How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
“Do you believe in God?” Susan Lacy asks Steven Spielberg in her new HBO documentary, Spielberg. The prominent filmmaker, who’ll surely dominate this year’s Oscar talk with his upcoming journalism thriller The Post, pauses. One gets the sense that he’s priming a philosophical diatribe on humanity’s place in the cosmos.
Instead, he offers a single word: “Yes.”
But then again, if you’ve studied his films closely, you already saw that response coming.
The air weighs at least twenty pounds and looks like it was shipped in from the Bay Area that morning. Small particles within the haze both diffuse the light and streak color throughout the dreamlike composition. The shot may hold an alien ship, an unwieldy dinosaur, or an emboldened Tom Hanks—it doesn’t matter. Behind the characters lies an entire universe dancing with wonder, fear, and enchantment.
In Spielberg’s films (science-fiction or otherwise), his characters are called to throw their trust to a higher order, preparing them to experience the uncanny or miraculous. This faith comes not by pride in one’s perspective or knowledge, but through meekness, humility, and childlike wonder.Cinematic fog, a staple of Steven Spielberg’s visual technique, is found in nearly all his iconic images. It’s also perhaps the best metaphor for the spirituality bordering the edges of his work. Spirituality that, far from latent, works like a crumpled-up movie ticket used to bookmark a sacred text.
Spielberg’s movies aren’t formally religious—they aren’t so much concerned with denominational creeds, holy traditions, or even the differences between say Christianity and any other religion. Yet, for the child raised in Judaism, who left the faith only to return as an adult, spiritual longing typifies Spielberg’s approach as a storyteller—and may account for at least some of his blockbuster appeal. Together, his filmography gently argues for the existence of otherworldly powers—charitable and malevolent—that transcend what we can taste, see, and touch. Powers that hover, like that fabled San Francisco fog, close to our most enlightening, frightful, and inspiring moments.
Spielberg’s early science-fiction films offer a treasure map of sorts for this approach. In the 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark, archeologist and professor Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) races against a group of Nazis to procure the Ark of the Covenant. Hitler’s army plans to weaponize the artifact; Jones believes it’s only useful for study and exhibition. At his core, Jones is akin to a naturalist. Or, to employ a phrase from sociologist Max Weber, he sees the world as “disenchanted”—void of all mysticism and spirituality.
At the end of the film, when the Nazis open the Ark and the power within kills everyone except for Jones and his companion Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s character arc closes. In a reversal of his once-arrogant perspective, Jones chooses to “embrace ambiguity and accept his ignorance,” as film critic Elijah Davidson puts it. He’s gone from materialist who lives and dies by logic and observation, to full-blown supernaturalist. It’s an unexpected change, and a subtle critique of modern society’s tendency to reject all that can’t be published in an academic journal.
Similarly, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Spielberg focuses on Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), whose dazzling encounter with an alien ship spurs him on a pilgrimage to locate the otherworldly source. Near the beginning of the film, Roy’s kids watch Cecil B. de Mille’s Ten Commandments on television. And, like the children of Israel, Dreyfuss’s character must ascend his own Mount Sinai (Devil’s Tower in Wyoming) to meet the divine. Andrew M. Gordon frames the journey in New Testament terms: “Like St. Paul, the hero Roy Neary experiences a revelation at a crossroads and is born again. He abandons his previous life in an all-consuming quest for the godhead, contact with the aliens.”
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) goes a step further and presents a visitor from another world who takes on the pain, hopes, and dreams of his human companion. With his glowing red alien heart and white robe array, E.T. dons a similar look to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the film, he dies and rises again—a Christ figure if there ever was one.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters, and E.T., humans come in contact with the fantastic, experience miracles and otherworldly visions or behavior, which push them to grapple with the divine glory behind their encounters. One might even call this Spielberg’s “Trinity Trilogy,” with Raiders depicting a justice-seeking Father, E.T. a sacrificing Son, and Close Encounters a Spirit drawing humanity to redemption.
