6 Great Movies That Criticize Religious Faith

There Will Be Blood1 6 Great Movies That Criticize Religious Faith

Just as there are movies that affirm or strengthen people’s faith or spiritual inclinations, there are a number of tremendously thoughtful and compelling movies that dismantle religious faith as we know it. Naturally, in an industry driven so heavily by American filmmakers, the majority of movies dealing with religion, that I’ve seen at least, target Christianity and Christian dogmas primarily. Given that it’s the most influential religion, and one of the most influential forces period, in America, this is understandable, and probably appropriate.

There are plenty of big, dumb, obnoxious ways for people to criticize religion. There are lots of caricatures to draw on in movies, often done to comedic effect, in movies like Easy A. The religious are an easy target because, frankly, there are so many examples of Jesus freaks acting like crazy people, picking up snakes and covering up sex crimes and going on murderous crusades and other hateful stuff. But in the midst of these extreme examples, there are plenty of thoughtful points to make about the rigidity and exclusionary aspects that seem inherent to faith-based communities. And there are some really smart movies that take these issues head on.

Here’s a list of 6 movies that have offered searing criticisms of the derply devout.

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1) Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp 6 Great Movies That Criticize Religious Faith

There are a number of documentaries that highlight some horrifying abuses perpetrated by members of the Christian church and its various hierarchies. Those are worth seeing and discussing at great lengths, but they have more to do with the politics and policies of institutions than the faith itself, I find. For my purposes, I’m more keenly interested in movies that talk about aspects fundamental to the believers themselves, that pop up time and time again throughout an array of traditions. One such issue, which is enormously complicated, is the concept of passing on your religious faith to your children.

Jesus Camp tackles the inevitable creepiness of this practice. Having been to my own version of Jesus Camp in my adolescent years, I can attest to the ease with which one can be ingrained with a sense of normalcy in an environment that, to an outsider, is anything but. This documentary is effective thanks to the distance with which it handles its subjects, giving it at least a semblance of objectivity, often letting the leaders and images speak entirely for themselves. The extent to which these children are instructed to be so devoted to the religion of their parents is deeply troubling and I’m so glad this movie exists.

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2) Doubt

Doubt 6 Great Movies That Criticize Religious Faith

This 2008 movie based on an original play seems like it’s just about horrible sexual misconduct allegations that the Catholic Church is now so infamous for, but it actually ties these contextual topics in with a greater reflection on the harmfulness of certainty among the faithful. So you’ve got Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest character who seems like he has a disturbingly inappropriate relationship with a young boy, and Meryl Streep as a nun who can’t prove that anything is actually going on but has an awful hunch and takes action accordingly.

It’s never clear to us as the audience whether the Father Flynn character is guilty of anything wrong or not, but this is what makes it so compelling. As we usually tend to treat crimes, so ought we treat matters of faith and religion. Just as we ought to have some facts on our side and some kind of concrete evidence of transgressions before punishing someone, we’re well served to be humble about spiritual questions since by their nature they can’t offer concrete evidence or anything beyond suspicions or inklings.

It’s when people are so certain of their religious convictions that they’re willing to go to extreme lengths in the name of such convictions that conflict so often arises. The movie depicts the criminal and religious aspects of this dilemma with brilliant delicacy and grace, all while slapping around fanaticism.

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3) Religulous

Religulous 6 Great Movies That Criticize Religious Faith

Another documentary that is more direct in its scathing rebuke of religion as a whole is Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008 was a rough year for Christian audiences). Maher is well known for his comedic disposition that targets the absurdity of religion mercilessly. His Friday night show on HBO is his most common vehicle for this brand of commentary, but this documentary served as a medium through which he could channel all of his thoughts and fears and outrage toward religion in one semi-coherent place.

His conceit in interviewing devoutly religious people is a bit Socratic: he lets them speak for themselves, presenting their views as best they can, and then he uses a couple different logical tricks, taking these religious ideas to their logical extremes to demonstrate their absurdity (if heaven’s so much better than earth, why don’t you kill yourself?) and just incessantly questioning their claims until they’re no longer defensible. Some find his demeanor over the top, but I think it’s forgivable for a comedian and social commentator to forcefully stand up to a dominant force in our culture. This movie is thorough and obnoxious, but mostly, it’s just very, very funny.

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4) Life of Brian

Life of Brian 6 Great Movies That Criticize Religious Faith

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is one of the funniest movies ever made, and also one of the most controversial, understandably so, given that it was released in the 70s and is basically a blasphemous mockery of the Jesus story. Some find it less harsh towards Christianity than their later work, The Meaning of Life, which featured the famous tune highlighting the absurdity of a certain Catholic doctrine, “Every Sperm is Sacred.” I think Life of Brian may be more sympathetic to the religious, although there are certainly many Christians who would beg to differ.

One of the most brilliant moments of the movie comes when a huge crowd of Brian’s followers, believing him to be the Messiah, gather at his window to hear him speak, repeating every word he says as if it’s literally gospel. He tells them to stop following him, that they’re all individuals. They reply, in unison, “Yes, we’re all individuals!” The mob mentality of popular religion has never been captured so perfectly, and hilariously. And that’s just one example of a movie offering an alternative take on one of the many messianic figures who were actually believed to exist around the same time as good old JC. By the time one of the other crucified criminals tells Jesus to cheer up and goes on to sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” my stomach is always aching from laughter.

