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.
“Where do we go when we die?” has been a question haunting humanity since our earliest days. This unknown was explored in ancient myths, folklore, and drawings on walls. Life and death was even dictated by specific beliefs about the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians, for example, preserved their bodies and organs when they died. They buried themselves with material objects, pets, and loved ones, in faith it would all come along with them when they passed through death. Some religions believe in reincarnation: after death, people are reborn into another state (human or not), and the quality of their previous life determines the quality of their next one.The Discovery from Netflix explores what could happen if the afterlife offers humans a fresh start on this life.
What most religions have in common is the belief that this life determines the next; the afterlife is the result of choices made in this life. But not so in the Netflix original film The Discovery. The idea of afterlife presented here is a second chance at this life. It’s a way to fix your deepest regrets and undo all the wrong and the tragedy you’ve endured. The Discovery begins with Thomas, a leading scientist who has proven the existence of an afterlife. He can’t say what it is exactly, but the proof gives a bent sort of hope to the world. It is fodder enough for millions of suicides by those who are looking for a way of escape from this life. No longer is death viewed as meaningless—now it’s life that has some explaining to do. Why bother to face the problems of this world when there is another one? As one videoman says to Thomas before he shoots himself in the head, “Thank you, Doctor, for my fresh start.”
Thomas has a son, named Will (Jason Segal), who disapproves of his dad’s work and the life-crushing results. When he comes home to visit his dad, his life is changed by a woman named Isla (Rooney Mara). As they get to know each other, and begin to understand Thomas’s unfolding scientific research, they get closer to each other and the meaning of life. Will and Isla believe that if Thomas’s research continues and becomes known to the world, it will only lead to an increase in suicides. So they work together to destroy the machinery and the research. Because as Isla says, “Knowing could change things.” (And not for the better.) Life doesn’t make sense anymore if death can give you hope that there’s some sort of second chance to correct what’s wrong in your life. As Isla tells Will, “Death used to be something we had to live with. Now it’s a convenient way to escape pain.”
The film gives death a new meaning, as a form of escapism, which, for many, renders life meaningless. If death is a way to go back and change things in this life, why not kill yourself? The film does point out the truth of human experience. Life feels meaningless because it’s full of pain and suffering. It’s overflowing with problems in others and ourselves, not to mention the relational problems between us. We know we can’t fix it, but we somehow continue living. The film shows that deep inside us all, we would love a chance to go back and change things; we all long for a second chance at this life (once we’ve lived long enough). We want to go back and make a better version of ourselves, prevent that tragic experience, eliminate the trauma, change that decision, and make a better choice. But we don’t have that power and that control.
Most religions of the world get it right: this life does determine the next one. Christianity differs from other religions in how this plays out, though. All other religions believe our good works in this life are what determine our afterlife experience. In contrast, a true Christian believes and trusts in the perfect, sinless good works of Jesus Christ on our behalf, as well as his death in our place and his bodily resurrection. Trusting in Jesus, and not ourselves, is the choice that determines our afterlife experience. We can only change ourselves now, not ourselves in the past. We can only change our perspective now, not the regrets of before. And all of this is possible in Christ’s death and resurrection. Mistakes and regrets are inevitable in this life, but we can choose to trust in the blood of Christ to cover them all.
The Apostle Paul felt the tension between life and death. In his letter to the Philippian church he begins by showing them affection by saying, “I hold you in my heart” (Phil.1:7). He felt hope for them and prayed earnestly for them. He even goes on to talk about his imprisonment and how it served to advance the gospel (Phil.1:12) and emboldened other believers to “speak the word without fear” (Phil.1:14). It’s clear here that Paul has based his own life on Christ through his service and love to others. He even says his imprisonment is for Christ (Phil.1:13). His desire is for Christ to be honored in his body, whether in life or death (Phil. 1:20), and then he says these famous words: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil.1:21). He knows it would be far better to die and be with Christ (Phil.1:23), but he desires life on behalf of the Philippians so he can help them progress in the faith (Phil.1:24–25). Paul also viewed life as fruitful labor for Christ (Phil.1:22), and that was where he found meaning.
In The Discovery, Will eventually comes to this same conclusion, where he bases his life (and many deaths) on the love and service of Isla. Another’s life drives his life forward. And, like Paul, Will finds meaning in another. Life and death, for Will, became about Isla, just as Christ became the center point of life and death for Paul.
Unlike the film, we don’t get second chances in some next life. What we’ve lived here, for good or for ill, will stand. The next life is not a repeat or fixer-upper of this one; it does not erase the past. Instead, the next life is a continuation, a culmination, where we live in full understanding of the love of God for imperfect people like us. And this is why, in this life, we must “seek the Lord while he may be found; and call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). There’s a reason why we’re alive on this earth. As Will says, “We’re a bunch of people running around, making the same mistakes over and over. And I don’t know why we think it’ll be different somewhere else… unless we learn what we’re supposed to learn while we’re here.”
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