR for the film, and it does after all feature a star studded cast. But this weekend is crucial–the opening in New York and LA has to be strong in order to spread to more theaters. Will atheists come out, in these two cities that are absolutely full of them?

Let’s hope so–you can find a theater here. And for those who aren’t based in our two bi-coastal megacities, you can still stream the movie via Sundance.

Meantime, here is a clip of the central “debate over God” scene:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture

Comments (24)

Links to this Post

  1. Political Animal - This Week in God | July 9, 2011
  1. I find little lacking in this movie. The arguments are OK, but are not central to the story. That’s what makes the movie something for the general audience, which is a great because that’s who needs to learn more about atheism. The rest is drama, pretty good drama. We’re human and drama is part of that…

  2. Adam Ness

    I’m sure that there are some atheists who are “highly individualistic” and “march to their own drum”, but the implication that there are no individualistic Christians, or no “follower” atheists is a pretty weak argument. I would probably give you that a higher percentage of Atheists consider themselves more individualists, but I’d like to see data that backs up a claim that actual following behavior is more common among Christians than atheists.

    Purely from anecdotal experience, I’ve met just as many atheist and agnostics who are willing to go along with what other people tell them as christians. People are people, pretty much the same world round.

  3. Chris Mooney

    you made the implication, I didn’t. Of course there are individualistic Christians. I’m talking about the groups as a whole, and I’m pretty confident that atheists will be more likely to rate high on the personality trait–openness to experience–that is relevant here.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits#Openness_to_experience

  4. Hugh Malarkey

    “Will Atheists Rally Behind “The Ledge”?”

    You seem to live in a very sad and binary world. But then again, maybe it’s easier to live in a world where everyone is either an ally to fight with or an enemy to be destroyed. That’s an attitude I normally associate with fundamentalists, and yet here you are espousing it. I am not sure what to make of that.

    Here’s a question for you: is it a good movie?

    Should atheists rally around a bad movie because it promotes atheism?
    Should atheists rally around a bad policy because it promotes atheism?
    Should atheists rally around a bad law because it promotes atheism?
    Should atheists rally around a bad piece of science because it promotes atheism?

    Maybe it’s a good movie, rotten tomatoes, is suggesting otherwise….

    Say atheists rally around X, where X is an element of bad things, and it can be shown that X’s success was directly related to the actions of the atheists.

    What does that say about atheists?

  5. I have to say, I’m a bit torn over how I feel about this movie. I plan on seeing on either way, but the one thing that makes me a bit weary is the way that some people may interpret the characters.

    In the first trailer that I saw, Charlie Hunnam’s character, the atheist, seems to be depicted as stealing Liv Tyler’s character away from her husband — that may send the wrong message; a message that atheists do not value marriage or any sort of courtship between two persons, or that they are sort of ‘devils’ that can persuade good people to do bad things. I’d hate to see this movie really portray the character(s) in this manner, but even if it doesn’t overtly do so, I’m sure some believers our there will — or already have — condemn the film and or characters for this reason.

  6. Veronica

    I’m not so sure Atheists will rally behind this movie as they’d probably not “care” either way. However ever there’d probably be a big stink from those who are Religious and hearing them voice their opinions about such a movie.

  7. Mike H

    That’s what kind of pisses me off about movies like this, if the clip is any indication: you take the most extreme view of fundamentalist Christianity, package it up into the most intolerant stereotypical zealot and square it off with the cool, suave, well spoken, educated hipster and to transform the audience with a contrived bullshit eureka moment.

    Now that’s edgy!

  8. Chris Mooney

    #4 & # 7 thanks for proving my point

  9. Rod Taylor

    I don’t think I proved your point.

    You think your point is that atheists are:

    atheists are not like Christians, in many, many ways. Psychologically–this is my opinion, but actually grounded in a lot of data–they are highly individualistic, not followers, not into heeding any authority, marching to their own drum. That is, of course, what makes them atheists and what makes them reject the dogmas of religion. And it is also what makes them regularly criticize their own.

    But this is clearly evidence free, narcissistic, self-laudatory bullshit.

    This is your point:

    Let’s hope so–you can find a theater here. And for those who aren’t based in our two bi-coastal megacities, you can still stream the movie via Sundance.

