Religious Films Atheists Might Actually Enjoy

For decades the film industry has marketed the subject of religion to the masses with some positive reception, but interest in religious films that hold strongly to ancient texts has declined in the twenty-first century. I suspect one of the reasons is that growing numbers of secular people simply aren’t interested in such religious material, as the topic is often glorified on the silver screen. With the resurgence of creationists and Bible literalists over the past several years, there has also been an increase in media activity attempted by religious institutions to combat this decline.

There are more films based on religion, most of which concern the life of Jesus Christ, than I could count. It’s no wonder why film producers would chose such grandiose and epic stories to make their grandiose and epic films. Stories of the Bible and Jesus have been accepted by the masses for centuries and are undeniably interesting. But what happens when we are told the same stories over and over again and still don’t believe them? They become boring, tiring, and uninteresting. In fact, the only thing such films can offer a nonbeliever such as my self are pretty pictures and maybe some good acting, still leaving me disconnected from the story and its characters.

This is not to say that films based on religious topics can’t be blockbusters or that nonbelievers can’t enjoy films that employ religious themes, especially those that espouse controversial points of view.

First, there’s Doubt, a film that takes place in 1964 in the Bronx, New York. Doubt has been labeled as controversial by Christians and non-Christians alike and touches on a sensitive real-life subject: the revelation of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. This film is of interest to non-believers because the issue isn’t purely a religious one but also a social one. It not only questions the morality of Catholic leaders but also the moral integrity of humanity. From a cinematic point of view, this film is wonderful; the script is intriguing and thought provoking. We witness acting at its best from Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams. This captivating film is beautifully shot and its dark tone sets the scene perfectly.

Martin Scorsese is a film director who intrigues us with exceptional productions full of action, drama, suspense, and controversy. So, it should be no surprise that The Last Temptation of Christ is considered very controversial. It was not Scorsese’s intent to create a comedic film, or even of mockery towards Christianity, although fictional. The Last Temptation of Christ is a beautifully made film equipped with love, lust, and loss, and is by no means to be taken lightly. The motivation for this film was adapted from the 1953 novel of the same name, written by Nikos Kazantzakis. The film follows the life of Jesus Christ and shows his deep love for Mary Magdalene. This film stars the exceptional Willem Dafoe as Jesus, along with Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey who are paired with an intriguing plot and beautiful cinematography. This film can be appreciated by the secular community, perhaps even more so than those of faith as it does explore some of the less traditional aspects of Jesus’s life.

Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough, is a film I think most people can get behind—a biographical piece on the life of Mahatma Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley), the Hindu who led the non-violent movement against the rule of the United Kingdom in twentieth-century India. Although Gandhi was a practicing Hindu, he did not discriminate against other beliefs. He was truly an icon of peace and that is a moral that does not require religiousity. It wouldn’t require one to be Hindu or any other religious sect to find themselves supporting Gandhi’s movement. The film is beautiful, the acting is superb, and the story is inspiring.

Religious films can grow tiresome for many atheists. Movies are made to inspire us, show us new worlds, new ideas, and act as an escape from reality even if only for a few hours. When viewing a film about Jesus or the Bible, or any other over-produced religious subject, it can be hard to let your mind go, even if interpreting the story as pure fantasy. This is why I love adaptations of traditional religious tales no matter how controversial. In this way, at the very least, I am presented with an old story re-written in some way to provoke thought and question, and even ruffle a few feathers.