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date: 19 August 2019


Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the relationship between cinema and atheism, and draws out some of the analogies used to describe the role of cinema in modernity (particularly similarities between Plato’s cave and the cinema experience and images of cinema as ‘dream-like’). It examines the work of Soviet film-maker Dziga Vertov in particular, and looks at his use of anti-religious and atheist themes. The article suggests that while little attention has been paid to the topic of cinema and atheism, there is a rich seam of thinking to be mined here, and there exist unresolved questions about the ‘religious’ dimensions of cinema itself that go far beyond the force of the odd parodic or documentary atheist film.

Keywords: atheism, cinema, film, anti-religious, religious, Dziga Vertov, Plato’s cave, modernity


Surprisingly little has been written about the relationship between atheism and film at the formal or conceptual level, despite the historical temptation to make parallels between the cinema auditorium and the church, both darkened, hushed rooms of reverence, with the former perhaps making the latter a thing of the past: from the worship of a transcendent being to silent awe before the silver screen. Cinema’s capacity to revel in, explore or celebrate life lived without a belief in the existence of God and gods is immediately apparent, from the grit of kitchen-sink, realist or neo-realist cinema to films that actively depict ‘godless’ ways of life (cinema is clearly capable of presenting the whole range of positions that run from ‘negative’ to ‘positive’ atheism), yet apart from what the cinema can (and does) represent, what can we say about the formal relation between cinema (conceived of as film in the broadest sense, including newsreel, factual and fiction films, experimental cinema, television series and so on) and atheism (understood as an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods)?

This essay will first of all outline some formal resonances between the two, where, despite the possibility of understanding cinema as in some sense capable of emulating or replacing religious practice and belief (cinema as Plato’s cave, cinema as Freudian dream), its potential as a vehicle for atheist critique is central. The second part of the article will examine the capacity of cinema to depict an atheist worldview via the work of an explicitly atheist (and anti-religious) film director, Dziga Vertov, before summing up the contemporary situation of the relationship between film and atheism.

From Religion to Cinema?

Many commentators have noted the way in which the senses are involved in the practice of religion (Hill et al. 1989: 179). In a typical Christian ceremony, for example, there may (p. 728) be stained glass windows and the architecture of the church appealing to sight, chanted prayer or singing to soothe the ears, Holy Communion (bread and wine) and the blessing of a priest to appeal to taste and touch. Some churches burn incense. In this way the practice of religion invokes the whole body, even if at the same time often disparages the mortal frame in favour of holier desires. Even as we might associate the cinema with a modernity that would become increasingly atheist in practice and ideological orientation, there is a continuity of form that is worth noting: to enter the cinema is to give oneself over to an experience that shares some curious parallels with religious ritual: a darkened, specifically designed room that demands reverence, a sensory experience, albeit at one remove in comparison with the church’s comparatively complex apparatus of smell, touch, sound and taste—although sitting in a darkened, collective space eating popcorn, sipping soft drinks whilst the soundtrack and special effects dazzle you is, in the end, not so very different at a material level. It would be too easy to say that cinema has simply replaced religion as hallowed architectural site of worship, but, at the same time, the modernity represented by the picture-house and all the visual developments that follow from it—so that it is now possible to watch film and television on hand-held devices—mark a significant shift in behaviour regarding the practice of ‘worship’. While people may be devotees of particular TV shows or film stars, these are mortal gods and as such, completely fallible: the crueller dimensions of celebrity ‘adoration’ are often as far removed from religious reverence as humanly possible.

Although Plato is often seen as a proto-Christian philosopher due to his emphasis on the Forms which subsist in a perfect realm, when it comes to cinematic metaphors, his equally famous analogy of the cave has been a frequent reference-point for film theorists for many years. Gabriele Pedullà notes that ‘There are, in fact, some impressive similarities between the cinema experience and Plato’s story and it is easy to see how the myth immediately became popular among early-twentieth-century film enthusiasts in a society where Latin and Greek classics still constituted a universal cultural reference’ (Pedullà 2012: 8). The parallels between the cinematic experience and Plato’s ancient story are indeed immediate and obvious, so long as Plato’s story becomes merely descriptive and not a stand-in for a philosophical description of transcendence towards true knowledge—the men in the cave shackled in a dark room, bewitched by shadows moving on a wall: but Plato’s analogy would seem to imply then that cinema was a lie (we could reverse Jean-Luc Godard’s formula—The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second—into a Platonic reverse formula—the cinema is only ever a lie, behind which, who knows?). Plato’s cave analogy is itself cinematic, and many have followed the image: cinema is thus a nonreligious practice of mesmerizing audiences, of distracting them from the world outside, which is no longer Plato’s realm of the Forms but perhaps what we would call ‘real life’.