    Your point is that you believe atheists should rally behind a lousy movie, merely because you perceive it to move atheist’s political goals forward.

    And my point is that makes you a fundie.

    @7, I do wonder if what seems to be called high production values, meaning excellent camera work, zippy punchy dialogue, attractive actors dressed to the nines, ADHD like quick cuts, High Definition, amazing sound, is all a bit overwhelming for homosapien brains which act in a manner never possible before to polish turds into shiny shiny.

  10. Hugh Malarkey

    I apologize for what appears to be sock puppetry that is really just bad naming and memorizing forms.

    I forget why, but a few weeks back, I came by to post on some post as Rod Taylor, the actor famous for The Time Machine (as well as the Birds). That seemed like an appropriate pseudonym given that post.

    And with apologies to Mr. Taylor, I didn’t realize he was still alive (He is 81 and I wish him another fantastic 81 years). But when I discovered that today, I thought I really shouldn’t post as Mr. Taylor, and so I picked another name for a pseudonym, Hugh Malarkey (which is slightly more SFW than Heywood Jabl… but nowhere near as funny.)

    And I thought my browser, Chrome, and memorized that, just as it had memorized Rod Taylor.

    But now I suspect it hasn’t and so, fling all the poop you want at me, and I deserve that for making a posting error, but I did want to apologize to Mr. Taylor as well as to anyone who thinks my honest, but pseudonymous posts, are just sock puppetry in action.

  11. I really wish I could recommend the film. Nothing would make me happier. But I just saw the first showing of it here in NYC, and there’s no getting around it: it’s not a good film. Everyone comes across one-dimensionally, believers and non-believers alike. The central issues don’t make a splash one way or another, because the script is weak.

    So this atheist, for one, can’t rally around it.

    Please, USA, prove me wrong: this movie can’t instigate a larger national conversation about ethics, simply because such a poorly made drama isn’t up to the task.

  12. I enjoyed the film more for the second half of the film than for the first. Honestly, I found the “great debate” sophomoric and in what seemed like a dumbed-down form shorn of any attempt to distil any discussion of, say, a cosmological or deontological argument or criticisms of them. I recall Gavin tried the tactic of hurling biblical quotes and allusions back at Joe, instead of undermining the Bible frontally. I think that discussion also displaced the center of the movie, which was marriage, not atheism, and also displaced the wonderful depiction of the relationship between Gavin and Chris. The depiction of Joe (Patrick Wilson) is a missed opportunity. I understand he was born again, so his psychopathy is buried under his rationalizations. I found all the characters underdeveloped, but Joe could have been one of the great villains, who depicted how sham marriage and bourgeois life hides cruelty and mediocrity. The scene where Joe grabs Shana’s (Liv Tyler) breast, I thought that depicted Joe’s manipulativeness and opportunism succinctly (listen to The Auteurs’ “Married to a Lazy Lover” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5V6oMrkZP4&feature=feedf). I can’t decide if Shana is a pathetic character, or if Liv Tyler just downplayed her performance. Gavin’s grief over his dead child also ties in with Hollis’ marital problems over the paternity of his children. But then again, “Angela” seemed about as pathetic a female character as Shana.

    Spoiler alert: Why didn’t the cops use the time and distraction Hollis gave them, to set up some sort of inflatable device or net? Is Hollis’ character a faithful depiction of how the police perform in these situations? Again, Hollis didn’t seem so much a cop as he acted like a convenient foil for Gavin.

    Final thought: One can’t make a movie by committee poll. I support the film because Chapman needs devoted fans who will force him to get over trying to play to the center or the silent majority, not because I agree with his agenda. I want to see MORE! This script is too diplomatic and too straightforward, and still managed to bury its best character under the director/scriptwriter’s lack of conviction.

  13. Neil

    “… this is my opinion, but actually grounded in a lot of data”. Chris Mooney
    Where does the data end and the opinion start? Is it an opinion or a conclusion after careful examination of some sort of statistics and if you have statistics what form do they take, please?
    It always bothers me when anybody starts throwing around evidence that they don’t actually present.

