Secular Humanism in Films

In her essay, “The Humanist Approach to Film: My Brilliant Career,” author and Eastern Michigan University lecturer Coralie Cederna Johnson writes that “everyone seeing a film for the first time makes a value judgment, even if it is only based on an emotional response, but the humanist goes back to probe these initial responses more deeply. The student of the humanist approach seeks to learn what film can tell about the human condition by searching for the answers to several questions asked of other art forms: What kinds of ideas political, religious, historical, or philosophical are hidden beneath the surface? …Who are we and what is life all about?”

A number of lists have been compiled of top humanist movies, such as James R. Taylor’s “Movies for atheists, secular humanists, and non-church goers.” Dubbed a starter list that in no way suggests completion, Taylor’s list aims toprovide a resource for movies that deal in some way with secularism versus sectarianism, faith versus reason, liturgical literalisms versus scientific principals and common sense, theocracy versus democracy. Among the thirty-five titles on the list are Chocolat (2000), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Eye of God (1997), The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), and Waking Life (2001).

Mike Treder’s “Top Ten Transhumanist Movies” is comprised of films that engage the viewer in a challenging exploration of transhumanist ethics. The films include: Avatar 3D (2009), Gattaca (1997), The Terminator (1984), The Matrix (1999), WALL-E (2008), Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Brazil (1985), Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

The Humanist magazine published its own list in 2011: “Real to Reel: Ten Classics in Humanist Cinema” by Nick Farrantello. “How does one clearly define a motion picture genre as humanist?” Farrantello asks. “I’m thinking of those few films that reject religion and supernaturalism, even peripherally, and that uphold the ideals of reason, ethics, and justice while also celebrating what it is to be human,” he explains. “A humanist film should identify and explore the individual as well as the shared human experience.” He then describes in detail ten films, including Inherit the Wind (1960), Harold and Maude (1971), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), Amadeus (1984), and Planet of the Apes (1968).

Here are a few more choices of great humanist films from a variety of sources:

Film critic Marty Mapes compiled a list for on February 12, 2002, of scientific, skeptic, atheist, or humanist movies “appropriate for a quiet little Darwin Day celebration.” Describing the 1997 film Contact, Mapes writes:

Jodie Foster brings to life Carl Sagan’s Ellie Arroway, the atheist astronomer who dreams of visiting another world. She knows her atheism counts against her…but she stays true to herself and lets the chips fall where they may. Contact is a science fiction movie without being an action movie. Instead of laser blasts, chases, and grunting, it offers questions, dilemmas, and discussion….Contact is also a great tribute to Sagan. Ellie has all of Sagan’s curiosity, morality, and rationality. Like Sagan, Ellie is a rationalist who’s interested in religious discussion. She repeats a probabilistic argument for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence that Sagan used in his Cosmos. And when she says “billion” you can almost hear him in her voice.

The Humanist Society of Santa Barbara highlights Creation (2009), a British biographical film about Charles Darwin, as a great movie for humanists to watch. Set some fifteen years after Darwin (played by Paul Bettany) returned from the Galapagos Islands, it portrays his difficulties finishing On the Origin of Species and dealing with the death of his daughter, Annie, who he interacts with in flashbacks and hallucinations. “Both Darwin and his wife Emma [Jennifer Connelly] feel the pain of Annie’s death, but it strains their relationship between one another, which is especially acute due to Emma’s strong religious feelings and Darwin’s ideas about evolution,” notes the reviewer.

Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington called Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) a “must-see humanist film.”

Based on the experiences of Renoir and his fellow pilots in POW camps at the end of World War I, co-scripted by Charles Spaak, it is one of the great humanist movies. And, for its rending portrayal of the bonds that spring up between the jailed French officers and their German captors, it’s also one of the most uncompromising of anti-war films.

Blogger Nate at Wheat and Tares, dubbed the 2015 film adaptation of the musical Into the Woods “the humanist gospel of Stephen Sondheim.”

Originally written in two long acts, the film does its best to cram it all into two hours.  Each act of the original musical presents two entirely different philosophies and worldviews. Act 1 presents a religious and moral view of life, and Act 2 a humanist and morally relative view of life. The end result is a remarkable fusion of religious and humanist beliefs in which both are presented with nuance and respect. Ultimately, it demonstrates that both religious and secular humanist principles reveal important truths and should be able to coexist.

Life of Pi (2012) is another film that explores humanism in relation to different worldviews. In his review, philosopher Peter S. Williams examines the Christian, Hindu, and secular humanist perspectives and themes of truth, faith, and hope in the Academy Award-winning film, adapted from the 2001 novel by Yann Martel (which won the Mann Booker Prize).

Brian Eggert reviewed Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) at Deep Focus Review, calling it the director’s most humanist film. He also stressed that it

should not be considered solely an anti-war film, but also a depiction of the horrors of war, specifically those authorized by the governing political structure. Defined through the power-mongering among aristocrats and inequality on the social ladder, Kubrick’s critique aims toward the ignorant, inhuman system, and ruthless logic of military law.

Did we miss a great humanist film? Let us know in the comments section below.