This rather contemporary idea of cinema as distraction finds its best description in Walter Benjamin’s famous 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ where Benjamin, although keen to avoid the glib suggestion that ‘the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration’ ([1936] 1982: 241), nevertheless proposes that film induces ‘reception in a state of distraction’. This state of distraction is politically important and profoundly modern—indeed, Benjamin explicitly (p. 729) opposed the kind of distraction associated with the cinema with a move away from a theological mode of ‘contemplation’: the cinema, with its twin modes of distraction and shock are continuous with the bustle and chaos of the streets, railways and contemporary existence. Cinema thus helps destroy both the form and content of religious life, and, at the same time, inherits its mantle as the practice of everyday life. Benjamin’s point about technology was made even earlier, by a thinker recognized as one of the great humanists and critics of religion, Ludwig Feuerbach in the mid-nineteenth century.. Feuerbach was not talking about cinema (how could he?), but his words are eerily prescient in this regard:

But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence…for in these days illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness

(Feuerbach [1843] 1957: xxxix)

Feuerbach seems to pre-emptively identify the transition from sacred existence to the (secular) worship of signs: here we are partly back in Plato’s cave, with shadows flickering on the wall taken for reality, but we are also pushed forward into the age of cinematic ‘illusion’, where film (and the way in which film, unlike a painting, can be copied in such as way as the original no longer has any particular significance, as Walter Benjamin pointed out in his essay). Feuerbach’s claim about modern life, with its references to ‘sign’, ‘copy’, ‘representation’ and ‘appearance’ is almost an exact description of the cinematic mode, and the fact that Feuerbach’s work focused simultaneously on the critique of Christianity as a form of hidden anthropology is no coincidence. The ‘alienation’ that Feuerbach identified as a central feature of religion, where the positive features of mankind (goodness, knowledge, etc.) are ‘projected’ onto a transcendent being (so God becomes all-good, all-knowing and so on) carry over to his analysis of representation and reality more broadly. Feuerbach is not, it should be noted, arguing that religion or the sacred should be restored: on the contrary, it is only by identifying the modern desire for illusion and representation that we can understand why it is that religion no longer has the power it once had—and, we could say, cinema steps into the space left open by the replacement of contemplation with distraction, and of old truths by new appearances. The cinema itself starts to look like a church that has nevertheless abolished religious modes of being and behaviour and replaced them with something altogether more fleeting and uncertain.

Cinema, Atheism, and Modernity

Beyond Plato’s cave, the other main metaphor for cinema comes from psychoanalysis. Here we enter the world of the dream (although Plato’s cave-dwellers are themselves already ‘dreaming’). The parallels between the cinematic experience and the oneiric one (p. 730) are obvious to some extent—the images are fleeting, immaterial, and possess the ability to tell strange stories—but placing cinema in a psychoanalytic context serves further to reinforce its modernist and atheist trajectory: by opening up the continent of the unconscious, psychoanalysis creates a range of explanatory tools that previously would have been attributed to evils (or the ability to refuse evil), that had previously belonged to religion. No more would it be possible to go without at least attempting to understand someone who behaved in ‘perverse’ or incomprehensible ways. No longer would there be any need to rely on religious images of devils and angels on shoulders: all ‘demons’ became internalized, for one thing, as repressions that would emerge in dreams and linguistic slips, and rather than praying for a release, one could simply talk one’s way to recovery. Dream-analysis is obviously a central feature of Freud’s new science, and the coincidence of this turn to what was previously left relatively unthought with the birth of cinema should be noted—as indeed Pedullà does: ‘Sigmund Freud’s book on the interpretation of dreams, not by chance, had come out in 1900’ (2002: 11).

But is cinema very much like a dream? Certainly many directors have attempted to capture the uncanny experience of the dream using the similarly strange effect of cinema—the ghost-like quality of the images that seem real but possess no substance—and some directors, Alfred Hitchcock for one, have constructed entire oeuvres from the exploration of unconscious drives, desires and dream-sequences (the surrealist, Salvador Dali, designed the dream sequence for 1945’s Spellbound).

