Friday, 29 November 2013

The Word 'Atheist' In Reviews of Philomena

So there is a new movie out called Philomena. Actually, it's been out awhile, but I've been so absorbed with work and house renovations, I've sort of tuned out of popular culture.

Anyway, the movie is a story about a woman who had her baby forcibly taken away from her by Catholic nuns back in the 1950s because she was single. Although the movie is set in Ireland, this sort of thing happened in Australia and even Canada.

It's yet another travesty to add to the Church's twentieth-century rap sheet. She's joined by a journalist who's got a problem with the Church - AKA a sensible person.
Journalist Martin Sixsmith has just lost his job as a Labour government adviser, and isn't sure whether to take up running or write a book about Russian history. Meanwhile, Philomena Lee confides to her daughter that, 50 years earlier, she had given birth to a son in Ireland, but because she was not married she had been forced to give him up for adoption. Soon after, Martin meets the daughter at a party. Although he initially scorns human interest stories, he needs work and an editor wants the story. He meets Philomena, and they start to investigate what had become of her son.
Now I've haven't seen this movie (yet), but it showed up in my Google filters for the term atheist. I noticed the review the filter found for me painted the atheist character as the angry sort. I realize the character is set up to be an angry atheist but as a non-scientific test, I decided to do a Google search for 'Philomena atheist' and I got back a wealth of results where the word atheist was closely surrounded by all kinds of interesting modifiers. Surely, on some psychological level, this must indicate something about our society.

Martin is Oxford-educated, arrogant and an atheist, while Philomena is cheery, fond of romance novels, and, despite how the Church treated her, loyally Catholic

his cynicism (not to mention aggressive atheism) ... his atheism is both sour and intellectualized ... Philomena’s unreasoned but compassionate acceptance of what happened to her 

Philomena is deeply religious, while Martin is an atheist; Philomena is kindly to a fault, and Martin is kind of a dick

cynical modern atheist ... sweet-natured traditional believer

Martin being a cynical atheist compared to Philomena's unquestionable faith in God and the Catholic church

Sixsmith is a staunch and sardonic atheist who grows increasingly impatient

An angry atheist and a civilized churl, Martin rolls his eyes

Sixsmith's highbrow atheist, Philomena's lowbrow Catholic

The cynical atheist and the earnest believer (Philomena remains a devout Catholic) 

As is the case with most hardline atheists, the one-time BBC man is also entirely dismissive of Philomena's near-incorruptible faith. 

Martin, the cynical, world-weary atheist who rudely questions everyone and everything,

His journalist is an avowed atheist who is allergic to sentiment and pushy when he doesn’t get answers. ... Despite her experiences, Philomena remains a devout Catholic, pleasantly naive and bubbling with enthusiasm.

And it goes on and on and on. I could have given your pages.

I know these reviewers are working with a film that apparently portrays the atheist (Martin) this way. But I just find all these original and unique descriptions of his character interesting windows into, perhaps, something in our collective psyche.

It turns out, I wasn't the only one who found the atheist- and intellectual-bashing sentiment I did.

‘Philomena’ Review: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan Bring Much-Needed Brimstone to This Cinematic Treacle
Stephen Frears’ docudrama urges us to forgive the sinning Catholic Church, which is one thing, but why the condescension toward atheists and intellectuals?
And I quote a little more.
“Philomena” has a similar head-patting brand of dismissive arrogance, which is doubly offensive given its theme of forgiveness against those who have done you wrong. If the movie wants to let the Catholic Church off the hook lightly for its crimes against unwed mothers in Ireland in the mid-20th century, that is its right, but why top that off with such a dismissive attitude toward non-believers?
Although I haven't seen it, I would imagine this film might just give believers an excuse to forgive their Church without feeling too icky about doing it - which is precisely what the Church wants.

As for the condescension, the movie may be saying one thing, but the reviewers could be saying a whole lot more. Go check Google out for yourself and you may see what I mean.


  1. What timing. I just returned from watching this movie. I must admit that I cringed at the portrayal of the angry atheist but many of us have gone through that stage and still find ourselves there from time to time. It seemed true to the character. Will people see the character as an atheist stereotype? Yes but we all see stereotypes if we don't guard against it. Bottom line, it's a very good movie. Catch it if you can.

  2. As for the "angry atheist", it does seem to be a common trope. Pretty much all the "atheists" I've seen portrayed in the most recent Christian movies (atheist teacher - can't remember the name) have them as angry at god rather than religion.

    I think I could very well be one of those angry atheists. Although, you'd have to admit, there is plenty to be angry at! :-)

    Thanks for your comment Ray! It looks like a well-crafted film and I might just go catch it myself.

  3. > As for the "angry atheist", it does seem to be a common trope.

    “The average man never really thinks from end to end of his life. The mental activity of such people is only a mouthing of cliches. What they mistake for thought is simply a repetition of what they have heard. My guess is that well over 80 percent of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought.”

    ― H.L. Mencken

  4. Thanks for your comment, Jim!

  5. It's on my list. Thanks!


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