The Intersection

Conversion Fantasies

Just imagine the uproar we would hear if every time a Jew was featured in a Hollywood film or mini-series, he or she converted to Christianity by the end. Such a situation would be intolerable and widely denounced, and rightly so. Yet Hollywood does precisely the same thing to another minority group–atheists and agnostics–and nobody even makes the slightest fuss about it.

It happens again and again: In supernatural thriller after supernatural thriller, an atheist/agnostic character is gradually brought around to a belief in forces beyond. In a UFO flicks, former “skeptics” repeatedly convert into believers in the face of overwhelming evidence. In another variation on the theme, previously lapsed religious believers constantly find faith again in Hollywood dramas, such as M. Night Shyamalan’s terrible film Signs.

And then there are the simply outrageous films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I just watched on my plane ride out to the West Coast today (I’m here for a conference). This movie not only features an “agnostic” who comes to believe in demonic forces; the plot centers on a courtroom drama designed to “prove” that such forces actually exist. Incredible. As reviewer A.O. Scott put it in The New York Times:

…objecting to silliness in a horror movie is a bit unfair. The whole point of the genre – the fun as well as the terror – lies in the suspension of disbelief. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” however, goes a bit further. Announcing from the start that it is “based on a true story” (words guaranteed to scare most movie critics), it tries to nudge its audience toward a real-world condition of belief in the supernatural doings it depicts.

If only a few popular films contained these anti-atheist/anti-skeptic themes, it would be one thing. But in fact, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t. What is this, if not cultural majoritarianism disguised as entertainment?

And of course, the notion that such fictional conversions prove anything–as Emily Rose seems to suggest–is laughable. In the context of paranormal films, skeptic conversions come as no surprise, because within the reality of the fictional worlds constructed by such movies the supernatural does indeed exist. Only a fool would remain atheistic or agnostic in the face of some of the freaky shit that characters experience in Hollywood paranormal thrillers.

But in our world, the real world, atheists and agnostics and skeptics aren’t fools. Nothing in their experience matches the narratives constructed in movies, and accordingly, they don’t claim to believe things for which there’s no evidence. It says something, I think, that Hollywood must construct fictional narratives in order to convert them–kind of like the way that Michael Crichton relied on a fictional narrative to question global warming.


  1. #1 RBH
    January 25, 2006

    And don’t neglect the fact that one of the favorite examples of “design detection” among ID advocates is a science fiction movie, “Contact”.

  2. #2 hardindr
    January 25, 2006

    Chris, Vladimir Nabakov once wrote that one of the themes “utterly taboo” in American publishing was “the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” Maybe, one day, they will make a movie about this man

  3. #3 razib
    January 25, 2006


    the proximate reasons for this are clear:

    The public continues to express overwhelmingly favorable opinions of Jews (77% favorable) and Catholics (73%). About six-in-ten (57%) express positive opinions of evangelical Christians, about the same number who have a favorable view of Muslim-Americans.

    By comparison, just 35% express favorable opinions of atheists; 50% have a negative opinion of atheists. These opinions have been quite stable in recent years.

    for all the talk about anti-islamic feeling, more people are negative about atheists than muslims (and they don’t even know that tim mcveigh was an atheist in all likelihood!).

    i think the ultimate reasons can be explored by a comparison with jews: jews are united and coherent as a group. atheists and agnostics are a minority opinion, but we are not a minority group. we are not bound by anything aside from our negative in response to the god hypothesis. there might be the freedom from religion foundation and american atheists, but they represent only a tiny sliver of unbelievers. we can react defensively, the reality is that we don’t have long term staying power because we don’t mix every week at an atheist church or temple.

  4. #4 Marc
    January 25, 2006

    Rare exceptions can be found on ‘House’, where the most caring and optimistic of the doctors (Cameron) is explicitly an atheist and CSI, where the main character, Grisom, is a stated agnostic.

  5. #5 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 25, 2006

    The movie on the plane was The Exorcism of Emily Rose?!

    The airlines really have gone to hell.

  6. #6 David Wilford
    January 25, 2006

    As long as no one expects me to take the godly basis of such pop cult fantasies seriously, I couldn’t care less.

  7. #7 David Roberts
    January 25, 2006

    Chris, I appreciate your point, and share your annoyance at movies where sensible people are rendered witless, but … good lordy, can we please not start playing identity politics? I don’t know how sincere you are about it (perhaps you are being tongue in cheek), but I will be highly dismayed if atheists start having parades and whinging over perceived slights like, oh, every other group in America. After all: we’re supposed to be the sensible ones.

  8. #8 Inoculated Mind
    January 25, 2006

    Did anyone else notice that the film, The Polar Express, villified skepticism? Lessons taught to the three children in the movie:
    1. Nerdy-kid: Learn, rather than memorize. (sounds good)
    2. Lead with absolute confidence even when you have no idea. (problematic)
    3. Believe despite all evidence to the contrary. (bad)
    I felt bad for the protagonist, he was on his way to being a scientist before that train showed up.

  9. #9 Chris Mooney
    January 25, 2006

    Sorry, Dr. Free Ride–the movie on the plane was “In Her Shoes.” The movie in my DVD player was “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”

    To Dave Roberts (and to a lesser extent, David Wilford): I’m not losing a ton of sleep over this, but I do think that popular culture reflects a very deeply embedded bias and even perhaps bigotry in this country towards people of no religious belief. And yeah, that bothers me.

  10. #10 windy
    January 26, 2006

    What was the reaction in the US to Bush Sr’s “I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens” line? (It was a while ago, but still, seems unbelievable…)

  11. #11 David Wilford
    January 26, 2006

    Chris, while atheists certainly do get unfairly vilified by some, so do many others who don’t believe in the One True Faith – that is, any other belief system that differs from that held by the vilifier. George H.W. Bush may think that atheists are not true citizens, but as long as I have my civil rights he can think whatever he likes as is his right. Still, I am also bothered by the fact that atheists poll so low, but I attribute that mostly to the fact that about all most people hear about atheists is in conjunction with news about contentious First Amendment challenges to religious crapola like Judge Moore’s 10 Commandments monument in Alabama or Newdow’s challenge to the Pledge of Alliegance in California. Better PR would perhaps turn that around, but as the “brights” have embarassingly shown, that can be more of a hinderance than a help when done badly. Maybe it’s time to revive Freethought and dust off the speeches of Robert G. Ingersoll to see how a real pro once did it.

  12. #12 mark
    January 26, 2006

    Did the director of Emily Rose also direct ?

  13. #13 razib
    January 26, 2006

    What was the reaction in the US to Bush Sr’s “I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens” line? (It was a while ago, but still, seems unbelievable…)

    i believe gw did acknowledge in a speech that in america you have the right to believe in no religion, so that is a step forward.

  14. #14 lurch
    January 26, 2006

    Chris, i had never noticed your Cinema Conversion theory but will watch for it now and comment on it with my circle of friends who for the most part are smart, god free folks.

    i would love to see a higher cultural and media profile for people who live a god free life and the issues that matter to them. i have just started exploring this community online and locally and i am alternately thrilled by the discussions and put off by the elitism. i think there are a lot of people who may not have phds but would be very receptive to ongoing discussions of god free perspectives that are sensible and approachable. how many academic degrees does someone need to call a myth a myth? i really enjoy everyones input. thanks!

  15. #15 Anonymous
    January 26, 2006

    ‘and they don’t even know that tim mcveigh was an atheist in all likelihood’

    I don’t think thats correct about Mcveigh.

  16. #16 Paul Riddell
    January 26, 2006

    Back when I was still writing, I contemplated writing a paper on the near-impossibility of presenting a skeptical view in television and film, just because of the way that these media present information. In a book, it’s very easy to present differing perspectives and let the reader realize “Waitaminute: that revelation didn’t make sense,” and these are actively encouraged in mysteries. However, thanks to the wonder of special effects, it’s nearly impossible to encourage skepticism because the audience sees the phenomenon, whether or not it actually happened. And because the phenomenon is visible, it’s damn near impossible to get the audience to realize that they aren’t really seeing what they’re seeing, unless it’s “debunked” by further special effects. (My favorite is the “holographic projection” used to display ghosts and other critters, even though nobody has holograms that good.)

    A classic example has justly faded into oblivion: back in the late Seventies, NBC ran a series called Project UFO, which was Jack Webb’s attempt to do with the Air Force’s Project Blue Book reports what he’d already done with LA police reports in Dragnet. The show died a relatively quick death, mostly because it was the usual cheapo Universal production, but one of the biggest problems with the show was that the Air Force analysis of the various phenomena were always downplayed. After all, when you’ve been watching elaborate models of spacecraft and suited aliens bounding around for the last 45 minutes, it’s hard to accept the official explanation of “moon dogs”, mistaken identity, or blatant fraud. (Actually, the fraud was easier to accept: we deal with rewriting our suspension of disbelief much better if what we were told we were seeing was a deliberate hoax. Please don’t ask me why.) Considering that shows full of reports on strange phenomena don’t last long if all the protagonists do is read he said/she said reports to each other, it’s no surprise that these programs go pro-UFO/possession/telekinesis/alien visitation, because anything else is beyond what television or film can handle.

    I think that’s the problem that most skeptics have with pro-paranormal TV shows and movies: it’s not just a matter of making pro-skeptic shows as it is a matter of changing the medium entirely. I’m not saying that a pro-skeptic movie is impossible, but it’s going to be awfully damn hard to work around the suspension of disbelief that TV and film actively promote in order to make a drama work. Of course, I’m always looking forward to someone proving me wrong.

  17. #17 razib
    January 26, 2006

    ‘and they don’t even know that tim mcveigh was an atheist in all likelihood’

    I don’t think thats correct about Mcveigh.

    i was wrong. he wasn’t part of an organized religion, but he does believe in god.

  18. #18 Jon Winsor
    January 26, 2006

    While I sympathize with what you’re saying, one explanation could be that conversion stories just make good narratives. There’s easy drama involved. Character X is a certain way, character encounters reality conflicting with views, character deals with altered reality, denoument comes when character X comes out the other side a changed person. A story about an atheist staying an atheist is harder to fit into the formula.

    By the way, here’s some food for thought from someone pointing out the opposite of what you’re pointing out: This guy is saying that movies espousing religious views are under attack. I don’t agree with everything he’s saying, but it’s like what the Coen Brothers characters kept saying in O Brother Where Art Thou: “People today are looking for answers.” (One of my all time favorite flicks.)

  19. #19 Thomas Kearney
    January 26, 2006

    I would like to see a war movie which shows an atheist in a foxhole during a combat scene who does not suddenly break down and call upon God to save him.

  20. #20 Ken
    January 27, 2006

    Um, I’m a Jew who converted to Christianity. Why would a film character doing so be “rightly” intolerable?

  21. #21 William Burns
    January 28, 2006

    Ken: “every time”

    It seems to me that there is one, much mocked, television show that did put forth a skeptical/rationalist world view–Scooby Doo, in which the pretended supernatural was often revealed as a pretense or scam. (OK, the dog was not presented realistically.)

  22. #22 Connie
    January 29, 2006

    One popular film that comes to mind is DOGMA. In the opening scene Matt Damon’s character gets a Catholic nun to question her faith. Funny stuff.

  23. #23 Tom Beck
    January 30, 2006

    Um, I’m a Jew who converted to Christianity. Why would a film character doing so be “rightly” intolerable?

    He’s not saying that showing it once would be intolerable, but if every single time a Jew was seen in a movie or TV show and by the end that Jew had converted, that would rightfully receive criticism as if it were implying that all Jews had to convert to be happy and that it was Hollywood’s job to keep pointing this out over and over again.

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