Religion itself can be explained using psychoanalytic tools and concepts: the repression and self-denial that features strongly in many religious faiths can be re-described in terms of ‘drives’ turned inwards against the ego (Freud took a lot from Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity in 1887’s On the Genealogy of Morality). The twin rise of psychoanalysis and cinema can be seen as a further confirmation of the latter’s modernizing and secularizing qualities. Perhaps ironically, films with ostensibly religious content, such as Carl Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, or Pasolini’s 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew, can equally and equally easily be read as meditations on the very humanity of their subjects: The portrayal of Joan’s fervent godliness and Jesus’ earthliness undermine more obviously ‘religious’ and mystical portrayals and bring these two figures back into contemporary debates (the question of censorship and mental illness perhaps in Dreyer’s case; the tension between communism and Catholicism in Pasolini’s). Cinema is arguably much better at recreating dream-states than it is at recalling religious ones: cinema may potentially possess certain ‘surreal’ qualities, but these are far more likely to relate to the inner life of mankind than to the heavens beyond. What need do cinema audiences have for religion when immersion in dream-like reveries is so much closer? At the other end of cinematic possibility, the demystifying qualities of film in the form of newsreels and documentary footage prevent the possibility of being able to prolong the ‘dream’ that, for example, war isn’t so bad or that a certain massacre did not take place. Cinema demystifies at the same time as it emulates dream and illusion. The parodic and religion-mocking capabilities of cinema have been put to good use by, among other people, Monty Python in 1979’s The Life of Brian and Kevin Smith in 1999’s Dogma, where loopholes in Christianity, and the fundamentally absurd (p. 731) nature of faith, are played for (critical) laughs. Some film directors have also used cinema to pick apart the damaging nature of religion as an institutional force—for example, Pedro Almodovar in 2004’s Bad Education highlights the systemic and highly damaging nature of sexual abuse in the Catholic church through a personal revenge-fantasy of the main character. Where religion often depends upon repeated affirmation of doctrine, cinema can mock both the form and content of this mode of thinking. Groups dedicated to ‘atheist cinema’ have sprung up—and there are blogs (such as AtheistNexus and Atheist Movies) dedicated to discussing and listing such cinematic efforts.

Dziga Vertov: Soviet Cinema and the Critique of Religion

Not surprisingly, cinema played a key role in the dissemination of communist ideas and the critique of religion in the early years of the Soviet Union. Chief among the producers of this kind of cinematic material in the form of documentary, newsreel, and other everyday images was David Abelevich Kaufman, better known as Dziga Vertov, who, alongside his brothers and wife, produced technologically extraordinary footage of life driven by machines and rhythm. While Vertov’s films—among them, Man With a Movie Camera (1929), A Sixth Part of the World (1926), Enthusiasm (1930) and Three Songs About Lenin (1934)—are a celebration of modernity, production, geography and Soviet politics, they are also, in part, explicitly anti-religious films, designed to inform and promote life without the Orthodox church. In Enthusiasm in particular, a famous sequence shows revolutionaries pulling down crosses from the roofs of churches, taking out religious paintings and images of Christ on the cross from inside churches and replacing these icons and relics with red stars and symbols of the new anti-religious, communist order. The footage is indeed real rather than staged (Mackay 2005: 5–6), with Vertov’s film collective spending much of 1929 taking footage from around the country.

As with much of Vertov’s production, the aim was to both celebrate and propagate images of the new order, and to use newsreel and technological developments in the cinema to both reflect and promote Soviet values. In the footage from Enthusiasm, camera techniques morph and make strange images of Russian orthodox architecture, signalling the end of an old world by highlighting its fleeting and unstable qualities, and replacing old beliefs with new convictions. Enthusiasm for politics replaces reverence for icons. In A Sixth Part of the World, Vertov and his team race around the country bringing cinema to the furthest reaches of the landmass. One sequence suggests that the mixed economic program of the USSR is the ‘cure’ for certain notions of patriarchy and the religious oppression of women that still permeates remoter parts of the country (‘here and there there are still women with veiled faces’), while Three Songs About Lenin shows women throwing off their veils in celebration of their new-found secularism. Vertov’s presentation of the cultural diversity of the USSR in A Sixth Part of the (p. 732) World strives to unite the audience, who are both its subject and its intended recipient: here cinema is used propagandistically as a form of social inclusion, replacing religious modes of behaviour and practice. Some Russians may still worship Menkva (spirit beings believed in by Siberian shamans) but ‘slowly the old is disappearing’ in favour of the new. Cinema, by its very nature, and can both undermine religion by way of presenting technology as a far more dynamic force, can represent the decline of religion and hasten its demise by literally taking the place of church-worship (A Sixth Part of the World was designed to be shown in as many parts of the USSR as possible). Vertov’s use of cinema as a modernizing, anti-religious mechanism was a real attempt to bring the Soviet people into ‘closer kinship with machines’ as his group’s 1923 manifesto had it. But what has happened to the futuristic potentiality for cinema, and for its modernizing possibilities since Vertov?