Whether this interpretation convinces or not, at the core of these projects is the notion of belief. In Spielberg’s films (science-fiction or otherwise), his characters are called to throw their trust to a higher order, preparing them to experience the uncanny or miraculous. This faith comes not by pride in one’s perspective or knowledge, but through meekness, humility, and childlike wonder.
During a scene in Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States sits in a telegraph room with two Union soldiers. As Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln begins a short monologue on the subject of equality, a sliver of smoke floats gently over his right shoulder. There’s a near-mystical ascetic to the scene—a divine presence dancing within the frame. Lincoln’s words breathe holy air. Yet, as much as the title character operates as a crusader of justice, Lincoln finds its strength not in representing the statesman as a god, but by presenting his ideals as godlike. “With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” Day-Lewis narrates at the end of the film—a line drawn from the historical figure himself.
Philosopher Charles Taylor argues that our modern loss of spiritual perspective also brings with it a shattering of personal significance. If there is no divine order, and our lives are simply a blip on the radar of human history, then how can we as human beings achieve a “higher goal” that offers meaning to life’s everyday work? If the common person in our secular age experiences this unease, the characters in Spielberg’s films have overcome it—not by making life bigger, but by exacting change within its celestial smallness. Steven Spielberg’s films evoke transcendence by presenting goodness as an attribute that brings about the well-being of those created and loved by a higher power. To put it plainly—Spielberg’s characters maintain purpose because they’re convinced of order within the universe.
Spielberg’s historical dramas often recount the tales of modern-day prophets who offer their lives in pursuit of this individual equality. This ideal is maybe most overt in Spielberg’s Oscar-winning World War II project, Saving Private Ryan (1998). Over the course of the film, a group of eight American soldiers travel behind enemy lines to save a man who lost three brothers in battle. When they eventually locate Private James Ryan, the commander in charge of the mission (Tom Hanks) chooses to stay with Ryan’s platoon to defend a bridge crucial to the Allied invasion. This plotline, along with Spielberg’s wide shots of battle interspersed with extreme close-ups of world-weary soldiers, further reinforces the idea of individual, human dignity in the midst of a large, destructive world (the term Christians use is imago Dei).
There are exceptions to this rule, and religion isn’t always exalted in Spielberg’s work (see the Christian murkiness in Amistad), but Spielberg treats moral courage as near heavenly in films like Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies, Amistad, and the Holocaust drama Schindler’s List. Moments of “awe,” like those that accompany aliens and monstrous creatures, usually follow his victories of conscience. The Spielberg Face, another of his much-deliberated trademark shots, focuses on a given character responding in wonder or emotion to a miraculous or shocking scene. For the director, quiet, human goodness simply does not exist—John Williams’s often booming scores make sure of that.
Perhaps this is why Spielberg is accused by critics of pulling emotional teeth or double-underlining his thesis statements. For a filmmaker who began his career with fantastic works that reveal or highlight the strange, unusual, or impossible, his historical dramas also serve to uncover the inward “magic” that connects human beings to a higher plane of existence. Through the results aren’t permanently stellar, this partially explains why he requires viewers to visually “see” what is inwardly present. When humans take the place of God, moral pandemonium becomes an outward phenomenon (see Jurassic Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report for examples). When they trust in a greater ethic, righteous commitment transforms into cinematic magic.
One of Spielberg’s recent stumbles illustrates a related theme of his career—the incessant desire for reconciliation and restoration. In 2005’s War of the Worlds, Spielberg narrates an alien invasion through the eyes of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise). During one scene, Ray’s teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) carelessly races away to fight the tri-pod-like creatures in battle. It’s an idiotic decision that should, realistically speaking, end in his death. Yet, when the aliens are defeated and Ray reunites with his ex-wife, Robbie has somehow made it back unscathed. The reunion is unearned, and a large blot on an otherwise probing look at post–9/11 trauma.