    From your article I would extrapolate that religion is the major cause of strife and should be seen as such and that we would be better off without it? Is that your view?
    Is it your opinion that the world would somehow be exactly what without religion? Would we all be better people? Would we all be scientifically enlightened? Would we all be at peace?

    Whether you are right I wrong – about there not being anything more – I would argue that without any such thing to make things otherwise then there is no reason to suggest to people that they not carry out any behaviour they so wish to enact. There basically becomes no moral right or wrong. To argue otherwise is purely an exercise in self-justification.

    The alternate argument of course is the sanctity of science. Science sits safely behind the curtain of complexity. But I’m fairly certain that I can say, from looking at the many explanations that are given for physical properties, that science at its fundamental level is every bit just as much an exercise in faith. There are models. There are experiments and results. But there are still no mechanical explanations. The models just tell us what happens; they don’t tell us how it happens exactly.

    Gravity is a case in point. What keeps us to the ground. There is nothing connecting us yet we move towards the Earth. There are scientific measurements of the process and some models (space-time, gravitons), but there is no actual explanation of what actually makes it exist in the first place. Without gravity we wouldn’t exist.

    So we are exercising faith all around whether it be faith in religion or faith in science.
    But back to your ‘data grounded article’ I can tell you that I happily argue both sides of the argument with and against both parties where it arises. I believe I am a true individualist. I can promise you that all I gain from your article is a sense of one-sidedness without any indepth and sceptical consideration of all the candidates involved. You show no critical assessment of the alternatives and appear to take them on pure faith without knowing anything about them either.

    Oh, the movie, sorry forgot about that. The little bit shown are fairly obvious arguments but I would be more impressed if they showed a greater level of depth. Unfortunately simple sentiment does not always equal an effective alternative to existing events. What would you have the alternative world be like and how will atheism get us there, please?

  14. @ #7

    There is a fundamentalist in there, but there’s also a moderate. The catholic guy (cop who talks to the atheist on the ledge), the one with with “family values” who actually learns from the atheist and is better off…

  15. downtown dave

    Rallying behind something doesn’t make it true. http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/

  16. Free Lance

    Interesting how this post has elicited such angry comments. The post is pretty clear, and while it does make generalizations about Christians and atheists, those generalizations aren’t terribly controversial, and, Chris notes, he knows of studies that support those generalizations. And you don’t need to buy into his generalizations to get his point about “The Ledge.”

    I don’t know anything about the general individualistic character of Christians. I do know that Christians tend to belong to hierarchical religious organizations, and to take seriously the recommendations of the leaders of these organizations. In addition, religious believers generally try to promote their religion. I think it’s fair from this to argue that Christians would tend to follow their ministers and peers to see and promote Gibson’s “The Passion”. More to the point, it’s what actually happened.

    Atheists tend not to belong to hierarchical atheist groups. Their willingness, even eagerness, to call themselves atheists in a society where atheism is considered immoral and even evil is proof of this sort of independence. Atheists are highly unlikely to belong to a hierarchical group promoting atheism. There aren’t atheist leaders in the sense that there are Christian leaders. There are atheists who write and speak about atheism and against religion, but pleas by these individuals to go see a film are unlikely to have much effect. And so, all other things being equal, a film like “The Passion” has what might be called a grass-roots marketing phenomena that “The Ledge” lacks.

    The idea that atheists are more likely to be independent-minded about their lives in general is Chris’ opinion, and one I happen to agree with, but agreement isn’t required to see the logic of what I wrote above.

    By the way, I’m not surprised that the atheist hero in the ledge is hipper and more attractive than his adversaries. People like their film heros to be more attractive than those who oppose them.

    For the most part, I think that fiction movies designed to promote an agenda tend to be bad movies. If you want proof, sit through the 1949 film, “The Fountainhead”. I might see “The Ledge”, but I’ll probably wait until it’s on Netflix.

  17. Jeeze, all this philosophical mental masturbation – it’s a movie. Truth of the matter is it doesn’t matter if atheists rally around it or not. What a silly question to even propose, why would it matter? Will theists rally around “Tree of Life”, will nerds rally around “Transformers 3″? Who cares, why did you even write this article?

