by S. Brent Plate

Before you’ve even heard of this film, Bill Donohue has, once again, given it a ratings boost by rebuffing it on the Catholic League website. In between press releases on “Bishop Blasted over Gay Marriage” and “New York Times is Gay Crazy,” is a little piece blasting Matthew Chapman’s film The Ledge:

People of faith, especially Catholics, are used to being trashed by Hollywood, but they are not accustomed to films that promote atheism. Yes, there was “The Golden Compass,” an atheism-for-kids effort which the Catholic League successfully boycotted (in fairness, it was the book upon which the movie was based that triggered our response, not the screen adaptation). “The Ledge” is different in that its backers are selling themselves as the real pioneers: they expect it to be a ground-breaker.

The allegorical Golden Compass (2007) was derided by the Catholic League and many evangelicals who claimed it to be a pro-atheist stealth campaign. This was just two years after the allegorical Chronicles of Narnia, which upset some secular-minded people for being too heavy-handed in the Christian sub themes. Before that was Gibson’s Passion, then Scorsese’s Last Temptation, and the see-sawing controversy continues. I doubt The Ledge will make as big a splash, not because it doesn’t raise important issues, but because it lacks the big budget funding that really stirs controversy.

Chapman’s film stars the pious evangelical Joe (Patrick Wilson) pit against the lost-his-religion atheist Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), with the lovely, conflicted Shana (Liv Tyler) in between. As a thriller, the film gains a generic vehicle from which to explore seemingly opposing views on similar subjects about life, death, and the meanings thereof. Former addict Joe found faith, helped save Shana from her whoring ways, and they get married. Gavin has gone through his own tough times and has lost interest in anything parading as God, but happy to play the game of seduction with Shana. (It’s hard not to keep Tyler’s performance in Stealing Beauty in the back of the mind.) Some decent acting and nice twists make this a very watchable film, with or without the dueling philosophies.

The Religiosity of Atheism

As always, what seem to be opposing forces begin to look a lot alike through the lens of a human-based study of religion. In a HuffPost piece, Chapman discusses his recent attendance at an American Atheists conference and he has been “going to more atheist events” since he worked on the film. His own credentials include two recent, intriguing-sounding books which I have not read, but outline basic themes of science versus religion. He is the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin.

The website for the American Atheists has always intrigued me, and I often show it to my religious studies students because it has much to offer about the structures of religion. One click on the link “About” gives you a prominent iconic image of the “founder” of the American Atheist movement, Madeline Murray O’Hair, and a story of the pivotal events that stand at the founding of the tradition, including the now-legendary court cases that propelled the group into a nationwide network. Another click provides links to scheduled “gatherings,” requisitely ritualistic in nature with “speakers, food, and LOTS of other Atheists”–replace “atheists” with “Methodists” and we see something similar on Sunday mornings around the country. Under the link for “Atheism” is a nice creed, with a set of affirmations beginning, “An atheist believes…” etc. For those of us teaching religious studies from a scholarly perspective, the American Atheists organization is about as “religious” as it gets. I have nothing against the organization, and in fact am socio-politically parallel with almost all their stances. I’m not the only one who would feel right at home with their rituals. Unfortunately, the group believes in the simplistic, well outworn idea that “religion=belief in God” and this seems to be the equation that fuels the fires.

If they took a more human-centered understanding of religion, they’d realize how similar so many of the structures are between religious practices and atheist practices, gods or no. Consider a recent definition of religion by the Chair of the Religion department at Columbia University, Mark C. Taylor:

Religion is a complex adaptive network of myths, symbols, rituals, and concepts that simultaneously figure patterns of feeling, thinking, and acting and disrupt stable structures of meaning and purpose. When understood in that way, religion not only involves ideas and practices that are manifestly religious but also includes a broad range of cultural phenomena not ordinarily associated with religion.

Notice: 1) there is no mention of “God/gods/goddesses” here. 2) The emphasis is on the practices of religion, not a modern Protestant-inflected notion that religion is all about some “in-the-head” belief system. 3) The American Atheists, at least as presented via media, fit Taylor’s categories well. 4) Taylor brings out the fact that religion might provide “answers” by creating a sense of pattern and order, but that religion also disrupts these patterns of meaning and purpose. Indeed, any quick view of religious histories shows the importance of doubt, questioning, questing, and feelings of abandonment in the midst of the journey. Some find clear answers and never look back, some find clear answers which are eventually shattered and the faithful journey continues, while others don’t stop unbelieving–all these variations are part of religious history.

Stepping Off into a Third Way?

My implicit proposal here is that we might think of atheism and Christianity as two competing, though often overlapping narratives about how the world operates. At its worst, The Ledge provides a Red Sox vs. Yankees, Nadal vs. Federer, view, and only one, singular view can prevail. What The Ledge does at its best is show some of the overlapping human stories through the three main characters: that suffering is pervasive in life, that we humans desire connection with other humans, that sacrifice is both a repellent and praiseworthy human trait, and that life and death are so often delineated by only one step. Somewhere in between, the film allows solid fodder for discussion.

I admit, I found myself initially comfortable with the traditional filmic set-up as a stand off, here between an atheist and a faithful Christian. The form of the struggle is familiar even if the content, the basis for the struggle, has changed. But then again, in the end, how is the film any different from so many other films in which two good looking white guys gamble/struggle/fight over one beautiful woman. Is this any different from Ocean’s 11? Indecent Proposal? Or Barry Lyndon or Gone with the Wind for that matter?

Perhaps it’s not atheism vs. religion, but the triumph of the Hollywood mythology over all.

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World; and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. With Jolyon Mitchell he co-edited The Religion and Film Reader. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.

For more, read CNN’s review of The Ledge here.