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5) Dogma

Dogma 6 Great Movies That Criticize Religious Faith

A throwback to a time when Kevin Smith used to make really good movies, Dogma is another terrific example of taking religious ideas and stretching them until they collapse beneath their own absurdity. Here we have a Catholic church celebrating how out of touch it is, trying to appeal to new generations with cheesy slogans and turning Jesus into a cheery mascot. Then there’s some requisite blasphemy, mostly in the orthodox sense, since a lot of the claims make perfect historical sense, such as Jesus being black (it’s at least fairly certain that he wasn’t white) and having a wife and children.

The main point of the movie is actually one that’s well taken, though. This is partly because it’s not actually that antagonistic towards Christianity in general, but toward the rigidity that inevitably skews so much of organized religion. The premise of the plot, that two disgruntled angels found a loophole in God’s law that could potentially undo all of creation, is precisely the kind of logical nonsense that trying to apply rational things like law and order to something that’s ultimately a supernatural mystery leads to. It’s a nicely made piece of work maintaining a kind of reverence to the possibilities of faith but a dismantling of the human attempt to systematize and explain the unknowable. Also, there’s a demon made of feces and other hilarious things.

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6) There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood 6 Great Movies That Criticize Religious Faith

Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece has plenty to say about capitalism, American identity, competition, masculinity, friendship, fatherhood, energy politics, and also religion. While there are interesting things to talk about regarding the other topics the movie covers, its portrayal of religion is a fascinating one. The movie is elusive, hard to understand at the best of times, so there will be differing opinions on its perception of faith. My take is that it’s a largely negative one, at least as it relates to American religious tradition.

Essentially, There Will Be Blood casts American religion as primarily a weapon, often used by false prophets to advance their selfish enterprises, and to solidify power. Eli Sunday is the representative of this brand of faith, and Daniel Plainview, as his ultimate adversary, seeks to tear this faith down. Two key mirroring scenes occur between the two, one in the church in which Eli uses his power as a religious leader to humiliate Daniel, and at the end of the film where Daniel uses Eli’s faith against him to return the favor. It’s deeply cynical about the honest role of religion in America, when the true motivations of its adherents, particularly those in powerful positions, are stripped down to their core. It may not be as direct as some critical documentaries’ portrayals of religion and faith, but as far as cinematic depictions of religion go, it’s pretty damning.

Do you have any favorite movies that are critical of religious faith? Are there any you find unfairly hostile or go too far? Share your comments in the box below.

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  • vangpo

    The Life of Brian doesn’t belong on the list. It most certainly does not ridicule faith. It’s a comedy. Comedies make fun of everything.

    • http://www.facebook.com/crystalraven09 Elizabeth Hill

      But it’s a comedy that ridicules parts of Christian faith, which means it belongs on this list.

  • therecanonlybe1qwerty

    Speaking of Kevin Smith movies, you could probably add his latest movie Red State to this list as well. Not that it was as good as Dogma, but it definitely blasts Westboro Baptist Church like ideologies and homophobeia in modern religion.

  • BLT

    My take on There Will Be Blood was Eli having his revenge for Daniel when he beat him earlier in the movie for asking where his “god” was to cure his son

  • Fernando Yanmar

    what about inherit the wind, with spencer tracy and gene kelly?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Harding/100000145858394 Mark Harding

    In Hollywood, if you’re critical of Christianity you’re a bold revolutionary artist. If you’re critical of Islam, you’re a racist bigot.

    • skunkybeaumont

      I loved Traitor.

  • major h

    the magdalene sisters should be on this list. a story basically state and church sanctioned slavery of “fallen girls and women. there they were forced to do laundry and other work for no pay and no way to leave. numerous abuses took place in these places as well.

  • Ghoul

    I was half expecting to see Stigmata on this list.

  • NM2000

    My problem with Religulous is that Maher is better than that movie was. He resorts to the same dishonest editing and other tactics he lambasts the other side for. MOst of the time he is spot on and makes the more valid points, then he’ll blatantly quotemine someone out of context or use an edit to imply one thing when something different was more accurate.

  • Dr. Heath Motley

    Every movie should criticize and ridicule faith.

  • Anon

    Religulous is not inteligent or funny… is like Easy A but with real stupid poeple and real easy targets.
    Is the same with Dogma

  • Karmakin

    Long thread, but you’re missing a critical movie here.

    The Truman Show.

  • Destiny

    The Invention of Lying

  • Thomas Priday

    And not a single Luis Bunuel film mentioned. These writers know literally nothing about cinema pre-1990s.

  • davidjohnwerner

    love is eternal live with it or b lost 4 ever unsigned.com/kmarwolfhalen

  • davidjohnwerner

    mahar is nuttin buy sand and water but love is eternal pray it works kmarwolfhalen at unsighned

  • Justin Buell

    INHERIT THE WIND

    Is the BEST film that criticizes faith.