    Who cares what atheists or theists do in response to a movie? The only thing this article seems to have done is spur another theological debate between the usual opposing sides, each preaching (no pun intended) the same bland “he exists” “it doesn’t exist” argument while pretending they’re saying something profound. Why didn’t you just write an article entitled “The Ledge: One Man’s Film Review” and skip all the stirring the pot shit?

    The movie is probably fine – but it’s probably not about atheists vs. theists just because that’s the spin you’ve put on it … I doubt anyone will be rallying behind this film, or finalizing their religious beliefs on it.

  18. Ray Dobson

    Faux Noise answers your question in the affirmative:

    Atheists Rally Behind New Movie Thriller

  19. Hugo Schmidt

    Chris,

    I guess it’s simply a question of whether or not it’s a good movie.

  20. Johan Fruh

    Movies are communication.
    Wether peaople like it or not, “silly” things like movies, music, theater and science-fiction novels actually do change the world.

    They communicate to a broad audience what could be percieved as “normality”, and while at first some movies are regarded as shocking, insulting or whatever… the fact that such movies are done, widely distributed and inspired upon, change culture, politics and the future.

    In my opinion, such entertainement has a much much higher impact on people mindset, than politics or even science.

    And as an atheist, I’m very happy to see that sort of mindset having a chance at becoming a part of popular culture.
    Though to be frank, I don’t think this movie is a big jump in that regard, many other movies/series( ex. Dr.House) seem to have already started down that road, though maybe in a more subtle manner.

    But it does make me very curious and interested!

  21. Emily

    I love when atheists form generalizations and stereotypes about religious people, then get pissed when religious people do the same to them. I think it would blow the minds of some atheists that there are people who worship God who don’t actually (gasp) attend or partake of those hierarchical organizations, or do what a congregation leader tells them to do. It might further blow minds that a great many of these believers (extra large gasp) don’t believe exactly the same as every other one. There is an entire world of people and to assume anything about a believer is as narrow-minded as an assumption made about a nonbeliever.

  22. Free Lance

    Emily;

    I understand that you take offense at my use of generalizations. Please note that, despite what you said in your post, I did not say that “every” Christian attends or partakes of a hierarchical organization, and never said that all Christians “do what a congregation leader tells them to do.”

    It’s pretty obvious that believers “don’t believe exactly the same as every other one.” In the first place, it’s clear that Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists and Mormons believe in very different things, although they all call themselves Christian. More importantly, I don’t think that anyone has a complete monopoly on independent thinking.

    My point was much simpler and much less exciting than you make it out to be. Obviously a lot of Christians belong to groups that generally have leaders. If the leader encourages those in the group to go to or not go to a film, many of the people in the group will do as he or she advises. Why wouldn’t they? They’re all members of a group that share values about the issues that are raised in the film!

    If you don’t agree about what I’ve actually said, tell me why my facts are wrong, or why my logic is faulty. I’m always interested in fact-based debate. But just writing something angry, reactive and dishonest is (gasp!) offensive and (swoon!) makes you look like you either don’t understand what I wrote, or that you understand but deliberately choose to be dishonest.

    My mind remains unblown.

  23. Free Lance

    Emily;

    I understand that you take offense at my use of generalizations. Please note that, despite what you said in your post, I did not say that “every” Christian attends or partakes of a hierarchical organization, and never said that all Christians “do what a congregation leader tells them to do.”

    I’d never suggest that believers “believe exactly the same as every other one.” In the first place, it’s clear that Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists and Mormons believe in very different things, although they all call themselves Christian. More importantly, I don’t think that anyone has a complete monopoly on independent thinking.

    My point was much simpler and much less exciting than you make it out to be. Obviously a lot of Christians belong to groups that generally have leaders. If the leader encourages those in the group to go to or not go to a film, many of the people in the group will do as he or she advises. Why wouldn’t they? They’re all members of a group that share values about the issues that are raised in the film!

    If you don’t agree about what I’ve actually said, tell me why my facts are wrong, or why my logic is faulty. I’m always interested in fact-based debate. But just writing something angry, reactive and dishonest is (gasp!) offensive and (swoon!) makes you look like you either don’t understand what I wrote, or that you understand but deliberately choose to be dishonest.

    My mind remains unblown.

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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 Salon.com 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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