At his core, Spielberg is an optimist, but it’s not his optimism that strikes a spiritual pose—he can be pessimistic too, and his films don’t shy away from suffering (even if projects like War of the Worlds could use a bit more lingering). Spielberg’s religious posture comes from his lack of cynicism and incessant need for completion or reunion. He occasionally remarks that he likes all films to “arrive” rather than wallow in ambiguity. “It is a plot guaranteed to melt stone,” Louis Menand writes of Spielberg’s idealist approach. “It’s the little girl pulled safely from the well, the hostages’ release, the last-minute reprieve for the innocent man. It is Christ risen from the tomb.”
Both Judaism and Christianity teach of history’s optimistic ending or consummation—a time of joyful reunion under which evil is thwarted forever by the kingdom of God. Specifically, for Christians, Jesus’s resurrection stands as a promise to both the resurrection of Christ’s followers and the resurrection of planet earth. It’s the happy ending which all happy endings, knowingly or not, pine to achieve.
Spielberg may not hold this doctrine close to his chest, but his recurring themes of reunion and moral triumph make best sense of someone who believes in a religiously-charged world. A movie like his lesser known Empire of the Sun (1987) can be viewed as Spielberg’s personal allegory for this cosmic journey. Living in Shanghai during World War II, a British boy named Jamie (Christian Bale) is separated from his parents and later forced into a Japanese internment camp. Jamie, a self-proclaimed atheist at the beginning of the movie, grows well beyond his years during captivity, glimpsing both human triumph and depravity. In one scene during the third act, he lays by the side of a dead woman. As he waits, an explosion in the sky offers an image of what looks like souls punctuating the heavens. Engulfed in light, he believes this sign represents the woman’s journey to sainthood. It’s actually the bombing of Nagasaki.
In only a few shots, Spielberg captures the cycle of suffering, redemption, and conversion. Jamie’s later reunion with his parents becomes a visual metaphor for this awe-inducing scene. Life brings pain, separation, and disillusionment. But, just as Jamie seems to discover God in an image of death, so our suffering often makes way for holy reconciliation in the afterlife.
One would not need to rattle off every Spielberg finale to buttress this point, but they could easily point out the near-spiritual reunion in War Horse, the transcendent “second coming” in Close Encounters, or the yearning for physical resurrection in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Even a gloomy film like Munich, which follows a team of Mossad agents ordered to execute those responsible for the murder of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games, searches for such consummate hope; Spielberg calls the film a “prayer for peace.” For the filmmaker, the longing for eternal shalom is never far from his work, reflecting itself in a myriad of earthly stories anchored in the conquest of virtue over evil.
There’s a scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where one character responds to claims of extraterrestrials by stating, “There are all kinds of things that would be fun to believe in.” This personality works as a stand-in for most of Western culture—a society which sees reality as a closed room, an environment locked away from any type of supernatural activity or divine work.
Spielberg’s films break through this dome by first acknowledging the canopy even exists. And, given his career crumbs, it’s no surprise the director’s upcoming projects would follow suit. The Post tells the story of a small group of journalists who risk unemployment and prison to fight against governmental corruption—acts of morality that are punctuated with poetic fog and God’s-eye-view camera angles. Whereas Ready Player One sees individuals fleeing to a utopian virtual reality to escape the destructive remains of planet earth. There’s no doubt we can expect these releases to be religious in the same sense his other films are. The characters may not attend church, partake in communion, or pontificate about God and the devil, but they often anticipate those musings.
Some religious folks will welcome these ruminations: “They are conversations before the conversations.” Others will see Spielberg as another example of society’s desire for spirituality without the authority of organized religion: “They want heaven and their Sundays to be free.” And then, there will be those who simply view Spielberg as any other blockbuster director: “It’s got Tom Hanks, right?”
Either way, Spielberg’s moments of awe—whether they be toward an otherworldly force or the triumph of justice—often stick with audiences long after the credits. In his work, Spielberg asks us to feel something. To touch a world that can’t be studied through the strict boundaries of knowledge and science. Reactions to this philosophy and execution vary—with solid marks made by each team.
But, if Spielberg had his way, analysis would come later. In the sacred space of the movie theater, he only asks we look up—like his characters—wide-eyed, and mystified, and let the mysterious haze soak into the pores of our skin.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.