The Present and Future of Atheist Cinema

While Vertov attempted to mobilize cinema in a war against the past, contemporary cinema often seems much less radical, despite advanced technological capabilities. The desire to replace old myths (religion) with new universes (think of the strength of particular franchises—Star Wars, for example—that depend upon a set of co-ordinates and backstories that can be endlessly retold) has not led to the cinematic destruction of faith as such. Indeed, the new myths of cinema, and of the image of cinema as a kind of ‘distraction’ from everyday life has led it to perhaps take on some of the comforting qualities of religious practice. Cinema-goers do not of course believe that there is anything ‘behind’ the screen, or that the projected images have any kind of ‘reality’ beyond what is seen, yet much of the language used to describe the cinematic experience—‘I was swept away’—has a quasi-religious quality. On the other hand, documentary cinema has increasingly attempted to expose religious fraud, not only by mockery and parody, but by revealing to the viewer the ‘truth’ of extreme religious practices. Despite the apparent intentions of its directors, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp, which documents the operations of an evangelical Christian summer camp, eventually led, following protests, to the camp’s closure. Documentary cinema, whether in a deliberately anti-religious mode or not, increasingly takes on the quality of an enlightenment tool: recent mainstream efforts include the exposing of the fast food industry (Super Size Me, 2004), of America’s gun laws (Bowling for Columbine, 2002), and the horrors of America’s foreign policy (The Fog of War, 2003). Contemporary cinema thus seems split between two rather familiar genres—fact and fiction, with the former perhaps more often taking on the role of shining a light on religion’s fusty superstitions and archaic and evangelical practices, while the latter presents stories and myths that may not have particularly religious content, and sometimes may (p. 733) present anti-religious content, but still depend upon a commitment, however shallow, to illusion and the power of the image.

So what future for atheist cinema? Beyond films that seek to expose, critique and parody religion and religious practice, and the possibility of presenting other, atheist universes (and particularly the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe), there remains a question of the formal capacities of cinema. Does cinema merely celebrate an illusion that pretends to some kind of reality? Does the seemingly unshakeable power of the story—the love-story, the redemption story, the journey—mean that cinema has not yet broken with the teleology of religious thinking, even as it presents itself as deeply modern and secular? The experimental possibilities of cinema presented in the work of Vertov, to return to his example for a moment, hinted at a world and a method that would transform mankind itself, to move beyond the human eye in the name of a ‘Kino-eye’ (a cinema-eye). Human vision has not yet become completely cinematized or mechanized, nor, we could argue, has it broken with ideals that are fundamentally humanist. To return to Feuerbach for a moment, he saw that by the middle of the nineteenth century that religion had disappeared ‘and for it has been substituted, even among Protestants, the appearance of religion—the Church—in order at least that “the faith” may be imparted to the ignorant and indiscriminating multitude’ (Feuerbach [1843] 1957: xxxix). If cinema has materially replaced to some extent the domination of the church, has it truly broken with the belief in itself as cinema? We are willing participants in the practical belief in the form of cinema and in its content—we want to believe in the truth and value of narrative. But wouldn’t a truly atheist cinema force the viewer to break with the new illusions of cinema itself? Cinematography that graphically and insistently reminds the viewer that she is watching a film and not sinking into a story (think of Bertolt Brecht’s stage-sign that read ‘don’t stare so romantically!’), may be understood as cinema that is atheistic about its own possibilities.

We live in a world utterly saturated with images, many of them moving. We tend to believe reportage and footage because we think that the camera never lies, and we sometimes tend to forget that images are shaped and chosen in the name of a particular agenda. At the same time, fiction films offer a kind of desirable escape from the drudgeries of work—not to mention the worship of actors and actresses who often appear as a set of contemporary gods and goddesses, though more in the Greek mode than the Christian, with their fallibilities and sex-lives up for exposure and discussion. There is cinema that is explicitly anti-religious (often ‘factual’ or documentary) and there is cinema (often ‘fictional’) that is a-religious or secular. But very little cinema that is perhaps truly atheist in both form and content, in the sense that it breaks with both the need to ‘believe’ (in a story, in a character) or the desire to forget about the apparatus and technology of cinema itself (would we be happy to watch a film that constantly drew attention to the fact that it was a film, that it was being played over a projector, that it involved a certain number of crew-members, and so on? Of course many films have drawn attention to their conditions of production, but only on rare occasions). One may easily be an atheist in the sense of not believing in God or gods, but one may have harder time denying one’s faith in the moving image.


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Feuerbach, L. [1843] 1957. The Essence of Christianity, trans. G. Eliot (New York: Harper & Row).Find this resource:

Hill, B., P. F. Knitter, and W. Madges. 1989. Faith, Religion & Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications).Find this resource:

MacKay, J. 2005. ‘Disorganized Noise: Enthusiasm and the Ear of the Collective’, KinoKultura 7, 1–13.Find this resource:

Pedullà, G. 2012. In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators after the Cinema, trans. P. Gaborik (London: Verso).Find this resource: