What Atheists Can Learn From The Oscars

A recently unearthed story from high school about Ed. Who is Ed?
A recently unearthed story from high school about Ed. Who is Ed?

Neither novels or their readers benefit from any attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species. – John Green

I love movies, but for some reason, I wasn’t ready for the 87th Academy Awards. I hadn’t really seen any of the movies that were nominated, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to watch the show. I didn’t even know if my basic TV carried the channel that hosted it, and I considered just checking in on Twitter every hour or so to see how it was going. I thought it would perhaps be the same line of talking about men for their talent, women for their dresses, and endless acceptance speeches full of people’s names that I don’t know. Never have I been so wrong.

This Academy Awards was a tour de force of diversity and activism. It seemed to me, that whenever anyone got the opportunity to say something, it was something that mattered, something that made a difference.

Just to name a few:

Reese Witherspoon: “This is a movement to say we’re more than just our dresses. It’s hard being a woman in Hollywood or any industry.”

Ellen Goosenberg Kent: “I want to thank the people at the crisis line who care for veterans as deeply as if their own lives depend on it”

Graham Moore: “Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message along.”

Many of these people completely dispel the notion that movies are simply entertainment. They may be entertaining, but that is hardly all they do. The eclectic tapestry of talent that I saw woven tonight, with threads of age, race, nation, gender, sexual orientation, and physical ability, was elegant proof that movies change people. I was struck by the winners of these prestigious awards not just giving thanks to their families and their gods, but they said things that mattered even more.

Here’s the lesson that the Academy Awards has to offer atheists: Somehow, by doing things that are pretend, the film industry manages to do things that are anything but.

This is always a hard pill to swallow for any atheist, especially some as scientifically minded as Richard Dawkins, for example. Many times, atheists object to religion because it is patently untrue, and that’s a very valid reason. But this binary of true and false does not always work. The film industry shows us that one of its chiefest crafts is the blurring the line between reality and fantasy, between fact and fiction, and that it seeks a portrayal of life and life to be, or life and life as it was, or life and life as we wish it. This is the magic of film.

As atheists, we tend to lampoon religion for not being true, and I sometimes hear atheists talking about how they don’t understand how anyone could believe it at all. But what they fail to understand is that this is where facts have always been subservient to fiction. The greatest part about fiction is that it tells you it’s not true. However, every book you’ve ever read, movie you’ve ever seen, and every church you’ve ever walked into peddle the same lie: What you see is real. It’s dying for you to believe it, and the success of a work depends on you believing it. And you, despite knowing this, agree to be deceived, if only for a little while. That’s why the consumption of every work involves that clever phrase “suspension of disbelief.”

Somehow, by doing things that are pretend, the film industry manages to do things that are anything but.

Made-up stories can matter, and religion is a story like any other. It can be exceptionally difficult to accept that not all lies are bad, and even more to accept that sometimes falsehoods get the job done better, especially for atheists. But if we’re going to become capable of changing theist minds of the future, we have to understand what they’re saying first. The human mind doesn’t tend to work in numbers, facts, and statistics. They want a story. Let’s give it to them.

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2 thoughts on “What Atheists Can Learn From The Oscars”

  1. Right on.

    I’ve been thinking lately about how much of a religious person’s relationship with their faith is more like a love affair than a logic puzzle. People fall in love with the beauty of God and discipleship as they understand them, in part because of their relationship to the positive components of human flourishing. The aesthetic part of faith exists, to some degree, independently of the facts.


  2. Yes! I think what helped me understand it better was Evid3n3’s understanding of a complex network. He explains it here. (http://goo.gl/2aPloC) Basically, certain computer networks are designed to be able to withstand attack on certain nodes and keep a network still running, functional, and completely fine. It’s only when an assault is mounted on a critical number of the nodes that the network of belief begins to fall apart. People on both sides often present things, trying to find a “Gotcha!” argument against belief or non-belief, but it’s not really like that at all.


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