(The plot of this movie is so predictable that I really don’t think it needs a SPOILER ALERT.)
This time last year, the Christian production company Pure Flix released the humanist-hating God’s Not Dead, which briefly included the American Humanist Association’s logo on a bumper sticker as the sign of a character’s ultimate moral depravity. This spring, Pure Flix has upgraded the AHA to villain status in its latest film, Do You Believe?, in which a fictional member of the AHA attempts to sue an emergency medical technician after he proselytizes to her dying husband.
After reading this Variety review, I was hoping that the AHA might have a larger role, if only to give me someone to cheer for as I watched the film, but alas, we are relegated to a brief mention and overshadowed by the ensemble cast of “twelve lost souls” on whom the movies focuses. Even without the heavy-handed, conservative Christian message, the execution of this film is poor. Do You Believe? has a nearly two-hour run time, and it begins to drag after only the first half hour. The film is slow largely because differentiating between the multitude of characters is headache-inducing. I had planned to take notes anyway to write this review, but I quickly found myself depending on them just to keep track of the dozen storylines, some of which barely intersect with each other.
The various plotlines all stem from a pastor’s sermon, in which he challenges his congregation to not just profess that they believe in Christ but to enact their faith in their daily lives. For some characters in the movie, this message plays out in their volunteering at soup kitchens or offering shelter to a homeless teenager. These are certainly generous acts, but plenty of non-Christians, including humanists, do community service work. However, in Do You Believe? all humanists are curmudgeonly and selfish—caricatures of what the Christian right thinks nontheists are like. The fictional AHA member, the audience is told, is suing the Christian EMT out of spite for religious individuals. Her greedy lawyer unethically intimidates the EMT and threatens, “For me, it’s about money. For my client, it’s about hurting you. For the city, it’s about not pushing your beliefs on others. This crisis is going to cost you.”
The other nontheistic characters in the film are just as unpleasant. One of the few African-American characters in the film, named Kriminal, is not only a nontheist but also violent and comes across as more racial stereotype than as an accurate portrayal of either black men or atheists. He is contrasted to another African-American character who repents of his unlawful ways and becomes a Christian. The most reprehensible of all the atheist characters, however, is an emergency room doctor played by Sean Astin who exhibits all of the compassion and bedside manner of an ogre while interacting with his patients. Off-duty, while out to dinner with his girlfriend, who happens to be the lawyer defending the fictional AHA member, he complains bitterly about seeing a couple pray before their meal in a restaurant and unreasonably accuses them of “proselytizing.” In every scene in which he appears, he is mean-spirited, cynical, and rude, and his depiction reinforces the erroneous stereotypes that contribute to discrimination against atheists and humanists.
Unsurprisingly, by the film’s end, most of these atheists have converted to Christianity. The lawyer is saved from an accident by the EMT just seconds before her car explodes on a bridge. The audience later sees her reading the Bible on her smartphone. Kriminal, after being saved from a gang-related shooting is so touched by this sacrifice that he commits his life to Christ. Sean Astin’s character remains set in his bad-tempered, atheist ways, but his refusal to open his heart to the message of Jesus causes his girlfriend to dump him. The last shot of his character shows him standing lonely and confused in a dark hospital room. The fate of the soul of the fictional AHA member is never mentioned, but in a movie with so many disparate plotlines, at least one loose end was bound to escape the writers’ notice.
The message of Do You Believe? is particularly troublesome, because its insistence that humanists cannot be good people contributes to the prejudice persistently faced by nontheists. The film also irritated me because it fails to provide any sort of context for the myriad of social problems that it attempts to address: homelessness, mental illness, teen pregnancy, and violence. Merely handing someone a wooden cross and imparting a trite message about Jesus fails to grapple with the complex, underlying issues that converge to create these serious social ills. Do You Believe? erases the need for societal change in regards to job security, improved access to healthcare, comprehensive sexual education, and eliminating racial inequality. Instead, the film seems to implicitly suggest that if everyone became kind and generous Christians instead of mean, cold atheists, then the world would become a happy, problem-free place.
Of all the audience members, I seemed to be the only person disturbed by the film. After a pregnant teenager’s monologue about running away from home because her stepmother attempted to coerce her into getting an abortion, one member of the audience approvingly shouted, “Be yourself!” to the character on the screen. (Later on in the film, after the teenager dies in childbirth, I found myself thinking that the stepmother was probably acting out of concern for the toll pregnancy would take on her very young stepdaughter’s body. But what do I know? I’m just an irritable humanist.) Near the end of the movie, when the atheist doctor tersely remarks, “There’s no such thing as miracles!”, another member of the audience yelled, “Oh, yes there is!” I was afraid that they would clap at the film’s conclusion, but everyone mercifully left the movie in silence once the credits started rolling. The other members of the audience may have left feeling complacent in their Christian faith. However, if I had been asked the pivotal question of the movie, “Do you believe?” my answer would have been a firm, “No.” Contrary to the film, humanists do engage in good works, and we do so without the expectation of a reward in the afterlife. That is, after all, what it means to be “good without a god,” and that is what the American Humanist Association truly stands for. You just wouldn’t know it if your only interactions with humanists came from Christian propaganda films like this one.